Posted by Big Gav
Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell's Urban Design Review, I won't dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at "a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural."
This "urban" population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era's most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed. ...
BLDGBLOG: So it's more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?
Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.
The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.
BLDGBLOG: I don't know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –
Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.
I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.
BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there's a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?
Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it's an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?
BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?
MIKE DAVIS: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.
I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson's view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.
But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world's human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.
Davis has another pair of interviews at TomDispatch - "Turning a Planet into a Slum - Humanity's Ground Zero" and " The Imperial City and the City of Slums" (Robert Neuwirth also follows the development of slum world, with a blog called "squattercity").
TD: It occurs to me that, in Baghdad, the Bush administration has managed to create a weird version of the urban world you describe in Planet of Slums. There's the walled imperial Green Zone in the center of the city with its Starbucks and, outside it, the disintegrating capital as well as the vast slum of Sadr City -- and the only exchange between the two is the missile-armed helicopters going one way and the car bombs heading the other.
Davis: Exactly. Baghdad becomes the paradigm with the breakdown of public space and ever less middle ground between the extremes. The integrated Sunni/Shia neighborhoods are rapidly being extinguished, not just by American action now, but by sectarian terror.
Sadr City, at one point named Saddam City, the Eastern quadrant of Baghdad, has grown to grotesque proportions -- two million poor people, mainly Shia. And it's still growing, as are Sunni slums by the way, thanks now not to Saddam but to disastrous American policies toward agriculture into which the U.S. has put almost no reconstruction money. Vast farmlands have been turned back into desert, while everything focused, however unsuccessfully, on restoration of the oil industry. The crucial thing would have been to preserve some equilibrium between countryside and city, but American policies just accelerated the flight from the land.
Of course, Green Zones are gated communities of a kind, the citadel within the larger fortress. You see this, too, emerging across the world. In my book, I counterpoised this to the growth of the peripheral slums -- the middle class forsaking its traditional culture, along with the central city, to retreat into off-worlds with themed California lifestyles. Some of these are incredibly security conscious, real fortresses. Others are more typical American-style suburbs, but all of them are organized around an obsession with a fantasy America, and particularly the fantasy California universally franchised through TV.
So the nouveau riche in Beijing can commute by freeway to gated subdivisions with names like Orange County and Beverly Hills -- there's a Beverly hills in Cairo too, and a whole neighborhood themed by Walt Disney. Jakarta has the same thing -- compounds where people live in imaginary Americas. These proliferate, emphasizing the rootlessness of the new urban middle class across the world. With this goes an obsessiveness about getting things as they are in the TV image. So you have actual Orange County architects designing "Orange County" outside Beijing. You have tremendous fidelity to the things the global middle class sees on television or in the movies.
"Sectarian violence" is one of those euphemisms which tend to gloss over the nastiness of what is going on - "ethnic cleansing" is another description that may be more appropriate (of course, regular readers would know that I'd be more likely to term this stuff counter-insurgency operations, in line with the "Salvador Option" theory).
The flight of the middle class started about six months after the invasion in 2003 as it became clear Iraq was becoming more, not less, violent. They moved to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The suicide bombing campaign was largely directed against Shias who only began to retaliate after they had taken over the government in May last year. Interior Ministry forces arrested, tortured and killed Sunnis.
But a decisive step towards sectarian civil war took place when the Shia Al-Askari shrine in Samarra was blown up on 22 February this year. Some 1,300 Sunni were killed in retaliation. [...]
Every community has its atrocity stories. The cousin of a friend was a Sunni Arab who worked in the wholly Shia district of Qadamiyah in west Baghdad. One day last month he disappeared. Three days later his body was discovered on a rubbish dump in another Shia district. "His face was so badly mutilated," said my friend, that "we only knew it was him from a wart on his arm."
Since the destruction of the mosque in Samarra sectarian warfare has broken out in every Iraqi city where there is a mixed population. In many cases the minority is too small to stand and fight. Sunnis have been fleeing Basra after a series of killings. Christians are being eliminated in Mosul in the north. Shias are being killed or driven out of cities and towns north of Baghdad such as Baquba or Samarra itself.
Dujail, 40 miles north of Baghdad, is the Shia village where Saddam Hussein carrying out a judicial massacre, killing 148 people after an attempt to assassinate him in 1982. He is on trial for the killings. The villagers are now paying a terrible price for giving evidence at his trial.
In the past few months Sunni insurgents have been stopping them at an improvised checkpoint on the road to Baghdad. Masked gunmen glance at their identity cards and if under place of birth is written "Dujail" they kill them. So far 20 villagers have been murdered and 20 have disappeared.
John Robb at "Global Guerillas" tends to follow the development of what Mike Davis called "autonomous slums" outside of the global economy, as these are the breeding grounds for the organisations that he studies. When the "autonomous slum" is in a region embroiled in a resource war and occupied by foreign troops (or at least propped up by foreign military forces or aid), these organisations tend to get called "terrorists" - when the slum is simply mired in poverty and the region doesn't have critical resources, the organisations are more likely to get classifed as "organised crime" - but it all boils down to pretty much the same thing.
While I don't tend to follow GG closely, a few interesting posts in recent weeks include - Electricity and Militias in Iraq, Iraq is a major reason for high oil prices, Brazil's PCC vs. Sao Paulo's Police and Shell Refuses to Meet MEND's Demand.
Finally, the major media has picked up on what I have been saying for years. The initial domino that drove oil to its current high level was the loss of Iraqi production. The ongoing attacks in Iraq have stripped 1.6 m barrels a day from the market. For an inelastic oil market beset by rapid growth in demand (both China and the US), this was a huge shock.
Further, the loss of production in Iraq is a demonstration (on a global scale) that guerrillas can produce sustained systems disruption -- the rapid open source evolution of my global guerrillas. This has immediate implications in Nigeria. It also generates fears that the same methodology could be applied to Saudi Arabia, the BTC pipeline (Caspian oil), and Russia (both Gazprom and Transneft). For a market caught on knife's edge of demand and supply, this is pure poison.
NOTE: This is exactly the opposite of what the US thought it was going to do in Iraq (it may not have been the primary reason for the invasion, but it was clearly in the ballpark). The US administration clearly saw the tightening of supply brought on by the rise of Chinese demand. Iraq was the only major global producer underperforming due to political problems. The invasion of Iraq was in part a way to remove the limitations of sanctions on the country and turn it into a major global supplier through western investment. If it had succeeded, Iraq would be producing 3.5 m bpd of oil today with an outlook of 5-7 m bpd by 2010. As a result, the price of oil would be closer to $30 a barrel today than $70. It is also important to note that the first targets secured by US forces in Iraq were the oil production system (which was mostly accomplish by day ~5 of the invasion).
I'm not sure if John simply isn't aware of peak oil or doesn't believe in it, but in the medium term I'd agree with his analysis - if Iraq was fully exploiting its oil reserves (see my post on "The Greatest Prize of All" and its predecessors) then supply would have done much better at keeping up with demand (which would actually have been a worse outcome, from both depletion and global warming points of view).
More in line with the slum world theme is John's latest post Primary Loyalties in Basra (I might note that I absolutely disagree with Huntington's theories and tend to regard them as base propaganda - Barnett is a lot more interesting but I've noted before that I don't entirely agree with his conclusions either - partly because as a non-American I have a more jaundiced view of American exceptionalism).
There are two working assumptions for the global fragmentation we are seeing. One is that we are involved in a clash of civilizations (Huntington) and the other is that disconnectedness is driving discontent (Barnett). Neither survives a review of the facts.
Iraq provides a good test case. While Iraq's initial plunge into civil war appeared to center around a clash of civilizations (Sunni vs. Shiite) it is rapidly devolving past that to smaller groups with more cohesive primary loyalties (gang, mosque, tribe, family, etc.). The rise of intense inter-tribal warfare in Basra between Shiite militias/tribes/families is an example of the granular nature of the level of fragmentation we are seeing. With nearly hourly assassinations, no-go zones for police, the proliferation of antagonistic militias, and ongoing attacks on British troops (including the Mogadishu like event that occurred when a British helicopter was shot down) Basra is likely the most unsafe place in Iraq today despite the lack of any meaningful Sunni insurgency.
The other assumption, that a lack of connectivity is the source of problems, fails to account for the rapid proliferation of crime due to improved inter-state connectivity between Iraq and its neighbors. This transnational crime, from drugs to oil bunkering, is fueling the growth of militias and guerrillas throughout Iraq. This would be impossible without improved connectivity. Further, the radical growth in automobile ownership and telephone usage due to Iraq's rapid globalization has enabled high levels of maneuver and coordination among anti-state groups, making them much more effective. It has also provided a mechanism by which the most effective weapon in Iraq was built and rapidly improved upon: the IED and the VBIED. Finally, this new connectivity also allows funding to flow into Iraq from a vast number of sources. We are now in a world where even a small group of individuals can act like nation-states to underwrite the activities of guerrilla groups that represent their interests.
Take what you want from this example, but it's clear that rapid connectivity is a source of the problem, due to the high degree of leverage provided by the global platform. Further, this platform makes it possible, nay probable, that small groups will use it to advance their own interests (well below the civilization level).
The classic vision of the uncontrollable slum city is Mogadishu in Somalia (which, as Mike Davis noted, is probably etched into a large proportion of the population's brains via Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down"). Fighting in Mogadishu has surged again in recent months - with the battle lines seemingly drawn between Islamists of some sort or another and a loose coalition of warlords calling themselves the "Anti-Terrorism Alliance".
Islamic militiamen have taken key points in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, as fighting intensifies with their rivals, a secular grouping of warlords. Militiamen loyal to the Islamic Courts have isolated the warlords in the north and south of the city in fighting that claimed at least 30 lives on Thursday.
The latest upsurge in violence comes despite a truce agreement between the two groups 10 days ago. More than 140 people died in eight days of fighting earlier this month.
In the latest fighting, the two sides pounded each other with heavy machine-gun fire, rockets, artillery and mortars as fighting spread from the north of the city to the south. "There are so many people dead, I saw nearly 30 dead and over 40 wounded," K4 resident Abdifatah Abdikadir told Reuters news agency. "People are being carried on wheelbarrows to the hospital with broken limbs and gunshot wounds. It's going from bad to worse."
Anti-Terrorism Alliance member Ibrahim Maalim told Reuters: "The fighting is very heavy... I have never seen such a heavy exchange. Mogadishu is blazing with fire."
There is a school of thought which thinks that Somalia is yet another country suffering from "the curse of oil" - this article, which seems to date from the early 1990s when the US intervention was underway, provides some background on what has been going on in Somalia (Chevron and ConocoPhillips are reportedly still waiting for the country to stabilise enough so that they can resume exploration - and may be for some time).
Far beneath the surface of the tragic drama of Somalia, four major U.S. oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore and exploit tens of millions of acres of the Somali countryside.
That land, in the opinion of geologists and industry sources, could yield significant amounts of oil and natural gas if the U.S.-led military mission can restore peace to the impoverished East African nation.
According to documents obtained by The Times, nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia's pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into chaos in January, 1991. Industry sources said the companies holding the rights to the most promising concessions are hoping that the Bush Administration's decision to send U.S. troops to safeguard aid shipments to Somalia will also help protect their multimillion-dollar investments there.
Officially, the Administration and the State Department insist that the U.S. military mission in Somalia is strictly humanitarian. Oil industry spokesmen dismissed as "absurd" and "nonsense" allegations by aid experts, veteran East Africa analysts and several prominent Somalis that President Bush, a former Texas oilman, was moved to act in Somalia, at least in part, by the U.S. corporate oil stake.
But corporate and scientific documents disclosed that the American companies are well positioned to pursue Somalia's most promising potential oil reserves the moment the nation is pacified. And the State Department and U.S. military officials acknowledge that one of those oil companies has done more than simply sit back and hope for pece.
Conoco Inc., the only major multinational corporation to mantain a functioning office in Mogadishu throughout the past two years of nationwide anarchy, has been directly involved in the U.S. government's role in the U.N.-sponsored humanitarian military effort.
Conoco, whose tireless exploration efforts in north-central Somalia reportedly had yielded the most encouraging prospects just before Siad Barre's fall, permitted its Mogadishu corporate compound to be transformed into a de facto American embassy a few days before the U.S. Marines landed in the capital, with Bush's special envoy using it as his temporary headquarters. In addition, the president of the company's subsidiary in Somalia won high official praise for serving as the government's volunteer "facilitator" during the months before and during the U.S. intervention.
But the close relationship between Conoco and the U.S. intervention force has left many Somalis and foreign development experts deeply troubled by the blurry line between the U.S. government and the large oil company, leading many to liken the Somalia operation to a miniature version of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led military effort in January, 1991, to drive Iraq from Kuwait and, more broadly, safeguard the world's largest oil reserves.
"They sent all the wrong signals when Oakley moved into the Conoco compound," said one expert on Somalia who worked with one of the four major companies as they intensified their exploration efforts in the country in the late 1980s.
"It's left everyone thinking the big question here isn't famine relief but oil -- whether the oil concessions granted under Siad Barre will be transferred if and when peace is restored," the expert said. "It's potentially worth billions of dollars, and believe me, that's what the whole game is starting to look like."
Although most oil experts outside Somalia laugh at the suggestion that the nation ever could rank among the world's major oil producers -- and most maintain that the international aid mission is intended simply to feed Somalia's starving masses -- no one doubts that there is oil in Somalia. The only question: How much?
Begining 1986, Conoco, along with Amoco, Chevron, Phillips and, briefly, Shell all sought and obtained exploration licenses for northern Somalia from Siad Barre's government. Somalia was soon carved up into concessional blocs, with Conoco, Amoco and Chevron winning the right to explore and exploit the most promising ones.
The companies' interest in Somalia clearly predated the World Bank study. It was grounded in the findings of another, highly successful exploration effort by the Texas-based Hunt Oil Corp. across the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen, where geologists disclosed in the mid-1980s that the estimated 1 billion barrels of Yemeni oil reserves were part of a great underground rift, or valley, that arced into and across northern Somalia.
Hunt's Yemeni operation, which is now yielding nearly 200,000 barrels of oil a day, and its implications for the entire region were not lost on then-Vice President George Bush.
In fact, Bush witnessed it firsthand in April, 1986, when he officially dedicated Hunt's new $18-million refinery near the ancient Yemeni town of Marib. In remarks during the event, Bush emphasized the critical value of supporting U.S. corporate efforts to develop and safeguard potential oil reserves in the region.
In his speech, Bush stressed "the growing strategic importance to the West of developing crude oil sources in the region away from the Strait of Hormuz," according to a report three weeks later in the authoritative Middle East Economic Survey.
Bush's reference was to the geographical choke point that controls access to the Persian Gulf and its vast oil reserves. It came at the end of a 10-day Middle East tour in which the vice president drew fire for appearing to advocate higher oil and gasoline prices.
"Throughout the course of his 17,000-mile trip, Bush suggested continued low (oil) prices would jeopardize a domestic oil industry 'vital to the national security interests of the United States,' which was interpreted at home and abroad as a sign the onetime oil driller from Texas was coming to the aid of his former associates," United Press International reported from Washington the day after Bush dedicated Hunt's Yemen refinery.
In his interviews, Mike Davis mentioned the war as video game syndrome that has become prevalent (for those of us in the West anyway) since the first Gulf war. Video games have been in the propaganda flow a bit this week, with the ABC's Media Watch looking at a bizarre controversy over a mashup of some "Team America: World Police" audio over some video game called "Planet Battlefield" in a segment they called "Video Game Jihad".
While I tend to regard a lot of propaganda coming out the Pentagon and posturing neo-conservative politicians and thinktankologists as detestable, I'm not entirely sure this particular dude is entirely the innocent he claims to be, so they probably could have found a better piece of fluff to poke fun at - like any random Zarqawi story for example...
Urban legends gain popular acceptance because they tap into our deepest fears. And after September 11, what could be more terrifying than a clever terrorist plot?Tech-savvy militants from al-Qaeda and other groups have modified video war games so that US troops play the role of bad guys in battles with heavily-armed Islamic radical heroes, US Defence Department officials told Congress.
— The Daily Telegraph, Militants use games to recruit, 6th May, 2006
But that unnerving quote about the infidels caught the attention of lots of readers - because they'd heard it all before.I was just a boy when the infidels came to my village in their Blackhawk helicopters. The infidels fired at the oilfields and they lit up like the eyes of Allah. Burning oil rained down from the sky and cooked everything it touched. I could only hide myself and cry as my goats were consumed by the fire of black liquid death.
— Scene from "Team America: World Police"
Yes that wannabe Jihadist is a puppet.
That's a scene from "Team America: World Police" an animated satire made by the creators of South Park.
On a tinfoil note, RI also took a look at video games and propaganda this week - say it ain't so Bono !
"North America's getting soft, patron, and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure and direct and strong, if we're going to survive them." - Videodrome
Perhaps you've seen this:Venezuela lawmakers blast video game
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A U.S. company's video game simulating an invasion of Venezuela is supposed to hit the shelves next year, but it's already raising the ire of lawmakers loyal to President Hugo Chavez.
Pandemic describes Mercenaries 2: World in Flames as "an explosive open-world action game" in which "a power-hungry tyrant messes with Venezuela's oil supply, sparking an invasion that turns the country into a war zone." The company says players take on the role of well-armed mercenaries.
Lawmaker Gabriela Ramirez said "Mercenaries 2" gives a false vision of Chavez as a tyrant and Venezuela as being on the verge of chaos. She said the game could be banned under a proposed law aimed at protecting Venezuelan children from violent video games.
"Pandemic has no ties to the US government," says Greg Richardson, the firm's vice president of commercial operations. That's the sound of hairs splitting. Pandemic Studios is a Pentagon subcontractor through the aegis of the "Institute for Creative Technologies," launched by the US Army in 1998 with $45 million as a go-between with the entertainment and gaming industries. Pandemic is the developer of military training simulations such as Full Spectrum Command, commercially available as Full Spectrum Warrior for gaming on Playstation and XBox. ("A quantum-leap forward in battlefield simulation" says Game Informer. "Enlist Now" for updates.) "Within days of its release" in 2004, "gamers figured out the cheat code to unlock the Army-only version hidden on the commercial discs, featuring less flashy graphics but smarter opponents." (Gee, how careless can the Army get?)
The Pentagon is co-parenting Pandemic with its unlikely - or possibly inevitable - same sex sugar daddy: U2's Bono. His Elevation Partners spent $300 million last November to bring the Studio together with Bioware "to create the world's best funded and largest independent game development house." Now there's a cause.
Back to Media Watch, they also had a segment this week on "Video and Propaganda" in Iraq (no real news here, just another example of the murkiness and artificiality of much of the information coming out of that unfortunate place, particularly in the Murdoch press).
Of course there's more to this propaganda war than simply the Islamists versus the rest.
And nowhere is the struggle to interpret events more critical than in Iraq.
Because it's too dangerous for journalists to get out and check the facts for themselves, the media is forced to rely on interpreting third hand accounts, internet announcements, videos and propaganda.
Untangling the motivations of those who provide this information is difficult.
Many readers were absolutely horrified and repulsed by this story on the front page of The Australian...
Back to the slum theme, I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a while in the mid 1990's before the handover to China and was always semi-fascinated by the slums there (while the infamous Walled City of Kowloon had been knocked down by then there were still plenty of places that were eye opening for someone from the suburbs of a mid sized Australian city - plus I lived in the infamous Chung King Mansions while I was there, which was every bit as much an eye opener). This reminiscing is a long winded way of linking to this set of photos I came across a few days ago, which look at some apartments in one of Hong Kong's oldest public housing estates.
I'll close with a traveller's tale from Billmon, who has finished his work at the World Economic Forum and embarked on the train trip from Cairo to Luxor.
Every since I was a small boy, and used to spend hours pouring over maps of faraway places and dreaming about the treasures hidden there, one of my dreams has been to take a train down the Nile, into the heart of Africa. Riding first-class to Luxor on the Egyptian national railway isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s close enough, and that’s what I was set to do after I left Sharm el-Sheikh and the World Economic Forum behind. Last Tuesday, however, my dream was almost shattered, probably beyond repair, because of a large red spot on the corner of a $10 bill.
It would have been entirely my fault. For once in my life, I forgot the traveler’s gold rule: cash is king. And because I forgot, I arrived at the Cairo train station Tuesday morning with only twenty Egyptian pounds (or about $3) in my pocket – 47 less than the price of a first-class ticket to Luxor. And that almost kept me from going to Luxor at all.
Along the way, though, we had to deal with Cairo traffic, which is to traffic what Iraq is to nation building -- with the added distraction that Egyptian pedestrians are utterly fearless when it comes to wading out into a major arterials, and utterly indifferent to any problems this may cause for the drivers bearing down on them. Egyptians in general don’t so much walk as glide (those ancient tomb painters knew their subjects) and watching a bunch of them weave their way among the cars zinging past is enormously entertaining, like watching a enormous chorus line do the cha cha.
But I wasn’t in the mood for it, just as I wasn’t very receptive to my cabbie’s efforts to educate me about what’s wrong with Egypt, Mubarak, the Israelis, the Palestinians and his mother, who kept him from seeking a better life in America when he was young and had the chance. He was, in short, the kind of cab driver who simply will not shut up, and while his political views where intriguing, (he was convinced the Jews control everything, but that was OK by him because he hated the Palestinians even more) I was more focused on my watch, and on my chances of making my train – the last express train until after sunset.
Making the trip south in the dark, of course, would have eliminated the entire point of taking 10 hours to go someplace a jet could take me in less than two. I wanted to see Egypt – the Egypt of brick villages and irrigation canals, of narrow strips of green stretching to the dust-yellow edge of the desert, of date palms and donkey carts and slender minarets pointing the way to paradise. I admit, watching such things flash by from the window of a train is a weak cousin to genuine adventure, but at this point in my life that’s what I am – a weak cousin. And it was my only chance of getting a good look at one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
We finally arrived in the automotive mob scene in front of Ramses Station (if Cairo is chaos, then Midan Ramses, the traffic circle beside the station, is chaos cubed. I’d made it, with an hour and 15 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie (another 60 pounds gone) and climbed out into the swirling humanity of downtown Cairo. No worries. I had plenty of time to buy my return ticket on the overnight sleeper train, grab some cash out of an ATM, and then make my way over to the regular ticket counter and reserve a first-class seat on the 11:00 train.
I had no problems booking and buying my return ticket – they even took VISA. Of course, like everything in Egypt, it took about three times longer than my worst-case estimate when I stepped in the door. But no worries, I still had 50 minutes. So I picked up my bags and struggled over to one of the white uniformed tourist police (in my experience, the most useful, and underpaid, members of the Egyptian security apparatus) and asked him to direct me to the ticket counter.
“And where are you going, sir?”
“Luxor, on the 11 o’clock train.”
“Ah, next tourist train at 11:30, sir.”
“Is it running late?”
“Oh no sir. Eleven tonight sir.”
I should stop and explain that following the terrorist attacks of the late 1990s (one hill over from the Valley of the Kings, a tour group was systematically hunted down and slaughtered in 1997) the Egyptian government decreed that tourists could only ride first class and only on certain guarded trains. I’d thought that my train was one of them.
He must have seen from the look on my face that I was feeling rather deflated.
“You have hotel in Cairo? Go wait, come back tonight.”
Or, the cop told me, I could catch a tourist train at seven the next morning. But that meant I wouldn’t get to Luxor until late Wednesday night – cutting my time there from three days (one of which I planned to spend recuperating) to two. I’d also have to find a hotel in Cairo and, for the second day in a row, haul my ass our of bed at the crack of dawn to make a run for the train station. In theory it was feasible, but I had an intuitive feeling that if I went down that path, my chances of actually catching a train would start to slip away.
“But I have to be on the 11 o’clock train.” I told the cop. “I have to meet friends in Luxor! Very, very important I be there on time.” (I’ve always been proud of my ability to think – and lie – on my feet.)
I did this particular train trip back in 1993 (a few years before I made it to Hong Kong).
While Billmon's quest is motivated by a noble desire to explore a fascinating country, mine was rather more crass - after enduring my first winter in London I simply wanted to see the sun again. In a caricature of Australian backpackerdom, I was drinking in some pub in Earls Court (possibly the Prince of Teck, I'm ashamed to admit) a week before Easter with an equally disgruntled friend and we decided to find a cheap flight to a warm country that wasn't full of Catholics (and therefore mostly closed for the holidays).
We walked down Earls Court Rd and into the first bucket shop we came across, which happened to be owned by an Egyptian and specialised in cheap fares to Egypt. At the time, fares to Cairo were very cheap, as the civil war in the Islamic world between fundamentalists and the rest had just gotten started (see The Power of Nightmares for details).
While we were dimly aware of the troubles (there had been some killings of foreigners and the rebels had warned that they would attack any tourists who came to the country - see here for a good history of what went on), we both took the view that only the unlucky get blown up and it was the best time for the extremely cost conscious (as we were back then) to visit.
A few days later we made it to Cairo (after almost missing a connecting flight from Paris, having fallen asleep during an 8 hour layover at Charles de Gaulle - those cheap flights are usually cheap for several reasons). As Billmon notes, it is quite a fascinating place. We went ultra lightweight (no luggage except passports, underwear and tootbrushes - fresh clothes to be purchased as we went) which made travelling around pretty easy. Cairo itself had strict security - soldiers on every corner and the mostly empty tourist restaurants had well fortified entrances. We went out to a market on the outskirts one day and the surrounding area looked like it had been the scene of a brief tank battle - lots of damage everywhere.
But, as fortune favours the foolhardy (something I've tested on a number of occasions - but particularly frequently that year), no harm came to us and we never saw any hint of trouble.
The trip to Luxor on the train was pretty boring as I recall - we did it second clas - there were no restrictions on when and how foreigners could travel at that stage - and the thing that most amazed me was that we paid about $2 for the ticket for the 10 hour trip (hotel accomodation was also incredibly cheap if you bargained, as all the hotels were empty).
As I recall Luxor itself is unexciting, and the Valley of the Kings didn't do much for me either. Karnak Temple at night was fantastic though - and back in Cairo the Pyramids definitely make a trip to the country worthwhile...