Category: Josh’s rants


Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

The Egg Blog part 2

Our faithful followers will remember the Egg Blog (part 1) – an egg in China, deshelled and vacuum packed, summarising for us much of the consumerist and wasteful practices in the Chinese system as we saw it.

In India we have found another egg which similarly suggests towards various generalisable things.

India is the world diabetes capital, which is unsurprising due to the high levels of fat, sugar and carbs that make up day to day food intake for many of the people here who are not starving.

Deep or shallow frying everything seems to be a specialty. This apparently includes already boiled eggs. Curious as to the taste, I tried one of these eggs – hard boiled, stripped of its shell, battered then deep fried. It tastes like a hard boiled egg, battered then deep fried. It really tastes no better than a healthy egg boiled only in water.

To me, it really did represent why so many people in this country have diabetes…

Have you ever met a reactionary, nihilist, self-centred, ignorant and spiritual primitivist anarcho-capitalist? Last week I would have answered no as well. Today I have the misfortune of sleeping under the roof of one.

WWOOFing (the Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) is a mixed kettle of fish. While there are almost always many positives, they normally come with negatives. Unfortunately, one of the more consistent negatives is the hosts. It seems the majority of the people that host wwoofers either come from the minority perspective of simply seeing this as an opportunity to get free labour. The other group are more complex, but are basically fallen lefties. They normally come from an anarchist school and due to lack of coherent and sophisticated theory have become disillusioned and retreat to “living outside the system” and often find spirituality on the way.

Before departing on the trip, Lucie and I excitedly decided upon a farm in Kerala which we would work on in order to save money, meet people and learn more about agriculture and farming (not in that order of importance). While we may have saved some money, we have met no-one really (the farm only has one guest room), and I have learnt very little past the initial basics of picking coffee. This is bearable, however. What is not is working for a man who believes that “capitalism is the best system, it is people that are the problem”, that “any problem an individual may have is their own lookout”, that “if you are sick or if you are healthy, it is down to karma”, that “life is a transition from [unspecified] place to place”, that “all political parties are the same” whether this be the fascist Front National or the Socialist Party in France (all parties are racist apparently). A man who believes that “ideology means nothing, the only thing that matters is practice” (which is why we should except his ideology) whilst simultaneously dismissing any practical examples I offer as to why his ridiculous beliefs are wrong; that “nothing ever changes” and , best of all, that “all Muslims are the same”. Oh yes, and that the Poll Tax riots were organised by a bunch of foreign anarchists and culminated in things burning in Trafalgar Square.

When we first arrived, I remember telling Lucie how excited I was to work here – I had just spoken to Bruno (our boss)’s brother Pierre (who is very interesting), who had told me that they had both lived in a squat in London during the Poll Tax riots. This excitement was extinguished faster than a match in a hurricane when Bruno told me that “it doesn’t matter what happens in Egypt, it will not change a thing”.

At first, we simply believed that he was a fallen anarchist who, disillusioned, had turned to India and nature for solace. Having struggled to remember the name of the group with which he was involved in the UK – Class War – he proudly told us how he used to be an anarchist, how he’d been on the barricades teaching the stupid English how to make a Molotov cocktail… At this point I almost looked forward to talking to him –  I saw this as an opportunity to put my theory into practice. To test my belief  that without an adequate theory you will eventually fall.

I had spoken too often to people about how if you do not understand the nature of the State, the nature of power, if you do not understand what the USSR, China etc truly was (ie State capitalist), your perceptions would be skewed and your determination hindered. This analysis is almost certainly still the case with Bruno, but Bruno as a “fallen anarchist” quickly turned in my mind into Bruno as a reactionary conservative, followed shortly after by my current view of him. This man is a walking contradiction. He is like an angsty thirteen year old boy who is more concerned with winning an argument than with coming out with anything coherent. He is amusing in a tragic sort of way, and not tragedy in a Shakespearean sense – he has no noble tragic flaw, just a total lack of analysis and coherence.

Food seems to be one of his favourite subjects. “In Europe they eat sheet” he told us almost every day. The irony of this was that he eats 2 meals a day, one at 11am (this being 5 hours after he woke up and 3 hours after he started doing manual labour) and at 9pm (one hour before going to bed). On top of this, his diet (and ours while we were there) consisted almost exclusively of carbs. The first meal would be Indian bread of some kind, butter and what can best be described as veg stew, followed by a curd drink and dinner would probably be the same, replacing the curd drink with rice pudding (ie rice cooked in milk and sugar). He rarely drank water, instead filling himself with coffee. So for him to claim that “in the west they eat sheet” seemed quite ironic. The other irony was that he never mentioned the diet of Indians, which seems odd given India has the highest level of diabetes in the world. When I asked him why he thought people in the west eat “sheet” he would say “because they like it” and when I asked him why he thought it was that as a general rule the richer you become in the west the better your diet he would respond “because they are rich”.  This incoherence was a consistent feature of our week there. Social movements apparently changed nothing, but when I asked him how all the positive social changes in the C20th had occurred he would say “through popular movements obviously”.

I could go on, but as a friend of mine said, this man matters very little, and come the revolution, his opinion might even change. So, with this relationship failing, we cut our 17 day farming experience down to 8 days, taking refuge in the hills of Tamil Nadu.

 

After finishing our 4 day holiday, we thought we would throw ourselves right back into the mix, i.e. incredibly stressful, sleep deprived, exposures to the true horrors of India, etc…

Things started as they would go on – frustratingly and difficult. Due to our limited mathematical skills, we had wrongly worked out when we would arrive in Bhubaneswar (BBS) – which would form our jumping base for the next week. As a result, we turned up there 2 days early cutting short our holiday completely unnecessarily. We had been in touch with our contact in BBS and told him that we had made a mistake and would it be ok to come a few days early. He reassured us it would be fine, but when we arrived it turned out that he wasn’t going to be there for two more days. Oops. Minus one Basic Communication Point…

No matter. He told us that we could go to the office and do some research. After the hassle of trying to get to Puri, we also thought we would book our train tickets earlier this time. We found a train for the 5th (the only train that wasn’t Wait –Listed [1]). This was a few days before we had wanted to leave, so we phoned our contact to check if he thought we would be able to get everything done in this shorter time. “No problem,” he told us. “Go ahead and book it.” 2 days later, he asked us if we were going to still be in BBS on the 5th as there was a very big meeting taking place which we should attend..! Minus 3 Basic Communication Points.

After booking the train, we headed for the office to do some much needed research. Unsurprisingly, when we arrived no-one knew what information we were after, and we didn’t have specific requests as we’d been assured there was loads of stuff we would be given. But with some help we found more than we could digest and got stuck in. The scale of the agricultural crisis in India is phenomenal, but this will be discussed in further blogs…

After meeting our contact on the 30th, we had our itinerary for the next week. Stop 1: an interview with a toothless man who has been involved with fight against ‘modern’ (non-sustainable market driven – chemical pesticide and fertiliser heavy) farming techniques and the struggle for the promotion of traditional (sustainable, organic, farmer led) methods. He also is in charge of a seed sharing project – they have collected 350 varieties of indigenous rice (a tiny proportion of the original amount). Apart from the fact that he did not directly answer any of our actual questions, he was amazing. He talked virtually non-stop for an hour, covering a variety of topics from the birth place of rice, climate change, dams, multi-national corporations and alternative agriculture.

Stop 2: North Orissa and a farming community promoting sustainable farming. We had to wake up at 5.45am to get here so we hoped it would be worth it. We were told there would be someone to meet us at the train station; they would know who we were because we would be the only white people. A ricksaw didn’t seem possible, so all 3 of us climbed onto our guide’s motor-bike (a common sight in India) and made our way to the meeting hall. “Don’t worry,” our contact had said when we asked how exactly we are supposed to interview 45 people all at once, “we wouldn’t put you in a difficult situation.” Luckily, as it turns out, it not that difficult to interview 45 people all at once (minus one Basic Communication Point)…

We got ushered into a meeting, being greeted with lovely flowers, and were told to sit at the head of a growing group of people. We sat and we sat and we sat and nothing was said – people seemed content just to stare at us – and then we were beckoned to leave and were given a bunch of food, then invited back to the meeting. We spent the next 2 hours doing a QandA with the group. We were then treated to local organic lunch on plates made of leaves. Embarrassingly, I was unable to finish mine. It seems that desperate “no” signals when offered a second enormous portion of rice, only drives them to give you more!

After lunch, we interviewed 3 farmers back-to-back. Concepts of a break don’t seem to exist. On top of this the interviews took 3 times as long as most interviews I’ve conducted as we did not share a common language. The farmers discussed how they had either always used traditional methods because it was what their forefathers had done, or how they had tried to use intensive methods but had found they didn’t work – they did not have the funds for the fertilisers, the pesticides, the seeds themselves and the irrigation, plus they didn’t really like the taste of hybrid crops.When we had bought the train tickets to this destination, our contact had told us to book returns (in India you can’t get returns so you get two singles) so we did. We were therefore confused when we headed to a town an hour and a half away to sleep… We ended up getting ‘top-up’ train tickets. Minus 2 Basic Communication Points.

The following day was always going to be grim, but it started much earlier than we had expected. “Josh, I think that’s the fire alarm!” Lucie squawked at 5.05am. “Don’t be silly, they don’t have firm alarms in India,” I replied. But she had a point. There was the constant ringing of a bell, which was accompanied by terrible and very loud music. Still believing this had to be something other than absolute stupidity, Lucie got up to see what was happening. It turned out there was a man in a yellow robe ringing a bell in the lobby of the hotel – which was opposite a temple blaring out tunes from its loudspeakers straight into the hotel. The music went on till 6.30am!

In the morning, I asked what the music was about. “For the temple,” responded the hotel manager. “Does this happen every morning?” “Oh, yes,” he said smilingly, utterly oblivious to the fact that some people who pay to stay in his hotel might not find this an endearing feature.

We had planned the day before to meet up with the secretary of the farmers’ community group and discuss stuff at 9am. At 9.30am he still hadn’t turned up. We called him and were told someone would come and pick us up “immediately”. At 10.30am someone turned up with a note saying that the secretary was sorry he couldn’t meet us, but something urgent had come up and he had had to go, but someone would come and pick us up at 11am and take us to their office, where we could do some research. Grrrr….We went to the office, but no one had a clue what we wanted. “What documents do you want?” “We don’t know, we were told there was stuff we could look at, we thought the secretary would be here, he was going to chat to us…” I think the people we met through-out those few days thought we were a bit stupid because we would turn up at a resource centre and not know what we wanted. The problem was, we were told (every time by someone who wasn’t there when we arrived) that the people at the centre would know what we wanted and we should just ask. FRUSTRATING.

After getting some documents, we caught the train back to BBS. We had a night bus to catch at 9.30pm. Our contact had told us “it might not be like UK night buses, but you get a good night’s sleep. I catch it all the time. You can wake up in the morning and get on with work”. I admire him for being able to do this. “Sleep” is not the correct word to describe what I had to go through that night. Cold, uncomfortable and stressed, we “woke” at 4.30am and stumbled of the bus. Yes, the bus arrived at 4.30am. A hotel had been booked for us, which a rickshaw driver took us to. You can check in in a few hours, we were told. “What!? Fine we’ll sleep on your sofa.” The hotel manager both took pity on us and achieved some amount of rationality and so let us move into our room a couple of hours early.

The next day (6 hours later, though Lucie had to wake up at 9am to ask the interviewees if they could come at midday instead of nine thirty…) was by far the hardest. Of course, no-one was there to meet us at midday. At 1.30pm a farmers’ trade union leader finally appeared in our hotel. It seemed he didn’t want to be seen with us (understandable as people on the front line of challenging the state and multinationals regularly end up face down in ditches or just banged up in prison under false charges) so we went to our hotel room. 5 hours later we were able to leave this room. In the meantime several people had entered it and expunged the entirety of their thoughts on the agricultural crisis in India upon us. We emerged shaken and exhausted having had to refuse a late comer: “No, I’m sorry, but no, no more interviews!”

Our work was done, but our endurance had to be stretched a little further the following day when a train which was meant to take 6 hours ending up taking (including waiting for it) 9. Pretty standard, but a long day… Luckily, there’s nothing I like more than reading in a train station and occasionally getting shat on by pigeons…

We are now officially going on holiday again (Tamil Nadu and Kerala), but will fill you in in much more detail on everything we have learnt in the past week.

One final point, while our contact’s communication skills were somewhat lacking, it should be said that this was made up for by all his hospitality, political insights, passion and commitment to this cause.

[1] The train system in India is, when you first arrive, excruciatingly complicated and confusing – the train stations moreso. Once you know it, it’s just irrational and frustrating (the stations remain totally confusing whatever you do, it seems). Tickets are available, wait-listed (meaning you can hope that the tickets the big travel agents have bought will be sold back to the train service), or RAC (dependent on someone’s cancellation). Available is obviously the best option. You can also opt for TATKAL, an emergency (not really an emergency) option 48 hours before departure, or FTQ (foreign tourist quota) if you’re lucky enough to be in a “metropolitan” capital (not Bhopal!) from which they can book them. This complicated system is saturated in bureaucracy, and you will probably have to fill in at least 2 forms just to get to the ticket counter! On top of all this, you can no longer book tickets online if you don’t have an Indian debit card…

Browsing facebook you might stumble across a group called ‘The Kathmandu Indian Visa Line Club’. While it only has 26 members, all of them are united in having experienced the embassy from hell.

After returning from our trip to Dhulikhel we hoped to pick up our Indian visas. Retrospectively, this seems a rather silly thought, especially given our initial encounter with the embassy.

We arrived at the embassy at just before 8.30am – our first mistake – and took the obligatory ticket. We were A16. This didn’t seem too bad, given we thought there must only be 15 people ahead of us since there were about that many other people also waiting. However, 4 hours later we had discovered that the system is not that logical. As are also randomly interspersed with Fs, and Cs.

Eventually, at just before 1pm, we joined another mini-queue in front of the ONLY counter (by this point there were at least 60 people in the waiting room!). We paid our 300rs to Telex our forms to England and left, being told to return in 5 working days.

6 working days later, returning from our blissful trip, we hoped for a relatively hassle-free pick-up. We arrived earlier this time – around 7.45am – and were almost at the front of the queue. We again took our ticket, this time being C13, which seemed very unreasonable given that there were only 5 people ahead of us, and, already clued up about this process, went to go and get drinks and investigate jabs. We returned an hour and a half later, checked the number on the board and left again for half an hour.

When we were finally seen, we were told that the Indian Embassy in London had not confirmed that we aren’t mad terrorists (or whatever it is that they do) and so we could only get a 3 month visa. After a little dispute, we filled in the Telex form again (not having to pay this time) and were told to come back 2 working days later.

So we did, having called the embassy in London ourselves to make sure they would reply. This in itself was not as easy as expected as I had to explain to the man on the other end of the phone that I wasn’t “in the pool” as he thought, but “in Nepal”. Luckily, we’d found a mind-bogglingly cheap phone. We went through the whole morning rigmarole (see above), this time being told we had been granted a 6 month visa. Brilliant. Of course we then had to join another queue in order to pay.

One would think that an embassy taking tens of thousands of rupees each day, would have the fore-thought to have some change. No. The annoying man told me to go away (this being after queuing for a total of over 10hours) and get change. I think it was not unreasonable to try and rip his head off…it worked. Well his face certainly changed shape and colour, and I left with change and a smile.

The smile withered in the next queuing process we had to endure. After being told to return at 5pm, we started queuing at about 4.30pm. 5pm came and went. 5.15, 5.30, 5.45…the end of the queue in the mean time was almost out of sight. After asking what the problem was, we were told that the passports had not arrived yet! Eventually, once it was dark, an old man in a wooly jumper took two suitcases out of the embassy and around the corner. It was after 6pm before we were even let into the insane asylum. However, the arbitrary ticket system was this time not even in use, so the 2 and a half hour, carefully collected queue dissolved as people took their seats.

It was another 20mins until the old man (who happily hadn’t been mugged) returned and Lucie fought her way back to the front of the “queue” where we had begun. Finally, finally, we picked up our visas, never again to return.

Lesson of this story: If it is possible, get your Indian visa anywhere other than the Kathmandu Indian Embassy!

The people we met in China

When hearing someone reflect upon their time in a country, you may expect them to say how beautiful a country is, how friendly and helpful the people were and how much they enjoyed themselves. However, apart from the beauty aspect (which is in itself becoming increasingly and needlessly destroyed), I cannot say any of those things about our experience of China.

This may seem like an overly negative statement, even from me, but let me explain myself.

I will start with the people I met. I won’t draw any general conclusions about “the people” as I think at best this is unhelpful and at worst racist.

To start with communication. Of course there is no reason at all why the people we met should speak English and we in no way expected them to. However, not speaking a common language has never previously stopped me communicating on a basic level with people. Through non-verbal communication I find you can generally get directions, find out how much something is, pay for stuff, etc. Hand signals, pointing and face expressions normally do the job. However, with the people we met, this simply was not the case. On the whole, they seemed completely unable to understand anything non-verbal. If we were in Huxleys ‘Brave New World’ these people, would fall into the ‘semi-moron’ category. A couple of examples of this to highlight my point. After buying a bus ticket, we went to the ticket checking place which was in front of all the buses. Of course the bus destinations were in Chinese and so we didn’t no which bus to board. Once the ticket inspector had checked our tickets, we signalled that we didn’t know which bus to catch. However, the ticket inspector looked at us with a totally blank expression and chatted away in Chinese. This is something else. The people we met seemed not to understand that when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language, that actually means they don’t speak your language. They will simply chat at you. No hand signals or anything else but a mouth moving. Eventually the mouth will stop moving, as if awaiting a reply and when it doesn’t get it, will either start moving again, or the person will simply walk away. Anyway, eventually another ticket inspector came up and we again demonstrated that we didn’t know which us to catch. She clearly understood us – or so we thought – and pointed straight ahead. We pointed to the bus that she was pointing at and she nodded. Brilliant. We boarded this bus and gave our ticket to the driver. “Bushi” (means no) came the reply. So we got off the bus and the ticket inspector who had pointed us to this bus, now pointed in a totally different direction to the bus which was actually ours…
Problems of communicating directions happened a lot. Other typical examples. We went into a hostel lost. Asked for directions and the person behind the counter – who spoke English – pointed in one direction. However, Lucie and I thought she was pointing in different directions. So Lucie pointed left and she said yes that way, and then I pointed right and she said yes that way. In turned out, that whichever way we pointed, she replied, yes that way. In turned out, Lucie was right and it was left. Apart from demonstrating communication difficulties, this also highlights the cultural problem amongst many of not wanting to be negative. In other words, not wanting to disagree or say no – even to the point of absolute ridiculousness.

The most absurd example of lack of non-verbal skills, occurred on a train from Beijing to somewhere else. Upon boarding the train, you get given a piece of card and your ticket gets taken. These pieces of card seem completely useless as they have exactly the same information on them as your ticket, and you get your ticket back at the end of your trip. However, we didn’t realise any of this when we caught our first train, and thought that in fact this piece of card might actually be useful. So we showed our two pieces of card to someone else in our carriage. He of course didn’t speak English. He looked at them and then put them in his pocket. At this point, all the lights went out, which certainly didn’t help the situation. When they came back on, he had given us back one of the two cards. We spend at least the next 45 minutes trying to explain to him that we had given him two cards and he had given us back one card. This isn’t a particularly hard task to communicate non-verbally. However, he seemed completely unable to understand anything we were trying to communicate. This is not, I must add, through being intentionally unhelpful – he phoned several of his friends (“You have missed the train?” “No, we’re on the train”…) and used his phone to translate things, a painstaking task… Eventually we gave up and later found the card on the floor – how it got there we still don’t know.

These examples are not one-offs, but illustrate a pattern which occurred throughout our time in China. What became apparent was this seemed to be an inability to abstract. The only times when this did not occur was when we were with monks. While ultimately I do not know why the people we met showed such a complete inability to understand what we were trying to communicate, while similatanously simply chatting at us, the ability of the monks to communicate provides me with one possible answer. China as we all hopefully know is an incredibly repressive country. Conformity is central, and independent (at least critical and independent) thought is certainly not looked on positively. While I know nothing about the education system, I assume it is similarly oppressive.  Abstracting in a critical way, I would presume, is not taught. On top of this, Chinese language is very specific. Words mean very specific things. This seems to mean you can’t think outside that exact word. However, with the monks this was not the case. Being religious people, they most certainly need an ability to abstract (like all religions, they have to believe in absolute nonsense). Such abstraction is taught from a very early age and the language of the Tibetan Monks (in some of the several Tibetan provinces of China) is different to all Chinese languages.

The other major issue we had was staring and its implicit racism. While I understand that if you see something for the first time, you might stare (not that most Chinese people haven’t seen a white person before – even if its just on TV), this in no way justifies what we (and many other travellers we met) had to go through. People would stop and stare – in fact this was mild. People would come up to us in the street, say hello walk away. In one village, people formed a semi-circle around us while we ate and on another occasion, someone actually took the book that Lucie was writing in out of her hand, flicked through the pages, passed it to his mate and then gave it back to Lucie. Imagine if this happened in the UK. If I was with someone who went up to a Chinese person (or any non-white person) and shouted “Nihao” in their face and then walked off, I would think they were a racist twat. But somehow, these practices seem totally accepted in China.

Beijing…the dark side

Where to begin. I think I should start by apologising to the Polish. While at first the Polish car and road system seems rather shabby, compared to the Chinese (or at least Beijing’s) system it’s a pedestrian’s paradise. Apparently tens of thousands of people die on Chinese roads every year, and when you experience them for yourself, you’ll understand why. Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development is of clear pertinence when considering the Beijing car system: 15 years ago there were still very few cars in Beijing or China at all, with the majority of people getting around by bike. In the last 15 years there has been a massive boom in car production and use, which is in part directly linked to the growing middle-class. However, while Beijing now has more cars than any other city, they do not seem to have the regulations to go with them. Regardless of the colour of the light, cars speed by. All a green man means is that you might have an extra couple of seconds to get out the way before the car mows you down.

Instead of safety and regulations, they honk their horns – constantly. Not in any meaningful or useful way. They just do it almost out of boredom. No seems seems stressed when they do it, and they are certainly not alerting anyone to danger – in fact more danger is probably created by them honking. Some motorbikes seems to have the horn buttons glued down.

On top of the horns, there is also the pollution. You can see it everywhere. Or to be more precise, the pollution means you can’t see at all. The tops of buildings are hidden by the smog and at night, what appears to be a mist floating around the car headlights is actually smog. Then there’s the effect it has on you. Your eyes and lungs hurt and your skin feels horrible.

At least you can descend to the metro, which is amazing. Unfortunately everyone else seems to have also had this idea, as the two levels of busyness it has is ‘busy’ and ‘very busy’. At first we thought their rush-hour must be at a different time, then we went into the metro at what I would consider rush-hour and we realised that this was also their rush-hour… Apart from this, the metro is amazing though. Oh, other than the adverts on the tube. Not only do they have adverts in the tube, but as you are travelling along there are moving adverts outside of the tube – on the inside of tunnel walls as the tube is moving!

Queuing, or lack of it, is also something i had not realised would be like it is. I know that Britain has the label of somewhere where “everyone loves a queue”, but Beijing isn’t a place where no-one queues, instead you just get people all the time who jump in front of you. You will queue for 30mins and as you get to the front, some bastard will try and get to the ticket desk before you. Most people don’t seem to mind about this, which I find even more odd.

Attempting to communicate with people who don’t speak English is also proving more troublesome than anywhere else. Of course there is no reason why people should speak English and if anything I should speak one of the many Chinese languages, but there are other ways to communicate and there is also common-sense – both of which have been missing from most the people that we have attempting to get directions or information from. One such example. We were at the train station, which similarly to Poland is built in an amazingly stupid way, and we couldn’t find the ticket desk. We followed the signs to the ticket desk and when we got there were moved across the hall to another ticket desk. This wasn’t the place either. Our attempted signs as to where it was proved useless. All the women could say was “Bushi” (means No). So we walked down the stairs and were pointed to waiting room 7, which upon arriving there was simply a waiting room – no ticket desk or anything else other than being a room for waiting in. Eventually we found the ticket office outside of the station where we queued for 30 mins (see above). This was made even more exasperating by the people working in the ticket office all simultaneously going for a 10 minute break when there were several very long queues. Great idea! Another good example demonstrates how inclined many people are simply to say “Yes”. We were asking for directions from someone who worked in a hostel and spoke English. After a long chat we I pointed right and she replied “Yes”, Lucie then thinking it was in the other direction pointed left and she said…”Yes”. We repeated this farcical interaction a few times, before we worked it our for ourselves.

Then of course there are the scams. Locals generally don’t seem that inclined to talk to you or be helpful other than when they are trying to scam you or sell you something massively over-priced. The moment we arrived were greeted by a man asking where we were going and whether we needed a lift. We told him where and asked how much. “Y150,” came the reply. “Y150?!!” I replied, “Y25!”. “No, you joke.” Luckily, I already knew that the trip to the hostel should cost no more than Y30. We ended up getting in an official taxi which cost Y21. This twat not only wanted to scam us, but when I gave him a totally normal price he walked away. He wasn’t going to work unless he was scamming you. Funnier is how the hostels con you. Everywhere in the hostel are signs saying ‘Don’t be scammed’ which then explain how people might try and get extortionate amounts of money out of you. What they miss out, is how they will scam you. There signs ought to read ‘Don’t be scammed otherwise you will have less money for us to do it to you’. Their tours constitute the best way they wring the yuan from your pockets…

Right, I think that is the end of that rant. Beijing is not a place that I want to come back to, but there are many nice things as well as all that is rubbish about it – though right now I can’t think of what those things might be…

Polish Transport sucks

There were many lovely things about Poland, including Wroclaw and our couch surfing host in Warsaw. However, my last memory of it is one of a ridiculous, irrational and often inaccessible transport system. So that is what this blog will be about. Feel free to save yourself for our next blog if you don’t fancy a rant about the Polish transport system.

Let’s start where we started: the always-constant battle between cars and pedestrians, which in Poland the cars are seriously winning. As a pedestrian you are not allowed to cross the road unless there is a ‘green person’ allowing you to. In other words, jaywalking is illegal. On its own this is highly annoying, but my temper was further enhanced by the fact that cars are allowed to skip traffic lights so long as there aren’t people crossing. Not even about to cross, but actually crossing. Basically, this translates as ‘cars have absolute rights’, while pedestrians have very few if any. This of course ends up placing the power even more firmly in the hands of drivers, with pedestrians increasingly marginalised and made second class. A driver can’t generally be blamed for running an individual over, because the individual shouldn’t have been crossing the road in the first place. All power to the car!

On top of this, bicycles are allowed to cycle on the pavement, which while not nearly as annoying as the cars, isn’t hugely convient. But given the state of driving in Poland (and also the state of the pothole-riddled, rickety roads themselves), you begin to understand it…

Then there is the trams. Even before you board the tram you encounter the problem that there is nowhere to buy your ticket. The best method I found to work out where the ticket place would be was to think of every rational place to put the ticket booth and then look somewhere else. That normally worked. Once you had your ticket and were waiting for the tram, you then had to run, often across a road, for the tram as the drivers seemed to make a point of not stopping at the station. Finally, if you ever made it onto the tram, you had the bizarre situation of noticing that there was enough space down the middle of the tram to let a wheel barrow with a really fat person in it pass, but there is virtually no seating on either side. There were only single seats down the side and so logically the vast majority of people had to stand.

All of this was topped by utter irrationality of the train stations. Despite all the aesthetic flaws of Soviet architecture, one thing that normally could be said for them was that the buildings were highly functional. Clearly no-one told this to the person who designed the Polish train stations. Instead, the designer scores full marks in highlighting the bureaucracy of the Soviet system. There was no main hall, central departure/arrival board or as there are in virtually every other European country, nor for that matter any signs. Instead there is just a maze of platforms. Buying tickets is no easier. For each different type of journey you have to go to a different ticket office. In other words, each different private company has its own ticket office. Plus, once  you’re finally on the train, I recommend that you bring a good and long read. Our journey from Warsaw to Vilnius is just over 450km, yet took us…wait for it…10 hours. This is an average of 45km/h (about 30mph)!

I think that is my rant over for now.

Given that the up until the 1980s the Nazis and all their terrible implications were written out of German education, it certainly seems Germany has made up for this in the last 30 years.

This blog will basically take the form of a rant based on our experience of the perpetual apology towards, very specifically, the murdered Jews of the Holocaust.

Firstly, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is much better than the Jewish Museum, and not just because it is free. In an intimate and personal way, it humanises the the historical statisitics. That over 6 million people (not just Jews – also homosexuals, political oppenents, Roma, blacks, mentally/socially nonconforming [anyone who challenges the ‘Volk community’], physically impaired, ‘work-shy’ [the Nazi wording for not “working” ie the homeless and unemployed], the list continues…) were killed by the Nazis is a kind of incomprehensible. This exhibition brings faces to this statistic and is at times emtionally quite hard. [One room is usefully dark, so you can read the letters, telegrams and diary entries lit up on the floor without other people realising when you cry… – Lucie] However, one of my only criticisms of this exhibition, it that while it is a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, it barely mentions any other group that were killed. However, compared to the Jewish Museum, this exhibition was perfect.

Of course you might say, “If you go to a Jewish Musuem what do you expect to read and see”. But my response would certainly be “Not the most biased, factually misleading, and Zionism-encouraging exhibition I have ever been to in my life”. If you want to learn about how the Jews are the most oppressed and continually persecuted group in the world ever, as well learning what particular spoons were used for, then this is the exhibition for you. If you also want to learn how all the Jewish people who have done great things in the last 100 or so years did so precisely because they were Jewish, then you should certainly go. Also, if the idea of queueing in a compulsory cloakroom line for 45mins makes your body tingle, get over there (preferably not by flying) right now.

I am by no means attempting to say the people who either saw themselves as Jewish or who were considered Jewish (Marx was apparently a “non-Jewish Jew”) have not been persecuted terribly over the centuries. However, they are by far not the only group to have suffered historically,  nor the only group to suffer in WW2. Where is the exhibition for the political dissidents, both in Nazi Germany and throughout history? Where is the memorial to the persecuted women, blacks, Roma, Sinti, Slavs and so on? Over 200,000 “Gypsies” were murdered by the Nazis, while conservative estimates suggest 5,000 mentally disabled people were murdered. The Museum claims that Jewish people did not have the vote until 1871 in Germany, but when, for instance, did women get the vote in Germany? Answer – 1919. Section 175 made homosexual acts between men illegal until 1994!

The Museum claims that Jewish people did not get equal rights after the Englightenment. Well yes, thats true. But unless you were white, middle-class or higher and male, neither did you. Half of all Jews lived at or below subsistence level, but so did most people. The list of examples of where this Museum draws out the persecution of Jews without considering the broader historical and poltical context is endless. The exhibition suggests that the Holocaust was a logicical conclusion of the anti-Semitism of the previous centuries.  This is in itself a problem, but more significantly, is used to faciliate a pernicious logic.

While not stating this explicitly, what the permanent exhibition in the Jewish Museum does is justify the claim to a Jewish-specific land. In the children’s section of the Museum you can find pictures on the wall stating “Israel is our saviour. We love Israel”. In my worst handwriting, I had to respond by writing “FREE PALESTINE”. And this is exactly the point. The land that this exhibition implicitly suggests Jews should have was, as a Polish Rabbi at the end of the 19th Century noticed when trying to find a land for the Jews, already occupied! Today there are over 1 million Palestinian refugees, all displaced by the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionists.

Pastor Niemöller’s famous quotation ‘First they came for the Jews’  – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came… – is highly relevant in my opinion. We must stand in solidarity with each other, rather than forming aritifical and divisive lines between us. This exhibition perpetuates a mentality which can do little but harm both in understanding the past and changing for the future.

If you are looking for a more balanced version of this period in history (which is also free), check out the Topology of Terror (near Potsdamplatz).