Category Archives: Pictures

Thoughts About the Politics of Zimbabwe Over Pictures of Its Scenery

IMG_1332

I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

IMG_2045

I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

IMG_1557

Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

IMG_1535

But so is visiting its capital.

IMG_1496

I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

IMG_1481

Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

IMG_1473

Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

IMG_1470

The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

IMG_1939

In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

IMG_1447

Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

IMG_1426

The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

IMG_1412

There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

IMG_1409

I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

IMG_1403

He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

IMG_1392

You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

IMG_1378

And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

IMG_1377

I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

IMG_1345

‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

IMG_1352

‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

IMG_1351

‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

IMG_1357

‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

8 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel

Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

IMG_4044
Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
IMG_1612
This is Armenia.
IMG_1650
This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
IMG_1656
I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
IMG_1658
Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
IMG_1675
Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
IMG_1681
Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
IMG_1684
Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
IMG_1699
After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
IMG_1702
To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
IMG_1707
To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
IMG_1719
So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
IMG_1722
But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
IMG_1723
You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
IMG_1737
The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
IMG_4079
A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
IMG_1756
On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
IMG_1779
Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
IMG_1799
Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
IMG_1816
The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
IMG_1830
The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
IMG_1849
factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
IMG_1850
Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
IMG_4090
I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
IMG_4111
The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
IMG_4114
This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
IMG_4126
Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
IMG_1617
It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
IMG_4048
Not until I can see myself in it.

9 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Flematic

IMG_4553
I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
IMG_4560
There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
IMG_4562
I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
IMG_4570
Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
IMG_4593
Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
IMG_4604
I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
IMG_4606
Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
IMG_4608
But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
IMG_4616
It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
IMG_4627
Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
IMG_4631
Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
IMG_4634
I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
IMG_4639
‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
IMG_4641
‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.

4 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Doing Development in Dhaka

IMG_4417
There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
IMG_4406
Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
IMG_4396
I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
IMG_4395
Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
IMG_4387
I always go jogging when I travel for work.
IMG_4382
Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
IMG_4331
There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
IMG_4327
Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
IMG_4312
No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
IMG_4194
Like, we all know how the post office works.
IMG_4171
And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
IMG_4163
But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
IMG_4160
What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
IMG_4145
Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
IMG_4136
Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
IMG_4131
The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
IMG_4125
I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
IMG_4098
Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
IMG_4094
I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
IMG_4082
This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
IMG_4351
Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
IMG_4349
Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
IMG_4325
I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
IMG_4191
One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
IMG_4101
Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
IMG_4100
That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
 IMG_4099
And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
IMG_4153
Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
IMG_4418
Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
IMG_4392
Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
IMG_4370
And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
IMG_4478
Brand new tomorrow.

4 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

Things I’ll Never Understand

IMG_3337
One of the reasons I think I’m not ready to have kids is that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions about life basics.
IMG_3902
Why is the sky blue, where do mountains come from, etc.
IMG_3412
I don’t know why I know so little about this stuff. I went to high school, college, grad school (twice!). I have read books, sometimes even for fun.
IMG_3270
But when confronted with nature, the real kind, still and un-narrated, I can’t explain any of the whys or hows.
IMG_3531
I spent Christmas this year in Madeira.
IMG_3502
It’s island off the coast of Morocco that, for random historical reasons, is an autonomous region of Portugal, like a little European Hawaii.
IMG_3452
I knew very little about it before I visited. But now, because I have been there, I am interested in it.
IMG_3430
It was discovered in the early 1400s, uninhabited, a spike of volcano that wriggled up out of the Atlantic, then spend the next 5 million years getting ground back down to sea level.
IMG_3981
This process is apparently ongoing. Most of what’s sticking out of the water is hills. The old joke among the locals is ‘The only flat surfaces on Madeira are vertical.’
IMG_3306
The climate is perfect for growing sugarcane, so the early years were spent terracing the hills, creating stairstep cropland, cultivating it one stripe at a time. All the agriculture is still done by hand. 
IMG_3970
Sugar crashed when Europe discovered Brazil, the Caribbean, slavery. Madeira converted its little sugar plots into little vineyards. 
IMG_3962
That worked til the 1890s, when a disease wiped out all the grapes (think Irish potato famine, but this time the victims were warm-weather alcoholics). 
IMG_3859
The economy crashed, most of the island emigrated.
IMG_3349
Nowadays they still grow crops—those are banana trees down there—but mostly they cultivate tourists, people like me who fly all the way here for the weather and the pictures and the differences.
IMG_3825
This narrative, the path Madeira took  here, it makes sense to me, it’s full of people and businesses and a big economy that goes boom one century and pfffft the next. 
IMG_3819
That’s the story of everywhere, basically.
IMG_3801
But then I bike to the top of a mountain on this very same boom-and-pffft island and I am holding my boyfriend’s hand and we are looking together at a bunch of lava rocks sticking out through a beach and I realize that I have no idea why some rocks get ground into sand and others don’t.
IMG_3796
And then I’m thinking that if I was at the top of this same mountain, holding my son’s hand instead of my boyfriend’s, this is the shit he would ask me about, the rocks and the sun and why is the water that shade of blue and how many stars are there in the sky and I have no idea how to answer.
IMG_3665
Or maybe he won’t ask me, maybe we’re not the kind of society where we do that anymore. Maybe he’ll stand on that mountain and look at that beach and use his free hand to whip out his little tablet or whatever and he’ll read the Wikipedia entry about lava and we’ll stand there and neither of us will say anything.
IMG_3615
And maybe that’s better for both of us. I can’t explain how anything works when it’s really small or really big or made of rocks, when it can’t tell me how it works itself.
IMG_3780
But hey, if he ever wants to know how the island’s GDP is calculated, I’m right next to him.

12 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Travel

Zimbabwe: Where US Dollars Go To Die

 

IMG_1867

I am not curious or intelligent enough to know why this is the case, but the dollar bills in Zimbabwe are fucking filthy.

IMG_1873

The official currency here is the US dollar, the Zimbabwe dollar doesn’t even exist anymore. The stores don’t carry change, they just round up to the next dollar with lollipops, chocolate bars or mobile phone credit.

IMG_1870

Some of the bills you get are barely readable, and they all have that leathery, grandpa texture of something that’s been wrinkled and stroked a thousand times too many. I went to the cash machine yesterday and got a wad of twenties that ran the whole filthiness rainbow.

IMG_1869

Also, there are $2 bills everywhere here. I thought those were a myth.

IMG_1868

Next time anyone talks about ‘dirty money’, this is the first thing I’m going to think of.

2 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Travel

Wall, Street: Walking in African Cities

IMG_1796

For me, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ used to conjure up images of thatched huts and dust roads, but in the last few years most of the time I’ve spent here has been in cities.

IMG_1797

This, for example, is Harare, Zimbabwe. From above it is basically Tulsa.

IMG_1822

Condos, fast food, bad traffic, cute cafes, fratty sports bars.

IMG_1799

See? Just a government building. Other than the dudes out front selling fish, this could be anywhere

IMG_1814

When you get to the suburbs, though, is when you’re like ‘oh huh this is a hella different country’.

IMG_1805

Everything is designed for cars, that’s nothing new, but it’s also designed for protection. All the streets look like this: Wall, street, wall. The only variety is whether they are tipped with barbed wire, electric wires or broken glass.

IMG_1187

I know we all hate on LA for being pedestrian-unfriendly, but compared to here, it’s Venice.

IMG_1816

Without a car, walking through Harare is like reading a book of blank pages.

IMG_1819

Whatever might be happening here, it’s doing so behind walls. Restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, apartment buildings, as boring as they look looking in, it’s no better looking out.

IMG_1832

I never thought of window shopping and personal safety as mutually exclusive, but here, it’s one or the other.

2 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Travel

So far Zimbabwean billboards

IMG_1793

are even better than Zambian ones

Leave a comment

Filed under Pictures, Travel

Your Lion Eyes

IMG_1318

Today I went on a safari!

IMG_1244

Which, as it turns out, is basically Jurassic Park, but the animals are younger and it doesn’t all go horribly wrong.

IMG_1255

The look on its face is ‘argh I can’t eat you’. This is the same face I have when I walk past bakeries.

IMG_1268

It looks disappointed to be the only animal in this park that can’t kill you.

IMG_9929

They purr when you pet them! For an extra 100 bucks, you can cuddle with them for an hour. This is 50 percent more than I usually pay for simulated intimacy, so I passed.

IMG_1292

I did not know this, but our guide told us ostriches are extinct in the wild, they can only be found in captivity. And, if Berlin is any indication, the frozen aisle.

IMG_1297

These looked majestic and powerful until our guide told us the car behind us had paid extra to hunt them.

IMG_1303

They seem to not like engine noise, so about 80 percent of my photos are of antelope butts.

IMG_1315

‘Are you done shooting?’ the guide asked. ‘The other car is about to start shooting.’ I hope it cost more than the cuddles.

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

I’m Not Here: The Billboards of Zambia

I’m in Kitwe, Zambia, this week, and one of the constant sources of bafflement and entertainment is the billboards. They’re everywhere, but mostly vacant, and mostly advertising themselves.
IMG_1724

‘Advertise here’ billboards are nothing new, of course, but what amazes me about these is that each one is different.

IMG_1721

On the way from Kitwe to the Ndola airport, an hour’s drive, you see about 65 of them, and they never repeat. Each one has a different message, a different photo, a different font, even though they’re all advertising the exact same thing.

IMG_1712

I keep trying to think of an economic explanation for this, a reason why they wouldn’t be at least partially standardized. It seems like a lot of extra work to design and print 65 billboards one time each, at least as compared to one billboard 65 times.

IMG_1705

But the world is full of mysteries! Maybe they want to show off their range, maybe they want to try to catch your eye in as many ways possible, maybe they have a bored PR intern. Or maybe they just want to increase the world’s supply of stock photos of adorable children. As corporate responsibility goes, they could do worse.

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Why Do All My Pictures of Northern Europe Suck?

IMG_1083

In the eight years I’ve lived in Northern Europe, I don’t think I’ve taken one good picture of it.

IMG_1005

The problem, I’ve concluded, is the flatness.

IMG_0986

Not just the low altitude. Even at its postcardiest, the land here seems to merge with the water, then with the sky.

IMG_1052

Last year I read this Stephen Jay Gould essay where he talked about how the human mind is designed to notice variance over constants.

IMG_0998

Like how the roar of a waterfall is ignorable, but a drippy faucet, a fly trapped in an empty room, is unbearable.

IMG_0981

It’s easy to come up with examples of this in hearing, but harder with seeing.

IMG_0983

Lately I’ve been trying to explore my surroundings more. Get out of Berlin, bike quaintward, see how northern Germany looks after the freeways thin out.

IMG_1010

I wish I could say I’d discovered some hidden gem, a town, a forest, rich in history, poor in gift shops.

IMG_1017

But I really really haven’t. Everywhere you go, it’s water, land, sky, different amounts but always the same mixture.

IMG_0980

Back home, the scenery makes you feel tiny. You’re a speck on a mountain, a dot in a lake.

IMG_0978

Here, it makes you feel tall, like you’re the only punctuation in a long sentence.

IMG_0977

Maybe that’s why all my pictures all look the same. I’m used to looking for the drip, when everyone around me is listening to the roar.

4 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Travel

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

IMG_1539

One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

IMG_1551

But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

IMG_1513

Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

IMG_1517

What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

IMG_1535

It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

IMG_1545

I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

IMG_1540

I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

IMG_1548

It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

IMG_1541

First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

IMG_1516

Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

IMG_1549

Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

IMG_1537

These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

IMG_1544

Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

IMG_1533

If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

IMG_1553

The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

IMG_1525

Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

IMG_1554

But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

3 Comments

Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job

IMG_1496

Last week I was in Lisbon for work.

IMG_0812

Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.

IMG_0818

This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.

IMG_0831

They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.

IMG_0819

I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.

IMG_0836

Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.

IMG_0841

The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.

IMG_0851

Even the locals look impressed.

IMG_0861

For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.

IMG_0856

Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

IMG_0874

At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.

IMG_0875

Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.

IMG_0878

The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.

IMG_1527

Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.

IMG_0895

I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.

IMG_0901

Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.

IMG_0943

‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 

IMG_0941

My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.

IMG_0903

and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’

IMG_0919

I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.

IMG_0953

When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’

IMG_0962

I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.

IMG_0967

I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.

4 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel, Work

Romania Wasn’t Built In a Day Either

IMG_1210

Last week I was in Bucharest, Romania.

IMG_0786

It sounds all exotic. Dracula! Dictatorship! Problematic EU accession! But really, it’s just a normal city. Restaurants, traffic, outlet stores, teenagers in trackpants drinking cider at bus stops.

IMG_0787

I basically sat in cafes all week, watching it go by out the window.

IMG_1246

The only actual like Thing I did was visit the Parliamentary Palace.

IMG_0685

Which is apparently the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It’s basically the size of Rhode Island, and just as superfluous.

IMG_0696

Ceausescu started building it in 1983. The idea was to have the whole Romanian Communist Party working in one place. He also built big residences next door so everyone could live in one place too. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you have never had a job.

IMG_0717

Ceausescu was overthrown (and executed on national TV!) on Christmas Day 1989. The building wasn’t finished yet, so the new government had to decide what to do with it.

IMG_0727

Most of it is grand corridors and rock-hard ballrooms. Great for a wedding or corporate conference, but not so great for the 98 percent of your life that is not those things.

IMG_0761

By the time the new, democratic government took over, the country had already fed billions of euros, millions of man-hours, to this beast. Our tour guide told us these are the world’s heaviest curtains. And we told him that is the world’s least interesting fact.

IMG_0767

The new government couldn’t just walk away from something 80 percent finished. So they basically said ‘haters to the left’ and kept building.

IMG_0776

Now only about 70 percent of it is used, and it costs millions of euros every year to maintain. They’re constantly criticized for the cost, the waste, the sheer pointlessness of it all.

IMG_1253

The rest of my time in Bucharest I spent repeatedly realizing how happy I am not to be a politician.

IMG_1216

You work your whole life to get into the halls of power, then when you finally do, you find they’re full of unruly foster kids.

IMG_1222

Messes you didn’t make, but have to clean up.

IMG_1224

Suddenly a cafe window seemed like a pretty good place to be.

5 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Random Thoughts From a Week in New York City

IMG_0557

You thought visiting New York City would make you feel cool, but actually it makes you feel poor and un-busy.

IMG_0539

You thought it would be sooooo different from the rest of America.

IMG_0542

But really it’s the same, just better.

IMG_0548

People talk like movies.

IMG_0598

And the street names and landmarks are recognizable from your favorite CBS crime dramas.

IMG_0922

Jogging through Central Park is a cliche, like everything else you do here.

IMG_0610

Going to museums and making ‘hmmm’ sounds

IMG_0643

does not diminish the fact that you went to MoMA primarily to scout for Facebook cover photos.

IMG_0847

And that Prospect Park was a 585-acre struggle not to shout ‘why are you so fucking twee?!’ at the dogs and their walkers.

IMG_0595

And that, fuck the locals, tall buildings are amazing and you’re going to stop every few steps to capture them.

IMG_0591

You’re acutely aware that everything you can say or do or think in this place is already said, done, thunked.

IMG_0580

So instead of trying anything new, you might as well spend it like a week at home.

IMG_0897

See friends, eat meals,

IMG_0884

take long bike rides as dangerous as they are destinationless, 

IMG_0880

take pictures of pedestrian shit like snowblowers, mouth open like some kind of Appalachian.

IMG_0873

You don’t see everything,

IMG_0860

Or maybe  even anything.

IMG_0573

But you realize as you leave, you were busy after all. And maybe even rich.

5 Comments

Filed under America, Personal, Pictures, Travel

Six Days in Mauritius

Day 1

IMG_0704

I arrive in Mauritius at noon, still drowsy from the 12-hour flight and the two diazepams I took to help me sleep through it.

Just outside the arrivals, about a dozen Taxi drivers are gathered holding placards with European-sounding names on them. Mr. Schmidt,  Dr. van Veen, Mrs. Cielé. Behind them are about three dozen more, no placards, just shouting ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ I walk through the scrum, looking determined so they won’t come after me, then realize I do need a taxi and turn around.

I have a feeling, based on no evidence, that the older the taxi driver, the less likely he is to scam me. I find one who looks in his 50s and tell him ‘yes, taxi’. He tells me its 40 euros, I say 30, and so on until we agree on 36.

Now that that’s done, he can be my friend. As he drives, he asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here. That takes about 15 minutes, then we’re both silent for the rest of the 2-hour drive.

I look out the window at the sugarcane fields going by. The mountains on the horizon look like a seismograph.

IMG_0507

Mauritius is a tiny dot of an island in the Indian Ocean, 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar. It was discovered uninhabited in the early 1500s, then settled by the Dutch in 1638. They discovered huge crops of ebony on the island, and started importing African slaves to harvest them.

They could never make the island economically viable, and abandoned it in 1710. The French, like a new manager taking over an existing business, took their turn in 1715. They switched from ebony to sugarcane, imported more slaves, and made the economy profitable.

Eventually the British came, defeated the French (think of it as a hostile takeover) and imported their own labourers, mostly from India. Mauritius declared independence in 1968, and now Africans, Indians and whites live in (relative) harmony.

Most people on Mauritius still speak Creole. Creole traditionally had no written language, so it’s basically a phonetic version of French. my taxi driver tells me, by way of example, that in Creole ‘moi’ is spelled ‘mwa’. I love this.

IMG_0513

We arrive in Grand Bay, where I’m staying. It’s at the northwest shoulder of Mauritius, a beach-rimmed inlet the size of a few football fields. The water is full of boats and swimmers, the land around it full of tourists and the shops, restaurants and guides catering to them.

My hotel is three stories of peach stucco, right on the beach. It’s cheap and simple, and has wifi and airconditioning, the only two things I actually care about on vacation. I drop off my luggage and walk up and down the beach until it gets dark, then eat octopus curry at a beachside café, fork in my left hand, scrolling through an Instapaper article with my right.

After dinner, it’s been dark for two hours but it’s still 30 degrees C.  I go back to my room and sit on my balcony, reading and Instapapering until 10.00, when I can’t stay awake anymore.

Day 2

IMG_0427

I wake up to my alarm at 6.30am, take a shower and go down to breakfast. My waiter is a male-to-female transsexual who wears lots of makeup and wants to know where I’m from and what I think of Mauritius so far.

‘It’s beautiful,’ I say. I always say this to locals, no matter what country I’m in, and I usually mean it. She brings me an omelette, bacon and beans, and is utterly baffled when I tell her I don’t want bread.

‘I’m allergic,’ I say.

‘You don’t like bread?’ she says. English is the official language of Mauritius, it’s on all the signs, but it’s not widely spoken.

‘Allergic. I cannot eat.’

‘OK,’ she says. She takes the bread away but leaves me the plate of butter and jam. I put some on my omelette.

First things first: Bicycle. The tour company next to my hotel rents them, serious-looking Treks with Shimano derailers and front shocks. I say I want one for the whole six days I’m here, and the guy behind the counter, who can’t be any more than 16, brings a bike around from the back.

‘Last one,’ he says.
‘Anything else?’ I say.
‘We give you lock.’

He makes a phone call, and two minutes later another teenager arrives on a scooter. He takes the money the first teenager gives him and drives away.

‘Five minutes,’ he says.

Thirty minutes later, the guy on the scooter returns with a lock. He’s just bought it from the hypermarket up the street, it still has the packaging on it. He gives it to me and I take the cardboard off.

‘You good to go,’ he says.

IMG_0420

The pedals rattle and only three of the gears work, but the brakes are fine. It makes creaking noises as I set off through Grand Bay. Pedestrians hear me coming and step aside.

The capital of Mauritius is Port Louis, about 25 km south. I decide to bike there the long way, along the coast, and it takes me all morning. I end up stopping every few hundred meters to take pictures. They all look the same: Emerald water, sharp rocks, a cloud of coral under the water about 50 meters out.

IMG_0447

I pass through a few small towns on the way They consist primarily of fruit stands, pharmacies and warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts. I notice that most of the people I bike past are wearing these polos.

I arrive in Port Louis around 1 pm. It’s a small city, just 135,000 people, but it has the traffic and bustle of a city ten times that size. The streets are narrow with street vendors selling clothes, shoes, household items like shampoo and hardware. None of the prices are marked, and I can see customers, their hands full, haggling with the shopkeepers in creole.

I turn around and park my bike on the fringes of the crowd, and walk through the markets. It’s heaving with buyers and sellers, a cacophony of offers and refusals, and it takes me an hour to walk a kilometer.

The freeway goes through the middle of Port Louis, and to get to the waterfront I have to walk through a tunnel underneath it. I leave the din of the market, go underground, and emerge into the tourist area. Seafood restaurants, a multiplex, a few Starbuckses and, I guess inevitably, warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts.

I walk around for a few minutes, sort of missing the crowds back at the market. I sit at an outdoor café and eat an octopus salad and read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ which describes a Norway, a winter, that are the opposite of where I’m sitting.

I feel like I should do more in Port Louis, see a museum or something, but it’s beautiful and warm outside, and I don’t want to miss it. I walk back to my bike, buying some cute polo shirts on the way, and point myself northwards. I bike for a bit and realize that this isn’t the road I took into Port Louis. I can tell from the sun that I’m going north(ish), though, so I figure I’ll end up where I need to be eventually.

IMG_0436

I’m on a two-lane road, barely wide enough for cars to pass each other, and it’s choked with traffic. Passenger cars, delivery trucks, buses, I’m obviously on the main spine of the island. I weave in and out of traffic—now on the shoulder, now in the oncoming lane, now dinging pedestrians out of my way—and feel bad for enjoying it so much.

After about an hour, I’m ready to find out where I am. I stop to ask a shopkeeper, dripping sweat on his countertop.

‘I’m trying to get to Grand Bay,’ I say.

‘That easy,’ he says. He’s wearing a polo shirt identical to the one I just bought. ‘Just take the freeway, you go straight there.’

‘The freeway?’ I say. ‘Is that safe?’

‘Safe all safe. You get fast. Direct.’

He shows me on the map and, sure enough, the freeway is the directest route back. I’ve got about two hours of sunlight left. Fuck it.

The freeway turns out to be less harrowing than I expected. It’s two lanes wide in each direction, with a generous shoulder. The cars are traveling 110 km per hour, or at least that’s the speed limit. My bike, which I’ve named Rickets, tops out at a groaning 20 km per hour. Even with the wide shoulder I can feel a punch of air every time a car passes. They don’t honk, don’t pass uncomfortably close and I never feel unsafe.

About five minutes after I get on the freeway, it starts raining. First a caress, then an assault. I look out to the sky and its thick, dark clouds all the way to the horizon. This isn’t going to let up. Meanwhile, the sun is starting to go down.

There’s no cover on the roadway, and after 10 minutes I’m as soaked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool. The water is grey on my arms where it mixes with my sunscreen, and I have a sour, hollow taste as it washes down my face and into my mouth.

Once you’re that wet, you can’t get any wetter, and a kind of calm comes over me. Ah well, it’s just water. My camera is wrapped in waterproof case, in a waterproof backpack. It, and I, will survive.

When I get back to my hotel an hour later, my shoes slosh as I walk up the stairs. I shower (To get the water off? I don’t really know why.), then sit on my balcony wearing nothing but a towel for the rest of the night, working on a freelance editing assignment and listening to the rain drop through the palm trees.

Day 3

IMG_0423

It’s Christmas day, and I wake up early to Skype with my parents and brother. My parents live in New Zealand and my brother and his wife are visiting for the first time. My dad paints watercolors, my mom writes books and my brother makes techno albums. We talk for an hour about inspiration, how we hate slash love social media, how to improve the quality of our work. I tell them I’m reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ and am considering writing a similarly uneventful travelogue, just to see I can make it interesting.

‘That sounds like a terrible idea,’ my brother says.

I’m outside at the breakfast café at my hotel, shouting over the trucks rattling past. When the call’s done it’s only 9 am, but it’s already sweltering.

I check a few gyms, but it seems none of them are open. I’m on my third try when I realize that it’s Christmas, of course they’re closed. I get an espresso at a café and ask the waiter if he knows somewhere I can go for a long swim. He suggests Cannonniere, a thin finger of land pointing northwest from the island, about 20 minutes’ bike ride away.

Yesterday I read online that all the beaches in Mauritius are, by law, open to the public. Cannnoniere has a public park with a beach, right next to a five-star hotel. I park my bike next to the road and walk along the beach onto the hotel grounds. A security guard stops me and I tell him, ‘I’m not staying here, but I’d like to use the beach. Is that alright?’ and he says ‘Of course sir.’

IMG_0475

I drop my backpack and change into my swimming suit under a towel wrapped around my waist. I ask the security guard how far out I can swim.

‘You see bobby?’ he says. I guess he means the buoy, bright red, about 500 meters offshore.
‘Sure,’ I say.
‘That is limit.’
‘So I should swim out to the buoy…’
‘Not swim to buoy,’ he says. ‘Bouy is limit. ‘Farther, is currents. Boats with vroom.’ He makes an engine noise.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I put on my goggles and wade into the water.

For the first 200 meters, it’s only 18 inches deep. I swim breast stroke, and occasionally push myself along the bottom, using my arms like a Venetian gondola. Then, suddenly, it’s three meters deep. I switch to crawl stroke. I can see some coral along the bottom. It looks worn out, droopy, like it’s been left in the microwave too long.

Finally I make it to the buoy. It’s bigger than it seemed from the shore. And, indeed, the swells are getting bigger out here. I touch the buoy, just to make it official, and swim back to shore, crawl stroke until my fingers touch the bottom.

Now I’m all energized from the swim, so I do handstands in the grass for five or ten minutes, getting used to the slope. There’s a cute tourist on a beachbed nearby. I think about saying hi, but we’re both only wearing speedos, and I’m afraid it will be irredeemably awkward.

I thank the security guard, get my backpack and bike back to my hotel in my speedo. I write the rest of my family Merry Christmas e-mails, eat grocery-story yogurt for dinner and I’m in bed by 11 pm.

Day 4

IMG_0522

The next morning, after breakfast I meet my nextdoor neighbour on the balcony. I never get his name. He’s German, in his late 30s, here on holiday for three weeks to escape the German winter, just like me. He has plans every single day: Scuba diving, rum distillery tour, catamaran trip. He can’t decide if skydiving is really worth 200 euros. I tell him I don’t know anyone who has gone and regretted it.

We chat for awhile, then I go back to my laptop. He sits on his balcony, hands folded in his lap. No book, no newspaper, not even a cup of coffee to occupy his hands. I marvel at this, stimulus-free sitting. After an hour, he gets up, says goodbye and heads out for his catamaran tour.

Yesterday I biked around the island counterclockwise. Today, it’s clockwise. I put on as much sunscreen as my skin can soak up and set off.

After an hour, I’m in Grand Gaube, on the northeast corner of Mauritius. I order eggplant and fish curry to go from a roadside restaurant, and bike, the meal dangling in a plastic bag from my handlebars, to the beach. I sit crosslegged on the grass, stabbing the food out of Styrofoam containers.

IMG_0501

A man walks up to me and says something in Creole. He looks like he’s asking for money. I tell him I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. He sits on a bench near me and every once in awhile says something in Creole, whether to me or just out loud, I don’t know. I ignore him, finish eating and say ‘au revoir’ as I leave. I wonder how they spell that in Creole.

I keep biking along the coast, going south now. It’s the hottest part of the day, and sweat drips off my nose. The route is repetitive after awhile: Park, shops, beach, park, shops.

The only thing that changes is the ethnic makeup of the towns I pass through. Some appear to be mainly Indian, the signs in English and Hindi. Others seem to be primarily populated by Africans, signs in French and shops advertising ‘poulet frais’. I’ve been told there’s a significant Chinese minority on the island. I never see any majority-Chinese towns, but every town I pass through has exactly one Chinese restaurant, right on the main street.

IMG_0472

After about 30 kilometers along the coast, I turn inland to complete my loop. I rise through endless fields of sugarcane, then descend toward Grand Bay. There are fewer towns now, but every half an hour or so I pass by a complex of newly built apartments. They have names like Sweet Paradise, and each one gets its own exit from the highway.

I arrive in Grand Bay just as it’s getting dark. I order a plate of shrimp up to my room and eat it on the balcony. The German guy tells me about his catamaran tour, still lubricated from his stop at the run distillery.

Day 5

IMG_0746

I finally find a gym nearby. It’s at a five-star hotel called Hotel Mauricia, right on the beach. They charge me 15 euros just to use the gym, so I decide to stay there all day to get the most for my money.

Most of the guests appear to be European families. Mom and Dad look tanned and patrician, and their sons and daughters look like they came straight from lacrosse camp. The French-speaking ones have the best hair, the Dutch speakers the nicest bodies.

I stay there swimming and reading almost until dark. My ear is still plugged with water from swimming on Christmas. I bash it with the heel of my hand to get the water out every few minutes, but it stays plugged. Shaking my head like a dog doesn’t work either.

IMG_0406

When I get back to my hotel, inexplicably exhausted after a day of barely existing, I meet my other neighbour. He’s in his 80s, from South Africa, and has been coming to Mauritius every year since 1984. I ask him why he travels from one warm country to another one every summer.

‘Well, as you know, South Africa has problems,’ he says. I brace myself. ‘We had a white government before—Apartheid—and it wasn’t perfect, but things worked pretty well. Now we’ve got a black one. They’re still learning the ropes, you see.’

I want to just get up without saying anything, just go inside and close my door, a kind of personal boycott of the statement he’s just made. But it’s warm, with a nice breeze out here, and I’m planning on having some more Skype calls. I don’t want to go inside for the rest of the night.

Instead, I resolve to simply ignore him. I go back to my laptop and resume typing and scrolling like he isn’t there.

He keeps talking. Maybe my symbolic gesture was too subtle. In the next 10 minutes he tells me how much he loves Mauritius, how all the races living together should be an inspiration to the world. He says racism among white Mauritians is a real problem, then adds that it’s the Muslim population’s fault for being incapable of living non-violently.

He keeps talking like this, defaming a demographic group, then lamenting the racism against them. It’s like he’s trying to set some sort of discrimination speed record. I’m completely ignoring him now, typing an e-mail to my aunt and uncle and hoping for him to stop talking. It takes him seven more minutes—I’m watching the clock in the corner of my screen, aghast—before he says ‘well, it looks like you’re busy. Good night.’ I don’t say anything in return.

Day 6

IMG_0397

Today’s my last day here, I’m flying out at 10pm. Yesterday the woman at the front desk, in French-accented English so lovely I want her to read books to me before I fall asleep every night, said I could stay in the room as long as I want today, since no one has booked it after me.

My ear is still plugged. I google around during breakfast, and it seems I have swimmer’s ear, meaning there’s a bit of water trapped behind my eardrum that’s attracted bacteria and now my ear canal is slightly inflamed. I remember getting this when I was a kid. Your ear is plugged, like it’s about to pop, then clears with a satisfying whoosh a few days later.

I don’t want to do anything ambitious today because I have to leave for the airport at 7pm, and I’m paranoid that a flat tire or a bus breakdown in some faroff city will cost me my flight home. I go for a jog, read by the pool at the fancy hotel, then bike to the brand-new mall on the outskirts of town and wander around the shops, enjoying the airconditioning. All day I’m popping and unpopping my ears, waiting for the whoosh.

I go back to my hotel around 4.30 to shower and pack. I’m hoping the pressure change on the flight will clear out my ear a bit. I Google “swimmer’s ear airplane”. The first link is a message board full of people describing the pressure change as absolute torture: ‘It was the worst travel experience of my life’ … ‘I wanted to literally shoot myself on decent’ … ‘I had permanent ear damage to my right ear’ …

I’m slightly nervous now. But it’s just random people on a message board. The second link is from eHow, and says ‘refrain from flying on an airplane until you have cleared up the infection, because flying makes swimmer’s ear pain much worse’.

That’s a little more credible. I check WebMD and find the same thing: Flying with swimmer’s ear can cause the water in the ear canal to swell, pushing against the eardrum and potentially bursting it.

Shit.

I have less than three hours before I have to leave for my flight. I dash down to the reception and ask the lovely desk-lady if she knows the number of a doctor who will be working on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s. She gets a health clinic on the phone.

‘I have an ear infection,’ I tell the French-accented voice on the other end of the line. ‘Can I fly?’
‘We would have to examine you before we could say,’ the voice says.
‘Where are you?’ I ask. I don’t know why, but I add ‘I have a bike!’

The voice gives me the address and I bike there like I’m being chased by a bear. I arrive covered in sweat, my heart racing from the bike ride and the anxiety—What if I have to cancel my flight and wait a few days? How much will it cost? Will I have to wait to start work again?

The clinic receptionist hands me a form to fill out. As soon as I hand it back, the doctor comes and gets me. She’s my age and polite, but doesn’t share my sense of urgency. She walks me, slowly, down the hall to her office.

I tell her my problem and she puts on a rubber glove, tightening it so every finger fits. She pulls out a little hammer-looking instrument, fits it with a backwards-victrola tip and looks inside my ear.

‘It’s wax,’ she says, snapping the glove off. ‘You can fly.’

She stands up and leaves the room without another word. I get my bag, still sweating, and walk back down the empty hallway to the front desk. They have my paperwork out and an invoice ready. It’s 30 euros for the five-second consultation, but I’m so happy I don’t care.

It’s raining when I get back on my bike, but I feel waterproof. I arrive back to the hotel soaked. I shower and finish packing. When I come down the stairs, the taxi is already waiting.

‘Where are you going sir?’ the driver asks.
‘The airport,’ I say. ‘And then home.’

5 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

In Continent: Pictures of Europe’s Boringest Cities

IMG_1855

For the last two weeks I was on an epic work trip.

IMG_0603

To Geneva, Brussels, London and The Hague. This is the ceiling of the UN!

IMG_0590

You know that movie that you liked when you were a kid, and you watch it now, and it sucks, and it makes you hate it, and it makes you hate your younger self for ever liking it? That’s exactly how I feel about Geneva.

IMG_0579

Look how obnoxiously beautiful it is, the whole country is an elaborate commercial for LL Bean.

IMG_0565

Even the statues are look passive-aggressive, like, ‘oh you only have one watch?’

IMG_0557

Next up: Brussels! The only people who hate it more than the tourists are the people who live there.

IMG_0548

The city’s neighborhoods are either dioramas for tourists or slums, nothing in between. Walking long distances is like going from Narnia into Mordor.

IMG_0538

Hoping Belgium had more to offer, I took a daytrip to Gent, which is Flemish for disappointment. I ate canal fish and waited for the rain to stop. The local residents have been doing little else for 600 years.

IMG_0532

I did go to a great art museum, though, where I got shouted at for taking pictures of a quotidian machine and a projected image.

IMG_0500

I have no idea what these signs mean.

IMG_0498

Did I mention that I’m a 30-year-old man?

IMG_0487

Later that week, I went to a meeting at the European parliament. The wallpaper symbolizes how you can all be the same color, yet still not mix.

IMG_0483

This building is only two stories tall, I’m just that short.

IMG_0477

Europeans have to color their cities to make you forget how little alcohol is in that hot wine.

IMG_0441

London is only photogenic twice a year. The queen alerts all her subjects by text message.

IMG_0385

Here’s some graffiti that I thought looked kind of like me. Especially the buildings coming out of the face. 

IMG_0318

The Shard was just completed, but it’s being torn down next year because it makes it harder for the pigeons to see St. Paul’s.

IMG_0627

Two weeks later, I’m back in Berlin, same as I left it: Cold, grey and covered in cocaine. Thank God. 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Berlin, Personal, Pictures, Travel, United Kingdom

How to Take Irritating Pictures of Your Vacation

Jesus the rest of my pictures from Tbilisi turned out really annoying.

The city has beautiful buildings, a fascinating language and a kind, history-weathered population.

Of which I managed to capture exactly none.

Instead, I came home with a bunch of pictures of an empty, vaguely European diorama.

It’s like a master-class in how to ignore the characteristics of your subject and resort to sub-Instagram photo trickery.

Like this one: The Ferris Wheel Atop The Mountain. It’s auditioning to be the headline of a Malcolm Gladwell article.

Or this one, with that movie-star lighting. What’s the appropriate hashtag to describe it in detail?!

Awwwwww shit, chain links and religiosity. They give Pulitzers for cropping, right?

Notice the electrical lines in the foreground. You can tell I was ducking sniper fire as I took this.

Oooh, this one’s ugly! It must be real!

Oh no, this church is hella nondescript! What to do?

Zoom in on the flag, for a little metaphorical significance?

Or kneel in the dirt and finagle this rose for the foreground?

Naw, son. Just zoom in until it looks like a stock photo on the cover of a Vote For Bachmann direct mailing.

Wanna make something seem mysterious and far away? Hold your camera behind some branches til you get the desired Escape From Witch Mountain effect.

Who needs PhotoShop when you can fake your photos at the source?

Backlighting is the black sweater of my photographic repertoire: Appropriate for all occasions.

Another favorite: If the bottom half of a church is littered with dumpsters and unsymmetrical bushes, just aim upwards til it’s unblemished.

That way, instead of looking like your photos were taken in a specific place by a specific person, they could be anywhere, depicting anything. That’s the point, right?

This picture is trying so hard it’s practically doping.

Thank god there’s nothing here to actually look at, that would have been confusing.

Nighttime! That’s an iPhone app, right?

Aaaaand… I’m out. I may not have come home with any amazing photos, but at least I have some nice memories.

They don’t last as long, but they’re easier to edit.

1 Comment

Filed under Pictures, Serious, Travel

Ugly Pictures Of A Beautiful City

I wanted to take nice pictures of Tbilisi, I really did.

It’s such a fascinating place:

The food is amazing,

the people are nice

and this week Georgia had a free, fair election

that filled the storefronts with huddles of people watching the news, pointing at it for me so I know it’s important.

But I’m not a good enough photographer to capture Tbilisi’s inner beauty.

So I biked around her for three days,

looking for signs of it on her outsides.

My friend who lives here says many of these apartments are in a lot better shape than they look.

No one is officially responsible for maintaining building exteriors and shared spaces.

And there’s no property tax, so many people own more than one apartment and leave it empty for years.

I like the thought of a vast, polished ballroom waiting behind each of these awnings:

Immaculate innards protected by this cracking, pockmarked skin.

Like people, cities’ insides show on their outsides,

whether they want them to or not.

And in Tbilisi, ‘good looking’ isn’t what you see, it’s what you owe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pictures, Travel

How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Pictures, Serious, Travel