Books · Travel

Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands- book review

Written by the guy who founded Lonely Planet, this is a travel book but with a big twist. Instead of sun-kissed, idyllic holiday spots and cities, Tony Wheeler travels to 8 of the most wretched countries in the world. Zimbabwe, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are there, though more attractive nations like Israel and Palestine (counted as one) and Colombia also make the cut.

Basically, the premise is that each of these countries has serious security, economic, or environmental problems that render them either dangerous or near impossible to travel in. Obviously, things have changed for a few such as Colombia, which is high on a lot of travel lists, but many people wouldn’t really want to go to most of these places. Tiny, isolated Nauru also makes the cut though more for its status as little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has squandered its financial wealth from its only natural resource guano or bird crap (seriously). Its story is a bit sad, as it was at one time several decades ago wealthy, but slowly wasted its money on expensive real estate in Australia, most of which it has had seized due to being unable to complete the payments.

Pakistan is a country that is often associated with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and for that, it hardly features in popular media for anything else (its cricket team did win the Champions Trophy tournament on Sunday). In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with interesting history and politics and beautiful scenery, according to Wheeler, who actually spent four years of his childhood there due to his father’s work at an airline. Wheeler and his wife go there to travel to Xinjiang, China overland via the mountainous Karakorum highway, during which security problems and logistical issues often obstruct their journey. They do make it though.

The chapter on Israel and Palestine sees Wheeler visit both states, which is not easy to do. He goes to various religious sites, such as trekking the Nativity Trail which traces the route Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem, while also highlighting the absurdity and tragedy of the political situation, in which Israelis and Palestinians live next to each other but are completely divided and segregated, which doesn’t bode well for any improvement in the near future. In Palestine, he goes to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. While the situation seems bleak sometimes, he expresses hope it cannot continue forever.

Papua New Guinea is a unique country with its hundreds of tribes, some of which still live as they did hundreds of years, and diverse birds and animals. But Wheeler goes there not to admire wildlife, but to visit the lawless island of Bougainville, east of PNG, which fought a decades-long war for independence in the 1990s and where people can kill with impunity over witchcraft or other petty reasons.

Haiti, sadly, is as bleak as one would expect from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As if poverty and political instability weren’t enough, the country was rocked by a terrible earthquake in 2010 which killed over 100,000 and destroyed much of the urban centres. In the DRC, Wheeler visits a volcano and goes on a gorilla expedition in a country which is still racked by violent conflict and poverty.

While the book title may sound fatalistic, the book gives a nice insight into these lesser-known countries combining travel with cultural, political and historical commentary, and the outcome is more fascinating than bleak.

Books

Ghosts of Empire- book review

I’ve been hanging onto this review for well over a week now but I assure you I’m not publishing it now to pile on the British given the big shock last Friday with Brexit. I may put out some thoughts about that on another post but for now, enjoy a book review about a nonfiction book about the British Empire.

The British Empire may be a thing of the past but the effects of its legacy are not, still lingering across a lot of its past domains. The Empire was an impressive structure, stretching across the whole world and encompassing ancient nations like India and Egypt to creating new ones like Canada and Malaysia, and has been credited with bringing vital elements of modern civilization to its colonies like railways, civil services and rule of law. But on the other hand, British rule also played a huge factor in facilitating and exacerbating serious tensions that still exist in the present day.

From Nigeria to Kashmir to Hong Kong, Ghosts of Empire looks at six troubled countries and places that suffer problems stretching back to their colonial era. In doing so, author Kwasi Kwarteng, a British MP, tries to argue that the Empire, far from trying to promote democracy or uphold Western liberal values, was run according to the values and attitudes of its administrators on the ground. In this way, British rule often led to exploitative, myopic and ineffective policies, some of which were carried out with supposedly good intentions, that exacerbated or cultivated local ethnic and religious tensions and curbed local egalitarian development. Cultivating local elites that aped British behaviors whilst becoming alienated from and often exploiting their own people was a common tactic. Of course, I feel one cannot discount the fact that many of these places had their own problems and tensions that were already in existence. However, Kwarteng’s main point is to illustrate that the British Empire was not benevolent and had many flaws, some of which the former colonial countries are still paying for.

Kashmir, the landlocked Indian state that is under harsh military rule and contested by Pakistan, is one such example. When the British defeated the Sikh Empire in the mid-19th century, they took control of then-Sikh ruled Kashmir and then sold the heavily-Muslim region to a dubious Hindu nobleman, whose rule consequently continued until independence when his heir made the fateful decision to join India. The Sudan, scene of one of the Empire’s most famous defeats and subsequent victories, was an artificial construct that welded together a Muslim north and black, animist south. It is not surprising that civil war broke out after independence and lasted for decades before the south was allowed to secede in 2011. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with over 150 million people, is an even more brittle construction. While still in one piece, the country underwent a savage civil war in 1967, which even now is a sensitive topic, and suffers from tensions and mistrust between the Muslim north and rest of the country. Myanmar and Iraq are two Asian countries which experienced the dubious effects of British rule. While never a colony, Iraq was a British protectorate after the first World War I following the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by the Allies.

Hong Kong at first glance surprisingly makes up the list of trouble spots, but when one looks at its current tensions with its parent China, it becomes understandable. While some Hong Kongers may be nostalgic for British rule and equate democracy with that, especially the reign of the last British governor Chris Patten, Kwarteng argues that the democracy in Hong Kong was never a priority for the British and somewhat scathing of Patten, who he sees as naive about local realities and the previous record of British rule.

The book makes some solid claims that the British Empire was never as glorious or as some of its supporters may claim, but that its rule was often erratic and privy to personal whims and was very much responsible for serious problems that exist today in some of the former colonies. I think that is credible, but again, one cannot exempt the locals from being responsible for their own problems.

Books · Travel

Around the World in 50 Years- book review

When it comes to traveling, there are a ton of folks doing round-the-world trips or multi-year journeys and who have been to tons of countries. But Albert Podell blows all these people out of the water, since he has been to every country in the world which he proudly proclaims in his book Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth. The title is a little misleading since the book is about his trips to a few dozen countries rather to all 196 countries, but this can be forgiven since it turns out to be a very amusing, fun and informativeread, part-travelogue, part-biography.

Podell earned fame for traveling around the whole world in a vehicle in the 1965, which helped him earn the record for the longest automobile journey around the world. In the ensuing decades, he became the editor of Playboy and other magazine and dated models and actresses, but approaching retirement, Podell decided to visit every single country. By 2000, he had visited merely 83 so from then on, he visited multiple countries every year until he achieved his goal in 2012.

The book is not just some breezy travelogue but a collection of the craziest, most dangerous and difficult trips Podell undertakes. As a result, the majority of the book is taken up by countries like Haiti, Chad, North Korea and Liberia, hardly backpacker favorites.
The book starts off with several chapters about Podell’s 1965 car journey when he and his partners struggle through the Sahara from Algeria to Egypt, and later, are almost stranded in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as war with India begins. For his troubles, Podell even almost gets lynched for being suspected of being a spy. The rest of the book is about his ensuing trips in the 2000s when he visits such destinations as Haiti, Sierra Leone, Sudan and tiny Pacific nations like Nauru and Kiribati.

The most interesting chapters are when he visits several countries in West Africa with the help of “God.” No, not the almighty in heaven, but a jovial Togolese tour guide in Ghana called Godfried Agbezudor who takes Podell through Benin, Togo and Ghana. Podell then “reciprocates” by taking God with him on a next trip to Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea. The chapters about Mongolia, Cuba and Bhutan are rather interesting while the North Korea chapter serves to highlight how repressed and tragic the country is. Podell completes his quest with a hard-earned trip to Angola, a country that actually does not allow tourists.

With an eye for detail, a keen awareness of news, and an awesome attitude towards mishaps, Podell provides jaunty commentary of his trips despite enduring all manners of obstacles and frustrations. Bribery, inefficiency and the lack of infrastructure feature a lot which is not surprising since Podell travels through some of the poorest and most underdeveloped and war-ravaged nations.
If there is one problem, it is that Podell’s main reason for visiting these countries is to check off a list so as a result, some of the less prosperous countries are described in mere paragraphs which basically outline how wretched they are. There is an almost dismissive air to how Podell describes those countries, but not the people, so much that one wonders if there is any point to mention the countries in the book.

Few travelers go to those countries so Podell deserves credit for doing so himself. Readers might possibly come away with a strong sense of pessimism but a lot of the world is not at peace or prosperous, as current events in the Middle East and parts of Africa prove, and it is not detrimental to realize this.

It is an arduous and at times costly task but Podell doggedly sticks to his guns and knocks off countries until he triumphs in 2012.
He doesn’t make it easy for himself as he decides to revisit countries he had visited before that changed their names and split or merged, like Vietnam which existed as North and South Vietnam back when he was a Vietnam War soldier, and the individual states which made up Yugoslavia.

This book is more than about travel, but about accomplishing personal goals and knowing more about the world. In this, it does a brilliant job.

Africa · Books · South Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

Africa · Books

The Lower River- book review

Paul Theroux is one of the biggest names in the travel writing world, but his books are not for those looking for fun and uplifting writing. His most recent novel The Lower River illustrates this perfectly.

The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.

Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.

The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.

He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.

Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.

Africa · Books · Travel

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria – book review

Nigeria probably isn’t on any list of top countries to travel to, but for the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, it was a special journey. Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in England and was 19 when her activist father was arrested and executed by Nigeria’s ruling military junta in 1995, shocking the world and bringing significant outrage and disgrace onto the country’s leadership. As a result, she decided not to have anything to do with her country, only returning twice briefly for her father’s funeral and his actual burial. Eventually in the late 2000s after a successful career as a travel writer, she decided to return to Nigeria, not for good, but to try to reconcile and rediscover her nation. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria is the result.

It starts off in Lagos, Nigeria’s giant and sprawling metropolis, continues to the former intellectual center Ibadan, then the nation’s capital Abuja, the clean but sterile antithesis to Lagos, and moves on to the northern Muslim states and then the central regions. Saro-Wiwa then returns to her hometown Port Harcourt, in the oil-rich Delta region, and even her father’s village in Ogoniland. Finally, she goes back to Lagos.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, which would seemingly make it Africa’s powerhouse, though South Africa might beg to differ. In reality, Nigeria is filled with problems that weigh it down and its oil wealth is contradicted by its gross corruption and poverty. As if that was not enough, whereas before it had unrest in its Delta region, it is now under threat from Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamic group that has committed terrorist attacks and mass killings and kidnappings in the Muslim northeast part.

Saro-Wiwa is unflinching in depicting all the problems she encounters, from the chaos to corruption to lackadaisical customer service. She is filled with frustration at times, struggling to reconcile her English middle-class upbringing with the completely different nature of Nigerian society. There are a few good aspects – the well-run Calabar, the lively culture, and the hustle and bustle of general Nigerian life. Even these still seem like mere consolations compared to the corruption and neglect that is seemingly prevalent across the nation.

There are striking examples of Nigeria’s potential in many areas like tourism and agriculture and how it is being wasted. For instance, Benin (not to be confused with the neighboring country of the same name) used to be where one of West Africa’s greatest kingdoms existed, which lasted until it was defeated by the British in 1897. In the present times, the state has preserved little of its past heritage and splendor. Another example is when Saro-Wiwa visits a farm run by Zimbabweans, who lauds the richness of Nigerian soil and its impressive natural resources (“richer than South Africa in natural resources, but you have nothing to show for it”) but lambast Nigerians for not doing much with it.

This is not to say it is a depressing book though. There are numerous amusing anecdotes and colorful episodes of cultural events and diverse places. Saro-Wiwa covers many places, but the most entrancing is when she visits Sukur, a mountain kingdom that is still “Stone Age” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The settlement’s remoteness means people may live as their ancestors did centuries ago, smelting their own tools with stone furnaces and so on, but they are free from the disorderliness of modern Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa also views the Durbar, a military parade involving horse-mounted warriors overseen by the Emir of the ancient Islamic city of Kano, a tradition that harks back to Kano’s horse-riding culture. Nigeria also boasts some ancient heritage, but sadly some of these artifacts such as Nok sculptues, which date back to BC times, and Benin’s bronze castings and masks were mostly taken by Europeans and held in museums across Europe.

The book’s main problem is not the tone, but that at times there is not enough content. Saro-Wiwa describes history and politics and the ethnic diversity, but certain chapters seem like they would have been better with more background information. Especially perhaps a narrative that could have linked Nigeria’s places better together, though the country is a young one that was an artificial creation of the British. In the end, after the author returns to Lagos, she accepts she may not have the patience to fully handle living in Nigeria and coping with all the problems, but she has seen the good and bad of her country and is at peace with this.

While Nigeria still does not seem like a place most people would like to actually travel to, Looking for Transwonderland shows how diverse, interesting, and problematic it is. It is definitely one of the best, if not the only, books about the country and traveling it.

Africa · Books

One Day I’ll Write About This Place – book review

Ahead of my recent trip to Taiwan, I ordered 6 books from Book Depository so I will have some good reading in the upcoming weeks. I finished the first one in about a week.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I’ll Write About This Place is a entrancing memoir about the writer, his country Kenya, and by extension his continent Africa. Wainaina is famous for his 2005 Granta article about how to write about Africans, a sarcastic commentary and critique of how Westerners often portray Africa. There is some of that in this memoir, though Wainaina’s criticism is often directed at his country. Wainaina’s book is several things – a collection of vignettes of his life, a wry take on his youth and university years in South Africa, a touching remembrance of his parents, especially his mother, and a lively and at times frustrated narrative about Kenya.

The book starts with Wainaina’s middle-class childhood, then moves to his wayward university years in Umtata (Nelson Mandela’s hometown), South Africa, during which he dropped out and spent a year not really doing much, and his years of struggle before his writing career starts forming. He does not fully explain what ails him, though perhaps there may have some depression.
There’s an interesting chapter about a trip to Togo to write about the country for the 2006 World Cup; Togo is little known to many people other than its most famous footballer, Spurs and ex-Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor.
Wainaina holds little back in his thoughts and his recollection of his life.
There’s little idealism or romanticism about his observations, just a sense of blunt realism that takes in the good and bad, the joyful and the bitter, whether it is about his life or about his country.
His chapter about going to Uganda for a grand family reunion at his maternal grandparents’ home is great, as is his touching tribute to his mother after she dies of cancer.
It is a superb book about life in Africa from an African, specifically a Kenyan who has links to all over the continent.
Wainaina goes through some rough times, does not quite reach despair, at least not until the end.
The last chapters see Wainaina describe a Kenya festering with tension and descending further into tribal-based paranoia and hate, until finally tribal violence breaks out after elections at the end of 2007. Wainaina then leaves for the US to teach and write, somewhat broken. He later returns to his country in 2010.
This is not a book filled with lessons or colorful cliches. Instead, it is one that will help you appreciate one of Africa’s better Anglophone writers, and understand Kenya and Africa a little better.

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Africa · Books · China · Travel

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.

Uncategorized

Global musings – a world in turmoil

As the fighting settles down in Gaza in Palestine after almost 2,000 dead, one only hopes that this current ceasefire can last longer, perhaps even lead to an end. It’s not the only serious conflict going on in the world, with full civil war ongoing in Syria, fighting in Iraq, and tensions in Ukraine after sieges, ambushes and planes being shot down, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurrection, which started in 2009 and is nowhere close to ending, has spread to neighboring Cameroon.
Meanwhile, there’s an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has taken almost 1000 lives and spread to at least four nations. In China, deadly violence broke out again in Xinjiang, with the latest last week, prompting a Diplomat article to present a disturbing outlook. At least the Central African Republic has seen a ceasefire between rival factions after a civil conflict that was notorious, even in Africa, for barbarity such as daily street lynchings.

The conflicts in Gaza and the Ukraine continue something that has been a pattern in recent times. Countries don’t fight full-scale wars with each other, but fight localized conflicts with other states, or even groups within a state. For instance, the fighting in Ukraine is indeed a civil war (state fighting separatists) but the separatists are backed and may even include Russian personnel. Meanwhile, Israel’s invasion of Gaza involved tens of thousands of troops and tanks as well as air strikes, which is as close as an invasion of a neighboring “country” (Palestine’s status being somewhat nebulous). And Libya, which is going through some serious trouble currently, was the target of air strikes from British and French troops in support of rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddhafi in 2011.

Back in 2006, Israel fought a small-scale war in southern Lebanon. However, the war wasn’t with Lebanon or its army, but with Hezbollah, a militant Islamist group that controls southern Lebanon, over their abduction of 2 Israeli soldiers. This conflict went on for a month and killed hundreds of fighters and over a thousand civilians but during the whole affair, it was interesting to me how a country could invade another country and fight a war without any declaration of war between the two. Another striking thing is how part of a country could be at war or under attack but things would be normal or peaceful in other parts of that country.
Even in Southeast Asia, several years ago, Thailand and Cambodia fought several small-scale battles, over a disputed boundary surrounding an ancient temple of all things, though war did not break out. Even China’s recent standoff in the South China sea with Vietnam, when it towed a giant rig into disputed waters in May which caused confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, can be considered as another instance of states fighting  in limited ways.

Basically, states can take hostile action against other states or parties in other countries, which can result in fighting and death, but they won’t undertake all-out war. Perhaps this is a result of globalization, where countries and regions are interconnected by trade, technology and other links more than ever. Combined with the existence of nuclear weapons and the devastation of regular modern weapons, war is much more destructive than before, meaning that the age of full-scale war is almost over. This can be a positive, now that I think about it, but it also raises a disturbing possibility that the future will see more of these kind of limited conflicts breaking out, with instability and rebellion common. For most of us in developed and stable countries, we’d probably never be affected (and honestly for a lot of us, life is the most safest it’s ever been), but perhaps that’s another disturbing aspect of modern conflicts – the stark contradiction of a range of deadly but limited conflicts in some places with regular materialistic and modern life elsewhere.

To try to offer a little positivity, here’re a few random links.
First off, this is a list of things that can help you in life. Items 11,13,20, and 21 are quite good.

Even in mainland China, there are young people who’ve decided to stop working their asses off in stiff office jobs and do something for themselves, like opening hostels in Shenzhen.

Africa · South Africa · Travel

Random links – Cambodia, Cape Town, Game of Thrones

I’m in the midst of a three-day “weekend”, given due to today’s holiday which is dedicated to workers – Labor Day. However, I’m not in a very celebratory mood because right after the “weekend” ends, I get to look forward to a 6-day work week. It’s not too bad, though I’d prefer it if the order was reversed. It’s also an example of the wacky work rescheduling in China (and Taiwan) for holidays, that happens due to the need to make up days. For instance, we only worked three days this past week, but in return we have to work one more day next week, which actually meant we got one extra holiday.

Anyways, another reason I’m not in a festive mood is because on Tuesday I got hit by a car (my first time ever). I got struck by a taxi making a right turn while I was at the side of a road. It wasn’t too serious so I didn’t make a big deal out of it but the aftermath concerning the taxi driver and one of his colleagues left a bad impression on me, which I’ll probably describe in a future post soon.

For now, let me just introduce a few links.

My last travel post was about Cambodia, so it’s fitting I’m turning back to that country. Cambodia has its own version of kickboxing, Kun Khmer, just like how Thailand has its Muay Thai, but sadly this legacy was almost destroyed during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. This VICE Fightland story takes a look at a new Cambodian mixed martial arts (MMA) outfit that is already competing in Asia after having outgrown the local scene.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a cool city and it’s this year’s “World Design Capital.” I visited in 2010 and it is the most beautiful city I’ve been to, with Table Mountain looming right above and its attractive colonial buildings and harborfront. Unfortunately it’s also possibly the most divided city I’ve been too, and the inequality is still there and strong. Basically, the more well-off and white residents live within the city, while the poor live in huge township slums on the outskirts, which are a completely different world. Khayelitsha, one of the more well-known townships, has over 400,000. Conditions in the townships are rough and dangerous, and attempts to improve local infrastructure often doesn’t help and instead exacerbates the poverty and alienation of the people from the city. Back in 2010, I went on a township tour and the guide, a black South African, said some harsh things about Cape Town, such as that it is a pretty city, but it is not for black people, a blunt remark about how few blacks lived inside Cape Town. My airport driver, a white local, pointed out new homes in the townships while driving past them on the highway, and said how those were attempts by the ANC, the ruling party, to move more blacks into the region. I wrote a piece about slum tourism that year that covers a lot of what I saw in Cape Town, including that township tour.

Game of Thrones is one of the baddest TV shows out now, and along with many other people, I watch it regularly. Among its strong points are its impressive sets and beautiful landscapes, which are shot on location in Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Iceland. Yet it’s Northern Ireland that provides the backdrop for much of the show, and I confess I was ignorant about how attractive it is. A lot of those ancient cities and formidable castles and fantastic scenery in the show really do exist. I’d never thought of visiting those countries, except Morocco, but if I ever do, I’d definitely like to visit the places where the GoT scenes are shot.