December 31, 2020

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April 08, 2014

North and south in West Africa

North: the spirit of Saint-Louis

Once we leave Dakar the country gets arid in a hurry. The landscape is dominated by stands of huge baobab trees, clusters of gnarled limbs reaching skywards from their absurdly thick trunks as if pleading for some kind of arboreal salvation. Some few are selected by a mysterious avian algorithm for group accommodations; I counted twenty separate nests on one particularly large baobab, while others all around it lay empty. There are also thorn trees not quite like East Africa's acacias, a thick-barked species from which foliage grows in sporadic dense clumps, etcetera; but this is unquestionably the land of the baobab.

The road is excellent the whole way north, two smooth broad lanes with gravel shoulders. A wide swathe to either side is generally dusted with trash, mostly plastic bags, proportional to the density of the local population. We pass a children's hospital, a giant mosque towering above a bizarrely large roundabout, pale long-horned cattle grazing on the outskirts of a phosphor mine, an abandoned telephone pole with its wires dangling like tentacles. The sign which announces the sprawling town of Thies declares it -- in English, oddly -- "a place for fun!" This is otherwise not apparent from the road.

At the railroad crossing our driver slows and creeps across the iron road with great care. I don't know why; the line, which once connected the capitals of Senegal and Mali, is long disused. I rode along it once, though, more than fifteen years ago, with two friends, from Kayes to Bamako. I remember we shared our car with a severed donkey's head resting in a bowl, and devoured a grilled chicken passed through our window by a woman at a stop in a tiny village en route.

I remember too that the heat was brutal, like the train was an oven and we too were being cooked. Not here, though, not this far west; this is dry, but not yet desert. Both Dakar and Saint-Louis are as cool as San Francisco by day, although at night the temperature drops only ten or so degrees Fahrenheit. The car's interior is barely warm enough to melt the Snickers bar I brought in Brussels.

We stop at a roadside market to buy groundnuts. There are many such along the way; this road is the spine of all commerce in northwest Senegal. Some stalls are true wooden buildings with tin roofs, some are tables set under umbrellas advertising Tigo (a mobile phone company), some are made of branches lashed together and topped with ragged canvas. Along with bags of nuts they sell watermelons, eggs, both kinds of oranges (West African green oranges, and more traditional orange oranges, presumably from Morocco), mobile recharge cards, dry goods, and meat, too; big legs of beef hang from some of the stalls.

The trucks we pass look both battered and indestructible. While we wait behind them for the road to clear, they fill our cabin with diesel fumes, and everybody winces. The passengers -- yours truly excepted -- are dressed in crisp and elaborately patterned African fabrics, not cast-off secondhand Western clothes; this is upper-tier public transit, a sept-place, meaning eight of us (counting the driver) crammed into a beat-up Peugeot station wagon, travelling nonstop except for brief through-the-window purchases. The woman to my left checks her Galace SQ dual-SIM smartphone frequently. The man ahead and to my right has a T-Mobile branded Galaxy S, presumably secondhand from some European nation. Every time I check my own phone en route I am met with at least two bars of impeccable 3G signal.

Slowly, imperceptibly, as the hours pass, the trees grow sparser and more stunted, and the ground goes from dry but arable earth to something more like hard-packed dust. This whole nation is part of the Sahel, that vast transition zone between the barren Sahara to the north and the equatorial jungle to the south. I overlanded across the Sahara on that trip fifteen years ago, but I flew over it by day for the first time just four days ago. Both times it was staggeringly stark and beautiful.

It becomes dry enough that when we turn a bend and sight a large body of water, it seems alien and dissonant for a moment, as do the towers of the mosques beyond. The Senegal River, and the city of Saint-Louis, in which I write this. A few miles further upriver the water becomes the border between Senegal and Mauritania, which I remember as the most remote and distant country I ever visited. The Senegalese side is busy with action, commerce, and activity, but the other bank, as far as I can tell from this distance, is utterly deserted.

It seems strange to me that it is green. I'm sure I must have seen green growing things during the week I spent crossing Mauritania lo these many years ago, but I have no memory of them; mostly what I remember is heat and sand. Nowadays there is apparently a highway, the Trans-Saharan, presumably the road I saw from the sky, a thin line stretched across the gargantuan majesty of the greatest desert on Earth. That desert begins not far at all from the other side of the Senegal River. I'm both tempted to revisit it and rather relieved that, since Mauritanian visas are rather difficult to come by on short notice, I cannot.

South: Little Britain and beyond

Negotiations for a seat in a sept-place tend to be quick and curt. Timing is everything. If you arrive just as the Peugeot which was previously head of the queue is pulling out, you’ll get the prime front-seat position, but you’ll have to wait; if you’re the last to arrive, you depart immediately, but squeezed into the middle of the back seat.

The waiting passengers loiter around the vehicle, their spaces reserved by their bags. Then, when finally ready, a quick tour around the gare routiere, for paperwork and some kind of payment of fee; a stop at the always-nearby gas station to buy enough fuel for the journey; tiny slips of paper exchanged at the police outpost outside of the town -- and finally away. Next stop your destination. In this case, Kaolack.

We travel south and east. Our Peugeot it is so old it has an analog clock set into its dashboard. Still ticking, too. The land outside is desert-dry between the stubborn, scraggling trees, and sparsely populated. In Dakar there is ceaseless noise, construction, commerce, hustle; here in the sticks, most people seem to pass their time waiting languidly for the day to end. Goats roam along and across the road. We pass occasional horse- and donkey-drawn carts, near villages, and even more occasional cyclists.

Midway through the journey we hit the wall of heat. At first it feels like a gust of hot wind; but it does not cease. Beyond this wall most people we pass have taken shelter from the sun in the shade of trees, or their own thatched or corrugated roofs. The further we travel away from Dakar, the more thatch dominates, at least until we reach the larger towns, sprawling miasmas of heat and dust and trash and strip-mall commerce made of cratered dirt, rotting concrete, rusting metal, trash and crowds. The only color in these towns comes from the people, but they more than make up for it; brightly dressed, loudly arguing, propelled by some of the energy that fuels Dakar.

Kaolack is little more than one of these towns writ large. Further south the proprietor of a lodge will describe it as “the rubbish bin of Senegal.” An apt description. Low and broad, baked colorless by sun and heat, a maelstrom of uneven streets and buildings which verge on derelict. Near the docks -- it is a river port -- I pass a pothole big enough to swallow a small truck, and permanent enough that stepping-stone bridges of pockmarked concrete have been constructed for pedestrians to pass. A hundred huge trucks wait idle near by, belching diesel fuel, loaded and overloaded with bags full of sand for cement, I’m told.

All this time, even when we had to detour around the major highway, the roads have been excellent, but not from Kaolack to the Gambia. Of those roughly seventy kilometers, the middle forty are of paved road so badly potholed that it has become far worse than dirt, so dirt roads have grown up around its edges. We drive for miles with one set of tires on pavement and the other skewed downwards onto dirt; much easier to avoid potholes that way.

After the border, painless except for the creepy-looking jail cage/cell in the middle of the Gambian immigration office, I charter a whole taxi to take me to the Banjul ferry, surprised by the agreeable price. A woman who rode with me in the sept-place asks for a place; I agree; the taxi driver and his employer loudly complain and try to charge me more. At the ferry I am beset by a horde of touts until I escape into the waiting area for those who have purchased tickets. Not a good introduction.

But a representative one. The Gambia is home to mass tourism, English (and to a lesser extent Dutch) holidaymakers by the thousand, and the resultant economic voltage leads to scams, hassle, and hundreds of touts known locally, memorably, as “bumsters.” My passport is checked coming off the ferry, and the official who checks it visibly waits for me to offer him a bribe, although when I don't, he passes it back and waves me on.

At least my hotel is an oasis, run-down but tranquil, locally owned and operated, across the street from a near-Western-style supermarket and a hundred metres from a strip of pubs and restaurants built for British tourists. Not the strip, though; that, called the Senegambia Strip, is five hundred meters of dozens of clubs, bars, restaurants and moneychangers, with upscale hotels at its very end, clashing loudly with the downscale mayhem of the Strip.

On the beach, which is glorious, young men carved with muscle go for runs or do ostentatious push-ups and situps -- “to get a white lady,” it is explained to me, and/or men too of course, judging from the several times I was greeted with a quiet “Hello, handsome man.” I pass plenty of Gambian/European couples on the street. Some are temporary holiday romances; others are ongoing; a Scouser I talk to over my first Julbrew (a local beer) comes every year, in part to spend a few weeks with his local girlfriend. She has never been to England.

48 hours is enough for me. I get a ride to the border courtesy of Ibrahim-the-taxi-man, and his colorful life story while I’m at it; born in inner Gambia, made his way to Morocco and thence on a boat to Spain, spent four years there as an illegal immigrant and hated it, moved to Geneva where he could stay at a friend’s house, met an Irish woman there, moved to Ireland for three years, broke up with her and came back to the Gambia, where now he owns land, and his taxi, and is saving up for a holiday to America if he can get a visa there; he’s heartily sick of Europe. He winds up driving me all the way to Kafountine, where I write this.

At the border he has to pay a bribe -- only a little, a couple of dollars, but still. I do not. A little later we are greeted by a “police” checkpoint manned by lean, lethal-looking men carrying submachine guns and wearing 1st Recon Battalion shirts. They treat him with suspicion and me with deference. The Casamance, this southern arm of Senegal, has had an armed independence movement for many years; it has been quiescent for most of a decade, but the military still patrols here, and there are still land mines in the hinterland.

Kafountine looks like a mess at first, a single road lined by concrete shacks of various sizes topped by tin roofs, but the appearance is deceiving, look a little closer and you’ll see satellite dishes on those roofs, and off on the side streets you’ll fine some fairly large houses. It’s a fishing village home to maybe a hundred pirogues, anchored in the whitecapped sea, whose catch is iced and packed into refrigerated trucks every morning. It’s also only 20km south of the Gambian border, which may explain why I spot a couple of motorcycles piled high with gas cans roaring south along the broad beach; gas is cheaper (though also, reportedly, dirtier) in the Gambia, and at low tide the beach is a great smuggling route.

“Many Gambians and Guineans live here,” says Ibrahim, examining the changes; it has been two years since he has been to Kafountine. “It’s good here. Senegal is good.” Senegal is roughly twice as wealthy as the Gambia per capita. “The only trouble is the Senegalese.”

In a small way Kafountine is a tourist destination, selling art and gifts and food and beer to those who stay in the dozen or so small lodges along the beach. But after the Gambia it feels like tranquility incarnate. Cap-Skirring, further south, is more or less the French Gambia. This neutral zone in between feels practically undiscovered. Long may it stay that way.

Photos on Flickr.

October 18, 2013

On farming coral

"You know," I said to Gavin, "I've spent ten days around here, that's way more than I've spent almost anywhere else I've travelled to. I thought I'd get a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the place than if I'd just spent a few days."

"And did you?" he inquired.

"Nope."

Moalboal may not have hidden depths, but it is an interesting place. Or at least there are far more boring ones. For one thing, the geology is striking: the earth for many miles around this peninsula essentially consists of a vast coral atoll which rose above the sea millennia ago. You don't have to dig very far -- in fact, half the time you don't have to dig at all -- to come across the bedrock of dead coral; jagged, striated, fractally pockmarked, and extremely hard.

The result is a brittle and infertile land. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be coral farmers. There are virtually no actual fields within a five-kilometer walk of the midscale beachfront resort in which we stayed. In many places crops are planted within the little bowls of topsoil caught within what is essentially an outcrop of solid coral. In several places farmers have built waist-high lattices and grown cucumbers in the air rather than try to sow this coral soil.

As a result Moalboal is quite a poor corner of the Philippines, which otherwise feels reasonably wealthy, albeit with income inequality that makes America look like Sweden. The little rural villages, which dot the white-coral roads winding through the thin greenery, are still to a considerable extent made of wood with thatched roofs, though concrete is making inroads. Coconut palms have successfully colonized the coast (though oddly no one here seems to eat coconuts) and banana plantations have taken root, but almost no real trees of any size grow within 10 kilometers.

Everyone has a phone, of course, and cell towers dot the landscape; don't get me wrong, it's not that poor. But those phones are almost invariably old candy-bar Nokias.

They do raise livestock here. Chickens squawk across the road, using their wings to accelerate out of the way of oncoming motorbikes. Little tethered goats nibble at everything. Lone cows low mournfully at passersby. One family along my usual running route was raising a flock of turkeys, and on my drive today, in the hills, I saw an ostrich prance through a pasture in which a few cows also grazed contentedly. A "tricycle" -- a motorcycle with a sidecar, usually two tiny passenger seats mounted front-and-back, but sometimes a cage for cargo -- once rattled by with two full-size pigs pressed into its cage. Piglets sell for US$25, full-size pigs for $100 and up.

And then there are the semi-feral dogs, small and cautious, with fur patterned faintly like tigers, picking their way along the roads and through the scrub that manages to cling to the coral soil. Many are mangy and ridden by parasites. By night they seem to triple in number. There are a surprising number of frogs, too, which speaks to the general cleanliness of the environment; amphibians are the canaries of the coastal world, almost always the first to be decimated by pollution.

That environment supports two of the region's only three real economic activities: fishing and diving. (The third is transit; Moalboal proper, a town which basically consists of a few dusty and congested roads five kilometres east of the coast, is a minor nexus on the single highway that runs up the west side of Cebu Island.)

We were there in part for the diving, which I think used to be world-class. The reefs start from the beach -- in fact, with a couple of exceptions which I believe to be artificial, the reefs are the beach; no frolicking barefoot on the coastline here, not with sharp coral waiting to scar your feet with bloody cuts that take weeks to heal. Only a little ways out the coral drops almost vertically to a depth of fifty metres. The current sweeps along parallel to that cliff, so you don't even need to swim, you just drop down and drift. Better yet, a few kilometres offshore is the island of Pescador, an almost perfect circle of green, essentially a thin cap on a tall cylinder of coral, which again drops steeply and is perfect for drift dives.

But the reefs are dying. Oh, they're certainly not dead yet, don't get me wrong, and in the one marine reserve in the region they remain quite lively. On my very first dive I found myself in the midst of a dense flickering school of sardines the size of a small shopping mall. One group (not us) dived with a whale shark a few days later. We saw a half-dozen turtles, a sea snake, an amazingly alien-looking jellyfish, etc.

But, on Pescador in particular -- which looked, from the surface, like paradise for divers, and probably once was -- there were big holes in the coral that spoke of dynamite, and the reefs were battered and bleached out and dived out and fished out, pale and lifeless, and the clouds of fish which still surround it were all worryingly small. Gavin mentioned that while snorkelling he'd found a spearfisher with a stack of killed fish none of which were bigger than his hand.

Panagsama, the dive area west of Moalboal, is a classic dive town: a single coral street lined by a half-dozen dive shops and the lodges, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and souvenir shops which go along with them. There are places like it in tropical coastal places all over the world, although they usually don't have quite the same thinly-veiled undercurrent of prostitution. (Yes, that's right, yet another little town in Southeast Asia where you see a whole lot of relatively-wealthy decrepit white dudes with poor young temporary girlfriends. Act surprised.) In "the season," which allegedly begins two weeks from now, all these establishments are allegedly packed. But if the reefs keep dying -- and worldwide, there's considerable evidence that all coral reefs are dying, as the oceans warm, even without the helping hand lent by the local fisherpeople here -- that whole stretch will turn into a ghost town, and Moalboal will get even poorer.

But, on the other hand, what are you going to do other than overfish, given that the alternatives consist of either farming coral, or moving to the desperately squalid shantytowns around Cebu City a hundred kilometers away? (If anyone says "teach them to code," I will personally drive to your house and slap you with a sea snake.)

It's such a pretty spot. But I don't see how it has a future.

I started wandering around the world way back in 1997, which means, according to The Economist, that my globetrotting has more or less corresponded with "the most dramatic, and disruptive, period of emerging-market growth the world has ever seen" -- which is now coming to a close. Sheer luck, for me, that I managed to witness so much of this change from the ground level.

It was change which has indisputably been immensely beneficial. China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa, to name three examples I've visited in person 2-3 times each over that period, are (as a whole) so much better off now than they were then that any comparison is almost comical. But now that great transformation is coming to an end. Is another one coming, propelled by technology? Can the transition from Nokia candybars to Android smartphones kickstart places like Moalboal?

I used to think maybe, but now, I don't see it. There'll be plenty of benefits, sure, and some will go to Moalboal too, but more and more I think our economic systems are set up such that most of the benefits of new technologies accrue to those who already have head starts. Capitalism rewards competitive advantages; but some places don't have any competitive advantages, or, like Moalboal, are seeing the ones they do have global-warmed and overfished (and/or automated) into extinction.

My ruminations on how development works from a couple of years ago ended with a likening of long-term progress/growth to "draining the sea." Sometimes, though, you drain the sea and all you find is infertile coral beneath. Maybe there'll be some way to make it bloom; but right now, I can't imagine what.

October 13, 2013

these are the dives I know I know, these are the dives I know

198x: Muskoka, Canada, a couple of entirely unlicensed dives with my father.
198x: Dominican Republic, again an unlicensed dive with my dad.
2000: Krabi, Thailand, 5 dives (PADI Open Water course.) Great reefs, great beaches, an excellent place to learn.
2002: Byron Bay, Australia, 2 dives. Choppy but pretty good.
2002: Great Barrier Reef liveaboard, Australia, 11 dives (PADI Advanced course.) Just superb.
2003: Dahab, Egypt, 4 dives. Very good.
2003: Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 2 dives. Pretty good.
2003: Caye Caulker, Belize, 2 dives. Not bad I guess.
2004: Galle, Sri Lanka, 2 dives. Nice wrecks with meh visibility.
2005: Catalina Island, California, 2 dives. Beautiful kelp forest, frigging freezing. (February.)
2005: Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, 2 dives. I still have the scars, but good diving.
2006: Muskoka, Canada, 2 dives. Freshwater but homey.
2010: Great Barrier Reef liveaboard, Australia, 11 dives. A little more dived-out than eight years earlier, but still truly excellent, esp. the shark/night dives.
2011: Djibouti City, Djibouti, 2 dives. Great reefs, not least because they're some distance along one of the most stark and forbidding coastlines on the planet, so relatively undisturbed.
2013: Moalbal, Philippines, 4 dives (and counting.) Lots of big turtles, and a gargantuan school of sardines, and today's reef was decent...but it's clear that the reefs around here are not what they once were. Dived out, fished out, bleached out, and in places dynamited.

...did I really not dive at all for four years? Wow. I came close in 2008 in Colombia -- in fact, I actually ventured out one day planning to dive -- but weather got in the way. Same with Turks & Caicos in 2011 come to think of it.

All told ~55 dives, not bad. I still go through air like a locomotive, though. I blame my size and years of yoga and running. Fortunately after 30 minutes of diving I hit diminished returns anyways, I rarely want to stay in the water more than 40 or 45, but I always feel bad for my dive buddies.

May 12, 2013

Why Constantinople got the works, that's nobody's business but the Turks

So first of all let's talk about the cats. The Internet has an inordinate fondness for cats, right?

So too does Istanbul. In the evening it is not uncommon to see three or four feral cats perched or prowling along any given short stretch of street. Black, ginger, chiaroscuro and (mostly) patchwork, in the Sultanahmet and Taksim districts alike1 they wander into and out of cafes, they walk straight down the middle of streets like they own them, they trade glares with the two-toned crows that roost here, they rest beneath cars and on windowsills. I do not doubt that some of them have ascended the minarets of the Blue Mosque, climbed into the galleries of the Hagia Sophia, patrolled the harem of the Topkapi Palace, descended into the cistern built for Byzantium 1500 years ago, and even crossed the bridges across the Bosphorus to Asia Minor.

(It's also possible that given my, um, idiosyncratic authorial history, I notice urban animals more than most. But everybody notices all the cats here. My travelling companion did too, I'll have you know.)

At times it seems almost as if this is a feline city in which we humans are grudgingly permitted cohabitation. Have they their own hierarchies, their own districts, their own histories and vendettas? Does the Constantinople of cats live on, almost six centuries after the human Constantinople fell? Do they await a long-prophecied messenger from the East, with word of the newborn Emperor, or a new prophet of the One True Feline Faith?

Probably not. But when you're here it's hard not to wonder. This is a fairytale city. It's also a huge, teeming, surging, very modern city. "Crossroads of the World" is a cliche but not without reason. My first reaction, actually, was "Edinburgh meets Bangkok, with mosques" -- Edinburgh because of all the monuments and castles and ancient walls, Bangkok because of all of the new skyscrapers and new shopping malls and construction in progress everywhere, including the old city. As put it (paraphrasing due to poor memory) "People have probably been lamenting for more than a thousand years that this city is basically a huge building site."

You ever been to 'Stanbul?"
"Couple days, once."
"Never changes," she said. "Bad old town."

 -- Neuromancer

Gibson is a prophet but he sure got that one wrong. The overriding sense one gets here is that, outside of the actual monuments, pretty much everything is changing, all the time, and always has been. This feels like a city defined by flux.

1I haven't yet ventured much into any of the many others.

Anyway. Have some pictures.

cistern-pillars-1
The ancient Basilica Cistern.

medusa head
legal notice: this author is not responsible for anyone turned to stone because they were foolish enough to crane their neck so as to see the medusa right side up.
 

painted-globe
A magnificent zodiac in the Museum of Islamic Science and Technology.

bicontinental-view
That's Europe to the left, Asia to the right.

sultans-mosque
A relatively minor mosque.

half-doorway
Another view thereto.

perfect-symmetry
The ceiling of this relatively minor mosque.

minaret-tree
Tree and minaret.

reflecting-selves
T. and I reflected in the latest hijabwear.

faded-mosaic
A knight marred by bandits.

golden-flag
View from the Golden Horn.

finger-spires
The Blue Mosque.

blue-minaret
One of the Blue Mosque's six minarets.

blue-ceiling
The Blue Mosque's magnificent ceiling.

pious-direcktorate
(blink) (blink)

warning signs
(blink) (blink) (blink) (blink)

hagia-sunset
The Hagia Sophia by sunset. For more than a millennium this was the largest (manmade) enclosed space in the world.

hagia-spiral
Aforementioned

hagia-dome
enclosed

hagia-signs
space.

backs-turned
Asia behind them.

ships-shore-shawls
Shawls by the shore.
 

right-angles
A diver by the port.

October 30, 2012

The road to Mandalay

Myanmar! Shrouded in mystery, hidden for decades behind a shadowy steel curtain of tyranny! The land that time forgot! The last nation untouched by the corrupting influence of the West! Right?

golden-triangle
Yeah, not so much.

It is a fascinating place, though. Still deeply culturally independent,

perfect-children

and still more economically influenced by China than by the West, though that's changing fast.

mandalay-carnival-1

bus-passenger

It's also quite a visually extraordinary place.

guardian-lions

text-arches

sunset-solace

lonely-trees

shwedagon-sunset

Especially in Bagan, land of ten thousand temples (once literally):

bagan-scape

5*-bagan-1

irrawaddy-sunset

Spot the Buddha!

bagan-buddha

yt-bagan

I took, at a conservative estimate, approximately nineteen zillion pictures, of which these are but a sample. More to come.

October 23, 2012

Beyond Rangoon

So. Rangoon.

In a way it's like every Asian city rolled into one, but poorer. Blistering heat, cracked pavements, foot-high curbs, Stalinist towers linked by thick anarchic tangles of electrical wires, occasional colonial buildings whose stains and tarnish cannot conceal their magnificent bones, dense fields of sidewalk stalls hawking food and every cheaply made article under the sun, ancient automobiles of every description converted into taxis.

(Yesterday I rode in a red Volkswagen van which I think was older than I am to the Savoy Hotel, a converted colonial mansion, where I ate at Kipling's restaurant and drank at the Captain's Bar while watching Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea. I suppose I should have quaffed gin-and-tonics rather than Dagon beer to make the colonial kabuki play complete. Note to HP Lovecraft fans; Yangon/Rangoon's original name, for some 500 years, was Dagon.)

It's located at the juncture of three rivers, not far at all from the ocean, beneath the hill which is allegedly the most sacred spot on Earth. Said hill is now host to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most colossal temple in all of Myanmar. The main pagoda, and the forest of lesser towers and filigreed halls full of colourful Buddhas that surround it, are indeed quite impressive; I overheard a guide claiming that they were decorated with a full 60 tons of gold; but what I liked most about the place was the vast plaza that surrounded it, and its endless nooks and crannies, and its laid-back feel. People come here to worship, yes, but also just to hang out. I would like churches far more if they were the same.

From the Pagoda you can see Rangoon sprawled out before you like a reeking corpse. That's unflattering, isn't it? But there's no denying: the city smells. A little fresher near its inland lakes, Inya and Kandawgyi (sic?), where the upscale suburbs full of embassies can be found. But even riper near the rivers, where the jetties are strewn with filth and chaos, where hawkers shielded from the awful sun by parasols sell fruits and other foods of every description and some that threaten to defy any at all. The traffic there, both human and industrial, is teeming and constant. (But no motorcycles; they are banned in the city center, as autorickshaws are in downtown Mumbai.) Another pagoda down by the river is all but sealed off by a gigantic wall of shipping containers.

The downtown is divided into occasional wide one-way avenues interspersed with many narrow alleyways thick with life, and commerce, and dogs. The sheer number of feral dogs in Myanmar must be immense. They find places in the shade to hide, during the worst of the day, but in the last hour before dusk they come forth. I saw packs numbering in the dozens in the shadows of the temples of Bagan, and another ranging up the train tracks in central Rangoon this afternoon, beneath the monumental four pagoda-like towers of the central train station, keeping a wary but not fearful distance from the humans doing the same. They are silent and watchful. One could almost get the sense that they are waiting for something.

Not so the human population. What they have been waiting for - freedom - seems at last to be at hand, after fifty years of military tyranny, and the city is erupting with life, action, noise, trade. Department stores and new hotels are under construction all through the downtown. Shirtless labourers pause to stare at flocks of beautiful young women in filigreed cheongsam-like outfits beneath delicately decorated parasols. Elderly taxi drivers regard their new city with some suspicion; they have no longer seen it all. Bald Buddhist monks mingle in the markets, small groups of fresh-faced bespectacled teenagers, or lone burly men in with tattoos beneath their saffron robes. Even during the heat of midday hardly anyone lingers. Everyone seems to have a mission. Except for me.

Not far east of my hotel is the Ministers' Building, once the seat of Burma's government: a gargantuan colonial complex of red brick, occupying an entire huge city block. Seven years ago the government was moved to a purpose-built city midway between Yangon/Rangoon and Mandalay, and today the complex languishes abandoned, its grounds thickly overgrown, rusted strands of barbed wire green with moss dangling from its outer fence. Aung San and his entire cabinet were assassinated in this building, one dark and bloody day fifty years ago, before the military took over.

Now there is talk of converting the entire edifice into another four- or five-star hotel. To an outsider that may seem somehow disrespectful of the past; but then, in Burma, and especially Rangoon, the past is not something that anyone wishes to cherish or celebrate. This is a city giving itself with abandon to the future.