Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Modern Guide to existing

I must mention the 'bus transport for dummies' system that seems to be in full force in this part of the world. Once upon a time it used to be a very complex affair of getting on, finding the least insane person you can to sit next to, and getting off at your stop. However, the helpful people at the transport service thought they could simplify things a bit by providing lots of aggreeively informative Situation? Solution! PSA notices everywhere you care to look.

Now while I am all for these crazy modern innovations that tell me such useful stuff as where I am and where I'm going, notices such as 'get on at the front, get off at the back, its logical!' seem too painfully obvious to bear mentioning, 'a backpack? better in the hand!'(what, and deprive myself of the joy of whacking fellow commuters in the face with my dangling straps?) 'a pregnant/old/childladen person needs a seat? be nice!' and what has to be my all time favourite 'bulky packages? avoid them!' (aka 'you don't have a car and you need to move something bulky? Don't use public transport!')
(as a side note, buses in London by contrast lack any information whatsoever, from the useful to the downright imperative - such as where you are and where you need to get off. In an effort to avoid more public intreatction than is necessary, bus drivers seem to respond to most questions with no, which as a number of high court judges would be thrilled to hear, often means yes.

This dumbing down of almost every facet of life that people in the western world undertake is something I'm noticing more and more often. Supermarkets have been transformed into a 'guide to living' in Australia with such useful ideas as 'don't leave your children unattended' on the supermarket trollies, and 'eat 7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day' in the fresh produce department (as an amateur global roamer, I'll just mention here that recommended fruit and veg per day portions is not actually standard across the western world).

Once upon a time, this guide to getting along used to be the domain of parables, myths and epic tales (for what was Beowulf if not a warning against the perils of excessive drinking?) however these have since been divided and relegated to their separate quarters of 'myths', 'fairy tales' and 'religion'. The Martha Stewart bible of the future could have a helpful hints section: 'unexpected guests? Turn water into wine!' 'scrumptious festive fare, loaves and fishes for the christmas masses!'

Anyway, provided you know how to read, you'll find that the modern guide to living is written down all around you. No excuse for being confused.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Politics of Coffee

Now that my life has a vague semblance of routine again, this is how it starts off;

Alarm radio goes off at 7.15

Absorb early morning news through haze of semi-consciousness

Something or other catches my attention and (more often than not) annoys me into a state of awakeness*, from where I stagger blearily into the kitchen to make myself a cup of ethical trade organic coffee.

Being a bit of a 'where is your coffee coming from?' freak and not the worlds biggest fan of multinational corporations, it was with some dismay that I was awoken into a state of annoyance this morning with the news that Kraft and Nestle are attempting to make their corporate inroads into the realm of Fairtrade coffee, except not quite as fair as they're only proposing around half of the compensation to local growers as the currently established Fairtrade price.

Now the very interesting logic behind this, is that on the one hand, the success of this niche market is attractive enough to make them want to join the party - while simultaneously claiming that consumers will not be willing to accept the price hike that would come with paying local farmers their due.


"We believe the majority of consumers are not willing to take the premium we would have to charge if we were to convert to the fair trade system."


"We believe in a sustainable approach to coffee production and... aim to reflect our beliefs in our product development. Nestle is always looking at ways to innovate and re-energize products."

(Sourced from The Guardian)

I find this quite an extraordinary logic bubble as, if the organic:sustainable coffee market is proving to be successful enough to attract the eye of the multinationals, then its proof positive that customers who are concerned about this sort of thing are, on the contrary, willing to pay the increased prices (which, by the by, is not very much more). Possibly they're talking about the combined effects of the price rise necessary to keep THEIR profits at the status quo, AND pay the farmers their due.

Its an interesting coincidence in concepts as I'm currently reading Naomi Kleins' No Logo, and the section I'm currently engrossed in deals with the phenomenon of multinationals 'buying in' to diversity - minority becomes cool (yes, we can market black feminist lesbian punk, its cool, its edgy, but its so yesterday, what next?) So is the next big multinational foray into the world of sustainable development? (albeit continuing with the ventures that have caused many of the problems in the first place). Turning sustainability and fair trade back into the exploitation machine? Does the non-GMO, organic, locally produced and sold, naturally fertilised hand harvested grass look greener now??

Though there could be another consequence to this. Conscientious consumers who drink coffee are hardly the sort of people you want to provoke.

*as an aside, if people everywhere decided to take a break from annoying the hell out of me, it's highly possible I'd never wake up again

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

How to..

get out of paying a public transport infringement fine...

To get to the appeals office before it shut, I raced from one end of Paris to the other in a record-breaking time of 40 minutes armed with the dodgiest 'I can not speak French very well' accent I could pull off, in an optimistic attempt to talk my way out of paying a 50 euro public transport fine:
"I did not understand"
"it was the first monthly pass I ever bought"
"they did not tell me" *struggles slightly with verb conjugation for effect*

Context? I'd been caught late one night down ye olde subway system with a monthly pass that DID NOT CONFORM (I hadn't got around to attaching an oh-my-god what happened to my face? replica of myself - aka a passport photo - to my pass) . While I tried to explain my laissez-faire attitude to the ticket officer using a subtle mixture of half-truths, ignorance and argumentiveness, I could tell from the look of aggressive disdain and barely concealed resentment that she wasn't buying it. Actually the pass was a spare that had been given to me a week before (however, confessing that a pass has been given to you is tantamont to declaring high treason before the state, best to keep that information to ones self).

So I had the choice of paying 25 euros on the spot, or 50 before 2 months was up (if not, the fine just keeps increasing exponentially until you have a sum resembling the national yearly expenditure on baguettes). Having no money, and not inclined to hand over 25 euros to the conformist police even if I was more financially liberated, I went with the delayed payment and an 'I'm a slightly confused female' explanation plan to get me out of it (no, where 50 euros is concerned, I have no shame).

You'll be thrilled/dismayed/uninterested to learn that my crafty plan worked, which only goes to show that dishonesty pays off.

The moral to this story is that, at best, some stories have ambiguous morals.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

old and dusty

So, after living in Paris for over two months, I finally hauled derriere to check out one of Europe's largest collections of 'look at all the stuff we stole from other civilisations' (though, granted, some of it was bought...) aka the Louvre - a building with a very long history having first been constructed sometime in the 1100's as a fortress (no-one needed museums back then you see, everything was new, but they did need to protect themselves from other folks set on stealing all their stuff that would itself later end up in a museum).

That's probably ironic somehow. Lets progress...

After a time, the Louvre lost its military significance and became a royal residence, where very rich people could loll about being decadent all day - until it got plundered by the English (amongst others) in the 1400s who came and nicked all their stuff to put in their own museums (told you it was going to be ironic, right?) Anyway, eventually it became a museum in its own right (after all the lolling nobles had their heads chopped off), though there are certain areas that make you feel like you're about to bump into a very annoyed man in breeches demanding to know why all these peasants are trampling through his hall

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Trading Places

If you're even vaguely Anglo-Saxon, or otherwise non-confrontational in nature, the thought of arguing about how much bewildering foreign currency to pay, while doing rapid conversion arithmetic in your head, for an item you're not even sure how you will get home/ if it will pass customs/ you'll understand why you bought once you get back to life on a comfortable mattress, may induce a hyperventilating panic attack. Never fear, I have a strategy.

Though generally quite argumentative in nature, haggling has never been my strong point...until I inadvertently stumbled onto a useful technique while I was slumming it in Hanoi; hook up with fellow travellers who are even more afraid of haggling, and more eager to pay whatever priced is asked than should really have been allowed for in the evolution of human behaviour. Once you have found said creatures, make sure you can tolerate their presence for longer than an afternoon. All going well, haggle for them. It's that simple. It's astounding how much easier the whole process becomes once the pressure of the sale is completely out of your hands, and the final decision to pay the amount settled on isn't yours. Doing this for a couple of days not only gives you the confidence to start bargaining for your own benefit, but also gives you quite a good grounding in what you can reasonably expect to pay for things.

Note: Individual results may vary, this new found power may go to your head and it may at some point be inferred that you are demonically possessed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Travel is only glamorous in retrospect ~P.Theroux

I could tell you a lot of really interesting travel facts about the Perfume Pagoda. Set amongt the limestone hills and tropical forests of the Huong Mountain region, I could tell you about the network of magnificent Buddhist shrines set in limestone caves. I could tell you about the strong women who shuttle tourists back and forth up the Yen River on flat-bottomed boats, or even about the deep respect I developed for the joyful elderly Buddhist women overtaking me on the climb up to the main shrine.
Or I could tell you about how I ended up sitting in a metal boat in the middle of an open river during a tropical deluge, feeling rainwater seep in through my ambitiously named raincoat to drench my tickets, passport and about a hundred dollars in ratty Vietnamese dong, while waiting to be fried into oblivion by the enthusiatic lightning storm crashing down around me.
Or I guess I could just tell you about the bit where I saw a dog being chased by a chicken.