Why the Dutch are Different- book review

I often enjoy reading books about entire countries and Why the Dutch are Different- A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands was certainly very enjoyable. Usually, when most people think of the Netherlands, windmills, dikes, and the red light and marijuana delights of Amsterdam usually come to mind. It’s a pity because the country is so much more fascinating than just those things.

Having lived in the Netherlands for several years after marrying a Dutch woman, Englishman Ben Coates decides to venture around his adopted country while exploring its past and present. The output is a humorous, affectionate and stark look at a small country that has contributed more than its fair share to global exploration, commerce, and art.

While Coates travels to the south for Carnival and to places of interest like massive flood gates that form part of the country’s Delta Works dams and floodgates, and Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old-fashioned windmills, this book is not a travelogue. It’s a historical portrait, socio-cultural study, and political commentary packed into a 300-page book.

Coates starts off by exploring the physical attributes of the Netherlands, especially its famous dikes and windmills which play a pivotal role in enabling the country to cope with its low-lying land and make full use of it. The country is mostly flat, so flat (highest point: 322 meters) that a Dutch journalist actually proposed building an artificial mountain for sportsmen like cyclists and hikers to use.

Water is what the Netherlands has in abundance, and it is something to be feared and controlled, through extensive dikes and canals. One fascinating historical geological fact is that the Netherlands used to be connected to England by a massive landmass called Doggerland, which was eventually swallowed up by the sea 8000-9000 years ago.

While the country is small, it has a distinct traditional north-south divide based on religion. While the north is more Protestant and staid, the south is mainly Catholic which manifests in a more lively, fun-loving spirit exemplified by colorful Carnival parades on Ash Wednesday (my country Trinidad also has an annual Carnival which is its biggest festival). Coates visits several southern cities to take part in their Carnivals, including Maastricht, normally known for being the host of the negotiations that established the EU, and Eindhoven. In the north such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where Coates lives, Carnival is not so widely celebrated.

This religious divide stems from historical times when the Dutch fought to break away from Spanish Catholic rule in the late 16th century as the United Provinces, while the remaining Low Countries would eventually become Belgium. This Christian divide was generally peaceful but it created separate societies with both Protestants and Catholics having not only their own schools, but hospitals, banks, unions, and even seniors’ homes. This religious segregation started receding by the mid-20th century, with the German occupation forcing the Dutch to cooperate with each other.

After the Netherlands won its independence from Spain in the mid-17th century, it didn’t just grow into a country, it became a world power. During this Golden Age, as it’s known, the Dutch fought wars with the British, even winning one though the British would return the favor in the late 18th century, created one of Europe’s largest fleets, and sailed around the world. A Dutch prince would even come to rule Britain at one point- William of Orange, who was King of England from 1689-1702.

The intrepid Dutch “discovered” Australia and New Zealand, and raided the Portuguese and Spanish possessions, eventually capturing Galle and Malacca from the former. The Dutch also sailed to the East Indies, colonizing what would become Indonesia. At the southern tip of Africa, the Dutch established the Cape Colony and the city of Cape Town.

Coates then moves on to the Netherlands’ most traumatic period of history – the Nazi German occupation during World War II. While Anne Frank was the most famous victim, almost 300,000 Dutch people also perished. It is understandable why there was animosity among the Dutch for Germany, though after decades of peace and EU co-existence, it is mainly restricted to football now.

As you can imagine, the book features a lot of history, both glorious and tragic, and many fascinating facts about the Netherlands. There is also a lot of humorous observations about the quirkiness of Dutch society, such as the habit of strangers talking to each other (a shock to a proper Englishman such as the author) and love of being in crowded settings (also another shock to an Englishman).

The Dutch are informal, easygoing and communal-spirited, Coates notes, due to their country being dense and lacking space. The Dutch are also thrifty, hence the saying “Going Dutch,” and value saving money for the future. Amusingly enough, this sounds a lot like East Asia, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, but with one huge difference. In order to foster cooperation and tolerance among a crowded society, the Dutch value being blunt and directness, which is the opposite of East Asia.

The Dutch have a saying that they prefer to approach matters rechtdoorzee or “straight on through the sea,” directly and honestly with no face-saving. Coates says that a major reason for this is geography, as the Netherlands is very flat with no mountains. “Everything’s out in the open. No mountains, no caves. Nothing to hide. No dark places in the soul,” according to a Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom.

And given the Netherland’s reputation as one of football’s strongest nations, naturally Coates also devotes a chapter to the sport. Ironically, and despite being English, Coates doesn’t like football but he still attends a Dutch league game involving Feyenoord, Rotterdam’s major team and one of the country’s top three teams. Coates goes into the illustrious history of Dutch football, which includes reaching three World Cup finals, and its most famous club Ajax Amsterdam, Feyenoord’s hated rivals, as well as icons like Johan Cruijff and Louis van Gaal.

The book’s penultimate chapter focuses on a somber issue in the present, where a new kind of religious societal divide exists. This one is driven by multiculturalism and immigration, specifically of Muslims from countries like Morocco and Turkey. Tensions and differences have led to a backlash, mainly in the popularity of far-right politicians who are outspoken against immigrants and Islam. Two of these, Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, were assassinated, the former by an animal-rights activist, the latter by a Muslim Dutch-Moroccan. This might not be the most upbeat conclusion but it’s a realistic look at one of the most fascinating and underrated countries in Europe, if not in the world.

However, it’s not hard to see how Coates feels about his second home country – “The Netherlands, for all its faults, was happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium, and more fun than Germany.” High praise indeed, which Coates follows up with: “In an era when much of the world was cynical and pessimistic, most Dutch remained tolerant, internationalist and open-minded.” I haven’t been to the Netherlands but someday I really hope I could.

Arabia- A Journey through the Heart of the Middle East- book review

The Middle East is one of the world’s most complex and troubled hot-spots, as well as the birthplace of three major religions and a cradle of civilization. Despite all this, we don’t often hear or read much about the region outside of news of protests, conflicts, and wars. But of course, perhaps that is the exact reason why as regional instability and strife keep visitors and travelers away.

That is why Levison Wood’s Arabia- A Journey through the Heart of the Middle East fascinated me, as the British explorer goes on a journey through the entire Arabian peninsula – 13 countries that include neighboring Somalia and Djibouti for good measure.

Starting off in Syria, Wood goes in a clockwise direction to Iraq, then the wealthy Gulf states, Oman and Yemen, which forces him to detour across the Red Sea to Somalia. After getting back to the Arabian peninsula, Wood enters Saudi Arabia, then Israel, Jordan, and Syria again. He ends in Lebanon, exhausted but exhilarated. In a way, Wood is following in the footsteps of his early 20th-century countrymen, the legendary TE Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton.

Predictably, Wood’s stay in Syria, which was undergoing a devastating civil war when he was there, is fraught with danger and his time in Iraq, where he passes through territory recently occupied by ISIS, is just as risky.

For other countries such as the Gulf oil states like Kuwait, Wood gives little coverage as his stays there are very brief and uneventful. His time in Oman and Yemen is more fascinating, though a potential danger to his life in the latter forces him to chance taking a boat across the Red Sea to Somalia, which isn’t exactly a stable or safe country. Wood also gets to travel in Saudi Arabia, a rare experience given the country until recently forbade tourists. As a non-Muslim, he is banned from going to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest places. There is an amusing encounter in a remote area with a Saudi flower tribe, whose men wear flowers on their heads but will readily knife anyone who insults them.

I’ve read Wood’s previous book on walking the Nile, and his journey in Arabia is similar in terms of going through dangerous war-zones and remote areas. However, one big difference is much of the journey is done in a vehicle, which is not surprising as Wood travels through one of the hottest areas in the world, the Arabian Desert. The prose is a little sparse and simple at times, but Wood is honest in expressing exhaustion or disillusionment, including with his life.

The book could have been longer and it did leave me wanting more since at times, it comes off more as a personal journal. However, Wood deserves credit for coming up with the idea of traveling around the Arabia peninsula and pulling it off despite the risks and personal fears. He’s also journeyed along the Himalayas and across Central America, and written about those as well.

While the beginning of his trip is full of danger and discomfort, things wind down appropriately once he gets to Israel. His time in Israel and Jordan make him sentimental, as he enjoys Christmas in Bethlehem with his family and friends. In the end, Wood fulfills his quest of traveling around the Arabian peninsula and finishing at the ancient ruins of Byblos in Lebanon.

Remembering South Africa

Ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa, in what would be one of my most memorable trips. I arrived right before the 2010 World Cup and spent over a month in the country, staying with relatives in Durban, visiting its two other main cities, the striking Drakensberg mountain range, and the massive Kruger national park. I met South Africans of different races and ethnicities, including Afrikaans, black, ethnic Indian, and colored people, and I ate food ranging from antelope, ostrich sausages, and braai (BBQ) to local Chinese and Indian cuisine.

From all this, you can probably tell ethnic and cultural diversity is South Africa’s major strength and attribute. That is why it’s the “Rainbow Nation,” and its national anthem features verses in different languages. South Africa’s diversity reminds me of the country I grew up in, Trinidad and Tobago, which also features multiple races and actually has no ethnic majority. That said, Trinidad is monolingual, unlike South Africa with its 11 national languages including English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and seven other black African languages. South Africa has both English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites, and black people from groups such as Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa, the mighty Zulu, the Basotho, and Venda. There is an ethnic Indian minority that numbers over one million, while there are also small Chinese and Taiwanese migrant communities. And there are African migrants from all across the continent, from neighboring Zimbabwe to Somalia and even fellow African powerhouse Nigeria.
Watching abseilers climb down Cape Town’s Table Mountain

But behind South Africa’s glowing multiculturalism lie serious economic and racial divides. The black majority still lags behind the white minority in terms of prosperity and capital, and the detrimental effects of apartheid still linger. There are clear racial tensions and racism and racist attitudes exist, mostly against black South Africans, as does xenophobia, which is often directed against African migrants. The country’s economy has not done very well in recent years while it has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Africa.

What adds to South Africa’s interesting complexity is that its people do not mask these issues. In fact, several South Africans who I met, whether white, black or colored, were very open about the country’s racial, social and crime problems. When I was asked what I thought about South Africa, I often started with “it’s very interesting” and from there, the conversation might open up to travel, race, politics, and economics. The country is fascinating and beautiful, but also troubled and complex.

I spent the most time in Durban, a port city located on the eastern coast facing the calm Indian Ocean that has a historical heritage including both Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I also attended two World Cup matches in Durban’s majestic Moses Mabhida Stadium. From there, I went to the opposite side of the country to its Atlantic coast to visit Cape Town, which is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to. I then went to the Drakensberg, a large mountain range in the same province as Durban, and did a daytrip to Lesotho, a mountainous country next to the Drakensberg that is completely surrounded by South Africa. Finally, I went to Johannesburg, where I joined a small overland tour group to go to northeast South Africa and the massive 19,485-km2 Kruger Park for a safari and, passing through the country of Botswana, to Victoria Falls in Zambia.

The country was very enthusiastic about the World Cup, which was the first ever in Africa, but things cooled down especially after the home team suffered the ignominy of being the first World Cup host nation to get knocked out in the group stage. But honestly, just being in South Africa was thrilling enough and once I went on trips across the country, I didn’t care that much about the World Cup (though I made sure to watch several games including the semifinals and final on TV).

So ten years on and amid this unprecedented pandemic, I still harbor warm feelings reminiscing over South Africa, its people, its cultures, its scenery and wildlife. Nobody knows what the future will hold for this world or South Africa, but no matter what, the Rainbow Nation remains one of the world’s most amazing countries.
Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, newly built for the World Cup

Labor protest in downtown Durban, of which the World Cup was one of the issues being protested against, in terms of the high sums of money spent on hosting the tournament as well as the driving out of street vendors from near the World Cup stadium.

I went along with a Tzu Chi group on a food distribution activity in the outskirts of Durban. Tzu Chi is a Taiwan Buddhist group that has branches in South Africa led by Taiwanese immigrants. The ladies in blue shirts and white skirts are Tzu Chi volunteers.

Table Mountain and the Cape Flats township just outside Cape Town.

I went on a Cape Town township tour during which I was greeted by this little fellow at one of our stops. Continue reading “Remembering South Africa”

Grit- book review

Talent is often considered a desirable attribute and essential for success, but grit, or dogged perseverance, is often overlooked. The ability to keep persevering in spite of tremendous difficulties and obstacles can be more important than genius or natural talent, says Angela Duckworth in Grit – the Power of Passion and Perseverance. Grit can also be built up and developed over time.

Grit is a combination of passion and perseverance. Passion in itself is not enough because it needs to be sustained over time. And grit’s major ingredient is effort. Simply put, effort allows one to develop one’s skills, and then consequently, achievement. Duckworth comes up with a formula in which “effort x talent = skill,” and “effort x skill = achievement.”

As such, grit can be built up over one’s lifetime. To do this requires four attributes – interest, practice, purpose and hope. Having interest in something builds passion. Constant practice or effort enables one to improve and develop their skills.

Duckworth introduces the concept of deliberate practice which is about working on stretch goals focusing on specific areas, such as weaknesses, and working on improvement. One example of deliberate practice is Benjamin Franklin collecting essays from his favorite magazine, rereading them and taking notes, then putting them away, and re-writing them! He would then compare his version with the original and find out what to correct or improve.

Purpose means a way in which what one does matters to other people, whether this is being a scientist, an activist, or even a wine critic. When one identifies a purpose in what he/she does, this acts as personal motivation and inspiration to others. I think it’s understandable that most people would feel better about what they’re doing if they feel they’re making a positive contribution to society.

The fourth factor, hope, is the belief that you can always change for the better. Duckworth introduces the growth mindset, from Carol Dweck, which is about always wanting to improve your skills and knowledge as opposed to having a fixed mindset about your capabilities.

Duckworth developed a Grit Scale to measure grit, which includes whether one is discouraged or distracted easily or gives up, works hard, always finishes what one starts, and overcomes setbacks.
She used this scale at West Point, the US Army’s military academy, to test first-year candidates as they started an intensive introductory summer program called the “Beast.”

After two summers, Duckworth found that the Grit Scale was a reliable indicator of who would finish the Beast. Duckworth then applied the Grit Scale to people in sales, public high school students, and the US Army Special Forces, and each time, found that high scorers would often succeed in their respective job or program.

Of course, it sounds obvious that people who don’t quit and persevere at their studies or work often succeed. That putting in great effort and persevering in spite of obstacles are important is not a secret. But the key, according to Duckworth, is in building up this perseverance and to always look to keep improving.

In a way, it sounds deceptively simplistic to focus on grit as an all-defining ingredient for success just as it is to do so with talent. Qualities like creativity, adaptability and integrity are also vital but not mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, so are family wealth and connections and home environment.

Grit is important though and is very much worth building up in key areas of life like school and work. In that sense, the book is a very good read on the importance and practicality of doing just that.

Trekking in Xingping, Guangxi

Due to circumstances, I often think back to more “innocent” times, such as when I used to travel in China. While I really don’t like the country’s government nor the direction the country has been heading in for the past five years, China does have a number of beautiful places. And sometimes the local people can be nice as well. Going to Guangxi was one of my best trips in China.

In 2016 when I was working in Hong Kong, I decided to go to Guangxi for Christmas that year. Guangxi’s karst mountains and rivers are some of China’s most famous and beautiful landscapes, and being right next to Guangdong, Guangxi was not far from Hong Kong. And thanks to a new high-speed train line, going to Guangxi was much faster than before.

My first stop was Xingping, a small village on the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo that also was where Yangshuo high-speed station was located. Xingping is not as well-known as those two places, but years earlier, I had come across an amazing photo of Guangxi and it was taken in Xingping. It was a welcome coincidence that a high-speed train station was built there. I arrived at night, found my hotel and checked in.

Being located right along the river and overlooked by several distinct karst peaks looming nearby, Xingping features fantastic scenery and is also a good staging point for boat rides or treks to other villages in the area. And not surprisingly, there was construction going on, no doubt intended to cope with a potential tourist boom. Like most Chinese cities and towns, the village even had an old pedestrian street that had been spruced up for visitors, but I found it underwhelming.

The next day, I found that the weather was horrible due to thick fog that was likely smog (yes, even in the countryside). I still decided to walk along the Li River to the location that is featured on China’s 20 yuan bill, about 15-20 minutes from Xingping.

I walked back into Xingping and decided to trek to another village, the even smaller Yucun (Fish Village) that supposedly had some very old buildings and lay to the south. Its biggest claim to fame was that it had been visited by Bill Clinton, as well as Hillary and Chelsea, during his state visit to China in 1998. Following directions from my hotel, I walked out of the village into the mountains behind it. I passed through a valley, briefly got lost at a fork, and had to backtrack a bit before finally seeing the river appear below me after two hours of trekking. I followed a road down to the river, where Yucun was located. As a secluded settlement that could only be reached by boat or on foot, Yucun was built in the 16th century, giving it over 500 years of history. When I arrived in the village, I was met by a local woman, who then nicely gave me a tour of the old houses in the village center, which featured some elegant wooden carvings as well as some Mao posters.

As I was in no mood to hike back to Xingping in foggy weather, the woman’s husband took me back by boat (which I paid for). Going down the Li River on a flat bottom bamboo raft, albeit with a motor, was a thrilling experience, though when we got near Xingping, the boatman told me to lay low otherwise he would have to pay a fee for carrying a tourist on board.

The next day was my last in Xingping and I hiked up Laozhai Hill, which overlooks the village and river. While over 300 meters, the hill is actually quite steep in some parts, but once on top, the views are splendid. After I came back down, I checked out of my hotel and took a bus to Yangshuo, the larger and more well-known travel hub of Guangxi.

Setting off on the hike to Yucun (Fish Village)
Continue reading “Trekking in Xingping, Guangxi”

Lake Success- book review

A middle-aged American hedge fund boss has a family meltdown and goes on a cross-country bus trip to find his college sweetheart, looking to rekindle what they had decades ago. On the surface, Barry Cohen doesn’t sound like a guy most people would have much sympathy for, but Lake Success, in which he is the protagonist, turns out to be a captivating novel.

Living in Manhattan, multi-millionaire Cohen seems to have it all – a pricey apartment, a lovely Indian-American lawyer wife and son, and his own hedge fund. But he’s also facing an SEC investigation over a shady pharmaceutical drug he invested in, and his 3-year-old son has autism, which he finds difficult to handle. After dinner with an attractive couple that just moved into his building who get on his nerves, he snaps, has a fallout with his wife, and flees to the bus station in the middle of the night. He embarks on a journey that takes him to Baltimore, Richmond, Atlanta, and El Paso, where his college girlfriend teaches.

Cohen is a self-absorbed, delusional and privileged but not entirely bad person who soon discovers a few crushing truths about himself. But that is not enough to change him for the better, though he tries. The ending is a bit anticlimactic though things work out better for his son.

What makes the novel work despite such an unsympathetic main character is its cutting and detailed portrayals of contemporary life in the US, especially an exorbitantly wealthy, financial upper class in Manhattan that is out of touch with much of reality. Cohen’s cross-country bus odyssey is meant to showcase this reality, while his family’s life back in New York, where his wife carries on an affair with a suave Guatemalan author neighbor, highlights the upper-class life Cohen is supposedly fleeing. As one of the characters accurately points out, Cohen and his hedge fund predatory profiteering is exactly part of the reason why America is in such a state. When Donald Trump wins the 2016 presidential election near the book’s ending, that is meant to emphasize how messed up the US has become.

Lake Success, written by Gary Shteyngart, is meant to be a satire of the Manhattan financial elite, but at times it comes off as a tribute to the wealthy. However, Lake Success highlights a lot of modern-day American issues like immigrants, minorities, financial crime, inequality, and autism. Since it is quite light-hearted and tragi-comic, the book is more an amusing than impactful read.