Short story: I’m a skeleton

As part of Natalia and my ‘year at Harvard‘ (still remote), we are following a writing class with the wonderful Anne Bernays.

Recently, our assignment was writing a ‘skeleton story’, one of the assignments that’s also in her book What If?, containing exercises for budding writers.

Here are the rough requirements of a skeleton story:

  • The action takes place immediately.
  • The main character wants something, making the reader want it to.
  • The story is concrete, not abstract.
  • There’s an obstacle, which has to be something tangible.
  • The main character overcomes the obstacle through something like magic.
  • There’s a conclusion.

In addition, we were giving 550 words to write the story.

This was not my first exercise, but this one flowed from my hands like blood from the wounds of a haemophiliac, so to speak. It was fun to write, and I believe it’s fun to read, if you get at least some of the references.

Ada and Guido

“You remind me of the babe.”

“What babe?”

“The babe with the power.”

“What power?”

“The power of voo…”

With one slash of her sword, Ada chopped off the head of the self-proclaimed Goblin King. She would have played his game for longer, if it weren’t for his horrible David Bowie references. No-one messes with David Bowie.

She picked up the orbs-of-clarity he was playing with, and, their power rushing through her, immediately knew what she needed to do next; Slay Guido the Python, and collect the next-js compiler, without passing through Start, first.

Ada sheathed her trusted sword, and started running down the Goblin King’s mountain of code. She knew Guido, and she knew him well. After critical acclaim for his work, decades ago, Guido had more recently joined the dark side. First with Google, which had just come out of it’s “Don’t be evil” phase, but now with, she would never be able to get over it, Microsoft. Worse, Guido had started wearing the t-shirts of Doom, invoking that hated Windows95 catch phrase, “Start me up”. 

She had not expected to have to deal with Guido this soon, but the orbs-of-clarity left no doubt about it; Guido needed to be slain. The next-js compiler needed to be safeguarded from Guido’s abuse and bring programmatic peace to the world, finally heralding the true age of write-once-run-anywhere. 

Ada would prevail.

Increasing her pace, Ada ran past the pits of VB-Basic, took a left turn at the bowels of Shell, and was approaching the pointers of Pascal. She expected Guido to be just around the edge, right behind the Sea of PlusPlus. But, Guido had sniffed out her speed run, managing to surprise Ada by inserting a breakpoint in her rolling approach.

Ada, though, was quick to respond.

“You think you can stop me, Guido?”

“I don’t think, Ada. I know. You are no match for my compiler!”

“Let’s find out, Guido.”

Ada started clearing Guido’s breakpoints, much faster than Guido had anticipated. But, the next-js compiler he had brought softened the blow; quickly inserting strings where there had been floats, he managed to wrong-foot Ada, but only temporarily.

“I understand your strategy, Guido. You are doomed.”

“Never!” And Guido inserted what he thought was a surefire way to stop Ada from advancing; the Dropbox DDOS would surely stop Ada in her tracks.

“Haha, Guido! I knew you would rely on your shady past at Dropbox. I came prepared!”

Ada reached into her vest pocked and grabbed the bundle of CloudFlares she had been hiding there all this time.

“Take that, you snake!” And threw the almost invisible flares at Guido. They hoovered between the two of them, mitigating Guido’s advances, before completely extinguishing his attack.

Surprised, Guido fell back on his Dutch vernacular. “Nee, niet de cloud flares….”, but was only just able to finish his sentence. The flares had done their job. Guido was no more.

Ada picked up the next-js compiler. 

“At last, I can finally build my own web apps!”

The return to the cheese

Natalia came down, from worldly Boston, to humble Carapicuiba, to spend the Christmas break in warmer climes. We both got COVID, though not from each other, and spent a week in Minas Gerais. For one, we revisited Alagoa, the cheese capital of Brazil, and then went on a larger cheese-hunting trip. Successfully.

We ended in Ouro Preto, a lovely and lively colonial town in the middle of Minas Gerais, and made a stopover in Congonhas, a World Heritage Site for its church and square.

On the trail of the Iran-Contras

Costa Rica is one of the original banana republics, together with Honduras and Guatemala. Virtually fiefdoms of the United Fruit Company (UFC), later rebranded to Chiquita, perhaps in part to more easily wash away the bad taste their neocolonialist practices had left behind, these countries were ruled like large scale corporate towns, where the Jeff Bezosses of their day controlled part and parcel of the lives of those in their… ‘care’.

Funnily enough, the UFC had started with the building and operation of a train line from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to Limón, on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast. Proving not very successful, but, receiving lots of land as a gift for successfully restructuring the company’s, and the country’s, debt, the company’s director used this land to grow bananas for his workers, which turned out to be a much bigger, and much more reliable, commercial enterprise, as well as source of profits.

So, by 1930, the UFC had become the largest employer in Central America.

In Guatemala, the United fruit company was the largest single landowner, and by 1952, the Guatemalan government started expropriating unused land from the UFC to hand it over to landless peasants.

The company retaliated by lobbying the US government to intervene, painting the democratically elected Guatemalan government as communist.

By now a familiar kind of story, in 1954, the CIA deposed the Guatemalan government and installed a pro-business military dictatorship.

The UFC is the only company known to have a CIA cryptonym, a code word typically used to describe high profile politicians under CIA protection. ‘Renegade’ and ‘Renaissance’ for the Obamas, for example.
That said, the cryptonym was UNIFRUIT, which is really just a shortened version of the name of the company.

Reportedly, the UFC also was working with Batista supporters to overthrow Fidel Castro, who had expropriated some of their farms, too, but had warned that ‘Cuba is no Guatemala’, before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

But, the UFC’s influence in Central American affairs didn’t stop there. The ‘Banana Massacre’, on the Colombian Caribbean coast, ended in the deaths of perhaps 1000s of workers, and, according to some, set the stage for ‘La Violencia’, the ten year Colombian civil war.

Even as late as 2007, UFC’s successor Chiquita pleaded guilty in a United States Federal court to aiding and abetting a Colombian terrorist organization.
Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, or so it seems.


Back in Costa Rica, one of my earliest prehistoric fascinations was with the large stone balls (really) of Costa Rica, the Diquís Spheres. 

Back in 1971, Erich von Däniken popularized these, and other spheres from elsewhere around the world, as proof that the gods truly were cosmonauts. Sadly, much of von Däniken’s work has been discredited, though it’s impossible to also prove a negative, but, back then, there was the wonderfully juicy potential of the spheres’ mysterious, proto-civilization’s provenance being true.

Not so. It’s now quite well established that the spheres, fascinating, and still quite a bit mysterious, were made at the hands of the people of the Diquis culture, a pre-Colombian civilization that was wiped off the map with the arrival of the Spanish, another kind of UFC, if you will.
Still, amazingly, there is almost nothing known about why the spheres were created, nor how. Though technically it’s not overly complex to polish pieces of rock, even some 2000 years ago, it’s still incredible to see the near-perfect roundness of the spheres.

In some fairness to von Däniken, it was less than a decade before he published his book, that really only the first, limited, scientific research had come out, on the stones. The slow nascent globalization that had started after the Second World War created a realization of apparent disjoint observations on a global scale having some hidden connection.

And, we are now much clearer on that not all was conjecture, hyperbole, or fake. Just one example being Thor Heyerdahl’s journeys across the oceans as suggestive proof of prehistoric cross-oceanic contact between Asia and the Americas.

In Costa Rica, the stone spheres are regarded as a national symbol and part of the cultural ethos of Costa Rica. It’s good to be all-round, I guess.

One activity to keep you busy while on the road in Costa Rica, is to be on the lookout for stray balls.
There are some 350 identified historical stone spheres throughout the country, and legislation states that, if you are in possession of a stone ball, you do not have to hand it over to the state, but you do have to make it publicly accessible.

At the same time, this is not completely true, perhaps in a similar way as to how Uber is technically illegal, in Costa Rica, but also widely available; one of the locations that are part of the World Heritage Site representing the stone spheres, and the one which contains the largest stone sphere discovered, around 2.6m in diameter, though I’ve also seen a mentioning of 2.9 meters, is on a farm that’s off-limits to visitors.

A Contra legacy

Before visiting the balls, we headed to Manuel Antonio, a popular national park with sloths, capybaras and pretty beaches. 

We missed the sloths, but did find a restaurant who’s central feature is an airplane which, according to the restaurant owners, was used to smuggle weapons into the Nicaraguan jungle as part of the Iran-Contra affair.

How the plane ended up within a restaurant on the Costa Rican coast is a bit of a mystery, as it was shot down some 35 miles within Nicaraguan territory.
The crash’s only survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured, confessed, and started the ball rolling on the Iran-Contra affair. Sentenced to 30 years, he almost immediately received clemency and was shipped back to the US where, oddly, in the 2000s, he was repeatedly arrested for indecent exposure and, for this, even locked up.

This article states that the plane that ended up in the restaurant is actually not the one that was shot down, but one of the other planes used in the operation, which had been idling its time away at San José’s international airport. A much more plausible tale, even if shipping it from the country’s main airport to the restaurant in Manuel Antonio is still no mean feat.

Interestingly, Costa Rica, as has Panama, abolished the military in the late 1940s, after emerging from a civil war. Now, the most populous country without a standing army, at least one advantage has been that the US can not massage the country’s military to foment a coup against any left-leaning government.
And, indeed, Costa Rica has been pretty stable over the last 60 years, taking pride in its long democratic history. They remember the time in which the UFC lorded it over the country, by publicly referring to it as ‘the banana period’.

Of travel and tests

If there is a ‘new normal’, it’s that society is encumbered with an unbalanced fear of the consequences of COVID. Knee jerk reactions, while conveniently ignoring the real risks of particular situations and the half-assed measures to combat them, mean that the COVID response, similar to how the tightenings of security after 9/11 have, is quickly becoming theatre; a real concern is responded to disproportionally with dubious effect.

Particularly, when ‘vaccine’ rates are high, the necessity for also providing a negative COVID test when traveling is, predominantly, just another tax on international travel.
A few weeks after this trip, I went and met Natalia in Costa Rica. To fly back (me to Brazil, she to the US), we both had to get a test, which conveniently we could arrange to have done at the place we were staying at, at only a marginal extra fee. The nurse that took our tests told us that, in the last three months, while doing about a dozen or so tests per day, not a single test had come back positive.
This seems very improbable, but either way shows the pointlessness of requiring a 50 USD negative COVID test for traveling.

Now, for me, this was the first time crossing a border in two and a half years. I had to bring a negative COVID test, a health declaration, proof of vaccination, and a quarantine declaration. But, at least I no longer had to go into self quarantine when arriving in Holland. Even though, apparently, that’s neither been strictly followed by returning travellers, nor strictly enforced. In practice, how could they?

My initial plan was to get tested at the airport, in São Paulo, not really realizing that receiving the results takes several hours to come in. Assuming it would also be more expensive, my second plan was to get tested at this road-side testing booth within cycling distance from home. 

But, as their opening times on weekends were not really clear, I realised I could just get away with getting tested on a Friday afternoon, making that my plan. Except that Friday morning, our cleaner showed up unannounced.

So, Saturday morning, I got myself to a nearby clinic instead, arriving at their door at a rather early 6:30, but on a beautiful day. They could do the test, send over the results in time, but, I eventually discovered, were more expensive than what they charge at the airport. 

If anything, it meant my Saturday was going to be more chill. More time spent with the catties, as well as more time to participate, remotely, in the Wales Photomarathon. It’s uncanny how the cats always can smell something it’s afoot, even before I start packing my bags.

On remote participation in events that were previously presential, the pandemic has been a huge global leveller in opportunities. I find it unlikely that we will return to the same level and perceived necessity of in-person meetings soon, if at all. This is both sad, after the necessity for in-person presence on global projects, beginning in IT, was abandoned years ago, but also fantastic for the chances and opportunities for those in places less well connected, physically, throughout the world. (Though, as a downside, this could actually result in a depression in real wages for jobs that can be executed remotely.)

Back to my trip.
Planned to arrive in time for the World Cup soccer, but delivered late, São Paulo now has a very convenient urban train which connects the city with the airport. 
The whole journey, from our house, by public transport, is perhaps a tad slow, at 2 to 2.5 hours, but you also don’t get stuck in traffic, while traveling by car, at the worst of times, can also take up to 2 hours.
But, perhaps not surprising, very few travelers, noticeable by the lack of luggage on the train, take public transport to the airport. Taxi, or Uber, is still king.

The process of getting airside at the airport underscored that the processes around COVID and travel are a bit of theatre.
Arriving near my check-in desk, the extra in-person check before you queue up, which has been standard practice for years, even if there doesn’t seem to be a real purpose for it, asked me for proof of vaccination and my negative COVID test.
At the check-in desk, I was asked for my negative COVID test and my health declaration, which is in Dutch. Obviously, the clerk could only confirm if this declaration looked ok, him not speaking, or reading, Dutch.
Meanwhile, as all these required documents are just PDFs on my phone, it would be trivial to amend existing documents to make them look valid, and be accepted for travel.

But, one positive change brought on by COVID, is that passengers now consistently show up way too early. Perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be less stress in the air.

Then, arriving in Istanbul, before being allowed to enter the terminal, all passenger passports were checked, by two guys, against a small piece of paper with a short list of names. By the time I was checked, I noticed a number of names had been crossed out. When they saw my Dutch passport, I was waved on.
What (who?) were they looking for?

Inside the huge new Istanbul terminal, a whole one hour of WiFi is free. To get access, you have to swipe your passport at a terminal, which then gives you a voucher.

As ridiculous a money grab that is, perhaps inspired by Schiphol, the Istanbul airport now also has an on-site museum, which is quite a bit more than enjoyable.

On my final flight, I had to fill in two forms, one a vaccine statement, the other a health declaration. These were the same ones I had needed to be able to show to be allowed on the plane in the first place, as particular answers to some of the questions in these forms should bar you from being able to board.
At arrival, no one asked for these documents.


Before entering the airport in São Paulo, as I was early and it was a beautiful day, I spent time lounging on a grassy patch, close to the train terminal.

When finally heading to my terminal, then, from entering the airport, to, some 18 hours later, leaving the arrivals area of Amsterdam airport, I had been wearing face masks non-stop. (Kudos to Turkish Airlines, which provides a ‘sanitary packet’ with alcohol wipes, alcohol gel, and multiple masks.)
In Amsterdam, walking through the sliding doors and entering the public, but covered, space, of Schiphol, literally no one was wearing a face mask. And it took another three days before I would see anyone wearing one. In São Paulo, and Brazil in general, pretty much everyone, in-doors, wears a face mask.

Silly walks

One momentous event during my trip to Holland was that the management team behind walk · listen · create physically met for the first time since we started working together some three years ago, in Eindhoven. Andrew flew from London, Geert took a bus from around Brugge, and I took a train from Delft.
Appropriately, one of the quirky sites in Eindhoven is a ‘silly walks tunnel’, a tunnel with murals depicting John Cleese doing his famous skit. We posed with John.

The end of an era

Besides seeing my mum for the first time in 18 months, the last time her visiting Brazil, just at the start of the pandemic, I also finally, formally, emigrated from The Netherlands. I am now officially, and only, a resident of Brazil.

In which I extricate myself from Facebook

I’ve been eyeing leaving Facebook for a long time. A challenge if you also use Facebook professionally. That is, if you are involved in the managing of Facebook pages that represent businesses.

But, early October, I decided that enough was enough. I announced I would try and get my Facebook profile to ‘go dark’, while, at least for the time being, keeping my Facebook page alive, while still able to access other pages I manage.

First, some good news. A while ago (years?) I had downloaded the data Facebook had on me, and was not overly impressed, nor shocked, for that matter. Now, the same process also allowed for transferring some of your data to other services, including Google Photos, Dropbox, Blogger, and others.

The copy of my data which I requested, of all my data, told me this was going to be all data between January 1, 2004, and October 7, 2021. It arrived just a few days later, surprisingly small, at some 250MB.
While waiting, I deleted all pending friend requests and removed all ‘people I may know’. The latter, as a list of suggestions, keeps coming back, but either process was easy.

Then, I went and unfollowed all my friends. This was trickier, as the list of friends Facebook now presents you with, requires you to click on a menu for each friend, where there is an ‘unfollow’ button. But, there’s a Chrome extension that is your friend for this. You might want to get it while it’s there.

This process was a bit glitchy. Some friends and pages required multiple removals.

Next was to make sure group notifications would also no longer show in my feed. This, I could only do for groups I had not joined as a page (but with my personal account). For those I had joined as a page, the ‘off’ option was available, but did not work.
Yet, when I was done, notifications of pages I had joined as a page also no longer seemed to show up.

I then left all groups I could not join as a page.

I locked down my profile and posts to friends-only. This seemed to not fully work, as I still received a friend request after having done so.

Now, my feed was quiet, but not empty. A few groups needed to be left a few times extra, a few ads showed up, and, oddly, a few posts notifying me that some people had posted on other people’s posts, neither of whom I was now following. And, after a note saying “You’re All Caught Up For Now”, a bunch of regular posts by friends, which I suspect was some caching artefact.
On mobile, my feed was already completely empty. Such bliss!

A few interesting (enough) takeaways from my data download:

  • Facebook claims I’ve only interacted with 3 advertisers.
  • 1183(!!!) advertisers uploaded a contact list which included my details. This included a few obvious ones, like 500px and Amazon, but also a large number of car brands (Alfa Romeo, Audi, Mercedes Benz, etc., all split up in multiple branches, identified by their geographical location, on a municipal level). The car sellers were the majority of the 1183 advertisers.
  • Going through the websites and apps I had logged into, using Facebook, was like going on a trip to memory lane. As was ‘posts from apps and websites’.
  • My ‘off Facebook’ activity was surprisingly limited. Either Facebook is holding back information, or my Facebook-shield and ad-blocking has been working well.
  • My first comment on Facebook dates back to 15/05/2007, 10:04:45.
  • Oddly, apparently, my first LIKE dates back to only 28/04/2009, 14:26:17.
  • The first event I posted, I posted on 28/07/2013, 05:57:23.
  • I have removed one friend, ever. The name of whom I do not recognise.
  • There’s an entry on ‘secret groups’, but it contains no data.
  • I was ‘poked’ four times. The first time on 07/02/2012, 20:32:07, the last on 16/10/2015, 08:39:41.
  • I’m matched with 160 ‘ad interests’. They are mostly somewhat appropriate, though some are wildly off the mark, like “Tarot”, “Christian hip hop”, “Wrestling”, “Hilo, Hawaii”, and “American football”.
  • My ‘friend peer group’, apparently, is “Established Adult Life”.
  • My oldest recorded search dates back to 16/10/2015, 08:39:41.
  • I’ve got an entry for ‘Account deactivated’ on 10/04/2021, 04:02:08, which makes no sense to me.
  • My oldest post dates back to 14/01/2004, 06:00:00. Though I suspect some backdating might be involved.
  • I’ve put a total of 10442 posts onto Facebook.
  • The export of all my data does not contain nearly as much information as what I can access through Facebook itself. For one, the data on content posted from other websites is only metadata.

I made a compilation of all my (direct) Facebook posts, ever, and a compilation of all my Facebook posts made from apps and websites.

I then wanted to delete all my personal Facebook posts. Facebook has a page where you can manage your posts, but bulk deletes were not available to me, only the ability to delete posts one at-a-time. Besides that, pages that provide Facebook users to manage their content are awfully buggy, regularly not working for me at all.

Then, I discovered this plugin, which helps you to delete your stuff. But, it doesn’t work. There’s another one, which is a bit glitchy, though at least in part Facebook is to blame for that, but, mostly, works. But, is not free. I paid the 5 USD.
Seeing it work, simulating human interaction in the browser to circumvent Facebook’s restrictions on bulk-deleting content, removing my 10000+ posts, was awfully satisfying.
Well. I did so in short batches, interspersed with glitches.
All in all, it took a few days of background processing, regularly restarting the deletion process, to trash all posts to my personal profile. And, eventually, I found the sweet spot at slowing down the automation by a factor of 2.5, to minimise Facebook hiccupping on the deletes.

This process also showed that, on the face of it, Facebook does not include all my Facebook posts in my export; According to the plugin deleting my posts for me, just in 2013 it deleted over 10000 of my posts. With, according to my Facebook export, my having posted a total of some 12000 times, one of the two can not be correct.

A week, or so, after I thought I had removed all my posts, some that had been deleted returned, showing that Facebook’s tools for deleting your own content are not only buggy, but also unreliable, first reporting success, then proving failure.
Caching and synchronising can do funky stuff to your data, but Facebook is not a one-man operation. They should do better. (Then again, no one doubts that latter statement.)

I then went on to remove all my comments. These were not part of my Facebook export. This was process was slow, and, often, individual comments needed to be removed multiple times before they were actually removed.

Not really a surprise, but still annoying; earlier this year, I deleted my Instagram account. All my Instagram photos were still on Facebook.

Being tagged in other people’s posts and comments is not something you can delete. But, you can hide this. There appears to exist no automation for this. I gave up on trying to achieve this.

I can apparently delete my posts on other’s timelines, but also other’s posts on my timeline. This probably explains why neither were in my Facebook export. It also means ownership of these kinds of posts is not obvious; it seems both parties can remove this content, while Facebook does not consider either the owner.

Next was unfriending everyone.

Facebook also makes this a painfully slow process.
There are a few plugins that claim to be able to automate this, but I didn’t consider them trustworthy enough. So, I spend an hour or two unfriending my 1500, or so, friends.

In the process, I found that an estimated 3-5% of my friends had, at some point, deleted their own Facebook profile, with a few more who had clearly just stopped using the platform altogether.
Those that have blocked me, even if I never unfriended them, do not show up in this list.

Now, I was as free of Facebook as I could be, without actually deleting my Facebook account.

More Facebook malarky

Early in the year, I was asked to participate in a paid Facebook user study. Specifically, I was interviewed to discuss potential upcoming functionality changes and possibilities for changes to the UI, related to event promotion. I had to sign an NDA, so, my lips are (somewhat) sealed.

Before agreeing, I was told that I would be paid 100 USD, or the equivalent in my country. Turns out, this did not mean the equivalent in my currency, but a value connected to some kind of indexing against purchasing power. I was offered 85 USD. An annoyance.

Then, the payment was made available through an online platform that is exactly designed for these kinds of things, giving you credit, then allowing you to redeem the credit for gift cards. I’ve gone through this in the past, and this is really just an annoyance, as typically you can only redeem your credit at a limited number of retailers, in a limited number of jurisdictions.

I suspect this is designed to avoid taxation in one way or the other.

Surprisingly, this one seemed a bit better, as, besides transferring my balance to a bunch of charities, I could also redeem my balance in virtual Visa cards. 

But, exchanging my balance for virtual Visa cards meant the Visa card was issued on yet another platform.
When I had jumped through those hoops, I was told that “This card can be used everywhere Visa® debit cards are accepted.” A seemingly positive note.

So, I went and added this balance to my Apple App Store credit. Only to be told that “The payment card you entered is not valid in Netherlands”. Another annoyance.

I figured that, as I was expecting to move to the US, I’d wait and use the money over there. This would be a somewhat tight fit, as the validity of these virtual Visa cards was only 6 months, expiring shortly after I was set to arrive.
Yet another annoyance.

I didn’t move to the US, but Natalia did. So, I used the virtual card to order goods off Amazon and have them sent to her address. To discover that, with the limited value of these cards, Amazon has no way to max them out, then charge more through a separate payment method, meaning that the only way to redeem these on Amazon (and, presumably, other platforms), is to order something that costs less than the value of these virtual cards, and give up on the remainder. Yet another annoyance.

Wales photomarathon 2021

I blame, or should I say ‘thank’, COVID; people crave social outdoors activities, but congregating still is a problem. So, not only does it seem more photomarathons are being scheduled, they are also more often ‘online’.

In August, I participated in the Denmark photomarathon. Due to prior commitments, I couldn’t participate in the Vienna photomarathon, also in September, and a photomarathon in Cyprus was, somewhat surprisingly, in-person.

Not so the Wales Photomarathon. Virtual, and only six hours. And although this was scheduled for the day I was flying to Europe from Brazil, as I had to get up early to get myself a COVID test in order to be allowed to fly, I figured I’d have enough time on my hands anyway.

The rules were a bit fungible; it was not explicitly stipulated that photos had to be shot in sequence, and no mention was made of whether image manipulation was allowed.
I shot the images in sequence, which I believe is paramount for participating in a photomarathon. But, realities as they are, I did touch up the images I shot; I cropped them, rotated a few a bit, and adjusted some colors. One of them, quite obviously, I threw through a somewhat bigger wrangler.

Turnaround was amazingly quick. Just four days later, winners were announced and all submissions were made available through a group exhibition at the National Library of Wales. (Where, it seems, they switched my submissions for themes 2 and 3, but, hey.)

Another year, another WSA

The World Summit Awards selects and promotes local digital innovation to improve society. It’s an international platform for cutting edge examples of how ICTs can impact society in a positive way.

Back in 2012, I won the award in the Culture & Tourism category for Dérive app, together with Eduardo Cachucho. In 2017, I won it again, for The Museum of Yesterday, this time with Agência Pública.

After that, I became part of the online jury, pre-selecting the world’s submissions into a shortlist from which the year’s winners are selected.

Last year, or rather, this year, the yearly WSA conference moved online. I was hoping that next year’s conference, with this year’s winners, would see a return to a physical gathering. But, sadly not.
On the other hand, the online conference this year was quite well put together, and makes the event much more inclusive. On top of that, flights no longer having to be purchased for the many attendants, it’s probably also a much cheaper affair.

The activist in me advocates for completely moving this online. The traveler in me is sad for it.

Last year’s submissions did not suffer from the COVID pandemic, surely because, by the time submissions needed to have been wrapped up, COVID restrictions had not yet wreaked havoc on society at large.
This year, however, the effect is palpable. The total amount of submissions for this year has noticeably dropped, with particularly the Culture & Tourism category suffering.
Understandable, as travel has taken the biggest hit because of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, there are several interesting submissions this year. Here are the projects I would like to see in this year’s shortlist. There are other nice enough submissions, but these particularly stood out, in one way or the other.

  • MyWonderbird (Lithuania)
    A kind of Tinder for local travel, with the added feature that you can have the app generate a walking route along places you are interested in visiting.
  • Rutopia (Mexico)
    A concierge travel service, matchmaking you with operators throughout Mexico, where the operators are hyperlocal providers who are so small they rely on Rutopia as a service provider, unlocking otherwise inaccessible experiences.
  • Jooki (Belgium)
    A portable speaker designed for kids, which they operate with NFC-based physical tokens.
  • Placecloud (Netherlands)
    Location based podcasts. Yes, that’s right, Placecloud is the Dutch submission to this year’s WSA. Fingers crossed.
  • The live green co (Chile)
    The user-facing company for an AI engine which claims to be able to identify plant-based alternatives for industrial and animal ingredients used in the large-scale production process of foods.
  • Stobi VR (North Macedonia)
    An immersive VR experience, designed to be consumed in an amphitheatre in North Macedonia, which recreates a gladiator battle in front of your eyes.

The winners will be announced, probably, in January next year.
They will battle to take home the ‘Champion’ trophy.

The 900km train ride into the Amazon

As in the US, the automobile lobby all but killed rail-based infrastructure in Brazil. Very few cities have urban train networks, the only tram I’m aware of is a modern one, in Rio, though plenty of older towns carry the scars of ancient trams, including the city I was now traveling from, São Luís.

Intercity trains are virtually absent. Throughout the country, a very small number of trains still run, but these are primarily a tourist attraction. The easiest accessible of these is the weekend train that runs between downtown São Paulo and the village of Paranapiacaba, from where the Brits ran much of the train network in the state of São Paulo. Here, the train station has a clock tower which was designed as a scaled-down replica of the tower of Big Ben.

But, there is at least one intercity train service that does run, even if it’s a fairly recent addition.

Vale, a large mining company, runs a huge iron mine, the largest in the world, close to the town of Parauapebas, in the state of Pará. To get the ore out, they transport the material by train, to the coast, at São Luis, which has the second deepest port in the world. Also, three times a week, it runs a passenger train in each direction, over the 900km stretch of tracks.

Reminding me of some more distant Russian settlements, the train station is sone 10km out of São Luis. And, also similar, when I got myself to the train station to buy a ticket, I found the station closed, and was told by a street sweeper that I had to get my tickets from a small office in town, instead.

Earlier, back home, I had tried to buy my tickets online, several times, but each time, the purchasing process failed, even before entering any payment details, which could point to the train no longer running.

A phone call proved otherwise. “How do I buy tickets”, I asked. “Online”.

Or in São Luis.

Two types of tickets are available, the cheaper one of which was sold-out when I got my ticket. 

On the train, curious as to the difference between the two classes, as half the seats were kept empty because of COVID, I was not able to check the lower class trains, as passengers were disallowed from roaming, also because of COVID.

The food wagon, was also off-limits, though had been replaced by a fairly smoothly operating rolling cart with cheap and decent foods, and staff taking orders for lunch and dinners, serving very reasonable food at very reasonable prices.

The train ride itself was pleasant enough, the layout and fixtures of the train striking me as having a strong resemblance with many common German trains. It’s a real loss that Brazil does not have a trans-national rail network. It would be an economic boom for the country.

A decade ago, there was a white-elephant promise of building a high speed rail connection between São Paulo and Rio, in time for the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine a rail connection, along much of the Atlantic coast, to not be financially viable. But, car is king.

The train trip is long, uneventful, and on time, and with very monotonous views from the windows. Almost all train stations are in the middle of nowhere, making it extra amazing that passengers get on and off at every stop. Where do they come from? Where do they go?

The train’s air conditioning is maxed, requiring people to wear sweaters, with several wrapped in blankets. Meanwhile, outside, the temperature is trying to reach 40 degrees.

The journey starts at dawn and ends close to midnight. I never appreciate arriving in a place I don’t know after dark, or worse, in the middle of the night. But, sometimes you don’t have a choice.

My most fascinating late arrival was in Murmansk, in summer. The weather was overcast, the flight was a rocky ride, navigating through the clouds, until we went in for the landing. Dipping below the clouds, the sun was shining, it was the middle of the white nights.

But, in Parauapebas, at night, any day of the year, the sun does not shine. However, perhaps to compensate, the street lights are bright.

Parauapebas’ train station, like all stations along the line, is quite away from town.
Before boarding, I had asked my hotel how to get from the train station to the hotel. “In that place and at that time [midnight], you will have to take a taxi” it would cost about 70 BRL and would be on the meter.

Plenty of passengers on the train we’re going to the end of the line, which was a good sign, but it still could mean anything. Perhaps there were only going to be a few taxis, perhaps everyone was going to be picked up by family.

I was one of the first to leave the train, being welcomed by many, many, private cars, heavy beats, and, just outside of the train station, many taxi drivers offering rides, as well as two buses. 

The buses were going to nearby towns, 50-100km away, and all taxis were shared; four people per taxi at 30 BRL each. 

Eventually, my taxi was one of the last ones to leave, but then, the formula-one ride to my hotel revealed a well lit, clean and neat town. A small surprise, as towns that spring up on the edge of large mines run by big international companies often have a certain seediness hanging over them.

My room was tiny. No cupboards, no hooks to hang anything on, and a single bed. But, WiFi and breakfast.

Because of the iron ore mine, Parauapebas, and the nearby town of Marabá are reasonably prosperous.
In a referendum held in 2011, the residents of the entire state of Pará were asked to vote on a proposal to split the state into three new states: Carajás in the southeast, which would contain Parauapebas, Tapajós in the west, and a rump Pará in the northeast, containing the state capital Belém. Voting was highly polarised regionally, with citizens of the two future states heavily voting in favour of separation. But, as Belém and its surrounding area comprise over half the population of the original state, the proposal had no chance of passing.

Parauapebas is a capable little town. It’s neatly organised, has several very decent places to eat and drink, and a lovely river on its edge that’s not really utilised for its views, except by one cafe and, yes, brew pub. 

The nearby tiny airport is inside a national park. You need to purchase authorization to enter. Though not if you take the bus to the airport.
My 30 minute stopover was in Brasilia, where I wolfed down a double quarter pounder, only just managing to catch my connecting flight home.

Sand in my ears, and everywhere else

Lençóis Marenhenses has a bit of a legendary status for Brazilians. Mention it to almost anyone, and they’ll start to swoon. It’s pretty, yes, but not completely unparalleled.

‘Lençois’ is a national park, within striking distance of São Luís, and is filled with rolling white dunes as far as the eye can see. Then, with the rains starting in January, the valleys of the dunes fill up with lakes, until the water evaporates, typically towards the end of September. Before the pools dry up, this can make for some stunning scenery.

In fact, so stunning that, for two Avengers movies, the dunes were cast as the scenery of some planet.

In the last few decades, a thriving tourist industry has sprouted up around this. Though some people do live very close to the park, the urban base for visiting Lençois is the town of Barreirinhas, a five hour drive from Sao Luis.

I visited during a long weekend, close to Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations, and as a consequence, the busses traveling between Sao Luis and Barreirinhas were fully booked, though this might at least in part be because the amount of daily busses is very limited.

Because of the latter, besides the semi-public bus service, there are also private vans, as well as private cars that shuttle between the two cities. I found this odd, as the long-distance bus network is very well developed in Brazil, and well priced, typically obviating the need, or even commercial viability, for private, small-scale, operators on long distance routes.

The manager of my hotel in Sáo Luís had arranged for one of the private vans to pick me up from my accommodation. With the bus station being on the edge of town, and my travelling on a Sunday, the higher price seemed justified.

Except, the van never showed. When called, 2 minutes after they were supposed to have picked me up, and some 30 minutes since I had been waiting, they claimed they had come to the door, knocked, shouted, and found no one answering. Apparently while I was hanging out of one of the front windows, admiring the street, exactly where the van was supposed to have been.

I then managed to get myself to the long-distance bus station, where I found the two bus companies doing the trip to Barreirinhas, only to find all four busses for that day booked. Private vans apparently left from in front of the bus station, but, a hustler trying to arrange this, by now it was still only around 8:30am, quickly gave up, as he could no longer scrounge up a van. He asked if a car was fine, instead, but he couldn’t get one of those either.

I had to get myself to a prominent roundabout, about two kilometres away, from where private cars might still be leaving for Barreirinhas. Might, because it was already getting ‘late’, it was already approaching 9am, after all.

But, I got myself to the roundabout, while during my walk, a cyclist warned me for thieves coming in from the woods I was walking alongside of, squeezed myself into a car with three other passengers and lots of luggage, and we were off.

The cost of the car is twice the cost of the regular busses, with the cost of the vans holding middle ground between the two. The vans have the feature that they pick you up and drop you off wherever you want, but if you’re the first to be picked up, and the last to be dropped off, this can add a solid chunk of time to your journey.

Then, in Barreirinhas, the hostel I had booked, via AirBNB, claimed they had no record of my booking. Unlikely, also because one has to pay AirBNB before receiving confirmation. However, the ‘hostel’ no longer operated, the household’s matriarch now running a pousada in town. Instead, someone else had hijacked their listing on AirBNB, and was now renting it out, without actually managing the place.

Still, she eventually, and thankfully, relented. Someone was kicked out of their room, and I was given an adequate-enough room to stay.
The house’s odd feature was perhaps a pet chicken that ran throughout the kitchen area of the house, but didn’t let itself be petted. The next morning, the chicken was pecking at my feet. Perhaps I was not quite as welcome as I thought? But, with Independence Day, it would have been completely impossible to find any other accommodation, anywhere, so I was thankful enough.

The town has a huge rogue dune, smack in the middle of town, almost hanging over the buildings, as if it’s about to eat the town, whole. I could have slept on its beach, perhaps, but that didn’t strike me as wise.

The town, Barreirinhas, and the national park, both reminded me of Alter do Chao, a kind of Caribbean hotspot in the middle of the Amazon. Visitors come because it’s known for the natural beauty, and end up partying, eating, drinking, dancing, with every street corner providing pounding loud music.

It’s not surprising, but interesting, to experience the absence of foreign tourists in a highly popular tourist destination like this. Lençóis is no Rio de Janeiro, quite off the beaten track, but it’s quite popular.

The oldest whipping post in the country

Across the bay from São Luís is the hamlet of Alcântara. It has the dubious distinction of being the home to the oldest pelhourinho in Brazil.

A pelhourinho is a pillar, typically erected on the central town square, which slaves were tied to, to be publicly flogged; every slave driver’s favourite pastime. So, it’s a whipping post.
For some reason, the former Portuguese colonies have left many of their pelhourinhos standing, almost as a kind of threat, perhaps?

The municipality is also home to a rocket launching center, but that is not getting too much action, even if it’s geographical location, nearly on the equator, is convenient.

The town itself is simple, but clearly manages to survive well enough, though in part that’s because it’s actively being developed as a one-day tourist destination. It’s prominent ruins betray a grander past.

Driving around the bay is not really an option, but possible. The ferry takes some 90 minutes, on choppy waters, but, perhaps depending on the tides, only gives you some two hours in the settlement.

The home of Brazilian reggae

São Luís is the only Brazilian state capital that was founded by the French, as part of what they called Equinoctial France, ‘equinoctial’ because, on the equator, the nights are roughly as long as the days. They had done so, in violation of the the papal bull of 1493, which had divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal.

Either way, though the French did control what is now Rio de Janeiro, which they saw as part of Antarctic France, for some 12 years, São Luís was only under French control for about three years.

The French took over from a local Indian tribe, and built a fort, Saint-Louis de Maragnan, after King Louis XIII as well as his ancestor Louis IX, and the Portuguese conquered the settlement in 1615, three years later.

The Dutch then took control in 1641, but they left, also after only three years, retreating further down the coast, where they centred Dutch Brazil on Recife.

In 1684, at the end of the ‘Beckman revolt’, an uprising against slavery and bad treatment by the Portuguese, the Beckman brothers where hanged, drawn and quartered, before which one of the brothers declared “Pelo Povo do Maranhão morro contente”, or “By the hands of the people from Maranhão, I die happy”. The slogan, today, decorates the main hall of State Council Building, which I find a tad odd, considering it was the Portuguese, the predecessors of the very councillors operating from said building, that did the quartering. 

Perhaps the irony is lost on them. Or perhaps the irony is on purpose?

São Luís went through an economic boom during the American civil war, when it started supplying the UK with cotton, for a while becoming the third most populous city in the country. But, from the end of the 19th century, the city entered a long slide into decay, which as yet, at least for the colonial old town, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, is only slowly turning around, though it is turning around.

Walking through the old town, the buildings seem in a dire state of disrepair, the streets quiet, after dark almost post-apocalyptic, with many of the once-grand buildings either empty, or being occupied by small workshops, copy-shops, a little bar here and there, and perhaps a stationary store or two. 

The old town seems to give off a sense of poverty. The kind, and in a setting that reminds of places like Zanzibar, Channai, or Maputo; a once-rich colonial, or in this case post-colonial, past, where the economic tide has turned and the people occupy the decrepit shells of their former success with shadows of economic activity.

But, things are not quite what they seem. Accommodation prices are surprisingly high. The place I stay at, in the old town, looks a bit shabby on the outside, but inside is gorgeous, resembling, in a way, a North African or Central Asian caravanserai. The owner tells me there are more and more places like his in the old town. And, with the extensive work the municipality is doing on urban regeneration, it’s a safe bet that, in a few years, São Luís will be a solid alternative to Salvador.

The current governor, a socialist, broke 60 years of oligarchic rule, bringing development to the people. And, it is starting to show; From the old market outwards, the city is undergoing lots of renovations, making the town feel like an undiscovered gem.

And how can you not love the bountiful amount of felines. With little heaps of cat food on many street corners. These are my kind of people.

Then again, in the evening, a next door neighbour blasts MPB from what sounds like a tinny cellphone, but the heavy beats make the furniture perceptibly move. On a Tuesday.
And there’s a rather continuous faint smell of pee, hanging in the air.

Yet, money is flowing through the city. The next-door Port of Ponta da Madeira, is the second deepest in the world, after only Rotterdam, and is one of the busiest in the country. A railway transports iron ore from within the Amazon to the coast.

Across the bay, there’s a space center, but this seems to be more a matter of wishful thinking, with only a handful of launches in the last five years.

A fascinating cultural tidbit is that São Luís is the center of Brazilian reggae. The city has the only Reggae museum outside of Jamaica, but it’s closed, even though several of the city’s cultural offerings have been revamped in preparation for the city’s birthday, the showpiece being a set of disco balls (yes, really) in the center of town, which, at night, give the city a truly magical (yes, really) feel.

Odd is the noticeable prevalence of Vietnamese conical hats. The sun, São Luís is close to the equator, can be brutal, but the conical hats I’ve not seen elsewhere in the country.

Denmark Photomarathon 2021

Back in 2005, I participated in the Rotterdam photomarathon. In 2007, I brought photomarathons to Africa, and put together photomarathons in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The general consensus is that Madrid hosted the first photomarathon, back in 1985 (here’s a poster of the second photomarathon in 1986), but Denmark soon followed, in 1989, hosting a photomarathon every year, since.

Last year, I participated, remotely, in the Denmark photomarathon, doing it remotely being a forced requirement because of COVID, though it also meant everyone, anywhere, could participate. But, though I was never notified of this, my submissions were probably disqualified, as, this year, I somewhat accidentally stumbled on the entry requirements, which stipulate limitations I had not considered.

The team behind the Denmark photomarathon could improve their communication plan somewhat, for example by notifying registrants by email, including explaining, oh, say, the rules, but, either way, the essential requirement is that all manipulation of submitted images can only happen ‘pre-click’. That is, anything you want to manipulate, you have to manipulate before recording your image.
So, no post-processing.

This is a nice requirement, as it somewhat captures the idea of shooting analogue, with what you capture with the camera being your actual submission.
On the other hand, since the days of analogue, image manipulation has so become a part of how we consume media, now pretty much exclusively digital, that this is a throwback to different times, and perhaps even anachronistic.

Last year, I post-processed all my submissions, and cropped them to square. This year, I made no adjustments ‘post-click’, and also avoided cropping, all photos being required to be rectangular (which is a tad odd, because even when shooting analog, depending on your camera, you might be shooting in a square format).

What was great about the event, participating in the 24 hour photomarathon, was that, although photomarathons have been held regularly over the last few decades, almost none, if any, host 24 hour events, most max out at 12, with some, like the Canon-sponsored ones in East Asia, at some point only required participants to shoot… three photos.

I shot mine in a time frame of about 15 hours. I woke up at 6:30, with the event having started at 5am (10am in Denmark), and shot my last photo at around 9. Possible, because the final 12 themes were all communicated in one batch.

And, I purposely had scheduled my being in Praia da Pipa, a popular beach resort, some 80km from Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, in Brazil.

A small win

My photo for ‘Endurance’ was picked as the ‘topic winner’.

The largest cashew tree in the world

An important crop in the north of Brazil is cashew.
And, perhaps not so surprising that these things are being tracked, but the largest cashew tree in the world is a known entity, and it’s just a few kilometres from the center of Natal.

This sprawling tree has a circumference of some 500 metres and occupies an area of 7,300 square meters, making it 70 times the size of an average cashew trees. The reason for its sprawl is a genetic mutation; the branches of this tree grow outwards rather than upwards.

Between Ponta Negra, the tourist hotspot of Natal, and the largest cashew tree on the world, there’s a military base that’s occasionally used for rocket launches. Close to the equator, it’s a good spot for jettisoning something into geostationary orbit. But, the entrance area is sedate, the reception building shut down. A few small rockets, and some military equipment, are littered around the parking lot, as a show of intent, perhaps.

The last 20 minutes of the 15km bike ride, on a continuously more and more wobbly bike I had rented from a nearby hostel, I had seen the clouds and drizzle make way for equatorial sunshine. Arriving at the tree, I first enjoyed a fresh coconut, then what is perhaps my favourite juice, cashew (the fruit, or, technically, the pseudo fruit) with milk… made from a packet of processed pulp, with the largest cashew tree in the world within view.
If trees could cry, this one probably would do so regularly.

As unique as the tree is, as limited appears it appeal; the site closes for lunch, early. I arrived five minutes before noon, but the lady at the ticket office had already bolted for her break. 

What I find the funniest of this: the cashew tree is circumscribed by a fence. But, on two sides, including the side you approach the tree on, when coming from Natal, the tree has grown onto the road, taking up literally half of the road itself, along its full perimeter.

In true Brazilian laissez faire style, no one seems to mind; if this is what the tree wants, it should be allowed to do its thing.

On a third side, the municipality built a large overhang, to prevent the tree from spilling onto this road, too. However, in various parts, the tree is now crawling over the overhang, starting to reach down for the road below.

There’s more nature to be had in the city.
After my return from Pipa, I was staying in the very touristy part of the city, but managed to stay away from the crowded beaches.

But, there’s more; Natal has two prominent city parks. The first is on the shore, and preserves the city‘s characteristic dunes. 

The second is a bit inland, and combines the dunes with ‘Atlantic forest’.

This one also contains a significant piece by architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Built in 2008, the year of his 100th birthday, it’s a 45m tall viewpoint, resembling a large single eye on a pillar. 

After the viewpoint was made accessible to the public for several months, it closed in 2009, supposedly due to financial problems, not to open again.

There seems to be a bit of trope, that Niemeyer’s work suffers from a history of not being used to its full potential. For one, Niemeyer‘a ‘Estação Ciência’ in João Pessoa also was not accessible on a recent visit, and when you take a close look at many of his buildings in Brasilia, often they seem in need of some tender lovin’.

But, much of Niemeyer’s work is awfully photogenic.

I entered the park and started taking pictures, and was quickly approached by security; was I taking pictures for myself, or in a commercial context?

Then, minutes later, as I stepped off the trail to get a particularly good angle, I was approached again; I could not stray from the path, supposedly for the many cobras hiding in the vegetation.

Over a barrel for a photomarathon

Pipa, literally ‘kite’, but when the beach was named, the word referred to ‘barrel’, referencing a barrel-shaped rock the Portuguese meant to see on the coast, was a sleepy beach-town until it was discovered by that kind of international travel community which, when it descends on something it likes, turns everything into the uniform, if pleasant, bespoke tourist experience. Whether in Thailand, Turkey, or Brazil.

The beaches are indeed lovely, the water is gorgeous, and, of course, the hotels are boutique, the food nice, the staff multilingual, the imported beer cold.
There’s a Subway, Pipa is lovely, and you have probably been there.

Perhaps the strangest was that, while my visit was still during the pandemic, even though it was a weekend, the shops and restaurants felt at normal capacity. Granted, the vast majority of people were still wearing masks, outside, though not inside, as these were mostly bars and restaurants.

Too busy and too touristy for me, I made sure I had ‘dinner’ by ordering a X-tudo off a street-vendor, adding a beer or two, and heading to the surprisingly quiet, at night, beach.

A X-tudo is pronounced [sheesh-toodo]. ‘Tudo’ means ‘everything’, the sheesh, supposedly, is a bastardisation of ‘cheese’, as Brazilians struggle with the opening sound of the word ‘cheese’.
A X-tudo varies from place to place, but it does tend to have ‘everything’; beef, ham, cheese, bacon, egg, lettuce, and a host of toppings, which can be mushroom, little sticks of potato, more egg, corn, peas, topped off with a range of sauces.

I had come to Pipa to participate in the Denmark Photomarathon.

With the pandemic, the 2020 Denmark photomarathon had moved onto the virtual plane, which had seen the competition receive a healthy number of participants, including myself. This year, still suffering from the pandemic, the competition again was virtual, allowing anyone, anywhere, to participate.

Last year, I ‘did’ the 12 hour marathon. This year, I had opted for the 24 hour event. A tough call, with the last time I participated in a 24 hour photomarathon having been 2005, in Rotterdam.
But, due to the time difference with Copenhagen, 5 hours, and the announced release schedule of individual topics, I had anticipated that I could start late and finish early, resulting in a long day, but without having to skip a night’s sleep on either end.
I was right, and even ended up winning a small prize.

The end of the line

Very few intercity trains are still running in Brazil. I had planned to take one of the very few later on my trip, but, from Natal, it’s also possible to take a suburban train to a nearby commuter town that has a tiny bit of colonial past.

A short train ride away, Ceará-Mirim is a little town which rose to minor prominence as a source of cattle and the state’s famed sun fried meat.

The area was first occupied by the Potiguara Indians, who traded Brazil wood with the Dutch and Portuguese.

In São Paulo, when taking an urban train, street hawkers walk back and forth, loudly proclaiming what it is they sell. More recently, there’s been a bit of a crackdown on their activity, but when there is no security around, these sellers are loud, somewhat annoying, and ever-present.

The train to Ceará-Mirim also had a hawker, one, who just patiently hung around, with some water bottles and crisps, for travellers to approach her.

In Ceará-Mirim itself, which I found quite the disappointment, there was an almost continuous stream of cars carrying large speakers, promoting one or the other particular shop in town.

I did spot a disproportionate number of cats.

A quiet visit to Natal

Though Salvador is a more prominent destination, both nationally and internationally, and also a bigger jumping off point for Africa, Natal, with about 1 million people, is Brazil’s closest city, on the mainland, to both Europe and Africa. The distance from Natal to Chui, in the far south of the country is further than it is to Freetown in Sierra Leone, as is the town of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the far west of Brazil.

Natal’s proximity to Europe and Africa saw the Americans set up a base in town, during the Second World War, which also lead to Brazil being the only Latin American country to send troops overseas during the war.

Earlier, Natal had not benefitted from the sugarcane boom, unlike other major cities in Brazil’s northeast. This, due to the sandy soil being unsuitable for sugarcane cultivation. Instead, the city saw slow economic growth through the raising of cattle, which prefaced the introduction of the typical food of the region, carne de sol, sun dried meat, similar to beef jerky in the US, or biltong in South Africa.

More recently, salt and oil exploration have added to Natal‘s economic benefits. And tourism. Well known for its dunes, you can hop on a camel trek, on imported camels.

The area around Natal was first visited in 1501, but wasn’t settled by Europeans for another few decades. And it was first the French who frequented the area, trading with the Potiguar Indians.

At the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese kicked out the French, and on January 6, 1598, they started building the fort of the three wise men, for the day construction had started.

Natal was founded the next year, on December 25, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Hence, the etymological connection with Kwazulu-Natal, in South Africa, is only through Christianity.

Between 1633 and 1654, the Dutch occupied the area, and briefly renamed the fort, but unlike in Recife, there are no obvious public indicators of the former Dutch presence, except for the recurring ads for Uninassau, a private university borrowing a perception of quality from Dutch royalty.

And, though in Recife there is a kind of odd fondness for its Dutch past, in Natal, the municipal building (prefeitura) is called the Palácio Filipe Camarão, taking its name from a local minor celebrity who fought the Dutch during their incursion in the area.

Camarão, born among the Potiguara Indians, converted to Christianity at around 12, married the next day, and converted his tribal name, Poti, to the Portuguese equivalent, shrimp.

From 1630, until his death in 1648, he fought the Dutch, becoming a well established military commander, eventually leading the right flank in the United Portuguese Army, becoming a Knight Commander of Portugal’s most prestigious military order.

Till the end of his life, he fought against the Dutch forces, which, curiously, until shortly before, had been under a man called Krzysztof Arciszewski, a Pole who had been exiled from his native country, then had first settled in The Hague and after that, had become a vice-governor of Dutch Brazil, and head chief of the Dutch military forces.

Camarão died in the nearby state of Pernambuco, as a consequence of wounds sustained in the Battle of Guararapes, and is buried in Recife.
As an aside, the battle of Guararapes, prefacing the departure of the Dutch from Brazil, is considered, particularly by the army, the birth of the nation of Brazil.

In 2012, Camarão was added to the ‘book of heroes of the fatherland’, which resides at the Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom, which is the abstract dove-shaped building at the Three Powers Plaza in Brasilia, next to the National Congress (as well as next to the Supreme Court and the presidential palace).

Now, Natal is known for being more sedate than many other major Brazilian cities. And that’s justified; the city is quiet, the old town, with remnants of late 18th century architecture, is dilapidated, languishing, and in disrepair. Museums are closed, not just due to COVID, public spaces are either shuttered or left to slide into obscurity. Though there still is an occasional suburban train running from the center to two outlying towns, out-of-use tram tracks are easy to find.

Outside of its tourism industry, focussed on its sunny coast, the town gives the impression of having fallen into a long, slow, economic decline, without resources, and perhaps interest, to maintain its cultural heritage.

It’s easy to see parallels with Recife, though they are economically more successful, and with Manaus, with a similarly languishing old town, and for its dilapidated dated architecture, and even with Maputo, with its coastal focus on fishing.

But, the sad state of disrepair of its recent past seems more a choice to shift the city’s focus, as there is plenty of activity that’s directed towards the sea.

One evening, when I got back to my hotel, on the shore, in the north of the city, I came across a troupe of bikers, without leather jackets, and with only a few tattoos, in itself an oddity in Brazil. It was in the early evening, but they were ready to go on parade.

I walked over, sat at a snack bar and ordered a pastel, and then enjoyed the scenery. The crowd soon dispersed, leaving for their collective ride, and I was left with my ‘pastel Nordestino’, a deep-fried envelope of phyllo dough, stuffed with a range of goodies, accompanied by home-made pepper sauce.
It was now very quiet, with the only sound the lapping of the waves on the beach, and the rocks.

How pleasant the sea is.

Second class citizen

Back in early 2017, I was invited to a project in Oakland, California. Then, Trump put the ‘Muslim banI’ in place and I, having been born in Iran, was barred from traveling to the US.

Eventually, the ban was rescinded, but, with the changed climate, and the decision to issue visas, or not, being left with individual consulate offices, effective restrictions remained much tighter than they were before Trump.

About two years ago, Natalia had applied for, and received, a grant with the Nieman foundation, to study at Harvard.

Every year, Nieman pays for about two dozen journalists to pursue particular research, relevant to each journalist’s own field, by providing a well funded one year grant.

What’s more, the spouse, if any, gets to join as well, and also gets to study at Harvard, if they so desire.
In fairness, both only get to audit classes, meaning they can’t actually get any grades, but a large part of the benefit is networking, the interaction, things that happen off-canvas, so I don’t believe this is an issue.

A huge opportunity, we were a bit anxious to go under Trump, although we were also looking forward to be able to be in the US during the 2020 elections. However, with COVID shutting everything down, including consulates and Harvard itself, and being offered the possibility of studying remotely, we figured we’d strongly prefer to postpone for a year.

At the start of this year, we began putting out feelers, with Nieman, as to what would be needed to pursue obtaining our visas. We were told to wait, but, by the time we were told to move forward, the US consulate’s limited capacity meant that the earliest visa appointment we could get was for December 2021, a full four months after we were supposed to start the semester, in August.

But then, with the COVID vaccines rolling out reasonably successfully, and restrictions slowly being eased, we managed to move our appointment forward, to late July.

We collected the necessary paperwork, paid 160 USD each to start the online application, went to have our photos and fingerprints taken, to then, finally, get ourselves to the American consulate to request, and hopefully receive, our visas.

(Incidentally, during the online application, we had to agree to that, “if required to undergo a medical examination, your medical examination information may be collected and temporarily stored in the eMedical system hosted, operated, and maintained by the Australian Department of Home Affairs”.)

At the consulate, visitors are not allowed to bring in any electronic devices, whether computer or smart watch, meaning that a small cottage industry of little businesses providing locker space just outside the consulate entrance has sprung up, with their representatives jumping almost on top of you as soon as you get out of your Uber.

Finally inside, the consular officer asked Natalia one question, and myself perhaps a dozen, all related to my connection with Iran. To then have some backtalk and, upon her return, issue the visa to Natalia, and deny it to me.

At the moment, it’s not a definite ‘no’, as I was sent a list of questions, by email, that I needed to answer, before a final decision is to be made. I asked how long this process would be expected to take, and, after some hemming and hawing, the consular officer’s choice of words made it clear that the process could take so long that, by the time it would complete, Natalia’s year in the US could already be over.

The questions themselves are fairly ridiculous. See for yourself:

  • Current employer and current position (including address, telephone number, name of supervisor) include list of companies currently performing freelance/contract work for;
  • List of past employers/employment, including job description, address, telephone number, and supervisor’s name;
  • The street address(es), website address(es), phone numbers of, and points of contact at, the organizations, institutes, and/or companies the applicant intends to visit in the United States (applicants going to academic institutions or conferences should give the name of an academic contact, not the name of the foreign student advisor);
  • The specifics of the applicant’s advanced (postgraduate, doctoral, post-doctoral, or scholarly) academic, business, research, or study interests in the United States, including any classes applicant intends to audit while in the United States;
  • Travel history over the last 15 years, including source of funding for travel;
  • Addresses during the last 15 years, if different from the applicant’s current address;
  • The names and dates of birth of any siblings; children; current and former spouses/civil or domestic partners;
  • Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years;
  • Prior passport numbers and country of issuance;
  • Public-facing social media platforms and identifiers/handles used during the last five years.  This includes any websites or applications the applicant has used to create or share content (photos, videos, status updates, etc.) as part of a public profile.
  • Please also include a complete résumé and list of publications.

Obviously, I don’t keep track of the contact details of people I worked for 30 years ago. Nor do I know the passport numbers of all passports I ever held. Nor do I even know the addresses of some of the places I lived at, with some not even having formal addresses.

And then, my list of visited countries over the last 15 years is about 150, many of course having been visited multiple times.

All this, of course, for the United States to put the burden and responsibility for obtaining a visa on me; by not fully answering all questions they put to me, they can now come back and say, for example, “you did not provide the name of your supervisor when you were a paperboy, 35 years ago, so we can not issue you a visa”.

Due to my work history, I regularly have been in contact with American consular officers, frequenting the same pubs, social gatherings and whatnot, in several countries in the global south, meaning I often heard about the challenges of these officers in determining whether those applying for a visa had the means to financially survive and the intention to return.

For our application, we also were required to bring the photo album of our wedding, proof of sufficient funds and proof of having ties with the country we were temporarily leaving. But, none of these were asked for.
Clearly, my problem is having been born in Iran.

For my mixed heritage, even though my Iranian connection is tenuous, this episode shows that, whatever one might consider oneself to be, it’s outside forces, greater than yourself, that control what you are, and how you are classified and treated.

In the eyes of the US state, I’m a second tier Dutch citizen.

But, not only in the eyes of the US government. In the Netherlands, the most vocal and perhaps most internationally recognised Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, has advocated (in Dutch) that it should be possible for Dutch citizens with dual nationality, to be sent ‘back’, if they commit a serious enough crime. Though the implications of what he has said could be construed as much broader (in Dutch), perhaps applying to all citizens with at least one parent who was born abroad.
Not only is it practically impossible to denounce your citizenship of some countries, also would my children, even if born in the Netherlands, still match Wilders’ target group.

And Wilders goes further, also wanting to prevent those with dual nationalities to vote (in Dutch).

The blatant racism that speaks from this is incredible, and it’s disheartening that this politician gets such broad support (11% in this year’s parliamentary elections), but perhaps more, the plain absurdity of desired policies like this is kafkaesque.

Thankfully, I have some, if little, personal control in preventing Geert Wilders from enacting his plans (though I should probably literally have kicked his shins when I had the chance), but, in relation to the US, the long-running biggest source of international terrorism, treating me as a spy, or terrorist, I am completely powerless in enacting any change, were I can only accept the absurdity and racism as fact.

All of this, of course, should make me strongly consider not to jump through the hoops the American empire puts in front of my face. Yet, the opportunity to study at Harvard for a year is significant.

In the end, these people at the consulate are just following handed-down protocols. With the spectre of Iran as the greatest evil on earth, fuelled by international lobby groups, in turn as a tool to propagate their own survival, with the need to mark an external scapegoat for internal shortcomings, most of us, you and me, are just pawns in a game that we have little control over.

So, we’ll see. I answered the questions they put to me, to the extent I was reasonably able to. I don’t really expect it to be enough, but if it is, I might be able to spend a few months, expenses generously compensated, in the land of the free.

Or, a border agent might deny me entry.

Police intervention

In a surprising perhaps-not-so-coincidence, my fellow director of walk · listen · create, a few weeks later, in Belgium, received a visit from the police, and had to undergo a phone interview with the Ministry of Interior Affairs, supposedly as part of their ‘anti-terrorist’ measures.

The biggest pussy

Some, when they have money, they do funny things.

A few years ago, we visited Inhotim, close to Belo Horizonte, a sprawling park, stuffed with large pieces of installation art. Founded by the mining magnate Bernardo Paz, it’s one of the largest outdoor art centres in Latin America. The park costs much more to run, than it brings in in ticket sales, but, as trading art, particularly at high prices, is sometimes a way to avoid taxation and launder money, perhaps there is much more to the park than meets the eye.
Either way, in 2018, Paz was sentenced to more than nine years in jail for money laundering.

Much more humble, but designed along similar lines to Inhotim (though not necessarily with money laundering in mind), is Usina de Arte, in Pernambuco (a state in the north of Brazil), on the border with Alagoas. An Usina is a term used in Brazil to describe a large production facility, often specifically for the production of sugar from sugar cane. And, indeed, the Usina de Arte until the end of the 20th century produced sugar and cachaça (rum), the dilapidated distillery being part of the logo of, what is now, the art garden.

The usina only has a few dozen pieces in the garden, and are all easily experienced in just a few hours, and are, mostly, nice, but not particularly exceptional. Entrance to the park is free, and only occasionally a guard on a quad patrols the quiet lanes of the park.

The big attraction is the more-or-less annual festival, though, due to COVID, no festival occurred in 2020, while there is also no information I could find on the festival happening in 2019, and, at the venue itself, leftovers of the 2018 festival were still visible.
Because the park is rather off the beaten path, and small, it’s difficult to get usable historical information on its activities. But, part of the reason the 2019 festival seems to not have happened is that the founder of the Usina de Arte, Ricardo Pessoa de Queiroz, who also has two pieces of art in the garden, one pretty bad, one quite good, passed away at 90, at the start of 2020.
Fascinatingly, in 2015 he published what one obituary called his masterpiece, The Practical Manual for Sugarcane, on, well, growing sugarcane. 2015 was also the year he founded the usina as an art garden.

For the sleepy town of Santa Terezinha, essentially centred on the entrance of the usina, the attraction, if only occasionally popular, is a small boon.

That is, perhaps, until the arrival of the park’s latest addition, a deep-red 33 meter tall vagina, “Diva”, sunk into a hillside in the park, visible from literally miles around.

The piece, when the general public was made aware of its existence at the end of 2020, stirred up some controversy, though perhaps more of the teacup kind, though the fact that it reached the likes of CNN and The Sun, does say something about its impact. At least internationally.

Created by local (that is, from Recife) artist Juliana Notari, she stated the piece “questions the relationship between nature and culture in our phallocentric and anthropocentric western society” and discusses the “problematisation of gender”. Undeniably true on both counts, though perhaps also rather obvious.
The piece, attracting attention, inspired a horrible song, Vulva Diva, with a hilarious video clip, with Notari accepting her fame, or notoriety, with open arms, as per her Instagram profile.

The piece, back in the usina, is de garden’s piece de résistance, with the park’s pathways leading the visitor to the best view of the vagina as its culmination, and worth the trip to the edge of the state of Pernambuco.
We were not the only ones thinking this; during our short two-night stay, some 7 or 8 other parties stayed at the same guest house as us, previously a sleepy affair, specifically coming in to visit the vagina.

It’s a hit.

Life’s a (nude) beach

After taking it easy for a few days in João Pessoa, we rented a car to drive south. Specifically, to visit a controversial new art installation in the south of Pernambuco.

On the way to our first stop, the island of Itamaracá, in Pernambuco, we stopped at Tambaba beach, famous as it’s one of the very few nude beaches in Brazil. Interesting, as although Brazilians like to show off on the beach, wearing as little cloth as possible, they also balk at not wearing any at all. So, although the regular, rather small, beach at Tambaba was terribly crowded, the part of the beach that was nudist, accessible by a stairs and a screen, hiding nudists from view, was pleasantly quiet, almost deserted.

There is, interestingly, a nudist guest house on this stretch of sand and, while we were enjoying the sun and the sights, as well as freshly fried fresh fish, a group of, what could only be classified as swingers, arrived with supplies and excellent moods.

Afterwards, we drove on, to the island of Itamaracá (“The stone that sings”). Also once occupied by the Dutch, a fort, Fort Orange, still stands to remind visitors of the past. But, most tourists come to the island as day-trippers, enjoying the weather, the beach, the food, the laid back life, as very little of historical value remains, while the beaches are lovely.
An older church next to our guest house had a clock on its facade, painted, always stuck at 9 o’clock.

For Orange once was used as a jail, where the Dutch imprisoned Portuguese who didn’t want to convert to protestantism. Which is a bit odd, as the Dutch occupation of northern Brazil was known for its religious tolerance, exemplified by the extensive influx of jews, from Amsterdam, who settled mostly in Recife, and established the oldest synagogue in the Americas.

Travel in the time of COVID

International travel is still heavily curtailed. Even though the COVID-19 vaccine has now started to roll out, parts of the country are still heavily affected. Manaus is having the biggest challenges, with Venezuela even sending over canisters of oxygen, clearly as a PR-stunt, but also a necessary relief, while some parts of the Brazilian northeast are also having their containment issues.

Not so João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraiba.

While there, we didn’t encounter many COVID-related restrictions, save for the fact that essentially everyone, everywhere, at all times, was wearing a face mask. Perhaps the underlying mentality has paid off, as nearby Recife is struggling much more.
That said, most, but not all, shared public spaces, like museums, were still closed.

João Pessoa is an hour or two north from Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, which once was the capital of Dutch Brazil, or New Holland. Joao Pessoa also has a brief Dutch history, the Dutch invading and taking the city in 1634, which at that time was called Philipeia of Our Lady of the Snows, with particularly the snowy part still on show, today, in many names of business around town. The Dutch renamed the town Fredrikstad, after Frederik Hendrik of Orange, son of William of Orange (William the Silent), the one who managed to get the Spanish to end their occupation of the northern Netherlands.
Frederik, incidentally, was born in Delft, the same town his father was murdered in. Curiously, as an aside, William’s murderer, the French catholic Balthasar Gerards, had a street named after him, in the town he was born in, Vuillafans, on the border with Switzerland, exactly because he murdered William. This, in turn, even more incidentally, was the first murder of a head-of-state with a firearm, and only the second assassination by a firearm ever recorded.

Back to Paraiba and João Pessoa.

In contrast with Recife, there is very little that remains in João Pessoa that has a Dutch connection, possibly because Dutch occupation lasted a mere 20 years, and João Pessoa played a second, and remote, fiddle to Recife. But, the expulsion of the Dutch by the Portuguese, some twenty years later, did trigger the expansion of the sugarcane industry to the Caribbean, as well as the early industrialisation of some parts of coastal North America.
One older church, in downtown Joao Pessoa, has a spire that somewhat reminds of Dutch church architecture of the time, but, as far as we could uncover, that appeared to be the extent of the connection. And even that was a stretch.

The city has undergone several name changes, with the most recent one dating back to 1930. João Pessoa was a vicepresidential candidate under Getulio Vargas, and murdered in Recife, by a slighted political opponent, of whom the police had released love letters after a raid on an opponent’s office.

João Pessoa is the least unequal city in the northeast of Brazil. The coastal zone, a long strip of beach, and where we stayed, felt decidedly pleasant, without the excesses more typical of, say, Rio de Janeiro. And even the downtown area, some 6k away from the beach, on top of a hill and, on the other side from the shore, bordered by a river, was a bit rough, but not comparable to most other larger Brazilian cities. Downtown João Pessoa has clearly not yet seen the regeneration that downtown Recife has received, but is doing much, much better compared to, say, Manaus.

The city’s main attraction, besides its beaches, and surprisingly excellent and unique food, is that the city is home to the easternmost point of the Americas (if you don’t include Greenland as part of the Americas). The spot that is marked as such was recently highlighted with one of Oscar Niemeyer’s final constructions.
However, oddly, the spot that is marked as the most eastern point isn’t actually the most eastern point of the Americas. A point, about 1km south from the marked spot, is significantly further east. But, the rest of the cape, further east than the marked point, appears all privately owned, which presumably made it more difficult to turn the spot into a bit of a tourist attraction.

The city’s geography does hit home, once more, the size of the country; In João Pessoa, we’re closer to Cape Verde, than we are to both Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, and Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s south, while both are still quite a bit away from the Brazilian border themselves. In fact, parts of Brazil close to the Peruvian border are further away from João Pessoa than parts of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara, or Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Renaming cities seems a bit of a national pastime in Brazil. The nearby town of Bayeux is home to the city’s airport. From 1635 onwards, this town used to be called Barreiros, but was renamed in 1944, in honour of the first French town to be liberated in the battle of Normandy, that is, D-Day, on June 7 of that year.
I was hoping for some connection to the tapestry of the city, but, although Bayeux has been settled for 100s of years, there appeared little of history that remains.

Also, in true Brazilian style, emphasised by the country’s current president, playing fast-and-loose with facts is also not too uncommon. The city is known as the second greenest city in the world, after Paris. But, this was a stunt, initiated by the city’s mayor, in the context of an Earth Summit (Eco-92), which was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, it appears that Joao Pessoa is not even the greenest city in Brazil, with Curitiba often being referred to as the greenest city on earth.

We thoroughly enjoyed João Pessoa. People are friendly and laid back, while the city prospers reasonably well. The coastal strip and its beaches are gorgeous, the food is great, while prices are reasonable.

Food wise, we found many experimental restaurants, as well as a unique local style, often cooking with cream. One interesting import were Hungarian chimney cakes, the delightfully called Kürtöskalács, stuffed with sweets, including ice cream.