Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beating Up on Bureaucrats, US Style

I have to link to this column from Paul Krugman because it's argument is so similar to ones I've made in the past.

Krugman in November 2010, in relation to Obama's announcement of a unilateral freeze on public-sector pay:

The truth is that America’s long-run deficit problem has nothing at all to do with overpaid federal workers. For one thing, those workers aren’t overpaid. Federal salaries are, on average, somewhat less than those of private-sector workers with equivalent qualifications. And, anyway, employee pay is only a small fraction of federal expenses; even cutting the payroll in half would reduce total spending less than 3 percent.

So freezing federal pay is cynical deficit-reduction theater. It’s a (literally) cheap trick that only sounds impressive to people who don’t know anything about budget realities. The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.

Me in January 2008, in response to cheap bureaucrat-bashing in the New Zealand media:

These pundits...give the impression that the salaries of chaps in ties take up a significant chunk of taxpayer dollars. A common anecdote is about the increase in central Wellington office rents over the last couple of years, due to demand from the various ministries. Some even go so far as to blame the country's macroeconomic ills on the hordes of 'pdf pushers' spilling out of offices along Molesworth St and The Terrace, claiming that their high wages are creating inflation and pushing up interest rates.

It may therefore come as a surprise that, as a burden on the country's economy and taxpayers, the cost of the public service almost fails to register...Let's say we entirely eliminate every bureaucrat, every government job, every department, ministry, commission and quango. This would free up the same amount of money as if New Zealand's GDP grew by 3 percent, rather than 2 percent, for just one year.

There are differences between the two countries but also similarities. Krugman points out that a supposed "surge in government employment" under Obama was nothing more than temporary blip in hiring for the Census. In New Zealand, increases in core public sector employment up to 2008 (still tiny as a proportion of the total workforce) were largely driven by those well-known dens of policy wonks, the Inland Revenue and prisons.

But while quibbling on the details is necessary, the main point is that the focus on public servants is ideological and not at all about economics.

More in another post if I have time. In the meantime, other links to digest: Krugman describes the "systematic, even industrial" production of "humbug" by conservative think tanks, while Matthew Yglesias points out the basic perversity in demanding a unilateral decline in public sector employment.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sparing a Thought

A great column in the Independent by Johann Hari on the under-appreciated people of 2010. Number 1 on the list is Private Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked the documents publicised by Wiki Leaks that documented complicity of occupation forces in torture of Iraqi civilians. He is currently being held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, denied even a pillow or sheets, despite no substantive concerns about being a danger to himself or others -- and this without even having had a trial. Hari writes:

To prevent the major crime of torturing and murdering innocents, he committed the minor crime of leaking the evidence. He has spent the last seven months in solitary confinement – a punishment that causes many prisoners to go mad, and which the US National Commission on Prisons called "torturous". He is expected to be sentenced to 80 years in jail at least. The people who allowed torture have faced no punishment at all. Manning's decision was no "tantrum" – it was one of the most admirable stands for justice and freedom of 2010.

A traitor? Maybe, but then how many people throughout history now looked on as heroes were traitors to someone?

Friday, December 17, 2010

His Name Will Never Die

I hadn't been aware of it, but yesterday (allowing for time difference) was the anniversary of Stuart Adamson's death and I found myself for the umpteenth time seeking out Big Country songs on You Tube.

If I could do one thing to make the world a better place, it would be to beg and plead anybody who stumbles across this blog and who hasn't listened to Big Country or Stuart Adamson's other work in The Skids and the Raphaels to give a chance to their music.

If you have any appreciation of lilting ballads that become driving epics, crashing anthems filled with existential doubt, melodic reflections on human suffering, soaring guitar lead outs, or just harmony-filled pop choruses, then you should find something there to savour. Y0u might even join the ranks of the converted.

We Have Always Been At War With Eurasia

Yes, it's just Fox News and therefore shouldn't be surprising. But Fox News is hugely influential in the US, and what happens in the US is influential in what happens in the world.

Elsewhere, Paul Krugman has another post and an op-ed column on the growing tendency among tendency among conservative elites to respond to inconvenient facts by just making stuff up.

This strategy is scarily effective, it seems to be increasing, and is by no means limited to the US.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More Wikileaks

Rereading my convoluted little post on the significance of Wikileaks, I'm not sure that I quite managed to convey what I was talking about. Fortunately, Finlay McDonald makes much the same point rather more clearly.

Also, read Glenn Greenwald on the subject.

Death to the Humanities?

It's worth reading about what is happening to the British tertiary education system through Crooked Timber. A sample quote:

If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this, then a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible. In my view, a conception of social justice that confines itself to equalizing opportunties to get a better position in a system of radically unequal outcome is a radically deficient conception. A scheme where higher educatation conferred fewer differential benefits because fewer such benefits existed would be a superior one.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What Would Foucualt Say

For some, the latest Wikileaks release raises complicated issues about confidentiality, secrecy and diplomatic practice. The mainstream media, predictably, chooses to focus on the gossip and celebrity angle. The US State Department would just love to shut the whole thing down. I prefer to see it as something like karma, or some kind of ecological law of equilibrium.

Over the past couple of decades, digitised information has allowed the State and other corporate bureaucracies to capture, retain, share and use ever increasing amounts of personalised information . Smart cards, search records, cell phones, street cameras, and biometric passports are just some of the innovations that turn people's lives into readable data. Meanwhile, the latest security paranoia is a useful excuse to track, surveil and literally strip naked ordinary citizens who have the temerity to do things like travelling.

One way of responding to the latest Wikileaks is to see them as turning the whole process back on itself. The irony is that this time it's the bureaucratic machine itself (with the US diplomatic establishment as its proxy) that is exposed, its embarassing secrets eviscerated, its behaviour held up for scrutiny. We're so used to being the ones who worry about being caught out or having done something wrong, it's somehow shocking, yet liberating, to see the system itself caught with its figurative pants down.

If nothing else convinces you, what about the creepy revelation that diplomats were asked to get hold of personal details including credit card numbers and biometric data of foreign politicians and UN bureaucrats?

So, it's tempting to see some kind of symmetry in all this: maybe there is after all a limit to the power that can be wielded facelessly, before that power ends up being turned against its master.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Living Beyond My Means

When I decided to finish work to do my Master's thesis full time, I knew it would be interesting making ends meet. Since I got back from Peru, I've been seeing how this works out.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Master's by Thesis scholarship This scholarship gives me $277 per week to live on. My rent, for my part of a 2-bedroom flat in Northland, is $200. Electricity and telecommunications bills add another $40 per week. That leaves $37 for everything else. Much as I have come see living well and frugally as an interesting and worthy project, I haven't been able to get my food budget much below $100 per week, even leaving aside such frivolities as sport or the occasional beer or espresso coffee.

To be fair, the $20-odd per week for telecoms includes broadband internet (arguably a necessity these days), and the basic Sky TV package. With our electricity usage (both out of the house a lot), the $20 per week estimate may be a little above the average. But these things only make a couple of dollars difference in any case. The elephant in the room is the rent, which takes up 72 percent of my principal income.

You might think that the rental is high, but although it's in quite a good location, it's not luxury. I also walk everywhere and have no transport costs. From memory, the cheapest monthly bus pass is at least $100, or $25 per week. In summary, I'd make the case that a subsistence income for living in Wellington would be at least $350 per week.

Now, although it would be nice to have an income that matches my outgoings, I don't have any actual problems. I have savings from several years of well-paid work as a backup. I also have a bit of work doing tutoring and marking, which, although not well-paid for something requiring a graduate degree, is relatively stress-free and drags my overall income part of the way towards the break-even level. Studying is a personal choice, and there are a number of othe rbenefits gained through being a postgraduate student.

However, for those on a benefit or pension, working on close to minimum wage, or god forbid, having to support dependents, things must be very difficult. In some future posts, I want to reflect on the situation of people on low incomes, which I think includes some structural disadvantages that aren't always noticed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Swings to the Left? (1)

An interesting round of local body results at the weekend in New Zealand: Len Brown has become the first mayor of Auckland Super City, while in Wellington it's possible that Green party member Celia Wade-Brown could pip has beaten Kerry Prendergast on special votes.

This hardly constitutes a massive swing to the left: Brown seems like a pragmatic centrist, while Wade-Brown has acknowledged that the knife-edge result doesn't give her a huge mandate and she will need to work with others on the council. However, it does a) make the New Zealand political situation a little more complicated and interesting and b) it provides some impetus for important public transport projects in both cities.

The push back has started already, with John Key and Steven Joyce doing their best to deflate expectations about expansion of inner-city rail in Auckland or new public transport. Gordon Campbell has the usual good coverage of the new central government-local government dynamic.

Meanwhile, the Dominion Post on the day after Wade-Brown's count back victory was confirmed ran with the rather extraordinary headline: "Wellington goes green and fluffy". Isn't there some kind of journalistic tradition of at least outward respect to a newly elected political leader? There's already been two stories about how she prefers to walk or cycle to work and may not want to use the mayoral Audi very much. Human interest pieces, or working up to the "she's a wierdo who wants to take away you cars" angle. Time will tell.

Of course, as Obama will tell you, these days it's pretty hard to undertake even the most timid reforms without provoking the corporate media to scream that you're a radical socialist who will enslave poor hard-working rich people. For comparison, here's an interesting story in the Globe and Mail arguing that big business and media systematically undermined a social democratic government in Ontario in the 1990s.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mario Vargas LLosa Wins Nobel Prize for Literature 2010

The Reuters news item is here, and coverage in La Republica here. I think it's well-deserved. Vargas Llosa is not all that popular in Peru. This is perhaps partly due to tall-poppy syndrome. Partly it relates to his conversion from leftist to neoliberal politics, his failed presidential run in 1990 and subsequent self-imposed exile in Spain. There's also a reasonable case that he has a quintissentially limeño viewpoint that treats the Andean world as the mysterious Other, misunderstanding and essentializing it. His involvement in an investigative commission into the murder of eight journalists in the Ayachucho locality of Uchuraccay in 1983 during the Shining Path uprising remains controversial, and the commission's conclusions contested.

Even my limeña development studies classmate in New Zealand frowns at the mention of Vargas Llosa and says "I prefer [fellow Peruvian novelist] Bryce Echenique" I'm a fan of Alfredo Bryce Echenique as well, but he only wrote a handful of books. In terms of the range of styles and technical virtuosity, Vargas Llosa has few parallels. I've read five of his novels, and they're all different, while all are also very readable. Conversation in the Cathedral is surely one of the great achievements of Latin American writing, remaining gripping in terms of plot and character while gradually piecing together a thoroughly splintered array of time sequences and viewpoints with amazing literary dexterity.

Other than that, the great strength of Mario Vargas Llosa is his depiction of power, its abuse, and the fear of it, especially from a male perspective. Perhaps influenced by a period of his youth spent in a military academy, themes of authority, obedience and oppression run through most of Vargas Llosa's work, including burlesque like Pantaleon y las Visitadoras. He has a genius for showing how the personal is political and the political personal. Regardless of his current views and pronouncements -- which I often don't really agree with -- this makes him a worthy recipient of an award for lifetime achievement.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Not Acceptable

This is one of the relatively few occasions when I'm ashamed to be a New Zealander. It's bad enough that a mindless buffoon like Paul Henry gets air time at all, but on a state-owned broadcaster that is supposed to be in some way representative of our society it is truly beyond the pale.

What really takes the cake is the official response from TVNZ, that: "The audience tell us over and over again that one of the things they love about Paul Henry is that he's prepared to say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud"

So ok, New Zealand has an ugly, narrow-minded, ignorant, reactionary underbelly. TVNZ thinks it's ok to not only acknowledge this, but to embrace and perpetuate it? And who is this "we" that they refer to?

I can't actually bring myself to watch the clip, so can't comment on John Key's initial reaction, but as the Prime Minister ought to have made a stronger response in the aftermath. Likewise, how limp is Phil Goff's comment that: "I think it's just Paul Henry being Paul Henry"? (If the focus-grouped strategy to get back in touch with working class voters by not appearing too "liberal" requires you to assume they're all stupid bigots, this may not be a good start).

My long-ago post on political correctness has some relevance here. But a more concise summation of what's wrong with Paul Henry comes from the Unite Union's Mike Treen:

"Unite Union national director Mike Treen said he did not call for someone’s dismissal lightly. “However Paul Henry legitimises racism and bigotry in the workplace. I deal every day with problems associated with managers and even co-workers abusing staff because the look or sound different,” he said. Workers could end up “tormented and bullied out of their jobs by the so-called humour being practiced by Paul Henry”.

“When we try to protect the workers, the inevitable response is ‘well, Paul Henry is allowed to use this language on national TV why can’t I?’ Paul Henry has become the poster boy for bigotry.”

Another good comment from Public Address commenter Deep Red:

Seriously though, to those who say "harden up, ya PC wankers!", Mr Henry's latest sewage-mouthing reminds me all too well of my high school experiences. Not just any old high school, but a reputed First Four Ships/Ivy League one.

It reminds me of my high school as well. And authority figures there who could have expressed disapproval ignored or laughed it off , too.

Update: and then he comes out and "apologises" by talking about gypsy ancestry, which is "much, much worse" than being British. Seriously, wtf?

Update: TVNZ has suspended Henry until the 18th of October. So that's something.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

No One Really Wants to Hear About My Medical Records

...but I'm still going to report that in my check-up at the Travel Doctor required by Adventure Consultants if I want to join the expedition to Aconcagua, I had a resting pulse rate of 66 and blood pressure of 104/60. That pulse rate seemed low. "Your pulse rate goes down as you get older, right?" I asked the doctor. "Actually, it goes down as you get fitter", she corrected.

So, I must be doing something right. The only down side is that I managed to have a mild hangover today after just three beers last night (and not large ones either). It's a far cry from when we used to play for beer at His Lordships in Christchurch and over the course of the night it was a reasonable goal to work your way through ten jugs. I'm not sure how I would have gone at high altitudes in those days, though.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Random Short Posts

Since I got back from Peru it's remarkable just how hard I've found it to be devote any time, with a clear conscience, to writing blog posts . A thesis makes a lot of demands, and then there's the attempts to earn some kind of income around the fringes. Then there's the cooking.

But I'm still keen to keep this blog going and feel like I have things to say -- just that for now, most of them are random, disjointed and non-profound.

So over the next little while, expect a variety of short posts on music, sport, books, movies, gear, training, top 10 lists, and the odd bit of politics when things really get out of hand.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pesky Democracy

Those with a passing interest in minutiae like the rule of law will have their curiosity piqued by the New Zealand Parliament's decision, through the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, to let Gerry Brownlee do pretty much whatever he likes, which in turn "may not be challenged, reviewed, quashed, or called into question in any court".

Good critical commentary from Gordon Campbell, The Standard, Kiwipolitico, No Right Turn and, yes, The Herald. Scoop's Lyndon Hood is apparently the author of the much-posted "with apologies to Hans Holbein" portrait.

The idea of a former St Bedes woodwork teacher being granted absolute power has elements of Monty Python, though not really in a good way. As everyone says, the point is not necessarily that Gerry Brownlee might decide to restore slavery, but the blitheness with which every party in New Zealand's Parliament would agree to overturn checks and balances which go back to the Magna Carta.

As a commenter on Kiwipolitico says:

Although I must say that some where the ghost of Charles 1 will be wishing he had thought of this instead of that damned stupid ship money tax.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Interesting Stuff Is Not in the Newspaper

More links to interesting things I've been reading lately:

Auckland Transport Blog has thorough discussions of public transport issues in Auckland, based on detailed examination of the relevant geography, economics and engineering. Some of it is pretty wonkish, and a bit detailed for those of us who don't live in Auckland, but this deconstruction of the argument that "Auckland is not densely populated enough for mass transit" is interesting (needs to be followed into the comments section). It seems that the belief that Auckland is one of the least densely populated cities in the world was generated by Kenneth Cumberland in the 1960s, who included large swathes of rural and wilderness land in the Auckland district to make the numbers look kind of right.

I'm also enjoying Reading the Maps, a multi-author blog covering New Zealand literature, art and history, among other things. The posts, and subsequent comments, which try to engage with John Ansell over the "Coastal Coalition" billboards and the attitudes that lie behind them, are particularly compelling.

Crooked Timber is another favourite: an enticing blend of philosophy, development studies and politics. An interesting recent post is about productivity and lifestyle differences between Europe and the US. It's an old and oft-rehearsed argument, but always interesting, with its mix of value judgements and technical arguments about the facts.

Last but not least, Terence Wood's blog Waylaid Dialectic is an excellent resource for anyone interested in development studies. It combines link-fests with incisive, open-minded reviews and incisive commentary about aid effectiveness, development economics and social justice. (Declaration of interest: Terence is a graduate from the VUW development studies programme, currently working on his PhD in Canberra).

PS: distractions are useful; it's good to keep learning things, and you can't work on your thesis the whole time.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Workers of the World

I'm afraid I have a million tasks in the first few weeks since getting back to New Zealand, and still haven't found time to produce anything like a coherent blog, though I'm still planning on recounting some amusing stories from my time doing field research.

In the meantime, there's a couple of topics I've picked as highly recommended reading.

The Independent's Johann Hari reports on the incipient attempts of Chinese workers to form their own unions, amidst Dickensian factory conditions which reportedly see 600,000 people a year die from overwork. This piece from Foreign Policy in Focus provides interesting background on how international corporations opposed and helped water down a new Chinese law which would have recognised unions.

Back in New Zealand, there's been a discussion paper released by the Government-appointed Welfare Working Group on "Long-Term Benefit Dependency: The Issues".

Gordon Campbell's take is typically straightforward:

There is a peculiarly airless quality to the working paper, driven as it is by ideology and not by any discernible engagement with New Zealand, 2010. Because the panel pays so little attention to events in the real world – newsflash : the job market has not yet recovered from the worst economic recession since WW11, and that global recession seems about to recur – it could have been written at any time over the last four decades.

The posts and commentary at The Standard here and here are also interesting reading.

When thousands of New Zealanders are out of work because of a recession largely caused by greed and speculation in the world's financial capitals, is it really the right time to be hassling people on sickness and disability benefits to get a job?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup Review

Ok, so now I'm back for Peru, where I literally had no spare time, and was frequently away from anything like reasonable internet access. Something like normal blog service should now resume.
For now, here's a summary of how my World Cup predictions turned out. Thanks for all the offers to buy me an octopus.

All Whites
First of all, I'm happy to have been proved wrong in my (with hindsight) pessimistic prediction that New Zealand would lose all three games. We did indeed achieve the anticipated "success" of scoring a couple of goals, but the difference was that Ryan Nelsen, Mark Paston and company achieved the remarkable feat of restricting the opposition to just two goals as well. I was jumping up and down deliriously when Winston Reid equalised in the last minute against Slovakia, and burst into hysterical giggles when the game against Italy ended with the score still tied at 1-1 (I missed the Paraguay game in the middle of the fiesta of San Juan in Sibayo).

Possible winners
Ok, so I was as wrong as I could be. Not only did none of my predicted teams win the title, but this was the first time in 19 World Cups that the final did not include any of Brazil, Germany, Italy or Argentina. Spain and the Netherlands have traditionally been flaky teams that played nice football and lost the important games. Both of them managed to shed that that reputation somewhat during this World Cup, in ways that would probably be more pleasing to the Spanish than to the Dutch.

As for my choices, Italy did indeed have a shocker, but I would not be at all surprised to see them bounce back in the next European Championships and World Cup. For much of the tournament, Brazil looked fairly unstoppable, and it was strange to see then get rattled and fall apart against the Netherlands. Germany were as strong as I expected and so impressed with their counter-attacking demolitions of England and Argentina that a number of pundits started picking them to win. I can't prove it, but from what I had seen of the tournament by the semi-final stage, I wasn't surprised to see Germany go out fairly limply against a Spanish side that was never going to be anything like as naiive or disorganised as their previous opponents.

Dark horses
Neither France nor Argentina managed to overcome the burden of their respective coaches: the loathed, arrogant Domenech and an excessively adored, tactically naiive Maradona. Argentina were one of the more entertaining teams until the quarter-finals, although their individual talents never really looked like cohering enough to go all the way. Again, I can't prove it, but I did verbally predict to a number of people in Peru that Germany would beat them in the quarter-final.

African teams
I was also wrong that an African team would make it to the semi-final for the first time, although there was only milimetres in it, with Asamoah Gyan's 120th-minute penalty for Ghana against Uruguay dramatically pinging off the crossbar. Nigeria and Cameroon were disappointing, though it took a couple of outrageous misses in front of goal for Nigeria to fail to qualify for the second round. South Africa also failed to live up to my prediction that they would make it to the quarter-final, though to be fair they did beat France and along with Slovenia were the "best third-placed team", unlucky to go out of the tournament after obtaining 4 points.

Unlucky losers
As I suggested, Chile and Mexico were the teams that played the most sparkling football -- particularly Chile -- yet both dipped out in the last sixteen. Chile was the only team that really tried to attack Spain, and gave them a real fright for the first 60 minutes or so -- even when down to ten men. Unlucky? Well, Chile was well beaten by an imperious Brazil, although they were missing several key players through suspension. Mexico certainly had an element of bad luck against Argentina, with numerous goal-scoring opportunities and a definite offside in Argentina's first goal.

General tournament impressions
For me, this tournament was better overall than 2006, 2002 and 1990, though not as good as 1998, 1986 and 1982, with 1994 hard to evaluate because it's forever coloured by the final being won on penalties after finishing 0-0. The first round of group games was pretty dire and defensive, perhaps because almost all teams thought they had a chance, and were desperate not to lose. After that, it improved, and I found most games to be intense and absorbing. Though perhaps better for the fanatic than for the casual fan.

In 2010, there may have been fewer goals per game than in any previous tournament, but you can put some of that down to the lack of outright thrashings in the group stages. There were many more goals in the knockout stages than the dry offerings of 2006, and I was very pleased that only 2 out of 16 knockout matches were decided on penalties. There was no match to rival the Italy-Germany semi-final from 2006, and the closest to a "classic" match was Uruguay-Ghana, with dramatic last-minute twists and turns weighing more than the absolute quality of the play.

Another factor for me was that the best team overall won the tournament, and in almost all the knockout stages the best team advanced -- a possible exception being the Uruguay-Ghana quarter-final, where over the 120 minutes I thought that Ghana just shaded it. The Netherlands didn't look anything like their famous teams of 1974, 1988 or even 1998, but as finalists they weren't as weak or uninspiring as Germany in 2002 or Argentina in 1990. The ideal final should really have been Spain vs. Brazil.

There's been a lot of debate, mainly in the British press, about whether Spain was "boring" or "the new Italy". Part of that is just an inferiority complex from a nation whose team were completely unable to keep the ball. But in part, it's fair to question a team that won with a string of 1-0 results, managed only eight goals in the whole tournament, and whose obsession with maintenance of possession almost forced their opponents into Internazionale-esque defensiveness.

On balance though, I think we should cut them some slack. Yes, their apparent desire to pass the ball into the net got infuriating at times. But the low goal tally was partly due to some incredibly inept finishing (the Honduras game should have been won at least 6-0, there should have been at least two or three against Germany), in turn due to striker Fernando Torres being at about 50% effectiveness. And the overall conservatism can be understood given the weight of historical underperformance: desperation to get the result demanded by the squad's talent produced caution in both selection (two defensive midfielders where one might have sufficed; witness the change when Fabregas replaced Xavi Alonso for the last part of the final) and style of play (all those sideways passes). I'd expect to see a more liberated Spain in Poland/Ukraine 2012 and Brazil 2014.

A word on the octopus
Paul the octopus originally rose to fame on the strength of predicting Germany's results. Only on achieving this fame were his predictive skills directed at the final, between two other nations. Paul made his selection by preferring one or other of the flags of the competing teams, which were lowered into his tank. He predicted Germany's wins over Australia, Ghana, England, Argentina and Uruguay, and its losses to Serbia and Spain, as well as Spain's win over the Netherlands.

Germany's flag is dominated by yellow and red, as is Spain's. Ghana's also includes yellow, red and black, as well as green. The flags of the the other countries are dominated by blue (Australia, Argentina and Uruguay), white (England) and red and blue (Serbia and the Netherlands). A simple preference for yellow and red explains most of his choices (the German wins against Australia, Argentina, England and Uruguay, and Spain's win against the Netherlands). In the games involving Germany against Ghana and Spain, a 50/50 choice between similar colours suffices. Only the prediction of Serbia's win over Germany is un accounted for by this theory.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

World Cup Predictions

I had meant to make a more throrough analysis of prospects for the World Cup, but haven't even had time to write regular blogs, so this is going to be brief.

--the winner will be one of Brazil, Italy and Germany: simply because of the weight of history, ability both to defend and score goals, and the mental strength to do what it takes to win. Italy seems the weakest of the three at the moment, but then no one really rated them before the 2006 tournament either.

--dark horses are Argentina and France: the former because of a wealth of attacking talent, the latter because despite all their problems, they are solid in most areas and have a talented squad. Both sides seem to be undermined by their coaches, but if could go all the way if they manage to address their obvious weaknesses (Argentina in defense, France in scoring goals).

--Spain, most people's favourite, will crash and burn, somewhere between the second round and the quarter-finals. I'd love to be proved wrong, but think they will struggle when they meet a tactically-astute, physically strong side that knows how to throw up a solid wall of defence. Anyone wanting to know why I make this prediction should watch the two legs of the Barcelona-Inter Milan Champion's Leage semi-final or Spain's 0-2 defeat to the USA at last year's Confederation's Cup.

--at least one African side will make the semi-finals: Ivory Coast seem the most likely, but Nigeria or Ghana could also surprise.

--Hosts South Africa will do much better than expected and will be carried to the quarter-finals on a wave of home support.

--England will go out on penalties in either the second round or the quarter-finals, amidst an injury to Wayne Rooney, a controversial sending-off, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The Netherlands will become one of the favourites after stellar performances in the first round, then will lose limply in one of the knock-out rounds to one of the eventual finalists.

--New Zealand will lose all three games. Relative success will be scoring a couple of goals.

--Chile and Mexico will win admirers with their attractive style of play, but will be knocked out unluckily or unjustly

--The USA or Greece will cause a pretty big upset somewhere, and will go much further than expected

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Snows of Nevado Ampato

I've explained before about my motivational tactic of announcing to all and sundry when I plan to do something challenging, in order to force myself to carry through with the plans. So it was here in Peru: from almost my first day here I started talking about climbing Nevado Ampato and discussing options with various people. After so much talk, I had to pin myself down to an actual date, and eventually settled on the 28th of May as the day of departure.

Originally, several people, including Hugo, Gelmond and Pablo, had all talked about going on the expedition, amidst much hot air and machismo about not needing a guide, and taking alternative routes starting in Cabanconde or Pinchollo (both needing an extra couple of days trekking just to get to the base of the mountain). But in the end, it was just me and a French guy called Mateo, who is living in Cabanaconde and working with Pablo.

On Friday 28 May, I hauled myself out of bed at 5:30 am. After around 4 hours drive we reached the road end. It's two hours from Arequipa, on the road to Chivay, to Patapampa, where at 4,900 metres there are spectacular views across the high plain to the volcanoes of Ampato, Sabancaya and Hualca Hualca. From there it's about 1 1/2 hours more on a track of varying quality which crosses the pampa and winds down into a quebrada before petering out at the foot of the mountain.

At the road end we met up with Alejandro (previously my guide on both Misti and Chachani), who had already been on the mountain with a group of Mexicans -- experienced travellers who had previously summited Aconcagua. Conditions had been so bad, both in terms of the weather and underfoot, that Alejandro had been trying to call to Arequipa to tell us to put the trip off, but cloud cover had blocked calls even in spots where reception was normally ok.

The weather these last couple of months has been extremely strange for Arequipa. Normally, skies are brilliantly clear from early April, but cloud and even precipitation have persisted through until the end of May, with several notable snowfalls on the mountains. There had been particularly bad weather in the previous week, and Ampato was covered with an icing sugar-like coating of snow. A common route calls for climbers to work their way slowly up to and around the crater rim, before heading down into the crater and up to the summit. The Mexicans had found this route covered in energy-sapping deep, soft snow, at times sinking up to their waists. They had got to the crater, but, facing exhaustion and worsening weather, had turned back.

It didn't sound too promising, but we had paid for the transport and made the trip, and so had to make the best of it. The weather looked like it was clearing, and we hoped that some of the snow would melt, while some would freeze, leaving us with a manageable path to the summit.

We made easy progress up the mountain passing the camping spots at 5,200 and 5,400 metres, before reaching the high camp at 5,700 metres, a narrow windswept ridge of rock surrounded by snow. I was carrying at most only 11 or 12kg, but was pretty satisfied that I didn't find the going too challenging. Mateo, on the other hand, started to struggle for oxygen after the first hour. He is much stronger than me and has trekked all over the Colca Canyon, but had only once been over 5,500 metres, and, as may people have found, altitude can change all the rules.

The camp at 5,700 metres was an interesting and valuable experience (the highest regular camp on Aconcagua is at little more than 5,800 metres). I didn't sleep much at all at 4,700 metres at base camp on El Misti, so you can imagine what it was like at high camp on Ampato. We were in our sleeping bags before 6 o'clock, and the minutes ticked by interminably. After a couple of hours, Mateo asked me if I had a bag: he felt like being sick. He also complained of headaches. I wasn't particularly surprised. For my part, it's not like I have some super-metabolism that's immune to the altitude -- rather, I credit the regime of Diamox recommended by my sister Terri: starting 4 or 5 days before a climb, to allow the diuretic effects to run their course before you're actually on the mountain. Maybe the fact that it was my fourth time near 6,000 metres helped a little.

And even I wasn't feeling that crash hot. It was cold in the tent, and even with a couple of layers of clothing my sleeping bag wasn't keeping me warm enough unless I closed it completely over my head. As soon as I did that, I started breathing very heavily as the oxygen petered out. Meanwhile, the wind howled down the mountainside and blew powdered snow in under the tent door. I alternated between shivering and gasping, and had strange waking dreams that there were other people in our group (Mateo had similar visions).

By 2:00 am I was more than eager to get out of the tent and start walking. In the cramped tent I took about twenty minutes to get on pants and fresh socks, and manouevre objects into appropriate jacket pockets. Outside I added boots and Gore-Tex layers, and we strapped on crampons. Alejandro had prepared a pot of coca tea, and I had to force down a cup, which gives an idea of how delicate I was feeling.

Alejandro had recommended that we take a different, more direct route towards the crater rim, avoiding the deepest snow and allowing us to attack the summit from a different angle. At first it was reasonably easy, as we traversed left across the mountain. There were patches of thick snow, but a lot of it had frozen enough to make the going easier. Soon we began to head more steeply up the mountain, and I started to find the pace tough and the oxygen scarce. Worse, my hand that was grasping the ice pick got very cold. The other hand, moving around while I walked, was fine, but the fingers staying still on the handle of the ice pick (used as a baston in non-technical situations) were going numb inside my gloves. This was a learning experience, and in another post I'll reflect on some of the gear and technical issues from this climb.

The going got steeper and tougher as we crossed slippery patches of gravel and loose earth. I battled to keep up with Alejandro, with an increasingly churning stomach added to my general malaise. Worse, I was reduced to near helplessness, as I couldn't take off my outer gloves for the cold and couldn't work my zip pockets or adjust my clothing with the gloves on. I was reduced to asking Alejandro to extract water from my pack and sweets from my jacket. Eventually we reached the base of the rock tower that had been looming up to our left and marked the crater rim. One route would take us across the bottom of the crater and up to the summit, but Alejandro felt the snow would be too deep here and could be hiding crevasses. Instead we headed up at another steep angle to the left, across firmer snow, towards a precipitous ridge that led around towards the summit.

Here we had to rope up and scramble a tricky 7 or 8 metres up to the crest. A truly freezing wind tore across the ridge as we stepped gingerly along, past one, two, three false summits. I guess there were some spectacular views up there, but I was so numbed by cold and tiredness that I just have to be grateful for Alejandro's presence of mind and balance in making sure we got a couple of photos. As we were about to swing to the right to make the last stretch to the real summit, Alejandro called a halt. There was a nasty looking crack running right across the area of snow we were about to step across. On both sides of the ridge were near-vertical drops. "It's too dangerous", said Alejandro. "We have to go back".

The following pictures give an idea. We went as far as the end of the ridge you can see between my legs, from where you had to hang right along the next ridge and up to the little knob which is the "true" summit. But you can see that we were basically at the same altitude: nearly 6,300 metres. Alejandro suggested we may have been the first people this year to reach this point.

The following is my "haggard" picture. It's looking back away from the summit; we had to scramble up the little bit you see behind me to my right (left of the photo) and this was the point where we attached the rope. On the way down I felt a little sick in my stomach and had to take a couple of "bathroom" breaks. I have a feeling it was from eating snow that contained sulphur: not the altitude, as it got worse not better as we went downhill, and perhaps not something I had eaten, as the others ate the same as me.

The photo below has the best view of the mountain in general. This is at around 5,200 metres, about 30 minutes from the road end. From here you can't see the summit: it is hidden beyond the long, rounded ridge which is the crater rim. You can see a little tongue of rock meeting snow on the left side of the mountain about half way up, pretty much in the middle of the two large stones behind my right shoulder. About here was where we camped. Our route to the summit went pretty mugh straight up from here to the the base of the the triangular rock tower on the left side of the mountain: we rounded this, climbed further up to the left, and scrambled up to the ridge that heads round to the summit, as can be seen in the other photos.

Alejandro and I reached the summit around 7:00 am, about 4 hours after leaving camp. From here, Alejandro insisted we had to get quickly at least half way back to camp, as the rising sun would create a high risk of rockfalls and avalanches. We planed down easily through the snow, making it most of the way down in an hour. At camp we found Mateo a little improved, and leisurely packed up our gear and headed the rest of the way down the mountain.

When we reached the road head we crossed paths with several members of a group of (according to later reports) 60 people who were part of an expedition organized by the municipality of Chivay. They were making an ascent as part of the 185th anniversary of the province of Caylloma, and planned to make an offering on the mountain. The group included members of the High Mountain Police, but as far as we could determine, none of the most experienced guides from Arequipa.

Around midday on Sunday back in Arequipa, I got a call from Pablo, who was in Cabanaconde. The local radio station was reporting that at least one person had disappeared on Ampato, and he was worried for Mateo and I.

Since then, news reports have been confused and contradictory, partly due to the remoteness of the zone, and partly due to few people being entirely sure what had happened. But by today (Tuesday), the stories have acquired a consistency and coherence to allow me to imagine a reconstruction of events. The death toll is two, with one body still not found. It seems that of the 60 people who went up the mountain, only 5 left camp and aimed for the summit. All of these were caught in an avalanche, which struck around 8:35 am. According to news reports, they were assisted by members of the High Mountain Police (though its unclear where these police were before the accident). Three people were rescued with injuries, one was already dead, and one body was not recovered; the search is ongoing.

Today's paper said that the recovered body was found at 5,888 metres. There was also a picture of the mountainside. Alejandro came round to the house today, and recognised the photo as an area of the mountain to the right of our route, where the snow was heavier. He thought that the climbers had probably headed up this way before spotting our footprints from a day earlier and trying to take the same route to the summit. The place and time of the accident suggests that, however far they had got, they were on their way down when they were overtaken by the avalanche.

I've become something of a minor celebrity among friends and acquaintances in the last couple of days, and have received several worried phone calls wondering if I'm still alive. The general consensus is that we were lucky. I agree that for some reason, the mountain seemed to have been kinder to us than to those who came before or after. But I'm also convinced that a significant reason I got back down safe and sound was the experience and judicious decisions of my guide: Alejandro understood what the conditions were like and what precautions we needed to take. For now, that's where I prefer to invest my gratitude.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ode to a Backpack

Yet another frivolous post thrown up for the sake of it while I don't have time to write a proper narrative. I'm in Chivay for a couple of hours with a slow connection and a sticky keyboard. I'm just come back from three days in Sibayo. This afternoon I'm heading to Cabanaconde, and will be back in Arequipa around Tuesday. Maybe, just maybe, there'll be time to write a couple of proper posts before we head to the daunting challenge of Nevado Ampato on Friday.

For now, I'll put in a plug for my Macpac 25-litre backpack which has been my sole piece of luggage in all of my trips between Arequipa, Chivay, Cabanaconde, Sibayo, and Cuzco. It gives you much more freedom and tranquility being able to travel with only one bag, that can be taken with you in all forms of transport and easily carried around between times. This backpack has allowed me to travel lightly, while still taking almost all of what I need for an average of 5 to 7 days. It has easily outperformed any other day-size pack I've had before.

My standard load on all these trips has been as follows (with me usually lightly dressed at departure in jeans, t-shirt, cap, socks and shoes):

--one pair nylon trekking pants, 2 t-shirts, 3 long-sleeved tops, one soft shell jacket with hood, 6 pairs socks, 4 pairs underwear, one pair long underwear, chullo, wool gloves

--2 paperback books, 2 notebooks, handful of A4 sheets and newspaper clippings

--camera, digital recorder, retractable USB cord, USB memory, couple of pens, cord and plug to recharge cellphone, instruction booklets for camera and digital recorder

--toilet bag with: electric shaver, cord and adaptor for recharging, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, moisturizer, hair gel, sun cream, silicone ear plugs with plastic case, nail scissors, various medicines and accoutrements (if this seems excessive, bear in mind that the climate and environment of the Peruvian sierra are extremely harsh on the gringo countenance, and I have to remain presentable for the variety of situations encountered in my research).

--roll of toilet paper, half litre of water, chocolate or small pack of biscuits.

All this fits comfortably inside the internal compartments of the pack. The books, notebooks and papers are isolated and kept flat in one compartment, and the electronic equipment and cables in another. I can easily access any of the above without having to rummage around or take out other things. After two months, my books are not even the slightest bit dog-eared.

As clothes get dirty, they're moved into the outer overload compartment. The available space in this depends on how much is in the interior compartments, so the pack remains balanced. Even at its fullest, the backpack fits into the overhead racks of the old buses that travel into the Colca Valley, and under the seat footrest of the comfortable coaches that go between the larger cities.

Once off the bus, it's extremely comfortable and easy to carry, with the profile of a school backpack. There's a handle on the outside that, at a push, could serve to lash a light sleeping bag to. The only drawback is that the waist belt seems superfluous; even with the heaviest loads the pack sits better with the shoulder straps drawn right up and the weight sitting high up on the back. So mostly I leave the waist belt tucked away, where it sits quite nicely without causing too much bother.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Comings and Goings in Arequipa and the Colca Valley

I'm afraid this blog has been a bit of a disappointment lately, given that when in Peru I usually churn out posts fairly regularly. I've headed up and started posts on the following: the serendipity method of social research; first impressions of Sibayo and the upper Colca Valley; the peculiar style of public conferences in provincial Peru; and the complex problem of informal mining, which with its contradictory relationships to Peruvian social, cultural and economic issues, would be worthy of at least a PhD thesis.

Obviously, however, none of these have been finished: I've spent long periods away from reasonable internet and computer access, and when in Arequipa have had to prioritise transcribing what I can from my notebook and giving a helping hand to Hugo and Lizbeth with translations and various other things. I've been back and forth between the Colca Valley and Arequipa several times in the last couple of weeks. In the last week of April I was in Chivay attending a conference on "The Municipal Management of Tourism", which was very enlightening as well as partly frustrating, and deserves its own blog post.

Tonight I'm heading to Cuzco to help guide the Salkantay trek with Gelmond (a favour to Hugo), and in the next couple of weeks may have to go to Lima, as well as leaving the country before the 17th of June to comply with immigration requirements (I will go briefly to Bolivia or Chile and come back after a couple of days). In addition, we now have a pretty firm date to go to Ampato -- the 28th to the 30th of May.

With these various movements, not only will I have very little time for blogging, but I'm beginning to get slightly anxious about my research schedule. I have done reasonably well in relation the institutional perspective and Cabanaconde, not so well with regard to the ethnographic approach and Sibayo / the upper valley. It's easy to get distracted here, and not always easy to distinguish between genuine slacking off, and necessary maintenance of friendship links, which are ultimately the most valuable means of obtaining insights in a foreign culture.

So, for now, all I can offer is a couple more photos from a day last week in Cabanaconde when I went to help harvest corn with a couple of local acquaintances, Liliana, and her mother Señor Prudencia.

The chacras (fields) were about 40 minutes walk from the village (like most villagers, Señora Prudencia has several other chacras scattered around other sectors of the Cabanaconde campiña). There were four guys working; all of them migrant labour from Chivay and the upper valley, and they were paid in corn. I and Mateo, a French guy who is staying in Cabanaconde, also put in a few decent hours and helped clear the fields, and we also received a quota of corn for our troubles. Mine is currently outside on the terrace here in Arequipa drying in the sun, waiting to be degrained and turned into canchita, toasted corn kernels which are exceedingly popular here and can accompany almost any meal. Corn from Cabanaconde, maiz cabanita, is fully organic and is considered by many to be the best in all of Peru.

The first photo is at lunchtime; I'm sitting next to the Señor Prudencia, while Mateo, is seated on the rock with his dog Chewbacca (long story, another time). In the second, I'm carrying my corn back to Cabanaconde in the lliclla (woven blanket used by local people to carry everything from potatoes to babies; men wear it slung over a shoulder as I have in the picture; women over both shoulders with the weight thus falling in the middle of the back, which strikes me as more practical. )

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Hat tip to Terence Wood for this link from the Guardian: it's nice to know that once in a while some scientific study can justify one's instinctive, bloodyminded contrariness (I'm sure former colleagues will vouch for me on this one).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

El Misti Redux

I'm jumping way ahead of myself and getting out of order with all the other posts I had intended, because this post is mainly photos and therefore easy to finish. This week was the second time I'd climbed El Misti, and although I found it easier than five years ago, it was enough of a struggle to make me doubt my chances at Ampato, let alone Aconcagua.

Misti has both easy and challenging aspects. On the one hand, the climb starts at 3,400 metres and ends at the summit at 5,825, so it's a pretty decent ascent, with two consecutive days of around 1,200 metres. On the other hand, the terrain is quite easy: a well-worn trail over loose earth and sand mixed with some narrow scrambles over rock, and (these days) no snow or ice to speak of. You don't have to reserve much energy for the descent -- most of the mountain is sand, so you can basically slide most of the way back down. We took 5 hrs 20 minutes to get to base camp, 4 hrs 10 to the summit, and just 2 hrs 20 to get all the way back down. It's also not very cold -- it would only have been -3 or -4 Celsius at the summit, and there was hardly a breeze during the whole climb.

On the first day, I carried approximately 14kg in my pack, maybe a little more at the very start. This is good practice, but I found it tougher than I would like. A partial excuse is that I had done a reasonably intense leg workout at the gym a couple of days previously, so was a bit stiff even at the start of the climb. More worrying was how challenging I found the stretch to the summit, where I was carrying little more than a spare jacket and pants, 1.5 litres of water, chocolate, snacks, and my camera.

Unlike last time, I never doubted I would make it to the summit, but above about 5,000 metres I was breathing increasingly heavily, and felt quite weak as we took a stroll from the summit down to the crater. It's a sobering thought that Misti's summit is at a similar altitude to the high camp on Ampato, and the equivalent of the base camp-summit stretch would have to be done fully laden, over more difficult terrain. Even the summit push on the higher peaks would require carrying more, with the need to take crampons, ice picks and so forth. So I will need to get considerably stronger and better acclimatised before attempting anything bigger.

Here are some of the shots I took, with captions below (you can click to enlarge):

View uphill towards the summit about an hour into the climb.

Base camp at 4,700 metres. On the mountain were me, Alejandro, a Belgian guy, and two French guys with another guide.

My climbing companion Jonas from Belgium reflects on the landscape near sunset.

The spectacular colours of the sunset are helped along by the dust and pollution trapped in an inversion layer over Arequipa.

Jonas silhouetted against the sunset: I think I could licence this shot for one of those light-evangelical Christian inspirational posters.

From near the summit, the volcano casts a conical shadow over the landscape at sunrise.

Looking westt from the summit over nevados Chachani (6,075 metres, in the foreground) and Coropuna (6,425 metres, in the distance).

The city of Arequipa laid out like a map, seen from the summit.

View north to the national reserve of Laguna Salinas y Aguada Blanca.

The French guys had to light up a cigarette to celebrate their arrival at the summit. I suggested a game of football. Note the predominance of the chullo.

A fourth chullo. Me at the summit with a view looking west

I should include one where I look a bit less grave. View of the cross at the summit of Misti, with the city of Arequipa in the background.

A view of Misti's crater with its smoking fumaroles. An expedition led by Johann Reinhard found four Incan-era mummies near here in 1999.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interim Update

Contrary to appearances, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, but have merely been very busy and have recently spent 10 days in non-blogworthy internet conditions. Tomorrow morning I'm taking the opportunity to start a climb of El Misti, an essential warm up to future expeditions.

I will be back Thursday afternoon and then there's a short window before the next set of important commitments start next week. There's actually a whole set of blog posts I have in mind for when I have time. Hopefully I'll get some of them written.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Feast Fit for a Student

Who would have thought that the major achievement of my first week in Peru would be to put on a bit of weight?

A long and disorienting flight, the aforementioned brutal headache, a fifteen-hour bus ride to Arequipa; then, after just one day settling in, a 2am start, and three days in the Colca Valley: these are the kind of things that mean travel tends to make me skinnier. But in the last week, their cumulative effects have been firmly counteracted.

When I got to Arequipa, my first action was to flick some emails to the best and most helpful contacts that I made last year, asking them when would be a good time to stop by for a chat. The response from Alejandro, the director of the tourism programme at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, was almost immediate. He wouldn't be in the office because he was heading off to the Colca for the next couple of days with a couple of assistants, to do a survey commissioned by a university from Lima. I was welcome to join them.

At first it seemed as if Alejandro was going to be able to get a 4WD, but then he sent another message to say they were leaving on the 3:30 am public bus to Chivay. This was a good opportunity to make a start on some research-like activity, so despite my trepidation about the schedule, I hastened down to the bus station to get myself a ticket,

This meant I had to be "up" by 2:30am. This is almost the worst time of all to have a commitment. Too late to stay up for, too early to really get any sleep. Lingering in a sleep-like state from about 11:30pm, I dragged myself out of bed and down to the bus station, where I met Alejandro and his assistants Juan Carlos and Sharon. Bleary-eyed, we climbed aboard and braved the 3 hours to Chivay, including the nasty stretch between Vizcachani and Patapampa. This is a suspension-shuddering piece of highway that I'm told is due to a failed attempt at paving in around 2005, subject of dark rumours about poor materials and a kickback-deflated budget.

The good news was that our accommodation in Chivay was in a comfortable mid-range hotel with (sometimes) hot water, and, even better, we had access to the lunch buffet at a restaurant owned by the same woman as the hotel. My trips to the Peruvian sierra have usually meant lots of walking at altitude and meals of soup, potatoes and legumes. I come back lean and maybe a little stronger.

Not this time. Instead, fine cuts of meat, cheesy vegetable pie, and cake with mango soufflé were my repast. At lunch, I manfully lived up to Alejandro's expectation that we would all make five trips to the buffet table. This included a la carte service of soup and a main course: on Sunday all four of us chose what the menu charmingly, and sincerely, described as Alpaca Gordon Blue.

Task-wise, we spent Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday surveying the hotels and restaurants of the Colca Valley, grappling with survey questions established in Lima that were for the most part totally inappropriate for the largely informal and family-run businesses of the area.On Friday we jolted and bounced in an ancient taxi all the way to Cabanaconde, where I made a surprise visit to Lizbeth's family at the Valle del Fuego. On Saturday we "did" Chivay, went out for a couple of drinks, and at first enjoyed and then gritted our teeth at a concert across the road from our hotel featuring huayno singer Gisela Lavado (think Sonia Morales without the tuneful voice and melodic variety) which continued until 4:30 am. On Sunday, we took a more modern car to Yanque -- perhaps the most orderly and pretty of the villages in the Colca Valley -- and then to peaceful and sunny Coporaque, where the oldest chapel in the valley sits on Collagua foundations and a statue honours the Inca Mayta Capac, who formalized the area's subjection to the empire via marriage of one of his generals to the daughter of the local cacique.

Then it was back to Chivay for another stomach-bursting buffet lunch and the tiring ride back to Arequipa, with a delay due to a horrible-looking bus vs. 4WD accident that had recently occurred near Yura.

I got back to Arequipa last night and have been looking after the downstairs because Lizbeth has taken Gerardo to Lima for some dental attention and is meeting Hugo there.

This should involve me fending for myself, getting by on bread, cheese, yoghurt and coffee, and maybe frying an egg or two. However, no sooner had I arrived back last evening than the señora Gloria presented me with "my lunch" -- a large plate of chicken and rice. I had barely recovered from the four rounds of the buffet table in Chivay. This morning, when I had already eaten breakfast, Hugo's sister-in-law Erica appeared to announce that "my breakfast" was upstairs. I could hardly refuse. This afternoon, just as I was about to head out to get a sandwich in town, Hugo's niece Lia appeared with a plate of battered beef, tamales and rice sent down by her mother Vivian.

This was of course lovely of all of them, and I offered my sincere thanks. But the thing is, I don't think this was just good will. Rather, my presence in the house, combined with the absence of Lizbeth or any appropriate domestic employee, created an anomaly that cultural logic just could not allow. It seems a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in Peru must be in want of a meal.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lima: This Year´s Thoughts

It's become something of a tradition for me to try to sketch out my impressions of Lima each time I arrive here anew: see the 2005, 2006 ,2007, and 2009 editions.

If anything, the city seems more relaxed, ordered and optimistic than it was a year ago. At least in the centre: I of course can't really comment about conditions in the pueblos jovenes on the margins. My traditional temperature guage -- the taxi driver on the way in from the airport -- was relatively positive about both security (the police have reportedly recently dismantled a number of kidnapping gangs), and the economy (there's been "a lot of investment").

Cetainly, the number of poster boards outside the municipal buildings showing "before" and "after" pictures of public works in the city has nearly doubled since last year. Quite a number of them involve the replacement of disastrously crowded t-shaped intersections with overpass interchange systems. This clears away the immediate chaos, (at least in the "after" pictures) but it's unclear whether they're part of any coherent overall plan. On the other hand, a number also involve the conversion of wasteland or chaos into green space. For me, this is crucial: public space is the underpinning of citizenship (maybe I can elaborate on this in a future post)

One of my life's ambitions is to gain some command of Lima's geography and negotiate my way along at least the main north-south routes by kombi and bus. On my last afternoon before taking the bus to Arequipa, I took a long walk from my hotel, near the church of San Francisco, to the Parque de la Exposición, which is about twenty blocks south.

I am now able to see how the whole central part of the city, at least from the Rimac river to the National Stadium, is a coherent piece of urban geography, packed with magnificent architecture, and riddled with historical sites, churches, museums, and locations from Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique novels. It's worth remembering that, despite basically being destroyed a couple of times, Lima was the centre of the Spanish empire for several centuries. In the Americas, probably only Bogotá and Buenos Aires can compare as historical urban centres.

You'd hardly know it, though, as central Lima is fragmented by incessant traffic, crumbling paving, and general insecurity outside the central four to six blocks. The past couple of municipal regimes have indeed done a lot to improve the centre from a virtual no-go zone, but it's still a matter of islands amidst the chaos. The boardwalk along the Rimac river is a pleasant public space (if you ignore the color of the water), while 20 blocks away the metropolitan and fine arts museums are being refurbished, both sitting adjacent to the surprisingly green, beautiful and tranquil Parque de la Exposición. Yet, it's a bit of an adventure even getting from one end of the centre to the other: just getting across a couple of the intersections requires a diploma in jaywalking Peruvian style.

In my view, it's the lack of a mass transport system combined with disdain for the lot of a pedestrian, more than the general insecurity, which means that tourists in Lima tend to either hole up in enclaves like Miraflores, or hop from point to point by taxi. I've braved journeys by kombi a couple of times in the past, but you kind of need to know exactly where you're going -- otherwise you can end up in one of the undesirable spots concerned citizens warn you never to go to, with little idea how to get out. If you're a traveller who has come to Lima and made your way easily around different parts of the city as one can do in Santiago, Buenos Aires, and even to an extent in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro (all blessed with metro systems), then I'm impressed.

However, the achievement level in this task may be about to diminish, and it may even become routine for tourists and newcomers to negotiate the city much as they would elsewhere. For Lima will soon see the inauguration of El Metropolitano.

El Metropolitano is partly based in Bogotá's system of guided busways, the Trasmilenio. The pamphlet from the Municipalidad de Lima boasts that it will be the first bus system in the world to be powered entirely by natural gas (making at least some local use of the fruits of Camisea), and will incorporate such modern features as electronic ticketing, disability-friendly access ramps, security personnel and real-time schedule updates.

The publicity says that what is currently a two-hour trip will be cut to one hour. That's not hard to believe when you see the jams of smoke-belching kombis at rush hour. But let's put this in perspective: while the Transmilenio is a city-wide network, Lima's equivalent will have just one main line, running north to south (total 32km), with a few short feeder lines running in at each end (total 26km). In the inevitable comparison with Peru's southern neighbour, it doesn't quite match up: Santiago has a city-wide bus system and a metro.

At least it's a start, though. Little by little, Lima seems to be progressing from the sub-Blade Runner reality of its recent past, to the vibrant, liveable place its history and national prominence suggests it ought to be.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Greetings From Lima

I've hardly had time to write on this blog at all in the recent past. Almost every minute seems to have occupied with some important commitment or another. So there has been no chance for a warning or lead-in: I simply have to announce that I'm writing this from Lima.

All going well, I should be in Peru for around 4 months, although I'll need to leave the country for a while before three months are up to comply with immigration requirements; at this stage it's most likely that I'll cross the frontier for a brief trip to Bolivia.

Some regular readers will know what the main purposes of the trip are. I'm unsure how much detail I'll be able to post on these, but at least hope to be able to update the blog regularly.

For now, I can reflect on a trip that from Wellington took approximately 24 hours, including time spent waiting at Auckland and Santiago airports. Maybe it's age, but this time it seemed less enjoyable and exciting and took rather more out of me than in the past. On the Auckland-Santiago leg I watched three and a half movies and hardly slept. The half, which I finished on the Santiago-Lima leg, was Pan's Labyrinth: I usually avoid 'serious' movies at 35,000 feet, but I'm really glad I eventually got to see it as it was a truly intense and moving film.

You have to be impressed with the Chileans. I wasn't aware of it, but apparently Santiago airport took a bit of damage in the recent earthquake, and half the international terminal was out of order. But they had everything running more or less smoothly with only eight available gates, and buses taking passenger to and from the planes. I'm also grateful for the fixed seats in the waiting areas that are more less amenable to exhausted passengers curling themselves up and sacking out for a few hours. I spent about two thirds of my nine hours in Santiago airport in this position.

After getting into Lima, I crashed, and despite hitting the sack at the 'normal' time of about 1:30 am, I slept and slept, through to nearly 4pm the next day. I got up in a bit of a daze, found something to eat, and then shortly afterwards the power on our block went out. By the time I finished my novel by the light of a battery-powered lamp on the hotel terrace, it was time for bed again.

This was when I discovered, as I had expected might happen even before the flight, that I had a steadily worsening headache. And I didn't have any panadol. I couldn't believe that I had neglected to buy some in the airport before leaving, despite idly anticipating this exact eventuality. I have a delicate head at the best of times, and the combination of low-oxygen cabins, sleeplessness, dehydration, and hours staring at a screen or a book in low light, was bound to play havoc with my pain receptors.

This was almost as bad as my worst hangover headaches: but while those could be relieved a little by lying very still with a wet cloth on my forehead, in this case the wet cloth did nothing and lying with my head back was the worst position; sitting up made it slightly better, but I couldn't stay that way all night.

Eventually I managed to achieve a little relief by lying on my stomach and bunching the pillow under my head. In this way I managed to fall asleep, and made it through till the sunlight and early morning traffic signalled it was time to make my way downstairs and round the corner to a pharmacy where I found panadol, a Coke, and blessed relief.

On the positive side, I may have beaten the jet lag a lot quicker than usual. I was up this morning by 8am, am still going reasonably strong now at 7pm, and hope to make it through to about 11, and then hopefully tomorrow will be up at a normal time. Of course, tomorrow night's bus trip to Arequipa could throw a spanner in the works.

However, never again will I travel anywhere without a supply of painkillers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gear for Tekking and Climbing: Footwear

This and subsequent posts could be subtitled "what I've learnt over the last little while". A while back, in one of my most rambling posts ever, I reflected on the shortfalls of various items of equipment in my last trekking trip to Salkantay. I realised that I would need to equip myself better for future adventures, if I wanted to enjoy and survive them. As my thoughts turned to Aconcagua, this became more urgent: if you don't have the right gear, they won't even let you start.

Over the last six months, I've gradually acquired many of the things that I need for outdoor adventures. Having undertaken a quite intensive process of research and learning about what to get and how to use it, I thought I would share some of what I've learned. As I've gone along, I've found the anecdotes, reflections and summaries on other people's web pages to be some of the most useful information: more honest than marketing descriptions; more accessible than technical reviews. Perhaps some of what I write here will be of use to someone else.

In this post, I'll cover one of the areas I realised I badly needed to fix after my last trip: footwear. But first, some of the general things I've learned.

General principles

The most important thing I've learned is that specialisation is your friend. Getting gear or clothing that is specifically designed for your planned conditions and activities will be repaid hundreds of times over when you're comfortable and competent in those conditions / activities. It may mean that you have to get more individual items, and, yes, perhaps spend a bit more. Trying to get something optimally versatile will likely mean that it will not be quite right for any specific circumstance. This doesn't mean you can't get things that are good for a range of conditions; it just means that it's usually not a good idea to compromise on quality or specifications because you want to cover all bases.

It's also true, to a certain extent, that you "get what you pay for". This does not always amount to a strict ratio of expense to quality. Sometimes, the extra expense of a very costly thing will be because it has additional features that you don't necessarily need for what you are doing. And in many cases, you can get things at the end of a line or in last season's colours, for considerably less than the previous price, and you can be sure that there's little if any quality difference. In other cases, you can pay a premium for details like fit in a garment, which might seem to be a stylistic indulgence, but can actually make a real difference to function, like shutting out cold.

Footwear experiences and recommendations

For hiking and tramping in New Zealand conditions and mountain climbing up to what I plan to do in Peru (daytime temperatures to around -10 Celsius, some non-technical crampon use across light snow and ice), I have a pair of Asolo full-grain leather wide model boots.

(The first link is to the page, which has a lot of reviews for something that seems to be pretty much the same boot as I have, but has a different serial number. The second link is to the exact model of my boots on the Bivouac site. I think the difference with the ones on is that my ones do not have a Gore-Tex lining and do have a specifically wider build.)

These are apparently very popular among New Zealanders -- we tend to have wider feet because we grow up running around without shoes on. Of the several that I tried on in shops, they stood out by immediately feeling "right" and not pinching my feet across their width. From what I've read elsewhere, this is a minimum standard that should be exercised by people purchasing trekking boots and other technical footwear. Although boots do get "broken in", you can't just expect them to mould to your foot after purchase, especially when they are specifically constructed to be rigid in certain areas.

On the other hand, you still need to take a careful approach to sizing. You shouldn't just go with what feels snug and comfortable in the shop like a nice pair of shoes. With boots, you are trying to balance two things:

1. You don't want your heel to be too loose and to lift up too much as you walk, since this is a recipe for blisters and can also affect maneuverability.
2. You don't want your toes to push too much into the front of the boots, because, well, this will destroy your toes.

Obviously, there is something of a trade off between these two desirable qualities. As a rule, when standing in an unlaced boot and pushing your toes all the way to the front, you should be able to fit an index finger snugly in between your heel and the boot. This should mean that when you are going downhill your toes will slide forward to touch the front of the boot, but not press into it. Many shops provide a little incline bench that you can walk up and down to test out footwear.

If in doubt, it's better to be a little on the large side than the small side. First, your feet swell up when you walk. Second, you may want to add more layers of socks in colder conditions. The bottom line is that you can compensate for boots being too big, but not for them being too small.

I've worn the Asolos on several multi-day tramping trips now and am pretty satisfied. As someone who has always avoided boots, I can't believe how comfortable they are. They are probably no hotter or more constricting than most pairs of shoes I've had, and I feel happy to sit around with them on before or after trekking.

I've worked out a system for lacing: when I'm going to be heading mainly uphill, I lace relatively loosely, which reduces the pressure of my heels against the rigid back of the boots. When I'm going to be heading mainly downhill, I lace as tightly as possible so my toes don't push forward too much. So far, I have not come close to getting a blister, although I have definitely felt heat and pressure at certain points. On steep terrain carrying up to 18kg, this may be unavoidable. On several occasions my trekking companions have had blisters despite taking reasonable care with their footwear.

I go with a liner sock / midweight trekking sock combination and find it works well. I tend to run hot and sweat a lot. Either my (expensive) merino or (cheap) synthetic liner socks do a good job of passing that moisture on to the outer layer.

I can't speak to the durability of the Asolos yet, since I've only had them six months or so, but they do get a good rap for this from the past users. They don't have a rubber "bumper bar" over the whole front of the toe like some boots, which is probably good in terms of reducing weight, but it means the leather takes a bit of a hammering. I was a bit disconcerted after my first trip to the Tararuas to find that there were quite a few little chips and nicks in the leather, but after a couple more trips these just seemed to have blended into the surface to form a generally "well-loved" look.

I have also been making an effort to take good care of my boots, and have cleaned and waxed them after every trip, while avoiding wearing them around town to save their soles. My father, who used to have to hound us to polish our school shoes once a week, would be astounded to see me cleaning off the mud with a toothbrush, then lovingly applying leather conditioner and wax. The task is made more pleasant by the fact that natural beeswax smells quite nice and can be applied and rubbed in with your fingers.

For everything else, I've got a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator trekking shoes. These work well for people like me who feel that they'd really just rather wear their running shoes everywhere, from formal occasions to the tops of mountains. The Ventilators have a mesh-dominated upper, and are close to being as cool and breathable as a pair of regular sneakers. The fact that they are a bit heavier and warmer is due to the extra padding, rubber reinforcement around the toe and heel, and tank-like Vibram soles which means that these shoes actually are appropriate for traipsing up and down mountainsides.

I now wear these around most places and expect them to be good for both the hot asphalt and rough, dusty trails I should soon be encountering in Peru, while also coping with long trips in buses and airplanes and plenty of sitting around writing at a computer.

Originally, I had bought a pair of the Ventilators' cousins, the Pulse II. This has the exact same footbed and sole, but a considerably sturdier upper. This was based on a recommendation by my sister Cecilia's boyfriend Mark, who said he wore them around everywhere, including outdoors in Florida. I guess I run hotter, because it took just one 25-degree afternoon in Wellington for me to decide they wouldn't quite do. Fortunately, the shop let me take them back and exchange them for the Ventilators.

For Aconcagua, I will need to get a pair of double plastic climbing boots that are sufficiently warm to cope with temperatures down to -30 Celsius. So far, I've been able to ascertain that pretty much nowhere in New Zealand carries a range of these boots. When I figure that one out, I'll write an update.