Musing over how the strangest of men can hold their nations in thrall (think Kim Il Jong, Papa Doc Duvalier, Hitler, Napoleon) it was inevitable that I should fall into contemplating the Indonesian political landscape. There is an old, tired Indonesian joke about how our first President was mad about women (Soekarno), the second mad about wealth (Soeharto), the third just plain mad (Habibie). Well, the road to democracy hasn’t really been that smooth since either.

Since then we have had the tragic Gus Dur (undone by his own hubris), a man who was brilliant in opposition but was not equipped to actually run a country. Then we had the completely ineffectual Megawati who came to her throne with a sense of dynastic entitlement.

And of late of course we have had Soesilo Bambang Yudono, better known by the acronym SBY. At times he would frustrate this particular fuming citizen with his seeming indecision and slowness to move. His rather strange cabinet left me wondering. Among others: a Coordinating Minister for Welfare whose legacy in the business world includes the infamous Sidoarjo mudflow (resulting from reportedly incompetent drilling procedures) which has destroyed the homes and lives of tens of thousands. Then there is a Health Minister whose portfolio seems to be more paranoid Islamic/chauvinist than scientific (one of her latest classic, controversial statements is her publicly voiced speculation that swine flu was deliberately engineered by ‘the West’ – this after all but accusing the US of engineering bird flu). Needless to say the country has been held hostage by the kind of political compromise that comes with coalitions and ends up infecting cabinets.

I once asked a friend who is a very savvy, behind-the-scenes political advisor how it is possible that a nation of 250 million people can’t come up with one brilliant leader and a decent cabinet. He looked at me deadpan, and said: “You don’t understand democracy. It’s not about who is best.”

Yet despite my early misgivings, I have to begrudgingly admit that SBY has actually moved Indonesia back from the brink to a more comfortable economic zone. Now he is testing the strength of his alliances by choosing a running mate other than their recommendations. One backer, PAN party boss Amien Rais made a contorted statement reiterating his support for SBY – but not for his VP candidate Boediono, ex-gov of the central bank. I am not so sure how that divided affection adds up at the ballots. In any case, if you look at the competition, any rational person would conclude it’s a no-brainer to go with SBY for his second and last term.

Our problem is that it is a no-brainer because there are no new fresh faces up there. Once again we have a succesion problem looming on the horizon.

Megawati hasn’t yet given up her obsession with her ‘birthright’ and has chosen another old face, Lieut. General (retired) Prabowo, as her running mate. Prabowo has displayed some pretty erratic and controversial behaviour during his military career, and his foray into politics really hasn’t been more fortunate.

“Sister” Mega stalled the nation’s reform after 32 years of dictatorship, and allowed the final implementation of special autonomy to Aceh – which basically sealed Syariah rule and led to many other regions in the country declaring syariah law in various degrees. She is now promising double digit economic growth (which has now been modified to the lowest double digit: 10). Backing her up, her VP candidate just happens to be an ex-son-in-law of Soeharto, and a special forces black-ops loose canon with a tarnished human rights record. Born into good fortune and amassing more (including 95 racehorses) during what was arguably a colorful (blood red perhaps) career, he now is selling himself as champion of the poor. What a team.

The other contender is Jusuf Kalla, current VP. A man of reasonable intelligence and business acumen, he is given to favoring Islamic thought over the secular. What has marred his recent political career is a series of pathetic hissy fits. Abandoning SBY to nourish his own presidential ambitions (OK, OK it was always his game plan) he has chosen Wiranto as his pal-for-the-palace. Retired General Wiranto has been dodging harsh international criticism for years over his role in East Timor’s bloodbath and the UN has point blank accused him of violatiing human rights. I am trying to imagine where he would officially visit in the world without ending up setting up a makeshift office in a Den Haag maximum security establishment. Today, according to the Jakarta Post, this team supposedly won over a large number of Islamic votes because their wives wore head scarves. Even no-brainers can lose votes to the brainless.

Where are the new faces? Somewhere suffocated by party politics in the mad mosaic of Indonesia’s coalition map? The big players like Golkar and PDI-P are desperate to hold on to their past power and arguable glory, and all kinds of deals have been done with a patchwork of startups. I guess my friend was right – it’s not necessarily about who is best.

THE A-TEAM: location shoot realities –

1st rule: you’re only as good as your team, 2nd rule: your team is only as good as you allow them to be.

Behind the scenes is where the quality of whatever appears up front is decided, there is no question. We photogs spend a fair amount of time hunting for good personnel to work with us, whether we are photojournalists with heavy loads of editing or commercial photographers who need assistants, art directors, stylists, imaging geeks, you name it. And lord knows we all need help with admin.

As I do both solitary trips documenting people in a more journalistic way as well as commercial work, I really need more of a flexi-time location team with a reasonably solid office anchor. While I doubt anything I write here is new or perhaps not available from more sophisticated sources, I am writing this from a personal perspective of a small operation which has to face up to big demands.

I have had a number of assistants in my time – some big strong guys, some smart techs, others plain useless. Now I don’t mean to be sexist, but the best assistant I have ever had is a woman, and when she came to work with me she had no previous location or studio experience. She showed up out of the blue – I hadn’t advertised at all.

Edwine is definitely a bright and lovely spark, but what got her hired was her love and understanding of the power of images. She fronted up unsolicited because she saw my images online and felt she wanted to be involved – she had studied print making at university. The first time I “showed her how to use photoshop” she sat there quietly. Then when she took the wheel as I sat there dumbfounded while she whizzed through a batch of photoshop commands shortcuts I never even knew existed! LOL now I know.

Edwine does her thing
Edwine does her thing

But the real test was yet to come – our first location shoot. Pre shoot, my provincial, male chauvinist office driver mostly sniggered. Location work for a small crew like mine is back breaking and sweaty stuff. But then he got a shock (he’d never heard of hatha yoga), and I got a pleasant surprise. Not only was she strong, she actually ran to fix the lights! And over time she inadvertently showed him up for the lazy bones he was (in the end he basically fired himself)! That driving enthusiasm, though now more paced by experience, has never left her. Her flexibility and alertness served to let her learn the ropes much faster than some of the macho guys I had employed. And finally she always really looked at the take with an eye for detail and composition. It isn’t just a job for her. I have made sure she knows she is allowed to voice her opinion.

Then my daughter Soma came on the scene. She had done a Multi Media degree at Griffith, then worked for a couple of years designing websites for multinationals. A several months long stint of traveling through Mediterranean Europe was followed by near slave labor at a Jakarta production house Then finally she decided advertising was her gig. She fronted up to JWT with a novel presentation of her work, got in as junior graphic designer, and shot thru to Art Director in a couple of years. Working the TVC scene was a big buzz for her as she loves getting synergy going on set. After 4 years of Jakarta burn out (with a few freelance jobs for me and others on the side) she finally decided it was either her sanity or death by smog – smog lost.

Soma checks an angle at Four Season's in Bali
Soma checks an angle at Four Season's in Bali

Since then we have done a number of shoots together, and it has been pretty fruitful. Soma is good with talent, and has a sharp eye for nuance. I’d like to think that there is a genetic creative streak, but her sisters don’t really have it so I guess it’s just her! The well rounded degree she did at Griffith also gave her some exposure to client relations, so indeed we have a multi-talented addition to our team. Recently someone asked me if we have any ‘family’ tensions come into work, and I have to say it hasn’t even blipped on to the radar. (Soma of course has her own blog, so maybe check there!!!). And if you are thinking nepotism, have another think. I am pretty demanding on set, no room for slackers.

An important aspect that has grown into the formula is that each of us has respect for the others abilities yet are able to suggest and interact creatively. And we actually all have fun together (when I’m not busy barking at everyone). That is important especially when there is a lot of travel involved or when we end up staying on location for days on end away from loved ones. Getting along in close quarters does require more subtlety! Also important is the ability of these two smart thirty yr olds to keep this crabby old photog in line! For it is a lot easier for clients to work and interact with a happy crew!

the crew on a flight for a job in Milan
the crew on a flight for a job in Milan
Me making sure everyone knows who is Boss
Me in Bulgari Milan bathtub making sure everyone knows who is Boss

And finally, let’s not forget that doing a location shoot (or to some extent a studio shoot for that matter) can get quite complex. You end up relying on a lot of different factors and people who are not entirely within your control. It can get frustrating, so having a tight crew who understand each other and have a strong sense of a common goal is essential.

checking as we go (e.g. is this frame straight?)
checking as we go (e.g. is this frame straight?)

We actually work together from the origination (location shot) right through to the final imaging. It guarantees continuity, and mental notes from the shoot
don’t go AWOL. Again, in post production we do discuss and make decisions as a team (well ok, they do gang up on me sometimes!). It is a fact that a photographer can get too subjective when looking at his work, so it is an advantage to have a team you can trust to help edit. Many people think that DI stands for digital imaging,
actually it means ‘dotting the ‘i’s (yeah I’m kidding).

the crew doing final imaging
the crew doing final imaging

Meanwhile back at the ranch you need some solid people too. No shrinking violets please. When Yuli was away for a couple of months looking after her very sick husband we really felt the loss. She is officially office manager but in reality is admin/accounting girl friday cum all round production fixer. It is a good feeling to know your back is covered by someone who knows what the stakes are. Welcome back Yuli!

Of course human dynamics are unpredictable, and there are many factors of impermanence at play. But for as long as it lasts, I am banking on this team by investing in giving people a chance to prove themselves.


Life and Death as seen from Bali
warning: looooong post!

Last week was for me personally a pretty dramatic one. Sometimes life, like the proverbial stage, has complete act changes, with characters either charging in from the wings or abruptly ‘exeunt right’.

Welcome Lucas!
Welcome Lucas!

On the 8th, my daughter Lani gave birth to little Lucas in London. Whoa – let me catch my breath here: I am Gramps! Beautiful little boy 6lbs 14oz. Not much Asian left in him but hey we love him! For some reason Lani’s husband Nick thinks he is the most amazing boy on the planet. He was not only born on Lani’s in-laws’ anniversary, it was also Lani’s maternal grandfather’s birthday! Spent a lot of time on the phone to Lani’s in-laws and also to her mother Sita. A lot of excitement for sure. There is a distinct possibility that Lucas will be spoiled.

On the 9th, Waisak day, some friends and I spent most of the day in quiet contemplation – how little time we give to taking a breather from the hustle and bustle. Unfortunately, as this “retreat” had been planned for a while, I missed acquaintance Aldo Landwehr’s commemoration at the Green school. Aldo’s untimely death was the result of a motorcycle accident on the notorious Double Six road in Legian at 6am on Sunday 3rd of May. Aldo was in his early thirties, a designer with lots of promise who had designed many of the buildings at the Green School in Bali.

But the day was not to be uneventful: that evening I heard news of the tragic death of Isa, son of friends Nicholas and Indra Schwabe, who was only 24 when he died of an overdose. He had been struggling with the drug demons for years: having spent time working with addicts in prison I know what a terrible battle this can be. Anybody who simply thinks they could handle it better has no idea. May he find an easier path.

Jason's life
Jason's life

Sunday passed peacefully enough and I attended the memorial for Bali based painter Jason Monet in the late afternoon at his hillside bamboo house/studio. It was quite a happening, Jason had led a full and colourful life. His children from two of his marriages were there, in particular his daughters put on a great show with some great eulogies, including one from Barbara Streisand who “with Elliot” apparently bought their first “joint” piece of art together from Jason.

Sayana does "You are my Sunshine"

His little granddaughter, Sayana, really stole the show with a completely uninhibited rendition of “you are my sunshine” for Grandpa. There were plenty of laughs and tears as people recounted their stories of the irrascible (and plenty talented) old Jason. It was a party that would have been to his liking.

But on Monday morning a sad email from old friend Gerhard Veit in Australia popped up in my inbox to tell me of the sad death of Milli O’Nair on Mother’s Day. In my younger days living on the land in Oz, I shared a farm with a few friends, and one of the shareholders was Milli’s mother Tara (Fleischman) and her family.

Millie on her bike...(from Northern Star)
Millie on her bike...(from Northern Star)

In recent years Milli had really come into her own working as a non-violent communicator and relationship mediator across Australia. At home she always travelled by push bike. Last Sunday morning a couple of young guys in a rented truck were driving down the highway after an all-nighter. The driver, at around 110 km/h, fell asleep at the wheel as he came into the stretch where Milli was cycling on her way to see Tara. On the phone Gerhardt and wife Jinta told me she died instantly. We are all shattered.

It’s interesting to see how we all deal with death. The usual cliché goes that in Bali people deal with it much more directly and more acceptingly, and in the west it is relegated to undertakers. Yet in reality its slowly becoming pretty formulaic in Bali too.

A couple of weeks I learnt almost too late of the cremation of the mother an old friend of mine “Gus Malen” who is also in the same banjar (community unit) as me. As I raced off to the cemetery to catch the last moments, people were already streaming home. Not a few kidded me about being late. But as they say in Bali, better late than never, And they have another saying “Kwale Ngenah Gen” – as long as you’re seen. Which kind of sums up a lot of these events for many Balinese.

Gus Malen at his Mum's cremation
Gus Malen at his Mum's cremation

As it was an opportunity presented itself to actually have a chat with Gus Malen, as it was quieter when I got there. It was good to touch base again. Gus has always been a bit of local rascal in a jolly sense, a pretty earthy character. We had a longish philosophical exchange, Gus having that facility that so many Balinese have of simplifying the philosophically deep and accommodating the mundane in a breath.

Meanwhile the professional hired “cremation” expert dealt with the kerosene blow torch-like burners (forget wood these days). Having a professional deal with details has been a growing trend in Bali over the last 10-20 years! But the personal touch is still there – Gus Malen went around himself offering watermelon slices to everyone in the hot afternoon sun, and didn’t neglect to offer one up to the pyre for his Mum. Perhaps Balinese are not as demonstrative because they have such elaborate rituals?

On the other hand on Tuesday, watching the funeral of Isa, I did get a strong feeling of real loving and demonstrative care from the local expat community. None of the couple hundred strong crowd was there because it was their duty – everyone wanted to be there to show support for the family. The slightly new agey ritual kind of made itself up, but there was some rhyme and perhaps reason. Jim Morrison sang “The End” from the other world through the ghetto blaster, replacing the usual Bali gamelan. Indra kept it together amazingly, how gracious she was under such circumstance. There were touching messages from his friends and family. All things considered, it was a good send off for the boy.

Farewell Isa
Farewell Isa

I am looking forward to a hopefully quiet rest of the week…


So you’re a photog. And you want to go out to dinner with friends, but you just know that on the way or where you are going something is going to happen. Or who knows, NEWS could jump up right in front of you. So do you wanna lug your full frame SLR which has super-duper resolution and instant reaction? Or are you going to get stuck with some compact that fits niftily into your pocket but has shutter lag that makes a slug look like lightning?

Not to beat around the bush – by pass all non-raw shooting compacts. If you shoot jpeg, and its an important image good luck to you as you try and resize. So now it’s a megapixel race. But is it really? What is the use of an extra 2-3 megapixels if you have noise ripping your image apart?

When I was shopping late last year, I brought it down to 2 contenders. The Lumix LX3 and the Canon Powershot G10. I had had a LX2 and a G9, so I was looking to see what had been upgraded. This is not going to be a full on review, for that you could check out 60Hz’s quick overview. This is just personal preference.

What drove me crazy with the G9 was the shutter lag. But I loved the solid engineering – unfortunately that means size and weight. In that aspect nothing has changed much with the G10. But the focus tracking (or did I just notice it) on the G10 is pretty good. The weight and size are still an issue – where do you put the damn thing when you go out? Man bag? Hang it around your neck like a hillbilly tourist from some swineflu fearing country?

The Lumix might not have that BMW feeling but it really is a compact, and it is sleek. Might not be as tough, but I don’t have to sit around waiting for the shutter to go off. The big surprise: even if it is still 10.3 megapixels to the G10’s 14 – hey, the little fella has less noise in low light!

Then there is the sexy 24mm equivalent wideangle, the different lens settings for panoramic etc (ok so it is a bit of a cheat but it is cool for framing). Then you can tweak your shooting in a lot of ways which is easy to do, eg just move the joystick around, very intuitive. Changing display mode is synch. What a relief (Imagine having to throw a 2 pound manual in your man bag too). And the girls love it “so cute”. Yeah, that’s why I bought it.



Having attended more than my fair share of official openings in Indonesia, I really tried to come late to avoid the droning speeches. Alas, it doesn’t always work. Having barely missed another modern, highly chromatic presentation of Balinese dance, I walked in as Ubud’s massage guru Kt Arsana was delivering a ranting rave or raving rant, not sure which, but in any case not much point looking for any meaning in it beyond an interesting psychological profile.

He wound it all up getting the crowd to chant Om and Namo Shivaya – guaranteed to give the anti-yoga Muslim faction in the greater Malay archetypelago plenty of ammo. Next up, and not much further away on the naivete scale was the Bali Governor’s rep who addressed the several hundred strong international crowd of groovy, neo-hippy, somewhat dreadlocked alternative types in formal Indonesian. Fail. Not sure why Dek Goen, co-director of the festival and husband of founder Meghan Pappenheim, didn’t do the speech – he is at least coherent and relevant, and a damn sight more real.

But the night was no lead balloon. Once all the deadly formalities were over the audience began shutting down their laptops, then the performances started. It really proved that “just do it” is the way to go. First up was Kathak dancer and teacher Pooja Bhatnagar, all the way from Jakarta, who proved to be still lithe and electric, a touch of ex-pat Mother India.


Then Rocky Dawuni, African reggae performer par excellence, got the crowd all loosened up and going. Ya mon – so much so that out the back of the crowd a few Acro-Yoga enthusiasts just couldn’t resist stretching; one thing led to another and before you knew it they were on top of each other. Dang, it made me feel old and stiff.



I watched a fire dancer menage-a-trois do some pretty nifty flame, then traded in a few of my Rp10,000 ticket stubs for some organic brown rice with veggies and soy tempe – and a plastic bottle of some kinda oxygenated hydrogen dioxide.


After watching some more limberness (those acroyoga freaks go on for hours!) I creaked back to the stage to catch the last act of the night: Larissa Stow and the Sakti Tribe. She somehow got the crowd to do rock bhajan in sanskrit (now there’s a trick), and soon every one was on their feet. Not necessarily my music now (you shoulda asked me in the 70’s), but she’s a powerhouse and what a voice!


And I am glad BSF are back again. It hasn’t been an easy run for the organizers. Economic downturns and cancellations can really bring your spirit down. But not these guys. AFAIK a couple of them really put their money where their mouth is: when sponsors easily spooked by the crisis took off on them, these guys forked out their own money. Now that, in the 21st Century, is commitment.

As I gathered up my mini-tribe and headed out the door to beat the stampede, I had to reluctantly admit, despite being abducted back thru time to my hippy days, that I felt good. It beats wrestling with reluctant uploads and life shortening deadlines.

Time warp or not, the spirit is there! Go Meghan and Kadek, (and your team)! Let’s give it up for them! http://balispiritfestival.com/


On Saturday I had on my photographer hat to give a talk for the Bali Creative Community’s day long Creative Entrepreneur’s workshop. I had planned to talk about the importance of keeping the flame alive during our current economic downturn.

As it turned out the speaker before me was music entrepreneur Robin Malau, who gave a very organized presentation on his laptop. Loads of microstock images were used quite cleverly, and it changed my opening paragraph. I ended up starting out with talking about how microstock and super cheap stock has really posed a serious threat to photographers of the film generation (read older) who worked under very different circumstances.

Being amongst that generation I can certainly say that it has been a steep learning curve. Photographers in general tend to be inventive, thus many of us have pushed on and almost literally had to relearn our trade over the last 8 or so years since digital starting becoming viable. That said, though I would never say that I know everything about digital photography, I can say that I am comfortable enough with it that for the last 5 years I have practically shot nothing but digital. And now I like it a lot!

But the resistance that a few older, leading photographers have to digital is often not coming from where we would think it does. Much has been made of the quality of analog over digital. In fact digital has in some ways surpassed analog in quality and resolution.

Yet sometimes it’s surprising to find out the real reasons for the reluctance. I had dinner last night with an old friend, Magnum photog Abbas, who still doesn’t shoot digital. His main objection was that to get the quality the cameras have to be so damn big. Ditto James Nachtwey. I am with them on that. I love my D3X for its incredible resolution. And my D3 for its demon speed and incredible hi iso, low noise rendition – but it positively menacing to use on the street. I am kind of liking the smaller D700 I picked up last week – not quite as fast but much more discreet. Why has no one made a decent digital rangefinder (don’t get me started on the flubbed Leica M8)?

If we talk about work-flow nowadays it’s all about what we do on our computers – we often forget the ‘pre-shoot’ prep. The ease of digital can be misleading. One can get a decent, usable image from start to finish at record speeds. As there are plenty of new photogs out there using sophisticated cameras and laptops who are willing to work for not much, the pressure for survival is on – that is the popular view, and it’s not wrong.

But what all this technical glitz camouflages is the need for the photographer to be just as creative and relevant as he or she always had to be in previous eras. Because it’s not about technical prowess, it has always been about the spirit behind the image, the training of mind and eye, prep etc.

Unless you want to end up pumping out bulk generic images, there is no future in going robotic. It’s still about being a mensch. In his presentation Robin pointed to a statistic: on average it takes 10,000 man hours to really become succesfull and a master of your profession. Then I would add there is exploring, passion, an open spirit, flexibility, risk taking, motivation. All that in one click….

Cultural Theft

the justifications of the powerful

I haven’t thought about this much recently, but a recent request on twitter by Kristie Lu Stout of CNN asking for opinions on whether or not cultural treasures belong in their country of origin got me going. These tweets are to be used for an upcoming live debate in Hong Kong on 15 May 2009.

For years during the early part of my career as photographer I traveled and did stories on remote regions of Indonesia, mostly in the eastern islands. Time and time again I saw cultural ‘artifacts’ disappear from villages, and over time I would watch how these fragile, isolated cultures would begin to lose their identity – sometimes accelerated by the intrusion of commercial enterprises and teeming ‘field personnel’, but more often than not by the simple fact that Asia’s explosive growth cannot but impinge on their world.

Please – this is not an issue of preserving remote, exotic cultures in aspic. At stake here, in reference to human civilization (which grows and changes constantly, hopefully for the best), is the right and opportunity for people to actually develop and improve from within their own cultures. By this 21st century one assumes that we have gotten somewhat beyond anachronistic, colonial attitudes of superiority based on mere material supremacy. Indeed the tides and fortunes of various civilizations in the world repeatedly show us that this attitude, so common to any society in the past is long overdue for the scrapheap.

We have learned that economically the rich cannot survive without helping the poor, that our fates are intertwined beyond imagining. What is it that makes it so difficult for us to understand that this relationship extends to culture – even ‘human enlightenment’ as a whole? It is of course perfectly possible that some beliefs are lesser than others – but even so it is clear that each and every culture has a right to decide how, when, and why they should change or preserve.

The argument of “preserving artifacts that otherwise would have been lost or destroyed” in another country is fraught with false assumptions. One is that a “modern”, more financially and technically endowed foreign institution is ultimately vindicated because the end has justified the means. The ‘end’ is the preservation of the artifact. But nobody talks about the fact that the heirs of that culture have been deprived of their right.

Then there is the argument that it would have been lost to them anyway: imagine if one would argue that a wayward son would have lost his fortune anyway, “so let’s take his money and do something else with it so it isn’t wasted”. How do you think that would go down in a legal court? It certainly wouldn’t be cut and dried. Contingent to that argument (at least the more thoughtful would say this): “and it is preserved for them too…” But it has completely lost its context, and it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the culture has been robbed.

Recently in Indonesia there was a murky case where some items from a royal museum in Java disappeared: the acquisition was defended by the foreign (Dutch) party in question as he said that it was “sold to him” fair and square by one of the heirs. Legally it has been challenged (forgive me I have lost track of this case, not sure where it stands today). Yet the means to obtain this were so sneaky, involving clandestine photography, falsehoods etc, that one wonders why it had to be so if the transaction were so clearly legal?

Coming back to my journeys through remoter Indonesia. I spent much time with various priests, story tellers, and other practitioners of traditional culture in these regions. They lived and breathed it. They were masters of their own culture. Then slowly, sometimes more rapidly, as things began to modernize, and as their beliefs were scoffed at, things began to disappear. The disappearances of sacred objects – funerary and other ritualistic things – seemed to accelerate the ‘aculturisation’. Then finally, a sad point from which there was nowhere else to go other than to become second class citizens of the world – if they were lucky they could become exotica, if not just simple cultural oblivion.

It is a complex issue, I would agree. However those who have more power, money, technical ability and skill at their fingertips should be thinking more of working with these countries, with the various peoples to solve these issues on site rather than stacking items in the basement of a Brussels, Leyden, London, or Paris museum. The recent spat over the word “primitive” at a certain museum in Paris simply points to the natural unease that people feel when a collective conscience starts to nag. Perhaps the dislike of the word primitive arose because somewhere deep inside their hearts they felt that it is primitive to rob a culture of its expressions and then display it, zoo-like, for others to see?

How about we leave the Victorian age once and for all? The whole point of museums is to educate, to broaden horizons. If their displays are acquired through insensitive and barbaric means, what does this say about human progress? Regarding this it is always interesting for me to see the interaction between the ‘field operators’, who sometimes act like wanna-be Indiana Joneses, and the snobbier collectors etc. There is a hierarchical social ladder, starting with the local grave robber right up to the highly educated curator. In it are all the usual tensions, ambitions, and so forth.

Then there are even stranger cases of intellectual cultural theft: e.g. Japanese trademarking Indonesian double-ikat weaving designs from Tenganan, Bali and so forth that have been handed down from generation to generation. How does one countenance, let alone legally justify such blatant acts as this?

Why not help set up proper facilities in the countries of origin, and borrow collections to travel and show, as has been done to some extent with Egypt?

Think of all the basement space you could free up in Leyden….

Semana Santa and an Empire Destroyed

The Moor’s last sigh: lost treasures of a real civilization

This Easter I finally made it to Andalusia, Southern Spain to see the Santa Semana week of Easter celebrations in Sevilla. I was curious to see how much similarity it might still bear to the holy week in Larantuka, East Flores where a 450 year old secret confreria still carries out their penitence with deep, faithful devotion.

Sure enough the same scary hoods were still in use (where am I? In deep Mississipi about to be lynched? How did the KKK manage to ‘acquire’ that garb? Love to know the history of that fashion transfer!). But many penintents were accompanied by their plain clothes relatives or friends, so there was hardly any anonymity.



Seems like it has become almost a show, and there are tons of tourists of course. But at various moments there was still a sense of the sacred, though curiously not as intense as in Flores where it is ostensibly secondhand. One particular highlight was when a spectator on one ot the balconies of the narrow streets of Sevilla burst out into song, serenading Jesus as the float inched by below. And little children in religious garb handing out candies and illustrated cards of Christ do sweeten the image.


Besides the Santa Semana, Sevilla does have a right to brag : the cathedral is the third largest in Europe (the world perhaps?) and spectacular. It has the biggest wind organ I have ever seen, and also Christopher Columbus’ remains are still there (they never did make it to Havana).. If you go do climb the bell tower – great views, and the Alcazar palace opposite is worth visiting. Though built by a Christian king, he had Moorish architects and workers build it. Beautiful gardens!



But it isn’t until one gets to Cordoba and checks out the “Mezquita”, the huge mosque built in the heydays of the Moorish empire in Spain, that one gets a true sense of the tremendous loss that the Catholics incurred on Spain’s civilization. This extraordinary building, with its huge space filled with seemingly endless, minutely detailed arches, has had its central core ravaged. Charles V had a hole punched through the roof and built a church in the middle of it. Though it was the kind of thing that went on both sides of the Muslim Christian divide (think Aya Sofia in Istanbul etc), here it is particularly symbolic.


Cordoba for a while was the center of the Moorish empire of Spain; independent of the rest of the Arab world – tolerance, science and the arts flourished here. The Jewish quarter abutted on to the area around the Mosque; Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony. The great sufi thinker Averroes was born and lived here. Today, Muslim tourists come to visit – semi veiled women gazing at Christian saints that have been placed in what was once the most famous mosque in all of western Europe.

But Spain seems to have a history of dreadful bloodshed too. Up in Ronda (the drive up through the mountains  is half the fun!)  the deep gorge that divides the town so dramatically into two was the setting for the famous scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where the enemy chucks innocents off the cliff face. Apparently in real life it happened too. And to be fair it seemed like everyone was doing it: Moors, Catholics, Fascists, and moviemakers. Fortunately nowadays there is a soaring bridge that spans the gap.


But I have to say the Easter parades in Ronda were a lot more fun and less scary than in Sevilla. No pointy hoods, and the girls (yep) carrying the Virgin Mary float were dancing away to the music. A much smaller, more community like affair. And a surprising percentage of the houses here have plaques on them declaring them to be the birthplace of poets, musicians, and even one recently canonized saint, Angela de la Cruz.


The crowning glory on the trail of the Moorish empire is of course the Alhambra in Granada. The extensive gardens, the dramatic hill top setting, the incredible play of space and light, the filigree-like detail of the Nazarene Palace all point to a level of civilization unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere. A small but important detail that one almost overlooks when walking for hours through all the gardens and palaces: there is clear, fast flowing water running through the whole place. This is on a hilltop, and it is all gravity fed, centuries old. It feeds pools and fountains, and adds to the uplifting experience as one wanders, dazzled, from room to room in the Nazarene palace, the highlight of the Alhambra. One catches glimpses through finely latticed arches of the Albaicyn, the old Arab town now getting a second life with tourism.



Yet at the same time it is hard to avoid feeling sadness at the huge loss here. After the Catholic kings of Spain brought Granada to its knees, the last Emperor struck a deal in order to save the lives of his subjects. His people were to be allowed to stay or leave as they please, and continue their religious practices in exchange for surrendering the city. The valley and mountain sides of the barren Apujarras, behind the Sierra Nevada were given to them. These exilees soon turned the desert into blossom with their irrigation skills and knowledge. Others saw what was coming, many Jews and Muslims alike fled to Morrocco.


To their credit, the kings kept their promise. Baobdil the Moorish emperor left the city for Morocco unharmed. On a hill top pass he turned around to look at his lost city for the last time. The spot is still marked today on the highway with a sign: The Moor’s Last Sigh. His mother, perhaps a little less sentimental, is said to have chastised him: “Don’t cry like a woman over the kingdom that you couldn’t defend like a man…” Ouch Mum. He only saved thousands and thousands of lives…

But the huge loss I am talking about came later, with the next generation of Catholic kings. They reneged on their promise (surprise…) . Jews and Muslims alike were persecuted. The Apujarras were wrested back, the Moorish inhabitants slaughtered once again – many were thrown into a gorge near the ancient bridge to their valley.

(Got a real penchant for chucking people of cliffs these Spaniards) Our guide that day, a tall Canadian by the name of Jim, showed us the bridge in the drizzling, cold rain. But as if that wasn’t cruel enough, in each village one Moorish family was kept alive in order to teach the newly arrived Christian transmigrants how to use the irrigation systems. How would you feel?

But all other knowledge was soon destroyed. Just recently a group of Spanish intellectuals protested in the main square in Granada at the 500th anniversary of the burning of all the books of the extensive Moorish libraries. And they were right to protest this colossal act of stupidity. Many of the books were in fact records and translations of the most important philosophers and thinkers of the western world, beginning with Aristotle and up. And there was a wealth of scientific knowledge that was torched as well.

In fact this whole moment of Catholic paranoia in Spanish (European really) history, much of which started with Charles V, was probably the single defining moment of the decline of the Spanish empire. Even the wealth that the conquistadores sucked out of the Americas was soon wasted on futile efforts to keep protestants in England and the rest of Europe at bay. Meanwhile the silliest details of history: Inquisition era Catholics who feared to bathe in case they should be mistaken for Jews or Muslims, and a huge increase in pork consumption for supposedly the same reason!

Europe was hugely affected by the Moors. Music, science, art – all benefited. Imagine maths without a zero? Musical notes without defining rhythm (I always fall asleep when I listen to Stockhausen, so I don’t). What would the Western world be like if the Inquisition hadn’t happened?

I can only look back and sigh at this point.



No regrets having tacked on a trip to Spain on to my job in Milan. Thought I would give a quick run down on recommendations on places where we stayed and ate! (Don’t worry I was travelling with non-vegetarian Thais who are fanatic about food, so it’s pretty across the board!). Remember, the sun rises late in Spain – lunch tends to be around 1-2, and dinner doesn’t really get into full swing til around 10:00 pm.
Barcelona: Stayed at the hotel Banys Oriental, right smack in the middle of the old town on Argenteria street. Fun little hotel, around 100 euros depending on the season. The rooms are cute but a little cramped, WIFI everywhere. What is cool is walking out the door and being in the middle of El Born minutes walking to the Barri Gotic area etc: Pl St Jaume, the Cathedral, Ramblas avenue, and all. Wouldn’t recommend the food though – despite the restaurant décor being very cool, the eating was poor.
But plenty of great cafes and tapas restos nearby. Particularly recommend Cheese Me on Argenteria for a meal. If you want to have the ultimate hot chocolate experience, dark, thick, just under bitter and a bit sweet, head up past the Pl St Jaume on Calle Ferran, and try to find Calle Banys-Nous (not so easy, tiny street). Number four (no sign other than “Granja:”) unpredictable opening hours, very funky but you will never forget this hot chocolate. And for something quite different for lunch, head down Las Ramblas to the Boque_d3b42322ria market. Plunge in (you can buy anything here), veer right and find this mad little eatery smack in the middle of the market. Most likely standing room only.boqueria1

All fresh produce,

naturally. And hustle bustle fun.

Sevilla: stayed in a modern “Hi Tech Hoteles” place, stylish in a modern way but kinda forgettable (most forgettable was a bathroom in room enclosed only with green translucent glass and a swing door). But had some great meals in this town: Belmonte near the cathedral, fast and furious great food (lots of smiles from my Thai companions), and almost next door Tomate was great as well. Also Modesto was good too.
Ronda: Fantastic little hotel called San Gabriel in a white washed lane called Marques de Moctezuma. There are signed portraits of all kinds of stars (lots of black whites like the one of Orson Welles) on the walls, seems everyone had a great time. They even have a little screening room complete with red movie theatre chairs and a red curtain over the screen. Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and others look at you from the walls. This really is a very personal hotel, being the home of Jose M.A. Martin – a very charming gentleman who I had a very genteel conversation with one morning in the library.


We had a couple of good meals in Ronda, most memorable was a hopping little place called Venentia near the bullring. A brash, speedy waiter who was not only fun but got all the orders right at a hundred miles an hour and the food was great. The Thai contingent, Parisa and Monica, finally got the Paella of Paellas they were looking for here, so big they couldn’t finish it. The waiter even shouted us an after-dinner liqueur – don’t ask me what it was but you could have fueled a space shuttle with the stuff.

Granada: Casa Morisca is where we are staying, very cool little semi Moorish style place under the Alhambra. Had a great dinner last night at La Fuente, the Tapas place to go to on Paseo de los Tristos below the Alhambra – stuffed olives. Marinated artichokes and on and on. Owner Tony is a character, loads of signed images of him with Spanish luminaries (yes including Nadal) on the wall.


Tonight we wandered up to the Plaza St Nicolas to get a view of the Alhambra with the snow capped Sierra Nevada in the background. As cold front came rolling in, dramatic black clouds covered part of the sky. Sure enough it soon started to drizzle so we quick-stepped down Camino Nuevo S. Nicolas and stumbled on a real find: a tiny unassuming facade with the name Manchachica Restaurante concealed a fantastic little family restaurant with genuine home cooked Moroccan food and a wonderful trilingual owner. between French, his broken English, my fake Spanish, and the remnants of whatever Arabic I ever learnt we had a great old time. The Harira soup was rich, the humous perfect, the aubergine and tomato salad delicious, and the paprika salad was the best I ever tasted. While I washed it down with piping hot sweet peppermint tea, Monica got stuck into a what she described as a very tender chicken kebab. Owner Najib Louragli is still very Moroccan (his wife, cooking away in the kitchen, didn’t want to be photographed – he said) after more than 26 years in Spain and get’s special supplies brought up by family and friends from Morocco. Take note: they close early for Spain: 10pm – so its almost normal (non-spanish) times. Open from noon._d3b8343



OK I don’t have any numbers to back this up, and it is totally flying by the seat of my pants, but after 5 days in Milan and 3 days in Barcelona I am not sure I am seeing a recession hitting hard in Europe. In Milan the Duomo was crawling with Italian and foreign tourists, fashion boutiques were busy.
In Barcelona in the Born Ribera area where we have been staying there have been loads of Spanish tourists and plenty of other Europeans on the streets and at the tourist sites around town. Restaurants are packed too.


These aren’t the über-rich who always escape economic downturn, there are plenty of lower and upper middle class people about spending their money at cafés. Prices seem to be holding steady, although hotels in Barcelona have been discounting apparently. Go figure. Maybe somebody reading this has the numbers and can fill in? Or perhaps it is just an Easter phenomena.


Who are missing to a large extent are the Americans. But the rest of the world seems to be here making up for it. And of course Obama and Michelle are ‘doing Europe’ too.

Whatever the case, the Catalan spirit seems to holding together as much as ever, and we saw plenty of people jumping into to join the traditional Sardana dance where strangers and friends alike join hands in a circle (shopping bags in a heap in the middle!) in the public squares of Barcelona. The atmosphere is warm, foreigners and locals alike delight.