Sunday, September 3, 2017

What did the Yanks ever do for the Philippines? October 2016

Those of you who have reached a certain vintage will have fond recollections of that wonderful film “The Life of Brian” in which a recurrent theme was “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The film was set in about the turn of the modern era, as it is now perceived, in Judea. Each time the question was asked in a group of rebels who were trying to overthrow the Romans, one of the revolutionaries would pipe up with “Well good roads actually” or “Peaceful streets” or “Clean water” etc.

So, what did the Americans do for the Philippinos?

I think I had better provide a bit of background.

After the Americans had kicked out the British in 1784 they soon expanded over the Appalachian mountains and kept going like most expansionist powers do. Their contempt for and mistreatment of the indigenous people was typical of all the imperialist powers of the 19th century – they, the indigenous locals, are savages. If we can’t convert them to Christianity, kill the lot and take their land.

President Andrew Jackson, in the 1830s, decided that this was wrong and that the “Indians”, as they were called, should have their own (very poor) land in certain areas called reservations. So, the Indians were rounded up and dumped on these “reservations.” Of course, they had no schools, hospitals etc. Alcohol was banned so they all drank like fish. Leave them to whither and die - that is how you get rid of this embarrassment. There was no attempt to integrate them in any form of society.

That has been US government policy for 180 years and remains the policy today. When you hear Americans talking about “minority rights” in other countries then you know what the word “hypocrisy” means. 

I digress, as I often do.

When the USA had reached the West Coast they had a bit of a problem. How could they continue their imperialistic expansion? Sure, they bought Alaska off the Russians, took Hawaii but what to do with the army?

Cuba? Good, let’s invade there. The Panama Canal – yep, built by a Frenchman but we don’t allow Froggies (or anybody else for that matter) in the Western Hemisphere. This imperialistic racism is dressed up as the “Monroe Doctrine”.

Now where? Ah those nasty Spaniards have no right to be half way round the world in The Philippines. We kicked them out of Cuba so let’s kick them out of The Philippines and call it liberation. (The reason why the Spanish were in the Philippines and not the Portuguese is a long story going back to the beginning of the 16th century.)

Boot them out they did.

I have done it again. Digressed.

So what did the Americans do for the Philippines?

First of all, they left a passingly good imitation of the English language. The country is made up of 7,000 islands with lots of disparate tribal groups – not really a nation at all as the long running civil war indicates. The multiple languages have been sorted of welded into something approaching a common language called Tagalog. However, the education system that the Americans created was, of course, in English. This has endured. Many people speak good English. In fact, my Guide, Chris, who I will come back to later, said that the Philippines is the second English speaking country in the world. This is a bit of an exaggeration but you get the idea. Many towns and cities have Spanish names from 300 years of occupation but the language has gone completely.   

Jeepneys. These are a peculiarly Philippino institution.  The Philippines was a big (and I mean big) military base for the USA throughout the 20th century until the locals finally got rid of them. This meant that the US Military brought in lot general purpose vehicles - jeeps. After a few years each jeep was scrapped by the military. The locals picked them up, extended the wheelbase, and put a few seats in, paint them in garish colours, give them a stupid name and you have something for people to travel on. There are some conventional long-distance buses but jeepneys are universal. They are now built from scratch and any resemblance to a modern jeep is purely in your imagination.

Driving Standards. As most Europeans know Americans are pretty shit drivers – they kill about three times as many people on the roads as Europeans do. However, such high standards are unknown in the South-East Asia. To give you an example, in China every thousand vehicles will kill one person a year (it is 20,000 in the UK). So, in the Philippines you are pretty safe – drivers know what indicators are for, red lights are respected, traffic is slow, fighting your way across the road on foot is relatively easy etc. I am fairly sure that a high proportion of fatalities are motor-bike riders – of which there are a great profusion. Don’t get me wrong if you are aged between 20 and 45 by far the most likely cause of death in almost any part of the world is a badly trained man – and they are nearly always men -  behind the steering wheel of a piece of heavy equipment weighing a tonne or so mowing you down whilst he is playing with his mobile phone.

Rock n’ Roll. I won’t say much about this. It is often old, poor or both. It is just such a relief not to hear crap Chinese pop music and endless dreadful Karaoke.

So why was I in the Philippines?

Well I like it. It was my third visit.

It is cheap. We bought a full-size bottle of rum and a 1 ½ litre bottle of coke for two quid. For those not familiar with the UK just guess how much that is. Whatever your guess it will be too high.   

Everybody smiles and says hello. This is not because you are a tourist; it is just that they have a cheerful inclusive nature.

Of course, neither of those are reasons to go per se. Matt and I had gone to learn to dive.

On the first night, we found a bar in Manila where one girl seemed to think it was perfectly normal to throw up on the floor and carry on drinking.

At the bus station where we went to get to our destination there was a sign saying “Unload your firearms here.”

I will keep the next bit short because it is not very entertaining.

We arrive, fill in the forms, Chris (our instructor and a thoroughly nice bloke – even if he is Christian – that is his name as well as his religion) says I need medical clearance because of my blood pressure. I go to the clinic, Doctor says come back tomorrow for a heart x-ray (it was a Sunday and many Philippinos are very Christian.) A hard afternoon in the pool learning drills about what if things go wrong.

Monday. Back to the clinic. Doctor says I am not signing; your heart is too big but you can go and take the x-ray to a specialist in the city an hour and a half away by jeepney. Back to the resort, Matt too ill to do anything, I may as well go and see if the quack would clear me.  (I wasn’t worried, I had been to 4,500 metres high two weeks before). He signed. A lost day.

Matt is out of the picture (he is always ill when we go on holiday) so Chris is my personal instructor but we have lost a day. Get on with it. The exercises on the surface I am crap. Get down a few metres I am fine (well apart from the fact that my eyesight is so wonderful that I can’t read the gauges or the dive computer but we will gloss over that).  I lost a flipper that cost me a few quid but the rest was OK. Because I was shit at the escape stuff on the surface Chris, as I had anticipated, only certified me as a crap diver.

Would I recommend diving? Without doubt. Some people will struggle with “equalizing” – that is adjusting to pressure changes (it doubles every ten metres) but I was fine once I relaxed enough and went down to 17 metres. But what you see down there is fantastic; I will be forever spoiled about snorkeling – of which I have done a lot.

Is it risky? A bit, but learn the drills, you will never have to use them - Chris never has.

Would I go cave diving? No, it is for idiots. You die.

Will I go back to the Philippines again? Undoubtedly. When I get kicked out of China where do I go? A tourist visa is good for three years, they speak English, the people are lovely and you can easily live on a pension. But I won’t live in a dive resort. They are dead, dead, dead. As I would be very quickly if I lived in one by drinking all day every day out of boredom. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Looking through Guido's Eyes - Part 2

A Tropical Paradise Gone Wrong - February 2016

That was Guido’s description of a 7kilometre white sandy beach but I am getting ahead of myself.

 Hainan is a truly tropical Island that is the most southerly part of China. It is a small province – about the size of Belgium.

 It was largely ignored by the mainland government until about 250 years ago when they began sending exiles there to die of the various nasty things that can happen in such a climate. Even 80 years ago the majority of native inhabitants were subsistence farmers.

 Things have moved on quite a bit since then but it is still a poor province – although you would never guess if you judge by mechanised transport. This is predominantly electric motor scooters and three-wheeler petrol driven tuk-tuks but nobody (except us) appears to travel more than 30 or 40 metres by foot. Myanmar is piss poor where bullock carts are the normal form of transport, in Hainan we only saw two.

 Sanya is the city at the south end of the island. This is the destination for the majority of mainland visitors (and quite a few Russians apparently although there did not appear to be lots to us). It is the only genuinely warm place in China during winter - mid twenties Celsius or 70s to the Yanks. It is certainly considerably richer than anywhere else on the island that I have been to

 We flew there and had a night there – a four-star hotel cost 35 euros. We sat on the beach, having been driven the 400 metres from the hotel in a golf buggy where the driver,  of course,  went the wrong way round a roundabout, bought coconuts to drink the milk but kept adding rum and thus we got drunk. For Guido the highlight was lunch in the first real locals’ restaurant he had been in. There was no English menu – the pictures helped – but my Chinese had to come into play – a worrying thought.

 We got a bus towards our destination – a National Forest Park. We did the last 35 kilometres on/in a tuk-tuk that was leaking petrol. The guy stopped occasionally so we could look at sites, buy honey etc. but, more importantly, fix his petrol leak and let his 100c.c. engine cool down on the thousand metre climb. Tipping is unknown in China but he did such a good job that we gave him 50% more than the agreed fee – it cost three pounds sterling. He declined the bonus initially but was persuaded to accept it.

The reason we had come to this place was – can you guess - rats. My friend is interested in many things to do with the natural world but one of them is rodents. Hainan has a species of rat that is unique to the island. Guido was hoping to see them or, more likely, catch sight of them on the 4 night-vision cameras that he had brought with him.

We had been brought to a hotel which cost 30 euros but had little to eat and Guido needs to scoff lots and often. This time there was a Chinese menu and no pictures. With a bit of pointing my Chinese was holding up remarkably well. This delay to eat meant that we only had 1 ½ hours to get the cameras and bait set up. To capture images of small animals at night you need to restrict the cameras’ field of vision considerably so choosing suitable areas and then sites within the areas then lining up the camera with the “jiggler” all take time so we only got three set up before dark. I am sure that you all know what a jiggler is with one exception so I will explain. It is simply a device that is a few centimetres above ground that holds the bait and will attract animals.  

More scoff and the odd beer followed by a rest and we were ready for the first half of the night’s little trip. Chinese national parks – particularly forest parks – tend to have well laid out wooden walkways. Surprisingly this one is made of wood – many have a large concrete component. G. had also brought very powerful lights with him. These were great – at highlighting the dust blowing about in the atmosphere. We would sit and listen with lights off from time to time (it was so dark I couldn’t see G-man sitting less than a metre from me) but the forest was remarkably quiet – no grasshoppers or cicadas and very few frogs to be heard. We did hear a few owls but the only thing that was sighted was a flash of a bat by Guido – he is a vastly better spotter than me.

Our three-hour walk finished at 12.30 with the thought of getting up four hours later to go again and see the sunrise towards the end. I woke at 4.30 decided I preferred the bed and didn’t wake Guido. He was up at 7.30 and off to collect the cameras before anybody else might come across them. One of them showed a rat but not the one he was looking for.

We then repeated our night walk in daylight and this time we weren’t alone. Chinese tourists have no idea about shutting their gobs in the hope of seeing some animals. What became apparent is that this park is for looking at plants – particularly trees. There is a vast variety, of which I know very little, but some were huge at over 100 metres and with girths of over 10 metres. I have seen the odd strangler fig before in Australia but here they were common as muck. The way it works is that a fig (i.e. the fruit of a fig tree) gets on a branch of a growing tree. It is a true parasite and takes food from the tree whist growing round it and lowering roots to the ground. Once the fig has roots in the ground the host tree is doomed. The strangler develops its own support roots and devours all the nourishment from the tree (as well as getting things from the ground and photosynthesing food) which then rots away leaving the strangler fig with a hole up the middle where you might expect a trunk to be.

The guide books for Hainan are truly dreadful and we swapped to choosing destinations by using the A4 map of the island we had obtained in the hotel in Sanya. Thus, by a trip down the mountain by car (also costing £3), a bus and another tuk-tuk we arrived in Guangcun. This village/town is a real out of the way place and my Chinese was really tested. I think we ended up at the only hotel in town. I don’t think that they have seen any guailos (white ghosts) in months or years. It is the most I have been stared at since I travelled in some other real backwaters of China a dozen or fifteen years ago.

The hotel has modest sized rooms but they are en suite with hot water for – wait for it – 8 euros a night. Food is dirt cheap – even fruit – and beer made in Guangzhou is barely half the price that it is in my home city.

Time for a stroll, after a five o’clock lunch naturally, where the lady in charge seemed to understand that I am not a meat eater. We were looking for mangrove swamps and a beach. We saw both but couldn’t get to either because of walls and fences everywhere but we saw quite a few birds and bats and lots of plants that Guido didn’t know so not too bad. I suspect the highlight of the day for G was the truck so overloaded with bamboo to the extent that it couldn’t get under the powerlines. I should perhaps explain that powerlines are only four or five metres above the ground with a low point when they cross a street. We watched as the driver climbed on to his loads to free things up and, when we passed by again fifteen metres later, he was still beating the bamboo into shape with a particularly thick specimen of that type.

The following day, today as I write, we worked out from our trusty map that the best chance of getting to the beach was taking a different route out of town.  With a little help from three 13- year old boys, who wanted a light for their one battered cigarette, on their electric scooter we got to the beach. The boys had followed us all four kilometres but did not follow us up the beach – although we later saw tracks which suggested that they had on their scooter presumably after we were long gone. As I mentioned, here people don’t walk.

This was the white sandy beach that was on our trusty map. It is at least seven kilometres long and we only saw a total of eight other people on it when we walked nearly the length of it both ways.  Where we had arrived at was an abandoned hotel or maybe something that had been for party hacks. Clearly it had been abandoned many years ago but looked it like it had been a good idea because the beach was superb. If Hainan ever gets going as a true international holiday destination I can see this location becoming a very high-class place to go.

But, and it is a very, very, very big but, the beach gave rise to Guido’s comment that is the title of this piece. I have never, ever seen a beach with so much shit on it. You expect plastic bottles, plastic sheets and the like but there were lamps, computer bags, backpacks, glass bottles, barbecuing tool. shoes, pill containers, polystyrene packaging, gloves etc. etc. by the thousands. About the only thing we didn’t see was condoms. Clearly so few people visit the place that the vast majority of this crap (excluding the barbecuing tools) must have come from the sea – what disgusting people humans are. I think it is even worse than the desert in Jordan – and that is truly saying something. G finds that looking through this detritus can be quite interesting. I do not.

We saw quite a few birds, G found lots of shells that interested him and we could not identify quite a lot of things – which also interests us. My highlight was a pool on the beach that was made of sand but behaved more like a rock pool – it was teeming with life. We thought it would be very difficult to count just the number of tiny hermit crabs but an estimate would be around 100 per square metre.

 As we passed a fishing village we realised that there was some recycling. Or, more accurately re-use. The fishermen had tied lumps of expanded polystyrene together to make rafts to pole out to their boats. Guido was quite keen on “borrowing” one for when we got to the mangrove swamps. When I pointed out that we did not know where they – the mangrove swamps - were (our map is rather large scale) and it was certainly a few kilometres his enthusiasm for the project waned but did not disappear – there was so much shit around we could make one ourselves.

 We stopped at the next fishing village hoping for a little sustenance but there were no restaurants so we settled for a couple of beers each and crossed the peninsular we were on. Sure enough a few hundred metres down the beach the mangrove swamps started. The G-man had never been in one and the last time I had been in one properly was forty years ago chasing a thief – I didn’t catch him.

 Unlike forty years ago, the tide was out so we could walk along the sand on the seaside of the mangroves – easy. If you are not familiar with mangroves (and even if you are) these are the basic ideas.  They like brackish water at the edge of the sea but in mud not sand. They propagate in two ways – seeds and underground roots that pop up. The thing that really makes them stand out though is the branches drop down stems that become roots so one tree can become a tangle to get through that is only two or three metres tall but can also be as wide as that. One is easy but a morass of them dropping roots of branches and new growth popping up from roots can be a bit tricky. On the seaward side they were not too many.

Having progressed only three or four hundred metres down the beach we realised that the fir trees that were growing on solid ground were now 50 metres from us so we decided to go through the mangroves. Tricky.

I think our polystyrene raft would not have been a great deal of use! We beat a retreat back up the beach and found an “easy way through”

The peninsular we were on had only a gap of a hundred metres or two to the far shore at the mouth of a bay that is a couple of kilometres long – thus providing excellent shelter for fishing boats and…. There were thousands of birds so we looked at a few before we re-crossed the peninsular through a graveyard made of sand hills! If everything is made of sand where do you bury your dead? Only later did I wonder if the bodies rot but I decided that they must – Hainan has a humid climate unlike the desert in Egypt.

A fast retreat down the beach and walk into town on the road in the dark with bats, a nightjar and stars to accompany us. (This reference is for friends I have done a lot of walking with who think that all my walks end up with us walking on the road in the dark. Well you want to use a day fully don’t you?) A truly splendid day.

There had been a cockup at breakfast when my Chinese let me down. We had had a good omelette and asked for more eggs. Chicken in Chinese is Jie, Eggs are Jiedan. When asked for more eggs, our hostess rushed off to shop and produced another dish. She had obviously thought that we couldn’t want more eggs and had bought chicken.

My hair is longer than usual and Guido’s is always a mess. We had been by the sea in strong winds. At dinner mine hostess gave us two combs. A nice touch that redeemed the morning mistake in my eyes. She approved of the improvement when I combed my hair. Guido is Dutch with shoulder length hair, claims he hasn’t combed his mop in twenty years and is proud of that fact. I seem to recall it looking considerably smarter at his wedding so doubt his claim.

Pigs. Not a subject that I often write about but they have been roaming around loose everywhere in the last few days. Almost all are mothers with their piglets in tow - when the little ones are not rushing off playing like kittens. Lovely animals who ferret around for things to eat – Guido gave one a ball of rice enclosed meat – and not at all dirty. The expression “Like a pig in shit” is a reflection of the way that they are treated or, more accurately, mistreated by humans, not a reflection on their natural habitat. Of course, 99% of the males and a good proportion of the female piglets are destined for the pot in a few months. Pig is by far the favourite meat in China.

So what next?

Guido decided that we needed to go to White Shell Beach. Only two buses (although the first one left fifty minutes later than we were led to believe) and we were in Jaitou. A much more fertile area even though it is only a few dozen kilometres along the coast.

We had a little difficulty finding a hotel until the one we got to the one we are in. The price is up to 12 euros but a much bigger room. The only problem is that the toilet is a squatter. This is the first one of the trip and I suddenly realised that, in Guangcun, they are prepared for westerners – at least in one hotel room.

Our host is very affable wanting photos with us and insisting on showing us round and organising our trip to a nearby headland village. This was a short tuk-tuk ride away. What was odd about it was the vast amounts of stuff packaged up for recycling – cement bags, polystyrene, glass bottles but no plastic bottles (we had seen an overloaded truckfull of them in Guangcun). The trouble was that most of it looked like it had been there for weeks, months or years and the village and the beach were still full of shit. I have come to realise that Hainan reminds me strongly of India in respect of rubbish. The streets where there are markets are swept at the end of the day but pretty much nothing else is done to keep the place clean. A good example I saw today was somebody riding along on his motor scooter who did not even slow down as he slung his bag of rubbish off the bridge into the river. We have seen a lot of Guido’s rodent friends in the streets.

We are quite good at finding places to relax and have a beer.

Another trip out to a superb beach – actually with better sand than yesterday. Not quite as filthy as yesterday but far worse than most of you will ever have seen. In twenty years time when China has become a normal holiday destination most trips will have a component to a place like this – huge sandy beaches (cleaned up every tide) trips out to go snorkeling and diving on the reefs, bird watching from beginners to real twitchers plus whale watching obviously. Once the hotels are in place they will attract lots of retail opportunities whether it is food, clothes or tourist tat.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Looking through Guido’s Eyes - Part 1

Looking through Guido’s Eyes

Guido is a friend of twenty years who is twenty years younger than me. He is well travelled in Europe and English-speaking parts of the world but has never been to Asia and has never been to the tropics so his reactions to what he sees in my part of the world should be interesting. He is also a very curious naturalist.

So where to go?

Obviously start with the store of, now, nine storeys of shit that nobody could possibly want to buy. There must be about 500 shops in this one arcade. I underestimated the man. Within ten minutes he wanted to buy two sparkly (and I mean sparkly) purses shaped like a hare and a goldfish – costing about 50 euros each.   Fortunately his wife, his mother and his sister are not entirely devoid of taste so he had no-one to buy them for.

Fifteen minutes and three floors later he decided that he must have a lamp shaped like pak choi (Chinese cabbage) being towed by a horse. He won’t dare take it home so I have a suspicion that he will go back and buy it and it will end up in my apartment.

The fungus shops were a bit of an eye-opener. Basically these are for any variety of dried mushroom-like things in huge bags. Essentially it a wholesale market targeting restaurants and hotels but if you want a lesson in the variety of stuff that Chinese eat people go this is the place.

We had imbibed a small amount of alcohol so the next day began with lunch with Jennifer and Qin Gang. Lunch was excellent. Most of you won’t believe me but the mushroom and tofu dishes were generally agreed to be the best.

This turned into an afternoon visit to an “old village”. Most of this old village was, of course, built last week. When G & I suggested it we hadn’t known that Jennifer and Qin had been many times before so J & Q G wandered off and left Guido and I to wander round.

WTF is this? A bloody theme park with illuminated fairy grottos. But we started going into a building or two or three or four and in fact there was lots of old stuff – mainly bronze ware going back 3,500 years ago but also porcelain, wood carvings, paintings, calligraphy and jade ornaments. Actually rather good. Guido was rather taken by a Bodhisattva with a Jesus like halo.

Guido was taken with the balance. Keep the kids happy with fish feeding and silly things to do whilst having a chance to look at a lot of interesting stuff. And you were paying for this balanced mixture.

We stopped for dinner in the middle of nowhere. G & I were probably the first “white” people in there for a year or few. The food wasn’t spectacular but it was the highlight of G’s day. He should get out more.

To Hong Kong.

7 million people in quite a small area – the most densely populated part of the world they claim. But there are some areas that are not developed. At all. So off we went looking for this. Fog on the mountain, roads not paths and that sort of stuff conspired against us. But Guido is a naturalist and an ace spotter so we saw lots of birdies – excellent. It is an indication of Guido’s travels that he had never seen black kites – which I have seen in several parts of the world.

Finally we escaped the urban sprawl and got out in the country. Guido is at his best at this time pointing out things I don’t notice and spotting things about a week before I would. We saw lots of stuff. At some later date I may update this blog after two events. We go back to Guangzhou to look up the bird book and when I am next outside mainland China so I can post to this blog.

We bussed around quite a lot in the afternoon/evening. G was not impressed by Stanley (a real HK tourist spot) but was impressed by the mountainous nature of the Island. I kept thinking “What happens if the brakes fail on this double-decker bus on these incredibly tight and twisty steep roads?”

We took the tram up to “The Peak.” This is 428 metres high so you look down on all the sky –scrappers. Well most of them. The IFC – 2 tower in Hong Kong is about level and there is a building in Kowloon (the name of which is unknown to me) that is higher than the peak. I thought about how much effort it took to create all the skyscrapers and roads in Hong Kong and it would all be gone in a few hundred years at most. Guido thought about geological time and how tiny all this stuff was. Such is the way that minds work.

Next was go to see the lady to get rid of our demons. The high spot of this was that she hit a piece of paper that with a slipper until it was knocked to pieces and then burnt it. There were other bits that were burnt, various incantations etc. Guido was fine but I am possessed by an evil spirit and it would cost 300 dollars to get rid of it. I like my spirit and declined.

Guido is really taken with all the food here. I truly live in the food capital of the world with Hong Kong as a small satellite.

We are off mammal hunting in the mainland but I can’t post from there so you will only get the next instalment in a few months.

Southern California is Hell

Southern California is Hell

Matt is left behind. I have never been to Washington State or Oregon. OK. Matt was in Seattle.

In fact he was jealous of the next journey. Seattle to Los Angeles. By train.

He needn’t have been. Train is by far the most civilized way to travel. You can walk around, chat to who you like, doze or sleep when you want, get fed and do a fair number of kilometres.

Ah!  Amtrak does not exactly rocket along. A journey of 1,377 miles was scheduled to take 35 hours and 40 minutes. That is about 62 kph. Compare that to TGV or even the good old Great Eastern London to Edinburgh. Can you imagine that in modern times that is acceptable? Perhaps that explains why there is only one train a day on that route. The USA is crying out for high speed trains but they won’t get them. The car lobby and Boeing will stop it.

 If you do not live in the USA (and even if you do) you do not understand the power of propaganda here. No other country in the world has so much propaganda. It starts at the highest level. The flag waving above half the houses. (Ian got threatened by some guys who said that the Irish flag was not sufficiently beneath the “Stars & Stripes”)  The land of the hope and the brave. Hmm. A slightly more accurate portrayal would be the home of the coward and the drone. In the USA everybody who has ever served in the armed forces is a “veteran”.  The most likely cause of death in the armed forces of the USA is murder by a fellow member of the said “brave.” It is difficult to imagine a country less accurately described than that it is “the home of the brave.”

Propaganda goes on at every level.  For most Americans the concept that there are things worth seeing outside the USA is anathema. The slaughter rate on the roads and by guns is assumed to be normal.

Local TV is dominated by “Man bit dog” type stories. National news only occurs 2/3rds of the way through a broadcast and international news is Israel or somewhere else in the Middle East where the USA is supporting fascists or bombing the fuck out of somebody.

It is a deeply uncivilized country.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many places that I have been in the USA and many people that I like but the weight of evidence suggests that, on the whole, the USA is an uncivilized country that is so conceited that it refuses to learn from others. Its downfall will occur in the first half of this century.

Having said that I have just thoroughly enjoyed two wonderful and contrasting visits in Southern California.

Tom met me in Los Angeles at 9.00 p.m.  Well he would have done if the train had been on time. Amtrak is so crap that he could not check. So he listened to the radio for 1 ¾ hours until I arrived.  The two best bits of the Seattle-LA trip are the mountains half way (at night) and the coastal bit near the end (in the dark because the train was so late.)

Tom is a very good host. He gave me his bed, which I rather graceless sly accepted.    

Tom is also diabetic. This means, in the state of California, that he has a licence to legally buy marijuana. No apologies to the Captain Kirk fans for the split infinitive.

As would any reasonable citizen would do, he exerts his rights. Normally that means he only smokes at weekends but when a fully qualified tester arrives in town what is he supposed to do?

Inbibe and we did. The first day after the pick-up consisted of a three hour drive round parts of LA. We were out of the car for a good ten minutes in that time.

What followed was a visit to his folks who live in nearby Orange County. Lovely people, good food, get your washing done etc. One small problem. 3,200 bottles of wine. What is one to do when invited to sample? And after that bottle? And the next? And.... A rather pleasant evening.

Next day up before the noonday sun? The Getty museum? Universal studios? Disneyland?

Er. No. Hack round a 9 hole golf course. Twice. A spot more parent-paid for food and a splash of wine that sets you up for the following day.

The following day consists of another 9 holes of golf – stoned. This was a new experience for me. If you are going to hit a drive a long way in golf you must grip the club firmly.  If you are stoned you think that you grip everything firmly. This is true – I have got callouses gripping motorbike handles in the past. So I gripped the club hard and hoped. It went a long way. I wonder where. During the next five holes Tom was even more shit than me.

Off to Newport Beach to meet his lady acquaintance. A spot of dinner then off to a superb bar.

Think Hemmingway. Seedy does not get near. Western film swing doors, pool tables but not enough real cowboy hats. Men who weighed more in kilos than their age smoking and playing better pool than I have ever been capable of. A quiet blonde who sat at a table for an hour and a half (not that I noticed) suddenly became the classic blousy pool player – and she could play.

Tom is a decent pool player so we survived a couple of rounds but the beer had done its damage so we stayed at the acquaintance’s. Unfortunately she was teaching ice-skating in the morning so we got kicked out at 6.30 a.m.

True Californian fog back to his folk’s for a three hour kip then true Californian traffic for a journey of an hour and a quarter or so to deliver me to Ian.  Naturally on a six lane highway (that is six lanes each side) it took 4 hours.

The USA transport systems are as ridiculous as their healthcare systems.  OK, I won’t go on about the shit transportation system any more but consider the USA spends 16% of GDP on healthcare (only Cuba has a higher percentage and they send doctors as aid workers all over the world) whereas in Europe it is about 8-9%. No prizes for guessing who lives longer by a margin of two years.
Ian’s – a real different experience. Unlike me, Ian can manage a decent relationship with the opposite sex.  This time he has stumbled on one that involves a family. She also appears to be rather nice. There are two great difficulties with this situation but we will come to those later.
Ian moved to the USA 17 years ago – the fool. To make it worse he was in upstate New York. The populace of small towns there are like the Midwest – narrow-minded, ignorant in the extreme and completely confident in their knowledge. Arseholes. Of course Ian managed to find a few reasonable people but none he called real friends until he had been there many years.
Anyway he has moved to Southern California and lives with the aforementioned attractive woman a dozen years younger than him. She has two daughters. Ian is not used to family life but, in his rather gentle way, seems to cope OK and I have not noticed any problem at all. But, as many of you know, I may not possibly be the best judge.
Anyway, Tom drops me off in this sober household near San Diego. We sit in the garden and drink tea. TEA.  Hardly my beverage of choice but Ian developed Parkinson’s three years ago and he has found alcohol a bit of a no-no and he lives in a tea-total household.  PANIC! I am a man of infinite resource and manage to contain myself for the next three hours until we find ourselves in an establishment for the sale of Maguritas. (Sod the spelling.)

Sitting with Ian in the garden is a delight. Reminiscing isn’t really my thing but I haven’t seen much of him in the last seventeen years (we used to go walking together about thirty days a year in those days). Oriels are small birds and hummingbirds are smaller – having them buzzing around is great. Mel (Ian’s partner) liked some of our stories about misdemeanours twenty or thirty years ago. In mid February it reached 31 degrees (or 87 to the yanks) – what is not to like in Southern California?

Well a bit.




The concept of walking is abhorrent, unless you are taking your dog out.

Naturally I have done some. A little warm for lots of walking but T-shorts and shorts in February under a clear blue sky is good enough for me.

Melissa’s mother offered to get her granddaughter (they are both in the house) to drive me less than a kilometre to the shops so I could shop and granddaughter would come back later to collect me. They are both pretty nice people. The ridiculousness of the suggestion appeared to be beyond Pam – who, despite her political views - is a perfectly acceptable member of the human race. Morgan –granddaughter - was not consulted. This is America – children are expected to do as they are told and even (although not in California) call you “Sir. “ Pam thought it was over a mile because, naturally, she had never walked it. Obviously it took me an hour to cover the kilometre by the direct route because of my navigational difficulties. Even though it is mid February the temperature was 84 (29) so a couple of revivers were required.

I mentioned the problem of traffic. There is another.

Ian became friends with an Irish priest in Jamestown, New York before he moved West. Nothing wrong with that if you don’t take it seriously. Get pissed with an Irishman and fed by his wife is OK in my book. Except Ian carried on going to church when he moved West.

Frederick the Great of Prussia in the eighteenth century said something like ”Christianity was a lot of legends invented by orientals and given to our Europe where some charlatans used it for there own purposes and some fools believed it.”

Melissa appears to belong in the last class. We held hands round the table while she prayed. For fuck sake what have I shrunk too to be so “nice.” I am losing my character. These days I class myself as a militant atheist. Even if there were such a thing as God why should she be interested in one of seven billion of a particularly destructive species on a small planet around a very insignificant sun on the outer arm of a perfectly ordinary galaxy? Christians (and other nutters – Jews and Moslems) are so arrogant. I have heard all the rubbish about spirituality faith, can’t believe in finality etc. many times with no shred of evidence offered to support such ideas. Can it just be they are so stupid? Do the monotheists not understand that they are unnecessarily divisive; they all worship the same God by different names? A bit of a bugger that, individually they tend to be nice people – whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem. I truly believe that they do not understand how evil their petty beliefs are in the way that they manifest themselves collectively against other groups who believe in the same things.

Anyway. Blue skies, sitting in the sun in February, flowers in bloom, lovely birds around you, decent food and good wine. Yes Southern California is truly hell.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vancouver is full of weirdos and Seattle is full of dossers.

Vancouver is full of weirdos and Seattle is full of dossers.

Having said that some of Seattle’s dossers are pretty weird.

Perhaps I had better start from the beginning. Mat and I live eight time zones apart. So the obvious meeting place is for us both to fly eight time zones. Yep – me from China, Matt from London to meet in British Columbia.

So Vancouver it is. Matt has never been to Canada, I have never been to B.C. What are a few time zones between friends? I arrive Tuesday morning, Matt Tuesday evening. Naturally by the time Matt arrives I am suitably ensconced in a bar which, with a few instructions, Matt duly arrives at.  Nothing worth remarking on so far. Except that, due to a bit of time zone prevarications Matt had, allegedly left at 9 a.m., I had left at 2 p.m. on the same day but I had arrived in Vancouver 10 hours before Matt. Naturally, it didn’t stop us having a few pints.

So WTF were we doing in Vancouver? Obviously we were on the way to Whistler. For the non-cognescenti, Whistler is one of the world’s premier ski resorts and, as you can imagine, I am one of the world’s premier skiers.

But there would be a bit of jetlag, neither of us had been there so why not three days in Vancouver?

Well three days is certainly enough. It is a spectacularly uninteresting place. Yep, Stanley Park is good for a few hours bike ride if you are bored and like being told which direction to ride, there are a few beer shops/local breweries although the beer all tastes the same, everything is orderly – the cars stop at red lights and people wait for the walking sign at junctions – but is it exciting?

Well there is a clock driven by the steam from the thermal underground system that is quite interesting. We did find some decent seafood chowder but...

There are a lot of wierdos. They would come in all shapes and sizes, although being hirsute helped to get the job – foot long beards were a requirement. Some of the women had quite long hair to. These people were all dressed oddly or behaved oddly – lots of them talking to themselves, of course. Who could possibly employ them? A small example – we were walking by a construction site which was surrounded by corrugated iron sheeting when, suddenly the sheeting opened and out stepped a girl, who clearly did not work on a construction site, closely followed by the smell of marijuana. Our guess was that there was a very select party going on inside the corrugated iron.  We suspected that some of the wierdos rather enjoyed a spot of heroin.
Actually Matt quite liked it, thought he could live there.
For me - too quiet.
I am sure it didn’t rain all the time it just felt like it.

 So to Whistler to meet Bill and Tina. They had only had a five hour flight across three time zones so no sweat. Except... Matt, Bill and I all have knee issues. Tina came out in sympathy on the second run of the first day by falling over and buggering her right knee. Matt is easily the best skier amongst us and often went off on his own. Bill and I poodled around. Until the penultimate day. Bill and I had done three excellent runs before a break. Then B, M & I went high in the thick swirling snowy mist. It was horrible. We decided to take a green run (the easiest grade) to escape. I fell off it. It is easy so you can’t fall far. I fell all of two metres. I couldn’t get up with skis on so I took my skis off.  My feet went into the snow over my knees. It took me more than ten minutes just to get back to the piste – a distance of about five metres.

Tina did come out for one run on the last day but it was horrible. Fortunately she had arranged bobsleighing in the afternoon.   Fantastic. Try doing 125 kph with your bum 5 cms off the ground at 3 or 4 g when the ground is also about 30 cms from your shoulder because you are effectively riding the “Wall of death”. Brilliant. I had the best seat just behind the driver. You slam from turn to turn incredibly fast. I would have my left shoulder about 30cms above the ice and what felt like half a second later my right shoulder would be 30cms above the ice.

Whistler is small by the standards of European ski resorts – only 37 lifts, although many are long. The Green runs are true French Greens – very long roads. These are not pleasant and distinctly unpleasant when you are skiing latterally across a steep slope. The blue runs are like French blues – steep in places but always wide enough. There are no red runs. The blacks are divided into single diamond and double diamond. They are all so horrible that not even Matt tried any of them. The other thing about Whistler is that it is west coast so we only had one day of sunshine – the others had rain, snow, wind or a combination of them. And we had a good week. The week before had been all rain and the week after we were there it was forecast to be too hot.

Seattle is a very rich city. Home of Boeing, Microsoft, Starfucks and Amazon.  I don’t think it has a million people. If you like dossers on every street corner and half way along each block on major roads it is the place for you. If you like over-priced crap bars full of loud mouth tossers come on in.

Yep, it is typical USA but worse. On the bus south from Canada as soon as we crossed the border it was trailer-trash. How can a country that is so rich be so mean? The worst health care in any half-civilized country, cops that shoot hundreds of people dead every year, 10,000 people a year are murdered and three times that killed on the roads. It is a dreadful country. I hope that I escape it alive after seeing my friends here.

In Seattle we went up the Space Needle which, despite being built in 1962 for the “Worlds Fair”, was surprisingly good. 

We also did a tour of “Underground Seattle” After a major fire the whole level of the city was raised so there are still some old shop fronts below ground. What it really was was a history of the city. The high point of the very funny commentary was the role of “seamstresses” in a city where the men outnumbered women ten to one. The city elders decided not to throw out the seamstresses – have an “entertainment” tax – a brilliant solution. One “madam” only employed well educated seamstresses so that the clothing of the richer men in the city would be well cared for. She had no heir when she died and left a fortune to the Public School system. This was the largest pre-Gates donation in the city but, because of her profession, no school is named after her. Our guide did not like this and thought that there should be one with a school icon of a thimble to encourage safe sewing.