Catching some rays…

Seven months ago eight of us went in search of adventure in Kazakhstan. Courtesy of our Kazakh friend’s willingness to be a translator again, this month the group took a trip to another former soviet nation. Two Iranians, a Kazakh, an Indian, a Kiwi, an Aussie and two Brits flew to the Ukraine, to learn a bit about the city of Kiev and the site of Chernobyl, one of the world’s biggest Nuclear disasters to date.

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It’s important to stress here – a trip to Chernobyl is not out of morbid fascination with something dark or for the sake of our Instagram feeds. A visit to Auschwitz or the Somme is about paying respect to an element of the incredible tapestry of what humans are capable of. Chernobyl is not the site of a battle, but a deadly accident borne out of bold ambition. It was not horrific immediately, but the processes of its cover up, the sheer power of nuclear radiation and the fact that we still cant fathom its affects – all of this is worth seeing and attempting to understand. The Ukraine is a fascinating, inviting country that hosts Chernobyl, not proudly, but stoically and honestly, as a major part of its past.

Like much of the Eastern block, the Ukraine is profoundly affected by its Soviet history. But pre-Berlin Wall, contrary to glimpses shaped by Hollywood and bombastic Presidents and Prime Ministers – Ukranians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Tajikhs, Georgians, Slovenians and Belarussians were not brought up to feel like they were ‘the bad guys.’

Kiev Figures

Photo by Drina Cabral

 

Kiev Architecture

Whatever ways history may interpret the soviet era, the Ukraine is a country that flits between centuries of European kingdoms, the odd Viking or Mongolian invasion, and the brutalist architecture of soviet determination. In the mix is Kiev, a dignified city of wide gridded streets, between rolling hills and a large river. It reaches from high-rise concrete estates littered with monumental street art, to neo classical and baroque columns around grandiose empirical buildings that are now home to Sushi and Starbucks.

The capital is full of contrasts: fashionable monochrome ladies in red lipstick beside ex-soldier-boys with severe 90s haircuts; hipster bars and vintage speak-easies next to brutalist institutions; swirling art-nouveau facades of naked ladies flanked by political busts of serious men; ornate orthdodox cathedrals beside confiscated Russian tanks; bowls of Borsch and dumplings, and fusion restaurants that deserve all the Michelin stars; gypsies holding prize-chickens for photographs, and Putin’s face on toilet-roll; many, many men called Vladimir and cats with biological-weapon-breath.

There were also a lot of directional arm gestures. We needed to calm down.

 

We got a guide and a mini bus, and made a very big day-trip.

Chernobyl is a 2.5 hour ride out of town. It wasn’t the main reason for the trip to Kiev, but a destination none of us could argue against. We expected an abandoned city, two-headed mice, maybe some yellow smoke, men in gas masks, craters in the ground and apocalyptic signs – basically a 90s music video.

On the bus, our cheery guide described a time when the whole of Europe teetered on the brink of annihilation, and events that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a massive smile on his face.

In 1986 the Chernobyl disaster started as a fire in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Along with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, it ranks as one of only two “Level 9” events – the maximum classification.

Chernobyl began as a nuclear power station built from 1970 onwards, in use from 77 to 2000, well after 86. Contrary to popular belief or selective memory, the accident was not the equivalent of one sudden nuclear bomb, but about thirty Hiroshimas, and not sudden at all, but a week-long disaster that affects a much broader expanse of Europe than the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

Pripyat Nursery 2

The slow release of radiation; triggered by a fire – triggered by an overnight safety-test; released a plume of radioactivity into European air for several days. The world had never experienced anything like this, so Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-seeing government would not have known where to start. It was the civilian emergency services that would bare the brunt, and pay with their lives, from firefighters to helicopter pilots and hospital staff.

Pripyat Piano

A bit like the Ghostbusters scene when the fire-station reactor is shut down, radioactive fumes flowed into the atmosphere, drifting over Europe, – only these took an entire week, and were invisible, with up to 60% settling in Belarus. Local authorities didn’t notice the fire was blazing within the reactor until a journalist & photographer flew over it in a helicopter the following day. Russia failed to alert the international community until Swedish Nuclear Power-station workers across the sea triggered their radiation detectors upon entering their workplace, rather than exiting. Sweden contacted Denmark, Norway and Finland, and the Russian Government now had to put its hands up.

Pripyat entrance

Pripyat was built as Nuclear town from 1970 onwards, close to the plant, to house workers and their families. Its 50,000 residents had 16 years to get used to their burgeoning community: its supermarkets, restaurants, schools, nurseries, sports stadium, fairground, before being calmly uprooted without explanation.

Pripyat Nursery 1

Today, two of the most radioactive parts of the town are the middle of the playground and the hospital; two points where the first respondents were first brought to; helicopter pilots and firefighters. As human carriers of unprecedented levels of radiation, their presence in the hospital endangered the lives of hospital staff too. At first they showed what looked like burns, then vomiting, and were each given hours… The hospital staff would have months, and often years before they would feel the effects, but they would feel them. These were areas we could not access.

Pripyat Dodgems

In the first days, residents had been advised to stay indoors, as shelter was better, and wind initially led the fallout away from the town, but as the wind changed, thousands of families and their animals were quietly led away from their homes. People came back over the months and years to collect precious items, but what is left now, among the decaying wall-paper, dusty children’s toys, jars in cupboards, broken pianos and decomposing sofas, is a memorial to our precarious life on this planet – the life we’ve built for ourselves, with its invisible, but invincible threats around us.

A thin but established forest now dances over Pripyat. Shrubs scribble over its once-busy tarmac’d streets, with strange red beetles zagging between fag-butts and rotting wood. Street lamps stand quietly in clusters of trees the same height, and there’s a reverence to the place, but as we run around it, absorbing signs of 1986 soviet life, a sense of pride. I don’t know whether it was the blue sky, or our collective quiet wonder, but Pripyat is not macabre, or even sombre.

It’s not a place of death, torture or violence. It’s the centre of a much wider place that was exposed, betrayed by a lack of honesty, but that still shows its heart and faces. Forced to react, with thousands of lives uprooted and transplanted, the place is a monument of truths, and of transience. Just as Pompei is a glimpse into a distant, deadly past, Pripyat is a frame of nearer catastrophic times, but still very human and very real. As the trees take over the schoolyards, and vines creep into the supermarket, it’s eerily beautiful, a poignant reminder that humans are not permanent, infallible, or gods.

Pripyat Nursery 3

For now, a second “Sarcophagus” sits over the reactor, said to be able to last 100 years. The site is teaming with industrial workers and soldiers, who look nonchalantly at the wide-eyed tourists. Down the road is ‘the red forest’ – where much of the most radioactive land was exposed shallowly, – a large expanse where much of the initial airborne radioactivity landed, where the hand-held scanner in our guide’s hand bleeped ferociously.. The bottoms of the trees are black – and birds freely land, nest, and fly away to other areas. For now, it costs billions to take care of the sarcophagus – generations of Ukrainians will have to worry about the forest later. So for that reason, tourist dollars directly contribute to the upkeep of the site.

31 deaths are attributed to Chernobyl, among the emergency workers and reactor staff. A UN report attributes 64 deaths as of 2008, although the toll is expected to reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels; 200,000 emergency workers; 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas.

Pripyat Nursery 4.JPG

But here’s the kicker. The fateful reactor was number 4, with reactors 5 and 6 under construction, and another 6 planned. The reactors powered nearby cities and towns, yes, but that kind of power would need a very maximum of two reactors – not twelve. About a 45-minute drive from the plant, we were taken to a huge construction of space-age rows of telegraph wires, some 150m in height, by 300m in length – a rigid series of conical cages, ladders, platforms and wires, pointed unashamedly towards the United States. In full view, NATO would have been aware, but people are still confused over its purpose, if it is purely a colossal listening device, or the potential to be much more.

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Known as “The Russian Woodpecker”, the structure was in action, interfering with radio waves and airwaves for decades, right up until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.. Popular local belief is that, with a possible six more reactors, the intention was to do much, much more than simply listen, (and here I picture Alan Moore’s ending of “The Watchmen”). The guide explained the amount of power that would be needed to create a weapon that could control the weather – and with incredible amounts of nuclear power under your control – why not?

It was by reaching so far, and literally to the sky, that one of the biggest, and most powerful empires the world has seen, collapsed. One crack – one accidental fire, that cost 16 billion dollars to address, and then fix, back in 1986. Its expense was crippling, and that in turn, transformed the lives of millions across the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and many more.

Pripyat Supermarket 2

Today, the Ukraine relies on Nuclear power for 60% of its energy supplies, and with it’s ability to take away dependency of fossil fuels and natural resources, and to power entire cities fast, without a viable sustainable alternative, nuclear power is going nowhere. As a global populace, its up to us to understand how to take care of it, harness it, and live with the consequences if we can’t.

Heading back to the city, the combination of Kiev and Chernobyl was a mind-opening trip that hadn’t been what any of us expected. We expected a pretty European city with a smattering of communism and a clash of cultures, with Vodkas in our hands. We expected a bomb site full of horror stories and post apocalyptic film sets.

Instead we found quiet, inspired stories from strong people full of contrasts; a task to attempt to understand even just a tiny bit, a myriad of different types of beauty, different sides of history, solid handshakes with hidden attentiveness. And of course, a trip across a planet that can perfectly cover our steps if it needs to, and we could so easily force its hand.

Pripyat Apartment


Drusilla.

I’m under a ‘Dragonmart’ ban. Not outright damnation, but I’m not allowed to bring home unnecessary ‘weirdshit’ from the Beijing Outpost 30 minutes out of Dubai – inflatable wrestlers, replicas of wooden ship masts, 3 metre-wide painted fans, Kites… and Mannequin heads. 2-foot bald mannequin heads with a listless, snooty look.

Dragonmart’s where I met Drusilla. Patient, calm, never interrupts, a brilliant listener (although earless). She’s not bothered about who-said-what, never lets the language barrier make anyone feel awkward, (Cantonese is her native tongue), doesn’t take Selfies, instagram her breakfast, pull ‘Ghetto Fingers’ in photos, or send me Fruitloop text messages.

Her hazel eyes are permanently aloof; all-knowing albeit bored, and she’s not ashamed of her alopecia or diminutive height. Wherever she goes, she maintains poise and immaculate repose.  Sure, she still smells of the plastic factory she grew up in, and when she goes for a swim, brings half the pool home, and her eyelashes need re-gluing, but she’s loyal, constant. Unperturbed.

I can’t tell you what she means. A statement about the overly hygienic aesthetic of marketing Dubai, a  plea for attention, a bald, plastic embodiment of showboating ‘eccentricity’ to others, or a  toy I like taking pictures of, but she’s a muse of sorts. It’s fun to see people’s eyes widen when she comes out of the bag at a barbeque. Or the people who try to determine the point, and their friends’ willingness and outright intent to suck her face, have a photo with her and parade her around the dancefloor.

Yes, it’s silly, makes no sense, has no purpose. Particularly in Dubai. But it’s Armless fun. Meet Drusilla. She does Dubai.http://instagram.com/drusilladoesdubai  

Her Instagram Profile...

Her Instagram Profile…

Drusilla


Video & Ting.

I don’t make animations. This isn’t one. It’s more of a Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism. But an MC in Dubai gave me his CD, and I wanted to give it a try.

THIS LINK RIGHT HERE is the article I wrote about the same artist and two more that inspire me for Uprising, the brainchild of Scott Goodson, rather clever founder of Strawberry Frog, an agency made up of individuals creating things they and their clients can feel proud of, that people can enjoy seeing.

UAE HipHop and R&B in Uprising

I’m going to make another Hypermental-Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism, but for the next one I’ll be learning some proper editing packages and make some actual footage and actual stuff.

And for a chuckle at my expense, this here is the first animation I ever made back in 2003. It’s Medium-Rare Crappola, but made me laugh today by how perfectly terrible it actually is.


Sri Lankings. Do all roads lead to Beijing?

Got back from a trip to Sri Lanka with a pal who works for a mining company in West Africa. We saw this captivating little nation through very different eyes, but found many of the same things, and learned a few too. Travelling helps that. I’m not one for listing travelling as a hobby- don’t travel for travel’s sake -it will not guarantee you will be more interesting. Travel to learn things that will better you and who you go with, to see stuff, that doesn’t have to go on Facebook. But I think I learned things on this trip, and now I’m blogging about them.

Sri Lanka Graphic Montage

Dubai takes perspective and stuffs it in the padding of a champagne-sipping Ukrainian model’s bra. But for every Terstosterphoney, overpaid sleazebollock gyrating with a 21 year old while the wife is at home, there’s  a talented, discerning individual here because of the economy. I’ve found a heap of them I care about very much. The greasy hormonoids across chandeliered neon rooms were things I expected, but I’m still getting sucked into the vortex.

My maid only comes once a week, I don’t have an SUV, I have to share my five residence swimming pools with other plebs, it’s at least 6 minutes walk to the nearest decent bit of beach, I don’t go on enough boats, and I’ve not had a decent rare fillet steak in at least a month. Poor me.

This time last year, the deflated mattress in Brooklyn next to the crusty cat’s bum wasn’t so bad, nor the collapsable ceiling, aggressive Haitians in the stairwell and immortal bed bugs (justified by staying with my soul mate, rocking up a Brooklyn-shaped talent-fest as I write this, Theresa Caffrey).

In New York, London, Birmingham or Edinburgh, millions commute at least an hour every day, to share eight hours in a collection of allocated spaces with people we don’t always like or understand. Most of us spend two thirds of each day justifying ourselves through emails, invoices, estimates, documents that will possibly help in compiling other documents, gchat, texting, Facebook when nobody’s looking…  Then we go back, to the train, bus or expressway for an hour home-bound, to the bar, or to the sofa, for American impact-drama and dinner with a label that tells us it’s healthy, authentic or 30% off.

In Dubai, lower that productivity by 30%, reduce commute-time by 70%, increase job security by 40% and sunshine by 80%, and lower inspiration and gigs by 60%. Add a smattering of food imported from opposite parts of the planet, accepted in-grained racism in all directions, and the most beautiful hotels you’ve ever seen, and you’ve got your gig.

Dubai doesn’t give a household-pet-monkey about infrastructure but they’ve got the basics to justify the Sensational-Destination bits. Africa, based on the experiences of my friend and my sister’s time there setting up this brilliant community-based travel company, doesn’t do infrastucture either – you know, roads, power, supplies, that kind of shit, but – Dubai has money, Africa has resources. So does Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, child in car

And Sri Lanka has work ethic – not work like sitting at a desk making spread sheets, work like making things, growing things, refining things, carving, welding, weaving, making things. And not just because people need to pay the bills, or feed mouths. Cycling 8 miles at 3am with a cart of bananas is to put the children through higher education, to get your son his engineering degree, to get him to work abroad where his skills will be needed by people who don’t study engineering anymore, like Europe, or Australia, or the Middle East, or the USA, where we study Marketing, English Literature, Media Studies, Philosophy, Religion or Fine Art. Sri Lankans are bright, proud, and things are moving fast.

And they have China, as Africa has too. The new expressways and tinted vans with Mandarin on make it quietly visible. Every Sri Lankan will say that “China is our big friend”. And when China makes a highway that reduces an 7 hour trip to 2 hours, what’s wrong with that? So why do I have a dodgy feeling about it?

Sri Lanka was flagged up and traded up by the Dutch 450 years ago, extorted and exported to buggery by the British, and now it’s China’s turn to buy up the Pineapples, Rubber, Tea, Cashews and more. They’re not visibly implanting a religion or dictator, or enforcing communism, and Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims live together with a distinct sense of Sri Lankan culture and pride, whether in their appearance, homes, or  auto-embellishments, you can’t tell what kind of god someone believes in unless you ask him. But China’s quiet helping hand will have a vested interest that will arise if trouble does. Which hopefully may not be soon.

Despite some very sludgy Tamil-shaped goings-on in recent years, Sri Lanka is the authentic, multi-cultural island of bright, earnest, hard-working friendliness that Singapore markets itself as, (instead of the weird plastic anti-soul themepark Singapore is).

I don’t know. I know ‘Neo Colonialism’ is a buzzword that describes something very real, and steadily raping African and Asian resources and nations. I know the gold in Dubai’s Gold Souk comes from a sinister chain of very unsavoury people, that starts with a young mother with a pick axe and baby on her back in an un-reinforced ditch in an unofficial mine in the Ivory Coast, who along with thousands of others has to run for her life when it rains.

I know that Sri Lankans sell to where the markets are, that they govern themselves, that post-Tsunami they’re hard-working, resilient people in a very beautiful country, and I hope they stay that way. It’s a lovely country in the middle of some big changes, but it has the resources, the people, and the strength to hold its own.


The BishBoshBang Infographic

Stats that won’t end up in your PowerPoint presentation. They may, or may not be true. I’ll let you be the judge of that.


2012 More or Less


Beirudethings

The Setting:
Beirut. Capital of Lebanon. A fuzzy, laughing, pock-marked electric oasis, ensconced in the Arabian wedge of the Meditteranean. Garlic, booze, concrete, olives, amorous eyes, hormones on steroids and cigarettes in every hand, cornered between angry nations pointing rockets and fingers at each other.

The Cast:
Seven Brits – alcoholism, nihilism, Borat & Partridge quotes, mutual piss-taking, self deprecation, limited understanding of exchange rates, cheerful and willing abandon at regular intervals.

Three Aussies – construction, management & mining consultants with a vent for hedonism, females and the pursuit of happiness.

Two Filipinas, immaculately turned out, all-seeing, all observing, not about to take any shit. Off anybody.

One Palestinian/Lebanese – the only member to actually understand often less-than-favourable comments from locals. Tolerant, thoughtful counterbalance to everyone else. Loveable.

One South African – Ladykiller, ladles of charm and no problem being the butt of jokes because he always gets the girl (although he doesn’t know what Savoury means or who Bill Murray is).

One Scottish-Indian, bright-eyed, loved up, up for everything, owner of the most inimitable accent I will ever hear.

The ensemble headed to Beirut last weekend for a 30th bash. Memory loss. Fearlessness. Intermittent Aspergers. Regular premature Alzheimers. Puke. Bidets. Abused curtains. Lots of laughing.

The Scene.
Flydubai took us to the city where the Arabs go to party, where Roman ruins dance between the ghosts of old wars and potentially imminent ones on streets peppered with smiles, stares, shwarmas, cigarettes, hugs, handshakes and a smoky warmth wherever you end up.

Biblical stone broods beside bullet-addled bricks, and 70s highrises cuddle up to Maronite churches, while Byzantine columns sleep between cacaphonic pylons. Decent Graffiti frames Hesbollah posters. 60s Mercs cut up brand new Porches. And men, men everywhere – soldiers on corners, old men on chairs, flatcaps and leather jackets, on steps, in doorways, outside shops, fifteen for every lady, with unabashed stares at unchaperoned women, hands forever scratching itchy bollocks (apparently it’s because it’s common to shave your pubes in Lebanon, but the ladies didn’t seem to have the same problem).

One street is old Berlin in summer, the next is Havana in Winter. The manic roads and crumbling history are Athens, with streetfaces of downtown Memphis or Barcelona. Plenty feels like downtown Marseille or Lille in the mid 80s, or like the 80s in general, only everyone’s off their faces, wants to be your friend, to show you the very best of their country and drives like a complete mental. Rear view mirrors are for ornamental purposes, as are lanes, pavements, traffic lights and zebra crossings.

The Plot.
Ha. Not really. Started with good intentions, but there were no illusions that the plot was going to be devised or found on this trip.

At 5am, 1.5 hours before the flight, I met my roomie for the first time, a stunner a long way from the home counties with a clever media job, in a pile of drunken bags and stuffs on the roadside. We’d both separately decided that as it wasn’t a school night, it was fine to travel to Lebanon on NO sleep and extended inebriation. On the plane, one of the Aussies thoughtfully warned a Lebanese man that we might be doing “terrible things to your country”. He was wrong. As much as Brits and Aussies are a royal pain in the arse on a global scale, anything we thought was unacceptable or just plain silly was fine with Lebanon. The locals’ primary concern was that we love the place, and we did.

Jihad Salon pour homme - We'll blow you away

We hired a coach and saw some sites. A million years of stalactites, (or an incredible, drippy Jim Henson/Terry Gilliam set at Jeitta’s Grotto), the serenely chilled RomanChristian Byblos, with fishermen chilling in the sunset on a 4000 year old port, giant angry marshmallows or rocky fingers swearing out of the bay at the Corniche, electric bars and happy drunks staggering across Jemayze. But mostly we ate, drank, ran, danced, wobbled, sang, questioned scam artists, lather-rinse-repeat as needed.

We met Hamdan, the checker player with the most incredible moustache any of us will ever see, the scamster arsewipes at BO18 who took a chunk of our money for a table guarded by overweight overzealous bouncers in bad suits & attitudes, then charged the entire bill again to the Aussie Birthday Boy’s card once we’d left. The larger than life ponytailed soulsinger Alex Nashef in Bar Louis. The kind taxi driver who didn’t get offended when we observed the thickness of Rafik Hariri’s eyebrows. Reem, the barmaid who kept pouring us ‘surprise’ shots and cocktails. Local ladies with lashings of eyeliner, piles of cleavage and plenty of soul. The Finnish girls who scammed us into paying their Bar tab. Wolf whistling soldiers. Bemused hotel staff. Amused pizza boys who could see a chunky profit a mile off. Everyone you looked at was looking back.

 The Script. (Names *****ed) 

“I knew it was time to go when I asked that man to drag me around the floor by my feet”

“Reception said they’ve run out of beer – they didn’t sound very apologetic about it”

“I think I’ve got chocolate cake in my ear”

“Promise you won’t make me leave this room or do anything today or I’ll have a panic attack”

“What’s the conversion for dollars into Lebo thingies again?”

5pm on BBM “Is anyone up yet?”

“A good midget porn title? ‘It’s alright, they’re not children'”

“He is genuine ********* face” (Borat quote in response to very Borat-sounding coach driver)

“If nothing else my kids’ll have good manners.” – “J****’s kids’ll probably have ***** ********”

“Who’s that dude staggering across the street down there? Oh, it’s D***. D***! We’re here!”