The Metamorphosis Part 1

It took us a day to get from the Austrian border to the Hotel Zamecek in the west of the Czech Republic. We had to catch two trains and a bus to reach the town of Kaplice, from where we walked to the hotel. We followed a road out town. The traffic wasn’t too bad but our rucksacks were heavy and it was a warm day.

Late in the afternoon, tired and jaded, we saw it: the Hotel Zamecek.

Our spirits lifted.

It was beautiful, like a small castle. 

It was surrounded open grassy fields and pine forests. 

 

Our room was on the third floor and to reach it we ascended a wide, stone staircase with a high stone balustrade. The original decorations on the ceiling and walls had been freshly repainted. The hotel, obviously old, had been beautifully restored – inside as well as out.

In a large open area at the top of the stairs, there was a polished wooden bookcase with books left behind by departing guests. After putting our rucksacks down and showering and putting on fresh clothes, I checked the books in the bookcase. Anya loves maps and I love books; whilst I was perusing the books, she was in the room pouring over a map of Bohemia; we planned to do some walking in the area.

I found a few books in English. There was one which caught my attention.

‘The Metamorphosis’ written by Franz Kafka.

I grabbed it and put it in our room.

Then we went downstairs to order a meal. We were famished.

 

We sat on the terrace. It was on a low balcony with a railing. It was a fine afternoon and there was a magnificent view of a swift flowing river and behind it, a steep slope covered in tall pines. Anya and I sat down at one of the tables. The other guests sitting around were Czechs who’d driven out from town to have a meal and few drinks before returning to Kaplice. We ordered a couple of red wines and a meal. It was a beautiful setting to be wining and dining; the sun shone above the tips of the pines and lanced on to the large open area between the hotel and the river. The sound of gurgling, crashing water reverberated through the air. Behind it, merging into the background, was the sound of people speaking Czech, underlining that feeling of strangeness, of being somewhere else, which is one of the great attractions of travel.

 

That night, I began reading The Metamorphosis.

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a revolting insect……´

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Ozymandias

 

All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.

The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours. 

´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.

I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city –  another very different kind of ruin.

A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.

People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.

 

Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.

Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.

What did I do to deserve this?  

 

 

As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.

And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.

Foreigner.

One of them.

On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal: 

What it would it be like to live here?

 The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.

The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.

Did they believe it?

Did they have any choice?

The truth was: this  place was hell on earth.

Then again, who was I to judge?

Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?

When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.

Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.  

What the hell was I doing here?

 

On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.

It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.

Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.

Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.  

Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:

 

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round that decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

 

 

War Junk Part 2

 

 

It´s a fair bet that when Harry started his basic army training course, he did not think of himself in terms of ´war junk´. He was 18 and a voluntary recruit. It was during his training that they offered him the job of forward scout. He was a good shot, had quick reflexes, and good eyesight.  He jumped at it. No second thoughts, no doubts. He knew he´d end up in Vietnam and he couldn’t wait.

He was given a tough job to do and it was an honour for him to do it.

´Our unit was based in Nui Dat. From there we could be sent out anywhere. After every mission we went back to Nui Dat to rest, but most of the time we were out on patrol.’

On patrol: Harry’s unit was flown out over the jungle in helicopters (the legendary ‘Hueys’) and dropped into it like men being dropped into the middle of a wide ocean, an ocean of green and death.

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The Tombs of Hyderabad Part 2

 

 

It was a problem.

Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.

Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.

I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.

Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.  

 

The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.

The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.

On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.

He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.

Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards. 

I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?

It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.

Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.

I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation.  For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?

The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.

 

There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.

This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.

When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.

In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.

The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.

For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.

 

 

 Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.

I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.

Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.

In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.

There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.

Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.

How nervous they must have been.

Why?

Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?

Or because I was a foreigner?

Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food. 

Perhaps this young couple  – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.  

I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.

Which was why they were so scared of intruders.

Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.

Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.

I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting. 

The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.

As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.

That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.

 The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.

From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.

 

 

 

Italy: a Nation Divided Part 2


 

Dating from the 15th century, the old centre of Gioiosa Ionica formed a stark contrast with its outlying suburbs. It was a maze of old buildings and narrow cobble stone streets crammed into a small area on a steep hillside. At the perimeters of the town, the remains of defensive walls and turrets could be seen.

Walking up and down steep, narrow cobble stone streets, illuminated by the strong southern mediterranean sun and lanced by dark shadows, it seemed hard to imagine that such a charming historic town could give rise to a ruthlessly efficient OCG.

In one of the streets, the sound of someone playing a piano sonata on a harpsichord wafted out of the open window of a third story room.

I stood there transfixed.

What a wonderful sound!

Here was the other side of Italy: a land of culture and art. A land with a history of producing great musicians and composers and philosophers, writers and poets and painters; magnificent architecture and statues. Here was the Italy which had, through the ages, immeasurably influenced and enriched Europe.

The metamorphosis from the inhabitants of a small, remote town into the operatives of a billion Euro international business was at the risk of understatement, a dramatic one. It was clear to me that this metamorphosis couldn’t have happened within a short time frame: not years, not decades, but rather, centuries.

It had deeper historical origins.

I picked up hints of this during my aimless tourist wanderings.

In this medieval town there was unmistakable evidence of a past characterised by anarchy and violence and the absence of any effective form of government.

This was the historical environment from which the Ndrangheta clans arose.

In the following days, after a good deal more reading , I was able to expand on this theme.

 

In Southern Italy, there had never been an occupying power which had introduced a modern legal or economic system – unlike the north, which during the 18th and 19th centuries was ruled by the Napoleonic French and afterwards, the Austrian Hungarian empire. Consequently the north had made a rapid transition from feudalism to capitalism. A basic pre-requisite for this transition is an established system of government underpinned by a rule of law, a bureaucracy, and a civic culture.

The south of Italy had failed to make this transition. It had remained a backward feudal area. Historically it had been ruled by one invader after the other – including the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, none of whom had introduced a modern system of government. In the meantime, the area had also suffered the ruthless incursions of violent mercenaries from a diverse plumage. In this setting, family clans, an alternative system of loyalties, along with a ruthless addiction to violence, dominated in an area where ‘society’ in a larger sense, had failed to develop.

There was a profound irony involved in the formation of the country called Italy. In 1860, the supporters of the idea of Italy succeeded in bringing to an end the domination of the north by Austria-Hungary (not by force of arms – Austria Hungary came under pressure from the Bismark and Prussia). With the end of the foreign domination of the north, the way was clear to declare Italy an independent nation.

What price independence?

There were 8 different regions with precious little in common besides the language, but underlying this anarchic jig saw of a nation was the division between north and south. The regions in the north were capable of making a rapid transition to a modern, capitalist society. The regions in the south, especially Calabria and Sicily, were irrevocably locked into a past of anarchy, feudalism – and family based crime.

Irony of ironies: if the France and Austria-Hungary had occupied the entire Italian peninsula, Italian unification would have been far less problematic.

There would have been one Italy, rather than two.

There would have been no O.C.G.’s

 

Walking around the backstreets of the old town of Gioiosa Ionica, I got a historical perspective on the O.C.G´s of Calabria. Travelling around in Sicily, a week later, I got a somewhat more contemporary – and sinister – view.

We were moving along the northern coast. It was a disappointment after Calabria; more densely populated, bigger cities, more roads and far more touristy. At one point we made a deviation and went inland to a small town, probably around the same size as GI, and stayed there two nights. We went on walks in the mountainous countryside following unsealed roads and stayed in a room above a café. In an area where there was 20-30 % unemployment and where most people drove around in old Fiats and Renaults, it was striking to say the least of it, to see men in suits driving around in the latest models Mercedes and BMW’s.

 

 

As we travelled across Sicily, I kept up my reading about O.C.G.’s, though quite aware at the same time that my research would remain just that; there was no chance I would ever get the opportunity to talk to a local about crime.

Days before we were due to fly out of Sicily, we met an American-Italian man at breakfast one morning in a B and B in the centre of Palermo. Initially I assumed he was Italian. Whilst operating the coffee machine, he chatted with proprietor of the hotel – who spoke not a word of English – in fluent and accentless Italian. But when we exchanged a few words with him, whilst piling up our plates, he spoke perfect American English.

We sat at the same table and a conversation ensued.

Partly bald, he had a shaved head, and was wearing a loose black T shirt, jeans, and sports shoes.

His parents were originally from Sicily and emigrated to the U.S.after the war. He had grown up in New York. He was an accountant. He had been in Sicily for a year. He was due to fly back to New York but it was only going to be for a visit. For the time being, he was going to stay in Sicily. We talked about the differences between life in the U.S. and Italy, which in itself was an interesting conversation.

‘In the US you’re working flat out and your family life suffers as a result. You can earn a lot, and it can be exciting, challenging, but you develop a tunnel vision and forget about the important things in life. My wife and I divorced and thank God there were no kids involved, but I was pretty close to burn-out. It was time for a life change so I head to Italy to look up the relatives.

In America, work comes first. In Italy the family comes first. When I arrived I was kind of shell-shocked for a while. I stayed with an uncle. He and his family lived at the outskirts of town. Their place was kinda run down. There was a big garden and it was full of olive trees, figs, oranges and lemons; there was a big vegetable garden. You haven’t really had a meal until you’ve sat down with friends and family and taken your time to eat. That’s when you really can enjoy a meal. In the states, food for me was really just a kind of means of keeping going and my time was pretty well calibrated to the minute. It’s kinda weird but I felt a stronger family bond out here than at home.

My parents left Sicily to find a better life for their kids and well, I don’t know whether that worked out so well for them. My brother is in California and one of my sisters is in Texas and the other in Canada and I’ve come back to Sicily. Spread out all over the place. ‘

I saw my chance and I didn’t waste it. I asked him about organised crime.

‘I didn’t come here to work as an accountant not at first anyway. I was pretty happy to do just about anything. I worked in a Gelateria for a while, then a restaurant. Gave me the chance to polish up my Sicilian Italian. The pay was lousy of course. So when I figured I wanted to stay longer, I started looking around for something a bit better. Tourist season was about to start so I got a job leading groups around. It was ok, I met a lot of people from different countries. I don’t remember how it began, but I mentioned to someone that I used to work as an accountant in the U.S. and before I knew it, I was offered at a job at a big tourist hotel/restaurant/shop/café complex.

‘Who owned this place? No one seemed to know. There was a manager and he talked about a man from Messines who was the owner but no one had ever seen him. A man who owned a hotel and restaurant which was being extended but never came to look at it? That didn’t add up.

Sometimes I saw businessmen turn up, so-called representatives for suppliers, maybe they were, but still. These guys were always real friendly, polite, making jokes. I kinda noticed though that they were driving expensive cars and when they went into the manager’s office, the door was closed and no one was to disturb them and I mean no one. Didn’t take too long before I figured that the place was a money laundering machine. The hotel was pretty kind of swank, with chandeliers and luxury rooms and big dining room, like a fucking ball room, nothing spared in this place, but the room rates were definitely on the low side, as if they wanted the place occupied and didn’t give too much of a shit about the place making a return to off- set the investment.

That’s how crime is working here now, it’s a matter of the sums not adding up. Profit and loss and overheads and income, none of it balances up. The heavy stuff, the violence, that lurks around in the shadows, it’s the unstated assumption behind the system. The days of assassinating politicians and police and that kind of shit, its pretty well over. In a straight out contest, the state is going to win.’

I asked about the Mafia tax system.

‘Does every business pay a tax?

He answered: ‘Who knows?

They have this campaign going, the shopkeepers and small businesses put a sticker on the window saying ‘I don’t pay tax to the mafia’, so lots of places put this sticker on their windows and the public likes it, sure, who wouldn’t, but whether you can trust these stickers that’s a whole different ball game. I wouldn’t put it passed them to put the sticker on their window and pay the tax anyway. Doesn’t matter how cynical you get in this place its hard to keep up that’s for sure.

See no one is going to be honest about this. Not even your closest friends or even your family. There’s this wall of silence. There’s no trust. People will take a stand but what they’re doing in their private lives, that might be different. No one wants trouble. You can kinda understand that. They love their families and friends, they’re gregarious, social. Life’s bigger than the sludge.’

We got on to Italian politics.

The present government was a coalition of right wing populist parties from the North and the South. The party from the south was called the ‘Five Star League.’

‘The Five Star League!’ he laughed.

‘They’re in a coalition with a bunch of populists from the north. The only thing they’ve got in common is that they blame Italy’s problems on immigrants and the E.U. Other than that, nothing. The Five Star League represent southern chauvinism, the belief that the south is too dominated by the north; the northern league represents all those northerners who want to secede from Italy because the south is so corrupt and backward. That’s Italy for you, it hangs together somehow but it’s a nuthouse. ‘

A thought occurred to me. I said:

‘There’s no hope of effectively combatting crime in Southern Italy if the southerners are somehow convinced that they are being repressed by the north. Things will only change when their culture changes. The Five Star League represents the very opposite of this. Would it require a great leap of imagination to suppose that it was being financed by crime money?’

‘Sure, why not? After all, national Prime Ministers such as Berlusconi and Andreotti were financed by the crime. ‘

I asked him:

‘Isn’t it hard to live with this, to accept that nothing can be done?’

I went on about the negative effects of organised crime on the economy.

‘Hey look I can’t do anything about Donald Trump. I can’t do anything about the fuckin’ N. R. A. (‘National Rifle Association). These school shootings get all the publicity, sure they do, 10, 20, school kids shot because of some fuck-up student who’s getting bad grades and can’t make out with the girls go outs and buys a semi-automatic, but actually if you look at America, guns permeate the society and a whole lot of people get shot, 1or 2 here, maybe 3 or 4 there, because someone has got a hassle or is screwed in the head or has got a grievance and then they grab a gun…a lot more folks die that way.

Can I change that? Am I gonna try? Email my congressman?

You know America is no better and certainly no less violent than Sicily. Probably more violent I’d say. You go along with the shit and make your own life.

I’m not a hero, are you?’

I had no ready answer to that.

Later I did, but by then, I was on the flight back to Rotterdam.