December 31, 2020

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June 02, 2015

Levantine pix

A few highlights:

the-mall
Brief British stopover.

silver-script
Grand mosque, Beirut.

beirut-love
Love, Beirut-style.

corniche-clouds
The Corniche, Beirut.

abou-nasser
Downtown.

curtain-wall
In the suburbs where Hezbollah reigns.

syria-somewhere
Somewhere over Syria. I think that conurbation might be Homs.

pink-stone
The road into Petra is kind of ridiculous.

high-walls
I mean, really.

camel-way
Its entrance is famously cinematic.

guide-morning
Guides wait for customers.

ur-tomb
City carved from stone.

monastery-rock
The monastery.

siq-out
The road out.

high-above
Wadi Rum. My standard photo pose.

scream-and-leap
My not-so-standard photo pose.

khaled-poses
Khaled, my Bedouin guide.

camel-trekkers
Random camels.

wadi-rum
Wadi Rum is ridiculously gorgeous, in that stark bleak desert way.

aqaba-shore
"We've taken Aqaba."

shops-and-soldiers
Old city, Jerusalem.

golden-dome
Golden Dome and Western Wall.

orthodox-contemplation
Orthodox chillin'.

muslim-quarter
Muslims only beyond this point.

mount-of-olives
The Mount of Olives.

dubious-banksy
Apparently this is the real deal.

leila-khaled
Don't forget the struggle.

checkpoint-300
Checkpoint 300.

dead-rules
Dead Sea blues.

mummy-mummy
Illicit photo of licit mummy.

pyramid-golf
Pyramid golf.

camel-rider
I don't even like camels. Um. Look, it's a long story, OK?

the-egyptian-gazette
Last-day-in-the-country blues.

Full set here.

May 05, 2015

Levantine days

I've been thinking a lot about Rafik Hariri today. He was the former Prime Minister of Lebanon who was assassinated in a massive car bombing ten years ago. Other car bombs followed in its wake, like echoes, murdering those who would investigate Hariri's death. Wissam Eid, who performed remarkable cell-phone metadata analysis to tie the assassination to Hezbollah, survived a 2006 car bomb but not a 2008 follow-up. Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, Hariri's former chief of protocol, was killed three years ago by another huge car bomb in downtown Beirut that killed eight and wounded 120.

Both the Hariri and al-Hassan assassinations happened within a kilometer of where I sit and type, the Saifi Urban Gardens in downtown Beirut, a rather nice modern hostel with rooms for $50/night. Large swathes of Beirut are rather nice and modern. No, that's too half-hearted; extremely nice and ultramodern. There is, very apparently, a ton of money in this city. A Ferrari dealership is a few blocks away. Beyond lies an entire district which is largely a high-end open-air upscale shopping mall. Further yet is a marina seething with expensive yachts. Everywhere you look, downtown, there seems to be yet another crane throwing up yet another gargantuan new steel-and-glass tower.

But that's downtown. Go for a long walk, or simply drive from the airports to the suburbs, and see the other reality--dense warrens of concrete high-rises, drained of colour by decades of baking Mediterranean sun, cracked and fading and/or scarred by the shrapnel and snipers of the not-so-long-ago Lebanese Civil War that killed an estimated 120,000 people, densely peopled with the poor. Power shortages mean Beirut's residents go without grid electricity for three hours every day. The rich switch seamlessly to generators; the very poor just go without. I don't know what Lebanon's Gini coefficient is offhand but I'd guess in Beirut at least it's fairly spectacular.

This is a city with a long, long history of tumult. It is older than the Pyramids and has been a center of trade for most of that time. (That doesn't make it especially old, in these parts. Byblos, probably the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet, is a bit north of here; Tyr, as in "Nineveh and Tyre," a little ways south.) Beirut has been conquered by the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs (following a massive earthquake and tidal wave in 551 AD that almost depeopled the city), the Crusaders, the Arabs again, the Ottoman Empire, the French, the English, the Syrians, and the Israelis. Today it is trilingual: English, French, Arabic.

It's a remarkably pretty city. Hills rise steeply up from Beirut, a ridge along the Mediterranean coast populated by seemingly endless clusters of apartment towers, climbing up to mountains that, I'm told, are snow-capped in winter; if you time it just right, you can famously ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. The climate seems even more perfect than San Francisco's. The wine and cheese and olives are all excellent. Its law school was pre-eminent in the Eastern Roman Empire, and it still boasts the finest university in the Middle East, the American University in Beirut. Such a shame about the politics, and the neighbours.

If I got up and rented a car right now, it'd be about an 80-km drive to the Syrian border, and another 20 to Damascus -- a land wracked by civil war and the Islamic State, where hundreds of thousands have died, and millions more have been injured or rendered homeless. Lebanon's four million citizens are currently hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, and counting. (Damascus itself has gone largely untouched. So far.) South is Israel, whose eruptive relationship to Lebanon requires no introduction. It's odd and disconcerting to be in a non-island nation that one cannot leave by land.

Wandering the streets of Beirut, passing ancient mansions and countless cafes, along winding little streets and staircases lined by doors and iron grates, being honked at by countless SUVs with tinted windows en route to valet parking and five-star hotels, it's hard not to imagine it as a city full of secret places, steeped in hidden currents. Which of course it is, quite starkly and literally.

I don't want to try to unpick the bloody fractal jigsaw puzzle that is the modern Middle East in this post, but for instance: those scarred suburbs south of the city are Hezbollah territory. Hezbollah, the "Party of God," was midwifed by the Syrians some decades ago, and are now repaying them by aiding the Syrian government against the rebels, with assistance from fellow-Shiites Iran. Arrayed against them are Lebanon's Sunni muslims, and Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia, who further south are launching airstrikes against the Shiite Houthis, who are battling Sunni Al-Qaeda. And that's without even getting into the fear and hatred of Israel throughout the region, and/or the complicated role played by Lebanon's many Christians. (There are churches everywhere in Beirut.)

Hence my contemplation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and the densely baroque nature of the net of conspiracy that drew in around him, one that would make John Le Carré blush. From this magisterial New York Times article on the subject:


The green group consisted of 18 Alfa phones, purchased with fake identification from two shops in South Beirut ... the blue group originally worked according to the same rules as the green group, but its active membership increased from three phones to 15, with seven connected to Alfa and eight to MTC Touch ... Eventually, the yellow group was added, and its 13 members seemed to share surveillance duties with the blue group ... it was the purple group, the prosecution says, that handled the cover operation ... The last cellphone group to go into action was the red group. These phones, investigators believe, belonged to the inner circle of the Hariri surveillance team in the days before the attack — and to the actual suicide bomber.


(If anyone ever questions the meaning or importance of metadata, just point them to that article, a breathtaking real-world example of what can be gleaned from it.)

Last night I dined with a German hacker who told me unsurprising tales of how the upper echelons of Lebanese society run: on their own unspoken rules, protocols, and payments, little or nothing to do with the law as printed, spiting the city's ancient and illustrious legal history. It really is quite romantic, this notion of a kaleidoscope of secret alliances and societies, dark machinations, meetings in occult places, manipulation of and by foreign powers. If only one of its possible endgames wasn't all too apparent, in Syria just over the mountains from here: a dusty sea of bombs, blood, bullets, and seemingly endless anguish.

It's a beautiful and fascinating city, this, in a lovely country. I hope it stays that way.

January 25, 2015

In which my life remains reassuringly surreal

On Friday I flew a military jet, which is not something I expected to say, well, ever, really.

Uh. Caveats. First, "military"; it was an L-39 Albatros, widely used as a trainer jet, although "it has also flown combat missions in a light-attack role," so. Second, "flew"; I only took the stick for a few aileron rolls and sharp (~4G) turns. The actual pilot, "Sticky," a former Thunderbird and current precision-jet-team air-show pilot on the Patriots Jet Team, controlled throttle and rudder the whole time.

But still. I was six thousand feet up in the sky, moving at circa 500 km/h, in control of a small and highly maneuverable jet plane. It was exhilirating. It was adrenalinizing. It was also hard on my gut, in a cumulative way, and I very nearly vomited as we finally banked to land; but even if I had, it would have been so worth it.

(Doing so is apparently not uncommon. After the formal briefing from Sticky, "Fidel" -- the actual owner of the jet -- approached me to advise me on the vomit protocol. Which is: first, use the "lunch bag" tucked into one of the flight suit's pockets; if that isn't viable, pull out the collar of the shirt beneath the suit and puke down your own chest. That way you don't get a mess all over the canopy and the instruments.)

How did this happen? Well. Some time ago, in Montreal, I befriended Simon Law. Because of him, some years ago I wound up writing an article for Reader's Digest about his boss, former Zero-Knowledge CEO Austin Hill. Because of that, I wound up writing a few pieces for TechCrunch about Hill's new Bitcoin startup. One in particular caught the eye of "Fidel," a software guy and Bitcoin evangelist who recently sold a startup to Intuit, used the proceeds to buy an L-39 and brand it as the Bitcoin Jet, and invited me to come out and fly in it. And, I mean, how could I say no?

I didn't realize until after I drove out to Byron that I would not just fly in it but actually fly it myself, sort of, briefly.

Byron is only an hour's drive from San Francisco but feels almost like a different nation; it's rural America, horses and rusting farm machinery, albeit with ridgetops lined by wind towers as far as the eye can see, and the odd little wealthy community of Discovery Bay just to the northeast, "the Venice of the East Bay," basically a huge square subdivision shot through with canals that connect to the Sacramento Delta, so that nearly every house has a dock and boat which, in theory, can head straight out to the Pacific without pausing for permission.

I didn't go to Discovery Bay, though. I just flew over it.

discovery-bay

First we briefed. Sticky takes flying very seriously, and strongly believes in "plan the flight, fly the plan." I rehearsed the bail-out protocol while on the demo seat in the hangar. This L-39 doesn't have ejection seats, so that protocol was: pull the lever to disconnect my harness from the seat, pull the lever to unlock the canopy, then Sticky inverts the plane, then I force myself out while it's inverted, and then I pull the D-ring for the parachute attached to the harness. Easy as pie, right?

Then out to the plane itself:

bitcoin-crew
Yours truly with Fidel and Sticky.

I boarded and got strapped in by the crew chief. We tested the helmet radios (mine was slightly wonky, but if it was actually touching my lip it worked fine.)

top-gun-ii

top-gun

Then Sticky fired up the starter engine, which fired up the main engine. (Most US military jets require massive starter carts to get going; the self-sufficient nature of the L-39 is a pretty significant advantage for casual/personal use.) We taxiied down the runway, got a visual/radio check on other airplanes in the area -- there's no control tower at Byron, pilots just talk to each other to avoid collisions -- lined up, and zooooom, away we were, lifting off smooth as silk...

...for about fifteen seconds, after which we broke right, i.e. turned edge-on to the ground and banked hard, on a dime. Like going sideways on a roller coaster. Indeed much of the aerobatics to follow felt a bit like a roller coaster, albeit with movements that were simultaneously much sharper and much smoother, and a thrillingly disconcerting sense of ad-lib freedom.

Here's a shot of the instrument panel. Note the occasional Cyrillic. (This was an active-service Ukrainian Air Force jet until 1982.)

instrument-panelled

So. We flew out to so-called Bacon Island, empty territory near Discovery Bay. Below us a crop-dusting biplane seemed to be crawling along no faster than a car. (L-39s move so much faster than most other airplanes that fly out of Byron that they have to be quite careful.) We did a couple of hard turns on either direction; then Sticky passed the aircraft to me (this is done with maximum communication-- "Put your hand on the stick." "My hand is on the stick." "You have the aircraft." "I have the aircraft." -- for obvious reasons.) and whee, I did the same. Pulling 4Gs you can actually feel your lips wobble, just like the movies, and although I was holding my breath and tensing my body to increase my blood pressure, I got, I think, just the beginning of the sense of what it is like to gray out.

Then we did aileron rolls, same procedure -- him first, then me, then a double. Which was the end of my flying, alas. Then we did a couple of loop-the-loops, floating inverted at the top of each with the horizon coming at us from above. Then we simply rolled over and flew inverted for about 20 seconds, hanging in the straps with the sky below us. Then we did a barrel roll around Mount Diablo, which looms over Discovery Bay --

diablo-wing

--which, double alas, was about the point at which my belly ceased to think that this was fun.

So I was kind of tightly gripping my knees and breathing deeply as we returned to Byron, waited for the runway to clear, kept an eye on the hawk that one of the other pilots reported to us, did a touch-and-go landing, banked around again, and landed. Apparently after N flights your body grows accustomed to things and the motion sickness ceases to be a problem, where N is highly variable depending on the person.

Regardless. It was a surreal, awesome, and incredibly fun experience. Not least because Sticky, Fidel, and their crew chief ("Ponch?") were great, super-friendly and super-professional. And the next time I have ten thousand spare dollars and six spare months, I intend to begin to acquire a pilot's license.

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.