Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ways of Life

The woman in the chicken stall grasped the whole plucked bird by the neck and deftly chopped it into sections. Whack! Off with the head. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! And we had legs, thighs and breast, just like in the supermarket packets. A few more deft flourishes, and the liver, stomach and feet (minus nails and outer skin) were put in separate bags to use for soup.

After a kilo of eggs, two large wheels of fresh cheese, 500 grams of fresh olives, two kilos of potatoes, a couple of packets of sausage and patty meat, and a sheep's stomach thrown in for good measure, Hugo and I had spent 48 soles (around $16 USD). Lizbeth and the kids were picking up the vegetables; we'd already stocked up on peaches, mangoes, papaya, grapes and pacay from a roadside stall.

We were in one of the slightly pricier of Arequipa's produce markets, which for its premium was clean, orderly, and offered supermarket-style trolleys. According to Lizbeth and Hugo, it costs about 100 soles for the required provisions to feed what is, with the revolving cast of home help, friends and guests, a family of four or five. Adding in things bought during the week such as bread, coffee, takeaways, and other bits and pieces, Lizbeth estimated that they would spend 200 soles a week ($65 USD).

Obviously incomes are a lot lower here. But I couldn't help comparing that favourably with the $12 NZD or so it costs me to buy the ingredients for one meal and some leftovers for the next day - just for one person.

Though the tourist business is precarious, Hugo and Lizbeth also don't have to pay rent, as the rambling house on the Avda. Gutemberg is shared in a complicated way among the family. I'm not really cut out for economics-type stuff, but if someone was to work out a ratio of work required for provision of basics, they might compare favourably with a New Zealand middle class family, even amidst the core struggle of life in Peru.

When I first experienced domestic Peruvian life, I found it hard to deal with the lack of hot running water. Now, Hugo and Lizbeth's part of the house boasts a functioning electric shower head. Though it has unreliable pressure, and seems to battle with the kitchen light for power, with a little patience it produces a perfectly reasonable hot shower.

Either electric head or gas-heated showers are extremely common in Latin America. For the price of a small wait before your water heats, you don't have to pay to keep a large tank constantly heated, and, I would imagine, make a much smaller dent on the national electricity grid.

Dishwashing is also a lower-energy endeavour. Here, it's standard practice to use a cold water with a scrubbing pad and a hard, cold-water soap. Again, I'll give way in the facts to the epidemiologists and environmental engineers, but I would guess that hygiene is maintained just as well, and the overall environmental impact is much smaller, than using hot water and sudsy detergent.

In my gringo ignorance, I also used to silently chortle a little at the house's washing machine, with it's clunky controls, and its single flimsy discharge hose. The machine used to be indoors, and the idea was that the dirty water would be discharged into a drainage hole in the floor. This didn't seem to work well, and a load of washing often ended up flooding the kitchen floor. On one occasion, after some studious work with a stick and a plunger, I improved the flow down the drain by extracting some bundles of lint and a dead mouse.

Now, the washing machine sits outside on the patio. The normal technique is to fill the machine to the level required with the garden hose, run the wash or rinse cycle (less than 5 minutes for each is plenty), then empty the water into one of the large plastic washing tubs and from there into the traditional laundry fixture at the back of the patio.

I now see the practicality of the machine - it's designed for the rambling, informally developed houses of Latin America that don't have comprehensive plumbing. Doing the washing is a nice little 15-minute ritual after breakfast; by the time you've put the clothes through the machine's separate (and very efficient) spin compartment, they only require and hour or two in the sun to fully dry.

For about 9 months of the year, Arequipa's nightime temperatures drop below 10 degrees celcius, but heating is not really necessary. Almost all buildings are made of thick stone, brick or concrete, which soak up the sun and retain warmth to such an extent that a single sheet is all that's needed for most of the night's sleep.

What's my point here? Simply that there's not just two ways to live: modernity, meaning mile-a minute pace, ever-increasing work hours, isolation from fellow citizens, and burgeoning consumption of energy and other rsources; or backwardness, meaning poverty, ignorance, and lack of technology. With simpler, practical versions of existing technologies suited to a region's geography, and more attention to the value of time, it's possible to have the comforts of the modern world without driving ourselves and the environment into the ground.

With its crippling poverty, pollution and poor infrastructure, Peru might not seem like it has much to teach the western world. But as it slowly drags itself into the next stage of development, I hope it pursues its own idiosyncratic path and retains some of the things which are working just fine now, mixing and matching to suit and not abandoning the Latin obsessions of family, community and quality of life.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

South America Bidsta

So here I find myself in South America again. In Santiago de Chile, actually. The jet lag is seriously messing with me for now, so I can't write much.

Suffice it to say that I'm overnighting here and catching my connection to Lima tomorrow. There it looks like I'll meet up with my friend Hugo, who is on a quixotic mission to acquire a visa from the Spanish embassy. Then it should be on to Arequipa, "la ciudada blanca", under whose mountains it seems a part of my heart is permanently ensconced.

I have a wedding to attend on the 6th of January, and after that it's pretty free and loose - perhaps another trip to the jungle, maybe the coast, hopefully material to be gathered for some more stories.

In the meantime, for those who have anything close to my level of fascination for the Latin American world (especially those who managed to get through any of my ruminations on Peruvian politics last year), here's an article worth reading. From the London Review of Books, a reflection on how Chile has changed - and how it hasn't - in the years since Salvador Allende and the Pinochet coup. Warning - contains strong personal and political slant.

For me it's a useful counter balance to the "Chile is doing just wonderfully and is an example to the world" line we see a lot these days. On the other hand, the description of Chile's continuing dark undercurrents could probably be applied to a number of other outwrdly progressiv countries - including New Zealand.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Back from Nature

At Lauder in Central Otago, less a town than the scattering of buildings around the old sheep station homestead, you can now get a pretty fine flat white coffee from a roadside trailer in the form of a locomotive engine. The coffee stand has been recently established by a cheerful local woman, and on days with less inhospitable weather than when we stopped, apparently does steady business.

At around 350 metres above sea level, Lauder is one of the landmarks on the Central Otago Rail Trail, a bike and walking track which runs along the route of the old railway line from Dunedin to Clyde. It's an example of a style of tourism in which New Zealand is a world leader - for want of better description, let's call it "bourgeois adventurism".

This combines two Kiwi traits. The wilderness-braving pioneer ruggedness that we once relied on and love to mythologise. And the recently-acquired obsession with the finer things in life that typifies our now highly urbanised consumer society. New Zealand's smallness and unique geography lends itself to this combination. Within minutes of slogging through a genuinely harsh and wild landscape, you can be served by someone with a cultured apprecation of how to treat a fine roast bean.

When I agreed to go on the trip, it was because I thought it would tend more to the bourgeois end. A rail trail, with lots of interesting plaques describing colonial history; it sounded distinctly gentle and middle-aged. Potentially, if you follow the advice, of the guide book to cycle the trail in "3 to 5 days", that's how it is.

Due to time constraints, however, we had to do it in two days. My two sisters are cycling enthusiasts; I hadn't been on a bicycle for about 2 years. So you can imagine what 180 km, off-road, within 48 hours, ended up doing to various parts of my anatomy.

Then there was the weather. Global warming or no, ever-fickle New Zealand is on track for its coldest ever December. In a region where in the last two summers temperatures have flirted with the 40 degree mark, for much of our ride it was in single figures - with a howling southerly to boot.

As we climbed from Alexandra into the high country, sheep shivered as grey woolly clouds slid down hills covered in snow. It looked and felt more like an October cold snap than a week out from New Year.

But on day two, after a brisk morning climb to the high point of the journey at 618 metres, and gradual progress through rocky river gorges into the Maniatoto Valley, we arrived at the settlement of Hyde.

There, we could warm up, apply moisturiser, text message, and enjoy muffins and more coffee, while we contemplated the relief map which seemed to show a gentle downhill 25km to the finish of the trail in Middlemarch.

We'd reckoned without the screaming wind. Along bumpy farm tracks, we crawled along at 10 km/h, no downhill incline perceptible. When we finally got to Middlemarch, it wasn't even the end; we'd planned to cycle another 20 km to meet up with the Taieri Gorge excursion train from Dunedin. Assuming that this would be tarseal all the way, we found that the last 12 km was off-road again, a series of rises and dips, and then a steep, curving uphill into a windswept badlands of eroded rock.

Non-cyclist that I am, I was at breaking point as I pumped the pedals in the lowest possible gear. Blood sugar levels collapsing and legs refusing, I dragged my bike up one last rise, desperately hoping we were finally at the train station.

There was a small wooden station house huddled on the plateau under some macrocapas, looking like a Rita Angus painting. We'd arrived just five minutes before the train.

Back in chilly Dunedin, we found a warm upstairs pizzeria with polished hardwood and a vaulted ceiling. A chatty girl from Northern England served us menus written in Italian while at the next table four anemic-looking French students discussed something intellectual or drole.

Scoffing my pizza and drinking Scicilian wine, I felt the swathes of sunburn on my legs, my windburnt face and chapped lips, and looked around sceptically at the comfort-loving townies. For a brief moment, I savoured being a rugged Southern man.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Free to Comment

Here's a couple of recommended picks from the Guardian's Comment is Free section. A while back I was a bit despairing about what appeared to be the lost potential of blogs as a vehicle for intelligent debate. Even on what you'd expect to be a place for measured discussion, every comment thread, almost regardless of the topic, seemed to degenerate within ten posts into a vicious circle of name calling: "Right wing neocon!". "Saddam-loving surrender monkey!". And so on, ad infinitum.

But happily, the standard seems to have improved, at least in some of the threads. There's lots of interesting ones there. As a matter of taste, these two particularly appeal to my brand of geekiness.

If you're a follower of the British gallery of pundits and columnists, this one is like a star-studded grudge match for a sports fan. Rising star Zoe Williams goes into bat for the much maligned Polly Toynbee, who's been pilloried by the big names across the right wing spectrum - libertarian (Boris Johnson), frothing neocon (Melanie Phillips) and grumpy paleocon (Peter Hitchens) - on charges of hypocrisy and chardonnay socialism.

The comments thread turns out to be excellent - a searching examination of the issues at hand: can you really advocate for the poor when you yourself are wealthy; and is sending your children to a private school hypocritical when you argue for more support for public education? The involvement of the various personalities adds colour. But more importantly, the debate remains polite and articulate for the most part.

This one is even more punchy. Muslim academic Ziauddin Sardar attacks Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie for pushing a "neoconservative" agenda in their punditry and (less plausibly) their novels. About 80 percent of the comments disagree, but almost all are politely worded enough, and many add something distinct to the discussion. I came away from both enlightened and with a more nuanced personal view.

Is all this just hot air that make no difference? Middle class guardianista intellectuals sipping tea and splitting hairs, while outside the world continues to rage? Perhaps. But the way I see it, you can have some intelligent debate, or no intelligent debate at all. Given that there are a range of different views expressed here, by people from what appear to be at least be a few diverse backgrounds, it's not just blabbing amongst the converted.

Yes, they're mostly educated and middle class, but educated middle class people have also been known to blow things up. Even the best blogs won't save the world, but they do show that civilized disagreement is still possible.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Adventure in Andagua....

OK. I'm trekked out. Done with adventuring. Through with the Andes. In addition to the cracked lips, burnt skin, dust-ravaged sinuses, mosquito bites and blisters, I'm suffering from advanced desert-mountain-canyon fatigue. I think my next trip will be to Peru's north coast. I want seafood and cold beer, soft, humid air, palm trees swaying in the moonlight, modern vehicles roaring along long, straight highways. If I want to get in shape I'm going to the gym. If I've a hankering for spectacular landscape I'll take a scenic train trip or something.

Which is not to say that the Cabanaconde-Andagua trek was not a mind-blowing, unforgettable experience. It flirted with my physical limits, and took me across an entire piece of geography, from subtropical valley, canyon riverbed and terraced hillside to high-altitude desert, mountain basin, mineral-rich peaks and high passes, eventually arriving in an arid valley full of exctinct volcanoes. We visited improbably remote villages and stumbled across a rich variety of plant, animal and bird life without even looking for it. This trek should be mouth-watering for the botanist, anthropologist, historian, geologist, volcanologist and bird-watcher. Forget the Inca Trail - this ought to be one of Peru's, and perhaps the world's, great walks.

You know those movies where are our fugitive or stranded heroes have to walk out of the wilderness to safety/civilisation? We see them marching along looking determined, taking a break by a mountain stream, then cut to a high pass where they're trudging through snow drifts with exhausted looks on their faces, only to arrive at the glorious vista of a fertile valley below. Well, this trek was like that, only without the cinematic cuts.

There's a lot to tell, so I'm going to serialize it more or less in chronological order.

Day One - Murder of the Feet:
After the mandatory sleepless overnight bus ride from Arequipa, we enjoyed Karina's famous banana pancakes at the Valle de Fuego hostel in Cabanaconde and met the guide and donkey acquired for us by Lizbeth's father. From Cabanaconde it's a good 9 hours walk to the village of Choco - and there's no half measures, since there's literally no water on the way. Our guide Toño, a native of Cabanaconde, estimated that it's a distance of 35km. While he sometimes varied and corrected himself on his altitude estimates, his facts and figures were generally trustworthy, and I'll give him this one. Which makes it almost the entire Inca Trail in one day.

After passing through the deceptive green of the irrigated agricultural terraces around Cabanaconde we headed south-west, following the course of a road that's being built to (theoretically) link Cabanaconde with Choco. We cut across the many serpentines of the road, plodding downhill as the vegetation disappeared and the sun beat down with unrelenting fury. The track was through and across scree of shattered rock; this is the hardest surface of all to go downhill on, and only sand is harder uphill. After the first three hours my feet were already burning inside my boots.

By the time we reached the "corte" or where the road ends in a heap of shattered rock above the Colca river the landscape was resembling, if not quite the infierno, then definitely the Land of Nod to the East of Eden. Cecilia is fond of describing her work as "the rockpile", in an oblique reference to the myth of Sisyphus (or is it Prometheus? tell me someone??). You could hardly find a workplace where this more closely approximates a literal description than the tail end of the in-progress Cabanconde-Choco road. Down towards the river, the whole hillside is a rockpile of sharp, chunky scree. The workers are engaged in clearing a path wide enough for a vehicle through this rubble and piling up the rocks to form retaining walls which will theoretically prevent the road from being re-devoured by the mountainside.

Given the penchant of the Andes to unleash huaycos, or large landslides which obliterate everything in their path, and the notoriously uncertain nature of publicly-funded projects in Peru, there's more than a suggestion of the Sisyphean about the rock-piling process. But given that their only company was clouds of choking dust, the road workers we passed seemed inordinately cheerful. "Going to Andagua?" they called, guessing correctly the destination of the two gringos with guide and donkey. We nodded. "Looong way" they laughed. Well, at least they have a job.

I suspect there's also something of a pipe dream about the road. Leaving the corte and heading along the trail towards Choco, I couldn't see where a road could possibly go. Later in Arequipa, several people who knew the area smiled sadly and shared my assessment. We worked our away across a blasted heap of scree to join an excruciatingly narrow trail clinging to the canyon wall above the river, passing a small cross and memorial to two local children who had tragically tumbled off the edge.

Below, on the other side of the river appeared a small, startlingly green oasis of alfalfa plots and fruit trees. To me, with a dry throat relieved only occasionally by my rationed water, it seemed impossibly beautiful; I wanted to fly over there and bury my head in the cool green. In a landscape of such harsh contrast and drama, it's impossible not to think in mythic or Biblical terms, of Gardens, Promised Lands and Wildernesses. Good-fertile, Evil-arid makes perfect sense to a dehydrated brain.

Adding flashes of colour to the cliffs along the trail were huanarpo, small bushes of deadwood-seeming branches terminating in bright scarlet flowers. Apparently tea made from its bark is a powerful aphrodisiac - or so I interpret from Toño's comment that "men shouldn't take too much of it - it makes them very excited"

Another hour and the trail finally dropped to the river and the swing bridge to the other side. This stretch of the canyon is not the deepest - there's not the towering 5,600-metre peaks which face Cabanaconde - but it is one of the steepest. By the bridge, however, there was a cleft with a more gradual gradient and natural irrigation from above. In a wash of green, tuna cactuses, apple trees and palms tumbled down the canyon wall to the river. Toño said he had some land in these parts where he cultivated maize and fruits. Apart from guiding, which he does whenever he can, he's a "professional agriculturalist" At the age of 37 he has his work cut out supporting his six kids - one of whom is now studying systems engineering at an institute in Arequipa.

We crossed the bridge and relaxed for ten glorious minutes in the scant half-shade under the rocks. Toño pointed out a waterfall high up on the canyon side. There, about six hours scrambling climb up from his plots of land, is a pool where condors gather to bathe in the evening.

From the river it was another three hours up and along the pathway etched into the hillside, begging for the sun to drop behind the mountains.

Choco sounds like the Quechua equivalent of Grimsby, but its name doesn't do it justice - after a nine-hour march it seemed like a lost paradise. Tidy terraces following the curves of the opposite hill were the first signs of civilization. Then another curve brought us into a dramatically green valley, hemmed in by improbably steep mountains - think Ash and Anjuli's lost valley in The Far Pavilions. The path ascended through terraces of eagerly sprouting maize, overflowing with fruit trees. At 2,300 metres, Choco has a balmy microclimate, and seems to be blessed with very fertile soil. Here they cultivate avocados, figs, chirimoya, guayaba, apples, peaches, even mangoes!

The promise of unlimited fresh water dragged me up the final twisting path to the village of Choco itself, strategically elevated on a knoll above the river. For an isolated village (contact with the outside world requires the 4-5 hour walk to the corte to catch the kombi to Cabanaconde), it's surprisingly urbane and self-sufficient. They have their own electricity supply, generated by a water-driven turbine upstream and powering the village's streetlights. They also have a small trout farm. There was pure, running water from the tap and an outside toilet in a corral shared with a large white mule. As we crashed in a tidy little room of the village hospedaje the owner practiced the saxophone while his family watched videos next door.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Ok, so one shuffled off this mortal coil, while the other's death was only political. But there was some irony that last week saw the demise of both Milton Friedman and Don Brash.

There was some genuine regret in the passing of Friedman. As this excellent (short) piece in Salon notes, it's always good to have a worthy devil's advocate to sharpen your arguments. And for a social democrat who thinks that there are a number of areas where public (read government) involvement or regulation may be appropriate, running a Friedmanesque critique will knock out any blindspots in your ideas.

I also admired his thoroughgoing libertarianism, particularly his criticism of the war on drugs. But taken as a whole, I believe his philosophy was blinkered, overly simplistic and ultimately harmful.

Such was his pathological mistrust of anything that looked like "big government", that almost any other evil was assumed to be a priori lesser.

For Friedman and his followers "government" is always identified with the state - a monolithic, self-interested institution - rather than the expression of public will about how society should be ordered.

Having ruled out the possibility of a collective striving for fairness and decency, the result is a semi-coherent set of excuses for unadulterated greed.

Friedman wasnt a cultist nutter like Ayn Rand; he didn't think that greed was of itself an inspirational, purifying force. But the cheap wisdom that "government isn't the solution to the problem; government is the problem" leads in a pretty straight line to the excesses of Enron and its cheerleaders.

There may well have had good personal reasons for his deep mistrust of anything that looked like "government". But it's verging on the intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that power is exploited, accumulated and exploited some more, at all levels, by all kinds of individuals and institutions. The assertion that private entities will be better held accountable by consumers and competitors than public ones are by democratic process just seems like blind faith.

It's hardly controversial that pure economic "freedom" inevitably means more freedom for some than for others. Even if there is a level playing field for all to compete on (and if such a society existed, it wouldn't look much like any historical ones), a completely "free market" will reward cunning and ruthlessness just as much, if not more, than creativity, hard work, integrity and perserverance.

If we care about having a fair society, we need to be serious about lessening the consequences for life's losers.

If Friedman never doubted the rightness and coherence of his ideas, one wonders whether he ever questioned how the Thatchers and Reagans of the world could so happily uplift just the economic bits, without the slightest interest in his more widely libertarian views, and preside over some pretty "big government" in the miltary and criminal justice spheres.

From an objective point of view, this is actually unsurprising. As, I've argued before, thoroughgoing libertarianism of the kind espoused by Friedman only ever exists in the abstract: university lecture halls, blogs, and Reason magazine. Real political parties often tend to become more authoritarian and socially conservative as they move to the economic right.

Why? I suspect there' s some kind of natural law: unbridled freemarketism inevitably leads to such discomforting inequalities between the winners and losers that it's necessary to scapegoat and punish the losers. Hence the gravitation to heavy-handed social conservatism.

A good example is New Zealand's ACT party, which started out aspiring to be a "classical liberal" party, but whose signature within a couple of years was Muriel Newman bashing single mothers.

Which brings us to Brash, whom, I have to admit, I will not miss on the NZ political scene.

Contra Helen Clark's bitter-tongued accusation, I didn't believe that Brash was truly "corrosive" or "cancerous". He was apparently friends with the father of a friend of mine at university: such a nice man, I can't believe he could have had a corrosive mate.

What I think is that he was a deeply ingenuous politician who had had one important insight early in his life, and after many years as an economics wonk, sheltered from the wider world's nitty-grittiness, went blithely along with some of the nastier elements of the National Party's strategy team.

Brash was the son of Christchurch presbyterian socialists; in a classic act of youthful rejectionism he seems to have siezed on the epiphany that individuals aren't trapped by the class struggle after all - if they work and study hard they can overcome their humble beginnings and get ahead.

In reality, despite the caricature of "leftist" thought, no serious person much beyond Sociology 101 really denies this. Just as few really argue with the truism that historical and cultural factors (class; ethnicity) can hinder certain population groups and mean that, on average, their members are less likely to do well.

The debate between "centre-left" and "centre-right" policy-makers is almost entirely about how much emphasis to place on each of these truths - in most cases about 90 percent an empirical question.

Post epiphany, Brash seems to have spent a long time working in economics departments and banks, and not developing much more nuance to his world view. Come his time in the political sun, he was so sure that the country needed to be saved in one tax-flattening, privatising, deregulating swoop, that he was amenable to silver-tongued whispers in his ear about stirring up the rednecks.

So, we had Brash's Greatest Hits: "Orewa I" (bash the Maoris) and "Orewa II" (bash single mums). Perhaps he was quite uncomfortable with this opportunism. Certainly, people in his own party found it distasteful: as we now know, Bill English wrote to Brash that "you have succumbed to McCullyism - and there is nothing more despicable than that". Brash's own strategist Peter Keenan wrote to another adviser that he "hated the race based privilege line", and thought it "ludicrous when Maori are largely at the bottom of the heap".

But the frightening thing was that, in his own bumbling, recently-trained way, Brash actually seemed to believe in the substance behind the dog-whistling rhetoric.

The nadir was reached when Brash declared, apparently in all sincerity, that if Maori have much higher mortality rates from lung cancer than non-Maori, it must be because each one has taken the personal decision to smoke. In the face of this insouciance, it seemed to be almost missing the point to provide a sophisticated response about population health determinants (or to note that in fact higher incidence rates account for less than half the excess cancer mortality rates or Maori).

By this logic, factors like historical confiscation of land, suppression of language and culture, systematic mariginalisation from the rest of society until at least the 1960s, are irrelevant: a whole population group just makes the perfectly rational choice to die eight years earlier. In his steadfast determination to adhere to 18th-century classical liberalism and declare the world as flat as his textbook, Brash simultaneously channelled Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford: history is bunk and there is no society.

Here's the analogy at an individual level: imprison a man for twenty years for a crime that he didn't commit. When he gets out, mutter an apology, give him a hundred dollars, and send him on his way, saying: "it's one law for all; you should do fine".

And the real irony is that Brash's naiive extremism actually did rather well to alienate a Maori party that was a potential coalition partner for National: sick of being patronised, and rather amenable to the "we should sort out our own problems" line, just not quite prepared swallow the claim that all their people's problems are a result of their own "choice".

Brash's epitaph looks set to become the disguised compliment that he was a "poor liar". Unfortunate, idealistic man, he was tripped up by those cunning sophisticates in the other parties and the, ahem, liberal media. But let's admit the real problem: outside the wonkish confines of managing inflation, he was a poor thinker.

And I doubt even Milton Friedman would have approved of that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Here's a Quiz

Who is the best, technically most accomplished, grittiest, most soulful, sexiest female pop singer of the last 25 years? Come up with your own answer before reading on.

Now, check out these clips and tell me I'm wrong:

Maybe start with this one.

Then this one.

This one for some variation.

This for an encore if you will.

Note that these are all live clips, the first two within the bright, hard walls of TV studios, where many performers sound tinny and a little off-key, and most pick one of their more less ambitious songs to play. Spot the difference with this young woman.

You've just gotta love YouTube.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Deborah Does Callous

If this website sometimes threatens to degrade into "New Zealand Mainstream Mediawatch Blog", it's not my intention. But things keep appearing which can't be let pass without some finger wagging.

In the past, I've commented on the print media's flippant looseness with facts and figures, and more recently, its occasional malicious intent.

Could those two inclinations be combined to perfection in a single article? You bet. Deborah Coddington's latest rant on "Asian crime" in North and South effortlessly manages to be both dumb and mean.

Keith Ng's deconstruction of the piece is a must-read. Though, perhaps because he's wary of being seen to take personal offence at what is effectively a racial slur, he's surprisingly restrained in his concluding comments.

This in the same week as I have watched the development and publishing of a piece which whipped up a potent cocktail of woeful misunderstanding and wilful distortion. Unfortunately, I'm prevented for professional reasons from making specific comment on the article in question.

It's these kind of contributions to our public discourse, and the paucity of editorial standards maintained even by our so-called "serious" publications, that remind me why I never tried to get into this game when I was younger. Despite my current regrets about not being half way to becoming a columnist for the Guardian, it was probably the correct decision.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

This Just In

Don't normally do the "link only" posts, but got diverted to this amusing cartoon while following the mid-term races (no, not the Melbourne Cup). Dems pick up the House, but not the Senate...? Worth a look.

Update: the Democrats have picked at least fifteen seats in the House and four in the Senate. The latter still not enough to give them control, but it may go down to the wire.

Early days yet, but as I said to someone in a fit of unreasonable optimism earlier in the week: the world is about to change for the better. That was based on US politics too, though more on my prediction that the 2008 race would be McCain vs. Obama...Is the US ready to elect a black man? Maybe. Is the US ready to elect a woman? Maybe. Hilary Clinton? ...?

Either which way, it's got to get better. The Dark Lords (Darth Cheney et al) will no longer rule us (or at least not quite so blatantly). And yes, I know that Clinton oversaw the complete rejection of Kyoto, and ushered in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act with barely a murmur...but that was a Republican-controlled Congress too.

Come on, it's a good day. We just disabled the reactor core in the Death Star. Well done, Ohio.

And finally: it seems that the Democrats may have secure the Senate as well. And Donald Rumsfeld got fired, I mean resigned. Only six years too late.

People commenting on New Zealand's Public Address blog picked up some of the highlights from Little Green Footballs, where some posters were sure American would immediately suffer a nuclear terrorist attack as a result of having elected Democrats. The scary part is...they were looking forward to it.

Mind you, we have our own, resident, Mark Steyn-suffering-from-advanced-dementia nutjobs as well, as the comments thread on this post shows.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Would You Like to Scrape the Barrel?

Talk about tempting fate. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the Sunday Star Times "veers from quite good to abysmal" in the quality of its reporting. On that occasion, I had to give some plaudits for the story on female genital mutilation in the Somali community, buried as it was inside the Focus section.

Then, as if to deliberately emphasize its abysmal side, last Sunday's edition proceeded to plumb new depths of banal meanness.

The leading article on the front page was, desperately wanting to be sensationalist, an "exposé" on a Christchurch school teacher who at one stage in her misspent youth had acted as the getaway driver for a couple of bank robberies, and had ended up doing a couple of years in prison.

It was found that the school was aware of the person's past, proper process had been followed by the board, and that she appeared to be a pretty good teacher. The article thus lamely fizzled out.

So, please excuse my language, but what was the f*king point? Here was somebody who pretty much fit the definition of having "made some mistakes", had done the time, and had turned her life around. Given our pretty abysmal rate of imprisonment and reoffending (New Zealand is not as bad as the US, but beats out most other OECD countries), this should be a good news story. Or really, no story at all. How would you feel if you'd been really dumb when younger, managed to straighten out, then woke up one day to find your whole life splashed over the Sunday paper?

Oh, but it's in the public interest, because she could be influencing our kiddies. Yeah, she could be, like, teaching Getaway Driving 101, just after Social Studies. Right.

I used to think that NZ papers mainly dwelt in a boring middle ground. Rarely of much quality or insight, they also haven't traditionally indulged in the calculated viciousness of the British tabloids. I guess articles like Sunday's signal a course further towards the gutter.

The same edition featured in its magazine section a rambling, abjectly bad piece which revisited familiar territory: the well-known "we women are being forced against our will by the fashion industry to be incredibly neurotic about our weight, and men, who of course don't have a care in the world, are in league with them and don't like us anyway, boo hoo" genre.

It would have looked amateurish in a student mag. The writing was laughable (sample: "Does this mean it's jsut a matter of time before all men want women to weight as much as a kitten? Quite possibly.") It got two pages of smallish font. Two whole pages! This is the same publication that so far hasn't even deigned to reply to any of my submissions. [Declaration of interest: I'm a bitter and frustrated wannabe feature / investigative writer]. Grrr.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Throwing Stones in Glasshouses

You think the political mudslinging has got bad recently in New Zealand, with expressions like "cancerous" and "corrosive" thrown around, hints being dropped about people's marriages, and increasing scrutiny of what members of Parliament may or may not have done in their extracurricular lives?

Think again. This summary from Slate of the concerted personal attacks in the US mid-term elections shows that we've got a long way to go yet. Not only are scurrilous personal attacks a deliberate strategy, they seem to have become practically a mandatory component of any serious campaign.

And yes, the Republicans are a lot worse.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Credit Where It's Due

I have been known to beat up on New Zealand journalism from time to time. Truth is, about three quarters of the reporting and feature writing in New Zealand newspapers and magazines isn't very good or interesting, and about three quarters of what's good or interesting is reprinted from international publications (and the less said about most television reporting, the better).

It's not all bad. The Sunday Star Times, in particular, lurches from the gutter-dwelling abysmal to the occasionally quite good, with quality normally in inverse proportion to the trendiness of the topic. Michael Field, who writes mainly for the Dominion Post, does some sterling work, reporting on cultural, political and environmental issues from around the Pacific Islands. It's the sort of roving commission I'd love to have, only in Latin America (I have faith that The Guardian will eventually see the light and offer me the role).

On that note, I ought to offer plaudits to Ruth Laugesen (with some help from Ruth Hill) for the piece in yesterday's SST on female genital mutilation in the New Zealand Somali community. It's a difficult, loaded issue, but it was treated with some balance and sensitivity.

It was actually the kind of piece that lent itself to the "he said; she said" style of reporting (though in this case it was really "she said; she said"), as too much authorial input could easily have seemed heavy handed. But letting people tell their own story doesn't mean you have to demonstrate no opinion on a matter; by the selection and ordering of quotations you can still put a point of view across.

So overall it was reasonably well done, and I learnt something, which is certainly not the case with all feature articles. The pity was that no one managed to speak directly with any of the women who reported supporting the (FGM) practice. I couldn't help thinking that had it been a British journalist (i.e. in The Guardian or similar), she would have been brave enough to probe from her personal perspective a little more, winkle out such an interview subject, and ask her the awkward questions.

Mind you, British papers would probably be able to put someone onto the task who is actually Somali, or at least an East African Muslim.

I wonder what other people who read the article thought.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Supply and Demand

As I wandered down Lambton Quay for a spot of compulsory Labour Day shopping yesterday, I grabbed my compulsive coffee from the little bar at the end of the Old Bank building. While zapping my eftos card, the serving bloke informed me that there would be a 6 cents surchage, due to it being a public holiday. I later learned other places were charging up to 15 percent extra.

This is just the sort of thingI can imagine put-upon Joe or Josephine Middle New Zealander reacting to with outrage (extra charges? how dare they!), but to me it seemed a good example of market forces working properly.

Retail businesses, quite rightly, have to pay their staff time and a half for having to work on a public holiday, when most others are getting a break. Now, traditionally, penal wage issues have been considered a two-way struggle, with governments and unions pushing regulations, while business complains about the onerous costs these impose. Meanwhile, the consumer, the main driver for extended business hours, has generally been treated as an unquestionable force of nature.

But it makes sense for the extra costs to be moved to the source of the demand. Customers have collectively decided that, on their extra day off, they'd like all the normal services laid on. Someone has to provide those services, and the government regulation simply requires that these workers get a fair deal too. Spread out across all customers, paying for the privilege of shopping on Labour Day hardly hurts anyone's pocket too much.

On a related matter: I've always been a proponent of tipping, as practiced in North America and some European countries, and find it hard to fathom that many New Zealanders not only don't like it, but strongly oppose it in principle. There are two gripes as far as I can make out: 1) they resent being required to pay "extra" over and above the cost of the meal, and 2) they don't see why restaurant or bar owners can't just pay their staff a decent wage.

This misses the point that where tipping is in place, the base cost of a meal is usually significantly cheaper. And in the fickle hospitality industry, where business varies from day to day and hour to hour, it can be difficult for an employer to guarantee a truly "decent" wage. With a workforce that is normally young, transient, and unorganized, employers understandably tend to pay wages that will let them break even during a quiet time, rather than reward high productivity during a busy one. Nothing extra is paid for busting a boiler and dealing efficiently with rush hour.

In contrast, tipping provides both incentive and reward for working hard. In a sense, the staff member is sharing the risk and the return with the business owner, in that when the business does well, so do they. And if they are efficient and courteous, they are likely to get a still better tip. Without tipping, it's not surprising that New Zealand still doesn't have a "service" culture (what it has acquired is a culture of enforced sycophancy, which is not the same thing).

Tipping also allows the customer to pay money directly to the person who has been serving them. In a tipping country, this is one of life's minor pleasures . Instead of seeing your payment entirely soaked up by the wider business, you get to give a portion directly to the person who did the work, providing some recompense for what you can see is a pretty tiring and repetitive task. This transparent, person-to-person exchange of utility, stripped of transaction costs, is what markets are supposed to be all about - and it even allows in the human element (let's remember, Adam Smith's first book was called On Empathy).

It's surprising that New Zealanders don't take to this more, since we have a long tradition of bypassing more structured commerce and engaging in person-to-person exchanges. From 'I'll give you a crate of beer to fix my motorbike' to the popular and successful Buy, Sell and Exchange magazine, to its stellar internet successor TradeMe, New Zealanders have always sought to cut out the middle man and deal directly with each other.

But the constant feature of all these activities may be that they involve barter and bargain hunting. Where money is involved, Kiwis come over all coy. We don't even like to talk about it much, and we like to pretend it doesn't matter. One further criticism I've heard about tipping is that you shouldn't have to pay people to be nice to you; tipping is mercenary and takes away the "naturalness" from the interaction.

As Otago University would say, Get Real. Come on, the only reason the waitperson is there is because of money. That doesn't mean you can't be friends with them too. But the best way of showing your appreciation for their warmth and cheerfulness is in cash (in their place, what would you prefer?).

I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason for being anti-tipping is that, alongside the admirable Kiwi virtue of being independent and informal buyers, is the not so admirable trait of being a bit mean.

That might have been fine, useful even, when we were a small, isolated frontier economy having to scrounge pirated parts for the tractor. But these days we're fully paid-up members of Con$umers United, and the Japanese banks fall over themselves to lend us dosh. As we enjoy the shopfest, we could probably afford to extend some of our profligacy to our fellow workers.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya

Before the news that she'd been openly assasinated as she stepped out of her Moscow apartment, I'd only ever read a couple of things by Anna Politkovskaya: some excerpts selected as part of John Pilger's compendium of investigative journalism, Tell Me No Lies.

But even in that collection of examples of improbable bravery, hardheadedness and persistence, her pieces - about what she called the "dirty war" in Chechnya - stood out.

Chechnya is not a popular or romantic war zone. There's no clear right or wrong, no obvious geopolitical narrative. Just mutual and meaningless brutality with ordinary people caught in the middle.

In this grim setting, Anna Politkovskaya saw her role as simply to document the experiences of innocent victims "for the future". Though she was particularly dogged in uncovering the atrocities of the Russian Army, her only real agenda was to insist on the intrinsic value of each human life. For that, she was killed.

Though even world leaders felt compelled to comment on her murder, it barely gained a mention in the New Zealand media. On a night when Dan Carter's modelling of Jockey singlets featured highly on the late evening news, there was nothing on the death of Politkovskaya.

That's a great pity. Because if her murder will likely have the effect of further cowing dissent in Russia, her life ought to be an inspiration. She carried on doing what was right (not "what she thought was right") despite ongoing threats to her life. Few people will achieve that level of extreme heroism. But everyone should be able to draw some courage from it.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

Can we please put an end, once and for all, to the pernicious idea that New Zealand is in the grip of a “man drought”, with scores of frustrated women casting about for that rare and precious commodity – a nice, educated man.

I've posted on this previously. The journalistic beat-up of the original story was dumb and credulous. There's some doubt about the raw demographic statistics, and a good deal more about what they actually mean. There's also reasons – though I won't go into them here – why an equal number of men and women wouldn't necessarily produce the supposedly desirable system of one-to-one coupling.

But let's leave aside all that pointy-headed analysis and focus on the incontrovertible anecdotal evidence: in the most urbanised, highly-educated, feminised part of the country – central Wellington – there's not very many single women to be found. And certainly not in any semi-public setting where members of the opposite sex might actually see them.

As one guy interviewed last year said, when the meme spread from the print media to TV: “maybe they're all at home lighting candles and bathing themselves in lavender oil”.

This situation was established firmly the other Friday night, when four single young men found ourselves sitting outside a bar around 8:30, pondering on how hard it was to meet any girls. One of the two female members of the party had left ten minutes previously to join her husband. The other [engaged] woman had just departed rather hurriedly after establishing that, despite our articulate conversation and reasonable dress sense, none of us were actually gay.

All four of the males in attendance that night earn above the average wage. All four are in possession of that rare, and, according to the economist wonks, desirable quality – a postgraduate degree. None of us, on a good day, would be described as truly ugly. Two of us are even more than six foot tall (though I regret to say that I am not one of them). All four are capable of maintaining an interesting conversation on a variety if subjects (which, according to our female interlocutor, was probably part of our problem).

But we all agreed that, although some of us might have done alright in international settings (nudge nudge, wink wink), in New Zealand it was damnedly difficult.

A clue to the real state of affairs was to be found in yet another story on how hard it is to be a single Kiwi gal, which appeared a couple of months ago in that pillar of serious journalism, The Listener. Reading that article, I found it hard to get past the fact that the key “interviewee” was actually (I was privileged to know) the pictures editor of...The Listener. However, buried amidst the blather was an interesting nugget. An academic survey (at Massey? I think...) of single New Zealand men and women found that 50 percent of men cited “the person I like isn't available or is not interested” as the reason for their singledom. Just 20 percent of women gave the same reason.

This rings true to experience. My single female friends and acquaintances all tell the same “Bridget Jones”-style tale of woe: despite considerable male attention, and numerous encounters, liaisons, and semi-formed relationships, they can't find the right man. My single male friends and acquaintances also share a similar story: they pretty much can't get a date (or replace with a cruder expression, if you will).

So for one group it's like being in a clothes shop where there's some quite nice things on the racks, but you just can't find exactly the one you want. For the other, it's like being in the same shop and being told that the currency you have isn't accepted there.

The reasons for this are complicated, and I won't even begin to theorise on them at this point in time. What anyone can do about it, if anything, is even less clear. At an individual level, I have a strategy which I know others share: leave the country as soon as is practicable. I don't believe there's a “man drought” in New Zealand now. But if current trends continue, there eventually will be.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Temporarily Unplugged

Forgive me readers for I have sinned. It's been, um, 31 days since my last post.

Though I can't be entirely sure, I believe this is the longest period of silence since I started this blog.

Why? The main reason is that I've been working on a few other more "serious" projects lately, or at least attempting to work on them and then falling into deep gloom and frustration. In between those, a fairly demanding day job, some well-meaning gestures at a social life, occasional exercise, cooking, cleaning, and the odd few hours of sleep, blogging has kind of fallen off the end. As has any attempt to update the Daily Minion in the last couple of months.

But serious projects are a cruel mistress. Newspaper and magazine editors must be the most fickle creatures on this earth. Funding commissions for documentary films seem equally unpredictable - though fortunately I don't have to deal directly with that particular negotiation.

Two other things.
1) All this faffing around trying to get things have to worry so much about the publication's parameters, style, and whether it will be "of interest" to their audience. It makes you appreciate anew that feeling of just shooting your mouth of, pressing a button, and hey presto, it's out there.
2) This much time unplugged from the interwebs, you start to wonder whether you even really exist anymore. I mean, there's nothing new when you google yourself, you've got no new comments notifications...are you even part of the Matrix?

So I will be returning to the blogosphere - but there will be changes. I'm considering setting up a new website for all Latin America-related things - travel blog, stories, politics, culture, travel tips, photos, etc. I'll then work on getting it fully linked up and improving its Google ranking. Could be quite good - just need to think of a catchy name...

Then, depending on how things actually turn out with aforementioned serious projects, I may have another crack at updating the Minion and improving its profile. Had a few ideas for new stories a while back, but they didn't get written, and I've had to question whether any of it was even funny to begin with. Steve Braunias had a satirical piece today in the Sunday Magazine on Brad and Ange which was laugh-out-loud funny; aimed at much the same things as my Angelina story, I'm afraid it was much funnier.

In any case, this blog will probably return to being simply "Bidsta", and will stick to a core content of politics, philosophy, issues of the day, a bit of sport and music, and just general shooting off of mouth. Can't wait to post on how serious international public intellectuals have written things recently that agree exactly with Stuff I Said about a year ago.

There's nothing quite like hitting that "publish post" button.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The House of Hugo

For the last few weeks, excluding my expedition to Puno and Bolivia, I've been living with the family of Hugo, with whom I'm working on the Sudamerica Tour website. When I first started working for Hugo, he suggested it would be much nicer for me to live with a family than be stuck in a hotel surrounded by tourists. I agreed; I understood that this was to be part of my payment for working, and I thought it would be good to be somewhere where I never had to speak English. There was no hurry, however - I was quite happy enough in the Casa La Reyna hostel, with its beautiful roof terraces, piping hot showers and friendly people.

Originally the intention was that I would stay with the family of Hugo's rather patrician aunt, in the suburb of Umacollo, on the other side of the river Chili. After paying a visit there, this seemed fine to me, as it wasn't too far away and I would have plenty of privacy, with the spacious ground floor all to myself. For some reason, however (no one ever tells you anything directly here), this plan was abandoned. As Hugo insisted that I couldn't possibly stay another day in the hotel, it was decided that I would go and live with him.

This I was a bit more reluctant about, as his house was a bit further away from the centre, and I already saw a quite a lot of Hugo and Lisbet (his wife, who manages the Incaventura adventure travel agency). I said there was no hurry and I was really quite comfortable in the hotel, but there was no arguing, and before long I was installed in the sprawling, three-floor concrete house on the Avenida Gutemberg in the suburb of Selva Alegre.

The permanent residents of no. 405 Gutemberg at the time of my arrival included: Hugo's extroverted and vaguely eccentric mother "la señora Gloria", who the house ultimately belongs to; Hugo, Lisbet and their 3 1/2 year-old son Gerardo; Hugo's older brother Juan, his wife Vivian from Santa Cruz in Bolivia, and their 2 1/2 year-old daughter Lia; Hugo's younger brother Alan, his wife Erica and their 1 year-old daughter; Teodoro from the Colca Valley, who helps out with chores (his brother Alejandro was my guide on Chachani and has recently moved out to pursue mountain guiding full time); two dogs, two kittens and two parrots.

Hugo prides himself on having lived in Switzerland and being more reliable than other Peruvians, whom he calls "incumplidos". His example of this is the carpenter who was to construct a new desk/counter for the Incaventura agency. On the day it was supposed to be delivered at 12 midday, the carpenter failed to show up, and on being called, promised the counter would be ready at 4pm. This later became 8 pm, then successively 12, 4 and 8 the following day, before in turn being revised to a similar succession of hours after the weekend.

When the desk finally arrived, it was two inches too short, despite the carpenter and his assistant having made measurements of exaggerated precision in the agency office when it was ordered. Delivery of the modified desk followed a similar process of unforseen postponements.

Hugo may not be an "incumplido" (though he delights in telling me of all the important appointments and events he's missed through falling asleep or not waking up), but nevertheless seems to attract disaster. The first day I was supposed to meet him at the agency he failed to show up at the agreed time and called to say that his car was "malogrado" (an expression much-used in Peru, roughly meaning "broken down"). Later we were to move our work on the website to the office in San Camilo market, only to experience a range of delays due to various computers also being unexpectedly "malogradas".

Incidentally, Hugo himself is lucky enough not to remain signficantly malogrado. About a year and a half ago he broke several vertebrae in his back; climbing in the mountains without rope, he fell and rolled 300 metres. He lay there in a semi-conscious state for a day and a half, while his climbing partner broke records descending to get help from the nearest town. A rescue team climbed into the mountains and carried him out, while his mother desperately but unsuccessfully tried to convince an acquaintance air force general to authorise the despatch of a helicopter. Miraculously, Hugo eventually made a full recovery.

I soon discovered that the tendency for mechanical failure extended to the family house. While assuring me that I must move in, Hugo briefly passed over the fact that there wasn't actually any hot water. I noted that the upstairs shower at least had an electric attachment, while on the roof terrace was a solar water heating system. Neither of these seemed to work, however; they were, I was assured, "malogrados".

Also malogrado was the flushing mechanism on the upstairs toilet, while downstairs one worked but the water had to be turned off most of the time because the system leaked. Reassuring me about the lack of hot water, Hugo pointed out the rows of three-litre soft drink bottles filled with water and lined along the walls of the second-floor terrace. These heated up in the sun, he said, and provided an adequate substitute for a real shower. This turned out to be technically true; the strong Arequipeño sun does get the bottles of water to a reasonable temperature - between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. When one works 35 minutes walk away to the south of the city centre, this makes such a shower unfeasible except on weekends...

Eventually I worked out a way round the hot water issue, by boiling the kettle and mixing the water with that from the soft drink bottles, to be tipped over the head in the traditional manner. Other simple comforts, such as a night's sleep, didn't prove to be so easily obtained. Originally when I moved in, I was going to sleep in Alan's room. This had it's own bathroom with a working toilet (though no hot water), big dark curtains, a comfortable double bed, cable TV, and was on the quiet side of the house furthest from the street. Alan was in Lima with Erica and his little girl, who suffers from a heart condition, and was possibly going to have a definitive operation. Hugo told me that he didn't know how long Alan would be in Lima, but "definitely for at least a week".

The next day Alan was back (the operation had been postponed), and I found that my things had been moved to the small room next door, also on the third floor terrace, which is where Alejandro had used to sleep. In complete contrast to Alan's room, this one featured a big curtainless window, a bed with a surface resembling the Colca Valley, and poisonous fumes emanating from a recently waxed floor. The fumes dissipated after about five days, and when I mentioned the intense moonlight which streamed in the window from the cloudless Arequipan night sky I returned home the next day to find that I had been supplied with a net curtain, cleverly attached to the wall with masking tape.

There wasn't much anyone could do, however, about the other outstanding feature of my room. It overlooks the second-floor terrace, which in turn is bordered by the terrace of the neighbouring building, which houses - you guessed it - a rooster hutch. I estimate that there are about ten to twelve roosters on the terrace, housed in rickety wooden cages with hardly enough room for them to turn around. Not really having many other options, the roosters understandably content themselves with doing what roosters do best.

Some nights there is an hour of two of peace and quiet, between when the neighbourhood dogs wind up their evening chorus and when the roosters start up. Other nights they overlap. On average the crowing commences sometimes between two and three a.m. You just have to hope you fall into a deep enough slumber beforehand to be oblivious to it.

Shortly after sun up the chorus is taken up by the human inhabitants of the house. None of them really make an impression on my consciousness apart from the señora, who addresses all and sundry, wherever they may be in the house, as if she were a ship's captain barking out orders in the teeth of a fierce gale. And Gerardo. Gerardo is the crowning glory of the house, Lisbet and Hugo's 3 1/2 year-old son and possibly the most spoilt, loud, demanding little kid I have ever met. He is of angelic appearance, and in quiet moments quite pleasant, so I don't think he is actually a demon child. But he has been indulged to an extreme degree by Hugo, Lisbet, and in particular his grandmother. Although he can more or less talk normally, his principal method of communication is screaming and crying. Almost anything can induce screaming fits. He cries if he doesn't get a soft drink right this instant, He cries if someone else is spreading their toast and reducing the volume of available jam (it should all be for him). He cries if he doesn't like the way Lisbet is cutting the papaya.

He also seems to have been weaned very late, and still demands to suck on Lisbet's breasts; when he can't he tries to reach into her jumper and grab them. To my horror, I noticed that she sometimes lets him, or at least doesn't push him away immediately. While Lisbet is in every other respect an exemplary person, her approach to mothering Gerardo is not what I would call ideal. She tells him that he can't suckle her breasts because "I've had an operation" (rather than "because you can't"), and when he behaves badly, she sometimes responds with emotional blackmail - for example, once when he refused to say "please" while demanding the butter, she got mad and said "right! I don't love you anymore"
Mamiiii" howled Gerardo.
"I'm no longer your mother" snapped Lisbet.

I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling her "you have to make him say please because it's polite, not because you'll disown him if he doesn't". After all, what do I know - she's the mother...

A trip to the bathroom from my upstairs room also proved to be a bit of a trial. It was first necessary to go out onto the terrace, descend the outside stairs to the second-floor terrace and negotiate the entrance to the second floor (I had a key, but for about the first week the señora Gloria would shout out "Who is it!!!" at the slightest noise at the door, no matter the hour, and I would have to explain my presence. "It's just me, Simon". "What's wrong!? Are you sick?". "No, just going to the bathroom" I would mumble. It didn't help that the first week after I moved in she confined herself to her room as she had just had plastic surgery and didn't want to go out in public with bandages all over her face.

Once in the bathroom one had to deal with the fact that the flushing mechanism was broken (though by no means irredeemably), and there was always a variably strong smell of urine. Desperate not to add to this, I always made efforts to flush the toilet by emptying buckets of water into it. This was made more difficult by the fact that both the seat and the cover were broken and detached from the bowl, meaning that really you had to lift both of them off and place them on the floor in order to avoid splashing water all over the seat. Then, about a few weeks after I moved in, the S-pipe leading from the basin began to leak badly whenever the water was turned on. The household response? To place a large bucket under the leaking pipe...

It's not as if this is a poor family struggling to get by. Hugo at one stage had no less than three four-wheel drive vehicles. Both Juan and Alan have modern motorcycles, and Alan spends all of his spare and time and money on restoring a 1968 Fiat sports coupe. As I mentioned, their mother had just had cosmetic surgery when I moved in. It just seems that things like simple comforts don't rank high in anyone's list of priorities.

The general sense of chaos at no. 405 also extends to people and animals. One weekend morning there was general alarm and recriminations when it was discovered that one of the dogs, a Siberian husky, had gone missing. The dogs live in the back patio and it was no surprise that this one had taken its first chance to escape. The other one is a squat little mongrel with an unfortunate facial paralysis which makes its teeth appear in the manner of a canine possessed when it's just trying to be affectionate; it seems quite happy waddling round the patio.

The husky, however, must have been going insane. When I asked if anyone exercised it, the answer was "Well, Alan used to take it for runs...but what with him having a baby now and everything, he doesn't have much time..." The dogs eat human food - during my first dinner in the upstairs kitchen I asked what I should do with the chicken bones, not seeing a rubbish bin. "Throw them to the dogs" was the answer. "What - just throw them down into the patio?" I asked. "Yup".

This doesn't always seem be to the dogs preference, however. When discussing the husky's escape with Vivian she told me with a puzzled expression "You know what - sometimes they don't eat, either. We prepare food for them specially, but they just don't want to eat it..." The concept of "dog food" is not one which holds much currency in the household.

The same morning as the husky's disappearance, there was more serious alarm when it was reported that the señora Gloria's 80 year-old aunt had also gone missing. She had disappeared from her house in Miraflores, last being seen wandering in the street outside her front door. Gloria's sister and niece came over to the house for a panicky council of war, and they spent the afternoon calling the police, hospitals and morgues.

By the end of the weekend, things had normalised. The husky had inexplicably returned, while the señora's aunt had also shown up. She had wandered far away from her home and had apparently ended up spending the night in a brothel, where she reported that she had been treated very kindly.

When I came back from Bolivia, the configuration of animals had changed. The husky was nowhere to be seen, and one of the kittens, the tiny cute one, seemed to have been exchanged for an annoying but rather irresistible spaniel-cross puppy. Vivian explained to me what had happened. The little kitten had unwisely wandered into the dog' compound, where it had been killed and dismembered by the frustrated husky. Little Lia had the misfortune to witness this, and was rather traumatised. To make up for it, Juan had decided to get her a puppy, which was the spaniel.

Meanwhile, the other, scrawnier, uglier, slightly smarter kitten had found its way up to the third-floor terrace, into my room, and had completed its ablutions all over my blankets.

The parrots are also relatively new. There was a previous parrot, which Vivian had brought from Santa Cruz. It was very clever and spoke quite fluently, being able to imitate the various household members. One night Hugo's father showed up drunk at the front door of the house. He is separated from the señora Gloria and lives in Ilo. On this occasion he was quite inebriated and for some reason convinced that Gloria was with another man. He was banging on the door and shouting "Open up Gloria! I know you're there! Let me in!".

As a matter of fact, the señora wasn't in the house at the time, but from the terrace the parrot answered. "No! I don't want to!" it squawked. This threw Hugo's father into paroxysms of fury. He battered at the door, shouting "Open up, Gloria!" You're with another man, aren't you?" "Ahahahahaha!!" cackled the parrot in response. Hugo's father left, convinced that his estranged wife was in the house with a man.

The parrot was unable to fly, but waddled happily around the second-floor terrace. It liked to climb up into the bougainvillea which creeps up next to the terrace wall. This proved to be its downfall, as one day it was climbing in the bougainvillea, lost its grip, and tumbled into the downstairs back patio. There, of course, it met with a pacing, restless husky, which ensured that it was soon converted into an ex-parrot.

The new parrots are young and can't talk much yet. They are kept in a cage, and Juan takes them out and carries them around the terrace on the weekend. They're learning some basic vocabulary, though, principally "Alan!" (in the voice of the señora shouting up to the third-floor terrace; Alan seems to get more phone calls than the rest of the family put together). Their other favourite vocalisation is an imitation of Gerardo screaming. When the parrots are bored, hungry, or want attention, they start up a chorus of "Alan! Alan! Aaaaaaaaggghhhhhh!!! Alan! Aaaaaaaaaaggghhh!!!" Somehow, that seems to sum up life at the Avenida Gutemberg 405 rather well.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Can She Say That, Dr Brash?

Following on from my previous post...

Doing some research for a possible article on relations between New Zealand and Chile (one of the reasons why I've been rather quiet in blogland of late), I came across this article from 2003 by Auckland law professor Jane Kelsey.

This was back when New Zealand and Chile were still negotiating a free trade deal (it's now signed and sealed, with Singapore and Brunei the other parties). The version of Kelsey's article I spotted has been translated into Spanish, but it basically says that a free trade deal would be a bad idea for small Chilean producers, women, indigenous communities, cute furry animals, etc, as they would be overrun by powerful, rapacious New Zealand multinationals (yes, we have two).*

I generally don't agree wholly with this kind of kneejerk anti-globalisation, though she is correct that this deal is less about trade - since both countries produce similar products and have very low tariffs anyway - than what Helen Clark herself has referred to as a "strategic alliance".

But the point is: as a high-profile, internationally renowned, professor of law with academic tenure (see this post for an amusing perspective on how to get through her classes), Kelsey was making a far more effective attempt to sabotage "New Zealand interests" - guided by what she believes are set of more universal principles - than any poor Muslim immigrant tapping out letters to foreign newspapers saying "don't buy our stuff".

So, in light of his comments in the Herald article, I have these questions for Don Brash:

1. Putting aside any question of disagreement on the issues of substance, does he agree that Professor Kelsey, as a New Zealander, "can't" undermine her country's economic interests as she attempted to do here? If so, what action would he take to stop her from doing this, were he Prime Minister?**

2. If he believes that Professor Kelsey has a right to subvert New Zealand's export interests, but that the Muslim immigrant in question does not, how does he justify this distinction?

3. Should his response to (2) be along the lines of the immigrant "owing" New Zealand a higher standard of loyalty than a natural-born citizen, how does this square with the fact that immigrants on average pay more in tax than they receive in public services, while Professor Kelsey's 30-year career has been built largely through a publicly-funded institution?

*From the article: "...any commerical gain will do nothing more than increase the inequality between and within the two countries, openly favouring New Zealand companies..."

**Yes, I know there are many out there in the blogosphere would happily send Jane Kelsey to Siberia; the question is [hypothetically] for Dr Brash.

Monday, July 31, 2006

A Brash Reception

Passionate, well-informed, articulate, even witty. These are not words you normally associate with New Zealand media columnists. And you can be assured I would not use them within a mile of the heavily recycled bitterness and negativity served by up by the likes of the McLeod / du Fresne / Haden axis.But they do sit pretty well when applied to Public Address blogger Tze Ming Mok, who has also recently started writing a column for the Sunday Star Times.

Once I get past the inevitable surge of Martin Amisian envy at someone who is younger than me, writes excellently, attracts an audience, and gets paid for doing it, I have to like her style.The things I particularly admire about Tze Ming are her obvious intelligence, her (sometimes over-enthusiastically expressed) sense of outrage, and - perhaps aided by her oft-analysed Chinese-New Zealander perspective - her readiness to point out that received wisdom about New Zealand and its culture is often bullshit.

My specific reason for mentioning this right now is that I had an almost identical response as she did to an opinion piece on immigration by Don Brash in the New Zealand Herald.

Brash actually says a good deal in his speech that I agree with, nowhere more so than where he criticizes the horrendous, Kafkaesque treatment handed out to prospective applicants for New Zealand residency, notably to foreign-born spouses of current citizens. I've seen some good examples of rhetoric and action heading off in opposite directions. But no gulf greater than that between public pronouncements that the country wants to attract motivated migrants - in particular to reclaim its own exiles - and the bizarre bureaucratic hoops that such people are made to jump through.

Read some of Brash's examples (plus the reader comment), and tell me you don't know of similar examples within two degrees of personal separation. Dumbly draconian policies, apparently enforced by sadistic fools.

I guess there may be a risk of New Zealand-resident serial bridegrooms conspiring to bring in a string of undesirables as their spouses. But you'd think there'd be a better way of controlling for this than demanding that a Kiwi and his wife of nine years, with two children, provide proof that they have an exclusive sexual relationship.

So much for being welcomed to NZ with open arms. You'd have an easier time opening a French bank account.

As heartening as it is to see Brash take on some actual, genuine examples of public sector incompetence and stupidity, he ruins it all the end with this concluding paragraph:

It's important to recognise that there's an implied contract between New Zealand and would-be citizens: New Zealand offers you citizenship with all the rights and privileges of being in every respect a Kiwi, but in return you owe New Zealand your loyalty and commitment. You can't be a New Zealander and seek to undermine New Zealand. You can't be a New Zealander and claim that some other law takes precedence over the law of the New Zealand Parliament. You can't be a New Zealander and write to foreign newspapers urging a boycott of New Zealand exports, as one would-be citizen did recently in reaction to the publication by two newspapers of some cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

Tze Ming and others have done a much better (and earlier) job than I could at critiquing this, but I will utter this exclamation: What? Is he serious?

Here was I, thinking he was arguing we should largely, apart from in special categories, accept people who will be of net benefit to the country. But then, having already won on the deal, he wants to hold immigrants to a higher standard of “loyalty and commitment” than other citizens?

Any citizen of this country can properly be expected to obey the law of the New Zealand Parliament (including things like the Human Rights Act), but surely not to believe that it “takes precendence” over all other law. Can a Christian who believes that God's law overrules all others, not be a New Zealander?

And if there is some narrow definition of “New Zealand interests” that basically equates to “export earnings”, does that necessarily make traitors of the likes of Keith Locke and others who upset Chinese trade delegations, rather than, as many see them, brave and principled New Zealanders?”

Dear me, should a recent South African immigrant not be allowed to support the Springboks against the All Blacks?

Having argued that there are a core set of “our values” which include freedom of conscience, thought and speech, Brash is effectively saying that immigrants to Aotearoa should cleave to the nation state with the kind of blind and absolute loyalty demanded by a tribal chieftain.

In response, I would suggest that if there's anything which drags hard-working, smart people down to this draughty spot at the bottom of the world, it just might be that they're attracted by the well-known New Zealand tradition of thinking and saying what you bloody well want.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shoot the Whole Aid Down

You don't have to like Bob Geldof, and I can kind of see why the blunt language he used to criticize New Zealand's level of foreign aid (one of the very lowest in the OECD) would have raised some people's hackles slightly.

But I've been a little taken aback by the outpouring of boorish, hypersensitive responses from NZers, in forums such as the Kiwiblog comments section and the Stuff website feedback. They range from the straightforward "how dare he come here and criticise us" to the ill-informed cop out, "their corrupt leaders will take it all", to the openly racist "I'll give aid when they stop having ten kids".

And it's the Americans who are supposed to be arrogant, insular and unable to take criticism? God, I would hate to see what kind of superpower NZ would make.

It's the "aid will just be wasted and encourages corruption" line that is perhaps the most insidious. People use this as an excuse to absolve themselves completely of responsibility and not to have to think about the issues again.

It's true that a lot of aid has been squandered in the past. But how hard was anyone trying to make it effective and well-targeted? During the cold war, both blocs squandered a lot of foreign "aid" buying the support of corrupt elites, in the service of their respective geopolitical strategies.

But if you have the right motivations, getting good value for aid money is far from impossible.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' international aid unit, NZAid, works with proven, reputable partner organisations in selected countries, and directs funding towards specified projects that aim to support human development, especially in health and education, in these countries. The ones I have seen look well-designed, at least on paper.

The aid we do provide is actually quite transparent and well-targeted; generally, we aren't handing out pork in exchange for political influence. But we could do more; additional $ going in from New Zealand would probably make a genuine difference to people in the developing world.

In Peru, I talked extensively with a local NGO that ran a number of projects, some of them quite innovative, and very much driven by the "hand up not a hand out" philosophy. They were able to answer my "and how are you evaluating this project?" questions, rather better, I might say, than in some examples I could identify closer to home.

They are supported by Italian, US and Swedish organisations, but resources are of course limited. Again, I would be reasonably confident that more funding for them would not go amiss.

Some argue, like Helen Clark, that NZ helps in other, less quantifiable ways, such as by contributing to peacekeeping and having open trade policies. But there's no reason why we can't do those things AND increase our level of direct aid. Then we could more genuinely argue that we are an example to others.

On David Farrar's Kiwiblog (this post seems not to be presently available) , there were the usual responses from the"government shouldn't be spending my money for me" types (including Farrar himself), arguing that private citizens should be making personal donations, rather than the government spending our tax dollars.

That's fine; I would agree that in some circumstances individuals can make more effective, better targeted contributions. This is an area that interests me - so I would be genuinely pleased if those people could describe their experiences in contributing aid at an individual level, and their strategies for ensuring its effectiveness.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

I Take (Some of) It Back

OK, I admit my errors. After posting "As long as it's not Italy vs. Germany" and writing off the World Cup as a disappointment after the quarter finals, the semi-final match between those two teams turned out to be the game of the tournament.

It was a contest of great skill and tension, helped along by an excellent refereeing performance and a positive attitude by both teams. Italy won deservedly with two brilliant goals in the last three minutes. Could have been a script written by Verdi.

The Italians played a beautiful passing game, as attractive as any of my past or current flaky teams, but added to a resilience and self-belief that the latter always seem to lack. Germany were relentless, and contributed hugely too.

France vs. Portugal wasn't a bad game either, though not up to the same standard. In my view, Portugal have been wrongly vilified at this tournament, and were a bit unlucky in this game. Their neat, skillful midfield play is as good or better than anyone, but their lack of a striker was never more painfully obvious than when they went behind to a marginal penalty, and battered away impotently for most of the second half.

So then to the final...

After their great performance in the semi, I was almost about to do the unthinkable, and support Italy for the first time in my life. Then, when France began to play some scintillating stuff early in the second half and threatened to overwhelm the Italians, I decided that it would be poetic justice for les vieux to take a second World Cup.

By the time it all petered out and Italy won on penalties, there had been Materazzi's nipple-twist, the rumoured racist insults, and Zidane's headbutt. You wouldn't really have been surprised if Buffon and Brathez had then engaged in a drawn out swordfight, before leading the rest of the players in a rousing final chorus as the curtain was lowered.

Time may well be kind to this World Cup. There were so many close contests, and more controversy and drama than since at least 1986; before long the dives, the punches, the crotch-stamp, the wink, the nipple-twist and the headbutts will becomes as mythical as la mano de dios.

But despite the redemption served up by Germany vs. Italy and the operatic finale to the final, the overall point of my previous post still stands: there wasn't much on the field of play to truly inspire.

Games in the knockout rounds were tight, skillful, and with some positive intent, at least in theory. But goals were undeniably few, and those that came were mostly been from set pieces (including several dubious penalties). Excluding the third-place match, there were just two goals scored from open play in the post-second round stages: Italy's two last-minute strikes in the semi-final.

There was a lot of good defending, but it was just a bit too easy for the defenders. With modern day fitness levels and carefully-coached systems and tactics (the dreaded 4-5-1), even a pretty mediocre team can shut out and frustrate the opposition (as Greece showed par exemplar in Euro 2004).

Not only were goals scarce, but even opportunities for scoring were few and far between. In most of the knockout games, keepers hardly needed to make more than two or three serious saves a game. Much attractive build-up play ended somewhere just outside the penalty area.

There's been a lot of debate and comment about whether there need to be changes to the rules to open up the game and allow more scoring opportunities. Some of the suggestions are radical, such as widening the goals, or removing the offside rule. Others scoff at any such suggestions. But football is a game that can adapt itself to changing times like any other; indeed, it has a history of rule changes such as outlawing the back pass in the early 90s, which led to a period of more open play.

In my view it's more tweaks than transformations that are needed; football is a simple game, and the main thing will be to change the attitudes - from an overpowering fear of failure, to a situation where there's some incentive to take risks. Here are what I see as the priorities that most need addressing:

-Retrospective awarding of, and appeals against, yellow and red cards. This should do something to quell the epidemic of diving, exaggerating fouls, and trying to get people sent off. There's no question that this is a somewhat despicable aspect of the modern game.

-Better use of the advantage rule by referees, a la rugby. The Mexican referee in the Germany-Italy game was the best example I saw in the tournament of how this could be done.

-Some way to reduce the significance of penalties for minor fouls in the penalty area when a goal is not really likely. This is a very tricky one, as any law change I can think of is likely to have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, options should be put on the table.

-World Cup format: I think we need to go back to the - not particularly popular - second group stage format which predominated from 1974 - 1982. With at least two games each, this gives teams a chance to really show how good they are, and reduces the overpowering fear of making a mistake which makes otherwise creative sides choke up in high-stakes, knockout games. Knockout can wait until at least the semis, and perhaps the final.

-An extra suggestion here is a possible bonus point for scoring three or more goals (again, a la rugby) in either the first or both the first and second rounds.

-Do not decide games on penalties!! Some of what made the Italy - Germany contest so good was that neither side really wanted it to go to penalties, and the Italian were absolutely desperate for it not to. As many have suggested, one solution could be to take players off the field, one from each side every ten minutes after 90 minutes. Once it gets to seven against seven, somebody has to score. If the final itself ends in a draw, it should be replayed.

-For now, leave out widening the goals, broadening the field, or changing the offside rule. Let's see if tweaks like the above work, then take it from there.

Of course, it would be fantastic if some new, great coach and team just went out there and played irresistible, attacking (and winning) football, and everybody wanted to become like them. For a while in this tournament, I thought Argentina could be that team. But it wasn't to be. Within four years, such a team may emerge, perhaps from Africa. But I wouldn't count on it.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Starting to Lose the Faith

Following the quarter-final stage, the World Cup has already turned into rather a disappointment for me - perhaps I was naiive to expect things to be different this time.

The second round of matches, were, as the weather report used to say, a mixed bag.

The Argentina-Mexico clash was an excellent, absorbing game. Mexico were for periods the better side - they closed down Argentina's passing game, counter-attacked at pace, and can count themselves unlucky to go out to Maxi Rodriguez's wonder goal in extra time.

The Portugal-Holland match, which ended with nine players on both sides, was derided by some as a disgrace and a near farce. But in between the cards and controversies, I thought it was dramatic and entertaining, and there was three times as much skillful football as in the entire England-Ecuador match.

The flurry of red and yellow cards was partly due to loss of control by both teams, and partly to over-officious refereeing. In terms of actual fouls, it was nothing close to as bad as, say, a River Plate-Boca Juniors derby - as Portuguese coach Luis Felipe Scolari candidly acknowledged, saying “I'm used to that; I've coached in the Copa Libertadores” (S.American club championship).

Ukraine-Switzerland I understand was a predictable bore. I also found the Italy-Australia game very frustrating, in that Italy were patently the more talented side but constrained by a nervous lack of ambition. It was a great adventure for Australia, but in the second half, against ten men, they never looked like scoring.

Spain against France was, in the manner of things to come, a game of considerable skill but little incision. As I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't a great surprise to see the experienced French shut out Spain’s pretty passing game and hurt them on the break.

When all the dust had settled, there still looked to be three classic match-ups in store for the quarter-finals, plus a chance for Italy to continue their sleepwalk into the semi-finals against Ukraine.

Italy duly obliged, with a 3-0 win suggesting that they are moving into their stride at the right time.

But the other matches were ultra-cautious battles of attrition played by teams afraid to lose. Three goals were scored in three games - from a corner, throw-in, and free kick - and two of the matches were decided by penalties.

The best of the bunch was probably France-Brazil, if only for the impressive performance of the French, and the heartening fact that a guy two years older than me – Zinedine Zidane – was easily the best player on the field. But it was rather depressing to see the much-vaunted Brazil show absolutely nothing, their “marvellous quartet” feeble and anonymous.

Great things weren't really expected from England and Portugal, who duly obliged with a 0-0 stalemate. The obligatory controversial sending-off / brave English battle with 10 men / penalty shoot-out debacle was so predictable it makes you groan. Someone come up with a new script, please!

But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all was the Germany-Argentina match. This should have been a classic, between the two teams who had impressed most to date. Instead, we saw a cagey, conservative encounter which was tense, but ultimately pretty dull.

There was always a good chance that Germany's resilience and power, with home support, would overcome even the best of teams. But Argentina should at least have made an attempt to overwhelm them with skilfull, attacking football. As it was, they knocked square balls around with excruciating caution for most of the first half, and hardly created a shooting opportunity.

They still managed to nick a 1-0 lead midway through the second half, with a header from a corner. But then, in a disastrous loss of moral courage, Argentinean coach Jose Pekerman decided that they were going to be Italy. With 25 minutes still remaining, he pulled off Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso and brought on the ineffectual Julio Cruz for Hernan Crespo. With an injury to the goalkeeper, all the subs were used up, and exciting young Lionel Messi had no chance to get on the field.

When Germany duly pinched a goal back, Argentina had nothing left. As the game went to extra time, Crespo, Messi, Riquelme, Javier Saviola, and Pablo Aimar - Argentina's best attacking players - watched helplessly from the bench.

After the game, as some Argentina players were involved in an ugly brawl, it was as if all their demons had returned at once. The philosophy of playing a confident, attacking style had been abandoned when it mattered most, and it seemed almost karmic to see the old petulance return.

It's probably unfair to France and Germany, neither of whom have done anything wrong, but for me the charm and romance has already gone out of the tournament and I don’t care much who wins.

The best we can hope for is that in four years time in South Africa, some team – perhaps an African one - will break the mould and show that it's still possible for football to inspire the imagination, rather than simply mimicking the calculating materialism which mostly governs our modern lives.