Donnerstag, 31. Juli 2008

to sleep, perchance to dream... (aka freud would cry)

since the conscious part of my brain seems to have switched off for the summer months, i'll go on autopilot, let my sub-conscious take over and jot down some dreams i've had, two older ones and two more recent ones:

old dream 1, approx 1994

i'm sitting in the backseat of a late-1970s model mercedes, dark green, the kind that are still popular as taxis in the middle east, which is rather fitting as this particular mercedes is indeed a taxi in the middle east, more precisely in lebanon and we are driving down the beirut corniche, the seaside promenade. and thats about all i remember...

follow-up in real life: interestingly enough, at least for me, when i actually did visit beirut about 13 years later, they still had the same kind of taxis and the corniche looked much like it did in my dream

old dream 2, approx 1997

i'm sitting on a couch in my friend's old flat in downtown helsinki (where i was actually staying at the moment) reading some textbook or other when a pink flamingo flies onto the balcony and then struts into the living room, which in reality as in the dream is full of books and dvd's. and thats about where the dream, or my memory of it, ends.

follow-up in real life: when i recount the story to my friend and his wife the next morning over breakfast, they laugh and say some words to the effect of "well, you know what they say about guys who dream of pink flamingoes..." later that day i find a book on interpreting dreams in a second-hand bookstore. no mention of flamingoes in it, though. my friend, in the meantime, was diagnosed as having a third nipple in a chilean navy hospital, but that's another story.

new dream, approx. half a year ago

i'm standing inside a multy-storey car park on the channel island of jersey, discussing with a british government official as to whether or not the alleged dumping of lightly radioactive materials by russian submarines within the 200 nautical mile zone claimed by britain in the north atlantic would constitute a breach of international environmental law.

follow-up in real life: none as far as i can tell, unless there is a court case pending at the international court of justice in the hague that i am unaware of (but perhaps sending somnambulant legal opinions to in my sleep)

new dream, few nights ago

am driving around ljubljana in a light-blue battered ex-yugoslav van that used to belong to the managua office of my ex-employer with a friend, looking for a restaurant that we used to visit when i was a child in the mid 1980s. seeing as i've gone veggie since, i couldn't help but wonder what i should order since their signature dish (pljeskavica sa sirom) wasn't really on my menu anymore, until i remembered, with a certain degree of relief, that my parents had visited the restaurant a few years ago and had mentioned that they now had other dishes (the ubiquitous pizza & pasta) on their menu these days as well.

follow-up in real-life: received an invite to visit belgrade again the other day. not quite slovenia but ex-yugoslavia nonetheless....

Montag, 7. Juli 2008

reality check

a quick injection of non-fiction into this series of half-baked, semi-fictional, middling attempts at writing short stories:

the other day i (finally) managed to send out the first draft of my phd-thesis to my profs. when i clicked the "send" button, i was overcome with a sense of euphoria, of lust for life, which completely overtook the fatigue i had been feeling all week. but after about three minutes the euphoria subsided, leaving me with an empty feeling inside. having finished the draft, what should i now do with my life? (answer being: enjoy it. soon enough the profs will be back with their comments and you can lock yourself up in your academic chamber again and write the second draft)

due to circumstances, i've also been having a "home improvement"-month over the past few weeks and i can honestly say that no, i'm just not the type for that kind of lifestyle. and i've got the cuts and bruises to prove it, not to mention the new curses i came up with when i managed to both hit my thumb with the hammer and cause the bookshelf to collapse on me simultaneously.


as i was listlessly poking at the tasteless nasi goreng which was technically my breakfast in the afternoon heat of jakarta, a man sat down at my table. all the other tables were free, so in spite of my slow hangover mood i was able to draw the conclusion that he probably wanted to talk to me. he was a whitey, in his late 50s judging by his looks, but he might well have been younger. he had a gaunt, drawn face, and the etched lines of his face and burst capillaries led me to jump to the perhaps unfair conclusion that the large bintang beer in his hand was not the first one in his life. he was the kind of person that this street, jalan jaksa, seemed to attract like a magnet. the human flotsam and jetsam of the industrialised countries that falls overboard at home and finds itself, 20, 30, 40 years down the line, washed up in sleazy, second-rate bars such as this one. lost, lonely, hanging on to the last scraps of their dignity.

without any further ado, apart from a swig of his bintang, he told me that he had thyroid cancer. he had been diagnosed just the other day, he couldn't quite say when, though, as he had been on a drinking binge ever since. and in the end, did it really matter now what day he found out? he didn't have any money for therapy, no health plan, he had burned his bridges in britain decades ago but had not been able to build any new ones on indonesia either. nor did he see his chances of finding a loving partner for the last few years of his remaining life as being too great: a dying, old, impoverished, alcoholic man does not really score very high in the highly competitive jakarta social scene.

i had in the meantime stopped eating my fried rice and wondered if i should say something, but there was no need for that, he was the one doing the talking.

and then he stopped. his eyes were fixed on something far away, metaphorically speaking, for in the grubby street that is jalan jaksa there isn't anything one could look at thats more then 25 metres away. after a moment's silence, he turned to me: "where are you from, anyway?"

"finland," i said, adding my first and last word to what had now become a conversation. "oh, finland...," he started, with a new-found dreaminess in his voice... "i remember finland well," he continued, almost as if transfixed, "the olympics in helsinki in 1952." he paused to sip his beer and his gaze was now fixated not only on a place far away, but also on a different era. "i remember it well," he said, looking through and past me with his glazed eyes, his back suddenly ramrod straight, as if in a past memory of better times, of more self-dignity, perhaps even of pride in himself.

lost in his own world, he continued slowly. "it was the marathon. i remember it well. it was the helsinki stadium, and emil zatopek came running in. it was the cold war, you know, and he was czech, but the crowd stood up and chanted his name... ZA-TO-PEK, ZA-TO-PEK, ZA-TO-PEK! cheering on the one who was supposed to be the enemy... oh, the humanity of it! the humanity!!!" tears started rolling down his worn face as he mumbled "the humanity, the humanity..." to himself a few more times, bleary eyes focusing on a better, other life. he then quickly finished his beer, stood up and continued walking down jalan jaksa as if in a trance, leaving me speechless and dumbfounded with my now-cold nasi goreng.

Montag, 30. Juni 2008

don't think twice, its all right

the incongruous smell struck him as soon as he stepped off the train. that smell shouldn't have been there, not in that place, not then. it was the smell of coal being burned in stoves and it took his mind back to long train rides on cold winter nights, inching across the frozen ukrainian landscape. but this was germany, and it was now the middle of summer... looking across the tracks he saw the source of the smell - it was indeed a ukrainian train, the carriages were being heated up for the nocturnal journey to kyiv. the name of the city and the smell of the coal also brought back memories of the girl he had chosen to leave a year ago. he had wanted to let her go, to not waste her time, to not drag her down.

when they had parted at kyiv airport a year ago, a bob dylan song had been playing in his head. as if in a cheesy movie, a busker was now playing exactly the same song now as he stepped on to the metro, leaving the smell of the past behind him.

Freitag, 27. Juni 2008

changi airport, poolside, 2004

the gambler wiped the sweat off his brow and looked at the fake filipino passport lying on the table in front of him. idly he pondered whether or not he should use it when entering cambodia in the afternoon. in younger years, the thought of traveling with fake documents, the potential danger of it, would have made him giddy with anticipation. but now, he noted with a tired smile, even the question of whether to order a pint of tiger or heineken involved him more emotionally than the passport issue. too many years on the run already...

he took a gulp of the cold beer in front of him (he had settled for tiger) and lit up a cigarette. he thought about the girl. she had driven him to the airport and asked him to call once he got back. he wouldn't. not that there was anything wrong with the girl, at some other point in his life he might even have started some kind of serious relationship with her. but not now. he did not have the emotional energy left for a relationship. he was drained. he had nothing left to give. he exhaled the sweet smoke of the kretek, scrolled through the phone numbers in his mobile and erased her number.

a tribal gathering

they had come from across the northern european plains, some even from beyond the alps, from beyond the pyrenees, from the plains of pannonia. most wore their hair long, beards left unshaven, tattoos and piercings all around. they wore the same tribal costume - t-shirt (preferably black), combat trouser-style shorts, old trainers. they had come together to the old citadel to pay homage to their idols, buy a ticket and a few beers and to communally vent their futile frustration against The System, a system which is able to co-opt even those who oppose it most, turning their teenage rebellion into a commodity like any other to be bought, sold, marketed and consumed. "the revolution is just a t-shirt away..."

post-scriptum: sitting around on the grass before the rage against machine concert i was once again struck by the "binary" attitude of the berlin police to their job. it seems to be either "full on," for example when their cracking skulls on may 1, or they go into their "off" mode, adopting a very lackadaisical attitude to keeping up law and order. the latter was the case in the car park and lawn in front of the concert, with hundreds of people drinking and urinating in public, illegally hawking tickets and openly taking various kinds of recreational drugs. just as the young czech fans next to me had lit up their joint, two cops showed up. the czechs froze, joint in hand. the cops gave them a quick look, then looked at the car that was parked next to them, picked up their radio and called hq: "this is foot patrol 5, we checked the situation out. its ok, the car does indeed have a handicapped sign. over." and left, leaving the smoking czechs completely dumbfounded.

Donnerstag, 12. Juni 2008


as it seemed a bit out of place to return to the "normality" of blogging and my original plan of writing more fictional stories after the previous two entries, which were about as rooted in reality as it gets, i felt that some kind of bridge was necessary before moving on.

as sad and painful as dealing with the recent deaths have been, they also have shown the beauty of life, as trite as that may sound. though i will be thanking you all in person in real life as well, i'd like to collectively thank you all already here for the support i have received from you.

Dienstag, 3. Juni 2008


my last words i wrote to her were to take care. she said that she would try. twenty-four hours later she was dead. car crash. (again).

through my numbness memories come back - the sound of her bracelets jingling, her cooking, her sms'es from her night shift in some rural hospital, her striving to do good, her calling me the ice queen.

it seems somehow odd that her name and picture are still there on my skype-console. offline. forever. my last words to her were not delivered. and never will be.

Donnerstag, 22. Mai 2008

in memoriam

had things worked out differently, he would almost certainly have become a close friend. but we only met a few times, too briefly for deeper friendship to develop. and now his young life came to an end in a violent car crash. only a few days earlier, i had heard the news of the death of another man, this time of someone whom i had known for a much longer time but also had not been in contact with for as much as i now feel i should have.

if there is a lesson for the living that i can make out, it is that we can never know when it will be too late to reach out to other people.

Sonntag, 11. Mai 2008

frühlings erwachen

as i returned from a brief trip britain the other day, it would be facile or me to go on my usual diatribe about how britain is a third world country with first world prices, with the exception that third world countries usually have better weather and food, friendlier people, functioning public transport systems, use the metric system, have a written constitution, better health care, and mostly have democratically elected locals as their heads of state instead of the wacky offspring of imported german and greek feudal overlords ruling based merely on some bizarre pre-medieval concept of god-given privilege. but i decided not to engage in my typical pastime of britain-bashing, even if the majority of the ludicrously overpriced trains i took broke down or got stuck in tunnels mere minutes into the journey, double-glazing or central heating still haven't made a breakthrough on the isles and there was a tb outbreak (!) in neighbouring birmingham while i was in coventry.

instead, with the coming of spring and all, i've decided to try a new format here on my blog: in lieu of my normal pontificating here i've decided to write little snippets of semi-fictional stories, mostly involving a character who bears a striking similarity to myself.

on to chapter 1, "the letter"...

it was a gloriously sunny day in berlin and having gotten most of his errands done quicker than expected, our protagonist decided to sit down by the spree in a small street-side cafe for en espresso and do something he had not done in a long time - write an actual hand-written letter. the letter was for an old, good friend of his, who by all accounts was quite ill at the moment, possibly very seriously so. the trouble was that his friend was too afraid to do a proper check-up, too afraid of hearing the verdict from the doctors - The Verdict, the one that says that your life is no longer consists of a carnival of opportunities that are out there waiting for you but that you are much closer to that inevitable ending point, much closer than you thought, that your life is soon over. for ever.

while he was writing the letter, hoping, wishing that his friend's condition was not that critical after all, his thoughts went back to the trips they'd gone on together, the evenings spent chatting away, his friend's duracell energy, the way his friend would (quite justifiably), chastise him for his crap dress-sense and puerile humour... while our hero's thoughts drifted across to the other side of the world, ships full of tourists drifted past the cafe and an old man stood on the bridge, singing "o sole mio" in a booming operatic voice...

Montag, 21. April 2008

the truth and nothing but...

both in haiti and venezuela the initial reaction of people when they have seen me with a camera has been to assume that i'm a journalist, instead of the usual reaction of assuming that i'm a tourist. perhaps a dozen times, people in caracas urged me, assuming me to be a reporter, to 'tell the world The Truth about what is really happening in venezuela.' since i consider telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth both a philosophical and practical impossibility, i usually mumbled something spineless along the lines of 'i'll try my best...' only once did i actually falsely 'promise' to Tell The World The Truth, as that particular, slightly drunk chavista was getting increasingly aggressive in his demands that i promise to do just that.

so what's my version of The Truth about the bolivarian revolution? talking about latin american revolutions conjures up images of young, strikingly handsome, fatigue-clad guerrillas, male and female, somewhere in the cordilleras, kalashnikov in hand, battling the forces of oppression (visually exemplified by overweight, mustachioed latifundistas and brutal cops with cheap shades) and defending the rights of the down-trodden campesinos. what seems to be happening in venezuela is, however, much less melodramatic. the stated goal of building 'a venezuela, a present for everyone' consists of mundane measures such as installing wheelchair ramps at metro stations, drafting new zoning laws, building cable cars that will allow the people in the barrios which cling precariously to the steep hillsides surrounding caracas to travel into the city at subsidised prices, of providing cultural activities for free, of subsidised medicines and basic food stuffs, increasing access to education, instilling a sense of pride in the heritage of the previously marginalised non-european sections of society...

soppy leftie that i am, these all seem sensible to me and will maybe make more of a difference in society than the nationalisation of the odd steel mill or yet another fiery anti-american speech. there are some things which i am not completely comfortable with, though, such as the prominent role of the military, the cult surrounding chavez or his coziness with people like putin or lukashenka. but as for the goal of achieving a more just, inclusive, humane society, i wish the venezuelans the best of luck.

Dienstag, 15. April 2008

saints and spirits

the walls of the little, side-alley shop are filled with bottles, statues, amulets, powders, potions and books. a young couple, assisted by the old lady behind the counter, is pondering which amulets they ought to buy, which ones would best serve their needs, fulfill their wishes...

the artefacts in the shop are all part of the local yoruba (or orisha) religion. like its counterparts in the caribbean and other latin american societies, yoruba is a mixture of catholicism, indigenous beliefs and african religious influences brought over by west african slaves. the catholic church saw these religions as pagan cults while the more earthly colonial masters feared the revolutionary potential of these movements which were beyond their control (and were quite possibly spooked by the undertones of black magic involved). and with good reason, as these various religious movements did in fact often provide an important structural basis for slave revolts, such as the 1804 revolt in haiti which eventually led to haitian independence.

being more or less forbidden religions, these syncretic movements often 'hid' their message in an accepted catholic packaging. for example, the west african trickster god eleggua has taken on the form of saint anthony of padua while the gifts given to santa barbara are actually meant for the goddess shango.

in venezuela, this veneration of saints, spirits and gods also involves the veneration of historical figures considered to have special powers, such as simon bolivar, guaicaipuro or the doctor jose gregorio hernandez. intriguingly, the yoruba pantheon also includes the figure of a viking, symbolising the norse settlers of vinland. unfortunately i was not able to elicit much more information about the figure, apart from that it is an auspicious figure and apparently a relatively popular one at that.

coming back to the young couple in the shop, i could not help but notice that they evidently didn't put all their faith in supernatural powers. in order to deal with more mundane problems of everyday life in caracas, they were quite conspicuously 'packing heat,' with a 9 mm automatic on her belt and a revolver on his...

Montag, 14. April 2008

roots, rock, reggaeton

as mao famously said, the revolution is no tea party. but the great helmsman hadn't said anything about street parties... and so it happened that i found myself yesterday in a sea of red t-shirts and baseball caps, venezuelan flags and revolutionary slogans on a closed off stretch of one of the main streets of caracas.

by pure coincidence i seem to have arrived here in time for the celebrations marking the 6th anniversary of the failure of the anti-chavez coup in 2002. the occasion has been marked by above-mentioned street party, speeches, concerts, demonstrations and a military parade (assault helicopters and fighter-bombers screeching across the sky in the name of 'world peace,' of course...)

on the streets were about a dozen stages with salsa, reggae, reggaeton, rock, political speeches etc., stands were selling trotsky's books and popcorn, chavez-puppets and beer, revolutionary newspapers and ice cream. while the usual revolutionary suspects such as che, fidel and bolivar were feted, one could also see a concerted effort here to raise awareness of (and pride in) indigenous heroes such as cacique guaicaipuro who led a successful revolt against the spanish.

later on, the man himself, hugo chavez frias, gave a speech to his faithful, calling for a true bolivarian revolution, socialism, dignity, equality and vigilance in the struggle against The Empire...

while the chavistas were dancing in the streets, those not so positively inclined towards the revolution spent the weekend spending their money like there's no tomorrow in the shopping centres, restaurants and night clubs of east caracas, cruising around in oversized suv's, just like the nouveaux riches anywhere.

Freitag, 11. April 2008

money is the root of all evil

from a purely visual point of view, caracas presents itself as a slightly schizophrenic city. on the one hand, banners and murals 'welcome the socialist delegates to insurgent caracas,' urge the people to 'cultivate the seeds of the socio-cultural revolution,' remind us that 'the present (as in 'the now') belongs to all of us' and announce that 'under chavez, the people are the government.' these revolutionary slogans are, however overshadowed by 20 metre tall luminous nescafe cups, equally enormous pepsi signs, ubiquitous multinational beer commercials sporting scantily clad blondes and so on...

in a sense, the simultaneous struggle and co-existence of the two world views exemplified by the slogans could perhaps be seen as a reflection of where things are at in venezuela as a whole. one of the upshots of this struggle for the future of this country has been an economic crisis, with high inflation and an exodus of capital out of the country.

the detractors of the bolivarian revolution claim its due to chavez' propensity to use state funds based on political rather than economic calculations, the chavistas claim its due to the detractors themselves, who, being in the upper and middle class of society control the economy and, being no friends of chavez, have been putting the breaks on economic development themselves by taking their money out of venezuela and placing it in offshore accounts. both possibilities sound plausible enough and are not mutually exclusive.

be that as it may, the way this all has impacted my life is that the government has now moved to curb currency flows in and out of the country and a currency black market has emerged. i don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but in any case changing dollars into bolivares is trickier than one might think. as i couldn't find an official exchange office anywhere close by, i decided to try to tap into the black market, which had the added allure of offering me almost twice as many bolivares for my greenbacks than the official rate. and what better way to try and do something shifty than to go and talk to the experts on the issues: taxi drivers. as my luck would have it, though, i stumbled upon an extremely rare kind of human being: an honest, law-abiding taxi driver. so instead of offering to change my dollars at some dodgy rate, he took me to an official exchange place. what's more, he didn't even try to rip me off and even lowered the price from what he had initially said. shocking.

the official procedure for exchanging money was also quite complicated, with my passport getting photocopied, me having to sign a declaration that i was acting according to the provisions of regulation 185/01 of the supervisory agency of banks and other financial institutions of the bolivarian republic of venezuela and had my fingerprint taken before i received my bolivares. in a sense i could have understood the procedure if i was trying to take money out of the economy, but i was bringing money in, and legally at that... but then again i should have learned by now not to try to understand the logic of bureaucratic procedures.

another upshot of the economic crisis seems to be that food prices are high. not necessarily in the absolute sense (depending on whether you exchange money legally or on the black market, its either a bit higher than the central american average or actually quite cheap), but more in the relative sense. for example, a small pizza in a streetside restaurant costs about as much as a night in my hostel, 1,5 trips on the airport shuttle bus, 5 beers, 6 hours on the internet, 12 espressos or 36 rides on the metro. either those pizzas are something really special or something strange is going on.

one possible explanation could of course be that the chavez government might be subsidising the price of public transport, internet, coffee and beer - if that should turn out to be the case, i just might turn chavista myself...

Montag, 31. März 2008

in the ivory tower

one day i'm sitting in a battered jeep, sweating in the mid-day heat, surrounded by street children outside, waiting to pass a military checkpoint manned by sri lankan peacekeepers who are trying to clamp down on the wave of kidnappings that is plaguing haiti. the next day, i'm sitting in an air-conditioned conference room on the 34th floor of a glass and chrome hotel in san francisco, listening to the same phenomenon being discussed by eminent academics. only this time the daily, ordered chaos of port-au-prince is called "challenges of external intervention in areas of limited governance." welcome to the academic ivory tower.

i'm in s.f. for an international studies conference, fascinated and a bit jet-lagged by my journey from planet praxis to planet theory. the panels at the conference range from the incomprehensible ("unfortunate performativity: towards a co-fertilization of the economy of qualities and polyheuristic theory") to the dubious ("different time, different place: insurgencies in contrast" chaired by the u.s. military academy); from the quirky ("the international relations of middle earth: learning from the lord of the rings") to the ballsy ("amitai etzioni meets his critics," chaired by: amitai etzioni, the panelists: his critics).

my favourite panel discussion was the one linking u.s. military policy and neo-colonialism with the lack of body hair on american comic superheroes and the size of vampirella's breasts. why did i ever choose to study something as down to earth as engineering?

Dienstag, 25. März 2008

pimp my ride

in haiti, like in many other poorer countries of the planet, public transport vehicles are often turned into elaborate works of art. jeepneys, tuk-tuks, bemos, tap-taps and gua-guas on all five continents are adorned with blinking lights, oversized sound systems, dozens of rear-view mirrors, elaborate paintjobs, extra-wide wheels, pictures of saints, gods and superstars, and whatever else strikes the fancy of the driver as being cool. one of the things i like best, however, are the slogans and names the drivers put on their vehicles. there's nothing like a motto to the tune of "fate alone guides me" to instill trust in your passengers...

going through port-au-prince today, i jotted down some of the slogans on the tap-taps. many were religious, such as "dieu est eternel," "psaume 94, verse 17," "le don de dieu" or the bit more puzzling "sel jezu ki ka fe sa" (its only jesus who can do that). some were a mix of the religious and the mundane, such as "no problem, god bless me, you speak i work." another one that had me puzzling was "marianne say me thank you my mother," while "pensez vous a demain" seemed like sound advice. "u don't know me, oke?!" sounded a tad menacing but the main prize of the day goes to the two tap-taps with miniature jet planes on their roofs, one labeled "air argentina," the other "air florida."

my all-time favourite, however, is still the minibus in rural rwanda which proclaimed, several years after the end of his presidency, that "bill clinton is a mighty force in the world."

Montag, 24. März 2008

die jecken sind los

it was textbook, cliche haiti: under a canopy of tropical trees and bathed by the light of the full moon, the drums were playing a wild rhythm, the people round us were chanting and dancing, drinking rum and, after a suitable while, giving us the nod that we could also join in.

easter being a spiritual holiday and haiti being a very spiritual country, the past weekend has been marked by a range of rites and activities, mixing local beliefs (more commonly referred to as 'voodoo') and christian influences. one of the most visible manifestations of this melange of spiritual influences are the ra-ra bands.

these are basically bands of about a dozen musicians playing a variety of drums and other percussion instruments as well as horn instruments (such as conch shells, improvised trombones and instruments called vaksen, sort of akin to digeridoos), accompanied by rhythmic chanting. they are preceded by a flag-bearer as well as a choreographer setting the rhythm and followed by a dancing audience who join in or drop out at will.

from roughly the carnival time to easter, the ra-ra bands march through the cities, towns and villages as well as on mountain paths, clearing the paths commonly used by wandering spirits. in addition to their spiritual role, they also have the social function of spreading political messages, news and gossip, and importantly providing communal entertainment.

as per usual, i was told that 'back in the day,' it was all more authentic and spiritual and that nowadays people (especially of course the youth) were just in it for the entertainment value. and not only that, the ra-ra phenomenon is also becoming visibly more commercial, as popular bands are sponsored by for example the transnational bouillon-producer knorr or by the irish-owned cell-phone operator digicell. ach ja, früher war alles besser, in haiti as elsewhere...

Sonntag, 23. März 2008

market day

"hey, come over here so that i can cut your balls off," the guy wielding the knife shouted, cackling.

not understanding his creole, i smiled, waved back and said "bonjour, monsieur!"

when my guide translated the greeting for me, it was my turn to laugh. it was the most absurd way i've been ever been greeted upon entering a market. welcome to cayes jacmel market.

the market itself was teeming with sellers and buyers, getting supplies for easter weekend. weaving through the low, rickety structures made of bamboo poles covered with tarps, we made our way past sellers sitting on low stools in the almost dry river basin, hawking plantains, onions, pineapples, goats' trotters, dried fish, shampoos and hair lotions, second-hand clothes and shoes, prepaid cellphone cards, rum and cigarettes, lemonades and ice cream. in the low waters of the river, children play around, the small mountain horses of the farmers quench their thirst while women wash clothes and tap-tap drivers their multi-coloured communal taxis.

in many ways haiti reminds me of timor leste, though everything, both in the negative sense and positive sense, seems more pronounced here. or at least that is my initial reaction...

Dienstag, 18. März 2008

invisible monsters

its back to the city again after a beautiful weekend spent in the cordillera central of the dominican republic, driving around on bumpy dirt roads on the back of a beat-up pick-up truck, walking around in the forests and swimming in mountain streams. i was secretly hoping to get a chance to catch a glimpse of a very rare and elusive beast: the hispaniolan solenodon (solenodon paradoxus), a strange-looking nocturnal animal which in addition to having an odd latin name is one of six types of venomous mammals.

in the end, we were not fortunate enough to see any solenodons but we did unfortunately make contact with another barely visible type of animal, apparently some bizarre kind of mosquito. while we did not see these little monsters themselves, we soon noticed their extremely itchy bites which then turned into several dozen bright red spots in my case and into brown-blue bruises in my friend's case. so while my arms now look like those of a hapless amateur junkie who's been desperately trying to find a vein, my friend's legs look like those of a torture victim who's been roughed up by some third-world dictator's henchmen.

Freitag, 14. März 2008

the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie

while my time in nica was, mas o menos, spent "with the people," my stopover-day in san jose was more bourgeois. i spent most of the day sitting around in cafes, consuming espressos and trying, almost successfully, to catch up with work.

and in a sense that was perhaps a suitable way to spend my few hours in costa rica, as the country does like to pride itself of being the least impoverished spanish-speaking country (including eu-member spain). that is not to say that costa rica does not have poverty, slums and marginalisation, but the country has a lesser degree of inequality than its neighbours, and more stability. this might well be linked to the fact that the country has no army. no army = no coup d'etats, less outside interference and more money to spend on more useful things.

central san jose has a mixture of fin-de-siecle neo-classicist buildings and 1960s-70s concrete towers. the former, adorned with symbols drawn from the french revolution and freemasonry, are monuments to the classical liberal goals of enlightenment of its european-oriented social and political elite. the latter are the monuments of a by-gone economic boom, and both old and new combine to give the city a slightly melancholy air of faded glory.

speaking of faded glory, on my way out at the airport i had the joy and honour to meet up with those old travelling companions of mine, the scorpions. and yes, they played my song.

Donnerstag, 13. März 2008

mosquito coast

semi-unexpectedly, most of my time here in nicaragua has been spent with costeños, or people from the autonomous regions of nicaragua's atlantic coast, both on the coast and with the 'diaspora' in managua. 'the costa' is quite a fascinating area, being for a long time more influenced by events in the caribbean rather than the spanish-influenced rest of nicaragua. the mosquito coast (named not after the pesky animals but in a corruption of the name of the largest indigenous group, the miskitos) was for a long time under nominal british protection/rule and along with the indigenous languages such as miskito and garafuna one of the main languages is creole english.

the costa creole sounds (at least to me) quite similar to jamaican english. i was given plenty of opportunity to get into the vibe of the language, listening to family antics, stories from the revolution and contra war, gossip, memories of migration, jokes and the like while sitting out on the porch with my friend's extended family. and yes, rum did flow, with the family making sure that i also got more than my fair share of 'las copas de las americas...'

Mittwoch, 12. März 2008

por la carretera

navigating one´s way around managua isn´t the easiest thing on the planet, especially for newcomers like me. places are usually not identified by addresses but by their relation to landmarks, specified further by their geographic location (north, east, south, west) or with respect to other landmarks, such as the lake. for example, the address of the place i´m sitting in right now is: by the military hospital, one block towards the lake then 1,5 blocks down the hill. a pretty logical system if you know where the landmarks are, which ones to use and what direction east is etc.

the other day, taking a taxi to the place i´m staying at was an indication of how complicated it can get if you´re not "in the know:"

me: to altamira please, over by the central hospital

taxista: the what? the central hospital? but thats not in altamira. maybe its a new private one?

me: could be...

taxista: oh, then i don´t know where it is. what else is there? is it by the police station?

me (full of hope again, remembering someone did indeed mention a police station at some point): yes, i think it is.

taxista: ok, then i know it. to the south or to the north of the police station?

me (nonplussed): i have absolutely no idea...

in the end we did find our landmarks, around the corner from the korean store next to the roundabout near the la plancha restaurant.

my favourite one, however, is the legendary "little tree," apparently often used as a landmark eventhough it is not there anymore, used in the sense of "go to where the little tree used to be, then go 2 blocks towards the lake, then 1 block south..."

Donnerstag, 6. März 2008

mexican underground

in addition to running around mexican beach wedding parties in a javanese sarong, i have been spending much of my time over the past few weeks deep in the heart of yucatan. more precisely up to 15-20 metres deep, diving around in underground, water-filled cave systems called cenotes. the most extensive cenote system is ox bel ha, of which approximately 170 km have been explored. there are a number of different theories as to how these limestone cave systems have developed, due to the ice ages, rising and falling sea levels and/or meteoric impact. they are filled with both fresh- and saltwater, the two being separated inside the cave by haloclines. from the outside, they look like circular ponds at the bottom of sinkholes in the jungle, though some of the more popular ones nowadays have platforms for swimmers, snorkelers and divers.

while today's tourists pay to jump in, some of the ancient inhabitants of the yucatan peninsula ended up in the cenotes in a more involuntary fashion, as the maya sacrificed the occasional human by throwing them into the cenotes together with sacred artifacts to placate the rain god chaac.

but so much for the dry facts. as an experience diving in the cenotes is what the italians would call troppo bello, too beautiful, one of the most magnificent things i have seen so far, especially the light effects produced by the haloclines.

Freitag, 29. Februar 2008

ach wie schön ist panama...

little mishaps are the spice of life, they are entry points to new discoveries. i learned two things today, one new lesson and the other was a refresher lesson. the new lesson: my german atm card is useless in panama. the old lesson: don't bother planning, things will turn out different anyway in the end. diverging from my usual modus operandi, i had booked a hotel in advance as i knew i'd be arriving late at night for my stopover. i jumped into a taxi at the airport, got downtown and learned the new lesson. and then i spent the next 2 hours cruising around town in a taxi i couldn't pay for, with an empty wallet and unable to get cash anywhere, looking for a hotel that would be willing to give me a cash advance on my credit card. which eventually i did. needless to say, the hotel i stayed at in the end was nowhere near the one i had originally booked. and though i know they will never read this blog, i'd like to take this opportunity to thank diana and ignacio for their help and patience.

in spite of the minor inconvenience, the episode was also an indication of how easy travel is nowadays if you belong to the more fortunate 20 % of humanity - no need for me to sell off a kidney, pawn jewelry or go work in a maquiladora to pay off my debt.

based on what little i've seen of panama so far, it has the feel of a town that has seen a lot of globalised money arriving lately, drawn by low taxes and few questions asked. geography helps, with the canal obviously drawing international trade and the lucrative trade in certain agricultural goods from neighbouring colombia bringing in megabucks to the offshore banks. next to my hotel bed, where one usually finds tourist brochures, was a 600+ page catalogue (!) praising the colon free zone, the world's second biggest special economic zone, producing cheap textiles and electronics, mainly for chinese companies. like other similar towns, panama city is therefore a magnet for all kinds of wheelers and dealers, hustlers and contractors, aspiring movers and shakers from all corners of the world, congregating in the hotel lobby bar, sitting around in polyester suits and cradling beers, hoping to make it big this time around...

Montag, 25. Februar 2008

bailando, bailando...

"ven, bailalo
ay, ven, bailalo
ven, gozalo
ay, ven, gozalo
que la rumba esta buena
y contigo, morena
pa' santo domingo
es que me voy yo"

- angel y khriz

from what limited experiences i've had in latin american countries, it seems that there are two things you can't escape here: the music and dancing. i really don't mind the former, but the latter is something of an anathema to me. i am honestly a very, very bad dancer. bachata, salsa, merengue, rumba, compa... i can neither tell them apart nor, if even i could, i am not able to figure out the rhythm with which i'm supposed to move my clumsy feet. not to mention moving the hips and turns and what-have-you-not.

in the sunny caribbean as much as in freezing patagonia, in ill-lit port-side taverns and in kitschy tourist cafes, in front of bottle stores and in colonial-era parks, i have had the same conversation as in front of a local colmado (sort of kiosk/mini-market) last night:

local young woman: come, i'll show you how to dance the bachata!

me: ummm.... no gracias....

local young woman: mira, its real simple: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3...

me (sweating blood and tears): umm... well... no, mira, i honestly can't dance...

local young woman: oye, it's 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3... what could be simpler?!

well, the result was, as expected, a complete disaster. even the fact that i had additional encouragement from a somewhat drunk portly elderly lady behind me who was pinching my ass and telling me to "shake it, shake it!" didn't help me find the right rhythm...

Samstag, 23. Februar 2008

mundo latino

lying on the couch on the porch and closing my eyes, the audioscape is so stereotypical that it makes me smile: the wind rustling through the palm trees, the waves crashing on the beach, crickets chirping, the sounds of latin dance music wafting over from the bars and the loud shouting match in spanish between the husband and wife from the house next door...

my mind has not quite yet been able to completely plug into what little spanish i was once able to speak. instead, indonesian tends to come into the way, with my mind forming indo-spanish phrases such as: "si, besok voy pa' santo domingo karena tengo amiga yang kerja alli"

Dienstag, 19. Februar 2008

¡vamos a la playa!

tomorrow morning i shall be heading out to the tropics again, this time to the west rather than the east, first to the caribbean and then to central america, followed by north america. the exact itinerary of my trip is still a bit open, will be playing it by ear a bit. rest assured, however, that this trip has absolutely nothing to do with recent developments in cuba...

in the meantime, if you have a bored moment, check out the video to that song in the subject header of this post on youtube (it's the one by righeira). it just possibly might the the most bizarre anti-war song video ever.

Montag, 18. Februar 2008

knowledge is power

if any of you are wondering whether or not you should go ahead and do a ph.d., my answer is: absolutely! there is probably no other time in your life when you have chance to expand your mental horizons in quite the same way as when as you're writing a ph.d.

i, for example, have learned over the past few weeks that:

- saskatchewan is approximately as big as southern sudan
- ren hoek's accent (from the cartoon show ren & stimpy) was inspired by peter lorre (casablanca, the maltese falcon, 'm' - die stadt sucht einen moerder)
- the seven years' war (1756-1763) was the first european conflict fought on 5 continents
- prenzlauer berg, the part of berlin i live in, has an average population density of 13 176 inhabitants per km2
- both johnny depp and amy winehouse appeared on the bbc series 'the fast show'
- while the eu's next expansion will consist of officially integrating the netherlands antilles islands of aruba, bonaire, st. eustatius and saba into the eu on dec. 15 this year, the caribbean islands of turks & caicos have considered joining canada.
curacao and sint maarten will gain a special status as associated states
- the album 'lust for life' by iggy pop & david bowie was recorded in a small studio close to potsdamer platz, berlin
- the olm (proteus anguinus) uses mostly non-visual sensory systems such as photoreceptors in the skin, chemoreceptors, mechano- and electroreceptors in order to find its way in the dark
- peru is latin america's biggest potato-producing country
- chris cunningham's video for aphex twin's song 'come to daddy' was shot in the same housing development thingie as stanley kubrick's clockwork orange
- the official languages of the netherlands antilles are dutch and papiamentu; the official language of the turks and caicos islands is english
- the 1,59 eur bottle of chilean la cara cabernet sauvignon from the plus market is better quality for money than the 1,79 bottle of montepulciano d'abruzzo from kaiser's
- judge dread was both the first white recording artist to have a reggae hit in jamaica and the artist with the most banned songs in the u.k.
- famed indian actor amitabh bachchan has played in 172 movies to date, winning 18 film awards and 27 nominations. burt bacharach of kansas city (mo), on the other hand, has so far had 70 top 40 hits in the us and 52 top 40 hits in the uk
- while the latin name for the animal known as cicak in indonesian is hemidactylus frenatus, the tokek is classified as gekko gecko
- actor lee marvin's mother descended from the brother of george washington while his father's forefather was the founder of hartford, connecticut

rest assured that i have not merely picked up these gems of information by idly wandering around the internet when i was supposed to be focusing on my ph.d. topic of masculinities and violence in timor leste. all of the above-mentioned facts are absolutely essential to the fundamental argument of my thesis.

Donnerstag, 14. Februar 2008

my life story in a nutshell

the other day on the radio i heard a book review of a collection of autobiographies - all of which are six words long, a brilliant concept that has kept my mind busy and off my thesis ever since. here's a few 6-word autobiographies i came up with:

mumble, grumble... not a morning person
absent-minded, i drift through my life
will be late for own funeral
glad i changed course early on
protestant work ethic? not quite...
chilies, garlic, lime juice, salt, coriander
gigantic carbon footprint - that defines me

Dienstag, 12. Februar 2008

a desperado goes down in flames

"desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
oh, you're a hard one,
and i know you've got your reasons,
but these things that are pleasing you
can hurt you somehow."

-johnny cash, "desperado"

the other night as i was working away on my ph.d. and writing a sentence to the effect of "one shouldn't overgeneralise about violence being the main way in which political differences are settled in timor leste..." when the bbc world service that was running in the background reported that "according to reports just coming in from dili, there has been an armed attack on the residence of president jose ramos horta..." i stopped mid-sentence... so much for that well-meant caveat on my part.

the attacker was none other than the mercurial major alfredo, who as some of you might remember has made his appearance on these pages as well. in what was a dual attack, reinado and his men attempted to kill both the president and the prime minister, but in the end it was alfredo himself who got killed. jrh was shot in the chest and stomach and is, at the time of writing, in intensive care in australia. a further man was killed, though it is unclear whether he was one of the attackers or one of the president's bodyguards.

so the man went down in flames and perhaps it was the only way he could go if he wanted to preserve his almost mythical aura, an aura that was already in the process of losing its shine. did he really think he could pull off a coup? was he "manipulated"? did he just lose the plot? i guess we'll never know.

other questions also remain and from what i hear dili is (surprise, surprise) abuzz with rumours, gossip and conspiracy theories. why was only 'unlucky alf' killed? what about the time discrepancies? why did the attack happen now? how and why were all the attackers (minus alfredo) able to escape? wasn't alfredo's death just a bit too convenient for 'some people'? those wishing to discuss these matters further over a beer or three are more than welcome to contact me anytime...

on a personal note, i tuned in to bbc world service again late last night for the latest update. i was mentally so immersed into the broadcast that i had one of those audio flashbacks that i haven't had for about 10 months: while listening intently to the news broadcast from dili, a woman walking past my window down a cobblestone street in high-heeled winter boots made a steady clack-clack-clack-clack sound with her heels and a part of my mind immediately thought: sustained automatic rifle fire, single-shot mode... i snapped out of it within a fraction of a second, but the unwelcome feeling of having been touched by the ghost of christmas past lingered on for a while longer

Freitag, 8. Februar 2008

a small town in germany

i am back in bonn for the first time in five years, a town that used to be home for a while a while back... i am stunned by how little has changed in 5 years, the only noticeable changes were that the greek resto round the corner is now an indian eatery and that the couple running the korean grocery store have become friendlier.

then as now, bonn is an affluent, orderly, administrative town for affluent, orderly, administrative people. suits and ties, expensive handbags, wealthy old ladies with nip-n-tuck tight faces, small dogs. fenced-off, well-kept front lawns. no alarms and no surprises, please...

at times, especially during the dark and dismal days of november-december, the strict bourgeois orderliness would become oppressive, "bonn jour tristesse" if you excuse the pun.

today however, the town is resplendent. a cloudless sky, a brilliant sun, majestic victorian houses, the first birds are singing and the first trees down by the rhine are in bloom. (never mind the fact that this should actually only be happening in two months time...)

Donnerstag, 31. Januar 2008

through western eyes

perhaps it was just a bit too close to home.

the other night i stopped by a cafe to re-read a draft of an article that i was working on. unfortunately i was not able to concentrate on my paper but found found myself drawn into listening to the conversation at the table next to me. anything else would have been impossible, given the highly audible volume level of their discussion and their clear and emphatic enunciation of their main arguments. in addition, the topic which they were discussing with their eloquent, polished, nasal voices was one that's been close to my heart for a while: southeast asia.

the two men, both with obviously above-average incomes and higher-level education were discussing "the essence" of vietnam and thailand, of the nature of the thai and the vietnamese "an sich," generalising and simplifying at every turn. in all its eloquence and intellectual aspirations, the discussion struck me as being plainly arrogant and ignorant, with the two snooty young well-heeled european men being convinced of their economic, cultural and intellectual superiority vis-a-vis the south-east asian locals and other westerners, lacking all empathy for those who they felt were below them - which was pretty much everyone.

walking home i wondered what it had been about the pair had irritated me so badly. perhaps, i thought, it just really had been too close to home: the two were engaging in what i do so often, in fact, in what i do for a living: generalising and simplifying, talking eloquently on behalf of south-east asians instead of really listening to, let alone creating space for their own voices, placing myself into the position of the all-mighty western know-it-all and getting paid for it. its not always nice to look into the mirror.

Montag, 28. Januar 2008

death of the patriarch

indonesia's long-time dictator suharto died last sunday. for some he was "the butcher of jakarta," for others "the father of development," or, in between these two poles of opinion, "the smiling general."

he was feted and armed by the west and "diverted" somewhere between 15-35 billion us dollars into his own and his family's pockets (i admit that that used to sound like a whole lot more before this week's banking scandals).

thanks to his openness to foreign business interests and his proven anti-communist credentials (at least half a million dead suspected leftists) he was bestest buddies with the leaders of the free world. as late as 1995 bill clinton's administration called him "our kind of guy." more honestly, henry kissinger allegedly described suharto and the likes of him such as marcos, pinochet, duvalier and mobutu sese seko as "bastards, but at least they're our bastards." and like so many of "our kind of guys," suharto did not have to face justice for the estimated up to 1,5 million people killed during his reign or the billions he and his family are thought to have embezzled.

this morning i was asked to write an obituary of suharto, which i agreed to. coincidentally the amount of money i will get for the obituary is exactly how much my health insurance will cost me next month. i pondered the irony of paying for my own health insurance with the money that i will indirectly get thanks to the death of a man who had been responsible for having several of my friends and acquaintances jailed and decided to put that money into a fund that helps his surviving victims instead.

Freitag, 25. Januar 2008

trans-europa express

"the passenger
he rides and he rides...

he looks through his window,
what does he see?

he sees the bright and hollow sky,
he sees the stars come out tonight.
he sees the city's ripped backsides,
he sees the winding ocean drive..."

- iggy pop, "the passenger"

hues of grey, green, brown... the earthy shades of a landscape formed by centuries of agriculture and industry pass by my window. i am cocooned inside what looks, from the outside, like a high-speed silkworm, gliding smoothly across the continent with its cargo of students and pensioners, metalheads and businesswomen, migrants and those that would unfortunately rather get rid of them, tourists going skiing and conscripts heading home for the weekend.

we pass through towns of stunning beauty, of brutal functionalism, of mind-numbing mediocrity. medieval churches walled against marauders, red-brick ruins from the days of the industrial revolution and post-fordist logistics hubs consisting of pre-fab materials glide by.

a voice crackles over the intercom:

"naechster halt: muenchen hauptbahnhof..."

Donnerstag, 24. Januar 2008

alphabet city

over the past few days in geneva, i've been walking around town past the WMO, the SNCF TGVs, the WHO, ITU, MSF and WIPO, talking to people from UNOG, UNIDIR, ICRC, DCAF, UNDP-BCPR, IOM, OCHA, UNHCR, WTO, SAS, ILO, CPCC and HDC about things like SNAP, SALW, DDRR, ALD-3, MONUC, GenCap, MINUSTAH, SSR, UNMIT, BIT, MINURCAT, FDI, SPLA, IDDRS, EPA, UNMIS, OECD-DAC, GBV, DPKO, ODA, DR, P-11/PHP and SRSGs.

in addition, i've had a wonderful time meeting friends, sitting in outdoor cafes, walking in the surrounding hills and feeling like an extra in "the shining" (or in a surreal short story by kafka or harms) when wandering through the vast, empty maze of corridors of the UN's palais des nations looking for a non-existent fifth floor...

Dienstag, 22. Januar 2008

180 degrees

in a "dramatic" turn of events, i have now temporarily put down my writing and am concentrating on reading instead for the next few days - oh, the exciting life i lead!

i have also temporarily traded the "poor but sexy" streets of berlin for the "rather rich but subtly so" streets of geneva for the week. all countries have their idiosyncrasies, of course, but i often have the feeling that there's something particularly peculiar about switzerland. not in a bad way necessarily, but just slightly odd. maybe its the habit of placing brutal 1960s concrete blocks in the middle of pictoresque alpine pastures? or the quaintly antiquated habit of closing all shops (and many restaurants) on sundays, monday mornings, wednesday afternoons and saturday afternoons as well as for extended lunch breaks and at six every evening? the courteous way people interact? i will have to ponder the issue over a fondue tonight....

Mittwoch, 9. Januar 2008

cabin fever

"i think the writing is eating up my self,
preventing any togetherness with anyone,
... recycling [texts] over and over again.
how much longer, how many more?"

- iggy pop, "afraid to get close"

no worries, i haven't quite reached the stage that mr. pop described there, but i fear i might be getting there soon. as some of you might know, i placed myself under house arrest about two weeks ago in order to get through my backlog of articles and, more importantly, to finally get somewhere with my ph.d. thesis.

as far as the writing is concerned, it's been a fairly successful plan but i'm growing a bit concerned about the side-effects: cabin fever, anti-social behaviour and delusions of grandeur.

i've decided to allow myself one trip per day out of my flat to interact with reality, which usually means that i end up in a cafe somewhere around the corner. so far so good, but the problem is that cafes tend to have other customers: noisy children running around with their frustrated young mothers shouting after them, youngish men in suits discussing their investment portfolios, smokers complaining about the new stringent smoking regulations, young lovers discussing where to go for a weekend break... and all of them are conspiring to break my train of thought with their insolent, endless cacophony! all of them are conspiring to get between me and my thesis! nay, all of them are conspiring to get between Humanity and My Thesis, for isn't it humanity that stands to gain the most from the masterpiece i am creating? fools, do they not understand?!?

i drown my four double-espressos in quick succession, pay up and shuffle back into the safety of my own four walls, cursing the other customers under my breath....