Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Road to Ambatondrazaka

(This was originally written and sent as an email on 31 January 2005. Given the flurry of Madagascar-related posts that I'm expecting over the next few days, I wanted to put it up on my blog! It's completely unchanged from that original email, which wasn't intended for such wide distribution, so forgive anything negative I say until the end.)

We set out at 6am. Not that this was unusual for us, quite frankly we had gotten used to getting up at the Malagasy dawn in order to do things before the heat REALLY kicked up (although of course, since it didn't go down at night, this was entirely relative). After all, sleeping in is for the weak when you're on a cross-3rd-world-country expedition. We can sleep when we're in London. Luckily for us, our hotel in the capital city of Antananarivo had gotten used to our pre-dawn departures by that point so our Terrible Malagasy Breakfast of faux-croissants (funny how you can't get that type of dough to work in a place which lacks air conditioning) was ready for us to eat before we left.

Our plan was pretty simple: drive from Antananarivo to Moramanga, get stuff for a picnic lunch, drive on to Ambatondrazaka to check into the hotel, go to Zahamena Reserve, and then back to the hotel. The drive to Ambatondrazaka was expected to take a few hours (3-4 at the worst) in the third-hand ex-german 4x4 which our trusty native driver drove us around in, because while that road isn't all that big, it's a commercially important road for the Malagasy people, and so it's relatively well travelled. That gave us a full afternoon to spend at the reserve and enough time to leisurely drive back and do some sightseeing along the way, maybe seeing something else locally before coming back the following day. It all seemed pretty simple to us, so we didn't really complain. After all, surely the in-country people who set this whole thing up must have thought everything through, right? This was the fatal mistake. We thought anyone could have understood Madagascar.

The drive to Moramanga was okay. Todd slept through much of it, but there wasn't any traffic, and we hadn't been on the Eastern side of Tana (the local name for Antananarivo) before, so it was a very interesting drive through green hills and valleys for me. On the Eastern coast, a direct drive from Tana, is Toamasina (also known by the French name Tamatave), which is the only major deep-water port for the whole country. Therefore, it's a very major route in Madagascar, and the status of the road was pretty good, so it was a quick drive. This lulled us into a false sense of security about the rest of the trip. This was the first road, coincidentally, to be blockaded during the political crisis a couple of years ago, and just that one road essentially crippled the whole highlands area.

At Moramanga we stopped for a late second breakfast because it was going to be two hours (or so we thought) to go the last 150km to Lac Alaotra (the largest lake in the country, and the reason Ambatondrazaka exists). We had some coffee (made with the Malagasy traditional condensed milk, for when ordinary sugar and milk won't cause you to go into diabetic shock) and pastries (again that lovely lack of air conditioning led to a textural explosion in my mouth), got a couple of bottles of water, and figured we'd just press on so that we had more time with the reserve. Then we started north on The Road to Ambatondrazaka, RN44.

About 20km after Moramanga, the pavement stopped and the dirt road started. This is not an uncommon occurance in Madagascar, because there are actually some Routes Nationals which are "seasonal", meaning that they're not even maintained: when it rains (about a third of the year), you can't get through. This one, however, was so commercially important (as Lac Alaotra is the heartlands of the rice growing region) that it was maintained, and for the first 20km or so we thought "hey, this isn't so bad, we're still doing about 70kph, it's a little bumpy but not so bad". Then we encountered the people maintaining the road. If you've never seen people maintaining a dirt road, it's quite a sight: dump trucks with dirt and sand, back-hoes to fill in potholes, steamrollers to flatten things out. It almost makes you think that they're building a real road. However, on this you'd be mistaken, because as soon as you manage to swerve your way around the massive vehicles, you realize why it takes so much effort to maintain the road: it's the worst road ever.

The next 130km until the paved road started again was the worst road I've ever been on. Our average pace was about 20kph, the road was so bumpy that you couldn't even read on it, we had to swerve all around the road to escape the bumps that could easily have snapped an axle on the 4x4. Along the way you pass quite a few small towns without electricity, water, sewage, or anything but wooden shacks that are in the process of falling down, along with a whole host of people whose day seemed to be quite enlivened by the sight of what must have been the first white people they'd seen in a month. With such surroundings, you don't take any chances with the vehicle, because you realize that if you break down, there's nothing that you can do: there's no electricity or normal phones here, much less any type of cellular phone access. If you snap an axle, you're not going anywhere. At this point, it's the height of the heat of the day, so the sun is shining directly on the 4x4, it's about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, the air is completely still, and of course the 4x4 doesn't have air conditioning.

Todd and I proceed to get more and more angry in the heat, humidity, bumpiness that precludes any activity other than getting stared at by natives, and the realization that this reserve to which we're going doesn't actually exist. It's not on any map that we or our driver has, it's not in any guide book that we've brought (or our driver has brought), and he assumed that we knew where we were going, which of course we didn't. Given that we'd already realized that the profit margins on our trip for the tour operator must have been about 100%, we thought, apparently niavely, that he might at least have given some information to our poor driver about where we're actually going or how long it would take, or might have at least thought of those things. This appears to be a silly concept for Madagascar.

8 hours after we set off, we get to about a 15km bit of paved road leading from one mud-hut-ville to Ambatondrazaka, prompting everybody in the car to think aloud, "why did they bother paving this bit? It doesn't lead anywhere!" This thinking is made even more acute when we realize that Ambatondrazaka, the biggest city in the area, doesn't even have paved roads in the town. Or maybe they were paved once, but except for the main street through town, they're not anymore.

This is when I have the brilliant thought that we should maybe try to fly back. After all, Ambatondrazaka appeared to have an airport on the other side of town according to the guide book, we can go there and buy a ticket home the following day and never do the 8 hour drive again. What a splendid plan! So we set to it, off to the airport.

100m north of the city limits, you're once again at the worst road ever. Average speed: 10kph, swerving around potholes, people balancing water buckets on their heads, people herding Zebu, and beggars asking for money (who can usually keep up with the 4x4). We get to the airport. By this time we've experienced some pretty bad airports in Madagascar, but this takes the cake. It's one room. One very small room. There's nobody there. At all. At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. But after our laughing in the "parking area", an old guy and his grandchild come out of the shack and ask our driver something in Malagasy that must have amounted to "what the heck are you doing bringing crazy white people to my airport?" After some exchanges, we find out that:

  1. This IS the airport for Ambatondrazaka;
  2. He lives there when there aren't flights (two per week: one there and one away) to take care of it and keep Zebu off the runway;
  3. By some sheer luck, the flight back to Tana is the next day AND it's non-stop;
  4. No, of course you can't buy a ticket at the airport. You have to go back into town to the ticket office.
We set to it, our resolve hardened to never get back into the 4x4 on the Road to Ambatondrazaka, and go back the way we came to the ticket office. Or, rather, we get to the ticket office to find it completely closed and locked. Because apparently nobody would want to buy a ticket the day before the only flight of the week, and of course they're not open the next day, that's Sunday! However, the nice people in the Pirate Video Rental Shop next door know where the woman who runs the ticket shop lives, and he'll run down and find out what she's doing. 15 minutes later, we find out that she's taking a nap and won't be disturbed, but if she gets a chance she might come by later to sell us some tickets on the only flight of the week.

While waiting for the ticket lady, word travels around this town that there are crazy white people who have found themselves in this sordid little burg and wish to leave it quickly (which doesn't seem to surprise anyone). So along comes a truck driver who apparently also works for the ticket office sometimes. He says that there's no way that ticket lady will come by, she doesn't actually sell any tickets anymore. This confuses us, but since we're only hearing the broken english translation from our half-english-speaking driver, we're more just starting to laugh through the tears. However, he wants to help out the crazy white people, so he gets on his phone to the Air Madagascar regional office in Toamasina to find out what he can do. This is just about the only way to do this, because we find out in the meantime that we can't just call a hotline, buy a ticket and show up to the airport: not only is there no national hotline that you can call, the headquarters/ticket office in the capital is closed (buy a ticket on Saturday? Are you kidding?), and even if it weren't, it wouldn't matter, because without the hand-written ticket slip nobody will let us on the 10-seater plane home (E-ticket? Are you crazy?). Since the Road to Toamasina requires getting onto the Road to Ambatondrazaka back to Moramanga, that's a nonstarter without the Ticket Lady helping us out.

While the truck driver/ticket office guy is on the phone, we discover that there's a bit of a complication: it turns out that even if Ticket Lady shows up (which she seems to have no intention of doing), and she writes out a ticket, Air Madagascar won't honor it, because it appears that she's been pocketing the money that she gets from selling tickets and not giving it to Air Madagascar. Air Madagascar won't deal with us until they've dealt with Ticket Lady's indiscretions, which apparently she is aware of, which is why she's staying away. So essentially what we've found out at this point is that Ticket Lady can't even be bothered to come and steal our money. That's how dedicated she is to customer service.

At this point we largely give up: we've been stymied in our attempts to leave this place, so we're just going to give up, check into the hotel, and figure out what we're going to do. So we set out to check into our hotel, the Hotel Max-Irene. This is, according to Big Ripoff Tour Company Guy, the best hotel (of the two listed in our guidebook) in Ambatondrazaka. We are also in the best room in this hotel. This is when I lose it.

The room has a concrete floor, four items of furniture in it (a bed [covered with a foam mattress which is larger than the bed], a table, a wardrobe, and a smaller table with the TV which can't be plugged into anything since there's no electrical outlet anywhere near it, even if there was TV access there, which we're quite sure there wasn't), and a bathroom. The bathroom doesn't have a door, but at least it exists: the hotel only has 5 rooms with en suite bathrooms in it. At this point, I realize that in order for me to not completely lose my sanity in the country, I have to make the best of it and say "if I'm going to be staying in Little Kinshasa, I better enjoy it for what it is". We take a look at our guide book for an alternative destination to the Reserve Which Doesn't Exist, and head out.

Now we continue to go north on what has to be the second worst road in the world (second only to the road which goes South out of Ambatondrazaka) to find a small town which our guide book has indicated is a "must see" when visiting Lac Alaotra, because the local villagers have created their own reserve to help manage the elusive Bamboo Lemur which is endemic to the area. Finding this town proves to be a small challenge, because most towns lack signs indicating their existence in Madagascar, and most roads lack names much less street signs. However, we manage to find it about an hour north of Ambatondrazaka.

Once we're there, the fact that this 4x4 full of Crazy White People is not only driving through the town, but is actually stopping and getting out of car causes quite a stir in the village. We find someone that looks like he might have some type of authority by virtue of the fact that he works in one of the few buildings with electricity (which airs Rented Pirate Videos on a TV for a few cents a seat, a common way to make money in Madagascar we've found), and ask him whether we can get into the natural reserve that they've created. This causes quite a bit of hemming and hawing, because as it turns out they haven't actually done anything of the sort, but if we'd like to see the lemurs he can arrange it. We say we'd like to, which was apparently not something that he expected, because now we had to wait for the Chief of the village to return from Ambatondrazaka in order to deal with our outlandish request. He also seems stumped when we ask him how much this will cost us, and so he proceeds to start naming figures for things completely off the top of his head (well, it's going to be 5,000 francs for the boat, and, well, I suppose, another, hmmm, how about 20,000 francs per person? How does that sound?). I suppose those numbers seemed completely outlandish to him, but since the total bill amounted to about $4, we weren't about to complain.

Once the chief returned (probably the chief by virtue of the fact that she had a clean and relatively new blue dress on), she explained that sure, 45,000 francs sounded about right. She also apologized for the delay, but she had been in the city in order to attend a presentation because one of the most senior politicians in the country was relaying the fact that the government had just announced that day that the road was to be paved in the summer after the rainy season was over (since radio and TV don't get there much), and wasn't that great news? However, they really weren't sure about the price being fair, since nobody had been there in over a month (there to see some birds and not the lemurs), and the last person before that was a couple of months before that. But here, have some Longan fruits, and wait for the guy with the boat.

We started our wander down to the lake, taking care to avoid the giggling children alternatively running away from my camera or making sure that they were in every single picture that I took, dodging both herds of Zebu making their way on the same road and their droppings at the same time, until we get to the lake and find our chariot for seeing the lemurs. During this some more information comes out: they're all subsistence fishermen around there, unlike the rice growers who live all along Lac Alaotra, and this is just something that they do on the side, guiding people to see the wildlife living on the lake. They're not sure how long this will take, but since we're paying, we're not leaving until we're satisfied.

With cameras strapped to every part of my body, and each of us holding a stool, we got to the shore to find that the boats are actually primitive canoes carved out of an entire tree trunk, and since they're flat bottomed, the stools are there for us to sit on. This is not a very stable platform, as you can imagine, and turning around when instructed that we're going to switch direction is a bit of a chaotic process to make sure that we don't get tipped over in the canoe (which happened to me the last time I got into a canoe, so the first 15 minutes were sheer panic for me).

On the lake we were in a bit of a hunt through the papyrus reeds growing in clumps in the water. For, while they're called Bamboo Lemurs, these ones actually feed on Papyrus reeds growing in/along the lake, and this is the only place in the world to see them. Our guides did everything they could to get us as close as possible to the reeds, until we realized that they were going to be propelling us with their hands into the middle of the clusters (which are dense enough that they look like islands from the shore). And then we saw them: a whole family of 5 bamboo lemurs feeding and jumping between clumps. We stayed there for about 20 minutes getting slowly closer and closer until we got the pictures that we wanted, and since we'd been on the river for about 90 minutes at that point, we decided to call it a night.

When we got back to Ambatondrazaka, we went out in search of food (remember, we hadn't had lunch yet), but by the time we got to one of only two restaurants in the city it was 8:45pm, and we couldn't be served because the staff were leaving too quickly to be able to serve us; the only other restaurant was down the block and they had the same problem. Having seen the meat sellers in the town waving fans to wipe away the flies from the unrefrigerated meat and no sign of a safe water supply anywhere, we decided to pass on any type of food. So we retired to the room with very hungry stomachs from a long day of travel. Our driver, however, didn't retire to the room: as he needed to sleep in the 4x4 to make sure that it didn't disappear in the night. Given how rowdy the street was until at least midnight (when even the shouting, singing, and dancing couldn't keep us awake any more), I can't blame him. Luckily, in the morning, the 4x4 was still there. Our breakfast, however, wasn't, and again we got onto The Road From Ambatondrazaka, even hungrier than the night before.

Our early dinner in Moramanga (the first restaurant you get to once you head onto RN44) was the best food I had all trip.

When on the 7 hour ride back to Moramanga (with an additional 5km of fresh dirt road to cut the time), I got to thinking that this was essentially the experience that defined Madagascar for me, and I can't think of a reason why I wouldn't have done it.

Where else would I be able to meet people who were so excited to see new people? Where else would I be able to be paddled through the middle of papyrus clusters in a lake in a tree trunk to see nearly extinct-in-the-wild primates? Where else would children scream with glee at a simple camera flash in the night? Where else would I learn of the ticket agent who couldn't be bothered to steal our money? Where else would I be able to get two men to ferry us around in a canoe on a lake for two hours at sunset for $4? Where else would I learn how to get all the people sitting on stools in a canoe to turn around? Where else would I learn how difficult it is to minimize blurry pictures when taking pictures standing up in a canoe with a massive zoom lens? How else could I directly impact conservation efforts by helping people realize that they can make more money protecting their wildlife than by destroying it?

But this was tinged with some sadness: that very road that made it virtually impossible to see the Bamboo Lemurs was also the only thing saving them. The lemurs originally lived in the papyrus fields which lined the lake, and only slightly in the reeds in the middle of the lake. However, the beds around the lake had been almost eliminated for rice patties, and the lake was getting smaller and smaller as more rainfall was being diverted to irrigate the rice patties. Once The Road to Ambatondrazaka is paved, there will be nothing to stop the expansion of the area in terms of population (increasing water use overall) or in terms of agricultural production, and the lemurs will probably not last much longer. If I hadn't done this now, on this trip, regardless of all the insanity it involved, I never would have been able to do it.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

British Airways Sound Sucks

I'm on my way to visit my family in Chicago on a British Airways flight. Like the impoverished Startup CEO that I am, I'm in the back in cattle class (and let me tell you, trying to find a way to open a 15" MBP in coach isn't pretty).

I was worried about opening the laptop, and my iPhone given the 30 emails I had to deal with between syncing up at home and getting on the flight is a little low on battery, so I thought I'd watch one of the in-flight movies.

Does nobody actually check on the state of the audio?

Option One: My In-Ear iPhone Headphones. Result: Excellent background sound and music, inaudible voice.

Option Two: Provided British Airways Headphones. Result: I can at least hear the audio if I crank it, background sounds and audio are just a blur of over-amplified fuzz.

Man, this is going to be a long flight. And given that the person in front of me just reclined fully and I can't even see what I'm typing anymore, even though the laptop is on my actual lap, I can't see it getting any better.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Canary Wharf Travel Apocalypse

At least 90,000 people work in Canary Wharf every day. Only 25% of them live in the surrounding 5 boroughs. That means that the rest of them have to travel quite far to get to this simmering hell-hole.

However, there is exactly one Underground stop and line that goes there. The Jubilee line. Many of those 90,000 workers come from South-West London, since one of the reasons that the Jubilee line travels the way it does is to be just as convenient for the ex-City workers as the Waterloo & City line ("The Drain") many used to take to work. The Jubilee Line sucks though. It fails. A lot. And when it does fail, here's the sequence:

  1. Travellers from South-West Trains get to Waterloo and are held outside the ticket barriers due to overcrowding on the platforms. During this time, the Jubilee Line has "Good Service."
  2. Eventually, they will finally acknowledge that the Jubilee line has problems (for example, this morning and Friday morning they shut it down completely during rush hour).
  3. Somewhere in between the two, there will be a rush to the Waterloo & City line so that people can transfer to the DLR, the only other form of mass transit that goes to the simmering stink-hole that is Canary Wharf.
  4. Too many people will start interchanging at Bank station rather than just exiting it, leading to
  5. An evacuation of Bank Station due to overcrowding, leading to
  6. The Waterloo & City line getting shut down, leading to
  7. Everybody stuck precisely where they are.

Yep, that's right, when the Jubilee line has a hiccup, nobody gets to work in the City.

Who in their right mind allowed Canary Wharf to go in with a single tube line and no redundancy in any form in transport, and then to just keep expanding to no end? Whoever it was was an idiot.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Vatican Is On Crack

Just to be clear of current Vatican Doctrine:

  • 9-year-old girl is raped by her step-father;
  • Doctors don't believe she's capable of carrying *twins* to term without threatening her life;
  • Aborting the fetuses or assisting or advising the abortion warrants excommunication;
  • Raping a 9-year-old girl and getting her pregnant with twins doesn't warrant excommunication.
I have no other commentary.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Living With The NHS Rocks

So I was just watching Random TV (meaning US-based drama shows, to which I'm still addicted, 5 years on), and on came an ad (which I had already seen) about identifying the symptoms of a stroke victim to get immediate action so that you minimize the damage that the stroke might do (and as we all know, time means everything when dealing with a stroke).

Could anybody do that in the states? Not bloody likely. The best you'd get is some ad for a drug that has nothing but happy old people wandering through a field of flowers saying "call your doctor for more information on Strokivius." There's no single agent that has enough pull, or enough interest in the general welfare of everybody watching TV, to advertise things like that. I mean, Readers Digest might do it in their generic "Old People Who Still Read This Health Section," but nobody who's going to attempt to target all residents.

I'm not going to claim that the UK is a Single Payer Paradise (I've used more than my share of private health insurance and care providers while I've lived here). But I love the fact that the NHS exists, and I have no problems with paying taxes to support it. Without a single major agency with the best interests of the health of all citizens around, you can't support that type of public education.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Gaza Zoo Wrecked

This is all unsubstantiated, as I think you'd guess. However, apparently the recent hostilities have virtually destroyed Gaza Zoo. The London Times has a slightly less inflamatory version.

Unfortunately, in any human conflict like this, zoos are always badly hit, because they require people to take care of their animal charges. Zoos need staffers to look after the animals, constant supplies of food, clean water to clean enclosures and for drinking water for animals. When human conflict disrupts the flows of any of that to a zoo, it's the animals who suffer.

And the animals did nothing wrong.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Delivery Guys Carrying Cellular PDUs

(Background: For my USian visitors, all our credit/debit cards have a smart chip, and you have to put in a PIN rather than signing anything; it's quite secure, and giving your number over the phone is the most significant fraud vector for card payments.)

So I made a first order from The Good Earth Express tonight (trying to diversify our Asian food delivery options, and we've been a fan of the restaurant in Knightsbridge for years), and usually when I want to pay for food delivery with a card, I give the number over the phone. Restaurants are noisy places, and this usually doesn't work that well (combine non-British accent, lots of similar numbers, noisy environment). But they have an interesting policy: their delivery people have cellular PDUs to take your card with chip-and-pin right there at your home.

What a great idea! I'm actually surprised that nobody else has ever done this for me. Simplifies things dramatically, and makes me far happier that I'm not giving all details necessary to fraudulently clone my card by shouting over a phone. Great service.

Oh, and the food's great. Not as good as the restaurant, but it's delivery after all. Definitely one to add to the rotation.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Coin Operated Hair Straighteners

I shit you not.

Apparently, a key thing facing today's women is that they might find themselves out somewhere and find their hair insufficiently straight. Therefore, venues that attract today's women when "out socialising, been for a work-out or even when shopping" should ensure that they have coin operated hair straighteners available in their restrooms for emergency straightening-for-hire.

Stay classy, Engadget Feed Ads.

Friday, 7 November 2008

That whole key copying thing

(Context: The UCSD system that copies keys from a picture).


Yale keys are extraordinarily easy to copy, because they're symmetric, and only have 5 pins, and each pin only has a few settings. People have known this for years.

This is why safes don't use symmetric keys, and they use a lot of settings, and they don't use pin settings at all. They use disc-based locks that are assymetric (each side "looks" different, so if you have a picture of one side you can't actually reconstruct the lock settings), they have a lot of disks (so that you can't remember them easily), and they have very subtle changes (so that you can't easily remember or use software to work out the precise disc necessary based on a simple visual).

Yale keys are also easy to bump and can be picked trivially.

Don't use them.

Good home key set? Abloy Protec. Only thing it's really lacking is the assymetric part, but it's got I believe 11 small discs and each has like 10 settings. Much more secure anyway.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

I love me teh google

Yes, Google rocks. This article on my tech blog is the #1 hit for a particularly pernicious bit of MILF porn search. Yay, safe-search mode!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

York Gardens Table Tennis Club Information

Quite possibly they should have their own web site, but given how impossible it is to google any information about this, allow me to provide it all here in one place.

This was accurate as of a phone call today (21 Sept 2008) with Tom Draper, but may no longer be accurate.

Contact Person: Tom Draper
Tom's Phone Number: 020 8874 1575

Fircroft Primary School
Fircroft Road
Tooting, London
SW17 7PP

They play Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
18:00-19:30 - Children
19:30 - 22:30 - Adults

Cost is 3/session if you pay for a 12/year annual membership, or 4/session otherwise.

They have some changing rooms, but because it's a primary school, they don't have full locker room and shower facilities.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

McCain: I was tortured by teh gheys

Okay, this is where I really have to make a political post.

McCain blames his torture in Vietnam on homosexuals.

How in the world is there anybody who wants to vote for this guy?

Monday, 21 July 2008

Ignore Low-Rent Tourists

Let's say you live in a region which gets some tourists. You're looking to start a business with which you might encourage some of those tourists to part with some of their currency and give it to you.

A Restaurant! That's a fine idea. Everybody needs to eat, particularly those pig-like North-West Europeans: they can't help but stuff their faces at every opportunity! (so sad; so true).

Hmmmmm..... Only problem. I only know how to make My Native Food. And the pigs won't like that. So I'll have to make their "cuisine" to make them come to my restaurant. But there are so many of them, so I'll have to make sure that I have a part of my menu devoted to each country I think might come to my restaurant, so that there are at least 100 things on the menu, none of which will be fresh, and none of which will taste good at all.


Look, I'm not saying that there aren't people having a Full English, downing it with a pint, at 10:00am on any of the Canary Islands at any given time. And I'm not saying that there aren't people who won't visit anything other than a German beer-hall in a coastal town in Cambodia. Sure, there are those people. Here's what I will say though:

Those people are trash.

There. I've said it. They're Packaged Holiday-makers who want My Village But With Better Weather.

Anyway, they are. They're human scum, and more importantly, they don't spend very much. One of the attractions for them is that they can get exactly what they get at home, but for cheaper. Not great profit margins, are they?

Now you might say that the only Whiteys who will go for local cuisine are backpackers who are even more price sensitive than the Low-Rent Weather Seekers, and that's true to a point. But here's the other hint: there are a bunch of us who want local food, but don't want to get sick, and want air conditioning now and then, and might want a bottle of chilled Sauvignon Blanc with our dinner. We might even want delicacies that you would really only eat once in a couple of months.

Give us somewhere to eat. Cook for us. Whatever you'd eat at home, whatever you'd have for a celebration, heck, if you're in the main city of your country, cook me whatever you'd have in your home town. Just make sure it looks like you have proper hygiene standards, and we're good to go.

Yes, you're ignoring the people who will never eat anything that isn't served with french fries, but those people honestly aren't going to your establishment probably anyways (because the ones they're going to have been staked out years ago and it ain't you). Give me somewhere I can go on holiday.

Oh, and that doesn't mean go the absolute other end. I don't want a "fine dining experience" as I wander around with flip-flops and shorts on. I don't want you to pretend that your home cuisine is classical French (which you actually can't do without a full hotel kitchen because you naturally have the disadvantage of weather, which means that you don't have the cold temperature to play such magical games with butter). I don't want to have fawning service. I want a bottle of wine, I want local food, I want to have a good time.

And it doesn't matter that where the locals live is nowhere near where the tourist hotels are. That's fine. Set up by your home and make sure my hotel (and all local taxi/tuk-tuk drivers) know where you are and what you do, or just open by the tourist hotels.

Also, I don't want to hear your daughter sing. Nobody wants to hear that. Nor do I want to hear music which may be grating to my ears too loud. Yes, I want to hear it, it's part of the faux-native experience (and don't think I don't know it's faux-native: I'm not stupid); just make sure I can hear my other half at the same time.

Please don't make me eat in the hotel another night...

And by the way: if you get offended by this post, ask yourself why you're offended that I think someone eating the cheapest full english breakfast they can get every day in Cambodia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, ... is a bit stupid and rubbish. Then again, I doubt those people read anything other than The Sun, so the chances of them actually getting offended by this are pretty darn slim.

And if you're offended by the hygiene standards, my only real rule when travelling is this: if I can't see ANY way for staff to wash their hands, I walk out. You'd be surprised how often I have to invoke that rule in some of the places I go. It's one of the reasons why I always visit the toilet before I eat anything.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Dollarization and the Cambodian Economy

I just got back from Cambodia, and something which has definitely changed in the last two years since I first went is that it's gotten a lot more expensive, and things are really escalating right now (they estimate that official inflation is running at about 28% a year right now). There are a few main reasons for that that I can see.

The first thing is the effective and total dollarization of the economy. They use the US dollar for everything, and when I say that, I mean US dollar bills. This is a remnant of the UNTAC era in the early 1990s, when UNTAC employees were paid in dollars and were looking to spend them. These days, everything over a dollar is priced in USD, and the local currency (the Reil) is only used for change at an extremely constant rate of R4000/$1 (so if something costs $2.50, you pay $3, and get R2000 back).

While this has provided in general a far more stable currency and exchange rate than a developing country might otherwise have, these days the primary trading partners of Cambodia (in addition to the US purchasing garments) are all countries which don't have a USD fix (Thailand, Vietnam, China, Australia). All of those countries have seen their currencies against the dollar appreciate over the past few years as the USD has tanked, meaning that everything is more expensive in Cambodia.

Furthermore, inflation is picking up because by adopting the dollar, as we all know, Cambodia has adopted US monetary policy. While the extreme loosening of credit as a result of the credit meltdown has, if anything, only helped to avoid a much more severe and quick economic downturn in the US, in Cambodia it's put way too much money into the building industry, meaning that prices and wages are rising dramatically, putting an upwards pressure on anything that you, as a foreigner, are likely to buy.

In addition, they're getting hit by the global food shortage. Cambodia is a net importer of food, and they're buying from non-dollar economies. That means that they're having to buy food, which is going up in price due to shortage situations, with a weakening currency.

This has left you in a situation where a countryside-raised chicken (very little meat, mostly bones and feathers) costs about $6 in a market. I can buy one here for as little as about $3 (okay, maybe $5 for an organic free-range one).

And then there's oil. I don't need to say any more here, but Cambodia isn't an oil producer of any import. So it's buying in oil and petrol, and that's getting expensive.

Add into this the rapid development of certain parts of the economy (mostly tourism and construction in the major cities), and you have a situation where the places you're likely to go and things you're likely to do are all a heck of a lot more expensive than they were just a few years ago.

Still, for the most part, a bargain compared to anywhere you might live, but not the ultra-bargain that most people would associate with Cambodia in the past.

BKK Continues the War on Passengers

Cory Doctorow of Boingboing has an ongoing series of articles (for example, writing about the LHR Terminal 5 Preview) on the open hostility of airports to their customers who might want to use an electrical socket. While airports used to have some electrical sockets around (mostly for the convenience of staff), it's only been recently that they've determined that customers were using them for laptops and recharging battery-operated devices, and have started blocking them off wherever possible.

This is definitely a complaint I have with Heathrow, as well as the fact that Heathrow (particularly the vile Terminal 4, which I now have to fly through en route to New York) is nothing other than a shopping mall with some gates attached.

Bangkok's new airport, Suvarnabhumi, has managed to take things a step beyond that by being openly hostile to all passengers. BKK's layout is on multiple stories, and the main "departure" level is level 4. This is where you have to hang out until your gate is called. Once your gate is called, you go through security, go to your gate area, and sit and wait for your flight. This is not that different from Heathrow's Terminal 3, where there are separate waiting rooms at the gates.

The problem here is that BKK's Level 4 has, in addition to no electrical outlets, nowhere to sit. Oh, wait, no, sorry, there are places to sit, but they're all in bars and restaurants. Oh, wait, no, sorry, I lied, there are about 4 seats every 25 metres or so, in the middle of very busy interchanges. The idea, I guess, is to take the Heathrow experience even farther and make sure that you have NO option other than to spend money while you're waiting for your gate to be called. And you want to hang out in Level 4 as long as you can, because once you go to the gate area, you can't come back out, and there's nothing there except for seats and a toilet.

So essentially they've said that if you're not going to spend money in the shops, stay the heck out of the airport.

I think something that Cory is missing here is that while he thinks that this is a matter of hostility to passengers, and is thus a bad thing, unfortunately it plays right into the explicit intentions of the airport operators. They want terminals to be horrible, horrible places, for a couple of reasons.

First, the airport operators lose money these days on the flight operations themselves. They make money from the shops, which are charged a massive rent. So it's in their interest to keep revenues at the shops as high as possible, and if you've got no other option to do anything while waiting for a flight, you'll probably shop and spend money.

But here's the kicker. The second reason that they want you to be unhappy is so that you'll want to go to a lounge, which is an oasis of calm in any airport. This means that you'll spend money on a better class of service, or fly more with one airline, so that you'll get to use the lounge. Is it any wonder that many of the articles about how great Terminal 5 were actually writing about the lounges? Heathrow Terminal 5 has six of them.

There, you'll find comfortable seats, no shops, all the electricity and network access you could want.

In the meantime, if you happen to be flying coach, you're SOOL.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Hilarious Money Doodles - Not always funny

I'm in Cambodia at the moment, and just a few days ago I was in Siem Reap going to see as many temples as I could in half a day (which was all I had allotted in this whirl-wind tour), and the time had come to pay the driver for the mass driving he had done. Came down to $75 for the whole afternoon, including two very far-away temples (Beng Melua and Bantey Srei for those who've been, more of which in another post), which seemed a little high, but whatever.

And when I say $75, I don't mean "$75 expressed in the local currency." I mean 75 US Dollars, in US Dollar bills. For those of who haven't come to Cambodia, they've effectively adopted the USD for every single transaction, and only use Reil for units below $1, using an effective exchange rate of R4000=$1. So since nobody carries that much Reil, we had to pay in good old fashioned greenbacks.

One of the $20 bills that we received when we got change from a $50 bill (which is what the ATMs here give out) had a very humorous Where's George? notation on the top. Very humorous, no? Wouldn't it be clever to find out when you check that your bill made its way to a petrol service station in Siem Reap, Cambodia? Hahaha. How humorous that would be!

Even better, what joy it would be if your Hilarious Money Doodle was to make it over here! How hilarious!


This bill was like the plague over here. Our driver point-blank refused to take it, claiming (probably not incorrectly) that it was useless to him, as nobody would ever take it here, because it wouldn't look real once it had been written on. Since they don't have their own currency, and since there's been so much change in the USD notes recently, I guess I can't really evaluate whether that's true or not, but he was very upset about this note. In the end, he wanted us to go into the hotel to change it for another note that was more acceptable to him, and after a very long and hot and tiring (started the day up at 5am in Phnom Penh) day of temple stomping we refused, but to do so we had to literally just walk away from him. I felt bad, because he probably figured he was going to be stuck with that bill for a long time, but over here, they don't have confidence that any old bill that's torn in half and taped together or something like that is exchangeable at the bank, because it probably isn't.

Oh, and US? Please think of poor countries when you finally get rid of the $1 bill. Coins are great (the smallest note in the UK is now worth about $10), but over here they don't have coins and don't want them, and given the dollarization of the economy, that will mean that the minimum price of most transactions will become $5 which will be a killer for the economy.