Space

2016-01-05 16.04.51The lady with the big sunglasses steps inside the corner restaurant. The evening sun streaming in from behind lends her an aura of mystique, glamour even. As she gets closer the image frays. Another step and the sun gives way to the eatery’s strip-lit interior. The lady, teetering, makes her way over to the counter to beg for food.

Puerto Montt, Chile, a texture-lover’s dream-come-true. The wooden side-panel houses are nothing if not picturesque. Lime-green jostling with pink and brown, chipped and cragged. Always cragged. Over there, where the road comes rolling down the hillside like an oil leak. Over where the man takes miniature steps, carefully nurturing the small plastic bag with the yellowish liquid under his nose as if his life depended on it. Down below, the giant cruise ship hogs the bay.

The lady stumbles out, hot free lunch in hand. She’s mumbling something, but the Simpsons are playing on the TV, and the announcements in between are so loud I can’t smell my food, which is bountiful. ‘Fox +’ reads ‘Fox más’ in Spanish. I’m learning something every day. The new X-files are premiering at the end of the month. I can’t wait.

The sun’s almost gone now, but there’s enough light so you can see the volcano in the distance. It hasn’t roared in ages, but the houses remind one of what the earth can do. Always cragged, sagging. There’s only so much a thing or a person can take before so much becomes too much. On the opposite side of the busy crossroads the lady lies down on a knoll that should be sidewalk to take her dinner. She laughs, randomly pointing at cars and trucks and busses, and a limping dog.

I left my space-towel in the hostel in Bariloche. The kind of fabric that dries real quickly. You know in space, no one can hear you complain about stuff like that.

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No really, I love it here.

2015-12-31 16.24.08I was planning to write a blog entry every day. Seems I’m somewhat lacking in profundities to describe the insane beauty of this place. Big mountain make me feel small and insignificant? Sure. Mas o menos. Today I was confronted with the thing I guess mostly guys do when they get to the big thing. We try to get on it. Climb the hilltop. Bridle the horse. Tame the shrew. There’s something phallic about most male thoughts. Think about it… See? Told you.

To naysayers, I say: well, nothing. We need naysayers to keep amazing countries semi-affordable by staying the heck away. Thank you. I’m not being cynical by the way. My brain has mostly shut down. The part that isn’t thinking about climbing stuff at any rate. Which, I’m thinking now, is probably why it took me a while to get into the trip. I needed a perch. A couple of highs and lows to look back on.

The highs: This will sound weird to the ears of folks who know me a little -a very selective people person- but wow, I’ve met some fantastic humans. The sixty year-old Brazilian statistician who bought both his daughters a plane ticket -any ticket anywhere- every year because he wanted them to travel and see the world (as he was doing himself). The Chilean mechanic who hopped into his old Ford for a tour of Patagonia because, why not? The Uruguayan widow flying far and wide to outrun the unspeakable grief of losing a spouse to cancer. I thank all of these and other beautiful souls for accompanying me, however briefly. For what is life, if not a series of encounters? From a furtive glance on a bus, to those sticking with you for a lifetime.

The lows: Expectations, expectations expectations. I venture scientists could draw a graph, with a rare sweet spot between preparation and expectation. The more you prepare, the higher the probability of dashed expectations. Then again, I’d be the first to challenge said boffins: yours truly prepared jack. And still there’s the nagging sensation of missing out. Without it, maybe we’d still be living in caves. Perhaps this, combined with the desire to get on top of the thing, is why we sent those guys to the moon? Naysayers will ask: what good did that do? The expression is: I’m over the moon. Not on it.

I’m three weeks in now, and mucho past expectations. In the moment (albeit reflecting on the moment, hence your reading this. Thanks, by the way). I should have brought my hiking shoes. Stop. Let’s try that again. I’m going to Chile tomorrow. I biked myself to within an inch of my cojones today. I’m going to sleep like a baby. Yes! Goodnight.

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Argentina, I love you.

But you only want me for my money.

Maybe the nonchalant traveler in me took you for gratis. I mean granted. We started out so well, with an Excel sheet and a plan. A good plan. Thus many days here. Visit such and such. Tick tock. But travel does more than rhyme with unravel.

And I wish that dog quit barking already.

The problem is Patagonia. Too beautiful for its own good. She knows it. Gasp in awe at Perito Moreno glacier for instance. Zeus himself couldn’t have thrown anything from the sky to produce the unholy rumble heard as giant sheets break off and crash into the frisky water below. All of mankind’s cocktail ice produced to date, gone in a second. But the bus won’t pick you up for another five hours, and the pricy cafeteria nearby only serves soda. And humdrum sandwiches. I’m sure about the humdrum part anyway.

What is that dog barking at?

A week of running up and down every beautiful street of Buenos Aires, likewise Montevideo, and a day in the national park of Ushuaia proved too much for my achilles heel. For the time being, one hopes. Literally hamstrung. Okay, almost literally. My activity options are tragically, blissfully reduced. There is simply too much to see and do. For a price, you understand.

Back to business. And by business I mean the misguided adventure that is hitchhiking/bussing north from the end of the world. And hanging out in random places. Like this refuge for manic-depressive canines that doubles as a hotel.

No, I didn’t do the W on Paine del Torres. Next time, I promise. When I’m actually equipped for hiking. God forbid I read a guidebook prior to sailing off to different continent for two months. In stead, I was invited for dinner by Punto Arenas’s chief of police. I drank the best pisco in the land. Or so I was told. Then again, my Spanish is rudimentary. For all I know he could have been saying: “Shit-for-shoes, stop staring at my wife”.

Almost out of Patagonia now. By the skin of my well-orthodonted teeth. Route 40 is as spectacular as advertised. I see those poor guanacos, Argentina’s idea of a llama, stuck in barbed wire along the road in various stages of decomposition. They mostly hop over gracefully. Away from, or towards cars. It’s all the same to them. Hence ‘guanaco’ becoming Argentinian slang for flipfloppers.

I eventually did the sensible thing about that barking dog, by the way. Lobbing a large object in its general direction. Miraculously it did the trick. Who knew ‘cinder block’ was Spanish for ‘shut the hell up’? I’ll be back here. When I’m rich. Not in Hotel El-Disco, mind you. (It’s actually called that. Look for it in Los Antiguos. Actually, don’t.)

No, I won’t cry for you, Argentina. Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

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Saudi-Arabië, het (verre van) Islamitische Koninkrijk.

SaudiHet land Saudi-Arabië komt recent vaak in beeld als sponsor van de Islamitische Staat, rechtstreeks of onrechtstreeks, via leden van het omvangrijke koningshuis, zakenmannen, en rijke families. Ze zouden dit doen omwille van het Wahhabisme, de puriteinse strekking binnen de Islam waarop het land zijn wetten en cultuur baseert. Maar hoe Islamietisch is het land echt?

De Saoedische staat is gebaseerd op een verstandhouding tussen de Saud familie, en de nazaten van een Wahhabistische preker die rond het einde van de 18de eeuw een soort van Calvijnse revival beweging aanvoerde. Die verzette zich o.a. tegen een wijdverspreide heiligencultus en de vernieuwende interpretaties en Korancommentaren van de afgelopen eeuwen. Dat verbond houdt met ups en downs tot vandaag stand. De Saud familie bestiert de economie, de olie zeg maar, en het buitenlandse beleid, terwijl het religieuze establishment het openbare leven op streng Islamietische leest vorm geeft. Dieven worden de handen afgehakt, overspeligen gestenigd, you name it.

Die vroomheid vond ook zijn weg naar het buitenlands beleid. Met de enorme olie inkomsten werd vanaf de jaren vijftig en zestig imams uit alle hoeken van de wereld opgeleid, strenge moskeeën gebouwd en gesteund, waaronder de Grote Moskee van Brussel. De invloed op het openbare leven was voelbaar. Terwijl gedurende de jaren vijftig en zestig minirokken geen rariteit waren in de straten van Cairo tot Kabul, ging het vanaf de jaren zeventig langzaam maar zeker richting hoofddoek, niqab, en boerka.

Vandaag de dag presenteert Saoedi-Arabië zichzelf als een Islamitisch land, met strenge maar rechtvaardige wetten die voor iedereen gelden. Wie niks mispeutert, heeft niks te vrezen. Eenduidige, zij het draconische, wetten zijn één ding, maar zoals men in het Engels zegt: the proof of the pudding, is in the eating. Op wie worden die wetten eigenlijk toegepast, en in welke mate?

Royals ontspringen de dans.

De overeenkomst tussen de Sauds en het Wahhabistische religieuze establishment, geeft die eersten niet alleen een vrijgeleide wat betreft de praktische zaken van de staat, maar de circa 15.000 individuele leden van de koninklijke familie groot en klein ontspringen grotendeels ook de strenge wetten opgelegd aan de rest van de bevolking. Wilde feestjes, drugs, alcohol, en prostitutie tieren welig, niet enkel in de afgehuurde hotelsuites, van Cairo, New York, London en Parijs, maar ook in Saoedi-Arabië zelf. Met geld kan je veel kopen. Met veel geld, en dat is er, is de sky de limit.

Discriminatie.

Ongeveer 8 miljoen op een totaal van 27 miljoen inwoners van Saoedi-Arabië is afkomstig uit landen zoals Indonesië, Bangladesh, Yemen, Indië en Pakistan. Hoewel het merendeel moslim is, blijft uitbuiting, zowel seksueel als economisch, schering en inslag. Het probleem was in 2002 zo prangend dat de groot-mufti zich ertoe genoopt voelde erop te wijzen dat contractbreuk, intimidatie, verkrachting en chantage van werkers tegen de Islam ingaat. In de praktijk wordt de strenge Wahhabistische leest veelal toegepast als drukmiddel tegen arbeiders met een andere etnische achtergrond. Mishandelde hulpjes worden beschuldigd van diefstal. Verkrachte dienstmeiden die eraan denken naar de politie te stappen, hangt een aanklacht van overspel boven het hoofd. De overheid publiceert geen concreet aantal van ter dood veroordelingen, maar buitenlandse mensenrechtenorganisaties schatten dat meer dan de helft van de mensen die wachten op hun terechtstelling, Indonesisch is. Een echte puriteinse Islam, met zijn nadruk op gelijkheid binnen de Islamietische gemeenschap of ‘Umma’, kan je dit bezwaarlijk noemen. De vraag stelt zich of het überhaupt te rijmen valt met Islam als dusdanig.

Politieke repressie.

De Islamitische jurisprudentie, of toch een zeer selectieve lezing ervan, wordt ook ingezet tegen Saoedische burgers. Vooral tegen zij die zich politiek engageren. Terwijl de Saoedische ambassadeur in Libanon een solidariteitsmars bijwoonde na de Charlie Hebdo aanvallen, werd de blogger Raif Badawi veroordeeld voor het beledigen van de Islam. In de realiteit had hij een lans gebroken voor een seculiere staat –wat in de praktijk neerkomt op het beëindigen van de meer dan tweehonderd jaar oude overeenkomst tussen het koningshuis en het Wahhabitische sheikhs. In 2014 stelde het land atheïsme of “het in vraag stellen van de basisprincipes van de Islamietsche religie waarop dit land gebaseerd is” gelijk aan terrorisme.

Buitenlands beleid.

Ondanks de verspreiding van het strenge Wahhabisme, o.a. via de destijds door de V.S. gesteunde Osama Bin Laden die tegen het goddeloze Soviet-rijk vocht in Afghanistan, keren de zeloten zich telkenmale tegen het in hun ogen corrupte regime in Riyad. In 1979 bezetten jihadi’s de Grote Moskee in Mekka. Hun doel was het omverwerpen van zowel de regerende Saudische familie, als de Wahhabistische religieuze elite, en de terugkeer naar een pure vorm van Islam. Steenrijke donoren, samen met hooggeplaatste Saoedische militairen gaven geld, wapens en logistieke steun. In 2001 wilde Al-Qaeda de in hun ogen imperialistische V.S., aanwezig op verschillende militaire basissen in Saoedi-Arabië, treffen, alsmede hun bondgenoot in Riyad.

Net als toen, sluizen vandaag rijke, vaak religieus-overtuigde individuen, geld door naar buitenlandse jihadi’s. De Saoedische staat knijpt een oogje toe omdat het haar goed uitkomt in de bredere strijd tegen de grote strategische concurrent Iran. Die wedloop om regionale overmacht heeft een religieuze component in het respectievelijk Soenitische en Shi’itische karakter van beide landen. Met zieltjeswinnerij wordt het voetvolk gemotiveerd, maar de vruchten; invloed, markten, geld –veel geld- zijn voor het grote koningshuis; een kleine elite die Islam niet ziet als doel, maar als middel.

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Toyota’s fuel cell mirage.

toyota-mirai-fcv_large

Toyota Mirai

Pardon me: Mirai, which is the name of Toyota’s hydrogen-fueled fuel cell car that’s just come onto the market. Make that, a market, as in: only in California where there are a few dozen stations to fill up. Toyota doesn’t believe in the battery-powered electric car. It should know, it’s been in the business of developing, selling, and servicing the hybrid petrol-electric Prius since 1997. The billions spent in R&D paid off handsomely, as the Prius became a runaway success, stealing a march on all of its competitors.

It was expected that the company would continue on the chosen path, and it did. For a while at least. After three generations of Priuses, each one better and thriftier than the previous -a fourth is about to launch- with total sales of close to four million, Toyota no longer believes in electric.

Or rather, it doesn’t believe in the lithium-ion battery currently propelling a plug-in version of the latest Prius up to 20 kilometers on electric power alone before the gasoline engine kicks in. Continuing that evolution, relying less on the petrol-part of its hybrid system, in favor of going electric is, according to Toyota engineers, technically not feasible. Until charging a battery takes minutes and not hours, as it currently does, nothing can be done.

Rather than R&D its way out of the slow-battery-charging quagmire, the company set out on a different path altogether. Behold: the Mirai. You quickly fill it up with hydrogen, and a nifty device called a fuel cell will turn that hydrogen into electric power, and water. The motor of the car is electric. No oil or gas needed. Except the oil and gas currently used to fabricate the hydrogen of course.

Clean hydrogen anyone?

Clean hydrogen anyone?

It’s possible, using electrolysis, to simply split water into oxygen and hydrogen. But overwhelmingly, 95% of all hydrogen is currently produced using hydrocarbons. Moreover, roughly half of that hydrogen is used in the process of oil refinement itself. Filling up the Mirai with hydrogen currently costs about twice what you would pay for gasoline although Toyota hopes the price will eventually be comparable.

With the Mirai you have yourself an electric car, almost as dear as a (battery-electric) model S Tesla, that you can charge very quickly, and drive for about the same distance you would a Tesla. You cannot charge the Mirai from your home for 5 to 10 Euros (depending on where you live), but industry are planning to expand the number of hydrogen stations in North America and Europe. In Germany for instance, these good folks have taken it upon them to invest the necessary billions: Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total.

The good old days, reloaded.

The good old days, reloaded.

In other words, the petrol people have seen the light. For a price you understand. In stead of a cable connecting a wind turbine or solar (ideally sitting on top of your house) with your car, they want to keep pumping oil and gas, and shipping it to their refineries, turning it into hydrogen and then trucking it out to petrol, excuse me, hydrogen stations where you, for a good price, will go and fetch a good old physical product. Out with the old, in with the old.

An article (on Motley Fool) recently argued that Toyota’s move towards hydrogen should worry automakers like Tesla who are opting for battery-electric cars, because “Toyota’s standing makes it hard to dismiss”. What they really seem to be offering is another lease on life for an energy infrastructure that has served humanity well for about a hundred years, but that has destabilized entire regions, destroyed countries, and potentially, the world.

battery-electric 2018 Chevrolet Bolt

battery-electric 2018 Chevrolet Bolt

Luckily consumers can be expected to make the right choice, financially and environmentally, especially when cheaper, 20.000 to 40.000 euro electric cars start hitting the market in the coming years. Investors should likewise see Toyota’s hydrogen venture for what it is: a mirage.

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Vol is vol

11951866_10156009750400525_6003012855215547269_nSorry maat, of meisje, vol is vol.

We kunnen toch niet de ellende van de hele wereld naar hier halen? Dat begrijp je toch ook. Enfin, begreep.

We hebben van onszelf al genoeg problemen. Zoveel dat we er onze lagere middenklasse voor moeten pluimen om ze proberen op te lossen.

Goed, Turkije en de andere buurlanden van Syrië zijn zo lief om een stuk of 4 miljoen van jouw vriendjes, broers, zusjes, moeders en vaders op te vangen. Maar je moet ook niet alles met elkaar vergelijken. Snap je? Enfin, snoop.

De draagkracht bij onze bevolking om meer te doen is beperkt. Antwerpen staat bijvoorbeeld zeker niet op de eerste rij om voor extra opvang te zorgen. Dat stond ergens te lezen. Tegen de mensen zeggen dat we moeten besparen, en het dan langs ramen en deuren naar buiten smijten, het kleinste kind, zoals jij er eentje was, begrijpt dat dat politiek moeilijk ligt.

Zoals jouw broer, die in Damascus studeerde maar die nu ook ergens op dat strand ligt te liggen, misschien wist: Europa heeft tussen nu en 2050 tientallen miljoenen extra zielen nodig, alleen al om de bevolking op pijl te houden. Da’s economie. Harde cijfers. Ok, goed. Maar je begrijpt toch dat jullie niet gewoon holder de bolder naar hier kunnen komen varen? Kan je je de chaos voorstellen?

Per slot van rekening willen we alleen mensen die een netto-toegevoegde eh, alé, mensen die iets kunnen. Liefst geen moslims. We zijn per slot van rekening het Judeo-Christelijke Europa. Wij vragen ons al 2000 jaar constant af, wat zou Jesus doen? Met weinig succes overigens.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Brussels, economie, Europe, extreem-rechts, Globalisering, Human Rights, Mensenrechten, Middle East, Multiculturalism, politiek, Vluchtelingen

Goodbye Odessa

Georgian singer Nino Katamadze, live at Ibiza Club, Odessa

Either my social skills are improving, or folks here are really nice, I say to myself walking up to the pulpit to witness the marriage between new friends. Barely a week in, and I have already found what I’d come looking for: the meeting point betwixt east and west. Zhe melting pot entre Beijing and Brussels. Yulia, the happy bride, has the blood of Genghis Khan in her (or at least a Chinese father). In terms of red goo I go no further than so many steaks saignant, or hearing white-robed men mumble incoherently about imbibing the juice of Jesus or some such nonsense.

Here, in the city formerly known as Khadjibey, most of the facades are Tsarist Russian, but Ottoman influences can be spotted everywhere in the um, architectural… ancient crossing of the caravans… and so on and so forth [copy-paste your favorite wikipedia entry]. The gist of it: everything’s kinda glued together. The minutes and eons. Mass-ish tourism and the type of coffee place that serves Americano as Espresso, adulterated at will by means of hot water served on a wooden cutting board. I’m talking hip, and the deadly beauty that hasn’t taken any prisoners since world war II. The vacant strut that says “What?” with every step, well-heeled against impossible odds, high-heeled on impossible cobbles.

Odessa is special,” someone said. “It’s not Ukrainian. It’s not Russian.” The latter are staying away since the latest fracas further east. Their place is taken by Ukrainians, who used to vacation in the Crimea. Cry me a river… And Egyptians, I couldn’t help but overhear from a particularly jolly table adjacent ours, Turks, Romanians, Germans, the list goes on. As pots go; what has been melted, cannot be unmolten.

The city shrugs off the centuries, self-proclaimed sentries be damned. Minorities become majorities and vice versa. Somewhere a supernova explodes. It don’t matter to Jesus. One’s thoughts wander to that other town, from Odessa to Brussels, Black Sea to backseat. Another such place whose soul is not one thing, however much its constituent parts partaking in the muddle muscle to pretend (now repeat!).

Identity is plural. Place is nothing without time. Flags don’t mean a thing. Blood is thicker than water but to dust we all return must.

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