Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Don’t cry for me, Argentina!

Hola!

Apologies for the lack of activity, as in December I was preparing for an exam, and a day later, I flew to South America for a month – with these last few weeks my freetime has been eaten by creating some order at DataPortability. Despite the fact I knew one month wasn’t enough, and I visited too many countries that the travel was tiring and expensive, it still has been an amazing experience and I figure I might as well share my experience, as this blog did start as a travel blog.

From Tango in Buenos Airies to anaconda hunting in Bolivia, partying in Cuzco to experiencing the misunderstood Columbia – its been an amazing trip, where the people I’ve met on the way have made it just as rewarding as the places I visited. But if you have read my travel writing before, I am not going to bore you with “and then I did this and then I did that and oh my god, we then did that and it was so cool…”. Just some quick observations that may help you see what I saw.

“Self service toilets” – as oppossed to?….

The cities
First stop was Buenos Aires, where I spent close to week doing, um, not quite sure what I did. Buenos Aires is one of the stand out cities in the world, as I was told, but what I wasn’t told was why it’s a stand out city. And the answer is, is because it’s a cultural city. Meaning, there is sweet FA to do there as a tourist. But it’s a funky city to live in: densely urbanised with the town layout following the grid layout that is common across all the Spanish colonial cities, helping structure the urban jungle.

Coming into BA from the airport, I felt like I was driving into Athens: the heat, the run down buildings, and most of all the dirty roads which leave cars with a constant dirt on their sides and belly. Yet that was only the beginning of my comparisons with other cities, as BA’s 48 neighbourhoods each have a unique character and identity – from the slums of La Boca home of the famous Boca Juniors stadium, to the upmarket Riccoletta which had me thinking I was in Greenwich Village New York (the New York you see when watching sitcoms like Friends). Finally, two Melbournians pointed out to me that the city reminds them of Melbourne. One said the harbour is why, whilst my own observation was the grid-like structure of the city found in other great cities like New York, Thessaloniki and Melbourne was more the cause. (Yes, alright, I love the grid layout.)

Bogota (Columbia)

I lost my photos for Argentina so you are going to have to settle with the urban sprawl of Bogota.

The consequence of a grid layout however is a cramped urban look, which I love about in cities, and which is what I believe is a common characteristic of cities with high culture. Whilst Argentina’s population density is 14 inhabitants per square kilometre, the city of Buenos Aires has a population density of over 14,000 inhab./km¬?. With so many people on the one area, no wonder this is a city that radiates culture. It is also no surprise why walking and getting lost in the neighbourhoods is one of the most enjoyable things to do.

Contrast that with La Paz in Bolivia, where I flew to next. Cities of the world tend to be compared to – for example, Buenos Aires, is called the “Paris of the South”, drawing comparison to one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. However with La Paz, I believe comparisons do not do it justice: it deserves to be a pin-up city that other cities can be compared to. And so therefore, whenever I say a city is the “La Paz of the …”, take that to mean, that that city is a shit hole that comes close to the biggest shit hole in the world.

Having said that though, I like shit holes. From the airport looking down, the city built on a mountains crest, certainly is spectacular – a geography it shares with Sarajevo, except about 4,000 metres above sea level and without any Serbs snipers. But whatever it is that makes it special, it certainly isn’t the ridiculous car pollution that I can’t help but claim is one of the landmarks of this third world country. I met a couple saying it’s been two weeks and they were still recovering from the altitude sickness which most people tend to get (including me): they didn’t realise those cars with engines from the 1930s probably are the cause. Getting out of the city was better than any pill you could take.

This is typical: the exhaust fumes are ridiculous on some cars

See that exhaust fume? Now times that by about 1000 and you get the idea what La Paz is like

The poverty is astounding, which is evident in the public works (or lack of). But one thing that strikes me, is that it just works. The overflowing markets in the city centre’s streets (I don’t use the word overflow lightly either) and the crazy amount of cars, give a chaotic feel – but like I said, it just works. It’s kind of cool (in the parts that don’t stink at least).

The other major cities I visited where Cusco in Peru, which is a pretty colonial city ruined by American package tourists, although to be fair, I was barely sober so didn’t get to see much as I was partying with some friends. I also went to Bogota in Columbia, a pleasant city, as well as Cali in the south which is one of the largest cities and centre of the cocaine industry. They also claim it is the salsa capital of Columbia (and the world) as well as having the most beautiful women. They do ok on both counts – going to a Salsa club, although expensive for a tourist, is certainly an experience; as for the latter, the reason why the guidebooks claim this as an attraction (other than because there is no much else to do in Cali but party and watch the homeless on crack cocaine) is because when you get a Latin Woman in a skimpy outfit due to the tropical weather (and that’s skimpy for all ages), no doubt men are going to rate this city highly. Sex will always beat high culture!

How to make cocaine stage 2

Coke, anyone?

The people
Argentineans and Columbians are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across. For example, standing on the Buenos Airies metro with my camera out like a stupid tourist – a lady approached me, urging me to hide my camera, due to theft which is so common in the city. (A big bloke from Sao Paolo who has never been robbed in his home city, an unusual occurrence, managed to get rolled here.) Other incidents and just the way people talk to you, is how I am basing my opinion of the friendliness of people. It’s the little things, but it shocked me particularly in Buenos Airies and Bogota as they are a big cities, which typically means everyone is a prick.

Bolivians I would have to say, whilst not exactly the least friendly, I was just shocked at how sloppy they were. The concept of hospitality is all but lost in Bolivia, it’s so ridiculous I couldn’t help but laugh. For example, at a restaurant on the way to Rubbenareque (where I did my Amazon trip), the way the waiter cleaned the food scraps on the table, was by wiping it to the floor, which was then cleaned by the resident dog.

Lake Tititaca

Lake Tititaca – it’s big

Their attitude to the environment is a conservationists nightmare. I remember asking a lady where the bin was for my chips packet which I had finished, and she just pointed on the ground. I was confused, thinking what did she mean by that, and she just laughed and took the packet off me, throwing it to the ground. As you can imagine, our Amazon trip was very scenic later that week – monkeys, dolphins, and floating garbage.

An interesting thing about South America was the policing presence. For example in Bolivia, there seemed to be a military officer or at least a police officer at every store. Columbia’s roads are full of checkpoints, although then again, with a civil war in that country, don’t think I’m complaining. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my pictures of Argentina, but one of the funniest pictures I took was just off the city centre. You had the presidents palace – an ugly pink building, flanked by the Mayor’s building, the Cathedral, and on the same street as the courts and legislature. However directly behind the Presidents house, about 100 metres south-west, is the Ministry of Defence – a towering building many times bigger. Given the history of the region, the fact that there is a much grander defence building watching the presidents house, is not to be lost as a metaphor.

Another thing that shocked me was how much of a presence the indigenous people have. Whilst it would vary across the countries, with Argentina predominantly European and Columbia European and African; Peru and Bolivia were very much dominated by the dark skinned, sometimes Asiatic looking indigenous people, who draw from a variety of ethnic groups, and who all are descendants of sorts of the Incan empire that ruled the continent just before the Spanish. The colourful dresses of the Amyran women in the streets of La Paz is certainly a sight.

The politics
Unlike my previous nine-month trip in Europe, where I thought I was some traveling journalist reporting to the world, I got over I am not writing a guidebook, and realised this was a holiday to fix me up from getting burnt out after two years of fulltime study and work. However despite a monthy of literally switching off, I couldn’t help myself and went into reporter mode, questioning any South American I came across.

World's most dangerous road

Doing our tour along the worlds most dangerous road

The over-arching theme that I took, was that this was a continent with amazing wealth, but overwhelming poverty and terrible government. Poverty is something that stares in your face – and I am told it is even more pronounced in Brazil. Whilst Brazil is the richest country because of its size, Argentina is regarded as the only developed country. Developed in that there is a stable government and economy, with a key difference being they have a vibrant middle class. Every other country, you notice there are the rich – who spend money in clubs like rich westerners – and there are the poor, which at times would distress me.

Our flight from Rubbeneraque to return to La Paz was delayed, which is an interesting example. The problem with Bolivia is that it has no infrastructure: something like 20-30% of the country’s roads are paved (I would love to be a tyre manufacturer there). The regional airports, like this one we were flying out from, was literally a grass field – with customs like some abandoned bus shelter. Actually, the plane couldn’t land due to the rain, and so they transported us to a neighbouring neglected military airport/grassfield about 40 minutes away, because the pilots managed to land it there. However as it rained, we had to wait for the water to drain as the plane couldn’t take off. This experience was an interesting insight into the poverty of Bolivia in particular, as it spurred a long discussion with a Austrian-born pilot now living in Bolivia.

Electrical wires in La Paz, Bolivia

Health and safety is clearly an issue in Bolivia

This man was one of the 70 pilots of the airline company Amaszonas, who was also one of the 23 owners and the National Operations manager of the company. There are four main airlines in Bolivia – three of them have struck an agreement to work together starting March 2008, with AeroSur doing internal flights, Amazonas doing domestic (going forward), and Aerocon doing the regional jobs like our flight today. The fourth airline, is TAM – a military transportation company, and one which our pilot friend claims is the governments attempt to kill local industry. He explain the Left-wing government has got a nationalistic, almost communist, drive. Rather than encouraging local industry, they are competing against it, trying to drive out these business so the government can have a state monopoly.

La Paz, Bolivia

The streets of La Paz – worlds biggest shit-hole

He was moaning how it took 23 minutes to get into radio contact of the guy that was on duty at this neglected airport, which is a lot of burnt fuel and a good example of how there isn’t a supporting infrastructure for business to do things efficiently. On the point of getting the airport paved, which would mean these planes could land in any weather, at 120metres by 60 it would cost 12million USD – a price the industry could not subsidise, and one the government is not willing. And that’s why 37% of the December flights – and December is on the start of rainy season – had been cancelled. Our flight from La Paz got cancelled as we were checking in, which is why we opted for a jeep ride (and that was an experience). If it wasn’t for this landing at the neighbouring airport, and the last minute response from the on-duty airport controller, the flight would have had to have turned back to La Paz. The economic cost of this infrastructure problem, as you can see, is massive.

Talking to this pilot you have to be careful on his views, as he was in the top echelon of society – married to a Channel Nine newsreader with strong connections to politicians, and the owner of an airline – his bashings of the government is a very different perspective of the poor. But as he talked, it made me realise how much of a no hope the Bolivian’s have despite his optimism when President Morales was out. For example, despite rich in natural resources, the government has forbidden foreign corporations from extracting it. Arguably, these corporations abused the country and its population, hence this stance, but as our right wing friend claims, it’s because the government wants to do it itself to capture all the profits. The problem with that approach however, is you need foreign investment to build the infrastructure & transfer expertise that can’t be done by the Bolivians. And so you have this nasty poverty trap – where the government refuses to support foreign investment despite a clear need for it, and investors can’t invest because of the unstable political situation, which on the inside, isn’t really that unstable (according to him), but which to the outside, looks like another South American bananas republic about to collapse again.

With the poor, and this was especially evident in La Paz, you would see women and children sitting by the streets begging for money. However as I was told later by the pilot, you shouldn’t feel sorry for these people because they deliberately do this. He shared a story how he offered a woman a job as a cleaner in his house, but she turned it down, because apparently she would make more money begging. I don’t buy that as an explanation for all the beggers, but certainly an interesting insight.

Bolivian Amazon tour

The resident crocodile on our Amazon tour

And the rest

  • Apparently, Venezuelan military planes fly in Bolivia! Hugo Chavez of Venezuela appears to be developing a confederate of allied nations, that look like another bloc of defiance against North America, taking on the leading role now that Cuba has its aged leader out of action.
  • I lost my ATM card a few days into my trip! I found this out when I had about two dollars on me, and without another credit card, you can pretty much understand the situation I was in…along with my counterfeit money issue in Iran, I think the only travelers worst nightmare I haven’t experienced, is losing my passport! I managed to get an emergency visa sent to my employers Bolivia office, but turns out that didn’t work – so I was reliant on about $2000 in wire transfers from family via the god send Western Union (thank God South America is cheap). Western Union is literally available anywhere – there are branches within post offices in Argentina, chemists in Peru, as well as banks and their own banks. At a $70 transfer fee, this is one of the travellers best resources when they are in trouble. On the flip side, I HATE YOU ST GEORGE BANK. It took me 20 minutes to try and call an after hours emergency number, and I ended up having to get my folks at home to call directory assistance, because their website is full of marketing crap. Don’t get me started on the rest.
  • I did a three day Amazon tour on the pampas, and I feel like I need to share my research with the other poor travellers trying to prepare.
    • Bolivia has apparently the cheapest Amazon tours with the most to see. All the tour agencies pretty much have cabins off the same river, and cost the same. Indigena has the cheapest; Inca tours the most expensive with mine middle of the range (Fluvial tours) – and for the same product
    • Flights to Rubbenareque can get cancelled at the last minute, which is the best way to travel and takes an hour (about 70USD); a 4×4 “jeep” takes 12 hours (about 55USD if you can get five people to share the ride); and the bus 20 hours (something like 10USD). Although the bus is cheaper – I’ve seen and heard from others why you shouldn’t; the jeep is a good experience to see the countryside but the bumpy roads can get very tiring, and make sure you leave early in the morning, because our driver post 12am starting getting very tired and was just trying to get there ASAP – which made the ride even more uncomfortable (at around 3 am, I felt he was purposely trying to hit the holes in the road, to keep himself awake!). The entire road to Rubbenareque can best be described as a wide goat track alongside a mountain cliff that drops 100 metres at times. The fact you have industrial trucks and buses traveling on a road that a car barely fits on, adds to the problem – if you are on the bus, to make way for other cars, there is a constant reversing and adjusting ON CLIFFS!! So that’s the reason the bus takes so much longer, and passengers fear for their lives. Actually, just ahead of us we witnessed a truck that fell off the road and crashed to the bottom – accidents are common.
    • As for contacting tour agencies, they all have websites that suck – it’s best to just turn up to La Paz or Rubbenareque and book there – they have tours running every day (we had one over Christmas).
      • The details for Indigena tours in La Paz, which you won’t find anywhere on the net, is the following:

      SAGARNAGA STREET (which is on the main tourist street filled with tours, at the very top of the road) NEAR TO ILLAMPU STREET N?Ǭ? 380 PHONE NUMBER 2110749. E-mail is indigenabolivia at hotmail dot com

      • They are the best because they are the cheapest, and the lady in La Paz is very helpful

And that’s all! Plenty more to say, but message me if I can help anyone trying to plan a trip; as for the wisdom I have acquired, lets do that over a beer 🙂

Bolivian Amazon tour

Iran

Iran proved to be an interesting trip. I was invited one night to an Iranian house for tea; on a separate occasion I was invited for dinner with a family, and provided a bed to sleep in. One day I was there, a group of university girls approached me, took me for tea, and the next day took me shopping and sightseeing. They made sure I didn’t pay tourist prices for the things I bought, and they paid for pretty much everything that day. I kept thinking to myself the scenario – girls picked me up off the street, paid for everything, and insisted on carrying my bags. Where has Australia gone wrong?

However, my entry into Iran wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped. I had to put up with cab drivers and bus operators whose low level of intelligence was matched inversely by the high level of bacteria in their armpits. I discovered I was not able to get a flight out of the country to my next destination – a crucial assumption for my entire trip (although I did manage to get one later – double price however). And a little more problematic – having two of my $100 US bills being identified as counterfeit – a slight problem considering I had no access to any other means of money, as credit cards don’t work and international links to banks like mine in Australia, don’t exist.

P1040587

This money was meant to pay for my trip out of the country. And they say the mafia’s operations doesn’t affect the ordinary person.

My first few days in Iran were marked with me being in an absolutely negative mindset, and I was enjoying myself as much as one would when sharing a prison cell with a big fat sex-crazy cell mate called “bubba”. Fortunately, the moment I left Tehran, my trip changed. Negative experiences, turned into memorable ones. Though memorable does not necessarily mean fun at the time, as I experienced in Shiraz.

I flew into Shiraz from Tehran to save time (flights are cheap), and after finding a room, I started walking around the city. I didn’t go very far before I could sense someone behind me watching my movements. After a few minutes, an Iranian guy approaches me and starts a conversation: he was a little hard to understand (he sounded drunk) but I didn’t think much of it. He was extremely excited to meet me, to practice his English and to learn about Australia – a place he wants to migrate to. So I had myself a guide – Rezer starting showing me the sights as we talked, and after the bazaar, took me to a mosque which is one of the most important to the Shi’ite Muslims. We were inside, with me absolutely stunned by the beauty of the interior (the walls and roof were covered in crystals, and the strategic placing of the lighting gave the room an amazing glow). As I am looking, head up and stunned, Rezer pulls out his hand, and he says slowly: “These are my tablets. I have psychological problems”.

The dude with mental issues who would not leave me alone

The amusing thing about this picture, was that when he looked at the picture afterwards, he was scared of himself. I had to reassure him that his big eyes in the picture did not make him look freaky (when in fact, they were normally bigger, and he looked damned freaky when they were).

It is an interesting moment to be experiencing one of the most mesmerising shrines you have ever been to, and to find out your companion of the last hour is mentally unstable. As we left the mosque, I subtly asked why he needed the tablets. “It’s to calm me down.” I didn’t show any reaction, as if it is an every-day thing for me to find out I’ve got a wacko right next to me. He liked the way I reacted to the news, and declared how much he liked me now. Whoopee.

The tour continues, and en-route to the ‘final’ bit of sight seeing I had agreed to – where we would be overlooking the city – we walk by the local mental hospital. Speaking very softly, and in remarkable detail, he was able to tell me which sections of the hospital housed what type of ‘crazy’ person. “These are the people that are really, really crazy, and can’t live in society by themselves and need lots and lots of help”. A curtain is quickly drawn on the top left of the building. “See, that was a crazy person. In that section that is where the people who shit all over the floor stay and make a mess all over the place”. I was tempted to ask how he knew all this, but I didn’t want to provoke any negative reactions. I insisted we continue, so that I could end this tour as quick as possible. On the way to our final destination – he insists we call his sister so that I speak to her. She was nice, but quickly ended the call, as if this happens on a daily basis. The tour continues.

P1040280

The city of Shiraz at night, by the gateway of the city.

When we first met, he asked me about the differences between Australia and New Zealand. Half an hour later, he asked the same thing. After the fourth repeated question – where had I just come from – I noticed a pattern. He had completely forgotten what I had told him 10 minutes earlier.

We get to the top, had some tea, took some pictures, and I showed him my photos. He asked about the difference between Australia and New Zealand, and he asked to see my photos (again). He asked where had I just come from, and whether he could see my photos (for the third time). I told him I have already shown the photos to him. He insisted in taking me to my hotel. I said no thanks. We make it back to the spot where I met him in the centre of the city, and he said just quickly to show me the outside of the castle there. I agreed reluctantly, saw the very important picture he wanted to show me (the devil being defeated by someone) and then I said I really had to go now. He then began asking when I would leave, and if we could meet the next day. I said no. He asked if he could see me at the bus station to send me off. I said no, again. He asked at about what time will my bus leave. I said I didn’t know.

“Can I kiss you now?” he asked. “Excuse me!?” I exclaimed. He continued, “Can I kiss you and hug you?” I replied by saying I did not feel comfortable, because in my culture, men don’t show affection like that. He continued, “But I want to hug and kiss you because I really like you and I love Australia”. Time to leave I thought, and I started making my way, saying goodbye over my shoulder. He waved good-bye, and then he yelled “wait a second, I need to tell you something”. I stopped and listened. He then asked if he could see my pictures again. “You already saw them I cried out for the fifth time. “Can I please hug and kiss you?”, he asked again “No! Goodbye!” I shouted, and I started walking very fast. I could sense he was watching me, so when I made the corner, I bolted and got lost in the crowd.

The Iranian experience
Geographically, Iran is amazing. The locals are very proud of the fact that their country has four seasons. Apparently, at any time of the year, there is a place in Iran that is experiencing one of the four seasons. It quite literally is an all-round tourist destination, because it has amazing deserts, sensational mountains, beautiful forests and waterfalls, and so much more.

P1040196

The gutters in Iran fascinated me. This is in Tehran, where it was practically a waterfall.

Historically, Iran is as rich as they get, and it has the infrastructure for mass tourism (everything from cheap and plentiful accommodation to widespread use of English language (in signage and in understanding by the locals), and even tourist offices everywhere that matters. There is no country more suited for tourism, and despite having every reason to visit the country, there are practically no tourists. A lot of people there don’t quite understand how their civilisation – which stands with the greats of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – has been forgotten by the world. The Persian Empire started as one of the three Aryan tribes to inhabit Iran before it ruled the Ancient world (Iran in Farsi, means “Aryan”). Whilst the Arabs dominated the country for 600 years, something which a lot of proud Iranians resent because it ‘bastardised’ their country, their history stretches into the middle ages and this century – until the Revolution, where the Shah was forced to abdicate. There is absolutely no reason, in my mind, why you should not visit the country – and every kind of reason to visit (with the exception of maybe nightclubbing) .

P1040208

The Government-led propaganda effort is very over-the-top. This is at the former US embassy, now known as the Den of Espoinage. It has a set of murals on the southern wall depicting Iran as an American colony, and then images showing a war led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who saves the country

The people in Iran are the friendliest I have ever met. Practically all the people I met in the country approached me on the street for a chat (I stood out like a banana would in a green salad), and those that helped me went completely out of their way. My perception about Islam – now that I have seen it in practice – had made me realise how beautiful the religion is, and how misguided Western civilisation is in its perceptions, especially in the post 9/11 world. I think of the mass media in how it contantly asks questions along the lines of ‘Can Islam and democracy work?’ – I now realise how ridiculous that theme is, and depressing because it just proves how ignorant we are. (Although, why it doesn’t work in Iran is because the clerics are unaccountable – an Islamic democracy is different from an Islamic theocracy – the difference being elections and media scrutinty, both non-existant in Iran for the clerics).
More importantly, visiting the country has made me realise how amazing it is. As an Iranian told me: “We are not Afghanistan!”, which seems to be a good way to summarise how the world sees this country. Yet telling the locals this view, shocks them, and with good reason, as the country although a little rough around the edges, is just like a European country with an oriental flavouring – and at a fraction of the cost. There is nothing wild and adventurous about travelling in Iran – to tell you the truth, it was a little too easy. There is one thing however that made my blood freeze: crossing any road – you’ve just got to close your eyes and hope for the best.

Nomad

A nomadic couple in Southern Iran, near Firuz Ab?ɬ¢d. Couples like this herd their sheep from one green pasture to the other. I am not sure what the correct transliteration is, but it sounds something like Ashel-yer.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is about as Islamic as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a Democratic Peoples republic. Whilst the people are religious, the government in Iran, controlled by the clerics, is an authoritarian government thinly cloaked under the veil of Islam. The place is a police state – where military check-points between cities are frequent and security is tight. I went to visit a friend at a university, and was angrily denied entry. Although I later befriended the guards, the fear of my presence was amazing. (Although there apparently were some British students that broke into a university and created a fuss recently…it also didn’t help that I was in Kashan, which has a nuclear reactor neaby and the local authorities and population had been forbidden to admit it existed until it was found two years ago by international inspectors.) Being shown around the city of Tehran on my final night, with a guy who is an registered tourist operator – we were denied access to see the other side of the new Foreign Ministry building – a historic building (I thought it was fair enough, but he doesn’t understand why). Security is tight in the country, enforced by no fewer than three levels of enforcement.

P1040449

You don’t mess around in Iran.

As well as the police and the military, there are also the Revolutionary Guards, known as Sepah – a parallel secretive military outfit to the actual military, albeit with a different function. Sepah is the personal police unit of the authoritarian clerics ruling the country. They are the people that ensure there is no threat to the establishment. Apparently, you can do anything in Iran now, just as long as it does not threaten the establishment – that is why satellite TV is not a problem (as in it is technocally illegal, but not enforced), but journalism on the Internet in the form of blogs (like this) are heavily monitored. The abuse of power is disgusting: an example was with a friend, we saw about 40 men gathered around having a dispute. Apparently, these men wanted to build a Mosque in their local community. Right next to the proposed site, was Sepah’s local barracks – Sepah was not letting them. The barracks were huge as it was, and this patch of land was useless for military purposes. My friend told me that he believes Sepah was denying the request so that they could have a basketball court. Is this what an Islamic Republic is about? The themes of Orwell’s Animal Farm resonate strongly, the only difference is that the communist party is replaced by Islamic clerics.

Alcohol

Alcohol is not legal (although plenty of people do drink). Heroin is also very popular.

During the Iran-Iraq war – a war that has had a huge impact on the society – a friend tells me fifty percent of the budget was allocated to the military. Whilst the war has ended, I would not be surprised if the figure is higher than most countries during peace time in terms of military spending. It is interesting to see how the state can control the population, through the military, and this is how it was explained to me: A guy I met reckons 70% of the men pre-military service want change, as in another revolution. Another guy I met reckons the figure is 90% of the entire population, and a third person says 80%. Whatever the figure, I think you get the idea – people want another revolution. The thing is though, men can only get their passport after they have completed two years of military service. I was told though that whilst 70% want change, when they do their military service, that figure drops to 30%. Following military service, parents force their sons to get married. Actually, people want to get married because sex before marriage is a criminal act – and all the men I met claim how much it drives them crazy.

But when you have a family to support, revolutionary feelings die down. You just don’t care so much about the oppression, in so much as the welfare of your family. With apparently five million people working for the government (figure unverified), these people also don’t want to stir the pot, because finding a job is hard in the country, due to the weak economy. I short – everyone detests the government, personified by Sepah. But people can’t do anything about it. I find it ironic, that a half dozen separate people told me that they and everyone they know, believe and think the days when the Shah was in power were happier times. I met so many intelligent Iranian’s, both students and academics, who knew the visa regulations of all the countries in the West: Canada, Australia, USA and England. For those that can leave, they are voting with their feet -and figures run into millions of Iranians overseas.

Mosque

Iranians sure know how to build a shrine. Pictures will never do the mosques I saw any justice.

On two separate occasions, from two completely different groups of people, I was told that they believe Iran is a colony of England. The first time I heard this I was shocked – the second time stunned. A joke I heard, was how an Iranian made car, had it parts made in England, and was assembled in Iran, whilst the clerics have the parts made in Iran, whilst being assembled in England. Historically England has used the clerics in the country as a means of controlling the country, and that apparently is a fact, according to a friend who had done a lot of reading of history. A commonly held belief is that the US and English wanted the clerics to control the country (ie, supported the revolution), because with its natural wealth, it had the potential to be a world superpower – but by oppressing the population, the West controls the resources without an overly ambitious Shah challenging their power, which is what it was becoming to look like in the 1970s. Iranians feel betrayed by their government – what other explanation could there be why Iran is not living up to its full potential? I was told 60 per cent of the worlds oil supply has to pass through Iran in the south. (And looking into it, I think he was referring to the Strait of Hormuz, whereby 90% of the regions oil transits, which equates to 60% of the worlds seabourne oil, and an amazing 40% of the worlds total oil.). And it’s not just oil, it’s gas as well.

Esfahan

Esfahan is a relaxed city, and one of the most beautiful ones I have ever visited.

Iran accounts for ten percent of the worlds oil, as well as a large amount of natural gas – the energy of the future. However those are the figures of today; there are also the figures of tomorrow. The Caspian Basin, to the North of Iran, apparently holds 200 billion barrels of oil – second in size to Saudi Arabia – with the potential to increase global oil output by 25 per cent. And of the three proposed routes, Iran is the cheapest, and shortest. Iran is one of the most important countries for oil (and gas, they are second only to Russia) in the world – for actual oil, and its positioning for transport – both now and increasingly for the future. In the light of those facts, I think I understand what the Iranians mean.

denied

The Internet is censored. Search engine results of “hot sex porn”, “Salman Rushdie” and “How-do-I-get-out-of-this-bloody-country” were randomly blocked

The country receives five billion dollars of foreign investment a year – Iranian officials believe they need double that amount to have the country develop fully. But I wonder how much of that figure goes to the energy sector. Not only does the country need a hell of a lot more money, but it needs it to help invest in civilian industries, not just energy which benefits the regime. There are sanctions on the country, and it is the ordinary people that are hurt by them – not the ruling dictatorship.

People want a revolution. But will there ever be one? People, on the whole (as I am told by everyone), hope so. But it looks unlikely. Hope is in the actual democratic aspect of the government, whereby reformist representatives are battling an uphill fight. However with the recent election of the hard-line Mayor of Tehran as President, this will be a huge set back to the reforms by the previous President. More cynically, as I was told by one person, is that it won’t make any difference: whenever someone gets elected, they shave their beards (symbol of the establishment) and claim to change and improve things, when in reality they are just as bad as the previous people.

Blue Bridge

Iranians sure know how to use lighting to enhance their structures at night. Esfahan has a selection of bridges that look magnificent at night.

I really feel sorry for the Iranians. The world, due to the mass media, has got a completely wrong perception about the country – although a little rough around the edges, it is a safe and developed (but poor) country. The people are being oppressed by a power-hungry regime, that has interpreted the Koran to suit them (apparently, there is nothing in the Holy Book requiring women to cover their heads – all women have to wear headscarf’s, and not doing so is against Iranian law – although faces are allowed to be shown). The economy is crippled by the power games being played by their government, where the ordinary people pay for any hardship imposed by the international community, but the regime receive any benefits – especially in the wealth generated by the energy sector. (For example, if an Iranian finds oil on their property, the government owns it, giving nothing to the Iranian.)

Artist

One of many artists, who painstakingly hand-paint their creations, with small brush strokes

An interesting thing I noticed about the Iranian economy, is how it is growing. Whilst China, for example, is getting foreign investment to grow, Iran (like India) is growing internally – which in the long term, is a lot more powerful. The Iranians are developing industries, from automobiles to airplanes as well as tourism (arrivals by March 2006 will see 25% more tourists, according to officials). They are, for example, creating energy trading markets to compete with the US controlled exchanges in Europe – actions which give it global influence. The recent decision to value its oil in Euros, not only will change the dynamics of global oil but also global economics, by weakening the might of the US dollar. However, there still needs to be a lot of work to be done: the airline manufacturer complained in a newspaper report how Iranian airlines don’t want to use their planes, citing credibility and reputation with going with Airbus. However, when explaining why they should use the Iranian-made planes, the manager says that although the plane holds less passengers, and takes longer to fly – they state the benefit that “it takes seven minutes less time to load the plane” as a good reason to buy the plane. For some reason, I think there is another reason why the airlines don’t want the Iran-made planes (they suck). But I think it is still impressive, that there are even attempts to develop industries like this, which are dominated by the Americans, Europeans and Russians. If Iran grows its economy to the levels of the developed world, one thing we can be sure of is that it will be puling its own strings – and possibly of other countries as well.

Carpet

Carpet makers in Firuz. This carpet is three by six metres, and will sell to a carpet shop for 900 Euros. This is the final week of the three month project. How do they know when to put what coloured string to create the impressive design? It’s done by memory of an image, apparently.

How to overthrow the government
In Iran, it costs ten 800 Rial for a litre – that’s about ten US cents. In Australia, we pay at least 100 cents for one litre. Despite the fact that the cost-of-living is very low (a pricey meal for three in a classy hotel restaurant costs $15), even the Iranians admit that the price for petrol is dirt cheap. With petrol prices increasing, something needs to be done. I am really keen on buying a V8 sports car, which consumes a lot of petrol. And so in a bid to ensure I get cheaper petrol, I advocate we invade the country and open up the oil there, so that I can afford to run my car. I don’t really care who gets the honour – heck, I’ll even help the French have this one – but something needs to be done for my energy needs. And so, I present to you, my plan on making sure I get cheaper petrol.

It is simple, and it doesn’t require any invasions. Complicated diplomacy is unnecessary. And best of all, it’s guaranteed to work because it is based on history. The answer, my friends is tax.

The Persian wars started because of high taxation. The French revolution, started because of tax. American revolution? Tax. That’s right, it is all about tax, and there are plenty more examples. So for the next Iranian revolution, we need to make the clerics tax the bullshit out of the average Iranian – afterall, it was a rotten economy that ruined the Shah. The people will revolt, and I will get cheaper, western-controlled petrol.

So how do we do such a thing? Again, very simple. We need to make ordinary Iranians rich, and the government broke. Because when you are rich, you have wealth. And when you have wealth, you want to keep that wealth. Any attempts to tax it or take it away, is going to piss the Iranians off. Especially when it is going to fund something you don’t agree with.

Shiraz bazaar

Standard issue bazzar shot

How do you make the government broke? Through war. Iran is part of the unrecognised Kurdish region. If the Kurds in Iraq breakway to form a Kurdish country, and take a bit of Turkish Kurdishtan, they will also go for the rather large bit in Western Iran. Iran has a better-then-you-think military, so best not to get the overstretched Americans involved with this one. Europe will support the war, because a Kurdish country will weaken Turkey – making it less of a big, poor Muslim nation entering the EU. A smaller population will make the Turkish admission more bearable and less threatning. The Russians will also support the war privately because Iran is enegry competition. But also it will push up orders for Russia’s defence industry, as Russia and China supply Iranian military needs (funny how dictatorships around the world, no matter the ideology, can find friendship).

There is nothing like a good old border war to send the government broke, pressuring the governemnt to raise taxes to fund its activities. There is a 10% Sunni minority that are also a little pissed off – for example, they can’t hold government positions or even become university professors. A Kurdish war, and an internal war will do wonders. And what about those islands in the south that are disputed territory with the Gulf States? Back to history, empires always end when they can’t control their borders, and haven’t got the means to defend them (for lack of cash). Let’s get the boys in Bahrain and the UAE to stir the pot down south.

Now the harder bit, how do we make Iranians rich? Afterall, you can’t tax the poor.

Drop the sanctions – they are making the Iranians poor, and are not affecting the regime. Develop tourism, because it is a industry with huge potential, and will enrichen the people, not the regime. Tourism will also help what the US-government controlled Internet and world wide web will do: inject foreign influence. A B-Grade movie I saw on a bus, which was a prison version of fightclub, actually came from America. Although it was poorly dubbed in Farsi, there is one thing the propaganda office can’t control outside snipping sex scenes: the images themselves.

When an Iranian girl sees a western movie, with western women in their new fashions – or the women visiting the country – do you think it doesn’t have an impact? There already is a revolution in Iran – socially. Whilst the men don’t grow beards if they don’t support the regime, and sport short-sleeve shirts which were previously frowned on, women are being a lot more daring with their fashion. When the revolution first happened, all women were covered head-to-toe is this black garmet with only their faces showing – called the Chador. However not any more. Whilst that outfit is still popular, a good fifty percent of women are quietly non-conforming – and this isn’t restricted to any age either. I saw women wearing pink coats, that although fulfilled the modesty requirements, I can tell you now it was a very creative interpretation of the requirements. A modest fringle is allowed with the headscarf – however the definition of modest seems to mean half the head with most Iranian women! Sometimes the women were being so “extremist” I almost felt obliged to say something!

Social revolution

Times are changing. Whilst mosques and universities mandate women to cover up a bit (this girl is most likely on the way to uni, as her dressing is inconsistent), most when they can, shake off the bland black and satisfy the law with the absolute minimum. And it’s not just in fashion: vanity is also on the rise. The amount of women I saw who had just had a nose-job was ridiculous.

So there we go. For cheap oil and gas, the stage is set. People want a revolution – they just need some help. Whenever someone criticises the regime, they are pulled down for being “Anti-Islamic”. People need an excuse to revolt – high taxation is the answer. The current international policy of isolation suits the Mullahs, because it keeps the people poor and dependent. Let change it to suit the people – visit Iran as a tourist and encourage the revolution.

Hope