Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ladies and Zents

Lost in Translation, Whoever wrote the billboard outside the Ladies and Zents Hairdressing Saloon near the Airport here in Katmandu, must of just assumed that G and Z are interchangeable. English is spoken everywhere in Nepal, but the written language does suffer, a local Newspaper today had a sub editor who likes the word “Felicitate” so much so that he used it three times on the front page, and commenting on the Nepalese National Football teams recently the writer referred to them as “proud ballers”, Ballers ! Who has ever heard the word ballers?

This is a long-winded introduction into the state of daily life here in Katmandu.

It is peaceful, life has returned to normal now, a week ago it looked like Nepal was heading to a complete breakdown.

When we arrived on Tuesday the streets were full of Samari Policemen, with riot shields, clubs and tear gas, however as timing sometimes is in the News business we had arrived as the rioting was ending, and peace deals were being brokered. It can be frustrating to miss the actual conflict, but at the same time you are happy that peoples lives can get back to normal after a protracted state of siege that had gripped Katmandu for the last two weeks.

The Samurai Police - Nepalese are not the tallest or largest people you will meet, so to add fear to the build the Police have these riot designed clothing that looks like something from a 18th Century Feudal Samurai.. Black cloth with stays of bamboo covers the torso with shoulder and arm guards. The bamboo acts as the body army, given that they are most vulnerable to rocks and sticks, which make a nice change to having guns and bullets around me. The head Protection again makes the Policeman appear even taller and wider, carrying on with the Samurai theme it has the grilled front mask, but I did detect a touch of Darth Vader as well.

We did some filming on the streets and once Darth Samurai no more pictures, you moved on. You sense and feel the tensions easing as the day wore on. Rumors came and went proposed demonstrations by Maoists never happened, the King promised everything to anyone to “felicitate” good relations, (I should add that at no stage did the King actually say what he was going to do, since he is actually at the root cause of problems here) Politicians of the past surface and proclaim democratic principles as long as they get in power.

So as I leave Nepal (Writing this entry in the Airport) what are my thoughts on the Kingdom of Nepal, I wrote that I come in as a Lonely Planet Expert with help from the CIA Fact Book.

I would have to say that Nepal is in my Top Ten Countries I have visited, It is a truly nice place, and that comes from the hearts and smiles of the people, (Samurai Police aside whilst they are on duty, they have to scowl and look tough). I am already planning to come back here on holidays if I can be seduced by just working for a few days in the capital and not even seeing a mountain then I know that I will not be happy with my life adventures till I have trekked to Everest Base Camp.
We were out yesterday touring the streets looking for demonstrations that were planned but never happened, but managed to tour the most holy Hindu Temple Complex, watched two cremations and an old lady dying on the temples river banks.

One thing that fascinated me was the sign over what looked like a shop right next to the cremation pyres “ Cornea Extraction Facility” (they like the facil…. Word here) apparently upon death the deceased is cremated within hours, but the greatest gift you can give to get the best karma and new life karma re birth is to donate your eyes, hence the “Cornea Extraction Facility” the doctors perform the removal right behind the pyres. The Hindu God Shiva will bestow many blessings on you.

Touring the Temples there are the Holy men or stardust, now these holy men seem more intent on painting themselves to look good for the Tourists and getting money by posing for photographs so as to buy Hashish to keep themselves stoned. They did not seem to be contemplating the big picture or seeking enlighten.

Now if you are ever thinking of buying a house with a tin roof, I shall give you this real estate tip, monkeys like to jump up and down on any loose tin as they like the noise. The peace and calm of the Temple was constantly shattered by the sounds of the temple monkeys jumping up and down on a loose piece of tin and then locals trying to shoo them away by throwing stones. I did not know until yesterday that monkeys are the third most holy creatures to Hindu’s after cows and bulls, so you are not allowed actually hit the monkeys with the stones but you can scare them.

The thing that also struck me is how poor Nepal is, not a swollen belly refugee poverty scene out of Sudan. But a grinding poverty of the third world, you do not have to look far behind the scenes here to see the children stunted, the shoeless urchins and looks on mothers faces as they realize that life for them will never get better. There are no expensive flashy cars or glitzy shops catering for petro dollar fuelled shopping trips.

What they as a nation, they lack can be measured in monetary terms and in power point presentations at Economic Summits. But what cannot be measured in columns of GDP statistics is the warmth and spirit of the people. There is an infection of laughter and goodwill in everyone’s souls here, from the Samurai Police to the sign writer who painted Ladies and Zents.

Watching Death

I saw someone die today, I will never know her name or age, but in front of my eyes she died and later today the youngest son will light a cremation fire under her.

This is a disturbing enough image to carry through a day but in context with the plight of the living here in Nepal, death may not come soon enough. However it is the image of a small girl in the window of my car that will haunt me far longer than that of an old woman dying.

We were coming back to the hotel after spending the afternoon in and around the Thamal District looking for anything that might constitute a potential build up of demonstrators, the story here has died to use a metaphor, peace and democracy is promised to the people, but the buts’ are too numerous and in reality, peace is never a news worthy story, if it was we would all have Bureaus in Tahiti and New Zealand and not in Baghdad.

I normally try to keep small notes in my pocket when I travel in cars so that if a beggar comes to the car I can give away my small notes, first a mother approached and I gave her about 40 Rupees (60 cents) then an old man carrying a woman on his back came up I gave my 50 Rupee note (80 cents) and then a small girl, dirty faced, wearing a red maybe ten years old not much more came up and held out her hand, I had one last note in my hand 20 Rupee (35 cents roughly) and I pushed the button to wind up the window, then I stopped the window going up in her face, and if time had stopped I realized what I was doing, this small girl was doing nothing more than asking, she has nothing, a poor street urchin.

In my wallet I had more money than her father could earn in two years, if she had a family. I do not know it is not something you ask a street child as you are closing a window on them, holding a note that means nothing to me in the big picture at all but to her it is a meal or medicine.

I see beggars around the world, I hear the grossly exaggerated stories told by fat tourists around bars at nights in five star hotels saying how all children gangs use and they get nothing. When you have something in life it is hard to comprehend what nothing is.

I wound down the window and gave her the note and she left, I did not see her face as she turned and darted back to the footpath. I did not look around but took the moment to reflect and it was not a proud moment in my life. Small things do matter and small children matter.

The woman who died in front of my eyes was an old woman taken out of a hospice down to the holy river at the sacred temple here in Katmandu. In death she had dignity and support her last moments had included holy water being poured in her mouth. It was not hard to watch her death; it was in fact watching life here in Nepal can be harder.

Katmandu – Bangkok (18 hours later)

Look you have to laugh, I can reflect back on how I felt at that moment but a scam stung us last night by a beggar, and to be honest I did not care. The aim is to hit a woman, in this case Yonat, our Producer. A girl in her young teens with a baby on her back comes up and first off says I do not want money, but could you buy me some milk for my baby. Now I was with Yonat and fell just as badly as she did, she was not asking for money but baby milk how could anyone say no. So the girl leads Yonat and I down the street. We get to a grocery store and spend twenty bucks or so on buying baby milk, she smiles and waves to us thanking for us and disappears back up the street.

Yonat and I feel good for the deed we have done, only to ask a friend Jill who works for Reuters later that night had this happened to her and lo and behold, hook line and sinker she had fallen for it and spent nearly $30 buying the same story. I had to laugh, there is a girl out there doing fine in Katmandu. She has no doubt returned the milk to the shop where she is in cahoots with the owner and gets a cut I just hope she gets a fair share.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What do you need to know?

The amazing thing about traveling in my job is the absolute lack of knowledge that you may have on any subject or country before you travel there, and then how you can become an instant expert on any subject. Take for instance “Nepal”

One it has a big mountain, and lots of other big mountains, the hippies used to like going there, the swami for The Beatles appeared on National TV and a cousin of the Royal family went mad a few years ago and killed half the dynasty. That about sums up most of the world’s knowledge about Nepal, it also has a funny triangular flag in case you did not know.

So sitting in Zurich Airport now, what do I know about Nepal now. Well it is slightly larger than Arkansas according to the CIA Factbook, so that is bad news for Rhode Island and other small US States, Nepal is a potential bigger enemy. It borders only two countries India and China, only 17% of the land is arable the rest is Mountain. Nepal has 8 of the 10 tallest Mountains in the world

Get this it has a bigger population than Australia, estimated at 28,287,147 for July 2006, now this figure may fluctuate according to how many the Police shoot in the next few days. The Average age of your Nepalese is 20 years old and life expectancy is on 60 years old, and females die earlier.

Religion wise 80% are Hindu, 10% Buddhist, 4.2% are Muslim (pick the trouble makers) , well actually it is the Royal Family they sort of decided to have a reverse coup and take all power from the Constitutionally elected Parliament in Feb 2005, Parliament has actually been suspended since May 2002, all power rests solely with King Gyanendra. Nepal is actually correctly called “The Kingdom of Nepal”, Nepal is the short slang.

Unemployment is roughly 42%, 31% of the people live below the poverty line. Before shaking your head at this figure, in Israel roughly 15% of Israeli’s are classified as living below the poverty line. “Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world” according again to the CIA if you read their economic overview and even take away the civil strife and Maoist problems, Nepal is not looking good by any accounts.

Since 1996, over 12,000 people have died in the Maoist Rebellion in Nepal, intent on setting up a Communist state the Maoists have been waging a bloody and brutal civil war with the Monarchy.

That is what I know as of the moment about the Kingdom of Nepal, like so many other countries I have visited, I fly in and then form an opinion, arriving with a preconceived notion about a nation or its people is foolish.

Treat everyone with respect and dignity and it is returned with the same values, treat anyone with disdain and you are the one who looks foolish and stupid. I have met some of the most fantastic people and friends in some of the worst places in the world.

What we will see hear and smell will form my opinion, not glib background facts from the CIA World Fact Book or BBC Web Site, but then again did you know that the Fiscal Year in Nepal runs from 16 July to 15 July. Now that is the sort of trivia that makes you a champion on “Who wants to be a Millionaire” , when you have run out of lifelines and the audience does not cough correct answers.

I must admit to a mistake earlier in the blog, this would be listed as an Correction in the next blog but I am big enough to admit such a glaring error up front … the flag is actually two triangles not one, see you learn something everyday.

Zurich Airport

Now in Bangkok , have just picked up the Lonely Planet Guide , now I am truly an expert on Nepal

Monday, April 24, 2006

Tel Aviv Airport at 3am

You can build the best airport in the world, and there is still no other word than they suck at 3 am in the morning, when you have not been to bed since yesterday morning and the next time I will lie flat in a bed could be two days away.

This Assignment is actually to a country that I have always wanted to visit, Nepal. Home of the tallest mountain in the world and as of the moment massive civil rioting, gues which is the reason I am going this time. I always thought that I would get to Nepal and see Mt Everest on my 50th birthday, well I am 47 next week so that is not bad.

One of the quirks of the job is what to pack and tonight I was digging thru the cupboards in the office in Jerusalem getting out gas masks and riot helmets, expecting stones and gas this time. Hopefully not to much bang bang your dead bullets.

Hopefully will not be to longer assignment, one of those jobs when we could fly to Bangkok only to be told to come back, lucky I like airline food

Tel Aviv Airport Lounge

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tel Aviv Monday Afternoon

When you arrive at the scene of a suicide bombing there is nothing nice to say or anything new to say or film. It is just a scene of desperation and grief. The bombing at the Schwarma Shop yesterday was devastating 9 innocent people were killed in an Instant by a terrorist , a young male from the West Bank who had recently joined Islamic Jihad after leaving Hamas because they were not carrying out attacks on Israel. What he achieved was to plunge the scene here into Political Mayhem.

What would the new Prime Minister Ulmert do and just how would the new Hamas Government react. Well Israel does not react with knee jerk options , cold calculating and at there time and choosing that is what they will do. As for Hamas they did not condemn the attack.

The bombing took place near the Old Bus Station a sad and bad neighbourhood, in other words a soft target with almost no security. Standing on a blood streaked street the local Right Wingers and druggies screamed profanities and Death to Arabs for nearly an hour, the moment a camera is turned on them they would resume there chants.

Covering these events like the bombing yesterday leaves me numb, it is not the last one I will go too

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dinner with family & friends

In nearly the nearly four years that I have lived here in Israel, I have never managed to get through a Passover (Pesach) Seddar Dinner, the first one I went to at Mark Abrahams (Senior Bureau Producer) was finished before we had even had the first glass of wine, a terror attack at the Park Hotel when a suicide bomber walked in and killed thirty perople having a seddar dinner was to spark off one of the most intense periods of bloodshed and war in the whole intifada.

The next few years have seen me away or on shift and the elusive Seddar dinner seemed destined to be missed for another year.

But Mark assured me that this year, we were on course for Matzoh Crackers and Yamucahs (Please allow for spelling errors when I deal with religious issues not much can be done, remember I did not know that Jesus was Jewish)

Marks whole extended family was at his home with brothers sisters and Bella's parents (Bella is Marks better half).

Now a Seddar Dinner is more tradition, it comes complete with a book and everyone takes turns to read out verses which all have relevance to the Jews fleeing Egypt with Moses , not having time to wait for the bread to rise, lots of killing and smitting of first son's, plagues and pestilance, a Seddar plate with seven items that all have relevance, from the arm of God(chicken leg) to a paste of dates and walnuts that represents the paste used by Israeli slaves to make the Pyramids - FYI this is a great taste the pyramid paste.

It was so enjoyable to watch the whole of Mark and Bella's family take part in a celebration of freedom and thanks, Marks youngest daughter who is in first grade read for the first time out aloud, his eldest found the matzoh crackers which caused the younger children to cry unfair and almost cry.

Just glad that no one was taking photos, could imagine what the Hamas goons would do with pictures of Mike Tobin and I sitting there with Yamaucahs on, come Eid Mike and I will go out with our kafirs , should make both sides happy

Thanks Mark and Bella, for allowing me to share a wonderful night of family and friends

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Snowballs in the Desert

April 9, 2006

Lets agree on a couple of things before you read and I write this blog entry. Dubai is in the Golf States one of the hottest regions in the world, it is nothing but sand which in yesterdays wind was blowing across the road, it is not richly endowed with oil like it’s sister states, the national sport is strapping frightened six year boys sold to them from Pakistan onto camels and racing them and 15% of the worlds building cranes are currently here. The worlds tallest building is being built along with the worlds biggest Shopping Mall.

Looking up the ski slope and watching children throwing snowballs is not what you would expect in the desert. But at the Mall of the Emirates they have a 400-meter long ski slope complete with ski lift. You cannot do anything but stand there and look up at this: inside the shopping centre is a ski slope, you walk in hire everything and go skiing for a couple of hours, but I must add a note here for those of you who ever come to Dubai bring gloves for skiing as they do not have them and according to those who have been to “Ski Dubai” your hands get very cold.

I did not ski as we did not have time and anyway the new Mall of Arabia being built will have a larger and longer ski field.

Dubai was the last stop on this trip with Dennis Ross and Producer Jonathan Wachtel as we wrapped up a one-hour special on “Democracy & Reform” a heavy topic but in its own way fascinating.

We came to film at Al Arabiya & Al Hura, both are TV Networks, both broadcast in Arabic but that is where the similarity ends. Al Arabiya is now the number one 24 hour News Network in the Arab world beating Al Jazeera, It has a refreshing approach and is totally committed to be fair and honest in it’s reporting. Al Hura on the other hand is a branch of the US Government, like the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe, and is not watched or trusted by anyone. I have not ever met one person who has watched it, in fact the only time I have ever seen it was when the Israelis were attacking Jericho Prison the other week and the correspondent from Al Hura was next to us.

People in the West might think of the Arabic News Networks as behind the times with no money. Let me give you a tip here the Newsroom at Al Arabiya is one of the most futuristic and functional in the world. Their correspondents, anchors and producers are multilingual and if anything left wing and liberal in their views.

The key thing I have learnt this week from listening to Dennis Ross and the people we have interviewed is that Democracy does have a good chance in this part of the world. But there are stages to democracy and before you can democratize you must first modernize, democracy must come from the grass roots and make its way from within.
Things like education, press freedom and a legal system must be working before anyone wants democracy. You have to be able to live in safety without the threat of being killed by acts of terror and aggression, before you can think of democracy working.

Iraq is currently in a complete state of civil war, nobody wants to come out and say it in so many words. The Bush Administration is in a complete no win scenario at the moment, the US troops cannot leave Iraq, and if they do Iraq will descend into a bitter and bloody civil war with Shia’s, Sunni’s and Kurds literally tearing themselves apart. The US troops are the only policeman left holding the factions apart. Even Hosni Mubarak the Egyptian President said last night, that America cannot and must not leave.

In the meantime Iraqis themselves cannot agree on anything or even elect their own leaders, the Election last December has still not produced a working Parliament or even a Prime Minister.

The other thing that I have come to figure out this week is that it is in the interest of Arab leaders to keep the Israel/Palestine Conflict and Iraq War going because whilst they have these issues going, they can simply ignore reform and democratic changes in their own countries, claiming these issues are the biggest challenges the Arab World are facing.

Think about it, peace and harmony comes to Israel and Palestine, the war in Iraq ends and Shia’s Sunni’s and Kurd’s elect a new leader who brings wealth and stability to all the people. The press now turns around and says well now those are behind us what are the issues facing the Arabic World – Democracy, Freedom, Equality, so if you were running your own country in the Islamic World would you want peace in Israel, freedom and a homeland for Palestinians, and US troops out of Iraq.

If you are wondering about the number of cranes in Dubai, and how booming an economy they have, 80% of the cranes in the world are in China, 15% are in Dubai the rest of the world, yes the REST OF THE WORLD has the other 5%.

When you can build a ski resort in the desert, you know that your economy is on track, imagine if they had oil as well in Dubai.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Church Bells

Amman Jordan
Dennis Ross Special Shoot

This morning I heard a sound that I had not heard in a very long time , church bells toiling accross the city of Amman. Amazing in an Islamic Country but I stopped and listened. There was no Mullah berating you to come out and prey, or volume cranked up to the point of distraction.

I have not heaard church bells in such a long time that I had forgotten the simple sounds that signify a religion that forms my beliefs. It was not a peal of extremism or fundamentalism. They did not wake me up from sleep at some unholy hour and they will not be played five times a day

the world needs more church bells