Archive for ‘travel’ Category
For some time I have been pondering the issue of liminality. It is a term that appears in cultural studies and all sorts of post-modern rubbish posing as theory, but in this instance it resonates with me and seems to accurately depict a social condition that is increasingly evident in a multi-globalized world. “Liminality” refers to state of intermediacy or even indeterminacy. It is a condition of being caught in betwixt and in between, of being in two or more places at once but not being fully settled in any one of them. It is different from and more than hybridity, which is a combination rather than a condition, although hybridity can lead to liminality in some instances (say, a mixed race person moving between the different class and cultural backgrounds of parents).
In my frame of reference liminality is the condition where a person who has lived for significant periods of time in more than one country finds him/herself saddled with affections and aversions from each, leading to overlapping loyalties, and more importantly, a sense of relativism that destroys any notions of cultural absolutes or ideals. For example, the more the individual lives in different places, the more it seems to me that it is hard to get seriously nationalistic about any one of them. Even such small issues as sports loyalty can be a complicated matter. I, for example, follow Argentina in soccer because I grew up there. I root for Barcelona because it has a genius Argentine forward and a very Argentine style of play, but support Portugal as a national side in Europe because I lived in Lisbon for while and watched several of their players live as part of the experience. I support the ABs in rugby but switch allegiances to the Pumas when the play each other. I support the US in things like baseball and basketball, but then again tend to root for Greece in basketball because I lived in Athens for a while and the Greeks are crazy about b-ball, and cannot help but cheer for any small Latin American country when they play against the US in either sport (and truth be told, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have great baseball traditions and Argentina and Brazil have beaten the US in international basketball competition. Yay for them!).
Although I am not sure that they are sports rather than games, I have taken an interest in and support Singapore in table tennis and badminton because, well, I lived in Singapore for a few years and that is the only thing that they do well when it comes to international “athletic” competition (truth be told the national sport in Singapore is shopping, but they do not award medals for that). When not rooting for Argentina my default options are Chile (where my family lived for several years and where I subsequently conducted field research), Uruguay (where my family vacationed for extended periods during our time in Argentina and where I conducted field research in later years) and Brazil (where I lived episodically in the 1980s).
The sports angle is a minor one. The more serious issue is that as more and more people travel and settle across international borders, the more liminal they become. In many instances this occurs on top of an urban-rural disjuncture, whereby people transplanted from one to the other find themselves (at least initially) alienated and out of synch with the rhythm of life in their new locale. Think of a Laotian peasant or Somali refugee arriving and settling in Auckland. As with most new migrants, particularly those that are involuntarily re-settled, the pull of nostalgia for what was culturally lost very often overwhelms the urge to integrate and accept new values, mores and customs. It is only subsequent native-born generations that feel grounded in the new culture, but even they are often caught in betwixt and in between. One solution, particularly if the native population is hostile to new settlers, is to retreat in parochial defense of the “old” country or way of life. But even that eventually gives way to mixed feelings of loyalty and obligation to the old and the new.
Liminality occurs at the sub-national as well as the international level, both of which have been impacted by the revolution in transportation and telecommunications. There are consequently more and more people living in a liminal condition or state of mind. It therefore seems to me that “liminality” should be included in policy debates about things such as immigration, although to do that correctly we will have to wrestle the term away from the cultural relativists and other intellectual poseurs who think that trafficking in big words is equivalent to practicable and useful social research.
I am no expert on the topic so mention all of this merely as a subjective reflection. It is prompted by the July 4 celebrations in the US and comments by friends back there about how the US is the greatest country on earth etc. Yet most of these folk have never lived outside the States for an extended period of time, so how would they know? From my perspective it certainly has many merits and offers many opportunities, but in the end that is as much due to the its continental size and relative insulation as it is to the particularities of its people, politics and culture. Mind you, I feel certainly loyalty to the US as the country of my birth and whose government I once served, where my children and siblings reside, but that competes with my childhood loyalty to Argentina and current loyalty to NZ (which is where I expect to end my days. That raises an interesting sidebar: how many people actually think about the country or place that they would prefer to die in? I can say one thing for sure. Among other unhappy places, Afghanistan is not on the top of my list, with all due respect to the Afghans that I have known).
Who is to say that Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Bhutan or–the goddess forbid–Australia is not the “greatest” country? How is universal “greatness” as a nation defined? One would have had to have lived in many places and have done many different things in order to make such a distinction (I do not mention Aotearoa simply because we all know that it is Godzone). And if one did in fact live in many places doing many different things, it is more likely that s/he would be at a loss to pick one single place as being above all of the rest in every respect. That is what liminality can do to a person–it makes it impossible to speak about culture or nationality in absolute or definitive terms. I say this even though I am fully aware of the canard that states that “there is no place like home,” whereby expats use the experience of living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to their nation of origin (my parents did this for most of their lives). That may be true in some but not all instances, and I would argue that the more countries one lives in the less able s/he is to make such an assertion.
In any event, I write this as a person born in the US, raised and subsequently lived as an adult in Argentina and other Latin American as well as European and SE Asian countries, who resides permanently in NZ while continuing to travel to Australia, the US and elsewhere for professional and personal reasons. That pretty much defines my liminality, which I am not entirely sure is a bad thing.
As an antidote to some of the heavy discussion occasioned by Lew’s recent posts, I figured that I would interject with a mention that two weeks from today my partner and I return to NZ. The definitive return was delayed six months by an offer of a teaching position in Singapore, but that has now finished. All of the marking has been done, and other than a videoconference lecture by me, a brief holiday in Bintan and packing, we are done in Singapore. Although it has not always been the most pleasant experience, it has been interesting in many ways and we have learned from our stay. I expect that either individually or together we will write at least one scholarly essay about the place, simply because analyses of things like the gross exploitation of foreign low-skilled labor and domestic workers needs to be more widely exposed. We also have in a mind a comparative project using Singapore and Cuba as case studies–two one party authoritarian island states whose regimes were born of traumatic circumstances that were originally led by charismatic leaders, now in a slow process of political liberalisation in which the original leadership cadres are being replaced by a third generation of less battle-hardened and dogmatic cadres, and in which the attitudes of the younger generation of citizens are not shaped by the origins of the regimes in question.
There is more to the comparison–the state-centric nature of the economies is a structural likeness that defies the clear differences in macro-economic approaches–so it will be interesting to delve into the subject in greater analytic depth. I also have an interest in studying the role of the third generation Singaporean Armed Forces in the process of regime liberalisation, as its role as regime defender is being challenged from within and without the SAF by a new generation of “professional” officers more interested in meritocratic and technocratic advancement than cultivating political ties to the PAP, and who find echo in young professional in the civilian bureaucracy who are not as interested in joining the PAP patronage networks that underpin the supposedly “meritocratic” criteria for promotion to senior ranks.
I think I have a fair grasp on these subjects. My post on the Singaporean elections, along with the version on Scoop, got a lot of play in Singapore, most of it favourable. This a good sign because (especially Chinese) Singaporeans have a good deal of anti-foreign sentiment and reject being told, in spite of what economic growth and government propaganda lead them to believe, about the flaws in their system of governance and culture (for example, the endemic racism against Malays, Indians, Filipinos and Tamils by the dominant group that is codified in not-to-subtle legal jargon, as well as the simmering resentment of Anglo-Saxons in spite of the fact that the country can not operate successfully without them). The fact that I was not pilloried in the coverage of my essay indicates that, written in the appropriate manner, some of what I/we propose to research could provide a contribution to debates within Singapore about the future of the country. We shall see.
In the meantime we are looking forward to wearing sweaters and jeans, enjoying cool weather, breathing clean air and resuming the existence on the western slopes of the Waitakeres from whence we came. That, and contributing in our own ways to political and social debates in the land of the long white cloud.
NB: In light of Phil’s remark I have amended the title less readers think that I have developed some pop idol fixation.
It took me a while but I finally have moved back into my home in the Waitakeres and established an Internet connection. The whole experience has been out-of-body: transported from an SE Asian unnaturally manicured urban landscape into the sub-tropical wilderness overlooking a black sand beach. In the time I have been away the bush has reclaimed its place in the surrounds of the house so there is much work to be done in re-establishing a clear space before winter shadows set in. The silence and darkness at night, save the calls of the moorporks and a porch light, is simply incredible after 3 years of traffic noise and human chatter. I can now jog on a beach rather than on cement or a treadmill (which means that I will actually be motivated to do so). I can (semi-) safely ride a bike and swim in unpollluted waters. Rather than entirely store-bought produce I am now once again gathering chicken and duck eggs and using the garden for veggies (my tenant kindly left the garden in good shape). A neighbor moved his cow and her calf into my upper paddock, reminding me of the quality fertiliser production that would ensue from the natural lawn-mowing and weed control efforts of the friendly bovines. The simple acts of walking up and down stairs, chopping wood, shoveling, sawing, pushing barrows etc. is a marked contrast to the sedentary elevator and escalator-driven existance that cushions the Little Red Dot from the natural world. In fact, that was one thing that was startling about the SG experience–people no longer seem to know how to cope with nature, be it small animals or big rainstorms. Everything is delegated to the state for management and control, which is pretty much the antithesis of what is going on out in the West Auckland hills.
People are different too. From the crassly materialistic, commodity fetichist, money and vanity-obsessed culture in which I have lived for the past few years I am now in a place where people wear track clothes and gumboots in malls. The lack of pretense is refreshing, but perhaps that take on things has less to do with “proper” notions of civility and more to do with my working class orientation.
Be that as it may, such dress in public spaces would invite open derision and possible police intervention in SG, given that people dress to the nines before embarking on the national sport of shopping and shoddy clothing is associated with foreign workers who are considered to be inferior and criminally-minded by many of the local majority (I should note that this can happen in certain elite shopping districts in the US as well). The Asian fixation on cosmetic beauty and displays of wealth has been replaced in West Auckland by something more earthy, even frumpy or bogan (although this may simply be a Westie thing–I presume that if I lived in Mission Bay or Remuera there would be a bit of “sniffy” attitude there as well). Out in the supercity West, there seems to be much less of a concern about status and “keeping up with the Jones,” although I am reminded that equality and politeness goes out the door as soon as some people get into vehicles (this is especially true for middle aged Pakeha males driving panel vans). Children actually play, and with their parents to boot (with no maids in sight to do the housework and child-raising).
Then there is the racial mingling, which in West Auckland involves all persuasions consentually and freely associating but which in the Little Red Dot is either middle aged white males consorting with young Asian females or third generation Sino-Indian mixes (much to the disapproval of parents on both sides). Hence, homicidal drivers notwithstanding, it has been delight to return to a tolerant and diverse place even if I am re-discovering all the aches that come with living in a semi-rural environment. But that is exactly why I prefer to live here rather than there–this existance is grounded and real.
I have been fortunate in having word of my return leak to the media, which has resulted in a few interviews on topics of contemporary import (of which I will post more later). One of the interviews is here:
So long as that contributes to public debate and gainful employment in some capacity down the road, the more the better. I also may have some real business leads in the making, so fingers crossed that they materialise.
Anyway, this is just a quick brief on my return to Aotearoa. Many people may seek to leave NZ for greater economic opportunity, but as far as I am concerned this is the best place to call home. Once my partner joins me, it will be, once again.
Astronomers have apparently discovered — for the first time — a planet which is both the correct size and the correct distance from its star to support life. And it’s only (all intended irony) 20 light years away!
Ever-pessimistic, I await the inevitable debunking of this epochal development. But I’m not as bad as some people on twitter, who believe that we’ll just give up on the planet we currently have as we redouble efforts to reach the new one. Sheesh.
Update 20101014: Another group of astronomers, searching for the same planet, have been unable to find any evidence that the planet even exists. Oh well.
News that preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games are in disarray, and that Indian Games officials deliberately misled NZ and other foreign officials about the state of play with regard to the preparations, should give those responsible for sending the NZ team serious cause for concern. It fact, they should seriously reconsider whether sending a team is worth the risks. Several foreign athletes have already declined to participate due to their concerns about security. Other countries have delayed sending their teams and some are considering withdrawing entirely. NZ needs to do the same. No amount of temporary athletic glory–and the bureaucratic empire-building that rides on the back of athletic accomplishment–should overcome a reasoned and rational appraisal of the risks involved in sending Kiwis into a potentially dangerous situation. The hard fact is that unlike the football and rugby World Cups, where local and international sanctioning organisations work hand-in-hand to ensure that high standards are maintained across the board, this edition of the Commonwealth Games is singular in its lack of coordination and oversight. The results of that misadventure are now plain to see, and yet NZ and other countries have wavered about whether to send their delegations less they risk causing offense to the hosts that lied to them.
Let ‘s take just two dimensions of risk: health and security. Pictures of the atrocious conditions of the athlete’s village have now surfaced, including leaking and broken toilets, seriously dirty washrooms and bedrooms, bedding that has dog prints and human excrement on them, exposed wiring, broken windows, faulty lighting, garbage strewn walkways, staircases and balconies with defective railings–the range of construction and finishing problems runs the gamut. A pedestrian bridge connecting a parking lot to a stadium collapsed, which raises questions about sub par construction standards, possible corruption in the awarding of contracts, inept or negligent construction oversight or some unhappy combination of the above. Given the revelations that Games officials deliberately misled foreign delegations about the status of the construction project, it is entirely reasonable to ask whether this lack of ethics was pervasive throughout the build up to the Games, and what that means in terms of the integrity of the venues.
Let us take the concern further. If this is the state of the physical construction required to host the games, what will be the condition of the kitchens in which athlete’s food is prepared, the personal hygiene standards of those preparing such food, and the cleanliness standards of the public restrooms, food vending outlets and other public spaces in which athletes will find themselves? Will NZ be securing its own dedicated cooking and abolution spaces and if not, how does it propose to guarantee that its athletes will be free of the risk of infection, contamination and other human-caused disease (to say nothing of other maladies such as the mosquito-borne dengue fever epidemic currently raging in Delhi and to which the simple of solution of mass fumigation campaigns such as those used in SE Asia is apparently unheard of or not implemented)?
Then there is the issue of security. It turns out that rival Indian security agencies are engaged in turf battles that have impeded intelligence sharing and real-time communications. Although the Indian Army can be considered competent and focused on deterring potential threats, local police forces are less professional in approach and susceptible to corruption, infiltration by extremists and simple incompetence. Given that Pakistani-based militants have already issued direct threats against the Games and conflict in Kashmir has escalated in recent weeks, the scene is set for a major terrorist attack on the Games, be it against a foreign delegation, a specific event or the host arenas themselves. The NZ government is unable to give assurances that something nasty will not happen because the Indian government, for all its blowhard security rhetoric, cannot offer absolute guarantees that the Games will be safe (again, owing to distrust and disunity between national, state and local security agencies). In fact, NZ already has travel advisories in place for India irrespective of the Games, so if anything those need to be updated in light of the realities on the ground there.
The bottom line is the Delhi Games are not only in trouble but are trouble in the making. It therefore behooves the National government, to say nothing of MFAT and the NZSIS/NAB etc., to take the lead in determining whether it is worth risking NZ lives by sending them to a second-tier athletic competition in which their health and safety cannot be guaranteed. After all, it was the government that intervened to tell NZ cricket that playing matches in Zimbabwe was not advisable because of the nature of the regime rather than any specific threat to the cricketers themselves. In this case the threats are multiple and real even if the host government is friendly. Should not the NZ government be as concerned in this instance as it ostensibly was with the cancelled cricket tour?
It may be diplomatically uncomfortable, and personally disappointing for the athletes involved, for the government to pull the plug on NZ participation in the Games, but that is a decision that should not be left to those who were duped by the Indian con in the first place and one which should place more value on the long term welfare of its athletes than on the immediate potential for medals that they may accrue.
**UPDATE** No sooner had I posted this than cyclist Greg Henderson announced he was withdrawing from the games citing–surprise, surprise–health and security concerns (can you imagine riding in a cycle road race in New Delhi, where the safety and security of the racers over distances of more than 100 kilometers is entrusted to local volunteers and security officials responsible for keeping traffic off of the course?). That a cyclist has to be the first to admit the obvious, even if he is doing so out of concern for his long-term professional career rather than that of his fellow athletes, is indicative of the lack of wider perspective exhibited by NZ’s athletic overseers. Which is why the government needs to get involved.
**UPDATE 2** The army of cleaners pressed into service at the last minute by the Games organisers includes 7 and 8 year old girls. I wonder what their wages and terms of employment are? Also, various Indian officials have claimed that the complaints are evidence of Anglo-Saxon racism and enduring colonial attitudes. To which I say: Good job guys. Nothing like addressing the root problem full on.
It has been a busy year for travel. I was in OZ in January (pleasure), NZ in Feb-March (business and pleasure), Greece in April-May (business and pleasure), OZ again in June (pleasure) and am now headed to the US for five weeks (business and pleasure). My daughter is getting married (to a Republican!) and I have work to do on the Florida house, plus will vote in the state Democratic primary (where everything from dogcatcher to Senator is in play) and scout out opportunities for the political risk/market intelligence/strategic analysis consulting firm I have just re-started (I used to do this sort of consulting before moving to NZ, then switched into a media expert commentary focus, but now need to get back into the bigger game because I have been locked out of NZ and OZ academia as a result of well-known events). I am going to try and base the consultancy in SG and NZ with a Australasian-Latin American focus given my past experience and networks in the latter region. If things go to plan it will be the first dedicated political risk/market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy based in and focused on NZ’s relations with the Pacific Rim. However, the US offers more opportunity for a range of work along the lines in which I have some expertise, so I am going to use the trip to visit with old colleagues and work on any networking opportunities that may arise.
Depending on how things go I will likely do some more traveling before the end of the year. My partner would prefer that I not take assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which I find understandable. So I suggested to her that I will instead focus on Yemen and Somalia as possible work sites. You can imagine her reaction. All joking aside, there are plenty of places in which my background and experience could be of help to potential clients (both public and private), so I will try to use the US trip as a springboard to work that will allow me to return to NZ and at worst divide my time between there and SG (my partner still has the full time university job in SG and there is no point in her giving it up until such a time as there are academic openings for her back in NZ or OZ).
Put another way: I may no longer be able to work in academia, but that does not mean that a lifetime accumulation of research and analytic skills need go to waste. Plus, I am not good at being idle or a “kept” man. Hence I need to find intellectually stimulating work that will allow me to contribute to society, with my personal ethics and values being the guide as to what sort of work I accept or reject. The US trip is the first step towards doing so.
All of which is to say that I may be a bit quiet for the next week or so. I will try to post about events in the US as I see them in the build up to the mid-term elections in November. Things have gotten very strained in terms of political debate in that country but it is hard to judge what really is the public mood without living there. The wedding and related visits with friends and family should provide a good cross-section and sounding board on how people feel about Obama, the economy, foreign affairs in general and the wars in particular, and contemporary social issues often overlooked in the foreign press or export news industry. With any luck that will provide material for posts. Otherwise I shall work on my open water swimming, which has been neglected since I moved to SG because, to put it mildly, the locals waters are not exactly the cleanest on earth. Since the Florida place is 50 meters from the beach and the water there has not been affected by the Gulf oil spill (it is on the Atlantic side), it will be a nice opportunity to regain some of my surf swimming skills with a view towards using them in NZ once I finally make it back there.
Posted on 22:00, May 21st, 2010 by Pablo
It is not our custom here at KP to do anything other than somewhat serious socio-political analysis, but from time to time we break from custom and address lighter topics. Since I am undergoing some post-travel downtime and decompression, I thought that I would write up a few notes about some of the travel experience involved in the Greek trip.
Transportation: We flew Qatar Airways from Changi International to Doha to Athens and back. Changi is the best airport I have ever encountered, with an ease of transit and conveniences that put US and European airports to shame. The long-haul flights to and from Doha were on an Airbus 330. The plane is roomy in the Qatar airlines configuration (we flew economy class), the food is decent and the service prompt, efficient and courteous. The flight attendants were mostly female and wore stylised uniforms that were a mix of office professionalism and traditionalist throw-back (that is, not as functionalist as Western uniforms but nowhere close to the eye candy efforts of the so-called Singaporean Girls who are the cabin crews on SIA). Toilets in economy class were relatively spacious, well-equipped and kept clean by the cabin crew (a major plus given the different cultural approaches to toilets on the part of the wide assortment of nationalities that travel on that airline). The seat back entertainment systems was the best I have ever encountered. I listened to classic jazz for most of the 7 hour trip, plus watched a new release movie and some sports and comedy TV.
The flight from Doha to Athens and back on an A320 were more cattle-car like (3 abreast on either side with two toilets in the back). Food and service were OK but there was a distinct downgrade in the overall experience. The in-flight entertainment was limited to a movie on overhead screens and a limited amount of music (although I did take the opportunity to listen to Arab and Indian pop musak as well as sung versions of Koranic verses, which–I kid you not–are available on channel six of the audio on both flights). I think that the diminished service on th Athens-Doha flights might have to do with the fact that the route appears to be a shuttle of sorts for workers going to and from Doha, whereas the long-haul flight to Singapore is used more by leisure travelers and more upscale busness types. In general, though, the Qatar airline experience in the air was a good one, although it is discomfiting to hear the pilot say that Inshallah (“God willing”) we would arrive at our destination on time. I personally would prefer that the machine and the operator, rather than God, handle the schedule.
There was a less than stellar point during the trips and that was Doha airport. If the Qataris want to emulate the UAE and become a major tourist destination and transport hub, they need to think about that airport. Services are limited, no alcohol is served, security is a joke (consisting mainly of people being made to take off belts while computers and assorted other large packages are sent through the xray machines with nary a glance from disinterested monitors), and although modern in appearance the toilets are medieval in fact (no loo paper, irregular cleaning leading to accumulated evidence of people standing on toilet lids, assorted nasty rubbish littering the stall and pools of black water from washing hoses accumulating in and around the stalls, groups of people using the wash basin areas as socialising points). The terminal is one long concourse with limited internet access zones. Passengers are ferried to and from planes by buses (somewhat like the shuttles at Dulles international), but these buses often stop on the tarmac and wait for anywhere up to 20 minutes before disembarking passengers (which, since there are standing crowds on the buses can be a nightmare for people with small kids and/or physical disabilities). Access to planes is via old-fashioned staircases and there is no evidence of regard for disabled passengers (who presumably get hoisted up on the service access platforms). Thus, while the hub and spoke nature of Qatari Airlines operations makes for efficient on-time arrivals and departures (barring a mechanical at one of the spoke destinations), the overall airport experience was so-so.
I will say that as far as people watching experiences go, the Doha airport was quite fascinating. The full gamut of Arab culture is on display, and the fact that Qatar airways has direct flights to places such as Kabul and Kathmandu makes for a variegated passenger demographic to say the least.
By contrast, the Athens airport was a bit like being caught in a 1970s time warp (even though it was opened just before the 2004 Olympics). Flat, spartan, also using buses from the terminal to the plane, it was clean, efficient but somewhat lackluster in comparison to, say, Auckland or Sydney. It was not terrible by any means, but it did not stand out for any reason other than that it has good Metro/train access and a small archeological museum that has a sampling of Greek artifacts dating back to 500BC.
While in Greece we used taxis, the Metro, a suburban commuter train, a tram (to the near-Athens beaches), a rental car, ferries and Olympic Airways. Although Athenian taxi drivers are notorious for being thieves, we encountered the two honest ones coming from and heading to the airport upon arrival and departure. 35 Euros is a fair price to pay (higher from the airport due to airport taxes and higher if one calls a taxi in advance). Taxi drivers will often refuse fares for a variety of reasons, but will almost always take an airport fare because of the money to be made (the airport is 25 K outside of town and the meter rate is 10 cents per 1/10K, so an operating meter looks like a slot machine on speed). They also have a habit of trying to add passengers to already existing fares, a custom we declined to indulge.
The Metro is pretty efficient and runs from the airport to the port of Pireus (where the ferries are) as well as downtown and the East, West and Northern suburbs. However, while the number 2 and 3 (red and yellow) lines are modern, timely and relatively uncrowded, the number 1 (Green) line, in existence since the 1900s, can be irregular in its service and an absolute sardine can of pushing, shoving, sweating humanity. To that can be added ongoing track works that have closed stations at several points on the route, forcing passengers to use buses between the affected stations. Since our station was one of those so affected, we often opted to walk a kilometer to a number 2 (red) line transfer station rather than waste 20 minutes riding the number 1 (green) line in the other direction in order to catch a downtown train.
The tram was a waste of time. It takes over an hour to reach the end point from downtown Athens, a total of less than 15 kilometers. The tram literally crawls along while still in Athens–heck, we saw people walking faster between stations than we were going! The suburban trains are fast and on schedule albeit graffitied. The best part of the urban mass transit experience is that we could buy a 10 Euro weekly pass that allowed us to travel anywhere on the Metro or tram lines for an unlimited amount of rides–excellent value for money.
Olympic Airways was on-time with good service. We flew over in a 30 seater to Samos and enjoyed the service (we went to and from the airport on that trip by using a combination of the number 1 Metro and suburban train, at a cost for the two of us of 12 Euros each way). On Samos we used a rental car, which was fine except that unannounced road detours into small town side streets quickly saw us trapped in maze of cobblestone alleyways that were too narrow for cars to transit. Let us just say that the rental car was the worst for the wear after that particular trip, but that the all-inclusive insurance we purchased (for a total rental cost of 29 Euros/day) covered the costs of the remedial panel beating. Road signage on Samos was minimal once off the main (two lane) roadways. In Athens street signs on surface streets other than main arteries or highways are small and poorly placed or obscured by vegetation and man-made structures.
The ferries are many, large, fast and slow, and go to every Greek island as well as Italy, Croatia and Turkey. We opted for a fast ferry to Santorini (4.5 hours) with stops in Naxos, Ios (party central, apparently) and Paros. The cost per passenger on the Hellenic Seaways fast ferry was around 75 Euros one-way (we chose business class, which quite frankly at 10 Euros more than regular class was not worth it). Slower ferries cost less but the travel time is much longer–the trip to Santorini would have been 8.5 hours, and a trip to Samos would have been 12.6 hours one-way. We met some Australians who had taken a Blue Star slow ferry to Santorini from Mikonos and it took them 12 hours sitting on an outside deck under a tarp on wooden deck chairs, an experience they chose not to repeat. The ferry we traveled on was comfortable, but we learned not to travel on Sunday afternoons because the entire Athenian middle class apparently ups and leaves for the islands on the weekends, making the return on Sunday evening an experience in maritime mass dynamics. Overall the fast ferry experience was good. We traveled to and from the ferry terminals in Pireus by the number 1 (green) Metro line, which involved one of those Metro-to-bus transfers mentioned earlier. It took about an hour each way with the bus transfer included, and would have only been 30-40 minutes without it.
Living Conditions: Athens is a large sprawling city with 4+ million people in it. We lived in a decaying lower middle class neighborhood with many immigrants (mostly illegal). Although the tourist and downtown areas are kept clean, the near-suburbs such as our (Agios Nikolas) are very dirty and crammed with vehicles parked haphazardly anywhere space can be found (including street corners and footpaths). Due to the dryness of the climate and the Athenian lack of concern with vehicle aesthetics, dust-covered cars are parked everywhere, often in damaged condition. No one seems to mind and their is no enforcement of parking codes (should they exist). The same goes for the illegal street fairs every Saturday. Gypsies (Roma) and assorted other street level entrepeneurs appropriated the streets adjacent to a legal street market in order to sell their (literally) rag-picking wares. One of them was ours (as mentioned in a previous post). Although neighbours complain and the cops periodically roust them the street fairs continue because they serve a market function. The proof of this is that crowds throng to them.
Large rubbish skiffs outside of buildings serve as collection points (rather than individual rubbish collection bins), which normally are collected 2 times a week. However, during times of strikes the collection schedule is disrupted, which meant that on a couple of weeks they were filled to overflowing and beyond. That, coupled with the fact that people disregard the specially designated recycling bins and throw anything into both types of container, led to a couple of weeks where garbage literally filled the streets. On top of that people walk dogs without picking up after them and many males have a penchant for urinating in the streets, so the street atmosphere can get a bit dodgy from an aesthetic, if not hygienic standpoint (to the point that my partner used to wash her shoes or leave them outside of the living area of our apartment). Traffic is chaotic, with few if any rules of the road applying, so crossing streets can be a life or death issue for the unawares or uninitiated.
We had two small supermarkets within 100 meters of the apartment building and a Metro stop 60 meters way. Food and wine was relatively cheap and we splurged on olives, cheese, yogurt and red wine, which are very affordable and of good quality. Most apartment buildings are four to ten story walkups, with most of the pre-1980 buildings having no elevators (ours was built in the 1950s). Tall buildings are either downtown or in suburbs further outside the city centre, and what homes we saw in the near suburbs tended to be semi-detached rather than free-standing. City blocks such as ours are full of small businesses–a locksmith, electronics vendor, fish mongerer, a dairy, a small medical clinic, plus a flower, veggie and bottle shop as well as a small restaurant were located on our block alone (and this may not be the full list).
The climate is wonderful in spring, warm and very dry (that means infernally hot in summer and unusually cold in winter). Temps in late April-mid May ran from 15-30C and we saw just two spatterings of rain while there (4 weeks). Because there is relatively little industry in Athens, air pollution was surprisingly low and confined to vehicle emissions from what we could tell. We had a nice balcony outside our apartment (which itself was a nice small one bedroom that we found on-line), so we enjoyed al fresco breakfast and dinners while watching either blue or starry skies. Much as in Latin America, middle and working class people like to hang caged songbirds on their balconies or windows, so I, as a Latin American-raised bird fancier, found that continued tradition to be both quaint and enjoyable (especially since the songs of canaries and finches helped mitigate the street noise). People on the street were a bit cold but most service staff were quite friendly in spite of our limited Greek communication skills (mine were limited to saying “excuse me” (used mostly on the Metro), ”hi,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “thank you very much”). Many people speak English so we never had a real problem communicating. Although perfectly safe by day, we did see a deterioration of the street scene at night, to the point that we saw few females on the street after 10PM (which was proportionate to the number of drunks or shifty-looking males we saw). Greeks tend to be very loud, and we were consequently treated to a variety of arguments and domestic disputes wafting up the and down the apartment blocks. No one seemed to mind and no one intervened.
All in all, although the neighbourhood had clearly seen better days, the overall living experience was quite bearable, if at times a bit gritty.
Two points worth noting, one as a curiosity and the other as a warning. First the curiosity. For some reason Greeks do not throw loo paper down the toilet but instead place it in rubbish bins after use. We heard various explanations for this practice, usually either due to culture or narrow plumbing. Now, I have lived in some very primitive places and was raised in Latin America in the 1960s. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere I have lived have I seen anyone use rubbish bins for toilet paper disposal when there was access to working flush toilets. Nor can I imagine that the modern (post 1948) Greek state would permit the construction of antiquated, prone-to-backup sewage systems. Thus I find it hard to believe that the custom has its justification in plumbing. And yet in airports, hotels, restaurants–pretty much everywhere– we saw signs advising against flushing toilet paper down the loo. I shall spare you the details of the hygienic reasons why this is not a good practice, but suffice it to say that it made using public conveyances something of an ordeal and added a whole other dimension to the street rubbish bin experience. We were told that the Turks have the same custom. Could this be the real Mediterranean Ethos?
Secondly, a warning about street crime in Athens. The economic crisis has its impact at this level. Mostly blamed on immigrants (who I do not think are solely to blame), street-level crime has risen markedly in recent years. While there I had someone attempt to pick my front shirt pocket on a crowded number 1 (green) metro train. Using a jacket draped over his arm as cover for his working hand, the thief was working with a partner, who attempted to distract me when I grabbed the pickpocket’s fingers (he obviously was not a skilled pickpocket). They then both dug their elbows into me from either side (the train was packed) as I spoke loudly to my partner that I was having my pockets picked. Concerned about their possible use of knives in very close quarters, I merely elbowed back until the next station, at which point they got off and blended into the crowd. The point to note is that these type of thieves work the tourist traps served by the Monteseraki and Omonia stations, especially on the number 1 (green) line, which tends to be more crowded and has easier on and off access than the more more modern lines. Plus, as our landlady noted, the thieves have expanded their targets outside of tourists, so particular care must be taken when riding crowded trains (they do not like to operate on the less crowded lines because of the lack of concealment opportunities).
In retrospect I remembered how they had jumped onto the train at the last moment and positioned themselves besides and behind me as the crowd crammed in. I also recall a young woman followed us at the preceding stop (Monteseraki) after we got on as we moved down the carriage as the crowd pressed in, and that she was standing on the other side of the pickpocket as he leaned into me. I now think that she was the spotter for the team and had signaled her partners at the next station (Omonia) as to who the target was. In any event, our response was to practice heightened situational awareness while on trains or in tourist areas, dress more like the locals (conservatively) and travel light with limited cash well concealed.
That is not all. On the morning that we took the ferry to Santorini we decided to walk (at 5AM) down to the next Metro transfer station rather than deal with the out-and-back issues produced by our nearest station’s partial closure due to track work (we had a 7:30 ferry). As we walked in the cool stillness of the early morning on a side street along the tracks we saw ahead two individuals who appeared to be breaking into cars. Since we were both carrying backpacks (which hindered escape) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and opted from a block away to divert back onto a more trafficked and well-lit street. That proved fortuitous, as the individuals we spotted a block away did the same thing upon seeing us, quickly moving to intercept us on the better-lit and traveled street, only to be thwarted by a man who had come out of his apartment and walked alongside us as we made our way down the centre of the street (the street being well-lit but the footpaths not so). As the presumed thugs approached and passed us it was clear that the presence of the other man was an impediment to action. The point being that in a neighbourhood with no tourists we provided a convenient target of opportunity (with our backpacks signaling our vulnerability) to (presumed) street hoods already plying their trade with impunity. Although you had to be there to test the case, for those who might think that I was just paranoid in my reactions, let me just say that I am the type of person who is not shy of walking away from a fight….but I also know when the odds are against me.
All of which is to say that the Athens experience can be very interesting and fulfilling, but that due caution is advised when in the restroom as well as outside of it.
There is more to the story but this sums up the main points in broad strokes. Should readers have other inquiries I am happy to oblige as much as I can.