Friday, March 09, 2012

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indonesia Impressions

Here's the view from my apartment. The contrast between Indonesia and Nigeria is stark. The familiar scent of Asia hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. Africa's smells are sharp - the dust which catches in the back of your throat, and the acrid odour of sweaty, crammed humanity. Asia's are softer - I've always thought the entire sub-continent smells like petals floating on day-old dishwater.

Another contrast struck me yesterday and made me laugh out loud. I was in a supermarket and had forgotten to weigh my bananas before going to pay. The checkout chick waved a little blue flag and, within heartbeats, a young chap on rollerblades, with a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt came skidding over. She gabbled something in bahasa and he went whizzing off down the aisles. It was only moments before the girl's own walkie talkie crackled back the relevant code. Can you imagine such a thing in Nigeria?! Rollerblades! Not only the fact that such a level of service would be the stuff of science fiction, but can you picture an enormous Nigerian barreling down the narrow aisles?! "Get out of de waaaaaaayy!". Plus, they would likely have sold the rollerblades, pocketed the cash for the bananas, not rung it through the till, and shrugged their way through the next fruit stock-take.

And again, today, I had an amusing conversation with my driver. He was quizzing me about life in London and asking if we had as many motorbikes on the roads (here, the bikes congregate at traffic lights in great swarms and clog the gaps between cars like vehicular Polyfilla). He mused that we probably didn't have the cheap Korean import bikes which dominate the streets of Jakarta. We probably all ride good quality bikes like...(here he pauses to think of a likely brand)...Harley Davidsons! I was tickled by the idea of fleets of Londoners commuting to work in Canary Wharf astride gleaming, snarling, wide-handled lowriders.

Jakarta has its own version of London Congestion Charge. At certain times of the day, it is illegal to drive into the central downtown area with fewer than 3 people in your car (unless you're in a bus or licenced taxi). The rule is enforced by a cordon of police officers who patrol the boundary giving out on-the-spot fines of R200,000. As a result, a little industry has sprung up. Go a couple of hundred yards outside the boundary and you'll see people standing by the roadside holding their hand up with a single finger extended - the code which identifies their profession. For R10,000, these 'jockeys' (as they are locally known) will sit in your car until you cross the police cordon, then they dismount and walk back outside for the next lonely driver. Very creative!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Delta Dignitaries

The journey from Abuja was exhausting, involving a flight to Port Harcourt, a 5am start for a 3 hour drive and then an hour on a little wooden boat, penetrating deep into the heart of the Niger Delta (AKA: ‘Kidnap Country’). It’s strange because, in most parts of Nigeria, white people are smiled at or regarded with benign curiosity. In the Delta, they are positively glared at – the assumption being that you must work for one of the evil oil companies. So, the sight of a lone ‘oyibo’ in a suit, in a wooden boat with the chickens, must have been a novelty. The chap I was heading to meet, Dr Edmund Daukoru, is one of the fathers of the oil industry in Nigeria. Now retired, I suspect his coronation is a political reward for his years of ‘service’. Although he now claims to represent the interests of the people, this is the same man who was charged in 1993 with embezzling US$41m of public money. On Saturday, he was crowned Mingi XII of Nembe (translation: The twelfth king of the western Niger Delta region), with a solid gold crown and elephant-tusk sceptre, which were made for him by Aspreys of London. He is now treated with the utmost respect and deference. He is not allowed to eat in public (that would undermine his superhuman status), people are not supposed to meet his eye, and no-one can touch him (he has a kind of horse-tail fly-swat with which he touches people and gifts to acknowledge them). Happily, he is a geologist by training and a fan of National Geographic. Which meant that I was his guest of honour for the day. We spent about 3 hours at an elaborate church service, surrounded by large, colourfully-dressed Nigerian women, who would stop fanning themselves occasionally to bellow ‘Hallelujah’. The front rows were taken up by the twenty or so chiefs of the kingdom, all dressed like 70s pimps. Somewhere between Liberachi and Huggy Bear. Floor-length velvet sequined robes, gold jewellery, walking canes and top hats (or bowlers, straw boaters and pith helmets for the more adventurous). After the service, the pimp train paraded through the village back to the palace for a slap-up banquet. The Mingi (King of the Pimps), took his place on an elaborate throne, flanked by guards with golden spears. He invited me to sit next to him, much to the annoyance of the chiefs, who are busily jostling for favour with the new big man in town. Who was this random white guy taking the best seat? But, once the champagne came out, they loosened up and I spent the afternoon getting drunk with the chiefs. At the end of the day, the Mingi instructed one of them to escort me back to Port Harcourt. But for a brief and dramatic run-in with some soldiers on the road, we made it back in one piece. Another day in Nigeria

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Nigeria's late poet-laureate was once asked in an interview for his opinion on the possibility of developing tourism in Nigeria. He replied:
"Only a masochist with an exuberant sense of self-destruction would choose Nigeria as a holiday destination"
. Not exactly an encouraging advertisement, but unfortunately it's true. Try telling 10 people that you're going to Nigeria, and their responses will give you a sense of the Herculean task to repair its battered reputation (a process the government rather injudiciously calls 'image-laundering'). But the changes required run deeper than mere cosmetics. Nigeria faces a raft of endemic problems, which will not be easily unravelled. Against a backdrop of stubbornly institutionalised corruption, some of the toughest questions are these:
  1. How can a government be persuaded to view the population as a resource worth investing in, when it has negligible tax collection capability and a plentiful supply of revenue from natural resources? And, with a growing population and declining reserves, what will be the consequences of failing to make this investment?
  2. Is it possible to legitimately win an election in a corrupt system? And, if it is not, should we forgive the victor if he uses his power to fix the faults which he exploited to win it in the first place (as the current President seems to be doing)?
  3. If the government is a majority shareholder in the operations of foreign investors (multinational oil companies, in this case), who should be responsible for repairing the negative impact of those operations on people and the environment?
Food for thought.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

South Africa Stories

What a week! Never have I had so many firsts and ticked so many life boxes in such a short time. I met up with cousin Emily in Durban and we drove down to pick up brother Steve in East London, before continuing all the way along the stunning Garden Route to Cape Town. Having adventures all the way. Here are just the highlights:
Day 1: Skydiving over Pietermaritzburg. A husband and wife team (she flies the plane, and he throws himself out of it) took me up to 11,000ft where we jumped and freefell for about 40 seconds before I got to open the chute myself and steer it towards the final landing spot.
Day 2: Snorkelling the Sardine Run on the Wild Coast (so called for its rugged landscape, big waves and big sharks). I joined up with a guy who was taking a small group of friends (6 professional divers) out on his boat for a day. We went zooming up and down the coastline, looking for flocks of sea birds diving into the water to mark the shoals of sardines, and the predators who pursue them in a constant feeding frenzy. We were not disappointed. I got into the water 3 times. The first time, 4 of us were snorkelling alongside a manta ray when one shark, then two, then more appeared from the murk. Before we knew it, there were 50 to a hundred copper and black tip sharks around us (8 feet long each). We stayed in a tight group as they circled around us and the two guys with spear guns were having to poke away the sharks who came too close. Equally exhilarating and terrifying! The second time, we got into the middle of a ‘bait ball’, where dozens of dolphins corral a shoal of thousands of sardines into a dense cloud and then take turns to shoot through it grabbing the trapped fish. The water was thick with sardines and Common and Bottlenose dolphins all around, clicking and whistling to each other as birds peppered the surface, diving in at high speed and snatching at the fish. The last time, we were lucky enough to cross in front of a pod of humpback whales (the fourth pod we had seen that morning). A couple of us got into the water and swam gently towards their path. A few moments later, an enormous adult humpback came cruising past, not 8 feet away, turning side-on to look at us, then showing us its belly and diving down into the murky depths. Some people search for their whole lives for sights like these, and we had 3 in one day.
Day 3: Elephant-back Safari. Just the three of us, with one elephant each. No saddle or platform – just sitting astride the neck of an adult African elephant, with a ‘driver’. We even got to feed them by hand. It is amazing how gentle such an enormous animal can be, and by the end I was truly speechless. It was a surreal experience.
Day 4: Canopy Tour and The World’s Highest Bungy Jump at Bloukrans. We spent the morning in the forest canopy, zip-lining down cables strung between treetop platforms. A little further down the coast, a massive road bridge spans a valley in the Storms River region. Swan diving off the 216m drop was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever experienced. But all I could think as my feet left the edge was “what have I just done?!” The acceleration is breathtaking and the freefall seems to last forever until the reassuring pull of the elastic kicks in.
Day 5: Ostrich racing, Crocodile-cage-diving and Cheetah petting. Ostrich farming is big business in the Eastern Cape, and some farms will let you ride the birds. Hanging on for dear life is probably more accurate. Their speed is remarkable and they can throw you off with a sudden stop (as I discovered the hard way). Nearby, a wildlife park allows you to get close to some of the predators. I got into a cage the size of a small phonebox and was lowered into the croc pool. Two reptiles of around 12 feet and 15 feet respectively were my bathing companions and one of them even had a go at biting the cage and pushing its snout through the bars. I got to stroke its tail as it cruised past. After drying off, I was taken into the Cheetah enclosure with two adolescent cats. The friendlier one acted just like a domestic cat, purring as I scratched behind its ears (but a purr strong enough to feel the vibrations in your body) and even licking my leg affectionately. They are majestic creatures and I felt truly privileged to interact with it, (and not be torn to pieces!). I want one.
Day 6: Oysters and wine Knysner runs an annual oyster festival, where we gorged on shellfish, before visiting the Robertson wine region further south to taste their latest offerings. A very indulgent end to a thoroughly adrenaline-fuelled week.
Next weekend: Cage-diving with Great Whites.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Trinidad Carnival

Every time I've been to Trinidad for work, people have implored me: "Come back for Carnival - it's a different country". They weren't kidding. For over a week leading up to the main event, constant parties rage around Port of Spain and people learn the words and moves to the latest Soca tunes, in a kind of informal rehearsal for the big day in public. The main days of Carnival are introduced by J'Ouvert - a party which runs from 3am to daylight, in which everybody gets covered in paint, mud, clay, dye and chocolate. A thorough shower and an hour's sleep later, and the world reawakens to begin the two-day street party of rum'n'coke and garish costumes. Needless to say, I needed a few days to recover.

Carnival Craziness

Monday, October 23, 2006


Forget what you thought you knew about Colombia - drugs, guerillas, murder and kidnapping. It is a wonderful place, and thoroughly underappreciated by the world. The people are both disarmingly warm and strikingly beautiful. The nightlife is phenomenal (we were out until 7am this morning and have been out almost every night). And Bogota is COLD! 2,600m above sea level - high enough that some people suffer from the altitude. We are set up in a nice house, complete with a live-in security guard (who lives in the garage and we have named Igor) and a Sheesha, which is a nice way to relax after work (see pic).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Revolutionary Rumblings

Life is very limited if you are a Cuban. You totter along the poverty line - poor, but not starving. As you navigate the potholed streets of your small country, overbearing posters of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara stare down at you with encouraging slogans such as 'Vamos Bien' ('We are doing well'). But evidence of that is sparse. You have no access to meaningful newspapers, it is illegal for you to enter an internet cafe, and you have to be a doctor, lawyer or public servant to have an e-mail address. It is almost impossible for you to leave the country and Community Watch Programs encourage friends and neighbours to report any anti-government rumblings in your politics. Who knows? Maybe Fidel will finally roll over and the light of liberalism and capitalism will brighten your prospects, as American investors and tourists bring their dollars to bear. Or perhaps the chaos of the transition will attract mafia sharks and faceless and exploitative corporations. Either way, the days of Cuba's unique character are numbered. Get there while you still can. Me and my sister had a ball.

Cuba - Old Man Stroking His Cock

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Vulcanology For Dummies

The twilight view from our hotel room at the foot of an active volcano, which erupts as many as 80 times every day! The rumbling is loud enough to wake you up. And, yes, those are red hot rocks the size of cars rolling down the side of the mountain. I can't help wondering if the average life expectancy of the town's residents might be marginally lower than the average - reflecting the slight - but constant - stress of living in the shadow of such an unpredictable beast.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"Team Costa Rica" settles into the new house

Jamaican me crazy!

I am taking credit for discovering the next Miss Jamaica. Sick of hotels, we moved out of the overpriced Pegasus and found a cute little house in the middle of Kingston. At the housewarming, the reigning Miss Jamaica was one of our guests (as were: a gang of bikers, two pilots and an entire contingent of lawyers). One of the other guests got talking to the current Miss J, and was inspired to enter the competition herself. She is now in the final 10 and looks like a surefire winner. Think she'll let me borrow her crown?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Return to the Caribbean

If it's any consolation, it is now the rainy season in the Caribbean. Still managing to have a lot of fun. Here are some pics from Trinidad (from the beach and a calypso concert we went to). I have also been in Jamaica for a few weeks - pics to follow.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Camel racing technology

You know what a typical racing camel costs? About £700,000. When I met my first racing camel, I pointed out to its owner - a local Sheikh who is also the brother of the Emir (Qatar's King) - that you could buy a collection of Ferraris for that price. He replied: "I've got one of those too". Fair enough. Anyway, camel racing is a Qatari passion but a hobby reserved for the extremely wealthy (there's no money to be made, since gambling is illegal). Tactics are limited - since they all run in a straight line - so owners used to gain advantages by using smaller jockeys. Unfortunately, these tended to be young Philippino boys who would frequently get injured in collisions between these souped-up ruminant mammalian speed machines. So, the government reluctantly banned the use of human jockeys. Enter the 'Robot Jockey' (look closely at the picture above). Sounds impressive, right? Envisioning something out of a Sci-Fi movie? Think again. Despite the reported $1bn invested in technologies to replace the young Philippinos, the accepted alternative is now......a cordless drill. Mounted on the camel's back in a wooden shoe-box. With a plastic whip jammed in the chuck. The owner simply drives madly alongside his camel waving a remote control out of the window. When he wishes to 'motivate' his entrant, he simply presses the remote; activating the drill; which whips the hapless beast into a state of acceleration. To be fair, the owners do at least dress up the boxes in jockey uniforms. With matching hats. I'm sure the camels are delighted.

Qatar offers the visitor a range of transportation options

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Extreme Quad-biking in Qatar

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


On the first Thursday in May, at two minutes and three seconds after one in the morning, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. Naturally, this will never happen again, so set your alarms! And just in case any smart-alecs were thinking about writing back saying: "That's nothing special, last year there was 00:01:02 03/04/05, and next year there'll be 02:03:04 05/06/07", I know! But they are not as neat-looking as this one. Go find another parade to piss on. (With thanks to Kay for alerting me to this cosmic alignment)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lost in the desert

I'm not yet sure what to make of Qatar. Only around 20% of the population is actually Qatari, making it a nation of immigrants - Indian, Pakistani, Somali, Philippino etc - all living under a relatively oppressive system which is not their own. The idea that a country's politcal system, legislature and culture should be so dictated by religion runs completely contrary to my own beliefs and experience. Which makes it difficult to reconcile the contrast between the educated, wealthy, well-travelled and sophisticated people, and the surrounding system of inequality and classism. Women only recently got the vote, but they are still limited in many ways - many banks and restaurants have separate areas for men and women (invariably the womens' section is small, under-staffed and hidden around the back). On the other hand, the people are welcoming and friendly. They have exquisite taste and they walk around in full length, blindingly white robes, looking like Persil adverts. They are also mad about anything that goes fast (cars, bikes, jetskis etc). While on a desert safari last weekend, I saw a couple of them nearly killing themselves, jumping (!) their 4X4 Toyota Land Cruisers off three-storey high sand dunes. I guess the absence of drugs, alcohol and girls means they have to find fun elsewhere!

Crazier 'n a Qatari!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

More kids

Monday, January 30, 2006

Fowl play

Lead story, Front page of Ghana's most reputable daily newspaper, The Daily Graphic. Let me just repeat that: LEAD story, FRONT page: The centre of Accra, Ghana's bustling and metropolitan capital city, was brought to a standstill yesterday as hundreds of people flocked to the central marketplace. Spilling out into the streets, they stopped traffic and overwhelmed police efforts at crowd control. Gridlock. The reason for this impromptu congregation? Apparently a rumour had spread that a local 'Kayayoo' (kids who carry people's groceries and luggage in return for tips) had been turned into a chicken. ! . The paper's scientific expert revealed that this had happened by 'some kind of magic'. You couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Nothing's Ghana stop us now

You know when you walk out of a bank carrying a supermarket shopping bag stuffed to bursting with paper money? No? Well, come to Ghana and take out one week's expenses and that's exactly what you'll get - easily enough volume of cash to fill a couple of briefcases. In fact, had the bags not been a flimsy plastic affair, I would have had it handcuffed to my wrist. Sadly, the highest denomination note here is worth about £1.25 (20,000 Cedis). Work has taken over again - 8am to 11pm is about standard - but we're looking forward to a relaxing weekend. P.S. In the street a couple of days ago, I encountered a troupe of kids who were putting on a gymnastic display by the side of the road, and collecting donations. They were remarkable. Here's a photo. Drop me an e-mail if you get a chance, or leave a 'Comment' for posterity. 'Mehung echri' ('see you later') x

Friday, December 02, 2005

Indian winter

My spies tell me that the UK is about to experience the coldest winter on record EVER! Tell me it's not true. What happened to global warming? Where are all the fumes from those American cars going? Coming back is going to be a shock - the ground crew at Heathrow had better be ready with space blankets and industrial heaters to thaw me out. Anyway, I have recently taken a brief holiday from the Maldives project, and spent 3 weeks in India. I saw the Taj (breathtaking), got chased by monkeys (forgot my rabies shots), played chess with Sadhu holy men (got thrashed) and fell for a raven-haired, golden-eyed Israeli (alas, parting is such sweet sorrow). Pics of all these below. Now back in Maldives for a week or so, then back to London (I hope) for mid-December. Really looking forward to seeing everybody. Tell me your news and your plans. Until then, ta-ta x

Gone local

Monkey business and Holy chess

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Serious business

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The team unwind after a hard day's tanning

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Late night basketball with Alexandra and some locals