Saturday, February 23, 2008


'If anyone asks, you didn't see us, Ok?' - Pants nearly scuppers revolution

To say Fidel Castro has ‘stepped’ down is something of a euphemism, is it not? By all accounts Fidel has not been doing a lot of moving at all in the last year or so; hence the reluctant departure from the Cuban presidency. Presumably this course of action was only arrived at after exhausting all the cloning possibilities. Is it just me or does it strike others that officially handing over the premiership to little brother Raúl, who at seventy-six and cast from identical DNA, is hardly new blood? Seems well… not exactly a revolutionary thing to do?

Would it be uncharitable to speculate that the Castro hegemony has been characterised by its ultra-conservatism? I mean, what kind of putz wants to keep the same job for sixty years? There are no Pulitzers for observing that the ironic signature of ‘liberation’ movements in the last millennium was the immediate and permanent curtailment of liberty. But why has Cuba kept up the pretentious fear of capitalist ideological corruption for so long after the Russians let the whole silly business crumble with the Berlin Wall? Whereas it’s certainly true that the USA remains a clear and present danger to world sanity, it’s surely not because Americans have a TV in every room.

It’s plainly not a dynasty Castro wanted either. He has half a dozen sons. He could have passed the mantle on, Nehru/Ghandi style. Clearly Fidel wants to live forever, and that forever to remain in 1959, like a communist Disneyland, if such a thing is conceivable. It’s a classic case of having nothing to fear but fear itself. The Havana of Cadillacs and Cohibas is the one most tourists, including the travelling Pants, are familiar with. And it’s not an unattractive picture. A cynic could see the place as a giant stage where every resident one encounters is simply playing the part of a cheerfully stoic citizen. But it’s kind of hard to do that on a daily basis without betraying some signs of strain and, by and large, resident Cubans seem like a happy lot.

You could argue, and I obviously would, that when people are denied freedom of movement or expression for purely political reasons, then all aspects of citizenship are compromised. But it doesn’t seem like that when you’re there. I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of Cubans, especially amongst the elderly, who don’t feel deprived because there’s no McDonalds in their neighbourhood and they never got to holiday in Dubai.

There’s no question that Cuba has suffered from chronic economic mismanagement for nearly two generations and is in a much worst fiscal state than it needs to be. But it’s also true that the education and health services are some of the best in the world. Given the political will, the Castro administration was always capable of competence. They had to be doing something right to survive nearly sixty years of embargoes from their powerful and manipulative neighbour, even after the demise of their economic patron, the Soviet Union.

I do feel for young Cubans. Who’d want to be stuck on a tiny island, no matter how picturesque and politically stable, when there’s a whole world out there to explore? Contrary to popular belief, American television is shown in Cuba. CNN is available on cable as are some movie channels and HBO if memory serves. Mandatory punishment for the slightest sign of dissent is always raised as a human rights issue, correctly so too. We had one tour guide who had no compunction at all about expressing his disapproval of the beloved leader, often hinting that he at least believed Castro was sitting on a considerable personal fortune. We could easily have shopped this guy if we’d wanted. He was hardly guarded with his views. I’m not suggesting that this constitutes freedom of speech in the way we appreciate it, just that the personal risk of voicing disgruntlement might be overstated. And I actually don’t remember seeing many police in the streets, either. It seems to me that even in its paranoid and isolationist state, Cuba would always have been a far more desirable place to live than the Chile of Pinochet, the Argentina of Galtieri or the Spain of Franco.

I visited Russia in the 80s and met quite a few young people. Hey, I was young myself then. They weren’t dissimilar in attitude to the Cubans I met. There was a sanguine acceptance that communism, despite its faults, was not a bad way to run a country with a lot of poor people in it. Of course it would be infinitely better if those at the top didn’t instantly turn into paranoid megalomaniacs, but no system is perfect. Given that within minutes of democratisation, the bulk of Russian wealth passed into the hands of a clutch of oligarchs who could think of nothing better to do with it than bid for football teams, you have to wonder whether it’s worth exchanging the treasury for the right to take your passport on the odd outing.

People will have a quality of life no matter what the restrictions. I personally think a complete absence of supermarkets is no great hardship. In fact, I might be willing to give up considerable personal freedoms in exchange for the demise of Walmart and Tesco. When it comes to consumerism, less is definitely more in my view.

If ever there’s a space to be watched, it will be Cuba in the next couple of years. There are already changes underway with the arrival of some foreign businesses and relaxation of restrictions on private enterprises. The introduction of paladars, (restaurants in people’s homes), is welcome as the state-owned eateries do unspeakable things to lobsters that would be considered criminal anywhere else in the world. I’m very glad I went there while Fidel was still standing. I did watch a couple of hours of one of his legendary filibusterers and very entertaining it was too. I have a feeling history will be much kinder to Castro than it’s been to any of the other twentieth century dictators. He was after all Che Guevara’s best mate and it just doesn’t get cooler than that.

Picture by Ozmicro

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sorry... not so hard after all

It was just before the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, the platform Aboriginal people used to draw attention to their long struggle for equality and reparation onto the world’s stage, that I escaped to Britain. The shameful way in which my country had treated its indigenous population was not the reason I left – that was down to a rather foolish desire on my part to have a career in popular music. It did however play a part in the complex relationship I have with belonging and identity in general.

Ten years earlier our idealistic but tragically self-destructive Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had predicted that Australia would be judged by its treatment of Aboriginal people. That turned out not to be entirely true. It’s clear the rest of the world doesn’t give a flying fuck about the plight of indigenous Australians except when it requires a suitable benchmark to cast its own brutality in a more favourable light. To that extent, we even managed to make South Africa look good on occasion.

Twenty-five years later, I arrive back in time to witness parliament’s official apology to the Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations. It’s a proud moment and, I hope, one that represents a new beginning for the people of this country, whose cultural heritage I’d like to stress, is far more diverse than the latent tendency for us to be conveniently described as comprising ‘indigenous and non-indigenous’ people suggests. All that unravelling is to come.

The symbolic gesture of a sincere and contrite admission that the forced removal of children from their parents with neither warning nor justification was wrong, is considered by many of us to be the first step in a very long journey of reconciliation. But there are still others who think that no apology was due, since the practice of stealing children was legal at the time – much like slavery for example. There are many who believe that children were removed for their own protection and that dispatching them into domestic service where they were frequently unpaid and abused (also usually called slavery), was a vast improvement on their previous prospects. It’s not a simple matter. After all, Britain still can't bring itself to apologise for slavery after two hundred years.

It would be a mistake to get too caught up in the euphoria of the moment, historic and emotional as it is. Entrenched views about the perceived worth of Aboriginal people are not likely to change overnight. The complex problems facing many Aboriginal communities are serious and often obscured by disproportionate and salacious media coverage, particularly of sexual violence. Over many years, the distortion has contributed to a widely held belief that Aboriginal people are degenerate and therefore undeserving of support; resistant to any and all well-intentioned initiatives due to an irreconcilable cultural chasm and hopelessly dependent on welfare anyway. That’s going to take a lot of undoing and there are plenty of people in this country who are not inclined to have their fixed views challenged.

But now the words that many thought would never be spoken are out there. Certainly, as a repatriated citizen, I feel the spirit of optimism palpably. Almost everyone I know was planning to immigrate to New Zealand if Howard got back in. People now talk about the future as if they might actually be able to influence it. As the new parliament met for the first time to the accompaniment of a traditional Aboriginal ceremonial dance, it felt like the whole country had suddenly woken up and discovered it could head off in a completely new direction. It’s a novelty to have a prime minister with whom I find myself in agreement. I could get used to that.

The writer and broadcaster Charmian Clift, returning to live in Australia in the 1960s, had this to say on the subject of homecoming,

All migrants, I think, are optimistic, or, anyway, hoping like blazes they’ve really done the right thing. And we were odd sorts of migrants, in that we were migrating to home, which from fifteen years and half a world away could be distorted by the curve of the earth, memory, and couriers’ reports, into Utopia or Hicksville.

In many ways my fate is not unlike that of my country’s. A monumental thing has happened which demands a new direction but the road ahead is by no means clear. We're also both in a honeymoon period where we've made the decision but not yet embarked on the work of implementing that decision Wish us both luck.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Heathcliff Hanger

Pants pens sequel to Bronte classic

India is good for the figure
, if not the digestive system. I thought I'd lost my money belt until I realised it was down around my knees. Not the best place for it but my spending money was unaffected. This was both a good and a bad thing. It meant, on the one hand that I'd plenty of buying power but also indicated I hadn't made progress in the gift department. But, thanks to the kindness and local knowledge of Delhi resident Ms A, I managed to gather a credible selection of presents on my final day. For a while there I thought I might have to sneak into Eumundi Markets for the mirrored bags and rhinestone elephants.

Given that I'm conflicted about shopping in general, my first hand experience of the grinding poverty of so many Indians further complicated the whole thing. Livelihoods depend on people like me buying local, handmade items which now exist because of tourism. I blame Lonely Planet since half of the shops and restaurants in the popular destinations like Pushkar display recommended by Lonely Planet signs. I have a problem with the whole bargaining thing too - life has to be too short to waste any of it haggling, surely.

I've learned something about myself. Don't get excited, it's a good deal less than spiritual. I've learned that my people skills, such as they are, are entirely artificial. It seems I've developed only enough to get me by for the eight or so hours necessary to hold down a job in a field where the ability to communicate effectively is vital. Just how important is it to be interested in other people - and by that I mean any random selection of people as opposed to people who are inherently interesting? Is one expected, for example to take an interest in pronouncements on life made by vain and vacuous twenty-somethings who no one has seen without make-up since they were nine? Is one obliged to feign rapt attentiveness as they struggle to obtain the vocabulary to state the obvious? I should always travel alone, I know that now.

Good thing I didn’t read my copy of Lonely Planet before I went. What a load of alarmist hog swill that is. I remained blissfully unaware that, as a firangi, I was imperilled every minute I was on the streets of Delhi. It’s a miracle that I wasn’t kidnapped by any number of auto-rickshaw drivers bent on ransoming me for the price of a carpet. I found saying ‘no’, albeit sometimes quite firmly, was an effective deterrent against acquiring goods and services I didn’t want. The only time I felt even vaguely at risk was on the crowded streets of Jaipur where I discovered myself daydreaming for long enough for a ghoulish shadow who might have been at home as an extra in The Thief of Baghdad to get a little too close to the bag where I’d deposited all my valuables, including my oversized money belt. He was easily dispatched by my best cold, hard Paddington stare.

I surprised myself by not succumbing to my characteristic squeamishness over the potent aromas created by open sewers and menageries of street animals. I didn’t gag, not even once. I was able to engage with and show respect to even the most horrifically disabled beggars. I didn’t give them any money though. It’s not that I bought into the crude and simplistic explanations that guides and guidebooks reel off, (begging rings are run by the mafia/child beggars all have degenerate, drug addicted parents/most of the disabilities are self-inflicted), it was more a policy decision on my part. I took the precaution of making a substantial charitable donation before I left so the ‘I have so much, they have so little’ issue wouldn’t arise. I take the view that my embarking on a guilt trip would benefit no one. I did, however, have a problem with turning my back on children. It’s quite common for kids to ask your name/want to shake hands/get you to take their picture. The advances of children in rags carry an expectation that money will change hands. So you’re friendly to the nicely dressed children because they don’t want anything from you and you snub children because they’re ragamuffins. It doesn’t feel right.

My month in India is over. I intend to take a little time to process the experience but I can certainly say right now, the best thing for me was just watching life happen. I could do with a lot more of that. Although there were obvious drawbacks when it came to buying the family presents, I did love it that I hardly saw even a shop, much less the vast tracts of warehouses dedicated to the transfer of consumer goods I’m used to. The long journeys in the charmingly decrepit local buses and trains were made pleasurable by the opportunity to observe an entire cycle of life. You saw crops growing and being tended, harvested, transported by ox or camel or on the heads of women in bright blue saris, laid out in the street for sale, bought, cooked, eaten and then shat out. It does one’s heart good.

Now House of Pants has morphed into Winnebago of Pants. That’s to say, it isn’t a real Winnebago – that would obviously be silly – rather a symbolic representation of the movable feast that is Future of Pants. For what it's worth, I am now quite cured of seeking pleasure in society.

What to do next… (Barney, will you shut the fuck up – I should have let them turn you into vindaloo).