Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Cycling through France-Switzerland-Germany

About two weeks ago when the Russian embassy told me that they wouldn't be approving my visa, and the airline wouldn't be refunding my tickets, I realised that I needed to do something just as fun but also cheap. So I bought about a 40 year old racing/touring bike from a guy in Paris and drew an itinerary which can be seen below.

When most people think of long distance bike touring, they think massive mountains, inhaling truck fumes on freeways, getting beeped by angry drivers etc etc. Thats's probably the case in Australia, but not in France (and I hope not in Switzerland and Germany). The European Union have constructed 15 bike routes throughout Europe, the one I'm on at the moment (eurovelo6) goes from western France to Romania, and apparently it's 70% bike tracks. The rest is on quiet country roads, so I've only seen a few trucks.

How far am i going? According to google maps, the trip im doing is around 500km, which is not that far over two weeks, and even Mylene has done some of it with me (but has had enough and is going home tomorrow). I started from her hometown in southern burgundy, cycled through the famous wine region known as the "route des grand crus", to dijon (where Mylene came and met me), and now all the way to basel, in switzerland, then to Freiburg in Germany, and back in to Alsace in France. I should be crossing into Switzerland in two days.

What I'm really loving about this so far, is that there are medieval villages every few km's, so the ride is always interesting. I hate to use the word "quaint", but it is the best word to describe (most of) them. Each have a bakery, a post office and a bar. Within the bars there are old guys betting on horses and drinking at midday, yes, French people do that too (except they drink wine and not beer). Most of the bigger villages have a sign on the entrance rating them in terms of how pretty they are by the amount of flowers (the system is known as "ville fleurie"). Only in France would someone be paid to rank villages on that basis...

But so far, all has been awesome. I don't know the first thing about bikes (except pumping the tyres) but at least I know that if something goes wrong, I'm not stuck in the middle of the desert somewhere. One thing I have learnt though- sticking the bottle holder to a bike with sticky tape does not hold long. I'll hopefully write again in the next few days if something good happens.

Note: the second picture is from southpark, in a local bar (which doesn't remind me of village bars here, but it's still funny). "Hey! We don't take kindly to your types around here"

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The 35 work-week in France

France has a lot of great stereotypes, some positive and some not. One of my favourites is that of the French worker. The Frenchman has his famous 35 hour week, inclusive of coffee breaks and unlimited sick days. Any questioning of this from his superiors will immediately result in a call to the trade union, causing an industry-wide strike; nation-wide protests are the result, and workers can stay at home drinking wine and discussing philosophy until the government increases wages and improves conditions. The 35 hour week survives, and this very old tradition, which probably dates back to the French revolution, continues. This is a fantastic stereotype, and is something which I've always perpetuated (and still do). There is only one problem; it's not actually true.

As a result of the current economic situation in Europe, this generation of young French people is being called generation precaire, meaning 'the precarious generation', given that it's so difficult to find work. Even many of those who are graduating with Masters degrees from top universities are going from one poorly paid 'internship' to another, and not 1-day-per-week-whilst-at-uni-internships like in Australia, 12 hours a day internships, getting paid around $120 per week. Those who have found real work are certainly not working 35 hours a week, and people seem to be working far longer hours than anyone I know in Australia. A friend, for example, doing an internship in a law firm, sees it as a victory if he leaves at 10pm each night; "at least they pay for my dinners", is his justification. Once they get a proper job, they'll do their best to keep it; French young people (seem to) have no concept of 'pissing off overseas' like Australians do, unless for study or internships.

So how lazy and inefficient are French people?
Many argue that this 'lazy' culture is responsible for all of France's current problems, yet, according to official statistics, French workers are more productive (they can produce a good faster and cheaper) than most other European countries, including the Germans, and also, the very hard working Americans, as well as Australian workers. I know most of my friends reading this (who care about these issues) will disagree with this statistic, as this hilarious stereotype is so well ingrained. But who knows, maybe the French are right on this one.

Friday, 9 December 2011

lessons from kenya- why we should all stop giving money to Africa

We've all seen the advertisements on tv, with some charity showing an image of an African kid standing basically naked in some desert, barely alive. They then ask you to donate money monthly to feed the child or whatever. Anyone who's been to Africa will tell you that this image is completely false, yet of course Oxfam or World Vision or whoever are exaggerating to try and guilt you into 'saving the children'. If you're giving money to sponsor one of their children, you're wasting your money; not because they're spending much your money on marketing or whatever, but because these companies are not pursuing long term policies, and instead, they're making the 'child' (if it exists or not I don't know) dependent on your money. Why do World Vision not pursue long term and sustainable programs? Because if Africa becomes financially independent, then companies like World Vision will cease to exist; they can only survive if Africa remains poor. Just because some b-grade celebrity like Guy Sebastian tells us we can all make a difference by sending all our money, does not make it so. Since when are celebrities development experts?

There are literally thousands of these companies in Africa which are always increasing, and yet by most measures of development, Africa is poorer than it was 40 years ago. If you feel as though the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund are doing a great job of solving African underdevelopment; you're sadly mistaken. They enforce policies upon African economies to keep them poor, for example, they've made African countries sell all their government assets, like water, roads or health, to European or American companies who raise the price, making the poor lose access and often not upgrading infrastructure; if you don't believe me, do your research. What else? They force poor countries to devalue their currencies, and then to sell their natural resources to Western countries, allowing governments to get only a small percentage of the value of their resources. Of course, they always use Western companies to dig up the coal or oil or whichever. Why? the same reason; they want to keep Africa dependent or they won't have a business: google structural adjustment program if you wanna learn more, or, take this quote from Bill Clinton: “We need the World Bank, the IMF, all the big foundations, and all the governments to admit that, for 30 years, we all blew it, including me when I was President.”

Anyone who gives money to their friends  to come and build a church, hospital, school or whatever should also stop. This is the equivalent of your friends diagnosing and operating on a sick person; your friends are  not development experts, no matter how well intentioned they are. These sorts of projects should be done by the government, and when you do these things, you're sending a message to Africans that white people will continue to do these projects, instead of asking their government. You'll probably be saying right now, "but the government is corrupt!", which is true, yet often enough it's a result of them pocketing money from foreign donors. If you want to see African governments making reforms, aid from our governments must stop, just as much as our friends who come and build shit. Africa is not just one sandy desert; its governments have the potential to assist in developing Africa.

Now, I said earlier that I was trying to set up a microfinance project in rural Kenya for 10 women, all living off about $1 a day. The reason it was difficult was because the women expected us to give them free money, which I wasn't prepared to do. The women even suggested (in complete seriousness) that I lend them the money myself, and they'll wire me the money after I return home, which is the same as the Rolex salesman in Bangkok who tells you he'll mail you the warranty. We ended up compromising and 4 of the women agreed to us building them low cost vegetable gardens (the other six simply stopped coming to the weekly meeting), on the premise that they pay us for the materials ($2.50), and we also taught some local kids how they can build their own/or to expand their parents' gardens.

So, were they happy about the idea of having to pay us for the materials? no, they were outraged. Will they take care of and expand their gardens? who knows. Will they pay us back for the materials? it will be difficult to get it all back as there is only one person still there working- but, one thing is for sure: too many well intentioned white people are coming to Africa with deep pockets, building shit, giving money away, signing their name, and then leaving, The family I was working for received free water tanks/malaria stuff from USAID, a guest-house built by some Romanians, a solar panel from an Aussie girl, a school which is under construction, and the list goes on. The women I was working with are not stupid, nor are they lazy, yet if you give your money away for free, they become dependent upon it, and will do their best to convince you that they can't think for themselves. Indeed, I spent some time at a proper microfinance bank whilst on the island, where I met women who had all taken micro-loans, all of whom had become profitable, without anything free given by white people.

I'm assuming most of my friends reading this will probably disagree with me, yet my view is the same as most development economists (there are countless books in relation to this), all advocating an end to individual, government and private aid. Of course, I don't want to simplify these issues, and microfinance won't solve world poverty; Africa's problems are considerably deeper than this. If you really want to help, tell the Oxfam guy in the street to piss off, or, get a job with the World Bank and take them down from the inside.

If you wanna read any books about this, there are plenty, for example Graham Hancock's Lords of Poverty, Linda Polman's War Games, or Joseph Stiglitz's Fair Trade for All.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Kenya thus far!

"If there's one city in the world you wanna avoid, it's Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Travelers call it Nai-rob-me, because it's like, a right of passage that you'll get robbed there", is what a British guy I met in Central America a few years ago told me. He was one of those 50 year old dudes who had been traveling since he was 18; and, even Lonely Planet calls it Nai-robbery, so I wasn't too keen to spend much time there.

I arrived just after midnight from Dubai and was picked up by a guy named Brian from Couchsurfing; he wasn't such a bad guy, and Nairobi wasn't such a bad place, yet he 'robbed' me for all he could. In the few days I stayed with him, everything we did was financed by me; all buses, beers, bottles of spirits, meals in restaurants, snacks, food for cooking at someone else's house, money to get his phone fixed, unwanted taxis ("your safety is paramount to me") etc etc. He occasionally bought me a token bottle of water, thanks man. I told him numerous times I was low on cash because I'd been away for so long, yet this didn't stop him. One night he went out, got blind, came home at 4am, made me and another couchsurfer pay for his taxi, yet he'd lost the hoodie he'd borrowed from the other couchsurfer. "But my mum bought me that hoodie", Oliver said; it's ok, brian replied, have this t-shirt i got for free from Orange, the telephone company. Luckily I've blocked and deleted him from facebook so I don't think he'll read this.

He waved me goodbye as I left for rural Kenya, promising to pay me back for everything next time I was in Nairobi; an empty promise I assumed. When I arrived in Homa bay, 8 hours by bus I checked my bank balance and half of it was gone; someone in Nairobi has my account details and bought a lot of stuff! Commonwealth bank are still investigating it, and they've frozen my account! Ha! So Nai-robbery lived up to it's expectation. Anyway, from Homa bay I came to my place I'd be working, Sargy Community Development Group, on Rusinga Island. My job/goal was to establish/help with a microfinance project; that is, supposedly being in charge of 10 women who have small businesses, and to assist with loans from the bank and whatever. Their businesses are mostly terrible, for example, a few of them buy fish from fisherman and re-sell it, making about 7c profit a day.

Myself and other people working here came up with some ideas, eg to take a loan to buy some chickens and sell the eggs and stuff. The idea of microfinance is that aid/charity is unsustainable, and microfinance aims to make poor people independent from foreign aid. After four weeks of having meetings with banks, speaking with local farmers, having numerous discussions with other people working here, the women concluded that they don't want a loan, they'd prefer for us to just give them the money for free. A "risk free business", the owner of the company told me. Well, that goes against the whole idea of microfinance, doesn't it?

Instead, therefore, I came up the idea of us building a very low cost vegetable patch (about $2.50) for the women, and they sell the vegetables and they would reimburse us for the materials when they sell the vegetables. They don't like that idea too much, because it requires them paying us back. Yet, we think we can convince them to agree to it this weekend when we speak to them again. Of course, we could just give them the money for free, I mean it'd only be $25 between 3 people; yet if Africa one day wants to be independent from international aid, perhaps it starts with small scale things like this. Well; maybe anyway.

Anyway, I guess I've just painted a pretty bad picture of this country. I must admit though, I seriously love it here. The locals are great people, I'm working with great people (a German dude and a Croatian girl), I play soccer most afternoons with local kids, and I'm on an island in Africa. I'll be here for another 3ish weeks before I fly to Cape town, South Africa, for 10 days and on to Perth where I'll find a car and head back to Sydney.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

One month in Iran

So, I just left Iran and now I'm sittin in Dubai airport waitin for my next flight, even though it's in 18 hours :(

Well. What an amazing experience! My bestie sam and I left Istanbul after waiting a week for our visas to be ready, and we took a 40 hour train to Erzurum (200km from the Iran border) from which we went to Iran by a few buses. 30km from the border some kid smoking a cigarette flicked his knife and pointed it at my stomach and said "money!" I was genuinely scared (he seemed tough cos he was smoking a cigarette) but luckily sam called his bluff and told him to fuck off! Anyone who knows sam pierce would find this out of character for him, and that's why I feel it necessary to write it here. Turns out he had the knife cos he was cutting onions! Ha what a shit job! Enjoy, you little shit.

Anyway, we crossed the border and went to Maku, Tehran, Esfahan, Khur, Yazd, then sam left. From there I went to kermon, bandar Abbas and qeshm island. I'm not expecting any of you to know these places, but in case anyone has a map or anything you could have a look.

Anyway, some of the things I accomplished:
Saw wild camels, rode camels, ate camel, swam in a salt lake (like the dead sea where you're always floating), slept on peoples roofs for free, went to a party in the desert and drank alcohol! (in a country where alcohol is strictly forbidden), danced with 2 girls which is also forbidden (they forced me to). Had many political discussions, countless free cups of tea (most from people who couldn't speak English), was woken up by the prayer at sunrise echoing through all cities, etc, etc..

What I liked:

-despite everything we see in the news, the people are amazingly friendly and hospitable (Islamic law claims it necessary to be hospitable to guests).
- People will always invite you in to their houses, give you free tea, directions etc. I did not meet a single unfriendly person there. I also received free Internet in Internet cafes, free food, accommodation etc etc.
-most people, and not just the young people, are open minded and seriously hate the government due to all the restrictions they impose. I can't tell you how many people told me how much they "fucking hate our fucking government" and some told me they could get me alcohol if I wanted.
- young people always seemed to be pushing the rules, for example girls wearing tight jeans and the headscarf really loosely, plus young couples subtly holding hands in public.
-Girls would always tell me how much they hate wearing the headscarf and stuff. I was quite shocked at this.
- the people, even older conservative ones are super tolerant about beliefs other to their own. I said I was Christian or atheist a number of times and people were welcoming to that (contrary to what the media says)
- Iran has a super low crime rate and thus you can always feel safe wherever you go, once again, contrary to what the media tells us.
- travel is really cheap, given that Iran has heaps of
- hitchhiking is the easiest ever and always safe. You will get a ride within a few minutes of waiting from just random cars, despite that many make you pay.
- there is extremely low homelessness, Islamic law bans begging. I guess that's one way of fixing poverty, right?

Things I disliked

-the fucking government and all their stupid rules! Girls have to have their heads covered always and men have to wear pants, even in 40 degree heat. One time I rolled my pants up to my shins cos it was so hot and a policeman made me roll them back down.
-the government will publicly homosexuals because the Koran says homosexuality is immoral or whatever. Iran is a religious state and hence the laws are determined by the Koran. I'm not trying to say Islam is backward or anything like that, but running a country in the 21st century on it's laws is completely backward. It would be the same as if Australia based all it's laws on the bible.
-it's taboo to talk with/ sit next to/ smile at/ make eye contact with women. Super annoying given that it's half the population you're not supposed to communicate with. You're not allowed to shake hands with women either, which is evident when the president goes on diplomatic missions he refuses to shake hands with any female leaders
- Iran has been cut off from the intl banking system, and thus none of the ATMs take foreign cards, so you have to take out enough money for your entire trip before arriving.
- it's hard to get fresh fruit/veges (most of Iran is desert).

Overall a very great experience, and I would definitely recommend going there given how easy it is to travel and also how different it is. Just don't get caught by the Gestapo doing anything illegal. I'm off to Kenya next for 5 weeks to work on a microfinance project, will write again in a month or something!

Healthcare in iran

It seems every time I go traveling I get sick to the point that I have to goto the hospital, to which one worries about the hospital bills. Of course I always have travel insurance, yet those companies will always do their best to wiesel out of paying/find a loophole, plus there are excesses and whatever. Just recently in Iran in hospital I was put on a drip for 2 hours, consulted 2 doctors, total bill =$10.

In Bangladesh, a doctor came to my hotel, did some tests and prescribed me medicine all for about $5. In Nicaragua, I received several injections, was on a drip, and received medication all for free.

Iran has terrible relations with the west, Nicaragua is the 2nd poorest country in the western hemisphere, and Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries, yet all three can provide healthcare for extremely cheap or free to their own citizens (let alone foreigners). Governments providing free/cheap healthcare for their citizens is the same within western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada etc.

Yet, within the USA, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, the government wont provide healthcare for all it's citizens, because the rhetoric is "we can't afford it." The result is a hugely inefficient and expensive private health system and an even more unequal society. Not to mention the fact that the average American citizen spends more on healthcare than any other in the world, despite it's shitness. And yet we have people like Tony Abbott who think this is the ideal system, "removing the red tape" he claims. Anyone who sees him or president Obama please pass this note on to them. Thx.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Almond picking and so on

So, I said in the last post that Mylene and I went almond pickıng in the south of Spain. We spent most of the time dıggıng holes ın 40 degree heat, and pıckıng the occasıonal almond. You know those cartoons where someone starts sweatıng and there ıs lıterally a puddle of sweat on the ground? Im not kıddıng, at one poınt I had one of those from all the sweat drıppıng off my forehead; and all the while Mylene was up ın the house lookıng after the kıds reading books, swimming ın the pool and playıng Uno wıth the kids. There were other workers from Byron Bay who were really cool, and there was endless supply of avocado whıch made ıt less unbareable. Never again.

Anyway, from here we went up the coast to a town called Vıllajoyosa whıch was pretty cool to relax for a few days. After thıs we met up wıth some of my close frıends from back home for La Tomatına, whıch was, (apart from all the southern cross tattoos) one of the greatest hours of my lıfe. Surely there ıs no better feelıng than throwıng tomatoes at people ın the face from poınt blank as hard as you can, especially gırls. 

 Now Im ın Istanbul wıth Sam Pıerce, and thıs mornıng we went to pıck up our vısas for Iran. Well, we attempted to. Sam got hıs OK, yet apparently they lost my applıcatıon or somethıng; even though I was already emaıled tellıng me ıt was approved. So I gotta waıt a few more days, and hopefully I wıll get ıt then. Its a really crazy process, I had to deposıt money ınto a Swıss bank account 2 weeks ago, and now we have to pay even more fees, about $200AUD all up.