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When you need A&E in Bolivia

I live in Bolivia. There are a lot of road accidents in Bolivia.

This morning, the son in the family I live with was in a car crossing a busy road when a drunk driver barreled across on red. The drunk driver hit them side-on, right where my Bolivian brother was sitting, flipping their vehicle.

Fortunately, he saw the car in time to fling himself towards the other side of the vehicle. He has no injuries, but he still needed to get checked out in hospital.

One tomography cost the family 1,500Bs. That’s about £161 or $210.

For context, I recently learned that entry-level office work in Cochabamba pays, apparently, around $200/month before tax. Most Bolivians don’t work in offices. Whole families might not earn that in a month.

This is just one example of what happens when you have to pay for medical care. It isn’t the starkest example. Just the most recent. A family I’m friends with were forced to sell their home and construct a makeshift one from tarps and wood to pay for their son’s leukaemia treatment.

On a recent first aid course, the trainer explained that in the entirety of Cochabamba, a city of around a million people by some figures, there are perhaps 15 ambulances, of which many belong to volunteer-run organisations such as SAR. If you were in one of Bolivia’s many bus crashes and everyone on board needed medical attention, there simply would not be enough ambulances for them all, even piling patients three to an ambulance.

In the UK, this would have been so different. Thanks to the NHS, our national health service which provides free healthcare, there would have been no charge for the tomography or the leukaemia treatment. Academically, most Brits know how lucky they are to have free healthcare, but it’s times like this when you feel that gratitude from the heart.

That’s why I’ll always be dedicated to safeguarding our NHS.

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Three tips for people who do too much

When I moved to London, I was bowled over by the bustle of activity on offer. “I know,” my friend said. “The important thing is not to try to do it all at once.”

Something in my brain went: challenge accepted! Six months later, I was doing trapeze on Mondays, juggling on Tuesdays, more trapeze on Wednesdays, flute lessons on Thursdays, going out on Fridays, and attempting to be in a band on Sundays. Saturday was laundry day. I also had a boyfriend an hour across town. Did I mention that I had a full-time journalism job? I have always been the kind of person to do too much.

Needless to say, I was no zen mistress at this point. In fact, I was desperately unhappy much of the time.

I know I’m not the only one. It probably has something to do with the number of outrageous over-achievers in my friendship group, but the world is full of people who are fascinated by absolutely everything. Whose list of hobbies is longer than the KGB’s list of enemies of mother Russia. Whose diaries are more packed than the Central line at 8:40am. You get the picture.

While this is no fun, there’s a sense of real hurt at the idea of giving any one of these things up. The joy of doing these things may have long since faded into a bloody-minded battle against your own need for sleep and clean bedsheets, but quitting any one of them doesn’t bear thinking about.

Interests are infinite, but time is finite. What do you do?

I’ve developed three strategies to deal with my hobby addiction.

  1. Put your priorities in order. A year ago, I decided I was going to move to Bolivia to become a freelance development journalist. Aware that this was not something to approach unprepared, I started to make lists of my priorities. Top of the list was writing. A close second was finding some volunteering, in order to have some experience under my belt when I arrived.

This list was based on what I considered necessary, important, of long-term value. Music and circus were, it pained me to realise, below the first two. At the bottom was knitting. Once I’d agreed this order, I thought about everything in terms of this list. Is this a writing opportunity? Seize it! Is this a pretty pair of winter socks? It can probably wait. But the idea of putting something off forever didn’t bear thinking about. Which brings me onto…

2. Do things a project at a time. Don’t do a tiny bit of all of them simultaneously. Days after I decided to pack up and go the way of Butch Cassidy, a friend asked me if I would like to do an hour-long solo flute recital. I said yes, because things are more interesting when you do. I knew it would take over my evenings solidly for the next three months and then be over, but I was OK with that. It would be a last hurrah for classical music before disappearing to a town where, my research indicated, I would be lucky to have water and internet, let alone a Bohemian classical music scene.

I left my flute at home. This felt like breaking up with someone to save their feelings. I could hear the voices of my muso friends in my ears, telling me how sick and wrong this was. But flying across continents and living in a hostel indefinitely didn’t seem like a good situation for my dear flute. I miss my musical instruments every day here, but I know with absolute certainty that as soon as I can, I will get back to them. Meanwhile, the circus skills are back with a vengeance – but more on that later.

3. Ask your friends in the field. When you’re starting out as a freelance journalist, it’s hard to know in advance which ideas you’ll turn into big features and which, like pink furry yogurt and Christmas jumpers, should really have been left in the dark corners where you found them and only brought to light in situations of utmost desperation. The same is true for other activities: a fellow musician might be able to tell you which gigs will be more effort than they’re worth, a book buddy which thousand-page sci-fi epics are best used for bonfire kindling. That’s why it’s invaluable to have a network of friends and mentors to run your ideas past.

After four years of trying to do everything, I’m in Bolivia. All those pie-eyed evenings of rope climbs and sonatas paid off: I’m now volunteering full-time in a charity which teaches circus arts and, soon, music to children in low-income areas, and as of Friday, I’m being paid for my writing.

The next project, hopefully, will be two weeks in the remote community of Independencia, where a group of Quechua ladies and teens have a stunning traditional weaving and textile centre. Looks like I’ll be getting those knitting needles out after all.

Errands, Bolivian style

Today, we needed to do four things:

  1. Eat a sandwich
  2. Print out a waistcoat pattern
  3. Go to Interpol
  4. Buy some fabric

It was not a wildly successful trip.

The sandwich

One interesting fact about Bolivia is that there are very few international fast food chains. In Cochabamba, there are no McDonald’s outlets, no Starbucks, and no Subway, although it does have a Burger King.

Instead, there is a little sandwich shop whose clientele, captive in the lack of Subways, pays prices that wouldn’t be out of place in London for baguettes with a nasty tendency to dribble water and diluted mayo. Their main selling point is that the vegetables are “clean”.

It is precisely this shop that my partner has developed cravings for. So, I sat and watched him much on a foot-long pork sandwich for 38 Bs; approximately £3.80. A handsomely-sized “personal” pizza, presumably for a rather large person, at a well-to-do restaurant down the road costs 35 Bs.

The waistcoat pattern

At the first shop I visited, I explained that I needed this pattern in either A0 or lots of bits of A4. The woman’s face went blank at this. She asked a colleague, who had no idea. Helpfully, I took a piece of A4 paper from my rucksack to demonstrate. “Oh, that’s a special size,” she said. “We could do it for you, but it would be 600 Bs.”

At shop number two, the woman explained to me the impossibility of printing just one document. I made a mental note to return if I needed 300 waistcoats patterns.

At shop the third, the man’s face darkened. “Those sizes aren’t standard around here,” he said, adding ominously that it was perhaps common in the US. I sensed that I had crossed some kind of line with my arrogant paper dimension requests. He launched with grim satisfaction into a monologue about how if I wanted to print this funny size, I could go and buy my own paper and find a printer that would take it, but his machines wouldn’t.

My wicked paper imperialism and I gave up at this point.

Interpol

To verify that we aren’t some kind of DAESH sleeper cell or El Chapo, Bolivia would like Interpol certificates from us before we can have a visa. Interpol, we were assured, is on the north side of Plaza Principal – you know, the one that is completely closed and in utter disarray while they refurbish everything from the paving to the pigeons.

We tried to walk along the north side, but a gun-toting policeman told us, while we ducked a falling cable from the works above, that we needed to go round the other side, and also that Interpol was on the other side of town.

On the other side of the work, a dutiful workman informed us that there was no entry. I asked him how, in this case, we were meant to get to Interpol. He seemed to consider, decide that he didn’t know, and then casually ignore the question, but while these expressions were playing out on his face, a stream of people walked past him, so we joined them.

We reached the end of the path, asked another policeman where Interpol was, and he, too, told us it was on the other side of town. At this point, out of time, we decided to postpone it for tomorrow.

The fabric

On closer inspection, the shop on Avenida Ayacucho turned out to be catering for a specific audience, so we decided to look in the market tomorrow. But if you see photos of Andy in a waistcoat made of lacy, floral bridal wear, you’ll know we went back.

 

Three reasons people fail at juggling

Or, “How some people seem to learn crazy skills overnight”.

Juggling is a very frustrating activity. First, you learn to throw a ball. Then, you learn to throw two. Then comes keeping three in the air semi-fluidly. This may take months.

Then, if you like, you move onto clubs. Clubs are like balls, but harder, because when you throw them, they spin. Spin them too little or too much and instead of catching them, you get a stinging smack on the finger.

I know a young man called Roger. Roger can juggle five clubs. He’s 12.

When I started working in a Bolivian youth circus in mid-November, I was stunned to see how many children, some as young as seven, were confidently flipping three clubs while standing on another child’s shoulders.

Recently, I met an Argentinian gentleman who was competently balancing clubs on his chin mid-routine, banging out five-turn flashes and catching clubs thrown behind his back.

I asked him how long he’d been juggling. “Clubs? About two months. Balls, another three and a half months before that,” he answered. I was stunned.

Are these people magic?

My friend has been an instructor in our circus for eight years. When I broached the subject with him, he seemed almost offended.

“When you’re travelling, juggling is your life,” he said, indignantly. “You do it all day, every day. It pays for your food.” What he seemed to mean was: how can anyone who practices so little have the temerity to wonder about this?

Latin America is full of street jugglers. In Cochabamba’s central Plaza Colon, every traffic light has a few young travellers dashing out in front of the stopped cars, flashing some club juggling tricks or fire poi and then darting between the cars with a hat before the lights change.

My Argentinian instructor was one of them. He’s living in a tent in the mountains with two friends, coming down into the city to juggle for money to pay his way.

Head out of town and they aren’t travelling Argentinians, but children of 10 or so, juggling for change to put some bread on the table.

So, how is it that these people can go from zero to pro in just a few months?

To me, there are two major differences.

  1. Motivation

If you’re anything like me, learning to juggle was somewhere between a fun trick and a frustrating puzzle. If you could juggle three balls, you could occasionally juggle fruit in the office when people were bored. You could learn a couple of tricks for low-level showing-off in the pub. In my boyfriend’s case, you may juggle for juggling’s sake in the fish and chip shop, and unwittingly make enough money to buy yourself dinner.

It was never a question of making ends meet.

When I juggle, my mind wanders. I think about music or imagine crazy routines or daydream. To make progress, it needs your full attention. You need to feel the exact angle you release the club at, see where the club lands, replicate the throws that work. Otherwise, you make the same mistakes repeatedly. You become frustrated and bored. You can’t concentrate, and it’s a terrible downward spiral from there. Passive practice doesn’t work.

When your livelihood depends on your flair with clubs, you have an unwavering incentive to concentrate.

For more about the ideas of active practice in music, check out this post on The Bulletproof Musician and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.

2. Hours of practice

Here is a confession: it took me nine months before I could juggle a reliable three-ball cascade. I was making two mistakes. I wasn’t focusing. And I wasn’t practicing every single day.

Whenever anyone learns to juggle, they are told they have to practice every day. Every day means every day.

The list of things I’ve been told I need to do every day to succeed is long. Speak a language. Play an instrument. Exercise. But juggling is the only one I have ever found where every day literally means every day. When I was learning, I took liberties. I would do it four or five days out of seven. “But I did it for half an hour on the last session!” I’d say. Nope. Unlike fluffing bit of music and carrying on, stumbling over your words in a foreign tongue, gravity won’t wait. Every day means seven out of seven.

If you live in a mountainside tent, you don’t have a comfy seat and an internet connection where you can lose yourself in Facebook. You have some clubs or balls, and lots and lots of time. You might spend four hours practicing each afternoon. Think how the hours stack up when compared with training at a club once a week and doing some in the garden at the weekend. Don’t measure it in weeks or months or years. Measure it in hours.

What’s more, the more frequently you train, the fresher your learning is. There’s less catching up to do, less warming up. You can pick up where you left off. You can feel the ability growing in your mind and see it growing in your successes. And when you’re happy to be learning, you learn more.

Most amazing jugglers don’t rely on it for a living. My theory is that these people just enjoy it more, so they practice more and focus more.

3. Perseverance

This one is not unique to people who juggle for a living. You aren’t guaranteed to become proficient overnight if you keep plugging away at it. But you are guaranteed not to become proficient overnight if you give up.

I am not a natural circus person. Trapeze tricks that seven-year-old children throw themselves into with gleeful abandon scare the living daylights out of me. Accidentally dangling from a rope by one ankle (this has actually happened) is not my idea of a good time. I still love circus and care deeply about being good at it. Some people have been learning for as long as me and are professionals. I’m not there yet. But I know of nobody who fell at the first hurdle and can do what I can.

So if you want to succeed at circus, put yourself in a situation where circus is your life. Surround yourself by it, immerse yourself in it, throw yourself at it. You may not turn into Roger overnight – I still suspect he contains magic. But the talent will come.

 

Slavery in Thai fish sheds is not new

So why do we keep treating it as a revelation?

Today, I found this story on Guardian Global Development: an Associated Press investigation intohuman trafficking and labour abuses of the most acute kind in Thailand’s fishing industry.

It’s an excellent piece of journalism. It promotes the voices of the Burmese slaves at the heart of the story. It shows both bold groundwork and solid data chasing.

But I have a problem with it.

The story is awfully similar to this report in the Guardian. And this one, on the BBC. And this investigation by NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Andy Hall, a researcher and migration expert, is in the docks on defamation charges – a criminal offence in Thailand – for authoring a report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch that found serious labour rights abuses in the tuna and fruit processing industry.

Hall’s blog and Twitter, incidentally, are well worth reading if you care even slightly about the issue.

The case studies are different, the angles varied, but fundamentally, they raise the same issue: Thailand has a major problem with human trafficking. Most of the victims are from poorer neighbouring countries in South east Asia, especially Myanmar.

According to the EJF report:

Multiple reports over the past five years have documented abuses of trafficked boat workers in Thailand, including bonded labour, excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse and murder. 12/13 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.14

These reports go back at least as far as 2009. So why are big media constantly running these stories as if they were scoops? These reports are billed as “revealing” the issue, but this is something we have known about for a long time.

It’s hard to build popular pressure for change if every story about Thailand’s slavery problem is billed as a revelation: something we didn’t know, something horrifying that we have just found out, something that shocks us.

In the meantime, hoards of tourists flock to Thailand: over 900,000 Brits every year, according to the Foreign Office. Trafficking is not limited to the food industry: as this report from the Pulitzer Center notes, many of the women doing dangerous work in Thailand’s sex industry have been trafficked or are in bonded labour, largely in service of western tourists.

According to the Pulitzer Center:

The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.

Many people who visit Thailand are energetic, open-minded and politically aware. So, where is the boycott? Where is the protest movement? When I traveled to South Africa, it was as though liberals felt compelled to brandish their credentials by mentioning the inequality problem.

Unlike the spectre of South African apartheid, bullet holes in Balkan walls, or begging children on Indian streets, slavery is largely invisible to the country’s visitors. Locked away in sweltering sheds in industrial zones away from the pretty bits, Thailand’s trafficking victims are out of sight, out of mind.

Reporting on this issue is vital to keep it in the public eye, especially in a country which earns so much from exports and tourism. But we must stop treating every fresh report as a shocker, a revelation. To do so is to deny the masses of accusatory evidence in existence years beforehand.

Ask about the cause of these problems and you get a strange sense of deja vu: the authorities have not been trained to handle the issue, corruption prevails, it’s easiest to ignore it. The same problems keep rearing their heads every time we look.

When I was reporting on the food industry, the Thai fishing industry held a seminar during which we were reassured that the problems were being tackled and unannounced inspections were standard practice. That was well over a year ago. So why are these reports still appearing?

If you’re going to Thailand, presumably it’s for a refreshing tropical holiday with beaches, elephants and exquisite food, rather than a grim primer in modern-day slavery. But go with a critical eye. Because shrimp paste goes into those curries. Those guys in your hostel might not admit to it, but ping pong patrons come from somewhere. The least you can do is be aware.

Mangoes

Today, we found a fruit seller selling 25 mangoes for the equivalent of £1. We got 12. When we got home, our host mother was shocked at the price.

That was way too expensive, apparently.

They were weird mangoes. Andy said, in a worried tone, that they “feel like water bombs”. They are made of thick juice and hair. You have to suck them. Use your teeth at your peril: you will be picking mango fur out of your teeth for weeks. You often see the stones on the floor, with hair sticking out from the sides like spikes. They look like cuttlefish.

In more Cancha funtimes – La Cancha being the name for the vast market in south-central Cochabamba – when you buy avocadoes, you tell them when you want to eat them and they give you one of the appropriate ripeness. The words “ripen at home” are nowhere to be found. I hate “ripen at home”. They only put that because “we shipped these fruit from places where there be dragons when they still resembled starchy meteorites” doesn’t fit on the label.

Just about the only thing we can’t find here is mushrooms. Andy went to two markets and a supermarket in search of the fungusy goods on Sunday but none were forthcoming. Our host mother eventually found some, somewhere. It is a tiny pack of pre-sliced, cling filmed mushrooms that apparently cost the equivalent of £1.50.

Do you think enough culinary experimentation with mangoes will make them taste like mushrooms?

If not, we could try noni. Anything that looks like an alien, cures cancer* and comes from La Cancha is a good bet.

Noni fruits with leaf on white background

(Image from here).

 

 

*it’s true because the seller wrote it on some cardboard

Didn’t know about the Garissa massacre? Blame yourself, not the media.

When I switched my laptop on on Saturday morning, all the terabytes of the internet were consumed by people’s reactions to the Paris shootings. On Facebook were expressions of everything from sympathy to anger. One of the most common responses among my friends was: “What about all these other tragedies that have happened recently?”

These posters, some propelled by enough righteous anger to fry an egg, mostly referenced Thursday’s Beirut suicide bomb and the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya. So hasty were they to shame these superficial Europeans, some even failed to spot that the Garissa massacre happened in April.

KenyaMassacreFacebook

Their basic point is this: why have the Paris attacks attracted such a public orgy of grief, when comparable tragedies in countries that the west views as poor, war-torn and remote attract not a whisper? (In this post I’m ignoring, because it’s so blindingly obvious, the point that France and the UK are neighbours, most Brits have probably been to Paris, and many were personally alarmed for their friends.) Why the disproportionate media focus on Paris? Why has Facebook gone so far as to enable a special French flag filter for your profile picture, when many more people are hurting in other countries? What despicable traits of racism, thoughtlessness and derision do these imply in our collective psyche?

There’s one problem with this: Garissa received reams and reams of coverage. It attracted reportage, videos, analysis and photojournalism from The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Daily Express and, yes, the Daily Mail. Just about every major news outlet in the UK covered it, albeit not to the same degree as Paris. Coverage included reporting the #147notjustanumber campaign to humanise the massacre’s victims. If you’re pissed you missed that one, you should change how you read the news.

KenyaMassacreFacebook2

The media has innumerable blind spots reporting important issues in the developing world, and this is a genuine problem. There are all kinds of reasons for this: lack of funds means major news outlets close bureaus and buy their stories from agencies such as Reuters or AFP, for instance. But the number one driver for the news agenda is what people want to read. No news editor in the world is going to see a story shooting to the top of the most-read list and say: “Meh, covered it. What else have you got?” If the media aren’t covering other massacres, it’s because you lot aren’t reading about them.

If your idea of staying informed about global events is re-sharing a Comment is Free link and glancing at BBC News’s Most Read, the main problem isn’t the media. It’s your own lack of interest. On an internet that seems to be gravitating towards Facebook like a black hole in the pocket of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoody, why seek out a broad range of news sources when Facebook could be your one-stop shop?

Where once, social media was all trading likes on angle shots and having a catty rejig of your Myspace Top 8, it has become a cover-all for messaging, professional networking, event planning and, crucially, news. Facebook now has a panel telling us what stories are trending. Where once we trusted professional editors to collate the most important happenings and topics, we now crowdsource the job to our friends, hoping that the mix of hardcore activists and viral content lovers will do the trick instead.

If you want to know more about major massacres and attacks when they happen, you have a smorgasboard of choice. Big outlets like The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and the BBC provide ample coverage of these stories. There are almost no regions on earth that don’t have their own English-language press. There are dedicated publications like The New Internationalist and Foreign Policy, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with all manner of mailing lists. Indie news websites providing alternative perspectives less palatable in the mainstream media are popping up like digital daisies.

Go ahead: look ’em up. Bookmark them. Instead of scrolling blankly through Facebook when you’re bored, see what’s going on in the world. It’s a good alternative to “liking” other people’s posts about how bored they are in a great circlejerk of stupefaction.

Share what you find. Say what you think. And if you’re waving Garissa around from your high horse like a giant banner of philosophical butthurt but only heard about it last week, please just fuck off.