Budapest: Renovations on the Danube?

Budapest: Renovations on the Danube?

As a teenage fan of historical novels, mostly about European royalty and especially of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have long wanted to visit Budapest. Finally I was there, not in warmth but in the sun, which certainly adds to the charm of this city built along the Danube.

As in other grand Eastern European cities, Budapest feeds the eye with grand buildings and lovingly decorated facades. These are especially visible along the river – in particular the National Gallery, the Church of the Martyrs and the Parliament which are stunningly lit at night – but also in town one sees rows of handsome old palaces and government offices, many of which are now top hotels, stores, and offices.

Budapest National Gallery: the views from and across the river are stunning

Mortar holes in a downtown facade

Walking always seems the best way to get a real introduction to a city. Budapest is easy to walk with its grand avenues and interesting side streets. The renovations are very inconsistent; shopping streets are lined with designer shops in luxurious looking structures and one finds outrageously and wonderfully over-decorated places like theNew York Café. But just around the corner, even sometimes within the same buildings sporting the fancy facades, are un-renovated sections, one house still with visible mortar holes above the entrance.



The Central Market Hall is a highlight. Part food market with lots of butchers, bakers, and greengrocers in between more tourist-oriented stands selling tinned paprika and jars of caviar on the ground floor, souvenir, t-shirt and embroidered clothes and textile stands jostle on the balustraded mezzanine floor above. These are very reminiscent of the markets in Chinese cities except that here each stand is closed with a metal top so you cannot look down into them from above. A small stand near the rear door offered freshly pressed juice – orange, blood orange or grapefruit – and the young man running it was in constant motion, slicing the fruit, pressing one citrus half at a time on his press. The line was long and the juice some of the best I have ever had.

The Central Market Hall

Late that evening, a magnificent production of Aida at the Erkel Theatre disgorged me, my head full of fulminous voices and wonderful scenery built around walls covered in hieroglyphs that included handguns, into a neighborhood I would not have chosen to enter after dark. Nothing dangerous occurred, but the houses were in disrepair and groups of young men with little to do who had been hanging out on the street corners in the late afternoon were still there four hours later. I could understand why many of the audience had ordered taxis to pick them up at the entrance.

The frequency of crumbling buildings and the number of homeless sleeping on cardboard and blankets on the sidewalks are symptoms of poor governance. The EU Anti-Corruption Report 2014 found systemic corruption in Hungary, particularly linked to the awarding and reworking of public contracts with EU funding and the financing of political parties. According to the report, 89% of the Hungarian citizens polled say that corruption is widespread in their nation.

One of many side streets in the old quarter

It isn’t easy to be cheerful in such a state, and that probably explains the low level unfriendliness, as if people are first protective and only later might let down their guard to share a piece of information or a brief smile. Walking into restaurants and asking for a table often led to a stare and a suggestion that “well, you can sit at this table” that was near the open door or next to the toilet. When I suggested in a friendly tone that one of several other empty tables might be available and could I please sit there, the answer was a shrug and then my wish became possible. The same happened when I checked into my rather good hotel with a confirmed reservation that suddenly changed to something else “because we are completely full, only one empty room…”. When I politely continued to point out that they would surely honour their confirmation, this eventually became possible.

The place to find happy Hungarians of all ages and varied incomes is apprently in the baths. The baths are not where one goes for a swim, although there is a lap pool in the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, but rather where one goes to spend the day. To sit in a series of saunas, steam baths and ever hotter small pools inside, to perhaps have one of the many massages on offer or a coffee or meal, and then to re-enter the courtyard, depending on weather strolling through or scurrying against the cold to quickly submerge oneself up to the neck in warm water. Children, young couples, parents, and lots of elderly all fill the pools, leaning against the walls, standing over a spout, or paddling about. Surrounded by empire style yellow buildings with stone statuary, it is easy to see how such a day lets one forget all worries.

People of all ages relax in the thermal baths



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Manacor, Mallorca: Authenticity and Grace in the Mediterranean

Manacor, Mallorca: Authenticity and Grace in the Mediterranean

I had always avoided Mallorca, having seen only images of crowded beaches lined with mass hotels and street after street of restaurants advertising Wiener Schnitzel or Traditional English Food, all, I imagined, smelling of last week’s deep fry oil and full of drunken Continentals acting badly.

While that surely exists, I also found a very different Mallorca when I visited friends from Manacor in their family home.

Manacor on the Western side of the island is a most pleasant town of forty thousand inhabitants. Manacor is a strolling town, with much of the centre a pedestrian zone and the narrow streets full of walkers even when cars are allowed. The houses are mostly well maintained but a few of the old Majorcan mansions are sadly dilapidated. One, pictured here, has lovely frescos along the roofed balcony but the building is clearly deserted above the ground floor. A nearby smaller one has a crumbling stone façade in need of care.

The sadly fading frescos

Townhall and Cloister

The cool courtyard



Narrow streets lined with blonde stone houses hide gardens to the back; neighborhoods are associated with one clan or the other, and a person’s street of origin gives him a whole history. The alleys empty into plazas built around the church, or a set of café’s. A cloister stands beside the town hall that establishes its importance with flags; its interior hides a delightful shadowed courtyard. Through windows looking onto the fountain in the courtyard, one sees into the well-appointed and inviting town library.

Small specialty shops are the norm in Manacor: there is the bakery where ‘one’ (from this family) always buys the crusty bread necessary for pa amb oli the traditional snack of strongly flavoured tomatoes rubbed into the bread and topped with rough sea salt and olive oil. In a different bakery one purchases the pastries for which Mallorca is famous,ensaïmadas: flaky croissant type dough, some with fillings, coiled and covered in sugar. In a grocery store the size of most good living rooms, clients in flowered summer dresses buy preserves, local olive oil, or dried sardines along with gourmet salts and condiments. There are some chain stores, but most are local names with histories.

Delightful way to go grocery shopping

The seaside suburbs of Manacor, villages such as Portocristo and Cala Millor, are known for stone cliffs and rock caves rather than beaches and so have little tourism. In the fifties, the populations of these suburbs increased as Manacor town residents began building second homes and the populations shifted by season. Families spent winter in town, and moved their households 12 kilometers to the coast for four months of summer. The employed commuted into town, the children played on the coast and mothers packed and unpacked twice a year. Today with better roads and cars, many families again choose to commute rather than move, but many also still keep the second dwelling as good places for meeting friends.

This means that Manacor remains a vibrant town with a healthy mix of population. The cafés still have their regulars, many retired men are to be found at the same table at the same café every day for hours – this is where one meets friends and keeps up on the news. The family knows where to find grandfather.

Mallorca has become international of course, not just with companies such as Camper shoes and Majorica pearls but also with the arts. We attended an outdoor benefit concert consisting of two pianos and a singer that combined a range of styles, flamenco, fado, even a bit of tango in a cabaret type show. It was great entertainment but the real show was the location – the very camp hacienda of respected artist, Joan Riera Ferrari. Ferrari inherited his father’s farm set among rough fields and has expanded the house into a large two floor villa including a small gallery. The enormous garden is part Balinese pleasure grove with fountains, part oasis with embroidered carpet covered verandahs, and a dining grotto all around a pool in which float metal balls of varied sizes. Pottery, statuary, plants, and seats abound in a colourful confusion of textures. The concert itself was on an enormous lawn; rows of white chairs held perhaps 300 people, mostly from Manacor, many of whom greeted the host with kisses. It was a treat, full of local color, well organized and fun.

The main church

Manacor feels intact and integrated; even the less attractive high rises on the edge of town have been renovated and seem orderly. It speaks for both Manacor and for the strength of family ties that Rafael Nadal and his relative Miguel Ángel Nadal, a core player in the Barcelona football club during its “dream team” days in the 1990’s, continue to keep winter homes here and have large summer homes in Portocristo. The financial crisis that hit the Mediterannean hard has not gone unnoticed in Mancor but it is still a gentle and authentically Mallorcan town.


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Boston: Brains, Bomber and Sailboats

Boston lies in the sunshine, soaking the warmth. The magnolias are already in bloom, layer on layer of flowers while the cherry buds are swollen, ready to blossom in the next ten minutes. Yesterday, Harvard students took lunch onto the lawns, girls in skirts and bare legs, unable to wait any longer to feel the sun. Today the lawns are deserted. Harvard staff sit at home trying to organize how to feed students staying their dorm rooms while the city closes down and police search for the Boston bombers.

Blooming bushes at Harvard

In downtown Cambridge, there is one person on Harvard Square at midday; one car drives by, then a taxi turns the corner. Every business remains shuttered. It is eerie, like Beijing during the height of the SARS epidemic, when my car was the only on on Jianguomen Avenue, the main street lined with offices buildings and luxury hotels that runs between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Guests stuck in the hotels go to lunch; what else is one supposed to do? The gym and pool are closed; employees could not get to work. The restaurant staff expects to spend the weekend at the hotel, working all shifts unless the manhunt is successful. One young man seems cheerful about it; he stayed in through the blizzard in February and seems to know the upsides.

What the blizzard did to Boston

Creeping into town following that blizzard was an experience. The New York turnpike had been closed, an occasional taxi daring the drive into the city. Then the Bostonians seemed simply tough, picking their way through slush and pools of icy water on the streets, sidewalks disappeared beneath man-high piles of snow.

It costs a million dollars an inch to clear the snow out of a city like Boston, I was told. A million dollars an inch to scrape it up and pile it in trucks that drive to the coast and dump it into the ocean. Imagine being the mayor and needing to budget for the year; you probably take the ten-year average for your budget, and then you get hit by a freak storm dumping 39 inches in one day. So much for planning.

Twilight on Boston harbor

In Summer, Boston is a steam-house but in parts of Cambridge, reminiscent of Georgetown further south, streets are lined with tables for outdoor café’s and restaurants. The sun goes down, the air cools, you can window shop in the expensive and vastly trendy boutiques. Clothes all natural fibres, of course. A ‘shoppe’ sells only olive oils and vinegars; you fill small glass flasks from casks, compare the olive oil from one Italian site with another, or with one from Greece. Condiments priced by the ounce like perfume. This I have rarely seen in Europe.

Clearly well off in these areas, at the same time showing great diversity of population, these are high points of Boston. Other areas are down market; there the trendiness lies in social innovation. For instance, Boston Arts Academy is an alternative high school that takes in mostly minority students who show talent in visual and performing arts, and ends up with most of them heading to college. Taking one aspect of creativity seriously seems to raise the ability to do things like mathematics and science as well. This successful experiment seems also from the heart of Boston.



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Ubud, Bali: The Business of Culture

Bali, the garden of Eden island, temples and mediation in the hills, discos on the beach. It had this reputation 30 years ago and it is still true but, not surprisingly, increased tourism has had its impact.

The seaside temple of Tanah Lot

Ubud, the village of artists, has grown into a tourist centre with hotels of all ranges from cheap stays to the Four Seasons resort. In many ways the main thoroughfares are interchangeable with parts of Chiang Mae or Luang Prabang, hippy mostly more grown-up backpacker chic with organic café’s full of mac-users on the internet connection. The offering of yoga and health and healing courses and treatments boggles the mind, at the same time that several of the yoga centres are tasteful open places with excellent teachers. It is the density and the intentness of many of the people staying there that makes me feel uncomfortable. Some of it is what the local expats call the “Eat, Pray, Pay” phenomenon.

Rice paddies and coconut trees distract from new houses for expats

The bestseller and Hollywood movie “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert showed the heroine flowering in Balinese life and healing following intense yoga and mediation in India… and then of course she finds true love. This has added to the number of women coming to Bali, I am told; these are late 30’s to early 40’s women who have successful careers and suddenly, towards the end of child-birthing age, are looking for a way to have it all, to find themselves and therewith often love and a baby. This is what a number of longer term residents confirmed to me, first you try assisted conception, then you head to Bali. There are plenty of men too, some have settled with Balinese wives, some are searching. And high powered couples who have escaped the stress of the West for months or even years. There are also those who simply choose the slower life that Bali embodies and that is enabled by the relatively low cost of living than in most Western and some Eastern countries.

The most impressive swimming pools on the Island, the Ubud Hanging Gardens hotel

Interesting entrepreneurial ventures have sprung up in Ubud. Besides the yoga centres and spas, there are tours and, wonderfully, a business centre come business incubator called the Hubud, ( providing unusually high speed internet connections and wonderful working spaces including skype rooms for members but even beyond that offering daily courses, talks, and the opportunity for budding business people to come together and learn from and help each other. As we know from other incubators, putting creative entrepreneurs together results in more than cost savings, it can be the catalyst for even more creative ventures.

I stumbled on an unusual sign of changing times in the form of a Balinese man who lived in his own mental world. As in many small communities, the schizophrenic man wandered freely, given food and sometimes clothing and other goods by those he met. He turned up in the covered garage area of the house, and I was told that he moved from place to place, never harmful though sometimes unnerving. I found him lying out of the sun, in a filthy sarong but new shirt, holding a black cell phone and chatting away happily. After a few moments I realized he was holding a broken off motorcycle mirror, and so he was holding not just a phone but a video call. It used to be that people walking down the street talking to themselves were likely to be stared at and avoided; today everyone is just on a cell phone via earpiece, and so this man had simply joined the crowd.

Traditional buildings still peek above the jungle-like greenery

Bali is changing but slowly. It still holds the magic and the serenity, the smiles and the warmth and the inclusiveness that allows the development of this mixed culture of nomads beside the traditional lifestyle. One can only hope that the foreign owned villas do not completely overrun the rice paddies or Bali may, like Singapore, learn that too much development removes the charm that draws people in the first place.


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Shaoxing: a medium-sized municipal market in China


The town of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Privince, near Hangzhou and a 2.5 drive from Shanghai, would be extraordinary on most continents. Here in China it is one of many, in fact for its size, Shaoxing is one of 300 municipalities all just like it.

What makes Shaoxing lovable is its deep roots in history and the fact that the townspeople value those roots. Not only the tourist streets have kept the old peaked and tiled roofed houses but actually large swathes of town look like this, even if they are in slightly less pristine condition. These neighborhoods are lively! In a narrow alleyway, a small mongrel tied to the door handle growls and stand sover its foodbowl as we pass. The alley opens onto a canal lined with three storey houses, doors open to the long balconies. A man sits by the canal and watches, grunting approval as she picks chives from the herb garden and asks if she should pick chinese parsley – what we know as coriander – as well. From the building across the way, two women hang up wet laundry and sing, their voices melodious and then shrill in the odd whine typical of chinese opera. As we walk further, at least three more small dogs watch from open doorways.

This is a view along the small canal in the restored area for tourists.


This is a normal living area along the canal, not meant for tourists

Just above this neighborhood is one of Shaoxing’s many hilltop lush green parks, dottedwith pagodas. To enter the gate and trace the stone walkway is to move into a tranquil and sweet smelling piece of nature. All in all the city is extremely green in spring and summer, and roads are lined with large old plaintain trees. Under some are stone tables under simple wooden roofs, under which at one time were 5 white haired men with their pants rolled to their knees, sitting and playing cards, two separate young couples sitting side by side, and a child doing his homework.   You see street life here in the way one could see it in Shanghai in 1993 but not much later. So I become nostalgic.

Here you see the way people from the neighborhood gather outside.

Yet the other sides of Shaoxing also draw attention. The business development has been extreme. The per capita GDP here is over USD 12,000 – one of the richest places in China. In the last 10 years the city built the Paojiang development zone including multiple industry parks, housing, essentially a new city that houses something like 60,000 people today and is expected to hold 300,000 within seven years. A new “suburb” if you will, stamped out of the ground and producing jobs and a good standard of living. As usual, scale, speed and scope keep one astounded in China.

This night view shows the other side of Shaoxing, all lit up and throbbing

We met the Vice-Mayor and a number of his associates and colleagues, all young, dynamic, business oriented. The meeting with our delegation could have been out of the 80’s in a big room lined on each side with a doubled row of deep armchairs, lace antimacassars on the back and arms. The delegation had been ranked, with seating order reflecting rank: the higher the status, the closer to the end of the row and so near the head of delegation and the vice-mayor. Set speeches were friendly, full of information about Shaoxing’s history, its important sons (Zhou Enlai, Lu Xun) and its standing in history since it was established 2500 years ago as a capital of Emperor Yu. Gifts were exchanged at the close and we walked the five minutes to the nearby lunch locale, the Chinese side were driven in their shiny black cars – no longer Audis but the newly rising Chinese luxury brands. Nationalism on show.

At lunch, formality continued visually with status ranking mirrored in table seating: the Shaoxing government officials with select delegation members at the head table, the rest distributed at smaller tables. There was more toasting and drinking of the local specialty, yellow rice wine, which even had a write up in the Financial Times last year. Repeated toasts between individuals or whole tables left everyone light-headed and the amount of truly delicious food left me happy I was not leading a  working session after that lunch. The only thing people would have been very good at was napping.

Instead having absorbed the pageantry and good humour of a true Chinese banquet, we set out to visit industry sites, where at least the noise of the corporate videos kept us awake!


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Buenos Aires: Still the Paris of Latin America?

Buenos Aires: Still the Paris of Latin America?

This Latin American market seems to be in elegant decline

Argentina is a long way from anything else, except possibly Brazil. That statement is both wrong and self-evidently right.  It is wrong geographically because there are other neighbors of course, and it is wrong in the feeling you first get landing in Buenos Aires, whose architecture and layout earns its name as Paris of Latin America. And yet it is right when you feel the isolationism that seems to permeate this country. Anyone who can afford to go on vacation goes to Europe, very occasionally to Brazil.  It is as if the rest of Latin America did not exist except as a perceived source of illegal immigrants. It is right in the low use of any language except Spanish – unless you are in a grocery store because Chinese runs these so you can speak Mandarin!  It is right in the sighs of academics that decry their lack of connection to US and European institutions.

Backyards in Recolleta - human sized in a huge city

Buenos Aires is a big city with 14 million inhabitants. Based on my experience in Asia, I expect skyscrapers and heavy traffic, and grit and thick air. Instead, it is a wide open city and, thanks to the breeze that still flows from the ocean down the Río de la Plata the skies are crystal clear and the air smells fresh. It is November, fresh and sunny. The many outdoor cafes are full, fountains tinkle, and wrought iron balconies on multi-storey buildings recall Paris. The streets are tree lined, just now full of purple jacaranda blossoms that I associate with South Africa – it is the same latitude.

The gloriously lavender jacarandas in bloom - above and below

There are further similarities to Johannesburg. A local friend recommends carrying only what fits in my pockets, no purse. She has observed several daylight robberies. Nonetheless, walking through the park and through the streets full of little shops and cafes, I feel no threat. We walk through the La Recoleta cemetery in which Eva Peron is buried. I have seen nothing like it before: it is a miniature town with narrow streets, lined with miniature houses with iron grilled, glass doors through which one sees an altar and one or more decorated caskets. The dead are present. Fresh flowers cover the door grille of Evita’s crypt.

The new president, Cristina Kirchner, is said to study Evita’s speeches and movements and to copy and use them, so as to draw on the deep emotion that still surrounds her. This is positive for the bulk of the population; the upper class still distrusts those like Evita who rise up the social ladder.  For them, the American dream of rags to riches is unattractive.

I had been asked to lecture at IAE, the Management and Business School of the Universidad Austral. It one of the best business schools in Latin America so off I went to the handsome campus. The infrastructure at IAE is fabulous but professors regret being so far away from anywhere, so that contact between business schools is rare. The conference attendees, executives in local and foreign companies, see China mostly as an export market, a buyer of agricultural produce mostly. To hear about China as a global source of investment seems unexpected, yet in the last month Chinese firms bought a bank and large firm in Argentina. Someone said, ‘so we sell soybeans and they buy firms.’

The labour market here is good, I am told. One can hire people and it is much cheaper than Brazil where the Real has risen sharply. But actual inflation in Argentina is currently about 30%, making it expensive and increasingly salaries must rise too.  Repeatedly I hear that Argentinians make great managers: practical, determined, and committed, but that they make rotten entrepreneurs.  Certainly there are no real global Argentinian companies, though there are many small and medium sized enterprises.

My biggest surprise?

One thing you learn soon is that tango and football, considered widely the symbols of Argentina, are actually symbols only of Buenos Aires. The rest of the country does not really value either one. Thinking I could catch a football game in the provinces since I was not in Buenos Aires for the big Sunday games, I was inspired to enquire when I saw a stadium outside Salta. ‘Oh no,’ the locals assured me. ‘That stadium was built but we don’t play football here; we use the stadium for concerts.’

Tango, not a symbol of Argentina but definitely of Buenos Aires

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Argentina Outside Buenos Aires: the Northwest and Iguazu

Outside Buenos Aires: the Northwest and Iguazu

Salta and Jujuy Provinces

The provincial town of Salta is unimpressive on a Sunday afternoon – little is happening, the place is dead. But during the week and especially in the evenings the town comes alive. People are on the sidewalks and fill the outdoor cafes and restaurants, eating empanadas and – of course – steak and fries. These smaller towns in the Northwest, Salta and San Salvador and the village of Purmamarca are all built around a main square of trees and flowerbeds surrounding a hero’s statue, with the town hall on one side and the cathedral on the other. Narrow streets are lined with two and three storey buildings, some modern, many painted in different bright colours, and some in adobe. They are human sized, friendly places.

Cheerful painted houses are the norm in these small but bustling northwestern towns

In the Foothills of the Andes

Leaving Salta and heading towards the Bolivian border on the Pan-American highway, the landscapes remind me sometimes of Sedona in Arizona, and sometimes of Mongolia with the large sky and seemingly endless rolling steppes. Softly rounded hills in shades of blue give way suddenly to craggier, sometimes broken mountains. This is the famous Cerro de Siete Colores or Hill of the Seven Colors. The rock is sedimentary and rich in minerals so layers shine red and pink, green, yellow, blue, and grey. In some places, the rocks have buckled to form round hillocks and the colours are in half-circles, striped like the arc of a rainbow. More often entire hills are different colours, or a lilac hill has a gash of orange peeking through. Landscapes like a dream.

The Seven Colour Hills extend over a range and look painted

But the reality of the minerals becomes different when talking with Ms. Rosario Quispe, the head of Asociación de Mujeres Warmi Sayajsuqno, which means Persistent Women. In what might be called Argentina’s Siberia, a group of desperate indigenous women began what has become a well-known NGO. Many diagnosed with cancer, almost all with 7 children, husbands about to leave for jobs in far-away parts of the country, and hungry, they convened to think of how to save their families and their lives. What emerged is essentially a system of micro-finance large enough to finance small businesses like a bakery or gasoline station, handicrafts, raising chinchillas, and a sustainable local community. An initial Swiss donor has given way to a variety of international co-operations to continue the programs. The cancer came from mercury poisoning, the result of methods used in nearby silver and gold mines. In the meantime there is at least a basic clinic and a Cuban doctor who comes twice a week. Now a number of local youths are studying medicine in Cuba. ‘The next thing we need is lawyers,’ says Ms. Quispe, ‘because we need to go to court to fight for our land.’

Ms. Rosario Quispe, the head of Asociación de Mujeres Warmi Sayajsuqno

In the provincial capital of San Salvador two NGO visits raised questions about civil society and government responsibility. Fundacion Prosecto Ser provides low cost health care in small clinics; ProYungas works to support biodiversity in the Yungas region in Salta and Jujuy provinces, now extending into areas of Bolivia and Paraguay as well. These NGOs are all concerned with maintaining and supporting local communities – many of them indigenous – and the environment; these are important goals and affect peoples’ lives. But I wonder how much should actually be done by the government? How much are they needed because industry, especially sugar and soy plantations and logging companies, do not take responsibility? Why doesn’t the government support the management of national and provincial parks, which are after all a pull for tourism as well as a treasure? These and similar questions are not purely for Argentina, but this trip highlights such issues of responsibility.

The Natural Wonder of Iguana

The day I arrived in Iguazu (also spelled Iguassu or Iguaçu) there were long lines of cars blocking the roads, all honking and people calling out. The falls had just been named by the UNESCO as one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, so a celebration was called for. Somehow it didn’t fit that my plane had flown out of Buenos Aires 3 hours late due to an air traffic control strike – and all following flights were cancelled. So there were few tourists in town to appreciate the celebrations.

Walking around Iguazu Falls was lovely. The views from on the high trail looking across the falls was so magical – the roaring of the falls was impressive and the combination of the water, the amazing sound, the lush green of the rainforest and the smoke and lavender blue of the sky made me afraid because I wanted not to jump but to fly into it, to dissolve into it. The light was ethereal.

Iguazu Falls is a magical place

Looking at that expanse of water and energy, and feeling the sheer force of nature it is so hard to think why small human affairs or emotions should matter at all.  I thought about the water above the falls, how it can seem so tranquil and then all hell breaks loose. It seems a metaphor for life; often we feel tranquillity around us (perhaps mistakenly), and we also know when we are in free fall but we don’t know if we are at the top of the falls, or somewhere in the middle, banging on the rocks below, or getting ready for the next drop, or already rock bottom and flying up as mist. We don’t know where in the process we are. There’s no map.

The views kept drawing me away, and then the animals brought me back to earth, wild guinea pigs of various sizes, a toucan, opossums, and swifts flying in and out of the falls. They added to the sounds and the feel of the humid air.

Definitely my top waterfall – and I have seen a lot of them on several continents.



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Jordan: Past and Future in the New Old Middle East

The Dead Sea

Jordan: Past and Future in the New Old Middle East

I returned to Jordan after about four years, eager to see what differences one felt following the Arab Spring. Four years ago I was already struck by the security in Amman; hotels screened your bags and person every time you entered due to massive bomb attacks at 5 star hotels 6 years ago that killed many people. And of course, Iraq is not far away. Driving along the Jordan valley then there were also many security checkpoints though the guards were always friendly and happy to discuss football (soccer) results. You see Israel so close across the valley, on a clear day you can even see Jerusalem but the border crossings are difficult. It was somewhat shocking to see the Palestinian camps, that looks like pictures we have on tv news of such settlements but to realize these have been in existence for over 30 years. No wonder there is such bitterness.

Reminders of how close neighbors are in this region

Today the security I experience is all around the Dead Sea, due to the World Economic Forum meeting and the long list of political big names coming. Obviously there were major worries about possible attacks.

Nonetheless, right up to the security barriers, Jordanian families were out for their weekend. They picnicked and barbequed with transportable music and rugs and food all along the coast. Families with toddlers were still active at 2 in the morning; clearly this was party time.

It was interesting speaking with the driver over many hours. I hear many more complaints than last time, especially about the gaps between the rich and poor. At the same time he proudly showed me only the rich parts of Amman. As we passed villas, he said an acre of land costs 200 thousand USD in some places, a million in another… I don’t know if the numbers are correct but that was his view. These parts of Amman look very Americanized, full of malls and fast food chains.

Huge canyons lie between the rugged hills

Driving along the “King’s Highway” from Amman to Aqaba is breathtaking in places. Coming through a mountain curve, it can seem as if you are flying into nothing as an enormous canyon opens up before you. There are lovely vistas – sand colored hills, crags, and in between desert. Along the way you pass Mt. Nebu, the mountain from which Moses saw the promised land, and then died. Later the highway curves by Karak, one of the largest crusader’s castles perched on top of an impressive hill.

Even the plain desert areas are interesting in the seemingly endless expanses. Dusk came quickly and it seemed strange there that in the dark one saw lights almost everywhere; this is not an uninhabited area and certainly does not lack electricity.


Looking down on the Petra Treasury form the cliffs above


Entering the more than 2000 year old ancient city of Petra, you walk through what seems an ocean of sand that changes colours from almost white to ocher to rust red and all fine as dust. And then come the cliffs, showing rocks in this same range of colours in huge ocean liner-like blocks of stone and cliffs that the Nabateans shaped into a city. The long narrow entrance, the Siq, builds anticipation and spills you out into a broad plaza facing the Treasury, a huge façade of pillars, Grecian looking lintels and defaced figures. There are enormous rooms cut into the stone behind. The narrow road then opens to vistas, with steep climbs up to hills carved into large spaces and pillars, further along are expansive temple complexes to Roman gods and goddesses and a Roman amphitheater cut from a single large rock, much of it rose-hued but also with purples and yellows and blues, sometime, lines of black, and even green.


The vistas of Petra


It was interesting seeing who else is visiting Petra now: a number of French and Middle Eastern tourists, but most different was the large number of Brazilian tourists taking advantage of the high Real to travel.

Returning to the Dead Sea, it looked like a beautiful blue jewel amidst the dry hills, and at 420 meters below sea level the lowest point in the world. I did swim, a strange feeling to be unable to sink. Sitting and reading in the water is about the best use of this sensation!

The Dead Sea often produces amazing light effects

Yet despite the apparent liberalism in Jordan and the well-known modern royal family, there are rumblings of discontent. The King had removed a minister two days before, other changes were in discussion. Ghaddafi had just been killed and the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud had just died. There is turmoil under the quiet.

And above all the big questions in the region: What to do when the oil runs out? And what will happen with the Palestinians?

Palestinian transport near the Jordan Valley

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Lagos 2

Lagos 2: The Bustling City in Africa’s Biggest Market

Working with Nigerians is a pleasure and takes a lot of energy. Because they have a lot of passion – they discuss at high decibels all at once, to an outsider it sometimes sounds like a riot about to break out but then the noise level crests and relative quiet ensues before the next wave of excitement builds again. There is often teasing and laughter, even amidst relative serious discussions and men and women seem at ease working together. In Lagos, it is clear that Nigerians are flamboyant people who like to look good and enjoy themselves.

The city of Lagos is somewhat like my experience of the inhabitants: a large presence, bustling, noisy and positive. Public areas are chaotic, as is traffic, but it all works. The key message and what keeps things going seems to be relationships – the human touch and lots of communication are key. In traffic, vehicles aggressively push to use each last spare inch of space, but the drivers request to be let in, or gesture, and three-wheelers, motorbikes, and people selling books, handkerchiefs, or a dozen kinds of snacks and drinks cheerfully vie for the space between cars and trucks.

Motorcycles and street sellers squeeze into spaces between vehicles

At the open market in Lekki, open stalls are more or less organized into areas selling meat or vegetables or electronics and other household items. The chicken sellers have a whole production line – you choose your live chicken and it goes immediately to the slaughter, then into the vat of boiling water to be plucked, then is cleaned and cut to order if so desired. At the meat stalls you order the cut you want from the large chunks there. Fish is live or dried, black catfish coiled like snakes. Vegetables and fruit sellers estimate weight mostly, making it hard to know what you pay per pound. And all stalls are reached through narrow alleys, often with an open rill down the centre for rain and refuse. Shoppers throng, filling the alleys, and ‘boys’ carrying loads of various goods in laundry baskets on their heads slip through the crowds, occasionally clipping a head as they pass. Despite the crowds, people are courteous; shopkeepers do not accost passersby. Business goes on in a measured, bustling but pleasant atmosphere.

Just down the road is a shopping mall that is more or less a carbon copy of many South African malls and not unlike small shopping centres in the US. The anchor store is a grocery chain; the other large shop sells electronics as well as foodstuffs. Here it is clean, air conditioned, and up-market. Other shops sell sports clothes, jewelry, and Mont Blanc pens. A few have imported cloth that is used to tailor the traditional Nigerian outfits worn at celebrations. We looked at some and ascertained that fabric for a couple would cost about US $1,000. One store showcased a Nigerian designer who uses local prints on chiffon to style lovely dresses, mostly floor length but some minis, priced like European boutiques.

Parked vehicles attest to the wealthy users of the open market

How do these two markets survive side by side in a fairly up-scale area of town? Local residents told me that, while many middle class Lagotians will choose the convenience and time-saving of the shopping mall grocery stores even if many items are more expensive than the open market, they really want to buy any meat or fish fresh. And that means the open market, because meat sold in clear-wrap could well have been frozen, and that is unacceptable. This was repeated so often that is seems culturally charged. And indeed, the parking lot of the open market is full of large, nice cars; the prevalent Japanese and Korean models but also the occasional German vehicle.

There are several other key things I have learned about Nigerians, who are very proud people.

You accrue status by taking care of a large number of people – so many people have side-businesses in addition to their jobs. They support family members and provide education for younger ones. The more people’s lives you can impact, the more power you wield and the more positions you may be offered. This in turn boosts family status. So the burdens are high but so too the rewards.

Being part of a large group is important. This is illustrated by the tradition that a wedding invitation is often accompanied by a gift of cloth, to be tailored for clothes for the wedding. This means the event and the pictures are a visual sign of whether the guests are part of the bride’s or of the groom’s people. Many guests signals that the person is not alone, not a ‘poor orphan’ but part of a large family. This is my status it says, this is who we are.

Fruit sellers outside TBS Racecourse

Tradition is valued and so pride shows sometimes in surprising ways. Near TBS Racecourse in what was the original heart of Lagos, we looked into what was described as a slum area that still houses some of Lagos’ most prominent families. Because although they may have large houses in far more fancy areas of town, these citizens prefer to stay in the original family home. Tradition and the wishes of family elders carry heavy weight.

And the elderly banana seller on the street said she had been selling fruit at exactly this corner for the past twenty years and has no plans to move.


Tafawa Balewa Square has fallen into disrepair, 'a shadow of itself'

However the nearby national monument on the racecourse, originally a symbol of national pride and site of national celebrations, has fallen into disrepair. Still owned by the federal government, but now far from the new capital, it is not maintained and a Lagotian called it “a shadow of itself.” This is a sign of regionalism; an indication that the monument celebrating the unity of the four major peoples and regions was more a hope than reality, and that those in power care for their own before caring for the nation that is their own.

Tafawa Balewa Square Racecourse and National Unity Monument

I leave feeling that I have peeked into some drivers of Nigerian culture that are a strong platform for continued growth and development. Responsibility for one’s social group, power linked to patronage, and care lead to an emphasis on education, respect for authority, and hard work. Lots of communication and social ease puts relationships in the forefront in this dynamic city, which I will associate with peals of laughter and real presence.

The insurgent attacks that left many dead in the Northeast as I wrote this post unfortunately testify to the regional tensions and the threat of fundamentalist violence that could undermine those very motors. So getting off the plane and reading the news, my mood is sombred.


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Lagos 1

Lagos 1: Fears and Realities in Nigeria

Sitting in the Nigerian Consulate in Berlin is already an introduction to Nigerian culture. You must leave your phone, laptop, and camera at the front desk when you enter the consulate. Passport renewals and visa applications are handled together so the room is mostly filled with Nigerian citizens, some with babies applying for passports, others for themselves. A number come with German girlfriends or wives. Otherwise the visa applicants are overwhelmingly German men who seem to work on infrastructure projects.

No cameras allowed in the consulate but here a view of discussions in public

The Nigerians have varied attitudes. One young man starts complaining from the moment he enters. “This is what is wrong with our country,” he says and gestures at the room. “No order, the seats are not in rows, the people never start work on time…” His seat neighbor calms him, telling him to quiet down; saying that after all he is here because he wants something. But the first continues grumpy through most of the morning, at one point saying, “I am not talking about all of you here, you know how to work hard. But look at what we have at home…” He stimulates some conversation but not much empathy. No one likes to hear their country attacked, even by one of its own.

The Embassy staff, especially the women, is a force to be reckoned with: tough, directive, taking no contradiction or excuse. This confirms my experience with Nigerians in executive courses over the year: very well educated, they speak forcefully and the body language says, don’t even consider messing with me. I admire the pride and the sheer presence that comes across.

My actual experience of Lagos is therefore less of a surprise than it would have been without these encounters in the consulate.

A normal Lagos scene except for the empty road

The first thing that struck me was how much easier it is to enter the country than I had been warned. One colleague had said a multinational he knew used the task of getting through Nigerian immigration and customs on entry as an assessment centre exercise. Well, that wouldn’t be much of a test these days – no one asked me anything. Likewise the exit, which I was warned would involve having all luggage taken apart bit by bit; I experienced nothing of the kind. Perhaps I have just been lucky but I did not see any interest in harassing people.

Overall my experiences in the city have not matched the picture of Lagos we get outside. One hears about constant murders and robberies, is told to go nowhere without a security guard, to drive in cars with bulletproof windows and so on.  While I am sure there are areas of Lagos to which I should not go, what I saw was a normal city with people moving around easily. I was in open squares and markets and transportation hubs or walking streets with no incident of unease. I was always with a Lagotian or a couple of people, but in the tight open markets it would have been easy to try and grab my bag.


Tight and crowded alleyways in the open market

My funniest conversation was with a Nigerian who talked about her first trip to Johannesburg and how afraid she was after being warned about the dangers there. In his lovely book on travelling in Asia, “A Fortune Teller Told Me”, Tiziano Terzani reported that the best fortune-teller was always said to be in the next village. Likewise, the greatest danger seems to be in another country’s city.

I am not completely blue-eyed about this. Lagos did have terrible crime rates and the income disparities are clearly visible. But five years a new Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, entered the scene and began to clean up. Apparently he visited and walked with the local leaders in different areas so as to gain local authority. According to some Lagotians I discussed this with, he arrested the “area boys”, those hanging around dangerous locales getting into trouble rather than being organized gangs. While the “area boys” were in custody, he razed their hangouts under bridges and in slum areas, moved dangerous open markets to new sites and is known for planting gardens on the razed sites. He then offered the troublemakers a basic job and say they could work or go to jail. This echoes zero-tolerance methods used in New York and other high crime areas and seems to have made a major difference.

And the spaces only get more crowded in the interior

On the other hand, there are still robberies and most residences, hotels, and offices have perimeter walls and security guards. But, I was assured, the Nigerian robbers wouldn’t harm you physically if you hand over the goods they want. One even reported he had emptied his pockets when robbers entered a restaurant where he was eating, but they didn’t take his locally made cell phone. Another laughed and said that when his friend was being robbed of his imported cell phone, the friend said “please leave me the SIM card”, and the robbers obliged. Everyone agreed that kidnappings have been severely reduced.

So it isn’t crime free by any means, but the impression is of a society on the right path and apparently even criminals share a respect for dignity and life – as long as you give them what they want. And as long as they are not politically motivated, in which case massacres can occur. Terrorism is unfortunately not restricted to any particular culture or continent.


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