Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fifty memories.

The pursuit of irreducible memories – memories that the passage of time cannot parse or dilute – is probably an addiction, and is close to hedonism, but not quite the same. If hedonism is addictive too (think of any hedonist you know and their lifestyle is likely compulsive) the unwavering identification, pursuit and acquisition of perfect moments is a more noble – and far harder – task. But one undoubtedly worth the trouble.

I thought I was a hedonist because some people told me I was. A love of coffee, of food, of whisky, of sex – of pleasure in so many of its manifold guises – is hardly something of which to be ashamed. Who, honestly, doesn’t love things like those? Who doesn’t wish they could have the pleasure response more often than mundane life typically permits?

But now I see I was close, but wrong. Measuring out a life in coffee spoons? I could probably manage without many things if I had to. No, I’m not an exceptional hedonist after all. What I am, it turns out, is a compulsive, addictive pursuer of memories, a cognitive bounty-hunter, a collector of the reminiscences which get ground into your self like dirt into carpet. These are exquisite times when time stops and you step out from your self for a brief and endless moment, and find yourself trying to take a snapshot to remember it.

But if you need to try to encode it for future retrieval, it doesn’t meet the standard. The real ones – the ones that most people have a handful of in a lifetime but which I’m extraordinarily lucky enough to have had countless? They don’t need encoding. They’re things good and bad; triumphs and disasters; loves and lonelinesses. They are the cache files or cookies that don’t need backing up. They nestle in the dark recesses of your motherboard, a background process idling forever until called upon.

And so it was that recently – in what would’ve been a display of self-satisfied backslapping if it weren’t so suffused with genuine gratitude – I made a list of some of the things I’ve done in my almost 28 years. Life isn’t about lists – or, at least, it probably shouldn’t be – but they have a time and place. And if you find yourself coming up with a “Things to Do before you Die” list, two points – I think – are worth noting:

The first is that the list should be a long one. The number of conceivable special experiences outnumbers by an order of magnitude the opportunities available to do them. So the list should be long. If it isn’t, you’re really just not being imaginative enough.

The second point is that it doesn’t matter if the list grows at a faster rate than you can tick off its component parts. The point is not to reach the end, gripping a big red marker in your age-addled and Parkinson’s-afflicted claw, making a final triumphant Tick! before carking it elegantly in front family and friends – as attractive as that sounds. No, the destination doesn’t come at the end of the journey; it’s the journey itself. The pleasure – and here it’s conflated with hedonism – emanates both from the ticking off of items and from the introduction of new ones. My list is both growing and contracting at an accelerating rate, and that, that, is how I know that I’m doing alright.

So at the risk of appearing boastful, here are fifty of the things I’ve ticked off my list. Some were planned, some just happened. But I couldn’t forget any of them if I tried.

1. Played a concerto, accompanied by an orchestra and conductor, in front of a thousand people.
2. Played in the Sydney Opera House, sung in a choir in front of a couple of thousand people, and won a piano competition.
3. Helped an overweight and miserable boy, failing at everything in his life, to find what he’s good at.
4. Watched Ashkenazy conduct the LSO.
5. Lived with a family in a Mumbai slum.
6. Stood on the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset.
7. Bathed an elephant in a raging river.
8. Eaten – among other things – snake, penis, rat, frog, snail, emu and quite possibly (albeit unintentionally), dog. (That definitely wasn’t on a list beforehand, but deserves its place due to being just plain weird).
9. Paddled in a canoe from one of the Croatian islands in the Adriatic to the mainland.
10. Snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef.
11. Made love in sand dunes at dawn.
12. Hit a six on the final ball to win a pick-up game of cricket with Indian streetkids, dunked a ball from a trampoline, abseiled forward down a cliff, and skipped a stone fourteen times on water.
13. Crossed India by train.
14. Crossed China by bus.
15. Bought countless children’s shoes and distributed them at a Cambodian orphanage.
16. Interviewed a modern hero of mine.
17. Picked up a stranger on a plane.
18. Picked up a stranger on a bus.
19. Kissed a complete and utter stranger in a train compartment.
20. Jumped out of a plane with my (reluctant) father.
21. Driven a gorgeous, 1950s British roadster at tyre-squealingly unsafe speeds round corners.
22. Perfectly parked a car between two others with a J-turn (Blues Brothers’-style)
23. Seen Bob Dylan live.
24. Drawn against a player who has two competition chess games archived in Chessmaster 9000.
25. Helped a family member to overcome a challenge they believed insurmountable.
26. Fed live chicken to a crocodile (again, gets onto the list because of weirdness rather than desirability).
27. Edited, by myself, an edition of a magazine read by 35,000 people.
28. Been inside the Taj Mahal, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, Angkor Wat, Yad Vashem, The Duomo in Florence, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and various other of the world’s magnificent buildings.
29. Walked up the steepest street in the world.
30. Flown in a frighteningly small plane around the summit of Everest.
31. Been on a submarine and a helicopter.
32. Skippered a vessel on the open seas wearing a silly hat. In fact, basically behaved like a little boy countless times in adulthood – something all men should aspire to do from time to time.
33. Taken bored and uninspired kids and helped them to love playing music.
34. Ridden on a Harley in the Australian desert at dawn.
35. Ridden around the Pyramids – also at dawn – on a camel.
36. Been able to say a proper goodbye to a loved one before they passed away.
37. Been in love and been heartbroken.
38. Travelled by boat through the Three Gorges and the Dam on the Yangtze.
39. Drunk mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favourite bar in Havana.
40. Spoken in front of more than a thousand people.
41. Eaten magic mushrooms and spent the afternoon giggling in a park with a best friend.
42. Visited an Istanbul Hamam and been manhandled by a homosexual and hairy Turk.
43. Spent an afternoon hanging out with a famous band.
44. Lain on a runway while a plane lands.
45. Been on long roadtrips with friends on four different continents.
46. Been published.
47. Danced at a Hindu wedding, a Bah Mitzvah and the (utterly debauched) kit kat club in Berlin.
48. Driven to Timbuktu and lived to tell the tale.
49. Been to more than fifty countries in my life.
50. And, most recently, climbed the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane at night and drunk a bottle of wine while looking over Jerusalem during the call to prayer.

This isn’t exhaustive – anyone can come up with fifty things they’ve done they’re happy about. It’s not in any particular order. And not all of these things were events planned in advance, or even memories that were happy at the time. But memories they are, memories all – irreducible, indispensable shards of a kaleidoscope of sights, smells and sounds that watch over you as you go through the motions of normal life, tolerating the infinitely forgettable minutiae. They are, or they can be, the Atheist’s God.

So, I’ve done a lot, I’m grateful for it, and although my lifelong ‘to do’ list still runs hundreds deep and is probably growing faster than I can chip away at it, I’m at least not just existing, but living. And whether one’s desires involve travelling to faraway places, or learning a skill, or overcoming a fear, or achieving something otherwise difficult – the only piece of advice I can impart worth the paper is this: forget pleasure. It comes when it comes. Remember instead and always that life and who you are is but a compendium of your experiences, a photo album that makes you greater than the sum of your parts.

So make new memories in the present, do new things now, always connect, but you’ll have them to look back on in the future, and there are futures to be planning in the present.

Carpé diem and good luck.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Before going to Cuba – in fact while sitting in the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah of Tijuana – I scribbled something for later reading. It was a short summary of what I expected Cuba to be – preconceptions I could dig up from the disparate bits of knowledge I had about that most curious of places. After rattling it off, I put it away without really thinking about it again.

While sketching out what you’re reading now, and after finding it even more than usually difficult to arrange my thoughts into coherence, I remembered the paragraph I’d scribbled while counting the hours in that abject cesspit of Mexico. And before even digging it out from the bowels of my backpack, I knew instantaneously that I’d been strangely right all along.

This is what I wrote.

From what I know of Cuba, it’s an island in more ways than one. Only ninety miles from the US, its modern history has been written as much by the now almost fifty year-old embargo, as it has by the rule and misrule of its venerable leader, the irrepressible Fidel. Despite his recent retirement from a protracted illness, and the succession of his brother, Raul, Cuba is undergoing a period of slow and steady change – a change which may be catapulted forward should there be a change in the US’ Cuba policy after the November elections, something not out of the question. It’s the only communist country in the western hemisphere, probably a mix of Soviet Russia and contemporary China with a bit of tin-pot Africa dictatorship thrown in. It’s a police state where criticism of the political system – and especially advocacy of a multi-party democracy or denigration of la Revolución is strictly forbidden and seriously punished. I expect a vibrant culture of music and dance, I fantasise of untold fabulousness sitting in high-ceilinged bars with impossibly slow fans and dusty shards of light creeping through the wooden slats on the windows. I expect many of the economic features of a northern European social democracy along with the lackadaisical chaos of the Mediterranean. I expect a low standard of living to go with its low per capita GDP, but a general absence of a wealthy class. I expect incredible food, beautiful women and a great deal of propaganda. Most of all, I expect a population bored with the US blockade, proud of its history, and loyal to the leadership, because for whatever its shortcomings, it’s a leadership which has defied the perceived bellicosity of the big bully to the north, whose glittering lights of Miami lie a babbling brook away but whose politics are an ocean apart.

With a couple of exceptions – and I’ll get to them – I was pretty well damn right on the money. Is it right to fail to be particularly surprised by a place once arriving for the first time – especially in so singular a place as Cuba? Or does it just come from reading too much of The Economist? Whatever, it turns out I was broadly right, but came away from two weeks there more politically confused than ever before. If China elicited cautious admiration for what can be achieved by a strong State enthusiastically embracing the free market, and Bulgaria and Serbia left no doubt about the total shittiness of everything conceived, invented, designed or constructed under Soviet-style communism, Cuba just left me befuddled and bewildered.

How can there be so much to admire as well as so much to loathe – bizarrely the exact same reaction I’ve had every single time I’ve visited the United States? This is troubling.

Naturally, however, Cuba was much more than vindication of a few hastily-scribbled predictions. Once you venture beyond Nikon-snapping tourists and the wallet-relieving domestic industry that traipses around after them in every country on earth, you meet the real people and go from just seeing a place to experiencing it – actually feeling it. You sit in people’s homes drinking their tea or wine, invariably trying to swallow down some godawful local ‘delicacy’ which has the taste of peat and the texture of a condom, all the while grinning with fawning gratitude for the offering. You strike up conversations in parks, in cafés and in the markets. And if you’re a little bit ballsy, you trundle along to the universities and schools and get a feel for what the next generation of leaders have in mind. Because that’ll tell you just as much about a country’s future as sitting on a geriatric’s porch munching on a peat condom will tell you of its past.

First, the obvious. Cuba is a police state. In fact, that term really doesn’t do justice – it’s a “government” state, with the Lada-driving police merely the most noticeable organ of the State the tentacles of which include the army and many other uniformed and plain-clothed officials keeping an watchful eye on the people. The government is everywhere. Every restaurant, bar and hotel is government-owned and the manager is a government employee – with the exception, curiously enough, of the restaurants in Havana’s comically bad Chinatown. A small street cafe might be privately owned, but anywhere which sells alcohol – pretty much everywhere – is not. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Cuban government controls 90 per cent of the economy. In a world dominated by free trade, privatisation and liberalisation, Cuba is every bit the island it has been since 1959.

That most inept of explorers, Columbus, happened upon what is now Cuba, called it Juana and described it as “the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen”. As his intention was to head west from European to India, likely as not he figured he was somewhere off the coast of Japan. But he was perhaps right then, and if he came back to Havana today, I suspect he would be just as blown away.

Havana’s streets are dusty, narrow and pockmarked with holes like the surface of the moon. The decrepit old houses squish up oppressively against one another, shoulder to shoulder, never quite straight – but they hold each other up against the elements and ravages of time, a worthy metaphor for their inhabitants within. The west of the city – the Vedado – is on a grid, so the lightless alleys you wander down are less disconcerting than the strange sounds, puddles and acrid smells suggest. When you head a bit east you hit Centro Habana, home of the Politico Naçional, a building which carries an ironic but distinct resemblance to the Houses of Congress in Washington DC, only a couple of thousand miles to the north. Habana Vieja – old Havana – is unselfconsciously exquisite. The salsa, rhumba and jazz blares out all night, the Cubans dance in the streets, old bars where Hemingway grumbled into his mojito meet tiny art galleries and run-down colonial hotels. It’s worthy of any honeymoon.

The sounds of Havana are worth coming for themselves. There’s an endless background thrum of people shouting, (what is it about those with Mediterranean blood that nothing can ever be said if it can instead be yelled?) and the crash of the waves as they hit the waterfront. There’s the enormous and deafening Chevys, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs from the fifties, a throwback to a golden age of American motoring when Eisenhower had just build the Interstate system and America emerged from the Depression and the Second World War as the world’s economic powerhouse. If you’ve never ridden in a convertible Buick about twenty-five metres long, weighing six tonnes and carrying more chrome than the QE2 (and capable of taking a gentle corner about as adroitly), I commend it. It’s like riding a trampoline converted to a stretched tractor with a small nuclear warhead under the bonnet.

For every American fifties behemoth with chrome fins and held together by electrical wire and sellotape, there’ll be three Ladas or Trabants and a couple of modern Chinese automotive atrocities – a constant reminder that Cuba has had many different friends over the years, but never very many at any one time. The police cars – and ‘car’ is charitable – are the same as those driven by the East German Stasi in the Bond films of the eighties. They have wheels the size of dollar coins, are constructed almost entirely from processed rust held together by a few pieces of steel and have the aerodynamics (not to mention aesthetics) of a Rubik’s Cube. That said, I saw a guy in a Lada drag race a guy in a Caddy the size of an aircraft carrier. Although the Caddy won, it was primarily because its chrome nose was already at the finish line before the car itself had even begun moving. The Lada was actually faster. In a relative kind of way.

But Cuba isn’t about the cars or the cigars or the rum – as pleasing as all those are. It’s about the people who live in the western hemisphere’s only communist state, and how they go about their day-to-day lives in the face of real privation and difficulty. It’s about how a repressive, revolutionary government has remained in power for a half-century – and retained the support of its people even as the Soviet Union fell apart – and it’s about how those people see Cuba with a mix of adoration and exasperation; resignation and hope.

Changes are undoubtedly afoot – particularly in the couple of months since Raul officially succeeded Fidel – so it was a fortuitous time to visit. DVD players, microwave ovens and personal computers – previously banned, ostensibly because of their drain on the electricity grid – are now allowed. Perhaps most significantly, in March of this year, Raul Castro's government said it is allowing cell phones for ordinary Cubans, a luxury previously reserved for those who worked for foreign firms or held key posts with the state apparatus.

This was the first official announcement of the lifting of a major restriction under Raul, and is the kind of small freedom many Cubans have been hoping he would embrace since succeeding Fidel in February. Cubans are nothing if not enterprising, though – something I’ll return to – and some who were previously ineligible for cell phones already had them by having foreigners sign contracts in their names. But mobile phones are not nearly as common in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America or the world.

The telecommunications monopoly ETECSA said it would allow the general public to sign prepaid contracts in Cuban convertible pesos – the currency generally used by tourists on the island – but the prices of these contracts will still remain out of the reach of most Cubans, who earn an average salary so low it beggars belief. The average Cuban wage is aboutUS$20 per month. The UN Development Program considers a dollar a day ($30/month) to constitute extreme poverty, so on the face of it, Cubans are as poor or poorer than those on the subcontinent or in sub-Saharan Africa. But with a very important caveat.

That caveat is communism. The Cuban government controls not just the service and manufacturing industries, but provides free health care, education and housing to all Cubans. The provision of housing is one thing, but the maintenance of those houses is quite another. As Cuban architecture is stuck in a timewarp – virtually no residential construction seems to have taken place since the late fifties – most houses are decrepit. The government claims to maintain them for free as required, but the backlog is endless, and it’ll never be able to keep up with demand. The demand for housing itself is even more problematic than the demand for maintenance. Most Cuban families cram many members into a single small house – it’s the norm to see a married couple with all their parents and their children under one, two-bedroom roof. This has some very interesting consequences.

The first is something you see a lot of in Asia – the survival of the extended family, largely abandoned in the developed world in favour of the nuclear family as children move away for jobs, the elderly can afford to live alone, and young adults move in together. The atomisation of western society is something that truly bothers many people, me included. In London during the past few years, I’ve moved house a few times, each time to a different area and never being part of the sense of community you can get from living on a street and knowing everyone in the neighbourhood. What one gains in freedom and excitement, one loses in belonging, in solidarity, in support.

So the Cuban kids get babysat and taught by the grandparents every day while the parents are out at work. The kids play baseball in the street – there’s barely an intersection in all of Havana where fifteen barefoot and bare-chested young boys aren’t playing a pick-up game – and people wander in and out of their neighbours’ homes to swap hard-to-get products, or to borrow some butter, boiled water or just a few pesos. Having grown up apart from an extended family – and now living probably the rest of my life eight time zones away from my immediate one – I recognise profoundly the joy and support that comes from three generations being a part of each other’s lives.

But some other consequences of the housing shortage are interesting too. Surprisingly, perhaps, Cuba has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. A divorced mother-of-three selling coffee on the side of the road explained that the living conditions forced upon her and her husband made the marriage deteriorate irretrievably. When you share a room with your children and even perhaps your own parent, a sex life becomes nearly impossible.

A sex life is also, therefore, difficult for the teenage or post-teenage children of the marriage – who are unable to move out, and quite obviously cannot just get a hotel room. As a result, the city is full to bursting with young couples fooling around in parks, doorways, bus-stops, alleys, and most of all – the Malecon.

The Malecon, or seafront, is the true beating heart of Havana and one of the most special places I’ve ever seen. It stretches for miles along the coast, with jagged rocks breaking the violent surf and a high wall often overcome in Hurricane season, covering the coastal parts of the city in salty spray and sea slime. The slime makes the walkway along the Malecon potentially treacherous, but go to a Cuban lawyer with a tort claim against the government, and you’ll get laughed out of his office. He’ll probably close the office for the day to go and regale his colleagues. No litigation means there are about two dozen ways you can get killed every day – from uncovered holes in the street which descend metres into a stinky gloom, to workmen on scaffolding three floors up who throw pieces of rubble big enough to dent a Studebaker (or destroy a Lada) onto the pavement below.

As well as fishermen, couples making out and families taking in the sea air, Havana’s Malecon is famous for something else: more prostitutes than I’ve ever seen anywhere else on earth.

Cuban prostitution is not like the trafficking of Eastern European women lured with jobs, or crack addicts earning their next fix or the desperate fight just for survival in Cambodia. It’s more often about a small taste of a life otherwise out of reach. The girls – jinateras – are invariably young, often eye-bleedingly gorgeous, and hang around waiting for foreign men to walk past, at which point they fawn and flirt in a remarkable display of well-rehearsed coquettishness. Usually, it’s not an overt exchange of cash for sex, but rather the in the form of dinner at a restaurant, cocktails in a lounge and maybe gifts unaffordable to ordinary Cubans – designer jeans or jewellery. This begs the question of whether it’s prostitution at all – I know a few men who’d argue that getting sex anywhere at any time tends to mandate dinner, a few drinks, and a gift or three – but, unable to leave the country and able to see an MTV lifestyle otherwise tantalisingly out-of-reach, acting as a temporary girlfriend or escort for visiting foreign men is a taste of that life they see and want.

As well as the stunning and flirty freelance jinateras, there’s also a depressing prevalence of guys pimping out their own girlfriends and, one assumes, splitting the spoils. Walking home at night through the dark and garbage-strewn streets of Centro Habana, countless times I’d pass a young black (always black) Cuban couple kissing passionately against a wall, before the guy spots me, pushes his long-suffering lady aside, and whispers, “Hey, amigo, you like my girl? You want fuck? She suck good, amigo”.

This is sad, and I don’t know whether it reflects most poorly on the girl for acceding to this and staying with him (perhaps she has no choice), on the guy himself for lacking any self-respect, on the foreign sex tourists providing demand, or on a socio-economic system that makes this commonplace. UN officials working in Cuba, as quoted in the International Herald Tribune, say the girls blame the US embargo, which leaves not enough money for food. Whether it’s the desire for a D&G t-shirt or bona fide impoverishment, as sexualised as Cuba is – and it really is – this shouldn’t be happening.

So, it’s clear most Cubans live lives of real hardship – which go way beyond undrinkable tap water and cramped living conditions. As I said, the average wage is pitiful, and I spent a fair bit of time calculating the cost of goods. Not just the cost for foreigners – staying in a hotel, taking an official taxi, going to a museum or eating in a restaurant are all surprisingly expensive – barely cheaper than the West, especially when you get hit with an astronomical twelve per cent commission on all transactions. But I rooted around to find the cost of beans and rice, of cooking oil and underpants and various other things people cannot do without. And it didn’t add up. Doesn’t matter how frugal a life you use as your reference point, it’s not possible to survive on the earnings of the average Cuban. So I wandered off to the house of one of Cuba’s best-respected journalists who writes for the state-run daily newspaper, Granma.

This newspaper is worth a moment’s digression for its Orwellian hilarity alone. Astonishingly, it’s translated into English as well as a couple of other languages, and is available online as well as in hard form (not that any Cubans actually have Internet – so one assumes it’s for the benefit of people like me who want to get a feel for the zeitgeist, and is seen as an opportunity to bring us around to the miracles of la Revoluçion).

Just a brief perusal of the headlines tells you everything you need to know. Some are relatively positive but benign articles about Cuba’s involvement in the world. “Mexican swimmers are training in Cuba”; “Cuba is facing the threat of global warming with determination, the UNDP affirms”; and “Cuba exports medical equipment all over the world” are just three from one particular day’s front page. Others are more creepily manipulative: “The revolution is stronger than ever”; “Cuban exiles use lies to undermine the revolution”. It’s important to note that these are not on the comment or Op-Ed pages, but are journalistic articles in the news section. The distinction between news journalism and commentary breaks down when the paper-of-record is a mouthpiece of the government.

The most interesting part about Granma – aside from the surprising excellence of the English in translation – is the regular, lengthy pieces by Fidel himself. Assuming he is in fact still alive and actually writing these pieces (admittedly not a given), he really is a gifted thinker, and I read much of his work, coming to appreciate the fierce requisite intelligence for him holding onto power in the face of endless attempts by the outside to undermine his rule. One long piece – over two issues – was China’s place in the world. While quite obviously sycophantic towards a country on which Cuba is more and more dependent, it was an admirable wide-angle look at Chinese history, a significant academic piece of work. Whatever you can say about Fidel’s politics and his treatment of dissidents over the past five decades, absolutely nobody can argue he’s not a towering and impressive man – a father figure for all Cubans.

Digressing further if I may, the existence of a ‘father figure’ in some parts of the world is something that has struck me regularly on my travels. The Serbians have Tito, the Turks have Ataturk, Thailand has its venerable King, China – to a decreasing degree – has Mao, India has Nehru and Gandhi. Cuba has Che Guevara, José Martí and, of course, Fidel. Some of these men have been kindly and benevolent, some tyrannical and cruel. I wonder what it must be like to grow up in a country with such a figure. I find it hard to group Queen Elizabeth in that category (not just because of her gender, although a father figure is undoubtedly different than a mother figure, but because most Britons admire rather than revere her). I wonder to what extent having such a figure in a country’s past is a substitute for a deity. And I wonder if faith in a human father figure who watches over his people actually gives comfort and solace in times of adversity. My guess is it probably does – even if in many of those cases, the figure himself is a large cause of the adversity being faced.

Anyway, I was talking about the unfeasible cost of living versus earnings, so sought out the journalist at Granma. She welcomed me into her lovely home (not everyone earns less than a dollar a day, even in a communist country), and I began by launching into respectful interrogation on the subject of journalistic freedom.

“Do you think Granma is journalistically independent?” I ask. “Can you write what you want without the involvement of the government?”

She nods patronisingly at me – as if I’d just asked a question a slow-witted three year-old would come up with.

“The media is completely free, we can write what we want”. I was hanging out with a photographer from the Washington Post at the time, and he and I exchanged glances.

“So, you can criticise your leaders?” I ask.

“Oh no”, she replies, in a Kafkaesque non sequitur which makes my brain hurt.

“Why would I want to criticise the government?” she asks rhetorically. “Our government doesn’t use propaganda, that’s just what you’ve been told, because you’re brainwashed on the outside. The people using propaganda are the Americans and the western media, who believe what the exiles in Florida say, and the western governments [by which she means the US] spread lies about Cuba because they hate Fidel for humiliating them”.

I’m only able to stifle my incredulous snort because the very last part is basically true.

“Hypothetically”, I suggest, “what would happen if you did write that the government is doing things badly and you though there should be elections?”

“We can criticise the government for the way things are badly managed, but why would I criticise our leaders who’ve done so much for us?” she replies.

And suddenly, just a very little bit, the clouds part and I begin to understand. She and I were at a classical political-cultural impasse where neither understands the other. For us, government means the executive branch and the party in control in the legislature. In Cuba, the government is everywhere and it is everything. So when she says she can criticise the government, she means she can write that the potholes are getting too bad so someone at the department of infrastructure should be blamed, or that something more should be done to improve electricity supply. In other words, constructive criticism of those low down on the government ladder whose responsibility it is to attend to the day-to-day services of the country are fair game. The revolution, the one-party state and its upper echelons are firmly not.

But I’d gone to her home to ask about the economy. “Cubans are poor”, she agreed, "but there are no extreme poor. We have no homeless (which does seem to be true), virtually no HIV (also true) and no malnutrition” (possibly true, but difficult to visually verify because Cubans are naturally thin).

She pointed out that although wages are low by international standards, the government gives people a clothing and food allowance in addition to free education, housing, utilities, health care and virtually free public transport. And that people occasionally (she lowered her voice as if about to blaspheme) “sell some of the goods the government gives them in their jobs on the side”. This piqued my interest, and I made a mental note to find out more.

“Viva la revoluçion!!” she exclaimed, as I walked out the door. Well, she didn’t. But she might as well have.

More muddled than ever, and wondering if Cuba is in fact the hardest society I’ve seen to try and unravel, I wandered up to the university in search of a professor willing to speak candidly.

This was every bit as much a challenge as you’d expect. Pretending not to recognise the barbed looks of suspicion from the secretaries tapping away on typewriters and the assistants wrestling photocopiers that looked like they’ve been lifted from Bletchley Park circa 1941, I asked to see someone who could help me write a piece that would surely laud the miracle of the Cuban economic model.

This evidently passed muster, because I soon found myself in the office of an elderly professor of economics and social theory, only too delighted to shower me with talking points on the triumphs of the revolution and Marx. I got bored pretty fast – I’m already impressed with societies that manage universal free health care and education – made my excuses and left. Realising that my first approach was doomed to fail – going to the office and requesting a formal interview was only going to raise suspicion and prying eyes – I went wandering on the faculty grounds and found a lecturer in economics, a black, middle-aged woman eating a inedible-looking sandwich.

I asked her the questions I had posed to the white man in his office only minutes before. What does it mean that Cubans can now stay in hotels and own mobile phones? How do people get by on so little? What is the future of Cuba?

“Oh, what difference does it make to most people?” she sighed. “Theoretically, gaining freedoms is a good thing, and these were beyond what we’d realistically suspected. But Raul is a smart man – smarter than Fidel, perhaps. Like all communists, he understands the importance of symbolism”.

“So, this is no glasnost or perestroika?” I prodded.

“Not at all. It may appear that Cuba is in flux, and it is, but it’s not the kind which changes a system of government. People here admire their government, they support it in its provision of services to ordinary people. But most of all, they see it as a proud resistance to the bullying of the United States. The blockade and the rhetoric which comes out of Washington DC about Cuba only strengthens the status quo here. So Cubans can now legally stay in hotels they cannot possibly afford, and get a mobile phone line that costs four months’ salary. Big deal. But however slow the changes, and whatever the difficulties Cubans face, things are much better than in the 1990s. So people are reasonably optimistic about their futures”.

The “1990s” she was talking about is the “special period” and deserves some mention. After the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed during 1989-1991, Cuba’s best friend in the world disappeared overnight.

During the mid-eighties, after a quarter-century of a top-down, Soviet-style economy, it was clear that quality was suffering and production quotas were unrealistic. In 1986, Fidel introduced a ‘rectification of errors’ campaign, a process aimed at reducing malfunctioning bureaucracy and increase local-level decision-making.

Just as things were starting to improve, the Eastern bloc collapsed and US$5 billion in credits disappeared from Cuba’s balance sheet. Castro declared a five-year periodo especial (special period), an austerity program of quite stunning privations. Every person I spoke to in Cuba about the availability of goods and services refers back to that era, in which starvation and malnutrition was widespread. Only fifteen years ago, Cuba was sub-Saharan in its living conditions.

So despite the Helms-Burton Act and the repeated tightening of the noose by the Bush Administration – which besides keeping the huge electoral swing state of Florida in Republican hands, has done nothing but bolster support for the regime among Cubans – things now are pretty damn good in Cuba.

But I was still confused about the cost of living, so wandered over to the Hotel Inglaterra on the central square – a splendid, pre-revolutionary edifice which specialises in excellent mojitos, apparently drab and moth-eaten rooms, and utterly inedible food. All the food in Havana is pretty much inedible, I suspect the rooms are all moth-eaten, and without doubt the mojitos are fabulous – though sometimes with water from the taps, which anyone without a suicide wish would be well advised to avoid. While sitting on the terrace, I saw a black girl with a baby approach the front door and ask the white Cuban doorman if she could use the bathroom. “No” he shouted. Not twenty minutes later, a white girl with a baby came and asked the very same thing. “Yes” he said, waving her through. The statistical validity of this aside, I began thinking about the racial mix of Cuba – the melting pot of black African slaves, the Spanish, and countless mixes of black, brown and white blood. But the prejudice towards the blacks was something alluded to by a certain Dr Jesus Acosta Santos –with whom I lived – and I began to think about it more and more.

I spent my time in Cuba hopping from one Casa Particulare to another and ended up staying the last week in Havana with a delightful and unusual man by the name of Dr Jesus Acosta Santos – a semi-retired criminal defense lawyer and owner – if such a term ever applies in Cuba – of a Casa Particulare. (You never actually own your home – even though the middle classes do get to buy and sell them. But they’re not transferable. If you die, you can’t leave it to your children – it reverts to the State).

Staying in Cuba you have two choices. A hotel with European prices and sub-saharan standards – Hotel Inglaterra, by all accounts, being perfectly representative of them all – or a Casa Particulare, a government-licensed room rented in a local person’s home.

Jesus was a kindly and very funny white-haired old man in sandals and a neck brace, apparently from a recent motorbiking accident. It says as much about Cuba as anything else that after a successful career as a lawyer, and his own legal practice with a personal staff, he lives in what would be called ‘the projects’ in the US, or a ‘council estate’ in the UK. After 45 years as a skilled professional, he still washes himself from a bucket, and only recently has been able to afford a television, on which he and I passed the evenings watching Cuban baseball. Every morning when I left the house, he reminded me that I was his responsibility; that Cuba is dangerous. He’d grab my arm and look into my eyes with a piercing apprehension and say, “Watch out for the black man. He will steal you and kick you and try to kill you”.

I’ve been to many places in the world, and everywhere is different in many ways. But one thing which seems truly universal is the fear non-blacks have everywhere of young, black men. In Europe, North America, Australia, and even in places like India and China where there are barely any blacks at all, “Watch out for the black man!” is a refrain heard over and over. This is a topic beyond the scope of this piece. Maybe I’ll try and dig into it another time. I just wonder how much all of our African ancestry plays in this prejudice – the association of Africa with violent primitivism which we all think we’ve outgrown – and how much is because young black men, turns out, are just more violent.

Anyway, like almost everyone in Cuba, Dr Jesus has relatives overseas. Of a Cuban population of 11 million, at very least one million live outside Cuba. Some – many – are in Florida as you’d guess, but many too live in Europe, having fled for a better life. Jesus lives alone but has two daughters and a wife overseas. He’s not, as I’d originally suspected, a widower or divorced – in fact his marriage to his wife in Italy is still going strong. But twelve years ago, and completely disillusioned with the revolution, hating communism and having had enough of the Special Period, she left to Italy with their daughters – one of whom is grown up and comes to visit him three times a year.

Why didn’t he go with? I asked. What can possibly be worth being apart from your much-loved wife and children for the rest of your life and living alone?

“I love Cuba. Cuba is my home”, he answered. And that was that.

Everything was becoming more and more muddled. How does the economy work? Is there real and profound racism between whites and blacks here? Why do some Cubans appear to be genuinely rich? Why do so many love their country so passionately, yet also dream of leaving at the same time?

And after bemusing conversations with a jinatera, the well-respected journalist, the academics, with a medical doctor, an expat Canadian and various others, I ended my investigations with an evening spent with a remarkable young man called Sidney.

Sidney is 26, a black Cuban whose maternal grandmother was Spanish and whose paternal great-grandfather was a slave taken from west Africa to Jamaica a century ago. He’s lived his whole life in Havana and works as a ‘systems manager’ (the closest I could translate, he maintains the electronic systems within buildings) and – like most Cubans – has never left the island. This will change later this year, when he moved to Toronto to start a new life with Carolina, his Canadian wife. They met a year or so ago when she was here for a development conference, they fell in love and were married some months later. They’re currently in the middle of the lengthy application process for his immigration to Canada – something which ought to pose no real problems. Canada – partly I think as a fuck-you to America – has long had close ties to Cuba.

Carolina has been coming to Havana every couple of months since they got engaged, so their time apart has been bearable, but quite naturally his impending emigration looms large in his life. And not just because he’s never left his country, or because the climatic difference between Havana and Toronto will be overwhelming. Because he’s saying goodbye to the place he grew up – something I know only too well about myself.

“I love Cuba. Cuba is my home”, he said with sadness, as we drank beer at sunset on the waterfront peering over to Florida. “I will always miss it. But by far the greatest thing about Cuba is the people. There are so many problems here: the corruption, the waste, the passivity in the face of repression and the desperation” (his English was better than most native speakers). “They are warm, easy-going, and always, always make sure to take care of each other”, he added, taking the words right out of my mouth.

You really do feel it, you know. There’s a solidarity, a sense of shared adversity and – appropriate considering the politics – a camaraderie that makes me think of what London must’ve been like during the Blitz. In the face of average wages lower than virtually any other place on earth, and 45 years of US policy designed to squeeze the country into submission towards democracy and the free market, and particularly on the back of the Special Period, Cubans take care of one another. You can see it in the way a driver, unsure of directions, will flag down the very first person on the sidewalk and end up getting comprehensive instructions. You can see it in the way the elderly take care of the young children while the parents are working. You see it in the way the 17 year-old boys play baseball with the five year-olds in the street. Or the way vendors give out freebies to the neighbours.

And so it was with Sidney that I finally got the answer I wanted on how the nonsensical jigsaw puzzle that is the Cuban economy works. He’s an exceptionally smart man and he understood my question before the words had finished leaving my lips.

“Can’t you see?” he laughed. “There is a parallel economy. Of course, nobody can live on what they’re officially paid, so to call Cuba ‘communist’ is misleading and even inaccurate – it’s about the most capitalistic and entrepreneurial society you can imagine. It’s just that the capitalism exists in the informal economy. It’s the fruit vendor who’s given a weekly quota of bananas and apples from the government to sell at a fixed price. He sells some of them at that price, tells the government the rest are ruined, and gives the rest away to his family or sells them to foreigners at a massive mark-up. The guy selling shampoo does the same, and the woman in the government clothes factory is deliberately wasteful, keeps the scraps of material scraps and takes them home where her mother makes clothes out of them and sells for virtually nothing to the people on her street. The pharmacist steals medicines to give to his family and friends. The baker makes extra loaves of bread he doesn’t account for and gives them away. Everybody, absolutely everybody, steals from the government. And the government knows. This is how it has to work”.

And suddenly it all made sense. When people have their backs to the wall as the Cubans have for two generations now, and when they live in a political system where wastefulness and inefficiency is a necessary and tolerable by-product of everything, people are enterprising in their survival. The government knows very well what’s going on and quietly tolerates it, because it’s the best case scenario to have a system with a black hole of waste but which keeps people healthy and alive (the average life expectancy is the same as in the USA), and in which it gets to thumb its finger to the big bad bully upstairs and declare victory for the revolution.

“All warfare is based on deception”, wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War – and a de facto war is still going on between this rich but at the same time poor little island and a country to its north which has a reactionary bilateral policy born of the era of Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But not all evolution mandates revolution, and I’m dying to know whether genuine ‘evolution’ in this country – a manifest improvement in the lives of its people – can or will take place without the ‘revolution’ that Washington so desperately wants. But beyond the crappy food and the falling-down houses, the music and the laughter, the entrepreneurship and the solidarity, the prostitution and the families walking together in the open air, and beyond the political repression and total state control, there is a beating heart to Cuba that is perceptible but completely indescribable unless you go yourself.

Sidney told me of a woman he met at Havana airport the week before, while he was waiting for Carolina to arrive from Canada. The woman he met was flying back from Germany where she’d spent the last ten days. She spent ten days in Germany three months earlier, and three months before that and three months before that. She earns enough money in ten days of crazy, rat-race work (I didn’t ask what she does) in Germany to afford to live for three months of a frugal, family life in Havana. Sidney asked if she’s thought about taking her family to Germany for good. But she would never emigrate from Cuba for the same reason my friend Dr Jesus would not follow his wife, and why Sidney is so ambivalent about following his.

“I love Cuba, Cuba is my home.” was her response. And that was that.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Kaleidoscope of Ideology

In the end, it always comes down to ideology.

As hard as I try to get enthused about the oddities of the food or the perplexing social gestures; differences in music or attitudes to religion or sex, I find myself most often intrigued by government, and its various guises around the world. This probably stems as much from a self-reverential pondering on how to start a society from scratch (a hypothetical recently posed by a friend on a long car journey and which provided hours of merry dreaming) as anything else. But curiosity as to the structure of society and the role of the State is heightened when circumstances conveniently conspire, and you find yourself in an important place when something important is happening. Being in China the past few weeks has been just that.

List – if you will – the most potentially fraught geopolitical relationships in the world today, and there’s a fair chance they’ll all involve China. There’s the unsustainable – and growing – Sino-US trade imbalance. The age-old mistrust and resentment the Chinese have towards Japan. There’s Taiwan, which is only ever one mischievous pro-independence candidacy away from seeing about a million young Chinese conscripts wandering around in smart green tunics carrying Kalashnikovs. There’s North Korea, Kashmir and China’s endless thirst for oil. Tinderboxes all.

But Tibet is the elephant in the room. Long the pet cause of Hollywood liberals and the European Left, it’s a particularly bewildering issue, inasmuch as nobody realistically expects anything ever to change. The world’s dependence on China’s factories and the Chinese need for “face” – a need born from millennia of foreign invasions, humiliations and declines (the “sick man of the east”, as China was called in London’s 19th century gentlemen’s clubs) means that there’s no way China permits Tibetan independence. So in that sense, it’s moot.

But China’s opening up. It’s a statement made by every journalist who visits, and as sound bytes go it’s true, but it’s eye-wateringly complex as well. China in 2008 is littered with contradiction. It’s an awakening giant liberated by the free market but crippled too with a debilitating lack of self-esteem; arrogant and pathetic as much as visionary and ambitious. Everyone I met there, from factory workers to cab drivers to hostel owners to students and teachers added layer upon layer of paint to a picture already daubed thick with colour.

So Tibet erupted into the worst violence in a couple of decades while I was there. I was guiltily pleased to be able to watch Beijing waver and fumble and fool. It began, naturally, with the Internet. Which deserves a small digression.

China now has more Internet users than any other country. PCs are becoming affordable for the urban Chinese for the first time (the PC division of IBM – that venerable American behemoth – was bought by China’s Lenovo a couple of years back – a rather embarrassing fact most Americans chose to ignore). Most Chinese, though, still don’t have computers at home, so they cram by the thousands into Internet cafés the size of football fields to watch pirated VCDs and furtively stream porn – but most of all, to play online games. Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (or MMORPGs – honestly, could nobody come up with a better acronym than that?) are a phenomenon the significance of which not enough people yet fully grasp. While I was at the CSFI, we produced papers and organised seminars on the subject. They’re the stepping-stone between a world of indisputable reality on the one hand, and one of virtuality on the other. Remarkably, half a dozen young Korean men supposedly drop dead every month in Internet cafes from playing these games too much. Leaving aside the rather obvious point that these kids would be better off playing football, reading or trying to get laid – and the rather elegant Darwinism of their demise – it was in China that I got to see the phenomenon first-hand. Zombies, row upon row of keyboard-tapping ghouls slaying dragons or building wizard points or whatever to triumph in battle over some snot-nosed and pimple-faced adolescent sitting in his parents’ attic in Copenhagen or Auckland or Durban.

So the young Chinese are using the Internet for the wrong things – stop the presses! That’s their problem and their prerogative and I won’t say any more about it. But what’s far more significant is not what’s on the Internet, but what’s not.

The existence of the so-called Great Firewall of China isn’t news to anyone. It’s annoying while you’re there to find Wikipedia blocked – presumably someone had the nerve to refer to Taiwan as a “country”. It’s even more exasperating to find that online bible Wikitravel likewise unavailable. But as useful as Wikipedia is for becoming a minor expert on a subject as quickly as possible, it’s a flawed product and everyone knows that. China’s blocking of the BBC, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.

The BBC radio world service is the most listened-to station in the world. The BBC television world service – along with CNN International – is the world’s foremost 24-hour news provider. And, please, excuse any green-pastures, rose-glasses Anglophilia, but the BBC remains the world’s most respected news source. It just is, and it’s a disgrace that the Chinese have blocked it for so long. )Although at the time of writing, they’ve just removed the block – probably more to do with international opprobrium over their latest lashing-out at Tibet than my own repeated entreaties. But whatever – it’s a good thing).

The BBC, though, is only a part of the story. Google has famously – infamously, really – agreed to allow censorship of its search engine in China, a example of obsequious, cost-benefit pandering of which an otherwise admirable company ought to be ashamed. Google ‘Human Rights’, ‘Tiananmen Square’, ‘Democracy’ or ‘Taiwan’, and you’ll find your internet connection drop out. I know – I tried it every day I was there. Curiously, Myspace is blocked too. Apparently depressed, 14-year old goth kids in Nebraska and aspiring rock bands in Sheffield pose a national security risk to the middle kingdom. Facebook isn’t blocked at all – presumably because the bureaucrats in Beijing and their IT lackies don’t appreciate that that’s where real dissent and criticism will manifest in the years to come – along with the blogosphere of course. The blogs are blocked too, but only in part. I could update my own blog by logging in, but not actually open and view the URL. This would make some sense from the perspective of the Chinese officials, if it weren’t so pathetically easy to bypass the firewall they’ve constructed. I’m not what you'd call IT savvy – I’ve never written a line of code in my life – but I could get around all the blocks in no time. Moreover, to compound the counter-productive effect of censoring the Internet in the first place, the bureaucrats have overlooked that the people who may formulate insurrection or dissent – young, urban students – are the very same people who’ll be able to figure out how to bypass the restrictions put in place. It’s been the folly of communists from time immemorial: the utter counter-productivity of lashing out. Like the Soviet imprisonment of dissidents in the past, they’d be better off abandoning the premise that communism is incompatible with dissent, and instead just levelling with their people. If the current rise of Östalgie in the former East Germany and USSR demonstrates anything, it’s that people are not always, under all circumstances, opposed to a strong, centralised State which is more involved in their lives than in the West. What they loathe is the suppression of speech and the fear and oppression that engenders.

So, to the crusty old cadavers in Beijing who probably think the Internet to be a conspiratorial series of pipes and who are so desperate to retain their one-party model, my advice is this: open it up. Your young, English-speaking students – the ones who are going to cause you trouble down the track – are smarter than you. Telling them what they can and cannot read on the Internet – surely a force for good to rival agriculture and the Gutenberg press – is going to come back and bite you in the arse. Loosen up, you octogenarian fools.

And so, back to Tibet: Naturally, the propaganda machine went into overdrive as the Chinese PLA began shooting protesters in Lhasa, leaving perhaps 150 dead. Or so the US, Australian, British and French media were reporting – and as they had reporters on the ground, I’m going to take them at their word. By Day Two, and as the Chinese state news agency was reporting that brave PLA troops had been attacked by Tibetan radicals (including, rather amusingly, Buddhist monks who Beijing would have you believe were rampaging through Lhasa like blacks in LA after the Rodney King verdict) YouTube went down. This was pretty irritating – you never know when you’re going to be struck by the need to watch grainy home footage of people falling off trampolines or lip-synching to Celine Dion – but it turned out, unsurprisingly, that someone had impertinently uploaded footage of Chinese troops beating the living shit out of unarmed Tibetans on the site. So there went YouTube.

By the end of Day Two, CNN, the Guardian and MSNBC articles on events in Tibet were blocked too. I still read them – as I said, it’s not the hardest thing to bypass the firewall – but bit by bit, I came to begin to understand the true nature of the Chinese government and its paranoia of lockdown. It’s the reactionism of a government that lacks faith in its own purity of virtue to trust its people to know the truth. Tiananmen Square couldn’t happen again I don’t think. The Chinese government was stunned by the tonnage of international opprobrium which landed on its doorstep in 1989 but has probably learnt enough not to machine-gun its own students in the centre of its capital. Mobile phones and digital cameras no longer permit such an atrocity to be kept quiet from its people. And say what you like about the Chinese predisposition to authoritarian rule – and I could say plenty – I don’t believe they would tolerate a repeat of 1989 in one of their own cities. Even the most policed police state in the world cannot suppress a truly widespread uprising among its people, and the Politburo in Beijing may be stupid, but it's not that stupid.

Digressing further if I can, I asked pretty much every Chinese I met about their thoughts on Tiananmen. The most common response? Uncomprehending blankness. They haven’t heard about it. Going to the Square itself – a place I wanted to visit for a moment of personal and solemn reflection – is like visiting Disneyland, but with more flags, fewer Americans and about the same level of excruciating banality. Thousands, tens of thousands of Chinese are running about, giggling, squealing and posing for photographs. In the world’s largest public square, and in a place where not two decades ago one of the world’s iconic modern images – the man martyring himself in front of the tank – was seared into our minds, and where the bitumen is soaked with the blood of innocent students, the sea of Chinese tourists don’t know a damn thing about what happened. The closest I got to genuine knowledge of 1989 while in China was a young, English-educated man of exceptional friendliness and worldliness called Leo.

Leo – the charming director of entertainment on my boat trip through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze – is that rarest of travel finds: the native who’s been overseas and who works in an industry where he meets visitors to his own country. People like him are a journalistic goldmine; he can uniquely understand and express a comparison between not only his own country and others, but between the people of both places too.

He had heard of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He had the year wrong (ironically, he thought it was 1984) but he knew that some students died. That was about it. The revealing part, though – and perhaps the single most revealing moment of my time in China – was his astonishment that I had heard of it. He was genuinely confused as to why such an event would have made international news.

And there it is. Play word association in the West with anyone who, well, really with anyone who knows how to read. Say the word “Beijing” and they’ll just as likely respond with “Tiananmen Square” as they will “China” or “Olympics”. Say “Tiananmen” and the knee-jerk response is unanimous: “Massacre”.

So, not only has the government managed to bury this tragic, cruel – and really quite recent – event from its people, but has fostered an environment where the people don’t realise what the outside world thinks of that government itself. This will change in time – for reasons I’ve already gone through. Short of DPRK-style, Stalinist totalitarianism, there’s no way to keep a population dumb in an Internet world. But my various conversations with Leo and his other compatriots left me clear: not only is there much the Chinese don’t know, but there’s even more that they don’t know they don’t know.

By Days Four and Five, Beijing was panicking. The reason you can tell is that the tripe coming out of the state media had qualitatively morphed from eyebrow-raisingly improbable to downrightly Orwellian. And then things ramped up further and Chinese defiance grew and grew until a single word – the magic word, really – was muttered in a few capitals around the world. And that word, of course, is “boycott”.

The Chinese had been comprehensively outflanked. The Achilles heel of China in 2008 is the Olympics, an event they've been preparing for in one way or another for twenty years. Hosting the Olympics is a major challenge and a real coup for any country. There’s the quadrennial need to get the Games to run smoothly and have the IOC chairman announce at the closing ceremony that the Games had been “the best yet!” But for the Chinese, much more is at stake. Centuries of various humiliations, the brutality suffered by the Japanese, the Mongols, the Opium Wars and the British, and the decades of development lost to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution have led to 2008’s Games being China’s 'coming of age'. It’s an opportunity for China to demonstrate its position as the biggest, most ambitious – and in some ways, richest – country on earth. They know they’re not going to be overtaking the US economy for decades, but that’s not the point. The point is, they hunger for the world’s respect in an almost pathological way, and an Olympics on an unprecedented scale is designed to get just that.

And these Games really will be unprecedented. China has spent three times as much as the next most expensive Olympics. US$17bn has been spent just on cleaning the air in Beijing (although as always, government accounting transparency in China is not what it is in Europe or North America). Although the IOC’s Jacques Rogge was making noises about the air quality while the Chinese army was gunning people down in Tibet – again, no coincidence but a calculated snark at the Chinese – my own experience in Beijing was astonishing. Blue skies and clean air in a city in which I was expecting to be barely able to breathe. I suspect I was lucky – but one thing is beyond question: the Chinese are working around-the-clock, planning a ban on a third of traffic during the Games and spending a fortune to get Beijing’s air acceptable for outdoor sports, not to mention the US$40bn they’re spending on public transport and skyscrapers. All this, of course, to get the world’s media to write in surprise at how impressive and clean a mega-city it is. It’ll probably work. Unless, of course, there’s a boycott.

That word, “boycott”, began rumbling across the global news media within a few days of troubles beginning in Tibet. Nobody in a foreign government with real clout expressly called for it. But the French refused to rule it out, and its not hard to imagine the human-rights Left and the anti-Chinese Right in the US Congress aligning behind it. It’s that rarest of things – a confluence of interests at both ends the spectrum. I’m sure a boycott of the Beijing Olympics won’t happen by any significant countries. But if it did, it would be an event of enormous significance for a variety of reasons. But the biggest of these, I really think, is that it would be unspinnable to the Chinese people. Nobody, not even the most PR-savvy operatives in the world – and none of them seem to work for the Chinese anyway – could put a positive spin on this. The Chinese people would find out why it is the world is choosing to stay away from their magnificent showpiece.

The Tibet thing slowly began to recede and with it, so did mention of a boycott. But watching the government’s paranoia close-up was a spectacle I recommend to anyone who wants to be in a war zone without, you know, having to actually do anything.

China really is such a confusing place. It’s breathtaking and underwhelming in equal measure; admirable and disgusting; a place I want to go back to over and over, and never again step foot in for the rest of my life. You can be so frustrated with the manners and habits of its people, only to then be embraced with grace and kindness. You can gasp through the sooty air of one of its countless megacities – there are more than a dozen you’ve never even of which are bigger than London or Paris – and then find yourself, within an hour, sitting on soil so fertile and land so rich you wonder how it is Mao managed to extract famine from it. And you can be in a food market one minute, stomach turning at the skinned dogs, the barely-alive frogs, birds and snakes kept in unutterably awful conditions and then wander though a door to find a crafts market where families sit together, chatting, laughing, bonding and making baskets or pots.

Single young women can safely walk at night in any city, knowing full well that the punishment for rape or theft (especially against foreigners) is so draconian it serves as a virtually total deterrent. They can take solace in this safety, but wonder too whether it’s right that a mugging committed by an impoverished Chinese should be punished by the State with practically summary execution. They can be pondering that question, and then notice the elderly Chinese out on the streets at midnight on a Saturday, hundreds of them dancing in pairs to some droopy, saccharine Chinese love songs. And they can wonder to themselves how many places in the world there are where the elderly feel safe to be out on the streets at night dancing and socialising, rather than slumped in front of a television watching Parkinson or Letterman re-runs, slowly awaiting Death’s cold embrace.

As I said at the top, It all comes back to ideology for me. It’s the unique (okay, Vietnam has a similar model) political system the Chinese have – the incomprehensible mésalliance of a free market charging ahead like a runaway train, and an authoritarian, bureaucratic and oftentimes cruel State which cannot see the trees from the wood.

Their one-party system, the improbable marriage of communism and capitalism is a prism through which every visitor cannot help but see China. I’m not a communist – I accept the well-trod orthodoxy that liberal democracy is, so far, the least worst system of government anyone’s come up with. (I do think there should be some sort of voting test – a non-partisan, general knowledge assessment of the issues before you get to pull your level – but this is an idea unlikely to gain traction, least of all among those who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour).

But what’s clear from visiting modern-day China is the enormous advantage a one-party model bestows when it comes to solving the big problems. I’m going to devote some space to the Three Gorges Dam, because not only is it arguably the most ambitious project the world has seen in centuries, but it speaks volumes about the capacity of a governing party – when there’s no opposition to argue with it – to actually govern. Say what you will about the cruelties and injustices of authoritarianism, when massive projects are required, projects which could never get underway in the West because of political lobbyists, a litigation culture, and various special interests or advocacy groups seeking injunction after injunction, in China – they get done. Spend a gazillion workers’ salaries on building stadia? Let’s do it! Construct a single airport terminal the size of the whole of Heathrow? Let’s do it! Build a city of 8 million people to belch out smog on the site of a fishing village? Let’s do it! Send a man into space with no scientific rationale for doing so? Let’s do it! Dam the Yangtze? Damn the expense! Let’s do it!!

So, the Three Gorges Project. They rightfully call it the ‘project’ rather than the ‘dam’, because the dam itself – although the objective – cannot stand alone. It would be like describing football to a neophyte and saying that it’s played by a guy who tries to kick a ball into a net. The overseas media, I think, often misses the primary point of the project. It’s often couched in terms of hydroelectricity, supplying renewable energy for an enormous country industrialising at a scarcely believable rate. This is true – the project is now supposedly providing forty per cent of China’s energy – but often overlooked is the role the Yangtze has played in China’s history. I can think of no country so dependent on a waterway – it’s been an artery for transportation, a source of irrigation and drinking water for as long as China has been populated. I don’t think its overstating it to say that without this river – the third longest in the world and one which zigzags across the land from Tibet to the Pacific – there would be no China as we know it.

The river has always been a curse and a blessing in equal measure and with devastating effect. The river floods every few years, and 400 million Chinese live along or near its thousands of kilometres of winding banks. Catastrophic loss of life has occurred throughout its history – as recently as the 1970s a quarter of a million people were swept away; in 1998 a few thousand died; in the fifties another quarter million. Getting accurate figures isn’t easy. China has been technologically backward for so much of its history, which, in combination with successive governments committed to the control of information and a population so enormous that accurate accounting is impossible, makes all figures relative approximations. Three things, however, are beyond dispute. First, the Yangtze has flooded every few years throughout China’s 5000-year history. Second, the flooding has become more frequent in the agricultural and industrial ages. And third, millions upon millions of people have died. The primary purpose for the Three Gorges project, therefore, was to control the hitherto uncontrollable.

Although the green light for the project was given in the early 1990s, and building began in 1993, the idea dates back at least a century. In 1924, a brilliant young Chinese engineering student returned from Birmingham University in the UK with complete theoretical plans for the damming of the river at Sandouping, creating a 600km-long lake and drowning countless cities in the process as the waters rose. But logistics and a lack of material and technical resources and know-how left this vision consigned to mere fantasy for decades, until in the 1970s a group of American engineers, together with the best and brightest China could produce, began work on plans which took advantage of technological developments, and made the project a possibility. During the seventies and eighties, a trial, guinea pig dam was built 38 kilometres downstream from the Three Gorges Dam – a smaller version, only twenty metres higher on the upstream than downstream sides. In 1993, the decision to go ahead with the main dam was made, and 100,000 workers spend the next fifteen years building it, in three parts. From 1993-97, the river was stopped. This is a notion so stupendous to me I can’t say any more about it. From 1998-2003 the dam itself and the locks for the ships were constructed. And from 2004 to today and until 2009, the generators were installed.

No amount of statistics can really convey the magnitude of what the Chinese have accomplished here. What most of the world knows of the dam is that it’s really, really big, is very, very expensive, and many people – and the environment – have suffered because of its construction. For China’s countless critics, it’s come to exemplify the dehumanised arrogance and disregard for its citizens of a political monolith which does as it damn – no pun – well pleases. What I came to see, though, what I came to understand from speaking to the people whose lives have been affected by the project, is that conventional wisdom outside China is far from the full story. I think can tell when I’m being fed bullshit – like the government tour guide who insisted the project has come in under budget when the foreign media more believably insists it was three times over – and when someone is speaking with genuine freedom and candour. And despite some of the environmental consequences of the dam, it’s done a lot of good too.

A few numbers to begin, though, so bear me out. The dam itself is about 180 metres high – roughly the height of London’s Canary Wharf tower. It’s 2300 metres long, and at its base over 200 metres thick. When the hydroelectric turbines are finished next year, it’ll produce 87.4 billion kilowatt hours per year – or €8bn worth of annual electricity. This is a lot. The lake being created behind the dam is 600 kilometres long. At the time of my visit, the water level had risen from 60 metres to 155 metres above sea level. When the lake finishes rising next year, it’ll be at 175 metres. The water level upstream will be 96 metres higher than downstream. It’s worth taking a moment to think about the amount of water being controlled in the creation of a 600 kilometre long lake, increasing in depth by 115 metres. It’s enough to have created a microclimate above the water – a shroud of mist from the evaporation of a body of water of quite unimaginable volume.

1.13 million people have been displaced due to the project – a rare statistic upon which the Chinese government and outside observers are in apparent agreement. Some lived in the cities along what was the upstream river, cities like Badang and Fengdu which now lie in the watery depths of the resulting lake. Others were farmers scattered along the river bank, whose farms now lie submerged for all of time. Standing as I did high up in the City of Ghosts, China’s most sacred place for Daoists and Buddhists, and having my ears burnt with various titbits of unevolved superstitious claptrap, I peered across the lake where the city of Fengdu once lay, and towards New Fengdu – the replacement city they built in the last decade (see photo). I can’t help but come back to my earlier point: the Chinese, with nothing more than determination, labour and money, have built new cities higher up on the river bank to replace those now completely drowned under a hundred or so metres of water. The British can’t get the baggage system at Heathrow’s T5 to work and the US, after three years, still can’t get started on repairing New Orleans. I’m just saying: bitch about Chinese human rights all you like and complain about the shoddiness of some of their exports, but you can’t ever say they don’t know how to get things done.

I wandered around the new cities of Badang and Fengdu – two of many that have sprung up during the construction of the Dam. The buildings are modern and rather elegant, the streets wider and better constructed than most you see in China’s towns and villages. Through a translator I asked – separately - a shopkeeper, taxi driver and a factory worker what they think of their new city and the Project. Their responses were remarkably similar. I’m paraphrasing, “My old house had one sleeping room and one eating room, and eight of us were living there. When the project was announced fifteen years ago, we were sad to have to leave it, and see our city disappear. But the government has built enough new apartments that now we have only two people in each bedroom, and the house is warm in the winter. We don’t have to be afraid of the river flooding any more, and we’re proud that China can do something as big as this. We want everyone to know what China is capable of”.

These were people talking honestly and openly, and I began to see the project not just as a necessary alternative to building dozens of coal plants, and not just as protection for millions of people of the savage whims of a river which has taken millions of lives over generations, but as a way to have improved the lot of those living impoverished lives along its banks. Of course, it’s not all Christmas in Paris. Some farmers can no longer work and have been just paid off for their loss. And the long-term environmental consequences are not yet fully understood. And the people displaced by the project could, of course, not avail themselves of a judicial system which, in the West, would allow them to challenge forced relocation as unreasonable. But before we pile on, as is fashionable to do, I really think credit should be given where credit is due. The Chinese have conquered the next frontier, and if the rampant growth and ambition of this extraordinary and ancient country is teaching us anything, it’s that we can expect them to do much more of the same in the century to come.

All this progress comes at a cost though, and time after time I was told that China’s ‘tradition’ is being chipped away. One expect this from the elderly – old people everywhere never tire of telling anyone who’ll listen (or who is too polite to walk away) that ‘tradition’ is being lost – but I heard it over and over again from the young too. I heard it from the uneducated rural Chinese in the interior provinces and from students in the ugly and indistinct urban centres like Chongqing (incidentally, a city unique in also being a province, and by some measures the city with the world’s largest population – 34 million. It’s a skin-crawlingly awful place). I heard it from the professional classes riding the train with me and, surprisingly, from three odd young students I met in Chengdu and with whom I passed a remarkable afternoon.

I was wandering aimlessly through the city trying not to get run over, spat on or sideswiped by a bicycle, and happened upon the main square. I’ve seen big squares in the world’s cities before, but it says much about China’s scale that in a city virtually no-one outside the country has heard of, and which is bigger than Sydney, Chicago, Berlin, Barcelona or Vancouver, there lies a central square so vast you can barely see the other side. Although admittedly the air has the viscosity of treacle and the colour of apricots, so one can’t always be sure of scale.

Nevertheless, there stood the ubiquitous statue of Mao, a hundred feet high, arm outstretched and gazing benevolently towards his people. I stood in admiration of the statue – it really is something – and started snapping photos. Three young men – English students at the local university – nervously approached and, in English so haphazard and metallic it made me squint, asked if they could help with anything. I was delighted, so asked why it is that in a packed public square, with an enormous monument of modern China’s most important leader, I was the only person looking at it. I asked what the Chinese think of Mao nowadays, and the conversation was moving nicely along to democratic movements and right of protest, when the army arrived.

Frankly, the nervousness I usually get when approached by the military – especially in places where dissent is not allowed and I’m carrying a backpack full of notes which basically refer to them as limp-brained, commie automatons – was trumped by an unexpected desire for some good 'ole trouble. Flashing through my mind were romantic dreamings of a couple of hours of respectful interrogation in a police station, during which I’d embarrass them into admitting that they’d really rather be doing more important stuff than spying on foreigners – and then being expelled from the country only to get on the news back in the West as a poster-child for Chinese intransigence and diplomatic ten-thumbedness. And then I’d write a Pullitzer-winning article about my experience and live off it at dinner parties for the next two decades.

So I puffed my chest up, ready for anything, but not worried about any sort of violence – this is an Olympic year after all, and the Chinese aren’t dumb enough to torture a foreigner when there are so many of their own citizens yet to torture first. Disappointingly, the officials stopped short of dragging me away, but said that if we wanted to discuss such things, a more discrete place would be appropriate. This was not the heavy-handed sino-sulk I had come to expect, but they were serious about it – talking to the Chinese about democracy is permitted, it would seem, as long as you exercise the decorum of not doing it in front of a bloody great statue of Chairman Mao.

So, in what I considered a satisfactorily ironic ‘screw you’, I took my three new friends to Starbucks, and shelled out a Chinese worker’s monthly salary on four coffees.

My new friends included an extroverted and metrosexual Europhile who called himself Hans and professed admiration for everything about Germany, without knowing any more about that country than you'd get from seeing a VW Golf on the street. The second was a whiskery young thing called Chen whose voice would have been irritatingly staccato even without the world-class stammer with which he was sadly cursed. Getting his coffee order out of him took longer than actually drinking the thing. “La-la-la-la-la-la (oh, c’mon!) la- la-latte!!”


The third was a charming and soft-spoken introvert also called Chen, who – like most charming and soft-spoken introverts in all places – was the smartest, most thoughtful and most interesting of his group, but consistently treated by the others like a moron. Hans the Europhile Extrovert went on and on, waxing lyrical about the music of Beethoven and Brahms while we waited for our coffee to come, with little indication than he had any experience with those two great Germans other than having read their names somewhere. His extroversion and self-appointment as group leader was made all the more irritating by a periodic excitability in which he would hyperventilate. His friends explained that he was so excited to be speaking with a foreigner he needed a moment to calm down. In retrospect, buying him the double espresso was probably a bad idea.

But after a slow start, a truly revealing afternoon followed. They all study English together at the university – although quite obviously the English is being taught by a Chinese professor who can read it but not speak it, and who knows nothing of conversational nuance. They’re all only children (without siblings, I mean) – my question as to whether they had brothers or sisters was met with a further fit of giggling – and don’t have girlfriends. In the case of the hyperventilating Hans this is really a no-brainer, but they all said that there aren’t enough girls to go around, that the male surplus among the young Chinese has left the acquisition of a mate more Natural Selection than, well, natural selection. What girls there are get their pick of the rich, the foreign or just the very best looking men around. Which left my three young virgins (yes, I asked) with no real prospects of a girlfriend or even a wife. It’s not funny at all, of course. It’s really, really sad. If you can’t realistically leave your country, and if there aren’t enough of the opposite sex to go around, one of an individual’s most fundamental rights – the right to at least the prospect of finding a spouse, of having children – is voided. Amidst all the talk of political censorship, of the lack of voting and the quality of the air, this is something not talked about enough. China’s one-child policy, and the consequent foeticide, female infanticide, and sex-related abortion – both voluntary and involuntary – deserves more international attention, indignation and outrage. I really felt sorry for these guys.

But the really interesting part of my afternoon spent with these three oddbods was their hatred for their government – the first real expression of this I’d heard during my weeks in the country. “The only perfection is truth!!”, Hans shouted, slamming his fist on the table so loudly the Chinese baristas jumped a foot. I don’t know if Hans is a scholar of the European Enlightenment or not – my guess would be not – but he and his two sidekicks began to complain about everything from the blocking of the Internet (of which they were very well aware), the propaganda of the state-run media, and their inability to openly protest. They wanted democracy, they wanted a multi-party free market, they wanted reconciliation with Japan, a policy of status quo on Taiwan, they wanted China out of Tibet, and they wanted more to be done on environmental issues. My surprise at what turned out to be a raging torrent of grievances was less that university students would turn out to hold generally left-of-centre views, but that such views hinted at a well of discontent beneath the veneer of order and conformity the Chinese put forth with such conviction.

These debates probably don’t take place within the lecture halls at the universities, and they definitely are nowhere to be found in the state media. But in the bowels of the Internet, on the millions of blogs to which the Chinese contribute (all three of my new young friends were enthusiastic bloggers) and far beyond the eyes and understanding of the bureaucrats managing the Great Firewall, there is a vibrant discussion of ideas taking place. Countless fora are dedicated to free speech, a free press and China’s place in the world. As everywhere else, political and philosophical discussions like these are done in an echo chamber; who can know for sure just how big this movement is? But what I came to understand by the end of a few short weeks in the Middle Kingdom is that just when you think China can’t confuse you further, it can. It’s the anti-Magic Eye. The longer you look at it, the more jumbled it becomes.

The Chinese predisposition towards authoritarianism will never go away, I’m sure. Reverence for and obedience towards centralised power goes back as far as China does itself, and the disappearance of that is about as likely as the Spanish giving up siestas. And it’s probably also true that the late 1980s – the years leading up to Tiananmen Square – represented the apex of the democracy movement in China. The majority of Chinese people I spoke to – and other people’s accounts bear this out – are optimistic and happy about their country and their place within it. For most Chinese, their personal lot has grown in the past decades, and after generations of famine and hardship, having enough wealth to feed and educate their children, own a television, eat in a restaurant now and then and look after their parents is such sufficient reward that voting really doesn’t seem much of a big deal. Fundamentally, people who have always lived a parochial existence care about parochial matters. And in such matters, things are getting measurably better.

But peer further into the kaleidoscope of China and you wonder about the millions of students blogging away, calmly and easily evading the government’s sonar like submarines plumbing the ocean’s dark depths. You wonder what happens when they take public sector jobs to replace the old men in Beijing. You wonder what happens when the first generation to openly criticise the excesses and criminalities of the Cultural Revolution takes power. You wonder what happens when the enforced civil duty for the Olympics passes – after being told to learn how to queue, to stop spitting everywhere, will those superficial changes last? You wonder what happens when the government and the army eventually goes too far, when instead of a couple of hundred protesters far away in Tibet, it’s something closer to home.

The question, I suppose, is whether China in 2008 is like the USSR and the eastern bloc in 1988. Is it a country whose astonishing embrace of the free market will necessarily require an embrace of freedom more generally? Or do the officials in Beijing actually understand the nature of their 1.3 billion people much better than do academics and NGO noise-making dilettantes back in the West? Perhaps they do, after all, and that indeed this odd marriage of consumption and growth on the one hand with rigidity, closure and control on the other, is sustainable after all. Maybe it’s like the Arab wife who, when asked why she agrees to walk behind her husband, defer to his opinion and wear the niqab, answers, “This is what we do. This is what works for us”. Are we, in fact, all the outraged feminist theorist posing the question, who decries that Arab wife’s subservience and disempowerment, but who has been divorced three times herself?

Time will tell whether the economic changes in China translate to political ones, and time will tell whether my three angry little friends are really representative of a burgeoning dissent beneath China’s controlled surface. As I said at the start, though: for me, it all comes down to ideology. I just wish I could understand what that ideology is, in a country so confusing nobody from the outside can ever possibly understand it fully.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gorgeousness & gorgeosity made flesh!

There are moments in life so thankfully rare, so exquisite you can hardly breathe. Time slowly slows and then just as slowly stops and everything, absolutely everything else disappears. The birth of one’s first child, I would imagine. The first night of your honeymoon. The Red Sox winning the World Series for the first time in four generations. I’m having one of those timeless moments right now – right this second. I don’t usually write in real time – it reads too much like a journal. But right now, this infinite nanosecond deserves nothing less. There’s no other way.

I’m sitting on the bow of a boat aptly named Serenity, cruising down the Yangtze, through the Wu Gorge – the second of the three that precede the (in)famous and monstrously impressive dam the Chinese have been building for the last fifteen years. It’s the largest engineering project in China since the Great Wall, arguably the world’s most ambitious project in living memory and rumour has it the 600 km-long lake which is creeping up behind it will measurably affect the earth’s rotation.

Whether or not that morsel of internet trivia is true, what beauty! What splendour! Words, of course, can never paint the picture you want to describe a scene. A much more skilled writer than me would despair. It’s hopeless. The Yangtze, hundreds of metres wide for most of this journey from Chongqing so far, has narrowed here to barely five ship-widths. The walls of the river for the last two days have gently climbed to the sky, dotted with ramshackle houses, forests and tiered paddies. But as we enter the gorge they morph to towering sheer cliffs which roll and straddle and jut in and out of the water. The thick air and low visibility that gives much of China a Dickensian and lung-cloggy gloom instead makes this vast canyon otherwordly. Here, it’s not smog but a foggy mist which hangs in the air, but not like the fog of a cold morning. It’s a microclimate created by the dam itself. It’s as if the air is laced with cotton, as though you can reach out and grasp it with numb fingers and it shrouds the mountains and the river lending a cold cotton-wool cover to the diagonal silhouettes approaching from the horizon. It’s like in the movies when there’s a flashback and you get the blinding, solarised effect as the protagonist jumps back to a lost memory. This place, here right now: it just doesn’t feel real.

It’s not even particularly bright out here on the bow where I’m perched, rugged up with laptop and iPod. Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky just perfectly came on the leave-me-to-my-thoughts playlist and it has the angelic Clare Torry screaming wordlessly the ethereal soprano line and it feels like her voice is ricocheting around the walls of the canyon. Even iTunes is conspiring to soundtrack this lovely instant. But though it's not bright, I’m squinting anyway; the pale cotton-mist reflects what little sunlight is making its way down into the gorge, bouncing it off the flat walls and the mirror-flat water and off the white painted signs thirty metres up the cliff walls which designate to where the river will fill, once the three gorges project is complete.

Man is so ambitious, so capable, so frighteningly adept he can choose to take something as unimaginably vast as these canyons – which run for tens and tens of kilometres – and make them smaller. He can build a dam so massive it raises the water level one hundred metres for hundreds of kilometres on the third longest river in the world, drowning whole cities in the process. I was thinking last evening, if one chooses a single word to describe humanity, would would it be? Some would say “evil”, some “consciousness”, others “conscience", some probably “love”, some “evolution”. For me, it’s “ambition”. The history of our species – especially from the Renaissance to the present – is, I think, a tale of tireless drive and energy, of exponential change for better and worse. This isn’t an original or interesting thought. I just feel moved to explain: once you pass slowly through this stupendous, utterly magnificent gorge, bewildered, left wordless by its beauty and scale, and then you see painted way, way up its edge, “175m” (the eventual water line above sea level) you can no longer be sure of what’s the more astonishing truth: that a godless universe could just randomly marry our visual senses to such physical wonder, or that humankind can now casually modify that wonder with nothing more than money, political will and labour.

It’s phantasmagoric in this oriental valley, oh, gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh! The scent of the forests and some smoke hanging in the air from a fire someplace near. The air even tastes soft on the tongue, like candyfloss. It’s bitterly cold, but better for it. Makes the trip more of a voyage; more intrepid. Squinting across the bow, I count eight mountains lined up from closest to farthest – and going away each a slightly lighter tint of soft, misted grey, as if they’ve all been grabbed and scrunched up to the horizon. Which I suppose – tectonically speaking – is true.

These moments come about so seldom. There’s so much beauty in the world but we get to properly see it so seldom and even when we do see it, we don’t experience it, we don’t feel it. Well, right now, this stopped moment, I’m feeling it and I wish everyone I care about could feel it too. Traveling the earth, ticking off your own list of the wonders of the world means you can collect these moments in a locket kept pressed tight to your chest. They’re yours for always – nobody can ever take them away. And whenever times are hard, whenever you’re against the wall and when life’s quotidian drabness stomps on your soul, you can take a slow deep breath, close your eyes and stop the clock in your mind, taking yourself back to one of those handful of exquisite moments life can afford, when there is nothing else there, nothing at all, but you.