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.