Strategies for subverting the tyranny of the corporate map

I submitted a version of the below for a session at CryptoRave, which, due to COVID, has been, at best, postponed to the second half of 2020. I referenced the concept in online panel, Being Social, which I was part of, and which is hosted by Deveron Projects. The text was also submitted to Streetnotes, a biannual peer-reviewed journal for the interdisciplinary study of the city, its lifeways and social relations.
A summarised version of this was presented at the Locative Media Summer School.

Particularly since the introduction of smart phones, we have come to rely on ever fewer, ever more unified, tools to guide us, both in familiar and new environments. We have been handing over agency to tools that tell us what to see, what to do, and where to go.

This document discusses a philosophical background for, as well as tools to, subverting this external control, putting some agency for finding our way back in the hands of the individual, you.

Tyranny

Remember the last time you were in a city you’re not overly familiar with? Did you use a mobile app to tell you where to go? Where to eat? What to see?

Chances are that if two individuals are roughly in the same place, but at different times, and ask the same app roughly the same question, the result will be exactly the same; you’re in Paris, looking for a Thai restaurant? Whether you or I ask Google, we’ll get pretty much served the same list. Worse, because the number of unique content providers is very limited, it doesn’t even matter that much which app you use, as many source their information from a very small list of providers.

What then happens? Both of us will probably pick the ‘best’ Thai restaurant from the list, the first, and end up in exactly the same place, following exactly the same route to get there. 

With a world of information in our pockets, the variety of what is offered to us and what we seek out is actually getting smaller.

The result of this ‘winner takes all’ framework, where the most popular destinations only get more popular, eventually resulting in over-tourism, is the engendering of an attitude where visitors build up a longing desire for a unique, individualistic, experience, being denied this by the very tools they use to look for this unique experience, because the nature of the tools we accept as being at our disposal, can not, by design, provide that unique experience; their creators need, their investors demand, to provide a blanket solution with the widest reach, optimising financial turnover.

‘Personalisation’ of the results to our queries attempt to go some way towards providing us individualised responses. However, compartmentalisation of personal data, limited classification of available results, and an undefined match between what we like, why we like it, and what we experience, means that personalisation in travel offers very limited venues for optimisation. Imagine; you might like the specific way a particular dish at that Thai restaurant near your home is prepared. What data would need to be captured for an automated service to point you to a restaurant in an alien city where that particular dish is prepared in a similar way? Particularly if, perhaps, the restaurant itself is not well-rated, out of the way, or not even Thai?

Of course, this information could be captured, but, requiring rich and up-to-date user input, simply isn’t captured and is less likely to ever be captured. Though, with the potential advent of embedded technologies automatically recording ranges of personalised experiences, this could indeed change.

The commercialisation of society

Back in the 1950s, a bunch of mostly French leftist intellectuals, calling themselves The Situationist International, or Situationists, realised how the public space was being increasingly commercialised. 

After the Second World War, with the increasing cultural influence of the United States in Europe, many of the big Western European cities were taking cues from the US in how to model the publicly accessible spheres of their cities. 

While moving through public space, inhabitants were, more and more, actively directed in how to interact with the environment; go here, look there, buy this, etc. 

The Situationists were ahead of their time in their critique of capitalist society; They rejected the idea that capitalism’s apparent successes, like technological advancement, increased income, even increased leisure, could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously facilitated.

The Situationists recognised society being in the service of the concept of the Spectacle, the reign of the market, as well as the increased tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects, as opposed to individual expression through directly lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires.

In fact, this late-stage capitalism is not organised around the creation of luxury, happiness, or freedom, but, for the system, production, and for the vast majority of its inhabitants, survival.

Creating counter narratives

As a response to the commercialisation of society, the Situationists sought to counter the Spectacle though the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately created for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life, even adventure.

Specifically, the Situationists came up with the concept of psychogeography, roughly the way a place makes you feel, and the dérive, the French word for ‘drift’, where the participant lets herself be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.

To revolt against the commercialisation of public space, and to counter the corporate influence on our lived experience, we need methods that put the locus of the decision-making process back in our own hands, as opposed to us being lead by algorithms that remove our experience and impressions from the environment we inhabit.

Then, by taking control of our own experience, we actualise ‘place’ as something that is dynamic, its meaning depending on the individual and her experience, not as a static notion that is defined by external actors we have no control over. 

Marxist Geographer Doreen Massey calls this ‘sense of place’, where the meaning of a ‘place’ is unique to the individual.

As an aside, though the ideas of the Situationists are often used in the context of exploration and travel, they were designed as frameworks for subversion, and other areas also benefit. In the early 2000s, Precarias a la Deriva, and Grup de Lesbianes Feministes, both in Spain, used psychogeographic ideas to investigate the role of unpaid female labour, and, more generally, of the sexualization of space, moving away from the traditionally more male-dominated theory.

Practical tools

Aware of the apparent contradiction, we can use digital tools, smartphones, to circumvent the tyranny of the corporate map, though digital tools are not a requirement.

The dérive 

The idea of the dérive, conceptualised in the 1950s by Guy Debord, the most prominent member of the Situationist International, at its core is about participants letting themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Best done in small groups, these would, Debord argued, lead to the creation of what he called ‘situations’.

Formalising this idea has centred around the creation of series of loosely directive ‘task cards’, nudging participants in particular modes of behaviour.

The mobile app Dérive app is a popular implementation of this, presenting the user with task cards that have a loose connection with the locale of the participant, like “Find shade”, “Follow a dog walker”, “Ask someone for their favourite building”, “Walk as fast as you can until you detect a public restroom”, etc.

Guerrilla tourism

Back in 1990 Joel Henry founded LaTourEx, LAboratoire de TOURisme EXpérimental (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. Acknowledging connections to the Situationists, Fluxus and other experimental groupings, he coined the concept of experimental travel, with ideas like taking a (physical) map of a city and to ‘conquer K2’, K2 being, of course, one of the most difficult mountains to climb, but also a particular square on the map.

Lonely Planet co-opted the concept of experimental travel in their 2005 book The Lonely Planet guide to Experimental Travel, followed by the 2018 Everyday Adventures.
Curiously, both feel, for their heavy curation and hand-holding, more like the antithesis of experimental travel, but can work well for inspiration and exploration.

Phil Smith (‘Crab Man’) has done something similar in his books on Counter Tourism, though, there, limiting himself to British Heritage sites. As part of his work with Wrights & Sites, and their series of ‘Misguides’, he also co-wrote a series of texts with instructions to make familiar places unfamiliar and to inspire the reader to subvert the city through walking.

Jason D. Luger, in his article “The Living vs. the dead in Singapore: contesting the authoritarian tourist city” (in Protest and Resistance in the Tourist City) goes for a more generally used term, describing guerrilla tourism as “going off the pathway”, constructing alternative narratives through the act of transgressing boundaries and walking, contesting and reshaping the hegemony of consumption-led urban development. 

As Luger talks about Singapore, ‘his’ city is also an authoritarian city, but, in many ways, perhaps every modern western city has become authoritarian, meaning the acts of guerrilla tourism he encountered in Singapore are increasingly appropriate in every city.

More recently, a German collective, Happy Tourists, consisting of Christian Haid, Soazic Guezennec and Lukas Staudinger, tries to formalise guerrilla tours in Berlin, though they seem to hold the middle between being a ‘serious’ outfit and an art installation. Nevertheless, they state their mission is “to bring serendipity, chaos and disorder into tourism to trigger critical thinking and power shifts into the tourism industry”.

Travel like a reporter

Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz, suggested last year, that in order to get the most out of your next trip, to travel like a reporter, which he explains as deeply focusing on one topic or theme; For your destination, pick a ‘lens’, subject or topic, and focus on that topic as if you’re obsessive-compulsive, as if you’re required to write a thesis on the topic once you’ve returned from your destination.

Because you will be seeing the things you want to see, not the things everyone “must see”, this will likely mean that there will be fewer tourists at your chosen destinations, while you probably also will be visiting places you otherwise would not have visited yourself.

Even interests that might appear main stream, like World Heritage Sites, become quite obscure in the ‘long tail’, with currently a total of 1121 of them.

Another term that’s sometimes used for this type of discovery is slow travel, where a traveller seeks to immerse themselves in a place they visit, taking their time to learn about the location, along with cultures and offbeat experiences on offer, instead of simply checking-off another place from their bucket list.

Add friction

The appeal of the travel-oriented tools many of us are inclined to use, Google Maps, Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Yelp!, etc., is that they make our lives easy. They take away friction, but as a consequence give its users a remarkably similar experience. Not only do we get presented with the same Thai restaurant in Paris, we also get told to go there by the same route.

Part of the joy is in the journey. Perhaps, then, don’t take that Uber, take public transport. Don’t fly, go overland. Don’t pull out that map all the time, go by what feels right and take your time, more closely observing your surroundings as you move forward, engendering a sense of discovery.

A few years ago, Kompl tried to achieve this sense of discovery by taking away information, instead of providing as much as possible. The app showed you what was around you, but required you to find individual places yourself. In addition, it would not disclose the best, say, Thai restaurant, but just a few good enough ones.
An additional quirk was that Kompl allowed you to explore one city through the physical, geographical, data of another.

Kompl is no longer active, but a more mainstream app like maps.me provides a compass-only view that can achieve a similar result, as it requires you to decide what route to take, as opposed to relying on algorithmic software, optimising your route.

Listen

We’re not much used to listening to our surroundings. The growing field of ‘sound walking’ changes this, nudging you to use more of your senses to give meaning to the environment you find yourself in.

A yearly ‘sound walking’ festival, Sound Walk September, brings this experience to a broader audience and apps like Echoes, Soundtrails, and Locosonic provide access to a broad range of sound walks throughout the world.

What links these strategies?

What connects all these ‘tools’? 

They allow the user to take a step back, engendering mindfulness, nudging the user to rely more on their own capacities as opposed to handing over agency and trusting technology. They bring the user more into the moment, by requiring the user to take responsibility, while making her more aware.

Being more aware of the possibilities at your disposal as you move through public space and making more active decisions, means taking back agency over your own actions. 

You don’t of course need the particular tools described above but, more importantly, you really don’t need the tyranny of the corporate map.

Pandemia de amor

After some five years of being in a stable union, Natalia and I are getting married on May 29. The ceremony is set for 10am BRT (Sao Paulo time). COVID-19 is preventing us from having anyone at the wedding except the two witnesses, and we even had to change the date at the last minute, because of COVID, so a party will follow in due course. Probably, one day, travel restrictions will be lifted.

But, if you so desire, you can follow live broadcasts, throughout the day, of the ceremony, the cutting of a cake, virtual toasts, and more, on my Twitter feed.

We will see you online?

Life is travel, the case for the patron saint of walkers

The Vandals are at the gates. Augustine is deadly ill, spending his final days in prayer and repentance. Having coined the phrase “Solvitur ambulando”, “it is solved by walking”, perhaps his ambulatory restlessness at the end of his life indirectly saved the city, as the Vandals initially retreated. But Augustine of Hippo, modern-day Annaba in northern Algeria, did then not walk enough, as shortly after, the Vandals returned and burned the city to the ground. Though not all of it, as Augustine’s cathedral and library were left untouched.
The year was 430AD, and today, in Annaba’s Saint Augustin Basilica, you can visit some of his remains, where a portion of the man’s right arm has been preserved within a glass tube, itself inserted into the arm of a life-size marble statue of the saint.

Augustine, born in Roman North Africa in 354AD, in what is now Souk Ahras, and speaking Latin at home, is considered to have been Berber and, through his writings, we know that he took his African heritage as a point of pride.
Augustine’s mom was a devout christian, but his father was a ‘pagan’, who’s ancestors likely received Roman citizenship through the edict of Caracalla in 212AD. His father honoured the Punic gods, likely giving Augustine also a Phoenician extraction.

Augustine’s first journey took him to school at Madaurus, some 30km from his hometown. Destined for a life of learning, at 17, he continued his education in rhetoric in Carthage, in modern day Tunisia.

He also became Manichaean, a reasonably fresh religion, barely 100 years old, and of Persian extraction. But, he was not a devout follower.
Then, in 384, Augustine almost by accident, stumbled into the most desired academic position in the Roman Empire; that of rhetoric professor at the imperial court in Milan. It was here, when Roman emperor Theodosius I issued a decree to kill all Manichaean monks, that Augustine developed a close relationship with the archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, and rolled into christianity.

Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet

In Carthage, Augustine fell in with a hedonistic bunch of young men, taking pride in their sexual exploits. There, he ended up with a (female) lover for 15 years, with which he eventually had a son. He had brought her to Milan, but his mom had also joined him, and eventually arranged a ‘respectable’ marriage, to a 10-year old heiress. Legal age was 12 at the time, meaning Augustine had to wait another two years, during which he took up another lover, and during which he left us his famous prayer Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet
But, he received it, as before the marriage was supposed to happen, he decided to live a life of celibacy. At 31, in late August 386, Augustine converted to Christianity.

Then, things moved fast. Augustine was baptised in 387, moved back to Africa in 388, was ordained a priest in 391 and became coadjutor bishop (like a vice-bishop) of Hippo Regius in 395, and full bishop within five years of that, until his death in 430, leaving behind one of the most comprehensive bodies of work on Christian and philosophical thought.

A saint with a long reach

Augustine was canonised (by popular acclaim, as, at the time, papal canonisation did not yet exist), and recognised as one of the original four ‘Doctors’ of the church, essentially a very influential thinker, in 1298, and then became the patron saint of brewers, printers and theologians, and is considered one of the few most influential individuals in Christian thought, second perhaps only to Saint Paul, ‘the apostle’ (who, incidentally, was not one of the ‘original’ 12 apostles).

Besides rationally tackling a wide range of theological questions, Augustine also argued strongly against slavery, as, he stated, man should not have ‘dominion’ over man, but only over beasts.

He also recognised the dangers of only having some education, the most difficult student being the one with an inferior education who believes he understands something when he does not.

Augustine’s work has influenced modern day thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the previous pope, Benedict XVI, stating that Augustine was one of the most important influences on his own thinking, calling Augustine a “traveling companion in my life and ministry“.
Remarkable, in that the real tangible writings of someone who lived 1600 years ago influence great minds of our own age.

To be on the road, is to be at home

Augustine was a prolific writer, and dealt with a broad range of subjects, many, but not all of religious nature. Perhaps due to his origins at the periphery of the empire, his ethnic heritage, his pagan connection, and his close presence to the center of power, he combined his reasoning into a framework that allowed him to question, interrogate, himself, his surroundings, as well as his faith.
And, he thrived through the acceptance of the journey as an integral part of his existence.

The Egyptian-Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, who after his death in 1933 became recognised as among the most important figures in Greek as well as Western poetry, describes in his superb poem Ithaca the journey of Odysseus to his home island. Beautifully, Cavafy describes how the joy is in the journey; “Hope that your journey is a long one”.
Augustine was of similar mind. Stating that “In via, in patria”, which is often translated as “The homeland is the journey”, though I prefer a more colloquial “To be on the road, is to be at home”. The necessity of travel, and the fact that agency for this resides with the individual, not with happenstance, Augustine explained with “God provides the wind, Man must raise the sail.”.

Similarly, attributed to Augustine is the phrase “Solvitur ambulando”, meaning “It is solved by walking”. A fitting statement for a lover of the journey, even though this statement is ‘merely’ an attribution. And, to underscore the possibility of this particular attribution being apocryphal, Diogenes of Sinope, who predated Augustine by some 800 years(!), is said to have replied to Zeno’s paradoxes on the unreality of motion, by standing up and walking away. Not exactly solving something by walking, but definitely ignoring the problem at hand by walking away. But, whether the statement originated with Augustine or not, Augustine recognised and acknowledged the joy, and importance, of travel, and how walking, as an act of and in itself, can drive towards resolution.

Reinforcing the necessity of movement, with travel as a natural state, Augustine also stated that “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”. He brought the point home, emphasising that movement is pointless without self-discovery, with the following piece:

People travel to wonder
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves
without wondering.

More recently, as with Augustine’s more philosophical work in respect to modern thinkers, his vision of walking as methodology has found resonance with modern authors and travel writers. Lewis Carroll brings up the phrase Solvitur ambulando in one of his books; it appears in Gödel, Escher, Bach ;in work by Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin, and Paul Theroux.

As an aside, “Solvitur ambulando” also was the motto of the British Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, a charitable organization, formed to support those who put their lives at risk to assist and save members of the Royal Air Forces who were attempting to escape capture behind enemy lines during World War II. They, the members of the RAF trying to escape, very literally tried to solve their problem, of not being captured, by walking.

Therefore, walking artists, in their newly emerging field, find themselves in good company. Walking artists know that the joy is in the journey, that being on the road is being at home, and that problems are solved by walking.
In that sense, Augustine of Hippo very much is the spiritual predecessor to today’s walking artists, as well as the natural figurehead of walkers, the world over.

Augustine was said to have an inquisitive mind, evidenced by his success in reasoning and rhetorics, and his long-lasting philosophical influence on matters of the Christian church and beyond.
As a bishop, Augustine traveled to, and attended, church councils in the North African region of the Roman Empire some 40 to 50 times. From Hippo, he made the nine-day journey to Carthage, home of the metropolitan catholic see, meeting other bishops of the region, some thirty times.

Perhaps surprisingly, athletes have two patron saints; a Saint Christopher, more likely ‘only’ a legend, but who also is the patron saint of travellers; Saint Sebastian, also patron saint of soldiers, of whom also no contemporary accounts exist.

Walkers, as yet, do not have a patron saint.

Augustine of Hippo is a towering historical figure, of whom a large body of work survives, who has influenced the Christian church more than almost anyone, and realised the importance of the journey as a process for development and understanding of the self, and found travel an essential component of his ability to do the work he had mastered over the course of a lifetime.

It is time walkers recognise their patron saint. That patron saint is Augustine of Hippo.

The top 10 places to visit in Brazil

 

Reading the news, I noticed a headline urging you to not read yet another top 10 list, but to write your own. The article was really about creating your own list of top songs for the year, but why stop there?

So, here’s my list of top 10 places to visit in Brazil. Just in time for the next decade. With having lived just over half the current one in Brazil, I’m not in the worst position to share my experience.
In case it needs to be said, I’m only including places I’ve actually visited.

10. Paraty

I'm going in

Brazil has an ambiguous connection to its colonial past. Late in abolishing slavery, but unilaterally declaring independence early on, on December 7, 1822, Rio, at that time, had already been the capital of Portugal for some 15 years, after the royal family fled from Portugal to Brazil, with Napoleon invading the home country.

Lots of valuable resources had been flowing out of Brazil for centuries, major wealth produced by gold, coffee, sugar cane and rubber, much of it produced through the exploitation of slaves, Rio also being the largest slave port in the Americas.

Gold was mined in the interior, mostly in what is now the state of Minas Gerais, and then transported to the coast, predominantly to Paraty. After the veins of gold dried up, Paraty lost its importance and development stalled. Hence, while Paraty benefited significantly from the wealth flowing through it, it also almost has been caught in a time warp, becoming what is now a lovely, reasonably well maintained, colonial town.

There are plenty alternatives to Paraty around Brazil, In Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto is one example. In the north, Olinda just north of Recife is awash in (Dutch) colonial history, but there are many more, including, of course, Rio de Janeiro.

9. Gay Pride in Sao Paulo

Couple

Not quite unlike Carnaval, Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride is the largest in the world, clocking in between 3 and 5 million in attendance, coming from humble beginnings, when in 1997 a mere 2000 attended.

It’s probably the biggest single street party you could ever attend.

8. Sugerloaf mountain

Suger loaf mountain

What’s a sugarloaf, really? Well, it was a cone of refined sugar, and the typical form in which sugar was sold until the late 19th century, where individual sections were cut off, using a particular type of scissors.
The mountain in Rio, rising up just under 400 meter from the water level, obviously resembles a sugarloaf.

The Dutch and British colonial powers prevented their colonies from locally refining sugar, making the unfinished product part of the triangular slave trade while enforcing dependency of the colonies on the home countries, though Brazil and Portugal, less so managing their own slave trade, were not as restrictive.

In Rio, Sugerloaf mountain is really two mountains; a smaller first one and a larger second one. Both provide stunning views of the city and Guanabara Bay, the bay which was first encountered by Portuguese explorers on January 1, 1502. The general consensus is that these guys mistook the bay for a river, hence calling it Rio de Janeiro (‘rio’ being the Portuguese for ‘river’), but, some historians argue that the bay was actually first called ‘Ria de Janeiro’, translating to “January’s lagoon”, with the confusion setting in later.

The first of the two mountains can be reached by a footpath, though that’s regularly sealed off, due to the danger of muggings. The second, main, mountain, can only be reached by cable car.

7. Brasilia

Parliament

Brazil has moved capitals a number of times, eventually settling on Brasilia, built in the empty interior of the country from 1956 onwards, and becoming the capital in 1960, robbing Rio just short of its 200th anniversary as the nation’s capital.

The name most associated with the design of the city is Oscar Niemeyer, easily the most important Brazilian architect to have lived (and for a long time, the man died in 2012, just short of his 105th birthday), and a key figure in the development of modern architecture.
Niemeyer’s signature style was the use of curved concrete structures, which he pioneered the use of, constructing futuristic, or retro-futuristic, objects that still fascinate today.

Niemeyer’s architecture can be found around the country. Sao Paulo has the Memorial de America Latina, to name but one, but Brasilia is like a huge open air museum, built in a grid-plan to resemble a bird or a plane.

But, Niemeyer, Burle Marx, Lucio Costa, and Joaquim Cardozo didn’t get everything right; the city was built when cars were replacing other forms of transport, and the city was not designed for walking and is inconvenient to navigate with public transport.

6. Foz de Iguacu

Iguazu Falls

Shared between Brazil and Argentina, and within a (long) stone’s throw from Paraguay, these falls are stunning. It’s a bit of a trek to get to the tri-border area, but you should visit both sides.

Until 1860, the area was disputed between Brazil and Paraguay. But, when Paraguay lost the Paraguayan War, in which that country, according to some estimates, lost the majority of its population(!) the area came under Brazilian control. It took another few decades, notably until the Brazilian pioneering pilot Santos-Dumont visited in 1916, after which the Iguaçu national park, home of the falls, was created.

Somewhat strangely, the area is also associated with muslim fundamentalism and religion in general, the town of Foz de Iguacu being home to a wide range of religious dominations.

5. Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

You can not visit Brazil and not visit Rio. The city has just too much to offer. Sugarloaf perhaps provides stunning views, the platform around the Christ tops that.

The statue took nine years to build, from 1922 to 1931, at what seems to be a reasonable 250.000USD, or about 3.5 million in today’s money. At the opening, the statue’s floodlights were to be lit remotely, from, of all places, Rome, by shortwave radio. But, bad weather prevented this from happening and someone in Rio just ended up flipping the switch.

The typical route to get yourself to the top is by funicular, tram, but you can also drive up and save yourself some money, even if that means paying unreasonable amounts for parking.

4. Paranapiacaba

The bridge

This little town on the outskirts of Sao Paulo is where the Brits set up their headquarters for the railway lines they managed in and around Sao Paulo. The city was built like a panopticon, with the lead-engineer’s house, in the center of the town and raised on a hill, in the line of sight of all other houses in the settlement, allowing the lead-engineer to see everyone, and everyone never knowing if, at any time, the lead-engineer was keeping an eye on them.

To make the British engineers feel more at home, the train station sports a scaled model of London’s Big Ben and the town might have been the place where, for the very first time, soccer was played on Brazilian soil, though on a pitch slightly smaller than official rules required.

The town’s name is Tupi, an indigenous Indian language, for “The place from where you can see the sea”. The town is at the foot of a mountain range. If you climb the mountain range, you can indeed see the sea.
Hiking in the area, alone, is generally not advised, sadly. You can get a guide to follow you around, though.

A tourist train runs between the center of Sao Paulo and Paranapiacaba on weekends. You can also just take an urban railway line and then a bus. The town is trying hard to put itself on the tourist map, with, amongst many other things, a yearly witches and magicians festival.

3. Fordlandia

Still standing

In the middle of the Amazon, Henry Ford pictured the kind of utopian society he couldn’t quite establish back home in the US, even though there, too, he tried very hard. But, never having visited and never visiting, his ideals and plans didn’t quite gel with the local climate and culture, let alone the crashing prices of rubber, on which the creation of this company town was based.

Nearby (on a Brazilian scale), the Amazonian capital of Manaus was already suffering the consequences of the end of the rubber boom, and though there was a bit of an uptick during the Second World War, when rubber from East Asia was inaccessible to the allied forces, the discovery of artificial rubber around the same time, saw the price of rubber crash, and the fate of Fordlandia sealed.

More a sign of the times, Ford’s utopian vision was typical for many company towns established around the turn of the previous century, as well as the prevailing idea that society can be shaped in our image. The Amazon, even today, has plenty of company towns, mostly home to companies robbing the Amazon of its resources and completely sealed off to outsiders, but, all over Brazil, remnants of century-old idealism remains.

Just close to Sao Paulo, you can visit a settlement of immigrants from the American South, arriving after the civil war, a Dutch settlement and a former Finnish utopia.

2. The slow boat from Manaus to Belem

Enjoying the on-board showers

The size and scope of the Amazon river, region and basin defies comprehension. It’s possible to start your Amazonian journey all the way in Peru, though that will mean a rocky journey until Manaus, from where passenger services run multiple times each week, all the way to the coast at Belem. You can break the journey in Santarem, from where you can visit beaches resembling those in the Caribbean, in the town of Alter do Chao, as well as the dilapidated utopia that’s Fordlandia.

Taking the boat, you could book one of the few cabins, but the best experience is getting yourself a hammock, hanging it up on one of the decks, like everyone else, and just watching the world go by, for days.

1. Carnival at the Sambadromo

Tranced

Brazil is synonymous with carnival. You can celebrate anywhere in Brazil (as well as in many places outside of Brazil), and have a superb time. But… Rio does take the cake. Get yourself to one of the many blocos, street parties, in the run up to carnival, the kick off typically being the new year, and then get yourself a ticket for the official carnival parade in the Sambadromo, essentially a street, built like a stadium, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, specifically to observe the samba schools competing to provide the year’s best carnival parade.

For just under a full week, starting every day in the early evening and continuing until the morning light, samba schools take turns to show off their elaborate parades, convincing judges and the public that their narrative, music, costumes and floats are deserving of the year’s top spot.

When getting tickets, seats on the stands, from where you have a great view of the parades, are popular, but the better tickets are below, on the edge of the parade, where you’re so close to the participants that you can literally touch them.

What!? That’s it?! No beaches!?

Yeah, I’m not enough of a beach-lover to include beaches in this top ten, but there are some great beaches in Brazil. There’s a fantastic beach in Boa Vista, in the Amazon, as well as in Alter de Chao, the latter often positively compared to the white beaches of the Caribbean.

There are more lovely beaches on Brazil’s coast than you can shake a stick at. Close to Salvador, there’s Morro de Sao Paulo, there’s all the city beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the beaches off the Sao Paulo coast at Santos, Itanhaem and Peruibe, and many more.

Of UFOs and a flying monk

We spent Christmas in Peruibe, a good two hour drive from Sao Paulo, and on the coast.
Brazlians tend to stay home for Christmas Day, meaning that the town was pleasantly quiet on our first day and most of our second, when 1.2 million people left Sao Paulo to find relaxation elsewhere, many heading to the coast.

Many, if not most, of those leaving Sao Paulo head to the coastal town of Santos. On a quiet day, only an hour away, on a busy day, as you have to cross a mountain range separating Sao Paulo from the coast, with only a few access roads available, perhaps four hours away.

Peruibe is further south from Santos, but also accessible through a much quieter road which goes around the mountain range between Santos and Sao Paulo.
On the downside, Peruibe is pretty much only a coastal strip catering to visitors from the interior, whereas Santos also is the largest port in Brazil and a thriving city.

A few hundred years ago, Peruibe did make a promising start, in a way. The Portuguese very early on enslaved the local Indians, while a Portuguese priest fought against this enslavement. His church, now known as the ruins of Abarebebe, though originally the Church of Saint John the Baptist, can still be visited, though not too much remains.
The Indians called the priest Abarebebe, meaning the priest who flies, as he was often seen walking on the beach between Peruibe and the nearby settlement of Itanhaem, while, with his nearly two meters and his feet hidden by his habit, he appeared to be flying, or perhaps floating, across the sand.
The church is sometimes referred to as the first church built in Brazil, but this seems unlikely, as the Portuguese first settled in the northeast of the country, and even our local guide at the ruins questioned the likelihood of this.

Besides the towns vast beaches, Peruibe also has a more modern draw, as the area sees regular UFO sightings, promoted via shitty YouTube videos, and has a yearly UFO conference, though their website has been offline for long enough to no longer show up in search results. Our guide claimed that, as little as a few weeks ago, a bunch of large metal orbs were seen rushing across the skies.
Color me skeptical.

WSA 2020

Like last year, I’m one of the online jurors for this year’s World Summit Awards, in the Culture & Tourism category.

Two types of submissions stood out for their originality. The first is the offering of tours for which ‘sustainability’ is a core feature, typically through somehow accredited local service providers. The other is offering high-quality and hyper-local short tours of specific destinations.

The former is interesting as a general trend, though I’m not convinced of its ultimate sustainable success, as providing tours like this requires more effort and more cost, making them much less competitive in the market, even if there is a core group of tourists and travellers that could be interested in more environmentally and socially sustainable travel options.

The second is interesting due to my personal interests and history. Two years ago, when we won with The Museum of Yesterday, with which we pioneered the idea of mixing location-based gaming with history, journalism and tourism. In 2019, the WSA saw a few submissions somewhat similar to this, but now the quality of those offering similar services has increases and broadened. Though, still, the same problem persists, as replicability is very limited, because creating individual offerings need to be hand-crafted from start to finish.

No stress

Around the turn of this century, Iceland and Iceland Air started pushing stopover tourism; At no extra cost were you allowed to stay for several days in Iceland, when flying between Europe and North America. This has been a huge success. In 2000, the number of visitors roughly equalled the population, at around 300.000. In 2018, more than 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Iceland (source).

Now, Cabo Verde (Cape Verde wants to be called by its own name since 2013) is trying to do the same thing, promoting Cabo Verde as a cheap destination, as well as trying to benefit from stopovers between Europe, Brazil and a few destinations in Africa and the US.

But, though the fruit hangs pretty low, it’s not yet being picked; it appears not yet possible to purchase a flight from one of their off-island destinations to another, while actually including a stopover (of meaningful length). This is exactly what Iceland Air did and what would allow for reaping the resulting benefits.

Flights between Brazil and Europe, on Cabo Verde Airlines, are cheap, less then or about the same compared to the ‘regular’ airlines plying the route, but, at the moment, actually planning for a stopover means booking multiple tickets, which come with more taxes and ‘online booking fees’, cancelling out the financial advantage of taking Cabo Verde airlines between, say, Europe and Brazil.

In addition, though visa requirements have been lifted for most Europeans at the start of this year, it’s still required to ‘register’ upon entry, which costs an annoying 32 euros. Visas, which include registration, go for about 55 euros.

And, then, the Cabo Verde Airlines network is rather limited. In Brazil, destinations include Salvador, Recife and Porto Alegre, all requiring an additional flight, or long bus ride, from Rio or Sao Paulo. While in Europe, destinations are Paris, Milan, Rome and Lisbon, all just a tad too far from Northern Europe, if that’s your final destination.

Funnily enough, as Cabo Verde airlines at the moment only has two planes, they charter other airlines to fill in the gap. Both our flights to and from Cabo Verde were handled by… Iceland Air, while our internal flights were done by a Romanian company.

Earlier this year, Cabo Verde Airlines ran a special promotion; offering roundtrips from Brazil to Cabo Verde for under 250 euros. This did mean we had to get ourselves to Salvador first, but we decided it was worth it.

In Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde is ten islands. To get from one to the other, it’s possible to take ferries, but they don’t run often, particularly between the more distant islands, and their schedule is typically only announced a few days in advance. We decided to fly from Sal, where our plane from Brazil arrived, to Santiago, the island with the capital Praia, as well as the oldest European colonial settlement in the tropics, Cidade Velha, also Cabo Verde’s only World Heritage Site.

Sal is a popular tourist destination. The country gets about 550.000 tourists per year, roughly the same as the number of Cabo Verdians in Cabo Verde, and about half visit Sal. It’s beaches are pretty, but the island itself is a barren wasteland.

Praia, as the capital, has some culture to offer. We attended a little film festival, as well as a performance by a Guinean artist, who’s German partner had actually visited Casa Publica (the cultural center set up by Agencia Publica in Rio), meaning that when she realised who we were, it was a little feast of recognition.

Cabo Verde was uninhabited, when the Portuguese arrived in 1460. They didn’t displace a local population, but happily used the islands as a way-station for the (slave) trade between Africa and the Americas. Later, under Portuguese control, movement between Portugal’s colonies was not uncommon, and now, since independence, the country has looked more and more to the African mainland for its economic and cultural ties, with, for example, many of the market traders being Guinean or Senegalese.
That said, the country also very clearly still has a strong connection with its Portuguese past.

Portugal used part of the island of Santiago as a little penal colony during the middle part of the last century, incarcerating freedom fighters from several of their African colonies, under quite abysmal conditions. The former prison, now a museum, is like a slightly more modern version of Devil’s Island in French Guyana and hopes to become the country’s second World Heritage Site someday.

Us, we took it easy. Eating well, sleeping much, lounging on the beaches. In short, we stuck to the country’s mantra: No stress.

In memory of Gabo

Natalia is on the board of the Premio Gabo, Latin America’s most important award in journalism. Named after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the award is held every year in early October, when they organise a festival in Medellin and award the continent’s best journalists. This year, I didn’t want to miss Natalia’s birthday, so I tagged along to bask in the shadow of greatness.

We were put up at the Intercontinental, where the clerk told us we had the room with the best view… overlooking the pool.

The festival is in the center of the city, at the Botanical Gardens, and free to all. But, our hotel is in a fancy part of town, up in the hills, surrounded by other fancy hotels, classy malls and few sidewalks. Not deterred, I walked to a nearby, huge, mall, to get to my gym, to find, inside the mall, a reasonably sized fun park. And, on the top floor, instead of some video games next to a cinema, a bunch of large playground areas, including an indoor surfing pool and one of those team sports where everyone fits themselves inside large blowup balls to run into each other.

Natalia, tasked with hosting two sessions at the festival, was at times the tok of the town. But, my basking did not go completely unnoticed as, somehow, students from some university publication decided it made sense to interview me on my thoughts on how to monetise mobile apps.

Climbing the rock

The Piedra Del Peñol or El Peñón de Guatapé, depending on which town is doing the claiming (and whether it’s a ‘rock’ or a ‘stone’), is a 200m high rock, a 90 minutes drive from Medellin, which, once climbed, provides superb views of the area.
The rock was only climbed for the first time in 1954, when three men climbed the rock in a five-day endeavour, using sticks that were fixed against the rock’s wall. Now, with concrete steps leading to the top, this process is a bit faster.

The rock is within the municipality of Guatapé, itself sometimes called ‘The most colourful town in Colombia’. However, those of nearby El Peñol tend to disagree, hence the confused naming of the rock.
On the western side of the outcrop, a large letter “G” and an unfinished “U” are drawn. At some point, the residents of Guatapé decided to settle the matter of who owns the rock, by painting the town’s name on the rock in large white letters. Hard to miss, the residents of El Peñol noticed the work, and a large mob was assembled to stop the propagation of the visual claim.

Colombian coffee country

The Colombian coffee region encompasses a bunch of villages and sites roughly around the towns of Pereira and Armenia, in the department of Quindio. The region’s most iconic feature, perhaps, is the jeep, introduced shortly after the Second World War, when the US needed to get rid of its inventory. Salesmen visited the towns in the region, with their jeeps, driving up and down the stairs of the local churches to show the vehicles’ versatility. With success.
In fact, the town of Armenia celebrates the yearly ‘Jeep festival’, which mostly resembles a carnival. On jeeps.

Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam. But mostly, Colombians only drink cheap sweet shots of coffee, tinto, on the street, served from thermos cans. Though Colombia’s version of the Marlboro Man, Juan Valdez, hanging out with his mule Conchita who carries the coffee, was created in 1958, the Juan Valdez chain of excellent coffee shots are lacking outside of the big cities. Though cheaper than Starbucks, their coffees are out of reasonable reach from the Colombian working man.

The town of Armenia is not the only surprising name in the area. Within a stone’s throw, there are Circasia, La Siria, La Albania and Palestina. There’s an El Arabe nearby, too.
Indeed, the names refer to places in the eastern Mediterranean that were under Ottoman control until the First World War. And, indeed, from roughly 1880 to the end of the First World War, a wave of Lebanese migrants from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine did arrive in Colombia. However, most of these, as well as subsequent waves of Middle Eastern migrants, mostly stayed on the Colombian northern coast, where an estimated 20% of the population have Arab ancestry.

Though most Colombians of Arab decent derive from Catholics and Maronites from Lebanon or Syria, just like the Lebanese migrants who ended up in West Africa, like in Sierra Leone, the Colombian coastal town of Maicao also has a sizeable Sunni community, one of the largest mosques on the continent, and, according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, ties with Hezbollah.

Besides the names of some of the settlements as faint memories to a continent and culture far away, there’s little that reminds of this particular connection with the old world. Except, when these faint links do show up, it’s the more surprising.
When I was watching the world go by on one of the squares in Pereira, a walking street seller offered what he called kumis. I don’t think it was fermented mare’s milk, more like sweetened churned milk, but also a clear connection to the greater Middle East.
And, a prominent chain of clothing stores goes by the name Tierra Santa, Holy Land, using a (shitty) photo of the Dome of the Rock as its logo.

It’s coffee that provides the economic motor of the region. Coffee tourism centres on the village of Salento, which I thought felt a bit like a tourist village in, say, northern Thailand or Laos, where every restaurant and tour operator touts the authentic experience, solely to foreign tourists. The jeeps, a typical mode of transport in The Philippines, add to this confusion.

The coffee tours are actually not really that interesting, but near to Salento, there’s also the stunning Cocora valley. Steep mountain sides, 60m tall palm trees and rolling clouds to obscure your views of the surrounding peaks and gorgeous countryside.

Armenia is the capital of the province (or rather, department), but nearby Pereira has the commercial edge. The city council is pushing the town for its tourist attractions, but it’s slim pickings; a statue of a nude Simon Bolivar is perhaps the highlight of a visit to Pereira, even though a fast bus network was recently introduced, based on the model of Curitiba (in Brazil), and a cable car, seemingly for entertainment purposes only, is under construction.

The city’s paper tour guide listed most municipal buildings, only very few of which are of architectural interest, and also listed a grand total of one restaurant. Which turned out to be, admittedly quite nice, basement bar with a low wooden ceiling selling ‘beer sausage’ as their only food, and the staff wearing neon-green shirts with the text “De habla mierda”. Which translates to something like “Talking shit”.
In need of some food, after a decent craft beer, I walked back a few blocks to have a soup at a more traditional restaurant on one of the city’s main drags. On a corner, I passed a man, on his hunches, who had ripped open one of the stacked trash bags, which were waiting to be collected.
He somehow had managed to divine that this one particular bag was stuffed with discarded fried rice, complete with bites of sausage and chicken. He was having his dinner, digging in with his hands.

Walks in Bogota

You don’t need an excuse to visit Bogota. It’s thriving, eclectic, energetic, with good food and at reasonable prices.

But, it so happened I had a reason to visit. My scope was in flux, but I was visiting to talk with the fine women of Radio Bestial and discuss how to use Dérive app in their work, as part of an arts festival at Espacio Odeon.
One of Radio Bestial’s planned walks passed by the “Emerald Center”, where, indeed emeralds are traded. On one of their scouting trips, they overheard paramilitary talking about the necessity of perhaps killing some competitors. So, yes, Bogota feels safe, but perhaps the nasty bits have been externalised.

As far as art went, little did I know that not only was Odeon throwing an extended party, that is, festival, a bunch of other, major, arts festivals were dotting the Bogota events calendar at the same time, meaning my being able to secure a lovely and cheap hotel in the center of town was a fluke, if pleasant.
This included an excellent event at a former hospital for up-and-coming artists where none of the art was to be sold for more than a million (of pesos).

Architecturally, Colombia in general, and Bogota in particular, has a lot to offer. Bogota is home to one of the earliest examples of South American Brutalism, and, in general, Colombian architects appear to be more experimental, and interesting, in their plans and implementations, making walks around the city a feast for those keen on looking up.

One fascinating construction is BD Bacatá, a crowdfunded skyscraper which also is the tallest in the country (though not for long), and a modern brutalist delight of glass, aluminium and concrete. 3800 Colombians pooled their money to start the building of the first Colombian skyscraper in 35 years, though construction ran into financial troubles and the building is still unfinished.

One of the building’s lower floor’s is home to a gym, Smart Fit, the same I frequent at home in Brazil. Recently, Smart Fit announced that their ‘plan black’, which allows me to visit every Smart Fit in Brazil (save for three very fancy ones), now applies to all Smart Fits in Latin America.

So, I went. 

Getting into a Smart Fit requires a turnstile to scan your fingerprint. If you visit a branch that’s not ‘your’ branch, you have to first enter your CPF (sort of like a social security number) into a machine, which then retrieves your biometric data such that you can also enter this other branch by having your fingerprint scanned.

Also in Colombia, this worked flawlessly. Except that this also meant that my biometric data was now seamlessly transmitted across international borders, with the only thing necessary being my CPF, which essentially is public information.

I’m quite sure I did not give explicit permission for my biometric data to travel across borders. And, does that mean that, say, the Mexican government can request my fingerprints from a Smart Fit in Mexico, if they only know my CPF, even if I have never been to Mexico?

Disturbing.

A short note on Empanadas

Colombian street food is awesome. The ‘stuffed potatoes’ are perhaps my favourite, but the empanadas are awesome too. But, the best, is possibly the sauces that come with the food. A self respecting food cart or hole in the wall might have up to a dozen different sauces to make your day.

Visiting Pablo Escobar

Perhaps its age, or perhaps it’s just been a few busy weeks, but I was looking at my three-week Colombia trip as almost a kind of burden. I was going to be involved in a presentation and workshop at a gallery in Bogota, I was going to see Natalia at work at the Festival Gabo, I was going to visit the coffee region of Colombia, and, if I could sneak it in, perhaps check out one or two other world heritage sites, too.
But I also had just released a website that matches books with locations, was in the middle of producing Sound Walk September, was working on a new social network (watch this space!), was on the verge of landing a new big client, while the same day I was set to return to Brazil, my mom was also set to arrive and stay for three weeks, shortly after which Natália and I are going to visit Cabo Verde by way of Salvador de Bahia.

So, yes, my agenda was a bit full, either way, though that didn’t convince me I’m not, actually, getting old.
Then again, first world problems.

I only had one day in Medellin, before I had to make my way to Bogota. My incoming flight actually stopped in Bogota, but I could not convince my airline to let me off in Bogota without having to forfeit the rest of my ticket; an argument for booking individual legs.

To minimise unnecessary travel in Medellin, I got myself a hotel close to where the airport shuttle drops people off, in the center of town, which, at night on a Sunday, feels a bit rough, though I also didn’t feel unsafe.
The streets were well lit and clean, there’s plenty of security about, lots of people, including families with kids, with clusters of street sellers selling a range of drinks and snacks, and one guy even working on reasonably impressive fluorescent paintings.
But, at least the Sunday I visited, poverty of those on the street was obvious. Men in wheelchairs selling individual candies, old women hawking coffee from thermos flasks, others just asking for little bits of money.

The city’s poverty is one of the reasons Pablo Escobar received so much popularity. He became obscenely rich from smuggling drugs, but, he also spent a lot of money on the people in his community, providing services which the state did not.
In 1993, after an extensive manhunt. The CIA killed Escobar in his hometown, Medellin. The hippos he was said to have kept, ended up roaming the countryside around the city, while Escobar himself was buried on the outskirts of town, in a large well kept family grave, where hawkers wait for the occasional visitors with water and ice cream.
Foreigners don’t seem to visit too much, but locals do. Some, it seems, with a sense of respect and awe. Fresh flowers adorn the headstone of Escobar, while a cleaner is ready to swipe away leaves and dirt from the tomb, holding 9 bodies.

Escobar’s house, which operated as a museum, was recently taken down by the city’s major, wanting to move away from drugs-related tourism. But, the shrine to the Virgin of the Mystic Rose still stands. The shrine would be visited by Escobar’s hitmen, asking for a successful outcome to their criminal activities, not seldom involving killing their opponents.
Obviously, often the men would be successful, and attribute their success to the virgin, which gave the virgin the reputation of granting both ‘light’ and ‘dark’ requests.
Devotees climb the stairs to the virgin on their knees, with all surfaces covered with little thank-you plaques from believers who saw their wishes granted. The recipients are perhaps wise enough to not disclose their requests, meaning I couldn’t discover a plaque from one of Escobar’s employee-murderers.

Back in town, at night, walking the street and snacking on a sausage with some bread, a family asked me if I could buy a snack for their two young boys. I obliged, buying them the same I was snacking on, at a mere 30 cents to the euro for two. The family thanked me individually, including the boys.

Age, after all

Both Bogota and Medellin airports are modern affairs, while the Espresso Brasilia bus (ironically connecting almost all countries on the continent, but not Brazil) from Medellin to Bogota had individual video screens for every seat, free earpieces, a choice of over 60 films, and a range of jukeboxes in different genres, including ’80s smash hits’ and ’90s rock anthems’. And a slideshow of cellphone pictures of bus-company staff doing bus-company things.
The long march of modern tech made me feel nostalgic. It probably was age after all.

Bringing back the urban fox

Amongst the many ways humans irrevocably change the planet, the slow, persistent, destruction of races other than our own, is perhaps one of the more painful features of the human-centred age, the anthropocene.

Verónica Perales, Spanish, when living in London at the end of 2017, was confronted with a dead urban fox, hit by a car, left on the side of the road. Realising the plight of the urban fox, slowly but surely being pushed out of the city, having a life expectancy that’s a fraction of their brethren living in wilder areas, she put together a piece where she’s using her phone’s GPS and a running app to make GPS art, writing the word ‘fox’ on the map.

Running, in a way flowing through the urban space not completely unlike how a fox would move through an urban setting, Verónica is bringing back the urban fox.
Or, as she puts it, she is ‘writing letters to the fox’.

We’re spending the week in Rio. On a nice Saturday, I decided to bring the fox to Rio.

Three is the magic number

After Rio, I wrote two more letters to the fox. One in Paranapiacaba, also in Brazil, and one in Medellin, Colombia.

 

Adieu Google

I haven’t been appreciative of Google’s stronghold on our lives for a while. It’s not just that Google has a disproportionally large presence in our lives, more and more, Google has been shown to have hidden, unpleasant, agendas. But, what’s much worse, their usage of the private and unregulated space, virtual and physical, for their own financial gain, using our experiences and the manipulation of such, as well as continuous breaches of privacy, if not perhaps legally, but morally, as the raw materials to cement their monopolistic position, under the guise of serving the user, is dangerous and sickening. And needs to be stopped.

A good, if long, overview of how Google has been manipulating us for their own financial gain, is Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Amazon link, ironically).
Google is not alone in this, with particularly Facebook and Amazon trying to outshine Google in this respect. Microsoft and Yahoo! somewhat missed the boat, though Microsoft is happily playing catchup. Apple might have wanted to jump on this bandwagon at some point, but for a while has been touting it’s strong privacy-focussed stance. And, I find Apple credible enough to believe them on this.

My last two phones have been from Xiaomi (Mi). I’ve been very happy with their value for money, but to what extent Xiaomi, too, can be trusted, is a completely open question. My most recent Mi phone ran Android One, which should mean the phone’s manufacturer’s influence on, and access to, your mobile activities is limited, though Google’s isn’t.
I had an earlier Mi phone shipped from Asia. That turned out to have a feature where malware, or some type of tracking software, was embedded within the operating system, impossible to remove, without also re-installing, not resetting, the operating system.

Which indeed means that one way to avoid The Google, is to purchase an Android phone, wipe it completely, to then install your preferred operating system or trusted version of Android. (LineageOS is the obvious but not only choice, which might be dictated by the hardware you have.)
But, this still leaves the possibility that the hardware itself, the phone, might be compromised through some embedded backdoor, and, if you want access to rich services, apps, you have to often either accept lower quality alternatives, or still go with some of the software Google offers.

Already about two years ago, I moved away from Gmail. First to Tutanota, but, not finding their email client sufficiently usable, then back to my self-hosted mail server.
Earlier this year, I stopped using Google Analytics for all my sites, switching to Matomo.
Now, requiring a replacement for my phone, I decided to switch back to iPhone. I find Apple’s flagship offerings ridiculously expensive (as I do Android flagships from Samsung and others), even if the hardware to some extent justifies it. I got myself a iPhone 7 instead, for about 225 euros, a price similar to what I paid for my most recent Android phone.

Next, I had to extract myself as much as possible from the Googleverse.

I have been using a Gmail account for longer than Gmail has been publicly available. I don’t think it wise to get rid of that email address completely, so I have it forwarded to my personal email address, which I then use to respond.

Google Maps is replaced by Apple Maps; I was already using Firefox on my phone, avoiding Chrome; Snapseed was replaced by Adobe Lightroom, though I’m unhappy with how Adobe has abused its Lightroom users, going back on earlier promise that a standalone version of Lightroom would always remain available. iOS 13 is getting a native rich photo editor, meaning I might ditch Lightroom when iOS 13 comes around; Google Photos was replaced by Apple Photos. Though, the last time I was actively using that, I wasn’t too impressed by the portability of images between devices. I might opt for an alternative at some point.
I already stopped using Google Search, using DDG instead. Here’s a good list of more secure search engines.
I avoid Google Drive when I can, using a self-hosted NextCloud.

I got rid of Google Arts & Culture, Google Keep and Google Trips.

I really appreciate the swiped typing of Gboard, even though it regularly fibs when I switch languages. Google is not the only one offering this functionality, but keyboard apps are notoriously untrustworthy (here’s a primer). Apple is set to launch a swipe-enabled keyboard with iOS 13. I’ll wait.
If I do cave in, it will probably be for SwiftKey, now owned by Microsoft.

If you need more, a comprehensive list of alternative options for many of Google’s services is here.

Android’s latest offering has come a long way in providing a good user experience. Functionally, in some ways, Android is ahead of iOS. But, as far as the user experience is concerned, iOS is still more pleasant to work with. Notwithstanding third party apps and their usability, which even for the same app between Android and iOS can be quite different (such that, for example, I ditched RadioPublic and went with Apple Podcasts, even though the latter also has shortcomings), Apple’s native apps and general usability is more streamlined and more intuitive.

Not related to my phone, but, I’ve also moved away from recaptcha, shifting to Securimage.

A falling hammer?

Surely coincidental, but, three weeks after writing this post, Google sent me a message, saying that: “… we recently detected that your Google Cloud/API Project [for this website] could be scraping data from our Google Maps APIs in violation [of our terms]”. Access to the Google APIs for this website was shut down, even though this website now hardly uses the Google Maps API. I appealed, two days later, my access was reinstated.

This is my blood you drink, this is my body, you eat

If you’re catholic, you’re expected to believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, that is, truly present in the consumption of bread and wine as part of the rituals of the church. The Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates this. The party’s started on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which celebrates the doctrine of the Trinity, mixing God the Father and the Son with the more abstract Holy Spirit, itself celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Pentecost, from the Greek for ‘fiftieth’, is celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday, and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, while they were celebrating the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. This ‘descent’, according to a passage in Acts, in the Bible, came down to the apostles starting to talk in tongues in the early morning and taking that as a ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’, fulfilling a promise Jesus had made earlier.
Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in Israel, and it commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah to the jews. To me, it sounds more like the disciples had been partying the night away and were still so drunk the next morning that they still couldn’t talk straight. But I digress.

Easter, of course, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, shortly after first having consumed the last supper, where Jesus commanded his disciples that, with giving his followers bread and wine during the meal, to consume the foods, “in memory of me” while referring to the bread as “my body” and the cup of wine as “the new covenant in my blood”.

The term ‘eucharist’ derives from the Greek for ‘grateful’. Grateful, apparently, for consuming the flesh and blood of Jesus, which, here in Brazil, nicely ties in with the Brazilian interpretation of cultural cannibalism, Anthropophagy, itself based on a manifest by a Brazilian poet, dating back to the 1920s, in which Oswald de Andrade made the claim that Brazil’s history of “cannibalizing” other cultures is its greatest strength and a way for Brazil to assert itself against European post-colonial cultural domination.

The feast of Corpus Christi dates back to the 13th century, initiated because of the visions of a 13th century Belgian canoness, essentially a female monk, and widely adopted by the Catholic Church by the start of the 14th century.

The saint of the many islands

Now an hour’s drive from downtown Sao Paulo, the town of Santana de Pernaíba was founded in the late 1500s as a farm, and became used as starting point for the Bandeirantes, ‘flag bearers’, Brazilian colonisers, whose earlier main focus was to enslave Brazil’s native populations. Disguising themselves as Jesuits, they often sang mass to lure the natives out of their settlements. But, if luring the natives with promises did not work, they would surround the settlements and set them alight, forcing inhabitants out into the open.

Who the saint, ‘santana’ is a contraction of ‘saint Ana’, is not clear, but ‘parnaíba’ is a native word meaning ‘place of many islands’, with the original farm being built in a bend of what is now the river Tiête.

Here, on the morning of Corpus Christi, the locals come together, representing a multitude of social groups, to create a tapestry of colourful sawdust and sand, almost completely consisting of depictions of religious themes. At the end of the afternoon, after an outdoor religious service next to the town’s main church, a procession then completes the 850m circular course, walking on top of the tapestry, followed by the public at large.
The amount of sawdust used is an impressive 80 cubic meters.

This tradition, however, is recent, the sawdust carpets for the first time being used in 1968, though streets were colourfully decorated before that, for the same festivities.

Replacing Postlight’s Mercury scraping service with your self-hosted copy

Mercury by Postlight is a tool for scraping web pages. It “transforms web pages into clean text. Publishers and programmers use it to make the web make sense, and readers use it to read any web article comfortably.”
This was a fast, free web-based service, accessible via an API which worked rather beautifully, without a fuss.

Then, in February 2019, Postlight announced they were discontinuing the hosted service and open-sourcing the code. A mixed blessing, as, to keep using the service, this now required users of the service to set up their own version of Mercury, on their own, or Amazon’s servers.
Some guidance was provided, but few of those posting in the discussion group were (easily?) able to resolve the issues surrounding setting up their own instance. For me, Mercury using technology I’m not very familiar with, this was a bit of a hit-and-miss process that, eventually, did pay off.

Stephen Bradley wrote up a guide on how to get Mercury running on an Amazon server, but I like to stay clear from Amazon.

Here’s what I did to get Mercury running on my own server. Your mileage may vary.

  1. I’m using DreamHost. When setting up a (sub-)domain, I can select the option ‘Passenger’, which is for running Ruby, NodeJS and Python apps.
  2. SSH to the new domain and install NVM as described here. 
Specifically:
    curl -o- https://raw.githubusercontent.com/creationix/nvm/v0.34.0/install.sh | bash
  3. After running that script, a message claims that you only have to close and open the terminal to have nvm running. That did not work for me and I had to run this (in the terminal):
    export NVM_DIR="$HOME/.nvm"
    [ -s "$NVM_DIR/nvm.sh" ] && \. "$NVM_DIR/nvm.sh" # This loads nvm
    [ -s "$NVM_DIR/bash_completion" ] && \. "$NVM_DIR/bash_completion" # This loads nvm bash_completion
  4. Update nvm to the minimum required version, in the terminal (based on this post):
    nvm install 8.10
  5. This did not result in the installed version of node sticking between sessions. I had to edit my bash profile and add a line to it.
    To edit my bash profile:
    nano ~/.bash_profile
    Adding the following line:
    source ~/.bashrc
  6. Install the mercury parser in the terminal (based on this):
    npm install @postlight/mercury-parser
  7. Create a javascript file, for example with:
    const Mercury = require('@postlight/mercury-parser');
    const url = 'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann';
    Mercury.parse(url).then(result => { console.log(result); } );
  8. Execute the file from the command line with:
    node myfile.js
    But, this does not make the result available through the web.
  9. Install expressjs as detailed here.
  10. Create /myapp/app.js with this:
    const express = require('express')
;
    const app = express()
;
    const port = 8888

;
    app.get('/myapp/', function (req, res) {
    const Mercury = require('@postlight/mercury-parser');
    const url = req.query.url;
    Mercury.parse(url).then(result => {
 res.send(result);
 } );

})
    app.listen(port)
  11. Run the app from the command line:
    node app.js
  12. Visit the page in the browser:
    http://mysite.com:8888/myapp/?url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann
  13. But, you want this app to run forever. Install forever:
    npm install forever -g
  14. Start forever:
    forever start app.js

Now, I can replace this:

$postlightUrl = "https://mercury.postlight.com/parser?url=".$url;

With this:

$postlightUrl = "https://mysite.com:8888/myapp/?url=".$url;

Somewhat broken

This worked, but, a few weeks later, it no longer did. The version of node, nvm, did not persist between sessions. This was resolved by adding what is now step 5, above.

I also threw together a quick PHP-based solution that essentially does the same as the Mercury parser: extracting basic details from a webpage.

Seven eyes

I recently spent a short week on the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of my time was spent in the lovely little town of Angra do Heroismo, which is also a World Heritage Site.

As some would say, I fell with my nose in the butter, meaning that my stay was highlighted by a series of events related to World Poetry Day. This included exhibitions, concerts, and a seven day Photomarathon.

Less conventional, in that this Photomarathon ran for seven days. With, at midnight, all participants receiving next day’s assignment via WhatsApp, having to submit their work before 8pm that day.

Just now, compiling my submissions, I realised I made a significant mistake, misreading the second day’s assignment, thinking it was ‘7 eyes’, instead of the actual theme, ‘water’.

I very much liked the concept of the event being very spread out, and that communication happened via WhatsApp. It made participating very easy.
On the other hand, this also completely dropped the social aspect of the event. Anyone could be participating, but you could have no idea who.

Possibly, a good addition would be to, every night, at deadline, suggest participants to meet at a fixed place. A bar, or perhaps the theater that organised this event.

The seven eyes of Angra

Angra do Heroismo, on Terceira Island, is like the well-off cousin of Salvador de Bahia. The same rolling inner city hills, the same cobble stone streets, the same colonial architecture.
But, here, it’s all in excellent shape.
A connection with southern Brazil exists, too. A monument in Porto Alegre is dedicated to Azoreans, who played a significant role in the colonisation of south Brazil.

I was lucky enough to visit during ‘poetry week’, themed as ‘7 eyes’. I managed to enroll in an actual photomarathon, and attended a poetry night that turned out to be a fado night with songs about poetry and poets.
Enjoying lots of wine and cheese, the last song was sung, in part, by the band’s lead and, in full, by the audience. Perhaps some 70 Angraenses of mostly past middle age, all looking quite sad for the lyrics they were sharing.

And then there was the tuna. Not the fish, a tuna is a group of university students in traditional university dress who play traditional instruments, sing serenades and tend to do some flag waving and traditional dancing during performances. Typically all-male, the tuna sing-off I attended also had a guest-tuna which was of mixed gender.
Of Portuguese and Spanish origin, the name “tuna” is connected to a king of Tunis, apparently a title used by leaders of vagabonds, but there is also a legend of an actual king of Tunis, known for his love of music and partying, who used to walk around the streets at night playing and singing. Both sound a bit like confabulation to me, but, well, the name has to have come from somewhere.
Still popular, I also encountered the tuna students on the streets of Lisbon, in the 1960s, several tunas were founded in the Netherlands.

Angra is a World Heritage Site for its inner city architecture. Strongly resembling the Portuguese architectural heritage in the New World, the town was all but destroyed during a devastating earthquake on January 1, 1980. The people got together, decided to rebuild the city, and applied for World Heritage status, which they received shortly after.
The bull-ring wasn’t rebuilt, though. Now, it’s a cultural center, and only a statue of a bull remains.

Wine country

Madeira is home to Portugal’s top soccer player, the Azores are home to the second best. But, what still is the biggest town in the Azores, Ponta Delgada, and once was the third biggest town in the whole country, is now very, very sleepy. Perhaps the big fish from Portugal’s Atlantic islands have a strong drive to make themselves count.

The Azores have their own airline and one rather stellar deal: If you fly in on one of their planes, they give you a free flight to any other island in the archipelago. This, so that you can easily connect to your outgoing flight, in case it’s on a different airline from a different airport.
Taking advantage of this, my already cheap flight became an even cheaper three flights. Flying in to Ponta Delgada, my connecting flight was going to take me to Angra do Heroismo, but with an 8 hour layover on the island of Pico, a World Heritage Site for its viticulture, its wine making tradition.

Pico’s wine-making heritage is unique as no soil is used in cultivating the vines on the rocky island, where much of the stone is actually volcanic, due to the central mountain on the island, a dormant volcano, and also the highest point in Portugal.
Not too dormant, though, as since the Portuguese arrived, from several side-vents, at several occasions over the last few hundred years, did lava flow out into the sea. Somewhat strangely, the islanders called these events ‘mysteries’.

When the Portuguese discovered the Azores in the early 1400s, no one lived here and it’s assumed the islands had never been inhabited. But, when I later visited Angra do Heroismo, on one of the other islands and a World Heritage Site itself, I came across an exhibition where the curator made extraordinary claims about the island’s megalithic past, connecting the island to the highly controversial Bosnian pyramids, Machu Picchu, Gizeh, and other megalithic sites across the world, in one breadth invalidating any potential claims the island has to a megalithic past, in the same way that Erich von Daeniken or Zecharia Sitchin would.

But, the claims are not completely without merit, though no definite evidence yet exists. At the exhibition, some of the presented photos are reasonably convincing, and, online, there are others. If true, that is, if the island indeed was inhabited at some point before the Portuguese arrived, it’s possible a kind of at least tenuous connection existed between people in the Americas and the Eurasian continent, across the Atlantic, in turn making the Azores, again, a potential candidate for Plato’s Atlantis.
A few years ago, a local fisherman made the claim of discovering an undersea pyramid, just off the coast of Terceira Island. One can dream, but there’s no scientific consensus on this, with even official Portuguese sources not being in agreement on whether the structure is man-made.
But, as with very speculative theories on their arrival on American shores, there’s some suggestive pointers, if controversial, that Phoenicians visited the Azores perhaps 2000 to 3000 years ago.

If indeed, at some point in the past, the Azores were a stopover on the journey between Europe and the Americas, one would think it tempting for some of those itinerants to settle. The islands are isolated, making them safe, the climate is temperate, and the soil is fertile.
While the natural environment can be put to easy and good use. On Pico, I came across a caldera, a volcanic crater, used as a cattle pen, while one of the other islands has a caldera used as a bull-ring.

Now, it’s hard to put my finger on it as to why, but these Portuguese Atlantic islands strongly remind me of rural England, or perhaps places in Brittany. It’s something about the rolling green hills, but also the architecture, with particularly on Pico, the long walls of black stone, protecting the little plots of land once used to grow the local vines, reminiscent of England’s south.

As I was moving deeper into the Azores, the planes also were getting smaller. From Pico to Terceira, the plane only had 37 seats. Fully booked, I was the last to board, taking up the isle seat in the last row.
Indeed, the last row had an isle seat.