A Big Deal For Who?

The media and general populace gets bored very quickly of stories and especially when they are outside your own borders. The arrest of the drug trade’s most wanted man Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might seem like news and good news but it won’t affect anything on the streets, in the homes and the clinics in the US. The price of the drugs, the hopelessness of the addicts and the destroyed lives of the families won’t change.

The politcians and state don’t want to publicly analyse the obvious causes of the issues in Mexico and would rather celebrate the capture of this guy. The media fails in it’s role too. It will turn out to be a hollow victory again. He’ll be replaced in the cartel and on a FBI/DEA poster. They prefer an enemy rather than an evaluation. The FBI might have a victory here but the war unleashed in Mexico is only going to continue in the long haul and get worse in the short run.


Peter Singer, the academic relayed a story last year about the Polish and Ukrainian foreign ministers meeting. The Ukrainian FM asked about the cost of his Polish counterpart’s watch. $165 was the reply. The Ukrainians scoffed and told him his watch cost $30,000. The Pole replied that he needed his watch for hiking, to tell him GPS and practical tools. He then asked the Ukrainian why he had his watch.

Any country where there are people known as oligarchs in the modern era has clearly making a stumbling start to life. Oligarchs can become respectable and respected. Take the families in Korea who started out as the chaebols, family conglomerates protected by the South Korea dictatorship Park Jung Hee. Today Samsung and Hyundai are world leaders in their field using innovation to even if they got there by copying Japanese technology!

_73164220_021266296However oligarchs from carving up the resources leads to vast inequality as the near-monopolies seek to compete in the global market which puts pressure on the wages of the plant workers. The real issue though is how you get in control of the resources in the first place. Oligarchs like licensed merchants seek the approval and protection of the leader. In a centralised power like Russia it works as long as the great leader is working in a fairly benevolent way. Putin famously sat down the oligarchs in front of cameras and berated them for closing a plant, talking of their responsibility to the nation.

This wasn’t the first time Putin has reminded these men of their responsibility. When he first came to power, in a secret meeting he famously told them who now ran the show and who they worked for. As it turns out, it’s him! This is where guy like Berezovsky fell out with him and then was found hung in the shower. Khordorkovsky made the same mistake.

Ukraine is all across the news of late, the latest country to descend into protests and demonstrations rather than waiting for the ballot box. However in the Ukraine the trouble runs deep. The spark for the crisis was the failure to sign an accord with the EU after years of negotiation. The President Yanukovych’s reasoning was it would open up the economy and not give much back. The fear was protected markets in the east of Ukraine would be vulnerable to foreign products. This is true but also the price of modern economics. If you want quality at a good price, the market is the best place to provide it. If you want to protect vested economic and social interests it’s not. Others would contend Yanukoych is in the hands of the Russian state.

Further Russia feared it would open up their economy, a far larger market to European goods via the backdoor. Again this would affect the same interests. These interests are of course viable concerns. They shouldn’t be downplayed. Poor economic performance doesn’t just affect political lifelines but also real lives. Sometimes many would prefer continuing along. The strain of the market can be overwhelming and would greatly impoverish parts of the Ukraine in the short-term.

GTY_ukraine_protests_sk_131204_16x9_992What happened next was the dealbreaker. The President, a man with his powerbase in eastern Ukraine agreed a bond and finance deal with Putin. Here are some generalisations for you. The Ukraine is divided along language and cultural lines. The east speaks Russian as a first language The west Ukrainian. The east looks to Russia. The west to Europe. The east is the economic powerhouse with cities such as Donetsk and Kharkov making money in metal production and manufacturing. The west is the cultural home of Ukrainianism and its cultural heart.

The lack of protests in the east is symbolic of how and where the country is going. We’ve seen this belligerent divide in Thailand and Venezuela recently but for different reasons. As noted in Syria, once they harden into camps, the country descends very fast and the nation, if it ever did, exists solely in the past. The pretence may continue on the official level but as the Southern Irish often say, they’re different up North.

Russia of course has a history of interference to protect its Russian speaking brothers. Look up the interventions in Georgia, Serbia, Chechnya and Azberbaijin for evidence. Its defence of the Syrian regime is another example of its strategies. Remember the threats to European gas supplies or turning off the internet in Estonia! It doesn’t play by the rules, using hard power to force issues. A stubborn Russia is a tough nut to crack.

Russia is genuinely worried about its market being flooded but there is also the long-standing (and now ridiculous) worry over encirclement by the West. It prefers it’s borders to be run by strongmen and in the east and south, it’s generally got it’s wish. But those days are over even as Russia maintains a pseudo-democracy home.

131130104754-ukraine-protest-03-horizontal-galleryThe only way out of this crisis is political. No one is calling for a split in the nation as yet. It’s a test for the major powers. Can the EU finally gets its act together, put national interests together and become a true supranational force? Will Catherine Ashton have her heyday? Will they work alongside the US to stand up for democracy and to Russia? Will the Ukraine find a way out of its oligrachy and find new leadership? A lot will depend on when east Ukraine finds its voice.

Love in the Middle East aka I Went to Qatar and My Penis Died

3829_10152178475240602_108634564_n (1)Curiously when living abroad, it is the local mothers who most often say ‘you should find yourself a (insert local nationality) girl.’ Most of the time that’s fair suggestion. But it’s not a line you’re likely hear here. ‘It’s not the place for a single guy mate’ is a more common refrain and one of the first comments I actually heard when I arrived from a married mate Matt. I had previously cracked a joke to another member of staff. It was a Wednesday in November and she said ‘just try and get to Christmas.’ I replied ‘I’m just trying to get to the weekend right now.‘ That previous comment from Matt stayed with me throughout my time in Qatar and accounts for some of my behaviour inside and a hell of a lot of it outside the country.

I’ve been meaning to writing this for a long time, a kind of accompaniment to the Weddings in Qatar blog from a few months back. Time’s been against me. However here I am now. I had a great time writing this. I’m constantly on the verge of laughing, constantly close to slapping myself before the big smile invades my chops. With that I am about to say, how have I managed to stay it out so long? I’ll be asking that very question sat in a pub or on a beach for years to come. The surrealism can only rival my stories from North Korea, the mental asylum in Kiev or that night AC and I realised we were in a Kenyan whorehouse. What happened to those nights?

I’m a fairly balanced individual in many ways but this country has frustrated me in many. Travelling and working abroad look similar and sometimes feel it but they have very different outcomes. Travelling allows you to skip in and out, taking the best, raising a quizzical eye at the odd and avoiding the worse elements. Hey Georgia might be full of bad drivers and some of the most banged up cars in the world but hey, that’s fun. When it becomes part of your everyday existence, it’s more of a ‘ahhh shit, really?’ Most expats moan at some point. But you adapt according the the laws of culture shock, learning to accept what isn’t available or different as a trade-off for the benefits. However trading your social life is frankly too much.

There are simple reasons for it here. The fundamentals in Qatar are the culture and the numbers game. The country is 80% men usually from the sub-continent working in low-paying jobs. The largest minority of women here are the Filipinos who mostly working in the service sector. Chatting a girl up in KFC is not really going to work! The Filipinos also all live together in mass houses. Going to a party there is an odd experience. When you ask who lives here, it’s a deafening, yet harmonious chorus. Filipinos like to sing. Of the rest of the population, they tend to be Arabs or Westerners and Westerners tend to be married. Take a look at the place, the desolation and you understand why.

Most possible relationships here are tricky because they stumble and fail on religious lines. The local population of Qataris is out-of-bounds. Despite the occasional Qatari seen in a nightclub, women are forbidden. There is actually a sign on the door. Meeting Qataris women in any genuine social context is impossible. But then why would you want to? I bumped into a woman the other day and the look of shock on the Qatari men’s face was telling. They were stunned. The other Arab women are closeted in their social grouping or amazingly virgins! I’ll never get that one. Let’s just say this is far from working in Japan.

Then there are the social meeting points like the office, sport, hobbies and nightclubs. I look around the office and the story tells itself. Most of the expat staff are married. Together they can bond and get through it. No sane, individual would hang out in such a restrictive culture for long unless for money. Yet there are plenty of single people here. But then you should look at some of them too! We have one guy in the office who gets nicknamed Warren after the brother in There’s Something About Mary. Others display cat collecting fetishes and forms of autism. The rest simply turn to drink.

Sport and hobbies invite similar people. The couchsurfing group and a lot of the meetups have notices saying this is not for dating. The frequency of couples even make the smallest plans difficult to pull off. Dinner involves a negotiation. Free time is allocated. A lot of people are here to save money and somewhat reluctant to go out. Others have study to do. And then here are the weirdos.

We’ve frequented the nice bars and nightclubs here a few times of late. I am trying to tick off places before I leave. When the 5-star hotels are your greatest landmarks, that’s what I will be ask when people ask me to explain the country. There are some flash, discerning places. They tend to be full of the more out-going of the Middle East, the Lebanese and the Westerners. Lebanese men have a difficult reputation. Despite being far more cosmopolitan than their neighbours, their charm with the ladies is only on display when they are winning. They display the same lack of charm when you talk to fellow Arab women. It becomes an ownership thing.

The nightclubs here also have their fair share of Filipino women, a smaller black African population and a smattering of hookers. Then the Indian men tend to surround anyone on the dance floor despite the best attempts of the bouncers. The clubs themselves are well-set up but differing shades of grey. They come across as high school discos. Inexperienced clubbers acting like school children or that wedding guest no one knows slowly inch towards a dancefloor drowning in bass until boom, Billie Jean comes on and everyone breathes a sense of relief.

One of the biggest social restrictions here is alcohol. You can buy it fine in bars and clubs and at the ONE liqour store conveniently located a billion miles into the desert but outside of a glass of wine or a cold beer on a ridiculous day, I’ve never actually enjoyed drinking in itself. I know. Get that round your head! Now I am not saying it’s a necessity (and I speak as someone who has barely had a drink all year. Yes Mary, that is true) but with the accompanying restrictions on meeting and interacting, it all becomes rather difficult.

All of this produces a kind of social limbo, a malaise, like a tightening round the balls until there is no strength left to hoist a salute. I say this here but the sense of relief, literal and metaphorical once outside the context is unbelievable. I mean truly bunker busting. I look back with great nostalgia at the times in Belgrade with Jan and Levi. God I was happy drinking a beer next to the river, visiting the mountains of Romania and other spots. I am an impatient guy. I like to see sunrises and sunsets. I want it all. But how many nights can I honestly I’ve enjoyed? Those that remain memorable. I count it on one hand. When in Europe over the last summer, I couldn’t help smiling and this continued into the spring. The difference is found in others too. Nancy was far relaxed once abroad. She is bored here but she doesn’t have the same options as I and sees opportunity to make a living while I simply see more strife.

It becomes a struggle to think of something to do outside of the gym. I’ve never been a TV watcher but with 1000+ channels, it’s clearly a mainstay of the Middle East and especially for couples. I’ve never wasted so much time on the internet and all because it is a struggle to find something to do and people to do it with. I enjoy coming into the office, dressed up and using it as an excuse to say ridiculous comments, overstate or overreact. It’s my opportunity to blow off some steam, try out new ideas and parody everything and everyone. Yet outside of the staff, I can’t genuinely say I’ve enjoyed the projects I’ve worked on. They are allegedly prestigious. Look at that gold watch! But what does that matter if you don’t care about who you do it all with. The means and end must be justifiable.

I mentioned Nancy in a previous blog. Without here I’d have died a little faster here. She’s been a little life-saver, going out for dinner, to Sealine, with me going round during Ramadan (the worst time of the year for weather and nothing being open) for the first dinner at dusk. We made the trip over to Malaysia and Cambodia where she proved excellent fun. But it’s not enough when it’s not what you thrive on.

1093975_10153210001390602_911423898_oUltimately life and relationships aren’t about just sex but about synergetic bonding, the feeling of mutual engagement and reciprocity. 2+2=5 and 5 is a lot of fun. The strength that comes with togetherness is a life-long necessity. There is plenty of research that shows touch is the most vital of the five senses. We can survive and live without sight, hearing and taste but without the sense of touch, human and chimpanzee babies (shamefully they’ve done these experiments with chimps) cannot survive. We remain the same.

That closeness and affection is what I am used to from my social network, a close-knit but disparate group where I feel at ease. That ease transposes into all facets of my psychology affecting me more than I knew. A friend here told me if you stay doing something you can’t stand or don’t respect, a part of your heart will die. Well they joke about that part of a men but maybe it’s true. It’s similar to Jan’s ‘rot away’ comment. And yet once I made the step to leave and make myself happier, the tsunami took the roof off.

I’ve been (and I will be) busy over the last few months but it still is what it is. Not the kind of place for a restless soul and especially a single one at that. I like faces and people. I like to have the choice to interact or retreat to my books, gym and study. But like travel, I go to places to see people rather than the sights, the dynamic sociology that built the towers made of mirrors. I can’t say I have never had a good time here. There have been experiences I’ll ever forget. This area of the world is culturally very different and if this was Morocco, Lebanon or Oman and a holiday, you would all love it. And you know what…it’s also not Saudi!

I completed this on Valentine’s Day. Everyone is away and I am barely speaking to someone else. Everyone including myself is somewhere else. I don’t belong here. Few of us do. I am going out for a run and then to play some pool. In a country with such social dysfunction, living a functional, strictly monetary life really strips you of what matters. Take it if you can. The Gulf is always the last resort. Few can and while I’m a hardy traveller, I am not an economic masochist. I miss the genuine warmth that invades my pores and brings us together over and above money, status and a possible house in the country. You know those places get very cold without someone else to warm to. Ironically in a blazing hot country, it can feel pretty cold here.

28978_10150204120975602_7381006_nI’ll be back and reckless for life by May. The Balkans will be my first stop. I’ll be in some Eastern European towns full of squares, tavernas or cafe with you, my facial muscles relaxed appropriately and a smile imbued with optimism and adventure. Some say make hay when the sun shines. Mark Kozelek would sing ‘life is short young man. Get out there and make the best of it while you can.’ I’ll value my bushels in a life lived in joy.


PANO_20130201_172821It was some year, different to others in its intensity and focus but still a worthy entrant. I feel I say this every year but it’s certainly true. Apart from living and experiencing the Middle East while in Qatar, a memorable experience in itself, I travelled to Dubai, Oman, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Lebanon, Poland twice, Romania three times, Nepal, Czech Republic, Armenia, Georgia, England three times, Scotland, Italy, Barcelona and Turkey seeing the capitals and plenty of other places in all. I’ve seen the mountains and the beaches, the sun and the snow. Friends have been made, re-met and re-made. I’m going to say with confidence it was a good year.

Newcomer of the Year Nancy in Doha. Great fun, funny sense of humour and wicked to boot.

Gary O’Connor deserves an honourable mention too. Great boss, Good drinker. Newcastle United supporter. Mildly crazy.

My Christ Its Been a Long Time

Meeting Jim in Dubai after 5 years Seeing Andy Carlin after a few years for a few hours opposite Reading Station

20130831_155848Meal of the Year

Eating Hungarian food in the middle of Romania Seafood in Cambodia

What the hell happened Last Night

Happy shakes in Cambodia

Vodka in Tbilisi

Sights of the Year


Edinburgh in summer

Inside the Sagrada Familia

The Tyne Bridge in glorious sunshine

The mountains of Nepal

Random Moment Award

Being in an Indian dance bar in Muscat. Truly surreal.

Cultural Event of the Year

The political protest in Armenia over the bus price hike. A direct and effective protest that puts our consumerism to shame. Want to get something done, dont subsidise the enemy!

Red Bull Flugtag event in November????

Sports event of the Year

Spain vs Uruguay

Meeting Seb Coe and Sergei Bubka001

Films of the Year Cloud Atlas – grand, pretentious, over-ambiitous, stirring, thought-provoking and visual stunning.

Musical moment of the Year Queens of the Stone Age in Gdansk

Book of the Year – I really didn’t read last year which tells its own story. Maybe Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman or the History of the Middle East to garner some background. Ahh no, The Life and Times of the Penis! Interesting read. But sadly I might only have read 3 books that year 😦

Bar of the Year Beach bars in Cambodia

Scariest moment of the Year The landing through the storm just before Christmas. Scariest of my life.

Big Balls Moment Mosh pitting in Gdansk with Olivia at the Heineken Opener in Gdansk.


Person of the Year Olivia. It was a fun time from the music to the mountains to the cities.

Would I do it all again? Hell yeah. I’d like to thank everyone for helping me along the way 🙂

Roll on 2014. This is gonna be good 🙂 Hope to see you soon

Just Trying To Get Around



Qataris love their cars. Living in a society with little public transport, an abundance of government help, a serious lack of evening entertainment outside of family and having a coffee with friends and a still very rural mindset, Qatari men in particular love their cars. They don’t simply play a functional role but provide an outlet for people to escape the stricture of society. A drive out for a coffee with friends (of the same-sex) is a vital pressure valve.

As you can imagine, with the money available here and the ridiculous salaries for locals, the cars are pretty flash. The car park at work (which I can’t photograph for you for security reasons) is full of high-end SUVs, Mercedes, Porsche and BMWs. At 5pm on a Thursday there is an unofficial parade of supercars along the Corniche. With petrol prices only just above cost and prestige found in status, having a few expensive cars is a given. As 5-star hotels are the only places to hang out in for the locals, the concierge has a decent job taking the keys.

It’s not only for Qataris though. The Lebanese men, the flashiest and most money-orientated of the Arabs are not far behind. The state of the roads would leave me with more concern. Women in Qatar can drive and often do. However they just as often have a family driver, usually an Indian or Sri Lankan who takes and picks them up from ‘work’ and waits outside shops as they peruse. The number plates seems adds prestige. The plates are simply in registration order. The older the registration, the lower the plate number dating some back to the 1960s. These now have  an auction value to them. The lowest I’ve seen is #340 worth approximately 700,000r or 120,000 pounds! (update: I spotted 127 in the Ministry car park).

Another Day in Doha

Another Day in Doha

For a country with such an organised traffic system, so many lights and so much money, I’ve never seen such dangerous roads. The white pick-ups are the white vans of these roads. Driven by Indians from the lower echelons of society, cutting in or across lanes is done with looking. The sense is ambivalence is astonishing.The roads are dangerous for the usual obvious reasons of speed but mostly carelessness, non-wearing of seatbelts and non-enforcement of the law by the police.

Further, the sight of drivers on their mobiles, kids standing between the front seats, drivers simply pulling into lanes without indicating makes you wonder about the sanctity of life. I have heard the comment that it was God’s will. 200 people are killed a year out of 4,000 accidents. It doesn’t sound a lot but this is a country with one real city. I see an accident every day. Last night there were deaths just down the road. Blood on the road is not unusual. The price of dangerous roads to the whole economy can be found here but within the GCC road-deaths are the third highest cause of death. In Sweden last year one child under the age of 7 died in a road accident.

The sight of bike riders bring out nostalgia and admiration in myself and probably shock in the locals. The new Emir is trying to improve the situation by announcing that every child born in a hospital will be given a car seat. A good move but it’s the police that need to enforce it. Further the old roundabouts which added a bit of charm to the roads are being bulldozed to become American-style junctions. While roundabouts are actually more efficient, when careless drivers abound, it’s better to keep it simple. There are now fines for jumping red lights of 10,000r ($2,500) and a 45 day prison sentence. But guess what, Qataris only have to pay the fine!

There is public transport in Doha but it serves infrequently and irregularly. The buses stop in the early evening and after that taxis remain the only way of getting around. They are cheap but are sometimes selective about their destination. Your best bet is simply to jump in and say your destination giving little time for debate.

The country is busy building an underground system right now due to open well before the World Cup. Who will use it I don’t know. The segregation into levels means the lowest workers get bussed around from the cargo containers they live in to the construction sites. If you can afford a car, petrol is so cheap, you get one. The expats are well-taken care of and the Qataris will never use it. Subway systems allow to go out without needing the car. It means you can have a drink and still get home. But when 6 months of the year the weather is so hot, you try to avoid walking outside at all who is going to walk to and from the stations? Like the World Cup, it’s another white elephant.

The discomfort of walking or spending time outside here can be exaggerated but the utility of and prevalence of parks and pavements is a serious oversight. Despite the lovely weather right now, we’re unable to walk around. Parks remain empty. Pavements are potted or non-existent. But walking and self-health responsibility isn’t on the radar.

It’s important to state the Qatari Government is trying. They have many initiatives and events and excellent facilities are provided for a cheap price. The upcoming Sports Day is a nice touch but when you have to pay 20 euros to enter, it takes the motivation and fun out of the run.  The lack of public swimming pools is an issue. They have to be segregated or you need to go to a hotel to use them. Gyms are available and women’s sport is especially encouraged but alas with such weather, little public transport and an ingrained sense of car, its not making much progress.

Hell I miss skateboarders.

And seeing a Ferrari being taken back to the garage on the back of a truck is very funny. The roads just aren’t built for them.

New Shoes

Photo1514It’s been a helluva month, rattled by like an old-fashioned train. I had dreaded it somewhat. Who doesn’t think January is going to suck but it’s been the best month here. The weather is appetizing here in Qatar. It’s been pleasantly warm in the day and 15C-20C at night, perfect for an evening walk along the seafront.

The contract at the Ministry finally came to an end tomorrow after 20 weeks of my life. I can’t say it’s been terrible but it’s run its’ course now literally and metaphorically. I’ve had enough of it. The sad news is we’ve signed a new contract to start the same but shorter course from mid-February. The good news is I’ve resigned (as of last week) and I’ll only be doing part of the course. I have to give 3 months notice so they can find a replacement. The sense of relief is great and I can barely keep that smile from my face. I can feel all that life coming back into me.

IMG_20140104_201709With 3 months to go, I have a clear timetable to work to. Outside of work its all taken off. We went to the tennis to see Rafa Nadal win the Open, saw Real Madrid play Paris St Germain seeing Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic. I’ve taken note, starting to run again and do some serious exercise. I ran the 10k run with some people from work without any real training. I found it easy enough which surprised me. It took 64 minutes at a gentle pace. Since then I’ve upped the pace, doing 5ks in 23 mins. My aim is to get it to 21 minutes and then run 10ks in 48 minutes. I’ll be happy with that.

Photo1513I’ve coupled it with a real diet too. I’ve limited my intake, removed most carbs, alcohol, cheese, bread, fast food and sugars. The diet here can be as brutal as the weather. Fast food joints abound and the temptations are too great. Fresh vegetables are cheap but they don’t often looks too fresh. In their places have come fresh vegetable, chicken, fish and fruit. With all this exercise, a cup or two of camomile tea sends me straight to sleep! Zehra and I had the Korean BBQ the other night and Nancy and I have been getting sushi on a regular basis. The best meal was the Pakistani restaurant the other night with some work friends, the best curry I’ve had in a long time.

After a paltry 3 books read last year, I’ve got right back into it and finished a Cormac McCarthy and books on wars in Congo and Indonesia already. Along with the academic reading I’m doing to help Amna, I’m getting through Conversation in the Cathedral by Llosa, a book on Cultural Sociology and Celines’ Journey to the End of the Night. I’m also doing my Spanish daily and taking Japanese lessons with a native speaker. I also managed to catch the Damien Hirst exhibit the other day too. Interesting if not artistically mesmeric.

Academia is a focus right now as I plan my return to graduate studies, hopefully at Leiden to do SE Asian Studies focusing on Indonesia. I’m getting my references from Nottingham. If I don’t get in, I’ll be heading to Kiev, Moscow or Jakarta. Either way I’ll be in Europe for the summer.

Photo1510Next month includes camping in the desert, camel racing and a day trip on a dhow plus I’m on the committee for the work Away Day. On top of all that I have a holiday to arrange. Iran I hope. If not, maybe, maybe Paris. Maybe, maybe.

Money Can’t Buy Me Love

Two years ago on the 6th of February I flew south to Colombia to visit a country I’ve wanted to see and to meet up with Gabriel and Claudia, some old Colombian friends. Today, two years later I am about to leave Qatar after 15 months here. Its been a whirlwind tour. Inbetween I’ve seen 29 countries I think, some such as Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Spain a few times. I’ve visited places I always hoped I would such as Armenia, Colombia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Oman and Bavaria. I’m lucky.

I tend to work (or not work !) on these 2/3 year cycles. 2008 was a year of travel down to Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. 2006 also took me through SE Asia, the US, Central America and Europe. 2003 lead me to South America and parts of the Middle East. I’ve now finished my time here seen Beirut, Oman and Dubai. Syria would have been on my list but alas that country is now fractured and broken. It will never truly be at peace again. Iran is the only one I’ve missed out on.

These trips now become times of reinforcement. I’ve seen plenty of friends and made new ones. Friends such as Ash, Christine and Em I’d not met for years. Others have become firmer friends. And more still are new to me but as I’ve mentioned in Qatar, I somehow feel these are friendships of circumstance, not insubstantial but we are all desperate for the ‘party to end.’ And yet there are many people I really like here.

I earn very good money here but the sapping of my heart is the key. It’s time to set up camp somewhere else. I am thinking Eastern Europe or the Stans. Some travel before that is due. Iran and Norway are on the list for this year 🙂 I’ll see you soon.


IMG_20121015_124335Last year, nay 16 months ago Jan and I conceived an idea. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go to Chernobyl. Jan’s always had a slight dark side. Anyone who met him before he met Jelena need only witness his black clothes and boots to understand.

Chernobyl is what they call ‘dark tourism’, a fascination with the morbid or underbelly of human existence. It can be found in post-colonialist institutions, the death camps of Auschwitz or Camp 22 in Cambodia or prisons such as Robben Island.

Visiting the power station itself was a bit of a non-event. The station is in the very slow process of decommissioning worked on by German and Turkish workers. The enormous sarcophagus covers the reactor surrounded by rusting pipes. On a cool, damp day it wasn’t much to see.

IMG_20121015_134636However that damp weather perfectly suited the town of abandoned town of Pripyat where the majority of workers at the plant worked. Built as an idealised version of the Soviet era, the preview videos from the 1970s showed the happy families playing on the fairground all bathed in glorious sunshine.

When the reactor overheated and began its meltdown, the workers and their families weren’t evacuated for a day. The fire raged out of control, nuclear materials spewed into the sky and the town of Pripyat emptied. Fewer died than you’d think but the effect was greater on the next generation with birth defects being common.

The town itself is still abandoned, overgrown and in great disrepair. Few windows remain, the contents of buildings are smashed and torn. A few cans of beer are strewn around the site indicating there clearly are some visitors other than tourists. Graffiti abounds but it is still a very eerie sight.

A 30km exclusion zone remains in force almost 30 years later but while radiation levels remain higher than normal, the woods and surrounding flora have recovered quickly. Indeed without human inhabitants, the boar population has soared.

IMG_20121010_155320The day out took 6/7 hours. After arriving back in Kiev we went for a beer and a lot of vodka. Curiously we barely spoke about what we’d seen. Pripyat itself leaves you feeling abandoned. It’s a cold, dehumanising experience. The ambivalence you feel is worrying and yet without a more personal connection or a more living museum, the whole experience is numbing without being particularly educational.