Across Continents

Ken's Blog

The Old Curiosity Shop

November 26th, 2011

I’m not Australian and don’t like to be called as such. Which happens fairly frequently in North America. Finding myself particularly riled by this, forcing myself to ponder why this might be. Of course, I know a good number of great people, destined to be life-long friends, who happen to be Australian. My issue firmly cultural rather than individual.

True, I admire their stoicism in the face of frequent adversity. Their self-reliance. Itself a little ironic for what appears to be the ultimate Nanny State. Runaway regulation. Officious bureaucracy. Federal system unwarranted for a population less than a third of that of the UK. Governed by a mediocrity of politicians. Always grains amongst the chaff. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Premier. Met her briefly. But not Prime Ministerial material. Not that you need to be.

Some aspects simply amuse rather than annoy. Bowling greens and old fashioned social clubs, serving meals reminiscent of school dinners. Rather quaint. Like an Old Curiosity Shop. Finally embracing EFTPOS like it was a sparkly new children’s toy. Words like free or inclusive have largely been discarded from their lexicon, replaced by the likes of gourmet – pronounced ’gore-met’ – its application bordering on the abusive. It’ll be fondue sets next. Their de facto national dish as unoriginal as it is uninspiring in a continent of unique flora and fauna. Fish and chips. Almost criminal. But that’s history for you. Made worse by the fact that a rather better model for European colonisation lies right under their noses. New Zealand.

I’d been asked by one fellow traveller why I thought all this might be? What about atmospheric nuclear testing? I paused, albeit briefly, then replied, smiling, that my diary was clear next week. In the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for a friend’s suggestion. When asked by a US citizen if you’re Australian, reply by asking which part of Canada they come from…

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Politics, religion and guns

September 24th, 2011

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TV in the background. Seven or eight channels. Fox News. Political pundits debating events in Aimes, Iowa. Texan Governor Perry, it seemed, had thrown his hat – a Stetson presumably – into the ring for the Presidential race. Talk of Straw Polls, GOP, Tea Parties, Republicans and the Caucasus. I’d little concept of what they were debating.

The alternatives were less confusing. A few religious channels. Baptist services. A couple of solo preachers. Assertive rather than fire and brimstone. And then guns. Hunting skills. A programme dedicated to some serious weapons. Twin mounted water-cooled M16 carbines. Suppressed – silenced – belt fed grenade launcher. Either of which would work well on bears.

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Reflections on China

December 31st, 2010

“Reform is China’s second revolution” Deng Xiaoping

China. A country under construction. Infrastructure. Offices. Shopping centres. Housing. The sheer scale astounding. A nation in the midst of an industrial revolution. Social change. Migration to the cities. Pace of change quite remarkable. Global recession seemingly no impediment.

Much has already been achieved. A lot remains to be done. The disparity between rural and urban brutally stark. Many in the countryside yet to see tangible benefits of change.

For the city dweller, a standard of living now much higher than in much of Central Asia, and swathes of Eastern Europe. At a cost, in real terms, far below that of many other nations. For the moment at least. House prices in the cities, home to over half of the population, rising rapidly, and the cost of food increasing ahead of general inflation.

Much more a consumerist society than a Communist country. But still a de-facto one party state. There is undoubtedly far greater openness, achieved in just a few decades. Nevertheless, the leadership remains intolerant of political debate, fearful of dissent. Exactly why isn’t openly discussed, making it difficult to judge.

In part it may be the very diversity of the nation, the desire for social cohesion at almost any cost, that stifles debate. A worry not without some foundation. Much smaller countries, and some rather larger entities like the Soviet Union, fracturing along ethnic or religious lines.

Whatever the reason, it remains that the real test of any political system is its ability to tolerate criticism, to accept alternative points of view. If you truly believe your model is the right one, why do you need to suppress discussion?

And the people? Exhibiting a friendliness towards strangers I’d first encountered in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Hugely tolerant of foreigners. Especially those whose grasp of Mandarin barely reaches double digits.

And the future for China? Still a developing nation, aspiring to take its place on the world stage. Overtures to Western nations, trade agreements with states big and small, securing exclusive access to commodities in Africa. First world membership likely to be determined, in part, by its ability to close the huge disparity between the urban and rural halves of the population. Whilst ensuring its hunger for resources, fuel for its industrial revolution, does not become a de-stabilising influence.

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Glimpse back in time?

October 31st, 2010

Workers drawn from the countryside into the cities, helping power the industrial machine. Some in dormitories, others in vast housing complexes. Attracted by the prospects of better wages. Ever growing disparity between rural communities and the expanding urban sprawl. A time for entrepreneurs. And a rising middle class. Railways now the transport for the masses. Shipping the avenue to new markets overseas. And the means to import raw materials to satisfy an insatiable appetite for growth.

A glimpse back in time? England during the Industrial Revolution? Quite possibly. But no. China today. A nation undergoing significant social, economic and, to a lesser extent, political change. Some differences. Where we built canals, they’re investing in a huge, modern road network. And a pace of change beyond comprehension a few centuries ago.

But what of China’s imperial aspirations, the British Industrial Revolution being so closely wedded to the rise of its own Empire? More subtle perhaps, less of the gunboat diplomacy, but some striking similarities nevertheless. No straight lines on maps admittedly. Rather agreements reached with poorer nations, mostly African. Securing natural resources – coal and ore for example – solely for export to China. Feeding the machine.

Africans - web

In return, infrastructure projects, advisors to provide assistance to developing nations. Even the teaching of Mandarin to Government officials. As I’d discovered at one of my stops in central China. Struggling a bit with the cold. But most of all political influence. Binding these countries ever closer to Beijing.

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Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]

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Nation of Convenience

July 18th, 2010

Assuming you’ve spotted the great British Bobby in the closing scene of the last episode of "Nation of Convenience"….

There were rules. Strictly business. Fresh visas, a second passport, a visit to see Laura and The Outward Bound Trust’s fund-raising team in the Capital. Confined largely to London and the Consulates, far from my own home in Somerset. Contact limited mostly to close family. I was here to get a job done, quickly and efficiently, before returning to the fray.

It’s established practice for those on long-haul expeditions to be able to return to their home country once in a while. Of course, some don’t. But, provided you keep it short, and it’s for good reason, that’s ok. An accepted necessity.

Just as the expedition has evolved into as much, if not more, a mental challenge as a physical one, the real issue I’d had to contend with was the psychology of return to one’s home country. Hence the rules, the absolute focus on treating it as a Nation of Convenience. No wandering off, drifting, getting too settled.

A few people, well-intentioned, had suggested I might return in secret, the minimum of fuss. But that would have compromised that most fundamental of principles, the unwavering honesty of the blog, if only by omission. And that’s how the mini-documentary, "Nation of Convenience" came about.

I’d been toying for a while with the idea of making a short documentary for the website. Something new. Fresh. I’d a little time on my hands between visas, thought it might be interesting to explore the political and cultural sides of London as if it was the Capital of one of the less reputable ’Stans. Lots of material. And a bit of fun as well. Thought it would help me stay focused, and, with a few carefully selected landmarks, allow my destination to be revealed gradually.

In practice, developing the storyboard, scripting, shooting and editing took quite a bit longer than I’d ever imagined. Wasn’t exactly finished in the Departure lounge at Heathrow, but close. Not quite as polished as I’d have liked, but it was only ever meant to be a visual essay. Might do another sometime soon. Working title "Enter the Dragon", assuming I don’t bump into Bruce Lee first.

[The author would particularly welcome constructive feedback on the "Nation of Convenience" documentary, his first stab at programme making. But no need to mention one of the continuity errors – the frequent swaps between red and blue t-shirts. Spotted that one! And if you’re feeling brave, see if you can list all the locations, and the landmarks in the background]

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Nation of Convenience – Episode Three

July 17th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode Three from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

The final instalment of Ken’s mini-documentary about his time in a Nation of Convenience. Still curious as to which country this might be? There are a few clues in this episode, not least in the final scene….

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Nation of Convenience – Episode Two

July 16th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode Two from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

In the second of three instalments, Ken continues his exploration of the politics and culture of his Nation of Convenience.

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Nation of Convenience – Episode One

July 15th, 2010

Nation of Convenience – Episode One from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

In the first of a three part mini-documentary, Ken explores the politics and culture of his Nation of Convenience

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Perspectives on Bishkek

June 12th, 2010

Flag

These were not a people possessed of a revolutionary zeal. They simply tired of injustice. Corruption, nepotism, an impotent administration. A revolt, a public uprising, a riot or a revolution? Not bloodless, for over eighty people were killed. An act of defiance, a protest in which some subsequently lost their lives. Opportunistic looting before the gradual restoration of civil order. Over within a week.

At the fountain

Two months on, soldiers once more stand guarding the national flag, fluttering in the gentle evening breeze. A young child plays amongst the fountains with her mother. Others waiting for a bus. An overwhelming sense of normality.

Bus stop

Bishkek might lack some of the sophistication, and expense, of other Capital cities I’d visited, but with its tree-lined boulevards, plentiful leafy parks and wide open spaces, it was probably the most pleasant. Even the rush hour traffic seemed relatively benign. It felt safe. Very safe.

Spray

But not perfect. The centrally provided hot water hadn’t been seen for a month or so, and neither had the heating. And a society with no concept of orderly queuing can be a bit testing. But the real risk to your well-being? Probably the breakfast menu at Fatboy’s Cafe. Hardly a war zone.

Truckers

And of the future? The interim President has just extended her term in office. Sounds ominous. Hope I’m wrong. And the Honorary Consul? Never did find him.

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