Category Archives: AFRICA

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: Ibn Battuta

al_aqsa mosqueBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

So who exactly was Ibn Battuta, other than a guy who had a mall in Dubai named after him? We’re getting answers from a very extensive website called “The Travels of Ibn Battuta – A Virtual Tour with the 14th Century Traveler” that seems to be designed for grade school students. Frustratingly, many of the graphics don’t show up. But most of them do, and the text is thorough and clear. Nick Bartel is the author, and he says:

Ibn Battuta started on his travels when he was 20 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj, or a Pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims want to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 75,000 miles visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries…

At Damascus, things really got serious — 820 miles to go to Medina, where the Prophet is entombed. Ibn Battuta saw Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Anatolia, Delhi, even the ruined Alexandria lighthouse before its stones were recycled. He went just about every place that people knew there was to go in those times. This site lists of the types of foods a traveler in the old days would find in the various places, which is rather delightful.

Of course the fame of Ibn Battuta grew explosively with the release earlier this year of the 45-minute IMAX-format movie Journey to Mecca, which has by now been seen in every corner of the world. At Islam Online, the lecturer and aspiring filmmaker Azad Essa thoughtfully reviews that film and says the man’s knowledge and experience made him welcome in every country he passed through. “He functioned as a judge and ambassador for various rulers as his vast perspective as a traveler and his command of Islamic law held him in good stead everywhere…” In The Jakarta Post, Martina Zainal looks at the movie from the spiritual perspective:

For Muslims who have performed the hajj it is a nostalgic reminder of their own heartfelt quest for righteousness; for Muslims yet to go, a very up-close-and-personal look at what they can look forward to when they do make their own journey to Mecca.

Meam Wye also has plenty of good information and food for thought at a site called Shining History – Medieval Islamic Civilization, whose purpose is to focus on the contributions of Muslim innovators to the fields of science, technology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and more. A very erudite look at the deeper meaning of Ibn Battuta’s influence is found at Pragati, written by Jayakrishnan Nair, who covers history, archaeology and current affairs. A fellow who calls himself Young B Emcee says “Ibn Battuta was probably the driving force in my exploration appetite. His writings intrigued me so much that I tried to recreate his steps…”

Naturally, not everything we hear is wonderful. Maryam Omidi, who writes from the Maldives, quotes Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed: “Referring to the Moroccan scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, who worked as a judge in the Maldives in the 14th century, Shaheed said a number of Maldivians fainted when Battuta ordered a thief’s hand to be amputated.” Timothy Burke says, “Read Ibn Battuta’s accounts of his journeys and you’ll see him offering distortions and exoticizations galore, generally based on surface impressions and gut reactions.” Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. At Rethinking Islam, he says “Ibn Battuta was, of course a bad traveller and a fussy tourist…” and also adds some even more unkind remarks.

Back on the bright side, publisher Marcus Wiener offers the traveler’s own book, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Noel Q. King and edited by Said Hamdun. Taylor Luck took a fine picture of an ancient fort in Jordan that Ibn Battuta visited. And Shari toured the Ibn Battuta Mall and posted some great photos of it. She describes the mall’s five sections: China, India, Persia, Egypt and Andalusia, and says, “This roughly covers the area that Ibn Battuta covered in his world travels, the entire known area of Islam in his time.” The picture on this page is not a mall, but Jerusalem’s ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque.

photo courtesy of hoyasmeg , used under this Creative Commons license

Europe + Beer = Energy + Fun

bar

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

A couple of weeks ago, Thomas H. Maugh II alerted the public to the discovery of the world’s oldest known musical instrument and no, it isn’t Willy Nelson’s guitar. (There is no real good segue into this, but you should know that Maugh has written way more than 1,000 articles for the Los Angeles Times.) The artifact we’re talking about here is a 35,000-year-old flute, which is not in cherry condition. In fact, it’s only a partial flute, found in 12 pieces, and they don’t all add up. Nevertheless, someone in the distant past drilled deliberate holes in a griffon vulture bone, in such a way as to make it into a wind instrument. Maugh says:

Excavated from a cave in Germany, the nearly complete flute suggests that the first humans to occupy Europe had a fairly sophisticated culture, complete with alcohol, adornments, art objects and music that they developed there or even brought with them from Africa when they moved to the new continent 40,000 years or so ago.

They found a couple of ivory instruments, too, left there eons ago by folks who “drank beer, played flute and drums and danced around…” Remind you of anyone? Only everyone you know! The difference between our great-great-greats and us is that we have a lot more varieties of beer to choose from. For instance, there’s one called St-Feuillien that people just rave about. It’s a $10 bottle of brew described as a “delicate, exquisite gourmet beer” by Paul Hightower in the Examiner, and there’s a legend behind it, too.

Beer-making is adaptable to environmental and ecological best practices, and it’s a darn good thing, because nobody’s going to quit making the stuff any time soon. At Inventorspot, Myra Per-Lee looks into the use of beer waste as an alternative energy source. A guy named Wolfgang Bengel of the BMP Biomasse Projekt says he’s figured out a way to make beer byproducts into fuel that will power the breweries. Each cycle would recapture 50% of the energy, or something. Apparently, he’s already done similar feats in Thailand and China. It sounds great. This isn’t a totally new concept, however. Anheuser-Busch has been doing a similar thing in its United States breweries, says Leslie Guevarra at Reuters.

We have it on good authority (Rick Steves of Tribune Media Services) that there are over 300 varieties of Belgian beer alone, and that’s not counting all the rest of Europe. In Brussels, there’s a bar called Delirium where they have more kinds of beer than anybody. Really, it’s certified by the Guinness World Record people. As of 2004, anyway. Who knows where the current record holder may be? That’s one of the things that beer pilgrims go to Europe to investigate!

photo courtesy of Experiencias de viagem de 1 Brasileiro
, used under this Creative Commons license

Ken Silverstein Considers the Arabic Novel in Sudan

sudan

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In “Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present,” Ken Silverstein talks about a newly translated important classic work of fiction that takes place partly in Sudan, partly in London. Season of Migration to the North was written by one who sees everything through poet’s eyes. (Tayeb Salih died just a few months ago.) Silverstein also examines the Arabic novel as a genre, saying:

Written Arabic, fusha, stands at a remove from the quotidian worlds of family, street, and workplace, where a colloquial language is used …Almost all Arabic novels are written in fusha, which cannot but establish a certain distance between the elevated medium of description and the mundane events it describes-in other words, between style and content.

In Season of Migration to the North the protagonist, who has been away studying in Britain for years, is now home among the date palms beside the Nile in the boondocks of North Africa. He meets a man who plans to “liberate Africa with his penis.” This stranger is also a self-confessed murderer who soon disappears. The narrator tries to piece together the stranger’s story, to the point where it becomes an obsession. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is mixed up in this somehow, as are politics, race, and colonialism.

Investigative reporter Silverstein has written extensively about North Africa, and he has quite a lot to say about the Sudan-Darfur situation and the uproar over Sudan’s slave trade. He is fed up with political journalism everywhere. “The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn off our brains and repeat the spin from both sides.” He is now the Washington Editor for Harper’s.

Sudan is mostly flat and dry, with jaggedy mountains and terrifying sandstorms, nomadic peoples, and endangered animal species. It appears to encompass about 40 different ethnic groups, and has been rated by the Failed States Index as the world’s second most politically unstable country.

SOURCE: “Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present” 06/10/09
photo courtesy of Radio Nederland Wereldomroep , used under this Creative Commons license