Saturday, 27 March 2010

Queensland - G'day mate

Queensland, Australia - what a journey this is going to be!  For those of you who regularly read this blog, I'm just back from two weeks of 'real' travelling around Cuba and it feels like centuries since the last time I blogged.  One of the great things about Cuba was that I got a break from 'being connected' with the rest of the world.  As much as I love Facebook and Twitter and my blog, it does no harm to get some time out every now and then.  On the flight on the way over to Havana, I watched Julie and Julia which was an amazing movie and I can understand now why people draw parallels with what I'm doing, although it's vastly different (apart from the cooking bit).

I've been writing this blog for seven months now and I've really enjoyed it.  I've had over 1,000 hits, from all over the world and, most excitingly, from places like Lesotho, Oklahoma and Paraguay, ie. the places I've been blogging about.  For those of you who are visiting for the first time, in the next month or so, I will try to immerse myself in the history, culture, music and cooking of Queensland.  As much as possible, I will try to see the world from the point of view of a Queenslander and I will try to understand what it is that makes Queensland tick.

One of my closest friends in the world (and a regular reader of this blog) is from Melbourne so, thanks to her, I have learned an awful lot about Australian culture already.  I've also read The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, which is a truly inspirational book and really helped me understand Aboriginal culture a little bit and the idea of the first people being 'caretakers of the land'.  I've listened to a lot of Australian music, watched Muriel's Wedding, got addicted to Kath and Kim and Summer Heights High (also the Einstein Factor when I was living in Thailand and had ABC - I wish they would make a British version of this quiz show).  My point is that, with a country like Australia, I will have to dig even deeper to learn new things.

I thought Queensland would be an apt starting point as, compared to Victoria or New South Wales, it's a part of Australia I know very little about.  Of course, we've all heard of the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef.  I know about Queensland's amazing climate, how important tourism is to the state and I've also vaguely heard about the Torres Strait Islanders, although I don't know why.  I guess Queenslanders have had a lifetime of being compared to Victoria and New South Wales - even the name suggests that Victoria got there first.  I get a sense that Queensland's history has been one of playing 'catch-up' with these two bigger states.  One of the first things that has become really apparant to me, in my prelimary reading, is that Queensland today is an incredibly dynamic place.  It seems to hold all the aspirations and drive of modern Australia.  Australians from other parts of the country are moving there in their thousands.  So much so, that Queensland is poised to take second place in the population stakes by the late 2020's, overtaking the older and more established communities of Victoria. 

A brief glance at today's edition of The Courier-Mail, Brisbane's main newspaper, shows me that immigration is somewhat of an issue for Queenslanders (and all Australians?).  The main newspaper article is about a group of 'boat people' from Afghanistan and Kurdistan, who've been taken on a shopping trip to the Centro Toombul shopping mall in Brisbane.  I must admit, I really hate the term 'boat people' - something about the fact that the word 'boat' is put before the fact that they are people.  The image of people floating around in a boat, not identifying with their origins, somehow negates their home culture.  They're not Afghans or Kurds, but generic people who came to Australia on a boat - as if their culture or political repression is somehow not interesting enough to be defined. 

I think it's going to be an interesting and challenging experience learning about Queensland.  I have books, movies, music lined up.  Still need to look at things like traditional recipes (I wonder if you can buy crocodile meat in London?) and I also want to listen to local radio from Brisbane, keep an eye on the newspapers and perhaps find an interesting blog.  I'll also try to follow some Queenslanders on Twitter, as I've found this a really useful way of getting an insight into the daily lives of people in the countries I'm learning about.  If you're from Queensland, please leave a comment and tell us something about what's great about your state!

I'm leaving you with a video from YouTube which shows images of Brisbane - it's (quite strangely) silent and seems to be part of a series by YouTube user pleasetakemeto

Image credits:

The image of the Queensland flag has been created for Wikimedia Commons by user Denelson83 who is male and comes from Vancouver Island.  He has contributed a lot of flag images to Wikimedia Commons, so thanks Denelson83 for sharing these with the world!

The wonderful image of Noosa River in Queensland is by a very enthusiastic flick photographer whose username is neilalderney123 - his real name is Neil Howard, he's orginally from Brisbane, but now lives in the Channel Islands.  Thanks for sharing this with us, Neil. 

Monday, 8 March 2010

Paraguay - A journey to the heart of Latin America

I've never been to Latin America, so it's quite apt that my first trip there (to Cuba) coincides with the end of my 'virtual' journey to Paraguay.  In a weird way, I've learned so much about Paraguay in the past month that I feel prepped for a Paraguayan trip.  As we're actually going to Cuba, it's going to be like diving in at the deep end!

During this learning experience I've read (or tried to read) two books related to Paraguay.  Probably Paraguay's most famous book I, the Supreme (Yo, el Supremo) by dissident writer Augusto Roa Bastos is quite a heavy read, intrinsic in its detail, but strangely hypnotic in its wordplay - think James Joyce with quixotic Spanish phrases.  Needless to say I didn't finish it.  Unfortunately having a full-time job precludes the amount of time it would take to digest a mammoth creation like Bastos' book.  It's one for retirement, or a long train journey across Siberia!  Still, I'm glad I got through the 150 or so pages that I did and it gave me a flavour of Bastos' (and Paraguay's?) existential angst. 

The story is mostly based on the life of Paraguay's original dictator, Francia, and the craziness of his mind.  A political pamphlet (or pasquinade) is found, basically threatening the life of the President in a very violent way.  The President is, understandably, upset by this lampoon and engages in a torturous analysis of the situation, with his amenuensis, Patino, being his main audience.  El Supremo demands that Patino find the author of the pasquinade within an unreasonably short period of time.  As I was reading the novel, it occured to me that El Supremo had written the pamphlet himself, that his servent realises this and finds himself in the intolerable position of not being able to reveal the truth, as that would surely mean his death.  The logic of El Supremo is totally warped and the book is really all about living at the whims of a madman and how frightening that must be.

The other book I read, and an absolute must for anyone interested in the history of Paraguay, was At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette.  Gimlette has a real passion for Paraguay and, although it's difficult not to reel in the absurdity of some of the situations he finds himself in and the eccentricity of the characters he meets, you can sense that he has a genuine love for a country that could easily have been so different, with better leadership and less challenging circurmstances.  Gimlette describes Paraguay as a kind of Cinderella, a beautiful young maiden with three bigger sisters, except she never really gets a chance to meet her prince and live happily ever after. 

From Gimlette's book I learned about the different regions of Paraguay, the various people that have tried, and more than often failed, to make Paraguay conform to their utopian dreams.  I read about the Irish courtesan, Eliza Lynch, a people's princess and a truly fascinating character, she reminded me of Lola Montez and the King of Bavaria.  I read about the primitive communism of the Jesuit missions, about the fact that El Supremo banned marriages that weren't interracial and strutted around like some kind of mini-Napoleon.  I read about fascist Paraguay of the 1930's and later the many Nazis, like Dr Mengele, who sought anonymity in the Paraguayan jungles.  I read about the cruelty of Stroessner's regime and his exile in neighbouring Brazil.  I read about the tropical waywardness of Asuncion, how the jungle lives on in this city of millions, about the 'peinetes de oro' or ladies of the night, about how the English of the Victorian Age romanticised Paraguay and made it out to be some kind of sensual paradise, how Joseph Conrad condemned it in his parody of a South American democracy Nostromo

I learned about the Korean and Chinese businessmen of Cuidad del Este, a city that Gimlette says 'hadn't been planned, but had just erupted'.  I learned about the Casado family of Buenos Aires who owned an estate in the Chaco which was three times the size of Switzerland.  I read about the Japanese colony of Paloma, about the Guarani word for television which means 'machine that imagines'.  I learned about lungfish that bury themselves in the soft  mud of the Chaco during the dry season, I learned about the once feared Lenguas tribe and the Ache, ghost people of the forests, with their cannibalism and infanticide. 

Most of all, I learned to be fascinated by Paraguay and the sheer number of interesting people and anarchic adventurers who have passed through there.  About a month ago, I started with a knowledge of where Paraguay is, the name of its capital and not much else.  It's amazing how much there is to learn about Paraguay, like a parallel universe, its history and stories have happened in the obscurity of tribal languages and the uncertain beating of South America's dark heart. 

For regular readers, I'm going to be in Cuba until the end of March - travelling for real this time, rather than through the eyes of others.  Don't worry, I'll be back soon enough, with a new place and some new learning experiences. 

Image credits

The rather vampirish image of El Supremo (Francia) is from Wikipedia and is copyright free.

The image of the cover of John Gimlette's book At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is from

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Paraguay - The Gran Chaco

In searching for Paraguay's version of Bayan-Olgii (the remote province of western Mongolia) I've come up with the Chaco. The difference between Paraguay's remote province though, and that of other countries, is that it takes up 60% of Paraguay's total land area. Despite the fact that only 2% of Paraguay's population lives there.

It sounds like a place where nature remains untamed by man, a place of thick, thorny jungles, dangerous snakes and spiders, remote forest tribes, salty earth and Mennonites clad in black.

Despite all of this, Paraguay seems determined to hold on to the Chaco, even fighting a war over it, with Bolivia, in the 1930's.  One of the Chaco's main gateway towns is called Villa Hayes, after the 19th US President, Rutherford B Hayes, who was asked to arbitrate, by Argentina, after the War of the Triple Alliance. Argentina was hoping to gain the Gran Chaco, as part of its territory, but Hayes decided it should remain with Paraguay. Not remembered for much in his own country (and most of that negative) Hayes has gone down in Paraguayan history as a national hero.

Having been persecuted in Europe and fleeing conscription in the various different homelands, it's not really surprising that the only Europeans who would settle on a terrain as hostile as the Chaco, would be the Mennonites. The Mennonites are defined by their pacifism, but also their religious extremism, choosing uncomplicated, traditional lives over the unholy commercialism of the modern age.

I've come across some of their descendents before, in Uzbekistan. Originally being invited by the Russian Tsars to live peacefully and farm along the Volga River, Stalin had them moved to Central Asia during the Second World War. Being mostly of German and Dutch origin, they were considered to be 'internal enemies' of the Soviet state. Many of them fled to North and South America and the Paraguayan government sold vast tracks of the Chaco to settlers and gave them a certain amount of autonomy so that, until this day, the Mennonites of Paraguay live in a 'state within a state'.

Without sounding too negative, I can't help wondering how sustainable Paraguay's control over the Chaco is. Like the Russians in Siberia, or the British in the Falklands, sustaining a population and sovereignty over the Chaco, might prove difficult for Paraguay. Already a lot of the land in the Chaco's eastern border has been bought up by Brazilians and some of the Chaco's main smuggling towns, like Pedro Juan Caballero, have more to do with the economy and cultural influences across the border, than with far-away (and difficult to get to) Asuncion.

Image credits

The picture of the villagers in El Chaco was provided by flickruser Fiona L Cooper - Fiona is originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but has been teaching English and teacher training in Paraguay for the last few years.  You can find out more about Fiona and her life on her blog