Portuguese Guyana, at last

Macapá, the capital of Amapá, the Brazilian state bordering French Guyana, is as Brazilian as any. Indistinguishable from any other provincial Brazilian town, there is little left of the Guyanese heritage that is quite obvious in the Guyanas that are still independent territories.
Yet, it’s also in the virtual middle of nowhere. Where Boa Vista, the state capital of Roraima, is connected to Manaus, Macapá is pretty close to Belém, but still a 24-hour boat ride away. On the other hand, it is possible to get to French Guyana by road, and now that a bridge actually spans the Oiapoque river, connecting the European Union with Brazil, it might just only be a matter of time before the 12 hour bus ride between Oiapoque and Macapá will move along tarred roads.

However, though a bridge exists, most travellers take the small boats that travel between the French and Brazilian sides. And here, like on the other side of French Guyana, the border is quite porous.
When we arrived on the French side, we had to ask around for the immigration office, which turned out to be on its lunch break. We waited, got stamped, and walked back to the shore, to catch one of the boats taking us slightly upstream and to Oiapoque. There, on the Brazilian side, we also had to ask around for the immigration office, which turned out to be a 5 minute walk away, where the federal police appeared rather surprised they had to stamp someone in. Natalia of course can come and go, but I need to officially enter the country. The lady that attended me took a photo of my passport with her cellphone and stamped it, wishing me a pleasant stay.

Where Saint-Georges, the town on the French side, is sleepy, Oiapoque, if small with only about 25000 inhabitants, is surprisingly lively. But, there’s little to see or do, except for the monument that marks ‘Where Brazil begins’. Built during the dictatorship, the monument is sort of marking the northern most point of ‘the main road’ from north to south. Notwithstanding that there’s no actual crossing of the Amazon. (True, since a few years, there’s a bridge spanning the Amazon in Manaus, but besides that it actually spans the Rio Negro, it also doesn’t connect Brazil north of the Amazon with Brazil south of the Amazon. And, it’s also thousands of kilometres to the east.)

Just behind this ‘Monumento Extremo’ is another little monument. It looks like an empty bench, raised several meters off the ground, built on a little pier jutting into the river. Seemingly pointless, the bench, not too long ago, held a stone bible and the inscription ‘This is where the evangelisation of Brazil begins’.

The town of Macapá lies on the equator. The biggest story being the town’s primary stadium, built on the equator itself and called Zerão, The Big Zero. The idea is that, when in use, the Northern Hemisphere is playing the Southern Hemisphere. Which could be sort of true if the center of the field was actually on the equator. You’d be excused to think it is, as the stadium is perfectly aligned with a monument marking the equator, as well as with the Avenida Equatorial. However, all are off by 25 meters or so, the actual equator being somewhat to the south of all of them.

Of cheese, wine and borders

Turns out that Brazilians, who can freely travel into Shengen, need a visa for French Guyana, and Natalia didn’t have one.

“Where do we get a Visa?”
“In Paramaribo!”

A few back and forths later, we collectively discovered that Brazilians, under unusual and certain circumstances, can get a transit visa at the border. Our border guard was helpful, but he was nearly overruled by his captain, strongly suggesting that legit Brazilians seldom come this way.
But, we were only going to be helped after the office’s lunch break, meaning we had to wait a full two hours at the police station for the captain to come back from his break. Luckily, I could roam at will, which saw me grab two lovely French baguettes at a local boulangerie, as well as a fine chunk of goat cheese at prices that made me cry inside for what the same would cost in Brazil.

Surinamese and Guyanese also need visas to enter French Guyana, going some way towards explaining why all travellers we saw at the French Guyanese border were European.
Yet, the longboats, piroques, that everyone who doesn’t come with a car, uses to cross the river between Suriname and French Guyana, are terribly easy to get into French territory with, clandestinely. On both sides, going through immigration is optional, and even though we disembarked at immigration on the French side, we accidentally first walked through the exit lane into France, then again in the entry lane. We had to go out of our way to actually have our passports checked, making the requirement of a transit visa the more irksome.

There is practically no public transport in French Guyana. Intercity connections virtually don’t exist, and on the little that does exist, practically no reliable information is available anywhere. And, it’s surprisingly expensive.
The distance from Paramaribo to the border with French Guyana is similar to the distance from the border to Cayenne, but where the Surinamese public bus charges Just over 1 euro, the French charge 30. And, it appears, on the French side, only one bus a day leaves at six in the morning.
Private transport is also available, but in Suriname, this costs under 6 Euros, in French Guyana, it appears, it’s 40.
On top of that, accommodation in French Guyana, particularly in the border town of saint Laurent du Maroni, is painfully expensive.
We decided to rent a car instead, giving us much desired flexibility, which would also come in handy as we were going to visit Devil’s Island, home of the infamous French penal colony off the coast of the town of Kourou. To get there, we had to be in Kourou, an hour’s drive from Cayenne, at 8 in the morning. Literally impossible without your own transport.
And, having our own car meant we could stay on one of Cayenne’s beaches on the edge of town. The sea of the Guyanese coasts is water from the Amazon, pushed by Atlantic currents westwards after leaving the Amazonian delta. As a result, the waters off the Guyanese coast are muddy and quite sweet.

On our trip, the few people we spoke to who had been to French Guyana all complained about the high costs. Some things, like Intercity travel, were indeed crazy expensive, as were beers in pubs and accommodation, but on the whole, we found many things pleasantly cheap; the hypermarkets sell French wines and cheeses at French prices, about half the cost, or less, of what we pay in Brazil. And then there are the fantastic bakeries, where a fabulous breakfast is similarly priced or cheaper, to something less interesting, in Sao Paulo.

One surprise was the large number of Brazilians in the country. According to the French consulate in Brazil, Brazilians from the border region are reasonably free to come and go, and the city is stuffed with Brazilians working in or running small shops, or selling goods in the market.
Not as prevalent, but with a strong presence in and around Cayenne’s city market, is a significant East Asian diaspora, serving extremely popular Vietnamese soups. Possibly, a consequence of several thousand Hmong refugees, from Laos, resettling in French Guyana in the 1970s and 1980s.

Papillon

Devil’s Island most famous prisoner was Papillon, Henri Charrière, who wrote a successful autobiographical work on his time on Devil’s Island, publishing it in 1969. The book was made into a successful film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in 1973, then again in 2017 with a lot of actors unknown to me, but also with Rami Malek.

Gripping entertainment, but Charrière’s story was made up. He was imprisoned in French Guyana, but never on Devil’s Island. In addition, there’s strong indication that Charrière based some of his book on a similar story that was published some 30 years earlier.
‘Papillon’ means ‘butterfly’. The sentences of the convicts were often long, and saw a low survival rate. Some of the convicts, in cooperation with the administration, caught butterflies to sell in the international market, both for scientific purposes as well as general collecting.

Failed colonisation

French Guyana is now quite thoroughly integrated into France. De Gaulle shifted the country’s space port from Algeria to French Guyana in the 1960s, which was a resounding success, with a significant portion of the economy now being based on, or connected to, the space station. Though, compared to France, relatively poor, the region also has the highest GDP per capita on the continent. And though there is still some indigenous population left, an independence vote in 2010 was defeated in favour of remaining a part of France.

But, the French were in a much more precarious position a few centuries ago.
When the French lost Canada as a colony, the state looked for an alternative foothold in the Americas, but an effort to colonise Guyana in 1763 failed utterly, with some 10.000 of a party of 12.000 settlers perishing, eventually the remainder being saved after being stranded on what are now the three islands that include Devil’s Island, when the little archipelago became known as the Salvation Islands.

Jockeying, but mostly failing, for increased influence, some French briefly convinced neighbouring Brazilians (or rather, French settlers in neighbouring Brazil), in what is today the state of Amapá, but once was known as Portuguese Guyana, to declare the Republic of Independent Guiana, often referred to by its main city, Counani (or Cunani), surviving from 1886 to 1891. Now, Cunani is all but absent from a map of the area, a tiny village of about 1000 inhabitants.
The local, black, population, preferred French administration, as slavery had already been abolished, there, for decades, whereas in Brazil, it would continue for another few years. In addition, due to the a lack of clarity in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, where ‘Japock’ referred to either the river Oiapoque (now the border between Brazil and France), according to most, or was just a native word for ‘river’, according to the French, the French staked a claim to territory that went beyond the conventionally accepted border between the two countries.
However, the venture was mostly instigated by a couple of dubious businessmen, where the ‘president for life’, Jules Gros, a French speculator, had not set foot in the region until two years after being declared president, early on discovering that selling potential investments in gold mines in the Guyanas was more profitable than actually mining for gold.

A few years later, in 1904, a French military officer, Adolphe Brezet, declared himself president of the Free State of Counani.
He had fought the British in the Boer Wars in South Africa, and as a result the Boer Republics kept diplomatic relations with Brezet when he settled in northern Brazil. In fact, it’s possible that Brezet’s name for ‘his’ country was a direct homage to the Orange Free State in what is now South Africa.
In order to boost speculation for investments, Brezet’s men built fifty miles of railway tracks that led nowhere and had no trains running on them. But with no success. Around 1912, activity petered out, with Brezet disappearance from the scene. Brazil never gave much attention to the man or his plans.

A return to Paramaribo

This return visit to the former Dutch colony saw me notice several changes; more Chinese owned supermarkets, all the major fast food chains now have branches in Paramaribo, the city feels more organised than last time, and there are now plenty of shops with signage in Portuguese, catering to illegal Brazilian gold diggers.
Meanwhile, the increase in cost of living that everyone talks about, as a function of steep inflation that’s blamed on the now not so popular president Desi Bouterse, did seemingly not make the country cheap for us hard(er?) currency holders.
Except perhaps for public transport, where the state charges about 20% of commercial alternatives, with the downside that the state busses almost never run.

Bouterse, who also was the de facto leader of the country during most of the 1980s, is held personally responsible for a bunch of murders and human rights violations, and was trialed in the year 2000, in absentia, and convicted, in the Netherlands, to 11 years in jail, for trafficking about 450kg of cocaine. According to the Wikileaks cables, Bouterse remained active as a drug trafficker until 2006.
However, Suriname’s National Assembly has awarded Bouterse immunity, though he’s also on Interpol’s wanted list, meaning that he won’t be able to travel far, particularly when his presidency ends.

On our first day in the country, we staid in Nieuw Nickerie, on the border with Guyana. We had to get to Paramaribo on Sunday, but, so we were told, the ‘citybus’ doesn’t run on Sundays. Our host had to call around to find a Javanese lady who owned a bus and was doing a commercial run from Paramaribo to Nieuw Nickerie and back, picking up everyone at their own house in the process.

When leaving Paramaribo, we had to get to the other border, with French Guyana. Three state busses do the run every day, but to get on the first one, leaving at 8am, you typically have to show up at the bus station at 5 in the morning. We showed up at around 7:30, expecting to be able to get a ticket on the 10am bus. Not so, initially, as that bus was already fully booked, meaning we were now on the noon bus.
We scouted around for where the commercial busses to the border leave from, but came up empty handed, several sources giving us conflicting information and none of the sources panning out. Luckily, not everyone showed up for the 10am bus and we were bumped up.

The biggest party in Suriname is the street party on the last day of the year.
We started with a ritual cleansing, a wassie, on Independence square, after which, at noon, fireworks pandemonium broke out all over the downtown area. Most fireworks during the day are pagara, long strings of firecrackers topped off by a series of even louder bangs. They are lit, mostly lying in the street, sometimes hung, under somewhat controlled circumstances, but very much in the middle of the crowds.
The evening was spent outside, but the streets empty for everyone to be at home at stroke of midnight, only for the crowds to come out again a short while later

We spent some time at the popular Riverside bar, where an older Somalian refugee fell in my arms, crying, upon realising I am of Iranian extraction. “Fuck Saudi! Praise Khomeini!”
This went on for a while, until he started to ask for money.

In the city named after the first king of Hannover

Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, is a sleepy town filled with wooden houses in various states of decay. A town that, you would be excused to think, time has almost forgotten. The little economic activity of the last 100 years or so has resulted in the city being somewhat caught in a time warp, which in itself should be a reason for considering elevating the city’s old town to World Heritage status, something that the city of Paramaribo, next door in neighbouring Suriname, has managed to achieve.

As shaky proof of this time warp, Guyana is one of the 53 members of the Commonwealth, is a statue of Queen Victoria, which stands in front of the city’s high court. Defaced, Victoria lacks a nose and a hand, the statue having been dynamited in the 1950 by anti-colonialists. Then, earlier in 2018, also under anti-colonial sentiment, the statue was doused in red paint. Both, as good an inspiration as any for working towards getting rid of royalty the world over.

Before Victoria, it was her grandfather, George III, who gave his name to what became Georgetown, in 1812. Before that, under the Dutch, it was called Stabroek, after the Dutch ‘lord of Stabroek’, Nicolaas Geelvinck, who was also president of the Dutch West Indies Company. The original Stabroek is in Belgium, in the province of Antwerp, just on the border with the Netherlands.
Before the Dutch, the French briefly occupied the town, calling it Longchamps (‘large fields’), after the Brits briefly had taken over from the Dutch, who had first settled on an island in the nearby Demerara river.

George III was also the king of Hannover (in Germany), from 1813 onwards, while Germany was still a patchwork of states. He had already been the ‘Elector’, sort of like a prince, of Hannover before that, but after struggling to retain the area during the French Revolutionary Wars and, eventually, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, a new title of the ruler of this area was agreed upon and George became king of Hannover.

George’s family had been maintaining property in what is now Germany for generations, but they struck it lucky when George’s great-grandfather, George I, became king of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714, when the British crown switched from the House of Stuart to the House of Hannover, after in 1701, the parliament of England (and in 1707, that of Scotland) had decreed that no papist, that is, Roman Catholic, could hold the British crown.
So, the prince of Hannover, the nearest non-catholic family member of the departed Anne, became king of England, and his great-grandson, first king of Hannover, was the inspiration for naming this small settlement on the mouth of the Demerara river in what is now Guyana. Victoria, missing her nose and hand in Georgetown, and Elizabeth II, are direct descendants of the Georges, and thus of the house of Hannover, even though Edward VII, Victoria’s son, first changed it to the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in 1901, in honour of the house of his father, the husband of Victoria, while Edward’s son then changed it to house of Windsor in 1917, to disassociate themselves from the Germans during the first world war.

Incidentally, the Hannover metropolitan area, today, has significantly more people than the whole country of Guyana.

Water management

In honour fo the moral standing of the British royal family, much of Georgetown lies below sea level. Relevant, as it also borders the Atlantic Ocean, if culturally strongly leaning towards the Caribbean. A one meter high sea wall is supposed to keep out the waters, which only most of the time it’s actually able to.
A clever system of sluices, called ‘kokers’, closing at high tides, opening at low tides, keeps the city dry. A word of obvious Dutch extraction, the use of kokers appears to date back only to the mid 19th century, long after the Dutch had lost control of the area. Then again, the prevalence of Dutch names all over the country strongly suggest Dutch farmers, which would be Dutch slave owners, were around for much longer. The kokers (‘tubes’ or ‘cylinders’), canals dug alongside the plantations, were used to drain the rectangular fields, caught between the sea or river and the wet hinterlands. It means that even a modern scene of outdoor Georgetown could, if you just pinch your eyes a bit, be mistaken for the Dutch countryside.
Plenty houses in Guyana have landscape paintings on the walls, depicting typical Guyanese landscapes. You have to look twice to notice that the sluices and wooden houses don’t occupy the northern hemisphere, but depict a scene from the outskirts of Georgetown.

It’ll be lonely, this Christmas

We arrived in Georgetown on Christmas day, at the end of the afternoon. The town was deserted, everything was closed, except for a few dodgy street-side bars with a few drunken stragglers hanging on, both on the floor, knocked out, and the stools. Many of the wooden houses nearly falling apart, it felt like we had walked into a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Our driver from Lethem, Sankar (“Sankar, I need to pay you for our ride!”, “Oh, yeah, I forgot.”), dropped us off in front of our hotel, but there, a guard, intoxicated, a half-finished bottle of rum next to him, told us that he, too, had been waiting for the owner to show up the whole day. Paul, the owner, answered none of the phone numbers I had of him, while the guard had lost his cellphone in the half-covered ditch in front of the hotel, the guard regularly stealing longing glances to his now disappeared communication device. “I’m not sticking my hand in there!”
The hotel was closed, room keys were not available, the streets were deserted, the hotel owner was not answering his phones, dusk was setting in and Georgetown has a bad reputation for high crime rates. We needed a solution quick.

But, already, we had started to experience what might be the one defining feature of Guyana, its amazingly friendly and accommodating people, in stark contrast to the country’s reputation of a crime-ridden backwater. Figuring out where to get alternative accommodation, with pretty much every single hotel in the downtown area being closed, several Guyanese helped us out in finding a solution. And it worked; we ended up in a huge wedding cake of a house in one of the suburbs, where we hung out with a friendly Brexiteer who flew drones and took 360 videos for local clients.

Perhaps it’s related to so very few tourists coming this way, but we not once experienced attempts at being ripped off in situations where this would be typical almost anywhere else. Literally everyone was great, while plenty would also warn us to be careful when walking around: “Don’t take anything you’re not prepared to lose!”.
But though Georgetown isn’t a city that is too well suited for walking, when we did, we felt in no way threatened.

But, things will change, now that a recently discovered oil field is set to come online in 2020.
Already, oil companies have started buying up property for the processing of oil. Apartments, closed condominiums, have been built and more are being constructed and property prices are going up. A general consensus seems to be that the Guyanese do not expect that a reasonably portion of the future proceeds will benefit the Guyanese people.
Likely, this influx of well-paid foreigners will create a two-tier society where outsiders will consistently be seen as walking money bags. Already suffering from a long-running brain drain, those that have staid will prefer high paying, but low-skilled, jobs in the oil industry over jobs that match their qualifications in low-paying, but understaffed sectors. The GDP per capita will rise significantly, but the money will stick to the elite or will leave the country.

The Brits and their coups

While the US and the UK conspired and overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953, paving the way for stronger control of the country by the shah, which eventually lead to the islamic revolution of 1979, the UK also overthrew the elected government of British Guiana in the same year.
Churchill feared that the leftist president, Cheddi Jagan, and his American wife with Eastern European roots, Janet, would turn the colony communist. Churchill was hoping for American support, who were unhappy with another perceived communist threat in their backyard, but in the end, Britain acted alone, mounting a military operation codenamed Operation Windsor (why not Hannover, or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha?). Churchill dispatched a warship and brought hundreds of troops by air and sea to secure key sites and Britain then suspended British Guiana’s constitution, fired its legislators and arrested the Jagans.

Though even with the elections that brought the Jagans to lead the country, power never had left the hands of the appointed British governor. However, now, and for the three years that followed, the governor ruled using emergency powers, while the Jagans were kept under house arrest, incidentally a stone’s throw away from where we were staying in Georgetown.

With Cuba turning communist, the Americans stepped in to make sure that Cheddi Jagan would not be the first leader of a post-independence Guyana in 1966, though Jagan did become premier in 1961, and then president from 1992 to his death in 1997, after which his wife took over until 1999.
The latter sounds unreasonably nepotist, as Janet, at that time, had already become the longest serving member of the Guyanese parliament, with a total of 46 years under her belt, while also having been minister of two different portfolios in the 1950s and 1960s.
Janet resigned the presidency for health reasons in 1999, eventually passing away in 2009 in Belém, Brazil, while visiting the city for medical care.

Sugar and slaves

The Demerara River, which is today spanned by the Demerara bridge, a floating bridge that, when built, was the longest floating bridge in the world, was the center of the colony when managed by the Dutch. The Brits shifted the center from an island in the river to the shore, but, the shift of the colony’s economy from trade to sugarcane was kept in motion, eventually the colony lending its name to a currently popular alternative to refined sugar, Demerara sugar.
Demerara sugar is a light brown, partially refined, sugar produced from the first crystallisation during processing cane juice into sugar crystals, similar to what you’re left with if you’d leave your glass of cane juice in the sun, letting all water evaporate. Demerara has a caramel-like flavour.
Funnily enough, the bulk of Demerara sugar today is produced on the island of Mauritius.

Back in Demerara, the colony changed hands a few times between the Dutch and British, with the Brits permanently taking control in 1803. The sugarcane plantations expanded, but the treatment of slaves worsened. This eventually lead to the Demerara slave revolt of 1823, which was put down with significant violence.
Word spread back to the homeland and, as a direct consequence, Britain ordained easing the treatment of slaves in the colonies, eventually resulting in the abolishment of slavery in the colonies in 1834.
Plantation owners of British Guiana received a well documented £4,297,117 10s. 6½d. in compensation for the loss of 84,915 slaves. This was part of the 20 million pounds pledged by the British state, a debt which was only fully paid off in 2010.

New Amsterdam and Suriname

Between Georgetown and the Surinamese border, the small town of New Amsterdam was founded after the nearby Fort Nassau was abandoned by the Dutch in favour of Fort Andries, much closer to sea and more practically located for shipping out plantation goods. Fort Andries, then New Amsterdam, developed quickly enough, but saw a slave revolt in 1763 which eventually lead to the burning down of New Amsterdam, after which focus of the colony shifted to the Stabroek, Georgetown.
The slave revolt was run by a West African slave called Cuffy (a bastardisation of Kofi, probably indicating the man was from the area now occupied by Ghana), who killed himself after a fallout with one of his commanders, which ended in a civil war which Cuffy lost. The anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion, 23 February, has been Republic Day in Guyana since 1970.

We stopped in New Amsterdam, hoping to find some colonial history. But, though the town is pleasantly sleepy, it has little to offer. We continued on to Suriname, where the process of the ferry crossing of the Courantyne river took much of the day. We left very early, as it wasn’t clear how often and when the ferry ran. Only in Suriname did we get some clarity: The ferry runs once a day, scheduled at 9 (though we didn’t leave until 10:15), and runs again later in the day if there are still cars waiting on the Guyanese side.
The ferry is in bad shape. It only started running some 15 years ago, but even the ferry’s website is admitting they’re having trouble, apparently because the Surinamese are not paying their dues. One of the engines needs replacing, but instead of getting a new engine, a tug boat now pushes the ferry around.

From Boa Vista to Georgetown

Guyana means ‘land of many waters’ in a local Indian language, and is also the name of an Indian tribe. And, wet it is, all Guyanas covered in rivers.
The colonial powers roughly equated ‘Guyana’ (or ‘Guiana’) with the area north of the Amazon river and the geological formation that’s called the ‘Guiana Shield’ is pretty much exactly that.

The country of Guyana itself is mostly quite flat. Lethem, where the road from Boa Vista in Brazil meets Guyana, is only about 75m above sea level, meaning that the whole journey to the coast has only a very small average incline.

The first part of the journey is through Amazonian savannah. Pretty much the same as its African counterpart, but devoid of larger animals. And, the road from the border to almost in Georgetown is also unpaved. Outside of the height of the raining season, it’s not in the worst of shapes, but during raining season, which the locals call ‘hard guava season’, we were told the journey time can easily double.

Guyana and Brazil have discussed tarring the road from Boa Vista to the coast at Georgetown, or more exactly, Linden, for years, but nothing has yet come of this. This would put a port within easy striking distance from Boa Vista and would significantly reduce the time required to ship to and from Manaus, a twelve hour drive, or so, from Boa Vista.
The cost of building the road is high. And, though both countries stand to benefit, Brazil would also like to have access to a deepwater port, which would also need to be built, first. In Guyana, we were told the Brazilians asked too much in return for financing the road, but earlier, in Manaus, a source mentioned that tarring the road is blocked by operators shipping goods between Manaus and the Brazilian coast at Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon river. They would see their monopoly endangered if a faster and cheaper connection to the coast would open up.

Meanwhile, the Lethem to Linden road is dead quiet; from departing Lethem, to where we broke for the night, we encountered a mere three motor bikes and seven cars. Breaking for the night, we were joined by seven other minivans all making the journey to Georgetown, most not completely full.
Part of the road between Lethem and Georgetown is closed for the night. The minivans leave Lethem at the end of the afternoon to make it to the first gate with some six hours to spare. There, you can rent a room or a hammock and have a decent night’s sleep, which makes the whole journey vastly more agreeable.

Earlier, as night set in, we drove through fields of fire flies, literally as if the fields were covered in Christmas lights.

Lethem is popular with Brazilians for shopping. Apparently, Chinese made goods are cheap, which must be because of a lack of taxation on the Guyanese side, as transport to this border town from the Guyanese coast is hardly cost effective. But sure, most of the shops in Lethem were catering to Brazilian visitors, who are free to come and go across the border, stamps not being necessary if you’re not staying on the other side.

But stamps are necessary if you are actually traveling into the interior.
The Brazilian border control breaks for lunch, and when we arrived at the border, we found a troupe of twenty or so, what we thought were Guyanese, waiting in a queue to be served. They turned out to be Cuban, who, we were told, can freely travel into Guyana, but, they told us, not out of Guyana to countries other than their own, meaning they had managed to clandestinely cross the border and were now going to ask for refuge.
The fixer that had latched on to us, looking for customers to shuttle to the coast, chaperoned us to the front of the queue, being familiar with how long the Cubans would need to be cleared for entry. Then, walking across the border into Guyana, just off the main road on the Guyanese side, but several hundreds of meters before (or after) the border guards’ office, a minivan stopped, a cluster of Cubans emerged with their luggage, and sprinted across the border.
Our fixer told us that, a few weeks ago, when he himself had brought a bunch of Cubans across the border, Guyanese border guards had managed to catch a few, demanding 150 USD per Cuban to look the other way.

We finally left Lethem at around 5pm. Our driver was trying hard to fill up his van, struggling, which he blamed on it being Christmas Eve. Eventually giving up, it meant Natalia and I had the back seat to ourselves.

Two girls on our bus, Brazilian, but fluent in the local Creole, went halfway, where they run a little fast food shack just after crossing the Essequibo River. Two other passengers then shifted to another bus that was now empty, illustrating how quiet the Lethem to Linden road actually is.

Our driver makes the trip about three times per month. At least some of the drivers were working together in concessions, getting a fixed fee for making the journey, or so we were told. To augment their income, many were doing deals on the side. Ours was shipping songbirds, bought from Amerindians in Lethem, to Georgetown, where he would sell them at a steep profit, buying them for around 25 USD, selling them for double that.
Another driver had got himself a huge parrot. “You know, for my kids!”

We finally got to our hotel at 4pm, 31 hours after we left our hotel in Boa Vista, 23 hours after we left from Lethem.

Of piranhas and jaguars

Boa Vista, capital of the remote state of Roraima, competes with Rio Branco for the title of most sedate state capital of Brazil. And, to make things more confusing, Boa Vista is actually situated on the Rio Branco. But, where the pretty view of, or from, the city is, is unclear, as the city itself has little to offer.
A city of three hundred thousand, in a state of 600.000, the city was created by decree only in 1890, with a floor plan inspired by Paris, roads fanning out from a small center next to the river.
The view of the river isn’t bad, but, this being the edge of the Amazon, hardly unique. But, what is nice is that, right on the other side of the river from the center, a ‘big beach’, accessible via little boats, provides a pleasant escape. Well, sort of. The river is said to house piranhas and, when we went swimming, I think I might have felt a test nibble from a passing riverine resident.
Then going for a short walk, we also found fresh jaguar tracks.

Boa Vista is also the gateway to both Guyana and Venezuela, which now means that it sees a lot of Venezuelans passing through. On our arrival, the bus station was packed with Venezuelans, hanging out and housed in government issued tents. But, when we left two days later, strangely, the bus station was deserted.

The one draw of the state of Roraima is the mountain by the same name, straddling the borders of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana; a flat top mountain, the scenery is said to be stunning. But, access to the mountain is only available via the Venezuelan side, from where guided hikes take about a week and cost about 500 US dollars. Well, back when the Venezuelan economy was not in shambles.

In search for the Guyanas

Where, three years ago, we flew to Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon, to take the slow boat to the coastal metropolis of Belém, now we flew to Manaus for an overland trek, via Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana, to the Brazilian province of Amapá, once known as Portuguese Guiana.

There once was also a Spanish Guyana. Still referred to as the Guyana Region of Venezuela, it now encompasses the states of Amazonas, Bolivar and Delta Amacuro. But, given the current state of affairs, Venezuela is not the most practical country to visit.
Additionally, Venezuela and Guyana have been caught up in a long-running border dispute. Venezuela claims what they call the area of Guayana Esequiba, which encompasses more than half the country of Guyana, bordering Venezuela, and is named after the river flowing through it, called the Essequibo by the Gyanese. The dispute goes back to colonial times, back to before when the Spanish and Dutch signed off on, in the Peace of Münster in 1648, a mutually agreeable border.
Shortly before Guyana’s independence in 1966, with the Treaty of Geneva, signed by the United Kingdom, Venezuela and British Guiana (the ‘i’ and ‘y’ are indeed fungible) the parties agreed to find a “practical, peaceful and satisfactory solution” to the dispute.
Clearly, there’s no rush.

History has long arms, however. Within the last few years, major oil reserves were identified in the offshore area claimed by Guyana, drilling of which is expected to come online in 2020. Guyana stands to benefit immensely, currently at a GDP per capita that’s close to the lowest in South and Central America (with the exception of battered Haiti), half the GDP per capital of Brazil. But, of course, Venezuela being in dire need of cash needs every possible infusion of stable currency for its president to stand a chance to survive.

Meanwhile, as if the two countries just decided, many decades ago, to sit this one out, there is absolutely no way to travel overland between Venezuela and Guyana. On the Venezuelan side, roads skirt the de-facto border in a few places, but on the Guyanese side, the nearest you can get to the border by car from the capital Georgetown is a village still hundreds of kilometres from the border.
That said, Jonestown (yes, the one of the massacre) has a few roads diverging from it, and is close to the border. But, the only way to get there is by airlift.

Back in Manaus, we took it easy. We went swimming in the Rio Negro, in a pouring rain, happened upon a Christmas performance at the Teatro Amazonas, and mostly just ate well.

When leaving, on what most were calling the last working day of the year, the local bus drivers had decided to go on strike. Not unreasonable after not having received pay for three months.
It meant we had to get an Uber through snail-paced traffic to the bus station, where we found a few hundred Venezuelans camped out, on the edge of town. A fraction of the three million that have been said to have left Venezuela in the last few years, most opting to visit Colombia, where many have relatives after many Colombians fled to Venezuela during the rough patch that country went through while trying to deal with its own internal strife.

The capital of Dutch Brazil

‘recife’ is the portuguese for ‘reef’, what you find just off Recife’s beaches, breaking the waves. And, with the reefs come sharks, meaning that though the water is pleasantly warm and the beaches pretty, there’s not too much swimming going on in the ‘Brazilian Venice’.

Depending on whom you ask and what yardstick you use, Recife is perhaps the third most important Urban area in Brazil. It also has the third longest subway system in the country, which doesn’t say too much, though it does, very conveniently, and easily, connect the airport to the city, which both Sao Paulo and Rio should take their cue from.

Once, Recife was the largest port in the Americas, and, playing an early important role in international trade, it houses a few ‘firsts’. Like the oldest synagogue in the Americas, as well as, so it is claimed, the first bridge in Latin America, built by the Dutch.

The Dutch influence in Brazil was short-lived, though actually founding Recife, as Mauritsstad, ‘city of Maurits’, this Maurits being a cousin of Prince Maurits, the seventh child of William of Orange (William the Silent), after taking nearby Olinda from the Portuguese in 1630, and in turn being kicked out in 1654.
There is little that remains of the Dutch presence in Brazil, which means that when a hint of Dutch colonial history pops up, it’s the more surprising. Meanwhile, Brazilians in Pernambuco, the state of which Recife is the capital, tend to have a saudade, a longing, for the short reign of the Dutch, believing that, if the Dutch had stayed, Brazil would now have been a Holland in the tropics, with efficient industries, excellent education, freedom of religion, and politics free of corruption. Conveniently forgetting that, though the Dutch left Brazil, they kept a foothold on the continent in Suriname until 1975, which isn’t quite a ‘Holland in the tropics’.

The Dutch retreat from Brazil was facilitated by Portuguese plantation owners who were unhappy with the way they were treated by the Dutch. But, the Dutch weren’t too salty about it, as the West Indies Company considered the venture in Brazil mostly a failure, anyway. Though, not a failed experiment, as the Dutch learned two things from their struggle in Brazil; they needed direct control of the sugar cane plantations, which they made sure they had once they controlled Suriname (after a roundabout route via first controlling New Amsterdam, New York), and cheap labor, that is, slave labor, which the Dutch started successfully meddling in, only after the troubles they encountered in Recife.

Ironically, before leaving Recife, the Dutch were mostly against slavery, on moral grounds. But, a Dutch religious text from around this time justified the use of slaves, the Dutch going so far that, after starting to import and deploy African slave labour on the sugarcane plantations in Suriname, slaves even had to work seven days a week, as they were considered heathen, meaning no day of rest needed to be mandated.

So, indeed, a more likely parallel of what would have become of Recife, if the Dutch had stayed, would have been a situation more similar to modern day Suriname.
One thing going for Suriname, though, is that, there, a lack of restriction on what religion you practice is evidenced by one street in downtown Paramaribo, where a church, mosque and synagogue are practically in each other’s backyard.

Yet, pockets of leftover Dutch influence remain in Recife. Some locals still have Dutch last names, a university is called ‘Nassau’, and when I visited a popular private museum on the outskirts of town, containing the largest collection of weapons in the Americas (what do you do when you’re too rich?), they also turned out to have a library, only allowing one visit per day, specialising in the history of Dutch Brazil. There, when the curator learned I was Dutch, she couldn’t stop talking about the history of the region and the research they had been doing over the past few decades, pulling out the stops and showing me a solid range of preserved historical documents in the process.

More dissatisfaction from the landowning class

This dissatisfaction targeted at the Dutch in the 1650s came again to a head nearly two centuries later. Then, the Portuguese royal family had run away from their country, afraid of Napoleon’s military conquest of the Iberian peninsula, and setting up the Portuguese imperial court in Rio de Janeiro.

Plantation owners in the south were close to the Royal family, benefiting essentially from the colonial equivalent of insider trading. But, in Recife, in the north, thousands of kilometres away, the elite were required to support the royals, without accruing much benefit. Then, when taxation kept rising, and military conscription kept growing, dissatisfaction triggered the Pernambuco revolt of 1817.

In part also a consequence of enlightened ideas coming out of France and the rise of the independence movements in the Americas, a republic was eventually declared, though abolishing slavery was considered too radical, the liberté, egalité and fraternité not extending to the whole population, but only such that Pernambuco would be free from the royal chains of the south, treated as equals on an international level, and, the elite, living as brothers.

Interestingly, the American consulate general in Recife, also the oldest American diplomatic post in the southern hemisphere, supported the revolt.

A fascinating addendum to the revolt was that an Argentine general had floated the idea with the Brits to free Napoleon from his exile, then to take him to Latin America, to there start a new Napoleonic empire, though the suppression of the Pernambuco revolt ended this idea prematurely.
(As a hilarious afterthought, a lock of Napoleon’s hair is on display at a museum in Rio de Janeiro.)

For a short while, the revolution included the states of Ceará and Paraíba, the flag of the revolt honouring the three states with a rainbow topped by three stars above a cross. The flag, today, remains, almost unchanged, with now only one star, as the flag of Pernambuco.
Briefly, though, the city government at the start of the revolution, considered hoisting the French flag. But, then, gathering the flag-making troupes, their own flag was designed and raised instead.

The French themselves, notwithstanding the recent French enlightenment and Pernambuco’s interest, had additional designs on destabilising Brazil. With control of modern day French Guyana, France was bordering Brazil, while the border itself, in the far north of the continent, was not clearly defined. There, in the state of Pará, the Cabanagem, an other independence movement, was supported by the French, and managed to get Pará to secede for five years, from 1835 to 1840, after first joining Brazil at independence in 1822.

A patchwork of control

If you look at a map of the northern edge of Latin America, and the north east of Brazil, you easily see the legacy of this colonial bickering; the states are small, commanding a short shore line with a deep but narrow Hinterland, indicating a past where competing powers were fighting for the natural resources of colonies endowed with vast natural wealth.

Not often realised, besides the three Guyanas in the north of Latin America (Guyana, formerly British Guyana, Suriname, formerly Dutch Guyana and French Guyana), Venezuela absorbed a Spanish Guyana, and Brazil absorbed a Portuguese Guyana, all neatly next to each other on the Caribbean shores.

And what about Recife today?

Recife is a pleasant mix of colonial architecture, similar to Rio‘s downtown or Salvador‘s Pelourinho, facing the sea, located on several islands. Though some of the old buildings are in good shape, there is also a clear dilapidated streak running through the city, while some of the squares are slowly being revived with trendy bars and cafes. Old Recife is one of three islands, the city nestled at the mouths of two rivers.
Lula’s government, who himself hails from Pernambuco, poured in sizeable amounts of money for development of the city and region.

One curious building in old Recife, which, in industrial times was taken over by factories and transportation hubs, is the Malakoff Tower, named after a tower on the Crimean peninsula, which gained fame after the Crimean war. Built for military purposes the tower was abandoned at the start of the republic but was recently renovated, now trying to be a cultural center and an observatory.

Pleasantly, like Sao Paulo, Recife has no outdoor billboards.

On isolation

Latin America tends to be relatively expensive to get to, whether coming from Europe or North America. While at the same time, many don’t realize the sheer size of the continent. But, The distance from Recife to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in Africa, is about the same as the distance from Freetown to Malaga, in the South of Spain. It’s also about the same as from Recife to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil, which in turn is also about as far from the southern tip of Latin America.
So, this makes Recife closer to Europe than to parts of Latin America.

 

 

And now, the tables have turned

I’m one of the 60 experts from around the world, evaluating the national nominations for the UN World Summit Awards 2019, the international competition which aims to select and promote the world’s best startup companies in digital content and innovative applications.

Indeed, it’s the same award I won twice, in 2012 and 2018. First with Dérive app, then with The Museum of Yesterday.

I’m one of the judges in the ‘Culture & Tourism’ category, possibly the hardest of the categories to create products for that can be commercialised, but, though I’m biased, perhaps also the most exciting one.

This year’s submissions, 48 from as many countries, range from the needs-quite-a-bit-of-work to the rather-superb, and includes a few products that have already garnered some global recognition and success.

What’s very clear from this year’s submissions is the trend that I myself have been working on since before the introduction of Dérive app, is gaining steam, perhaps reaching mainstream.
In the last few years, the concept of ‘traveling like a local’ first gained attention but is now slowly fading, the realisation setting in that ‘traveling like a local’ is just a way of moving the same hordes of tourists to just another destination, antagonising actual locals in the process, often resulting in the degradation and commercialisation of neighbourhoods that once were ‘authentic’, and now see the original inhabitants priced out of the markets they used to frequent or belong to.

Now, the trend, and one that is much more sustainable, is to provide a travel experience that is unique to the individual. Indeed, the exact catchphrase we’ve been using for both Dérive app and Kompl, and which I also pursue with the places I have been and the upcoming where is the next . beer.
Several of this year’s submissions try to make destination travel into a kind of personalised game that is unique to the user. However, those that are more experimental, and more interesting, tend to also be less polished and less scalable. Those that are more impressive and slick also lean more towards a style of more conventional travel guides.

It’s also obvious that the biggest hurdle is finding the right framework for sustained commercialisation. As users, we’ve become used to receiving travel-related information for free. Lonely Planet, the last of the conventional guide book brands, is now only a tool to market the larger assets of its proprietor, and practically gives away its guidebooks, while Foursquare, Google Places, Triposo, Yelp!, TripAdvisor and many others just rely on advertising and promotional deals with proprietors to make a profit, the exact antithesis of what this new trend likes to facilitate, and what, more and more, travellers realise they prefer.

In case I’m ahead of the curve, here’s my prediction for the next trend in travel and urban discovery. It will be twofold. On one side, users will want to be catered to very specific needs that are quite unique, and require a more intense involvement from the user. (Say, perhaps, visiting audio specialists in a particular city in case you’re an audio file. Or checking out only goat burgers because you love eating goat.)
On the other side, users will use travel apps less and less, finding their own way around their holidays, only referring to the available travel information infrastructure to obtain practical details. (Like, how to get to a particular destination, what the opening times are, etc.)

This dichotomy, however, will make the industry of travel and tourism apps only harder to monetise.

For this year’s WSA, I do have a few favourites, but it’s crowded at the top. This initial qualification will result in a shortlist of a good dozen projects, from which five winners will be selected by the grand jury, in November.

The Road Monument of Rio de Janeiro

You will never see this monument when leaving Rio de Janeiro. It’s only when arriving, from the direction of Sao Paulo, that you pass by the Road Monument a fine Art Deco construction, now in ruins.
Opened in 1938, after construction was started then years earlier, the space beneath the large obelisk used to contain a restaurant, the whole site designed as an area of recreation, a welcome rest when traveling, by ‘fancy’ car, between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively the economic and federal capitals of Brazil, at the time of construction.

The interior of the building contained the first works, murals, by Brazilian artist Candido Portinari on the themes of socialism and nationalism. Portinari gained international fame for his work Guerra e Paz (War and Peace), two large panels, each about 150 square meters, that were donated to the New York UN headquarters in 1954. There, they were on show for over half a century, before being restored and then re-inaugurated by Ban Ki-moon in 2015, praising both the artist and the work.

It’s considered that Portinari died for the completion of these paintings, succumbing to lead-intoxication from the fumes of the paint he used. Not the only ironic fact associated with his work, as he was also banned from entering the US to inaugurate the panels, accused of being a communist. This, in the same year that Dwight Eisenhower signed the Communist Control Act, outlawing the Communist Party of the United States. Yet, still, Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary General at the time, praised Portinari’s work as “the most important monumental work of art donated to the UN”. Clearly, Ban Ki-moon could not stay behind.

Portinari, though, was indeed a communist, a member of the Brazilian Communist Party. Standing for deputy in 1945 and senator in 1947, he fled to Uruguay shortly after, during the communist persecution of communists under the Brazilian president Dutra. Ironically, the monument on the road between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is right next to the highway named after Dutra.
In 1952, a general amnesty followed, Portinari returned to Brazil and, perhaps in a way to signify a mea-culpa on the side of the Brazilian government, Portinari was designated to submit art for the new UN headquarters in New York.

Portinari’s commission of the murals in the Road Monument, as him being communist, shouldn’t have been all that unexpected. Portinari was commissioned by the director of the Federal Highway Commission, a man with the fascinating name of Iedo Fiúza. Fiúza, afterwards, embarked on a somewhat successful political career which included being the presidential candidate for the Communist Party of Brazil in 1945, being presented as ‘the candidate of the people’ when he became the second loser after general Dutra, yet beating Dutra in the state of Rio Branco (nation-wide gaining a total of close to 600.000 votes on a population of around 45 million).
So, Portinari being commissioned was likely a matter of a few lefties helping each other out.

Sadly, the murals are no longer at the monument. In the same way that the 5000 Cruzado banknote, which featured Portinari in the 1980s and 1990s, has also disappeared, the latter having been made irrelevant by the Brazilian hyperinflation of the 1990s. The murals were moved to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio, in 1999, and unveiled shortly after. (Though, an article from 2016 claims the murals are at MASP, in Sao Paulo.)

In 2013, O Globo reported that the monument was going to be refurbished. Though a report on a court case from two years later suggests no restoration was actually done. Yet, on our visit, the monument clearly was kept clean, though the building itself had also clearly not been restored.

What does remain are eight panels on the outside of the monument, in a Socialist Realist style, by the French sculptor Albert Freyhoffer. Freyhoffer’s work pops up in a few places around Brazil, like this one in Rio, or this one in Blumenau, but he apparently was not important enough to keep an online following, or even a bio.

The architect of the monument itself was Raphael Galvão, who was also one of the seven architects of the Maracanã stadium in Rio.

The ‘Road Monument’, though perhaps ‘Monument to Roads’ makes more sense as a translation, was envisioned at a time that interstate highways were cropping up all over Brazil, slowly replacing the previously dominant railway connections, few of which remain today. The road next to which it’s located was the first road connection between the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, inaugurated by the then-president Washington Luis in 1928. Some thought a fitting monument for the grand scale of all future Brazilian road connections was required, and on an initiative of the Touring Club of Brazil, work was started on the monument in 1928.

The top of the obelisk functioned as a lighthouse, with a rotating light visible for miles, even up to Rio’s south zone, aided by the monument being near the top of a pass in the one mountain range you have to cross when coming into Rio from Sao Paulo. But, the light died long ago, the monument being shut down in 1978, by the military dictatorship, never to be reopened.

Still, if you’re close, stopping by is more than worth it. If not for the architectural abandonment, then for the gorgeous view of the Serra das Araras and the nearby valleys.

Foldable bikes as hand luggage

While on the move over the past few weeks, I had a shower thought where I figured it would be extremely convenient to travel with a folding bike that fits within the allowed dimensions of hand luggage.

Turns out, of course, I’m not the only one with this idea. Kwiggle is in the process of releasing a bike that purposely folds such that it fits your hand luggage (on many airlines). However, they’ve been kicking the idea around for years, but do claim they will start shipping their bike by the end of this year.
At a very steep 1500 euros.

Typical foldable bikes tend to be much cheaper, starting at under 200 euros. What you gain in price, you lose in weight. But, practically all, if not all, fall outside the size specifications for hand luggage. Even research on aliexpress didn’t lead to anything.

Surprisingly, other foldable bikes that make some claim to being the smallest are either outrageously expensive, like the crazily priced 3500 GPB Hummingbird, or vapourware, like the Helix, which is actually too big to fit in your hand luggage, and still costs an absurd 1900 USD, or like this seemingly useless contraption.

There’s also the A-bike, which is even electric and sells for a not completely unreasonable 600 euros. But, though small, is 70cm tall when folded, 15cm taller than typical hand luggage allows.
Other A-frame bikes are made by Strida, but are all too tall, too.

I’m surprised no readily foldable bikes exist that fit hand luggage dimensions. Here’s a business opportunity!

A note on airports

On the way back home to Brazil, I had another long stopover, waiting in Istanbul for 4.5 hours, after first a two hour delay in Amsterdam. I realised that where I used to enjoy the bustle of airports, they now mildly irritate me; The sameness, the unnecessary rush, the overly strict treatment of passengers, all airports have become one big necessary blur with no individuality.
Once, they were the gateway to the world, in all their diversity. Now, they are the harbingers of mediocre and averaged unified global culture.

At least the Turkish airport served Turkish coffee. But that only made me long for the superior Turkish coffee I had all over Jordan.

Ravenstone

For our longer visit to Hungary, I also wanted to take the opportunity to visit a place, outside of Budapest, I had not yet been to. We decided to visit the small town of Hollókő.

A tiny village just under 100km from Budapest, construction of Hollókő, ‘Ravenstone’, castle, began in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion in the middle of the 13th century, in the hope of allowing for more protection against future attacks.
This worked for a while, but the Ottomen captured the castle in the middle of the 16th century, control subsequently flipping several times between Turk and Hungarian forces. Until the end of the Ottoman era, in 1683, when the castle and old village, built just below the city walls, were abandoned, and the current village grew up, within site of the castle itself.

Now inscribed as a World Heritage Site, it’s famous as a living example of rural life, before the agricultural revolution of the 20th century. Mostly, it’s just a cute, quiet, 300 year old village.

We only stayed for one night, and left on the day that, probably, the town’s largest yearly festival was about to happen. We asked a local couple what was going down. “Oh, this is not for tourists!”
Turns out that, once a year, Hollókő throws a party for people from Hollókő from all over the world, who have left, but still carry the town in their hearts. A street disco was scheduled, as well as a cooking competition.

We waited for as long as we could, but, by the end of the afternoon, the town still felt pretty much as sleepy as it did when we had arrived the previous day.

A wedding in Budapest

The reason for this trip was an excellent wedding in Budapest. Followed by several days on lake Balaton, it had been a while since I visited Hungary. It was good to be back.

It was Natalia her first visit to Hungary, so besides partying hard at the wedding, and suffering for it the next day, we also made the visit into something of a Baba museum.

We also visited Obuda island, home of the famous Sziget festival.

The radio is playing some forgotten song

The Jordan valley, separating Jordan from Israel and Palestine, is part of the same schism, rift, that runs from Hatay in Turkey, all the way down to lake Albert, and beyond. The Dead Sea is about 400 meters below sea level, and shrinking. With the lowest point in the Dead Sea another 300 meters down. 

The views from the mountains lining the shore on the Jordanian side are impressive. This includes the view from what once was a castle, fortress, or palace, of Herod Antipater, the alleged murderer of John the Baptist. Herod, supposedly, after being impressed with how the daughter of his new wife danced for him, asked her what she wanted in return. Asking her mother, who had been angered by John disproving of Herod divorcing his first wife, told her to ask for the head of John on a platter. Herod agreed.
John’s burial was supposed to have happened not too far away, in a little town close to Nablus, now in the Palestinian Territories, but a few hundred years later, his relics started to be dispersed all over the Christian world. First to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria. The head disappeared but was eventually manifested by revelation in the mid 5th century in Syria, while the decapitation cloth, whatever that really is supposed to be, resides at the Aachen Cathedral.
(Interestingly, Aachen has a fair share of relics. Besides John the Baptist’s decapitation cloth, it also has the nappy and loin cloth of Jesus, and a dress of Mary, no less.)
The head still officially resides in Syria, but, historically, alternative locations existed, including places in Germany, Turkey, Italy, France and even England. 
Other relics of John can be found far and wide. One claimant to having the left hand of John is a church in West Bengal, India.

Another juicy claim relates to Halifax in West Yorkshire, where, as patron saint of the town, John’s head appears on the city’s official coat-of-arms. One story bases the etymology of the town’s name on the combination of the words ‘holy’ and ‘face’, suggesting that a relic of the head, or face, of John the Baptist once might have existed in the town.

The present-day Christian legacy in Jordan is limited. Nowadays, most christians in Jordan reside in the town of Madaba, roughly halfway between Amman and the Black Sea. But, even then, only about ten percent of the town actually calls themselves Christian.
Here, I stumbled upon a Christian mass, in the Church of the Beheaded John the Baptist, of course. The mass was in Syrian (Syriac?), and was led by an Iraqi Christian from Arbil, in Iraq. Himself one of the 100, or so, Christian Iraqi families that had fled northern Iraq in late 2012 and, now, was based in Jordan, waiting for a visa for either the US or Canada.

For that matter, Jordanians are close to being a minority in their own country, having, for decades, taken in refugees from Palestine, Iraq and Syria. This has generated some dissatisfaction, mostly related to Jordanians claiming that ‘all jobs’ are reserved for immigrants.
The jobs might not actually be reserved for immigrants, but plenty of the immigrants, particularly the ones that arrived decades ago, have been quite entrepreneurial, perhaps giving preference to hiring those that are closer to themselves.

The Christian heritage of Madaba can also be found in that restaurants serve beer and arak, while liquor stores are easy to find. So, at my hotel, the owner, after dinner, asked if I could mind the shop for a few minutes, while he went out to get himself some whiskey.
After his return, two friends joined in, bringing their own bottles of whiskey, all locally made. The doors were locked and the beverages were consumed in copious amounts.
I had to be pulled in to the conversation, with the World Cup, games being played that very day, being the topic of the day. Half in English, half in Arabic, with the hotel owner translating, the narrative flowed from the merits of the current Brazilian soccer team, via Brazilian top models, to the explanation of one of the hotel owner’s friends preference of having anal sex with police women. His English was succinct: “I love”.

The next morning, I drove back to the airport to drop of my rental car. I had been on the lookout for offering rides to passersby, so far without success. But now, a young boy was looking for a lift. I offered.
As payment, he offered to share his coffee.
Jordanian radio was playing Eurovision songs.

It’s cliche, but, truly, Jordan’s best asset is its people.

Um er-Rasas and Kerak

I decided I didn’t want to pay unreasonable amounts of money to have someone drive me around, and I also didn’t want to sit two full days in a hotel room. Instead, I took a public bus to Amman from Petra, jumped off at the turnoff for the airport, got a lift from a kind stranger for the last few kilometers and rented a car for my last two days. For less then what two few-hour excursions would cost, for a driver with car.
My first stop was Um er-Rasas, one of Jordan’s World Heritage Sites, a multi layered cake of historical proportions, on a civilisational level.
The site includes the ruins of no less than 14 churches as well as an impressive ensemble of mosaics. But, sadly, most of the site is just rubble, and deserted.

Nearby the main site is a tower, or pillar, or column, with no staircase and a few windows at what appears to be a crumbled room at the top. Consensus is that this is an ascetic’s tower.
In the first few hundred years after Christianity had started to spread in the Middle East, it was not uncommon for aspiring holy men, ascetics, to live their lives, for decades, sometimes, at the top of a free standing column. Appropriately, they were called Stylites, after the Greek for ‘pillar dweller’.

Also nearby the remains of a long contested fortress town, with stunning views of ‘Jordan’s Grand Canyon’, below.

Then I drove to Kerak, home to an impressive Crusader castle. But not before stopping at a viewpoint overlooking that Grand Canyon, where two Jack Sparrows, that is, Bedouin, where selling tea and coffee.
We sat down and had a lovely chat, and I think I managed to get over the awkwardness of being surrounded by copies of Jack Sparrow, and talking to them.

The Rock

I took the regular public bus from Amman to Petra. Familiar with similar places in similar countries, I was fearing the bus station to be a complete mess.
It was the opposite. Perahps because the country was in post-Ramadan chill, the bus station was nearly deserted. Shops were closed, few busses were waiting around and the touts were shouting their destinations with little fervour, clearly wanting to be somewhere else.
But also, as busses only leave when they are full, it meant hanging around drinking excellent Turkish coffee from a roadside seller for a while, before finally leaving.

Petra is not to be missed, it’s also crazy expensive to get in. And, my visiting coinciding with the end of Ramadan, saw me hustle for space with thousands of noisy Bangladeshis, working in Amman, which had been given a few days off, after Ramadan, to visit Petra. They, Jordanians and Arabs, get to visit Petra at 2% of the price I, as a regular tourist, had to pay.

Two types of constructions are still standing in Petra; tombs, hacked out in the mountains, and the ruins of temples, built on open ground. Petra was a living city, in consecutive iterations under different rulers, but besides the tombs slowly being repossed by the living, most lived in tents, pitched between the steep canyon walls.
As a testament to progress, parts of the vast site are now covered in WiFi.

Buying some fridge magnets, I was surprised by the Jack Sparrow-look of the Bedouin seller. Not sure whether commenting on this similarity was either offensive or appropriate, I refrained from mentioning it. Soon to discover that half the local men on site, and, later, Bedouin across the country, all had a distinct Jack Sparrow look going on. Johnny Depp has gone on record to say that he modeled his character after a combination of Keith Richards and Pepé le Pew. But, the kohl Depp wears around his eyes are inspired by ‘nomads’, which Depp likens to pirates.
That suggests that the Bedouin look came first. I asked a few Bedouin about this, but their responses were succinct: “It’s our look”.

As intriguing are the Bedouin romance scammers or Petra. Essentially a copy of the love scams that can also be found in Gambia.

The city of brotherly love

Surprisingly few tourists were on my flight from Cyprus to Jordan. But there were lots of young Jordanian families with kids, and lots of young Americans who did not need a visa, probably making them Peace Corps or similar.
The tourist tax was 40 Jordanian dinar, about 50 Euros. The immigration booths all carried MasterCard and Visa signs, but neither was accepted.

For the small country that Jordan is, and one that’s seldom in the news, it has a huge and broad history.
One of the oldest statues in the world, at 8000 years, was found in Jordan; one of the oldest dams in the world, at over 5000 years, is in Jordan; World Heritage Sites include the site were Jesus supposedly was baptised.
Then there is the mountain from which Moses saw Israel, then died, the Dead Sea, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the valleys where Lawrence of Arabia fought for Arabian Independence.

More problematic, most of these sites, and many other worthwhile to visit, are almost impossible to get to without your own transport. Public transportation is limited, even on the small distances at which many of the sites are from Amman, while car or driver rental is painfully expensive. Even more so if you’re traveling on your own.
Then, because it was low season, the tail end of Ramadan, none of the organised group tours were running.

In Amman itself, there’s not too much to see, though. The inner city citadel and a superb Roman amphitheater are the main sights. A nice museum and a budding art scene are what remains.

I decided that Jesus’ baptism site, Bethany, warranted a visit. Renting a driver with car, the hour’s drive and ninety minute tour was interesting enough.
Over the years, the Jordan river has slightly shifted, meaning the original baptism site is now about 50m away from the river, at places only a few meters wide. Where the Jordanians allow you to enter the river, under the watchful eye of the country’s military, pilgrims on the other side of the river, on the Israeli side, are so close that it’s easy to talk to them, without even much raising your voice.
Though only the Jordanian side is a World Heritage Site, the Israelis spent noticeably more money on embellishing their claim to fame, with the visiting crowds to match.

When I arrived in Amman, I took the airport bus to the north bus station. But, from there, I still needed to take a taxi to my hotel, or figure out the hopelessly obfuscated public transport system.
As the bus arrived, a bunch of taxi drivers scrambled to their newly arrived pray. They refused to agree on a fixed price in favor of using the meter.
But, the standard for displaying prices is not consistent in Jordan, sowing confusion for visitors.
Like in some other Arab countries, the currency unit is subdivided not in 100 units, like cents, but in 1000 units.  As a consequence, a price of, say, two and a half dinar, can be displayed as 2.500, 2500, 2.5 and, as the meters in the taxis at the northern bus station did, 25. Painfully confusing. And if the only local you have at your disposal is someone who actually wants you to be confused, a situation that’s annoying and ripe for conflict. And a conflict it was.

My Jordanian taxi driver reinforced my innate dislike for taxis and even made me consider moving to Uber.

Thankfully, the attitude of the taxi driver turned out atypical, as far as Jordanians go, widely known for their hospitality; on the last night of Ramadan, I ate at a local restaurant, so popular that the street-side tables stretched for perhaps 100 meters of sidewalk. A few stray tourists had occupied a table and I almost was tempted to ask if I could join. Instead, I asked staff where they had room for one, and was seated at a small table with two brothers, and had a wonderful evening, where I was unable to convince the brothers to not pay for my dinner.

In short, I received some brotherly love. Topical, as Amman was once called Philadelphia. 
From about 1000BC to 300BC, the city, as Rabbath Ammon, was the capital of the kingdom of Ammon. But it was Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of the Ptolemy who founded Ptolemaic Egypt, general of Alexander the Great, who renamed the city in his own honour, after conquering it.
Ptolemy gained the sobriquet ‘philadelphus’, brother-lover, as a consequence of his own insistence of providing divine honours to his parents as well his sister and himself, after having married his sister, both becoming co-rulers of Egypt, setting up a long dynasty of inbred pharaohs on the Nile.

Once rose from the sea

Hugely popular in summer, Paphos is on the Ryanair network, and, for now, the only jumping off point, for Ryanair, to get to Amman, in Jordan.
It’s also home to the temple of Aphrodite, something I had to skip on my last visit to Cyprus, a lifetime ago.
Sadly, my flight arrived late, so late that the only way to leave the airport was to take an extortionist taxi into town, some 20km away.

The mosaics in the archeological sites of Paphos are exquisite, if some are a tad late Roman, dating from the fourth century AD. Completely mythical in subject, one interesting aspect is that many of the displayed characters, from Greek and Roman mythology, are depicted in a style more typical to medieval Christian saints, that is, with a halo, like a circular disc, displayed behind the head.
The centrepiece of Nea Paphos, the main archeological site of Paphos, is the house of Dionysus, named after the central figure in many of the house’s mosaics. It’s older than most of the other houses on site, with some of the mosaics dating back to the fourth century BC.

Paphos is still pretty much a British coastal town, with many of the restaurants and hotels advertising discounted full English breakfast, with the speakers playing British Armed Forces Radio. But, in Cyprus in general, many of the tourists are now Russian speaking.
As I learned from a chat with a local real estate agent, the more interesting, or perhaps worrying, influx are Russians, Chinese, Jordanian and Iranians who, with spending 300000 Euros on a house, get a permanent residence for themselves, their partner, both their parents, and their kids under 25.
On top of that, so I was told, a passport can be had for two million euros, the Golden Visas, stories of which surfaced last year.

Indeed, I started noticing that all real estate ads were in English, Chinese, Russian and Arabic, in that order. No Persian, though.

Perhaps package holidays to Cyprus are still a steal, but self-booked accommodation is annoyingly expensive. So, though I booked an Airbnb in Estonia and a hotel in Amman, in Paphos I had to stay in a dorm in a hostel, which was more expensive then both what I was paying in Estonia and Jordan.

The sights

Also in Paphos are the ‘Tombs of the Kings’. Not because they were tombs of kings, but because they were once fancy.
They date back to the fourth century BC, when Paphos was under control of Ptolomean Egypt, having their seat in Alexandria. In fact, this makes the tombs contemporary to the original Ptolomy, Alexander the Great’s general.
At the time, it was customary for the rich to bury the dead in constructions that resembled their own houses (something I also saw at Petra, in Jordan, a few days later). So, the graves were given a courtyard, surrounded by rooms and niches around the perimeter, for the dead. Though, later, these were simply used as houses, for the living.
Indeed, there is more than a passing resemblance to the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, as well as to the rock churches of Lalibela. Though the latter were built over a millennium later.

Now, of these graves, little remains, a recent addition being the scores of little cairns on the sea-facing side of the complex.

Nea Paphos and The Tombs of the Kings are part of the World Heritage Site that is Paphos. This also includes the temple of Aphrodite, a few kilometers away.
Very little is left of the temple, the more interesting site perhaps being the rock of Aphrodite, where the goddess is said to have arisen from the sea, to have been born, perhaps some 3000 years ago.

Though Aphrodite’s story and birthplace have been handed down to us, the origin of the goddess is quite unclear and disputed. Cyprus claims to be home to the birthplace of Aphrodite, but so does Kythira, just off the Peloponnesus in Greece. However, Plato already suggested that these two birthplaces actually referred to two different individuals, whom, over time, came to be worshipped as one.
(As an aside, if the name Kythira rings a vague bell, the place is perhaps most widely known for lending its name to the Antikythera machine, found between Kythira and its sister island Antikythera, sometimes called an ‘ancient computer’ and used to predict the revolution of the planets.)
That identity mixup is tiny in the face of Aphrodite’s origin story. Earlier scholars thought that the name Aphrodite was a derivative of ‘risen from the foam’, but more modern scholars deny that, the general consensus now being that Aphrodite’s name is of non-Greek, probably Semitic, origin, with its exact derivation unknown.

Aphrodite’s history goes back much further, though. Her cult was derived from, or at least based on, that of the Phoenician Astarte, which in turn was derived from, or based on, the cult of the Sumerian Inanna, dating back a stupefying 6000 years. Due to Inanna’s ancient heritage, some scholars believe her representation also modelled for the concept of the Hindu warrior goddess Durga, creating a religious link between the furthest reaches of the Eurasian continent.

Though less explicitly a warrior goddess, Aphrodite herself was connected to both love (hence the derivative aphrodisiac) and war. After all, you fight hardest for what you love.
One of her birth stories is a rather plastic account of love gone wrong. According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born from the foam, produced by Uranus’ genitals, which his son Cronus had severed and thrown into the sea.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that this history of love and war also saw Aphrodite be the patron saint of prostitutes, with the historian Herodotus writing that “the foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life.”
The connection of Aphrodite with prostitution led some scholars to consider the concept of religious sex, or sacred prostitution, though, now, this has mostly been discredited.
However, it made me wonder to what extent Mary Magdalene perhaps was an avatar of Aphrodite, even though, now, scholars, as well as the Vatican, no longer consider her as having been a prostitute.

Aphrodite’s rock, meanwhile, is still impressive, somehow conveying the burden of the ages to those who witness her.

Going the distance

The oldest town in Estonia is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe. Here, at the start of the 19th century, the Estonian astronomer Struve started putting together a network of 263 points across Europe, through which he connected 258 triangles, from the north of Norway to the shores of the Black Sea.
In so doing, measuring the distances and the angles of each triangle as well as the elevations of the measuring points, he was able to very accurately calculate the length of the meridian going through Tartu, the town in which he was based, which was invaluable for the accurate production of maps, the latest fashion, with the onslaught of the scientific craze, as well as the beginning of the last wave of European turf wars.

Struve didn’t do this completely on his own. Two primary partners, roughly one responsible for the points in Scandinavia, one for the points to the South of Estonia, as well as a host of helpers, worked together to make this happen over a period of some 30 years.

It’s baffling to realise how accurate the measurements were, calculations of the length of the meridian only being off by a mere 12 meters.
Particularly, the method for calculating the distances between the individual corners of the triangles is fascinating; wooden struts were essentially hammered together in a straight line, from corner to corner. Over distances that measured typically between 20 and 40 kilometer.

Sadly, Struve was a bit lax in marking his measuring points for posterity, meaning that many of the exact locations he used are now unknown.
Still, a few of them, including the first point at the old observatory in Tartu, as well as a good 30 others across Europe, are now a World Heritage Site.

Tartu itself is a sleepy town. The university grounds are rather nice, though with summer recess already having started, were quiet, the central ruin of an old church being used for what seemed a wedding reception. The town, with its pedestrianised streets lined with Tibetan and other exotic restaurants, seems to jostle itself in position as a soon-to-be popular destination for digital nomads, another thing Estonia wants to facilitate with its e-residency program.

That internationalised gentrification is also visible in Supilinn, “Soup town”, where all streets are named after ingredients of soups. First a cheap slum, on the banks of the Emajõgi river, flooding in yearly cycles, the area became popular with students for its cheap living quarters, but though the current houses are still all made of wood, they are a far cry from what once made up this now quickly gentrifying neighbourhood.

My personal Northern Crusade

Those infidels in the Eastern Mediterranean needed to be taught a lesson, worshipping the wrong god, and all. So, from the late 11th century onwards, under the blessings of the pope, European Catholics got medieval on their asses through organizing some more, and some less, successful crusades. That is, success mostly depending on the relative numbers of deaths on either side of the battlefields.

But, looking for an easy win, the pope also sanctioned the Northern Crusades, starting in the mid-12th century, with the objective of finally putting those pesky Baltics under his godly control. Specifically, the Livonian Crusade, running for most of the 13th century, saw the last pagan corners of Europe being extinguished, followed by the creation of Terra Mariana, “the land of Mary”, covering parts of modern-day Estonia and Latvia.
Although this must have been a traumatic experience for those that survived, from the early 20th century onwards, “Terra Mariana”, or in its Estonian translation, Maarjamaa, has been used as a poetic sobriquet for the country of Estonia. So relevant, that in 1995, a state decoration was created, named after Terra Mariana.

However, notwithstanding Tallinn’s impressive array of churches, Estonians didn’t flock back to Christianity after the break up of the Soviet Union, as, now, some 70 percent of the country claims to not be religious, which could tie in with the 30 percent, or so, that considers themselves Russian, and Orthodox.

Also since the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonians have gone through remarkable change. A member of the EU since 2001, a Euro country since 2004, now, Tallinn resembles a Scandinavian capital more than a former Soviet regional hub. And, almost, with prices to match.
Not yet as expensive as Finland or Sweden, the cost of living is comparable to some Western European countries. Painful for many, when the minimum wage is around just 500 euros.

But some vestiges of their past remain.
On the sea shore, on the edge of the old Town, is Linnahall. Originally called by its more poetic name “V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport”, now an occasional concert hall; brutalist, if crumbling.
Built for the water-based events of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, it’s now on the city’s heritage list. Destruction is not likely, but restoration is also not really in the cards.

The creation of Estonia in the early 1990s was perhaps typical, in a prescient fashion, for the rise of European local nationalism, as Estonia, prior to the Soviet Union’s breakup, had only been an independent country for some twenty years, and then only nominally so.
At the end of the first world war, with the Germans retreating, Estonia proclaimed independence, only to become a protectorate of Russia, and then, in the late thirties, a Soviet Republic.
Nevertheless, this year, Estonia does celebrate 100 years of independence. So proud, that a historical timeline set in a part of the sidewalk in the city’s old town, which starts some 1000 years ago, includes the year 2418, the expected 500th celebration of an independent Estonia.

As a nation in Europe, Estonians are reasonably unique. Their language, together with those of Hungary and Finland, are very different from all other European languages, though, surprisingly, ethnically, the Fins and Estonians on one side, and the Hungarians on the other, are as different as it gets, in Europe. Now, walking around Tallinn, interacting with the people, the closest connection seems to be with the Scandinavian countries.

I was visiting Estonia with a primary directive; I’m in the process of finally, officially, emigrating from the Netherlands, after, in practice, having lived abroad for decades. For Holland, that would also mean having to give up my Dutch business (unless I want to pay significantly more for maintaining a business presence), yet having a business presence in Europe, mostly due to the hassle that moving money in and out of Brazil is, would be rather practical.
Estonia being the digital vanguard of Europe, my objective is to move my Dutch business to an Estonian presence, through Estonian e-residency. 

So, I was visiting Estonia for the next step in this process, setting up a local bank account, the only part of the whole process that required a physical visit to a bank, in Estonia.
It was successful.