Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Some advice about travel advisories.

datePosted on 09:19, January 5th, 2014 by Pablo

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

On Liminality.

datePosted on 15:05, July 5th, 2012 by Pablo

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.

Beginning the end in the Little Red Dot.

datePosted on 13:33, January 8th, 2011 by Pablo

This weekend I return to SG for one more semester of teaching and research. It marks the beginning of the end of my stay in this interesting–some might say remarkable–SE Asian country, as I will return permanently to NZ in five months. While engaging in my academic responsibilities I will continue to build the nascent political risk consultancy I have established in NZ, chasing down some potential leads and developing the web site concept in order to reach a larger audience and client base. Come June I will be doing that full time.

It has been wonderful to have spent the last two months in NZ, and out on the Auckland west coast in particular. I made in down to the South Island for the holidays, but mostly enjoyed a remarkable run of weather as I reclaimed my home and restored my roots in the community in which it is located. In spite of its problems, I often feel that Kiwis do not fully appreciate how lucky they are and how (relatively) minor the majority of its social and political problems tend to be (some notable and unfortunate exceptions notwithstanding).  In the larger scheme of things it may not be exactly Godzone but it sure is a darn good place to live–and I say this having personally experienced the downside of NZ in the form of my direct exposure to unethical academic management and duplicitous politicians who say one thing then do another without regard to the costs imposed on innocents and the country’s international reputation. But even then, a few ethically bankrupt elites do not detract from the broader, more positive picture.

In any event I plan to compile a short “to-do” list of places in SE Asia to visit while back in SG (one mayor attraction of the country is that it is a transportation hub with many options when it comes to regional travel). Since I enjoy open water swimming and snorkeling, the top of my list is the Bornean East Coast, which I understand is unspoiled and non-touristy (which is why I have no interest in Bali or the tacky Thai resort destinations). I have been to Pulau Tiomen and Bintan, so want to go further afield in the search of reefs, surf and fish. If anyone has suggestions along those lines, I am all ears.

I will continue to post and attempt to contribute to NZ policy discussions while finishing up in SG, and look forward to what promises to be another interesting chapter in a life yet to be fully played out on either a personal or professional level.

On the road again, this time to the Great Satan.

datePosted on 15:49, August 9th, 2010 by Pablo

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.

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.

Chickens, scooters and dogs.

datePosted on 13:02, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I have done a fair bit of traveling, including to some underdeveloped parts of the world. I recently took a short trip to such a place from my SE Asia redoubt, and while enjoying the respite from phones, TV, radio,  newspapers etc., I got to thinking about human development indexes and how to score an area or community on a scale of economic, social and political development. I am not an anthropologist, so am not equipped to propose a real index, and for the purposes of this note will eschew social and political factors. What I am simply offering is my short-hand guide to underdevelopment, or for lack of a better phrase, the Pablometer of relative economic development.

You know that you are in an underdeveloped part of the world when there are scrawny chickens and skinny stray dogs wandering about, and where scooters or bikes outnumber cars by a factor of at least 10 to 1. In some parts of the world a pig in the yard is an added touch, whereas in others a goat substitutes for its porcine counterpart (since both of these animals are excellent organic rubbish disposal units). In some places, donkeys, burros, mules, cows, horses, yaks, water buffalo or sheep are added to the mix, but this represents a form of upward mobility since all require paddock, pasture or open country to graze (the latter most often pertaining to (semi) nomadic societies). 

As for mechanised transport, the rule of thumb is that the number of scooters on any given road will outnumber cars in excess of 10 to 1, and that adherence to road codes decreases in equal measure to the increase in the scooter-to-car ratio. In parallel, the scooter dominance is buttressed on one side by the use of collective transport vehicles, with the rule being the more open to the elements the rider compartment/platform, the more underdeveloped the place. On the other side of the transport divide, the number of human-power conveyances sharing space with scooters and lorry/bus/truck collective ridership alternatives is a good indicator of the recent arrival of popularly accessible mechanised transport.

There is, of course, the indoor plumbing factor. I shall spare the readers of the indelicacies of my surveys of this particular field, but suffice it to say that, for the Western visitor,  sitting is preferable to squatting, tile or porcelain is preferable to wood, indoors is better than outdoors, flushing is better than gravity and paper or water is better for personal hygiene than dirt or sand. The issue of potable water, of course, is a major determinant of where you are: water tanks with down pipe filtration is a sign of progress; water tanks without filtration is not. Water tanks with critters swimming in them are a sign of gastrointestinal trouble ahead (see above). Being able to use tank water for bathing, as opposed to bathing in rivers or streams, is a step up on the Pablometer scale. Being part of a reticulated water system is, by definition, a step out of underdevelopment and thus does not qualify for the Pablometer rating.

As for energy, it is assumed that being on a power grid disqualifies the locality from consideration by the Pablometer index. Instead, the ranking is determined by whether power is generated by generators (the noisier the better), whether these are communal or household, and whether they run for more than 4 hours daily. Depending on the geography, wind and water-powered generators may prove to be effective substitutes for the fossil fuel-driven alternative. Hand-cranked generators and paraffin lamps, etc., are lower on the scale.

Needless to say, there is more to the (under)developmental scale and I invite readers to add their own thoughts on the matter so that I can develop a more comprehensive Pablometer. I also invite readers to ponder whether (or better said where) in NZ there are places that can be considered for this index, and if so, why is that.

One final point is worth mentioning. If the people you are interacting with under such conditions have no interest or conception of the “tourist trade” or how to make money off of strangers in their midst, you are not only in an underdeveloped part of the world–you just might be in paradise.