Flying Royally

Here’s is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. If you like, check out several more photos like this one, of a rock slide that impeded our progress upcountry for a time, in the Bhutan Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

On the flight in, we traveled in august company, as you will read, here:

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.

In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.

HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.

After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.

This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.

Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.

HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.

During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.

Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.

Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?

No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.

(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)

Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.

After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.

I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.

Global Climate Strike in Edinburgh, Dublin

Love this. Today’s Global Climate Strike from Edinburgh. Have a look:

Similar tweet from Dublin:

On The Road: Laundry Day In Abidjan

Here is my monthly travel column as it appeared Monday at 3 Quarks Daily:

The first part of this century West Africa was no place to be. Liberia was led by Charles Taylor, now serving a fifty year sentence for “aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history.” In Sierra Leone’s civil war, entire families were gunned down in the street. Children and adults had their limbs hacked off with machetes. 

A few years later in 2010, Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president of Côte d’Ivoire, refused to cede power following elections. Subsequent clashes led to 3000 deaths. (Gbagbo was acquitted of war crimes in January of this year).

In the late 1990s though, you might casually catch a flight to Abidjan on now defunct Air Afrique for a bit of innocent, if unlikely, tourism.

It was still the era of guidebooks. Here is the then-current Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa:

“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”

•••••

Some days are more freighted than others. Surely today was low on the portent scale. All we meant to do was ride out there and take some pictures.

Abidjan lay steaming, even before dawn. The business district called Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare. Not an elevated perch, no extended sight lines, no bracing breeze. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense, all eyes across the lagoon to the ocean beyond.

Even before the sun took hold and the work day began, swelter insinuated itself, began to grind in. Languor and sloth set the pace. Commerce with scant vigor, exertion with reluctance, the languid jostle of a poor city, stale, half-hearted, humdrum.

Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged foreign boys fanned out across town, their mission to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and busied themselves sudsing, well before the sun crested the hill.

Unlikely as it seems, determined young men fought for this work, because take home pay was more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. This riverbank laundry had a trade union, union dues, and you could be fired. If young Burkinabé were determined to work, if they collected sweaty shirts and socks day after day, sudsed and pounded them on rocks, delivered them back and did it right, they’d pocket a hundred bucks a week.

•••••

You couldn’t take good pictures if you didn’t go early. Too late and all you’d see was clothes drying in the grass. So brash, new in town and a little reckless, we bounded straight out of bed without even a look in the mirror. Brush teeth, slip on yesterday’s clothes, grab cab, go. No questions asked or answered. No good sense. Traipsing.

A fiery orange cab idling on the curb. It’s still twilit, dawn an unfilled promise. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could it be we’re his last fare from last night?

First, to find a common language. Pretty much everybody will try English; Shona-speaking Zimbabweans, Setswana speakers in Botswana, Swahili-speaking Maasai. But neither West African officialdom (noted at immigration) nor, as we now found out, Ivorian cabbies. This would be done in French. Ce sera fait en français (I think).

Off and rolling, angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hit stone, we explained, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We pointed at a map but he already had the pedal to the floor, through which, at an angle just so, you could glimpse flashes of pavement.

He nodded without looking back. Said he’d need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).

It took important minutes to figure out, but as it happened, our man behind the wheel seized on “Dabou,” a town almost forty kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast, and fled town as fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was home. We worked this out when we could look forward and back and see nothing but cooking smoke, nothing resembling a park, not even any traffic, horizon to horizon.

Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!

We shook our heads, posed as determined. He posed back wounded, as if he’d never heard of any Parc du Banco and relented to something we weren’t asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, as we hurtled further along the coast.

This pained him in a theatrical way but we matched his drama with scowls, tried to loom larger in the back seat than we were, and ultimately returned to the hotel, where we did as we should have in the first place. We inquired at the front desk, behind which a single gentleman practiced his torpor.

He set us up with this fellow Simeon, a graying older chap who drove for the hotel. Simeon knew all about Parc du Banco, of course. It would take part of an hour and he quoted 3500. Progress.

Simeon steered us back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, a big sign off to the right read merely “Tampon Express.” Maybe that meant something else here?

Rumpled, heat-stained Ivorians coalesced along the verge. Walk-up entrepreneurs rattled around staking out their own patches of gravel for another day of peddling folding hand fans and drinks, and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust.

Sunlight touched the treetops. We feared we had already failed our day’s mission before 8:00 a.m., but we made a turn onto at a dirt track, motored over a hill and here we were.

Color returned with the sun and the launderers leaned into their work. Birds announced themselves with song. Wildflowers waved, butterflies blundered by and gnats performed en pirouette in slanted shafts of sunbeam. The scent of fresh mud rose from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At our remove, the rush of current made a jumble of many dozen voices. Here were the best few minutes of the Ivorian day, heat yet to stifle, sweat yet to incite insects.

Brimming with industry and purpose, the river spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers, haulers and folders, food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.

Shirtless men hoisted bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reached higher than they could stretch their arms. Women scrubbed shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move far enough out to evade silt.

Boom boxes blasted soukous. Freshly washed garments hung across half-submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, held laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them. I could not see around a bend in the river but I anticipated a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway sock or bar of soap.

Every last soul was soaked through, splashing and singing; two more boys took the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market spontaneously lit up along the bank. Baguettes and nuts were on offer now, and more women approached crowned with fruit.

We surrendered the sovereignty of the cab and walked to the crest of the hill. Simeon, bless him, put on a hangdog look and trailed us. He stood at a reluctant distance from the blond girl and the white guy, the only non-Africans in the park, appropriate as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We drew a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.

“Anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk” was Lonely Planet’s tactful way of implying if you were not African and you were carrying something, you might be relieved of it by the end of the day.

The first wave of challengers was just curious kids. The second wave, more insistent, we stymied by saying really fast things in English like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t, and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Lubumbashi.”

They were bewildered but wouldn’t be put off. We understood Simeon explaining in French that we didn’t know any. Soon enough they presented a brawny Anglophone, broad of shoulder, menacing of mien.

He proposed that we had no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explained that when he showed me his badge that read tourist police we could talk, while I snapped more photos.

This befuddled him for less time than I’d hoped. He scowled, “You want to see my badge?” Simeon came up close, his expression like he had perhaps just found a sore inside his mouth. We held the hill for a minute longer, then ultimately retreated. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one:

Huts and History

Red Sky Shepherd’s Huts builds outbuildings. Among their sheds, one model offers “timber frame construction with tongue and groove interior pine walls. Each wall and floor are five layers deep (with) … a cavity filled with quality sheep’s wool insulation.” One specific hut of this type features “a corner-set wood-burning stove … (and) a pull-out double sofa bed.”

This particular hut connects the most historically disastrous British Prime Minister I can name to a really big personal dilemma. For in this hut, his publicists would have it at least, David Cameron has been writing his memoir, For the Record.

For the Record is published by Harper Collins, a subsidiary of News Corp, a Rupert Murdoch company. The book is available for pre-order just now on Amazon in the U.S. for $40.00.

I’d be interested to read Mr. Cameron’s version of events. The problem: paying a person who has done great harm. A couple of other books come to mind – those of the East German spy master Markus Wolf and O. J. Simpson.

Simpson’s 2006 If I Did It was to be published by ReganBooks, which is also an imprint of Murdoch’s HarperCollins, but universal disgust led to a court awarding royalties to the victim’s family. So that worked out okay, although it was an easy choice not to be stained by reading that book.

•••••

Cameron, for all his slack-jawed inattention, was no O.J. Simpson. To his credit, the New Statesman reports that

“Cameron is donating the £800,000 that the publisher HarperCollins paid for his book to charities for Alzheimer’s, veteran servicemen and childhood disability (his six-year-old son, Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009).

(Do not fret for the former Prime Minister. His fee for speeches about Brexit: £2000 per minute.)

Mr. Cameron’s long-delayed book drops next Thursday in the U.K., the following week in the United States. Suppose For the Record is a Brexit tell-all and a ripping good read. You reckon?

Amazon isn’t encouraging:

“In For the Record, he will explain how the governments he led transformed the UK economy while implementing a modern, compassionate agenda that included reforming education and welfare, legalizing gay marriage, honoring the UK’s commitment to overseas aid and spearheading environmental policies.”

Ehhh.

I imagine Cameron will claim to have been undermined by the current Prime Minister and Michael Gove, who is currently heading up planning for a crash out of the EU. If he does and he was, he will have been betrayed by dicey bedfellows. Dicey bedfellows who, as it happens, run the government just now.

Former P.M. Cameron will pursue a cautious book tour:

“The only events on the calendar are An Evening with David Cameron, at a yet-to-be-revealed central London location on 6 October, and an interview by the BBC’s Sophie Raworth at the Times-sponsored Cheltenham literature festival a day earlier.”

Meanwhile the U.K. parliament has been sent home by a Prime Minister eager for an unimpeded stomp across the political landscape through the upcoming weeks of party conferences. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost every parliamentary vote since he assumed office while withdrawing the whip (in American, that means he stripped the benefits of running on behalf of his party) from 21 party stalwarts, meaning they can’t stand as Tories in the next election, and as a result now commands a distinct minority.

You can see why Mr. Johnson might wish to send his parliamentary opponents back to the provinces. You can also see the peril to the British system of governance. The demons David Cameron unleashed with his 2016 Brexit referendum vote are circling their devilish roost.

Johnson’s boorish challenge to the parliament’s (unwritten) constitutional authority speeds up everything from the prospects for a new general election to the collapse of the confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s DUP to Scottish succession. History is revving up in the United Kingdom.

But about those memoirs: seems like the Trump tell-alls are shallow and cash-motivated. I’ve passed on them. Have I missed anything? Anyone? I’ve enjoyed two Brexit books, Tim Shipman’s All Out War and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons. But what to do on Cameron’s book?

•••••

I had a dear German friend who spent her life, spanning the entire division of her country, in western Berlin. She would not countenance buying the East German spymaster Marcus Wolf’s 1999 memoir Man Without A Face (co-authored by Anne McElvoy). For Inge it was a bridge too far. Wouldn’t buy it, wouldn’t read it.

Still, conflicted, I just may enrich the bank accounts of Wolf’s estate, Cameron’s charities and Wolf’s and Cameron’s publishers, and in some kind of odd, backwards tribute to Inge, read both their memoirs together. I’ll bet Man Without a Face is not turgid. Place your bets on the Cameron book?

Quotes: On the Singapore Model

Street food stall, Singapore

For those who wish to see, critics warn about Boris Johnson’s hard-Brexit plans for free ports and mimicking the so-called “Singapore Model.” Angela Merkel warned of the danger to EU of Singapore-style UK on its border today. She said,

“But the fact remains that after the withdrawal of Britain, we have an economic competitor at our door, even if we want to keep close economic, foreign and security cooperation and friendly relations.”

Addressing the Singapore Model, an Oxfam report from last year notes that Singapore

“has no equal pay or non-discrimination laws for women; its laws on both rape and sexual harassment are inadequate; and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guard.”

Unless perhaps you are a cleaner or a security guard, I’m guessing that’s not exactly among the outcomes rank-and-file Brexiteers expect from a hard Brexit.

Mezhyhirya, Viktor Yanukovych’s Little Project, Part 1

Here is the home of the disgraced former ruler of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, which he called Межигір’я, approximately “Mezhyhyria,” translated as something like “between the hills.” The Mezhyhyria estate grew from a collection of dachas outside Kyiv used by government officials. After President Yanukovych was run out of town, fleeing to Russia during a popular uprising in February 2014, the common folk had a look inside. We had a look for ourselves last month, and here are a few photos, in the first of probably three or four photo essays.

Click the photos for larger versions at EarthPhotos.com.

The gentleman who took us to Mezhyhirya said Yanukovych wasn’t a sportsman, but fancied himself one. Still, who couldn’t use a few lanes in the basement?

Yanukovych was not a race car driver, but somebody painted him as one.

Nor was he a boxer, but this room was perhaps useful for his bodyguards?

What home is complete without a stuffed lioness?

Or a salt cave?

Here is the tastefully flayed real crocodile on the dining table.

The chandelier at the entranceway.

And the entranceway itself.

Here we see Ukrainian citizens’ tax dollars at work. And what value for the money! President Yanukovych managed all this on a presidential salary of about $1000 a month.

I imagine this series will continue, because there are dozens and dozens more.