21 November 2009

10-15 (material) things I wish for this Christmas (or birthday)!

OK, I know what some of you are gonna say: Oh no! Heidi has been gripped by the commercialisation of Christmas now too! In short: that's not true. I refuse to put up Christmas decoration or even THINK about Christmas before mid-November when I personally deem it appropriate and adequate to do so.

When I was still living with my parents, Christmas used to be an opulent affair. Loads of energy went into honing and watering a perfect tree which was sometimes so tall, there was no space anymore to fit a golden star on top. Usually it was accompanied by the disco-decibelled voices of the Russian Don Kosaken choir or the Vienna Sängerknaben or some ancient German-German recording of traditional Christmas music. To balance the five-fold CD changer, my mother and me used to put some Mariah Carey or The Carpenters Christmas CDs in there to the endless chagrin of my father. A lot of frustration and anger also went into the annual self-made family photo shoot, the dreadful result of which would be sent to around 100 friends and relatives around the world. And of course, Christmas would be accompanied by loads of presents - too many! I ended up feeling guilty (and sometimes dissatisfied)! So I eventually told my parents to cut it back - which they did in the end after I insisted for a few Christmases.

Ever since I moved to the UK though, I haven't been around for much of the Christmas period and don't get the excitement from baking (crappy ovens and unfindable ingredients) or from attending Christmas fairs (none-existent, London only has tacky ones that resemble a mini-Prater) to compensate. Also, life in London is so expensive, many students choose not to give each other stuff or decorate their flats or halls (or are prevented from doing so due to health&safety regulations). So I end up missing the joy of opening and exchanging presents, being spoiled for a week and eating loads of hand-made cookies baked by friends and family!

And I also know that in the recent past, people who did want to give me a present have knocked their brains out in a frustrated effort to come up with a gift idea for me because I refused to give out lists to family and friends alike on the grounds that it would make Christmas a simple transaction!

So therefore, without further ado, the 15 short-listed candidates for this year's presents!

1. A History of Modern Burma from £8.96 on Amazon
The book I've been wanting to read ever since KL (and even before I've been eyeing it through the back of my mind)!

"An excellent work that deals with the period from the annexation of Upper Burma by the British in 1886 until the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The focus is on the period from the 1930s, as self-government was gained in 1937. Charney, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS, is well-qualified to write this work and he offers a careful account, one that is particularly nuanced in its coverage of the civil conflict and totalitarianism of recent years." Jeremy Black, The Historian

2. Freedom from Fear from £2.50 on Amazon (widely available elsewhere)
Aung Sang Suu Kyi's famous publication. Did you know that while she did her BA in New Delhi as well as the renown PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) course in Oxford (renown because it has notoriously produced high-profile national and international politicians - find a list of notable alumni here), she did her PhD at SOAS? :)

P.S. Be careful, there are quite a number of authors using the same title.

3. Chris Patten - Not quite the Diplomat from £5.50 on Amazon

Lauded latest book by former Conservative MP, Minister of Overseas Development, Secretary of State for Environment, Chairman of the Conservative Party, Governor of Hong Kong as well as Austrian Benita Ferrero-Waldner's immediate predecessor as European Commissioner for External Relations. Must-have!

4. The Wisdom of Whores from £3.99 on Amazon
An entire website dedicated to this rather insightful book widely welcomed when it was published in 2008.

About the book:
" [...] The Wisdom of Whores punches holes in many of the orthodoxies that have grown up around HIV. It shows how more premarital sex could lead to less HIV in Asia and Latin America. It points out how dangerous it is for young men in Africa to get married, now that so many young women are bringing HIV into the honeymoon suite. It questions the effectiveness of many of the best funded HIV prevention initiatives. And it does it all with solid science and a wry sense of humour. Author Elizabeth Pisani has spent ten years working as a scientist in the belly of the bloated AIDS industry.

This book unfolds a universe of brothels and bureaucracies, of bickering junkies and squabbling charities, of men who sell sex and men who would rather prohibit it. We’re endlessly told that HIV is about poverty and underdevelopment and human rights. But in the pink neon of Asia’s red light districts, HIV is mostly about people doing dumb things in the pursuit of pleasure or money. We’re just not supposed to say so. The Wisdom of Whores throws political correctness to the winds. It describes how we could shut down HIV in most of the world with a few, simple steps. It suggests that we could do it with less money than we already have. And it explains why we won’t.

This book shows how politics, ideology. and money– lots of money — have bulldozed through scientific evidence and common sense. Transgender prostitutes and drug injectors in Indonesia, policemen and sex workers in Cambodia, UN bureaucrats and ambassadors in East Timor, Christian campaigners in the United States — all appear in the book and have their say about what we should be doing differently. But all, the author included, are trying to sell themselves to the highest bidder. In the AIDS industry, the author concludes, we are all whores. [...]" (from the website)

5. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals (Alston/Goodman/Steiner) from around £18.99 on Amazon
A bit more pricey but it's alright, as it would be mainly for personal reference and I'm sure we got a couple of copies in the library!

6. Triage: Dr James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma - hmmm... I'd say ca. £15 in the UK

Tried to get the SOAS library to get this movie shown at Sundance but back then it was not yet on DVD and so they couldn't find it and nothing ever came of it. Better to have my own copy!

"Triage: Dr James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma follows the powerful odyssey of James Orbinski, a humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctor, as he returns to Africa to ponder the meaning of his life's work and the value of helping others.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience deep in the trenches of genocide and famine, this extraordinary man relives the triumphs and tragedies of relief work in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Triage will unsettle and move as it pointedly asks disturbing questions at the heart of the humanitarian dilemma. What can any one individual really do to bring peace to those who suffer? Where does humanitarianism end and raw politics begin? How does the sight of unspeakable evil affect the soul? Smartly directed by Patrick Reed, this remarkable film provides no definitive answers, but celebrates the best in the human spirit while staring unblinkingly at the worst." (from Amazon.com)

8. DELF/DALF materials from £0!
If anybody happens to have a copy of a DELF/DALF prep book/kit they want to get rid of, pray pass it on!

9. Solar Charger from £30-60 (widely available)
There are a couple of those around, like this one as an example. Ideally clippable or carabiner-able to a backpack to charge while on the go or just to fix it into the optimal place to soak in the sun! They usually come with a crazy toolbox of adapters, most importantly for me are laptop (USB; streamlining my experience at internet cafes - plug independence and no lassoes!), iPod and Nokia phone plus perhaps digital camera. Doesn't need to be ultralight but don't want to get weighed down while travelling. Oh, and the perfect one would not be bulky but robust enough to withstand minor shocks and must fit snugly into a backpack! *dream on* I honestly don't expect anyone of you guys to spend so much money and do prefer choosing it myself anyway as I do have quite a few minimum requirements for this gadget but if anyone of you sees one of those coming close to the description above at a reasonable price, please send me a link or info!

10. Magno Cube Wooden Radio £175 at the Design Museum (but I believe, available elsewhere too)
*sigh* Probably another unfulfilled dream!

"Hand-crafted in an Indonesian farming village, the Magno Cube is a 4 band FM/AM/SW1/SW2 radio receiver with a highly appealing mix of retro and modern styling.

Each wooden radio is made through an environmentally sustainable production process, which covers fair social standards for workers. The profits from the sale of the radios to the Design Museum Shop support the development of a plantation surrounding the production facility, including the ongoing education of 30 young people in handicraft and work skills.

Only new growth plantation wood is used and for every tree that is used in production, a new one is planted.

MP3 compatible. Each radio arrives with a wooden connecting cable to connect iPods and mp3 players directly to the radio, so it can be used as a speaker." (from Design Museum Shop's website)

11. Liberty T-Shirt £15 + £1.50 directly from Liberty
One of the few causes I advertise on myself for!

12. Arun Ghosh CD £10 + £2.50
Bumped into an open concert while brunching in the City. Had vaguely heard of this jazz prodigy before but now entirely convinced! He's got a website and is also on MySpace. CDs available directly from there!

13. Burma Chronicles £8.98 at Amazon

"The "comic" (I don't want to call it a "graphic novel" because it's not a work of fiction) documents a year that he spent in Burma with his wife (who worked for MSF) and baby son, and gives you a good feel for the people, architecture, politics and various expats working out there." (a review on Amazon)

14. MoMa cup holder US-$5 at the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art, NYC but am sure must be supplied to other museum shops or on the net as well)

A heat-resistant silicone mug sleeve (I prefer to call them mug huggers!) as an alternative to paper sleeves! Coffee to go in style! Hurray, going orange when one can't be green all the time anywhere!

15. Strawberry Hat - £8.50 at Daisy Daisy
Looks like a strawberry! The best part: Made in Nepal and Fairtrade! Because I love it!

This is how it works:
If you want to indicate that you want to go for one of these fifteen beauties, just leave a brief note as post with a number and/or description to warn others not to get me the same thing. You can even post it as anonymous for more suspense! ;)

If you require my new postal address, please drop me a message!
Note: I will be in Vienna this Christmas!!!

15 November 2009

A Development Worker's Dream?

That's what happens when you watch two Hollywood productions in a row about times of upheaval in two (African) countries (Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland) while your subconscious processes the risks of a possible next internship.

Dili, East Timor. An excursion or exchange with people from my Masters. We're invited for lunch at the house of our host - in my dream, a senior member of society, like an elder. We are seated around the table and I watch any of the locals calculatingly. It is an important meeting as we just arrived and are hear to learn and obviously want to gain and gauge the trust of the people we will be dealing with for our research, whatever that is. I have a feeling as if the older man has been looking at me in a funny way and while everyone is chatting away over food, I am reaching out across the table for a dish when suddenly this very guy grabs my upper arm or lower arm around the elbow, leers at me and makes some comment I do not hear. I pull away, stand up and scream at him, giving him a piece of my mind about sexual harassment, turning the centre of attention of the table to him. Then I bolt out of the door.

I am in my "home" or a small empty local family house where I was accomodated in. I am still furious and decide to go out and do something that will take my mind off the incident. I wonder if it is safe to do so on my own, after all there was some violence in the last election (in 2006), the president barely survived an assassination attempt (in early 2008) and there sometimes is still some petty crime. It is hard to gauge the safety when you have never been to a country before. I go for a change of dress and spend a while in front of the mirror deciding which clothing would be appropriate. I decide for a 3/4 skirt and a long-sleeved shirt. My other local coursemate or local exchange student living with me suddenly appears and says to hurry up or we won't make it to the supermarket. He unlocks the front door, peeks out and warns to be careful as we live near a dodgy area. Suddenly, I decide to put on something else after all and tell my flatmate. He is impatient but waits in the shadow of the house the door opens to. Once I come out again, I don't see him so I decide to walk on the opposite side of the house, in the sun. As I watch my feet walk across the open space of sandy street, I see some casings from used automatic rifle ammunition and wonder in my dream if some of them will explode if you step on them and they're not yet "detonated". So I try to avoid stepping on them, doing some weird movements in the process. Suddenly, I hear shooting! I look up and see a bunch of men firing their AK-47's from an open jeep driving fast into my direction from the far side of the space I was now running across in a ducked position, occasionally taking cover behind a mini dune of sand, wondering if they have seen me. Then I see that I am not the only one on the run, my flatmate is doing the same, except he is running into the other direction, to distract them, I guess. Eventually, we manage to reunite in this chaos and go to the supermarket (!) as if nothing had happened (!).

We are standing in front of a low concrete warehouse and I have my doubts as if there indeed is a supermarket in there. My flatmate says, that yes, some things here are underground, and have been for a long time. We walk into a lift that looks just like your average cold metal cargo lift from any horror movie. It doesn't help that the corridor to it is dark, damp and dirty. After what seems like ages, the lift finally arrives and we step in. The lift is operated by a knobbed long handle instead of buttons. For some reason (dream logic), we go up instead of down. There are already some people in there. One of them is a tall Western man in a dark grey pin-striped suit, a beige raincoat over his left arm and a leather briefcase in the other, wearing polished shoes. His manner calms me down for he looks like he's done this ride a couple of times before. I don't know where this cliché comes from, but I figured the way he is dressed, he must be working for the local UN office. I'm thinking of whether I should approach him about an internship. Hmmm, how to do introduce yourself, exchange niceties, confirm his work place and ask for an internship in less than 20 seconds without being presumptuous? That's when the man starts to speak to me like foreigners abroad on an endless lift ride do. I tell him I find the lift creepy and ask him if there really is a supermarket in here. He smiles, amused and says yes, the warehouse does not only house a big supermarket but also some offices on the top floors, which is his reason for being in the lift. I introduce myself and why I'm in East Timor and ask him if he's working for the mission. Dili is small after all and there is not much to attract foreign business and since he doesn't look like a tourist... And indeed, he is, he says! That's when I see the head lights of a supermarket coming slowly nearer. After some more talk, he offers if I wanted to go out and have a drink sometime (in Southeast Asia, "to go drink" usually implies non-alcoholic cold drinks during the day to rehydrate from the heat). I am hesitant and relieved at the same time. Nothing about him indicated he was a sleazy guy who was looking for something else. The impression I got was that he would really like to meet other foreigners and since what I was doing sounded interesting, it is likely his motive was genuinely platonic. However, I say, "Some other time maybe", just in case. If he really works here, we're bound to bump into each other again on the street anyway. I think he noticed my hesitation for the diplomat he is, he glances over my shoulder and says, "Your supermarket's coming up on this level but I'm going to give you my card." I leave the lift and tell him I'm going to take him up on this.

There indeed is a supermarket in this forsaken place. Brightly lit shelves upon shelves of wares! My flatmate had disappeared in the meantime, so I was dodging the shopping carts on my own. I don't buy anything. I'm too distracted, thinking about the encounter on the lift.

I am suddenly back on the surface. It is a normal street, it looks Austrian but in my dream I am in the UK and the person whom I exited the building with was a very familiar-looking girl. Apart from us, the street is deserted. However, on one end, there is a train which frequently appears and disappears, like a holograph or as if it was spinning around itself. I think to myself, wow, that could be something like the Hogwarts Express. It must have been pretty evident I was thinking that for the girl said to me, "Of course it's the Hogwarts Express, don't you see?!" And indeed, I turn around to look again and now see a conventional-looking witch with long chin, hairy wart on her nose and pointed hat. Everytime she touches the carriage with her wand, it spins again and now even changes colour and appearance! I say to the girl, if I had known that there was another way out of the building, I would have just taken that instead of that crappy snail-slow lift and I ask her if we can still make it to the train (to get to some other location). She says, yes we can but she is waiting for a woman who she is supposed to meet first. As if on cue, a beautiful woman appears, giving her a piece of colourful cloth in a rather ceremonial way. The girl bows her head just like the woman and receives the cloth politely with both hands and then proceeds in tying it around her head. That's when I realise it: Oh my God, Hermione is a Muslim?! Now THAT's a storyline JKR did not explore...

I refrained from adding pictures of East Timor from the net to illustrate my blog as I did not find it appropriate to use graphic pictures of violence to visually support this kind of post. Also, I don't want to misrepresent the situation in the country and the country's image by throwing in some pictures of violence OR landscape. Also, I do not want to alarm anyone of you as I am still exploring different destinations for my next internship.

11 November 2009

Heidiwitz discovers the Blitz (Remembrance Day)

Nearly a year ago, I found myself in a bus half-way around the world on an island, anxious not to miss my stop and my single shot to see the Tropical Spice Garden in Pulau Penang, Malaysia. In front of me what looks like a laid-back expat retiree or returning tourist. I bend over and ask him whether he knows what stop to get off. He does not only tell me the right stop, he also gives me a very good description how to find the Spice Garden off the main road. Noticing his accent, I ask him if he's from the UK and indeed, he identifies himself as English and returns the question. I can't quite remember how he steered the conversation into that topic - I believe he once visited a war museum or concentration camp in Austria or something like that - but I felt compelled to offer that in Austria, the Holocaust is still very much in the collective memory of the nation, that although it used to be a taboo to teach our parent's generation in school about it, it has become a crucial and central curriculum topic with my generation and is considered so important, it comes up at least once every year in at least one or not seldom two subjects if not more and is chewed over and over so much so that everyone knows about it and it is a matter of frequent public debate on TV etc. I concluded, more rhetorically and sarcastically than literally, that there is hardly any aspect of the war I haven't learned about. The chat continues and I ask him about what the public perception was like in the UK and if it was very badly affected at all. He looks at me, in shock that I did not know, and once he found his speech again tells me that England and especially London was really badly affected during the Blitz. I probably flashed him a blank face at the term Blitz, for his eyes grew even wider. Right on cue, it was his turn to get out of the bus and I was left pondering the gaps in my education.

Although Austria and Germany alike both teach the Holocaust extensively at school, they usually (naturally?) focus on the political events and the Jews in Austria and Germany with a bit of Normandy, Mussolini and Stalin's Russia and Rommel's ops in Africa. They do mention the allies but usually only in conjunction with how they tried to defeat Hitler and liberate Germany and the Jews. The Blitzkrieg was only mentioned in passing and not really elaborated on and apart from Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, the war events in the Pacific were entirely omitted. I made a mental note to look it up and keep my antennas open once back in the UK. When I did read about what was going on in Southeast Asia and London during the war, the scales fell from my eyes.

In WWII, London was one of the most severely destroyed cities in Europe next to Berlin. Bethnal Green, Hackney, Islington, Tottenham and Finchley were among the areas that were bombed the worst during a German raid which prompted the British to attack Berlin and made Hitler so furious he ordered a retaliatory attack. About 43 000 civilians died during an aerial attack the Germans led for 57 consecutive days on London. Other cities affected were those with ports (ie Southhampton and Swansea) as well as industrial centres (ie Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry). The City of London was hit as well in what would later be coined the Second Great Fire of London (after the one in 1666) and even the fortified Cabinet War Rooms were hit. A famous image became St. Paul's covered in Smoke (you can still see it on pretty many DVD and book covers). Further away, the British Museum was hit (I had known that though) which was why it got its new beautiful and distinctive roof in the first place. A lot of children were evacuated too, from London to the countryside and many to Canada until a number of ships carrying children across the Atlantic were sunk by the German submarines.

Since I am aware that most of my current readership would feel burdened with an extensive account of the War in Southeast Asia, I am not going to elaborate on the events in Malaya, the invasion of Burma, the battle around Ceylon that prompted the British to retreat to Kenya and Japanese war crimes. A good place to start reading up about WWII in the Pacific would be here though.

So, when the poppies were popp(y)ing up in town for upcoming Remembrance Day (an interestingly predominantly white British affair), I decided: What better time to learn about the Blitz and the UK's attitude towards the war?

First stop: Air Raid Shelter
After a ride in a manually operated wooden lift, the doors open into a dimly lit low-ceilinged short tube tunnel lined with bunk beds and wax figures and their possessions in them. The air is rather thick too and I wonder for a moment if the museum is deliberately creating this effect or if it's what the place really smells like. A small table holds a large water kettle and some cups, all operated by the YMCA canteen. A sign above appeals to the morale of the people seeking shelter and says, "If in doubt, brew up!"

It seems unimaginable to think that people actually slept and lived in tube stations and that there was a thriving underground community with bars and canteens etc. On the platforms, there used to be lines to divide living space from walking space.

As this tunnel unfolds, so does a museum with loads of informative stuff and a great collection. A BBC intelligence station, a disabled bomb with warning signs like placed all over London back then. There is info on the voucher system and cigarette cards - Since tobacco was thriving during the war, it was a popular way of disseminating information by inserting cards with instructions on how to make a window shatter-proof, gas-proof, first aid in a gas attack and loads of do-it-yourself advice. A collection of kid's toys shows that Monopoly was even then a hit game and makes one wonder with what simple things children used to entertain themselves before Wii's and other commercial games turned them into avatars. On the more sinister side, you could look at gas maks - and masks that covered babies from head to toe with manual air pump and reservoir attached so it can survive for a while if nobody is handling the pump. Creepy to see gas masks the size for toddlers - but they are still around in other parts of the world.

Other interesting things were rent-a-cakes. Since food supply was scarce (partly directly and indirectly due to the fact that sea imports were affected due to the war) and rationed and people poor, bakeries used to rent out a fake cake for weddings with a small drawer at the bottom, big enough for a tiny piece of real fruit cake for the newly-wed couple.

There also is a soundscape experience where you can sit in a self-made shelter people were taught to build in ditches outside their homes and listen to an air raid siren, German and British airplanes in the sky, an air battle and a bomb being thrown off - it really goes under the skin as you sit in the semi-darkness of a petroleum lamp and experience what it's like to see with your ears. To experience the dreadful seconds of silence between a bomb being thrown off and the moment of its impact.

I also learned about the women "manning" the war factories and taking over farming. Kinda weird to look at a black and white picture of a woman in nothing much of protective clothing apart from an apron putting together the pieces of a bomb or a mine with her bare fingers...!

Second stop: Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum was even more impressive. Some four large floors covering everything from WWI, WWII, crimes against humanity, peacekeeping forces and Korea, Vietnam, Africa etc.

Right next to the entrance are the oral accounts and stories of early veterans from the West Indies serving the British Army. Then follows a huge hall full of planes, tanks and torpedoes. I did not even know there was such a thing as a human torpedo (of which the Italians were the most famous users) the purpose of which was to send two people as quietly as possible (for a sonar) down to the rump of the ship or even submarine to plant a time bomb.

There also is such a thing as a floating bomb (which may seem obvious but I take it as a good sign I never thought about that) which floats like a buoy close to the sea surface and detonates as soon as a vessel hits it and breaks a glass which connects two fluids that galvanise enough electricity to explode a gas. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of those floating in the Channel and around the shores of Europe, especially of France, creating a danger for trade ships and other civilian vessels, not to mention water sport hobbyists.

Speaking of the sea, you can also experience what life is like on a submarine. Toilets or also called "the heads" in nautical English, are very difficult to operate and there are not less than eight different instructions you had to follow in order to flush them. If you do them wrong, you might end up having the contents of the toilet fired back at you. Now there's a comforting thought.

Particularly interesting (in a shocking way) were the emergency evacuation procedures for officers and the "primitive" rebreather you are supposed to use until you reach the surface, especially if you know about the effects of diving on your body. Also quite informative is the challenge to distinguish objects by their sound on the sonar. Is it a cruiser, another submarine, a torpedo or a scuba diver?

But interactive ways of teaching about general warfare aside and back to the UK side of things: During my research about the Holocaust in the UK and more recent genocide around the world, I discovered that Daniel Radcliffe seems to be a "prominent supporter" of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and has narrated a 10min educational short film called Legacy of Hope which you can find here. I guess it adds to a more "grown up" image of the Harry Potter star.

The Holocaust Memorial Day (or HMD for short) takes place every year on 27 January in the UK and started in 2001. There also is a Genocide Memorial Week every spring (around April). While the former tends to conjure events more exclusively related to the Holocaust (to its criticism by some), the latter comes with loads of events covering genocides like those in Rwanda and Cambodia, Rwanda still being one of the less glorious days of Kofi Annan's tenure as UN Secretary General. He was later even quoted by Gil Loescher to have said in an interview (I can't remember with whom), that looking back today, he would not have done anything differently. So many lives lost due to the reluctance to call a genocide by its name for whatever diplomatic reasons. Since the last two decades are known to have seen more internal warfare than international armed conflicts, the reluctance to swing this politically explosive very club at another nation actually also affects the policy towards and therefore fate of many (internally) displaced people today.

The question remains: Has the world learned its history lesson? One thing is for sure: I have had my own today.