Grump goes to Thailand

(sunsail.com)

 

Ah, the Land of Smiles. ‘Amazing Thailand’, as the national tourist board would have you know it. After a year and a half working in a grotty megalopolis in northern China, a couple of weeks horizontal on a beach on some paradise island or other sounded just the ticket. And in many ways it was, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed, and slightly old.

Just to be clear, my intentions for this trip were honest and pure. No temples. No ‘culture parks’ or, frankly, parks of any variety. I wanted to relax – good food, strong cocktails, dazzling white beaches, shimmering sunsets and better hotels than I would usually stay in. Compared to all my travelling as a student, an utterly luxurious experience was what I envisaged. On most counts I’m not complaining, but I struggled to reconcile myself with some parts of my experience.

My route started in Phuket, from where I was flying in and out of the country. The Lonely Planet calls it “Thailand’s own Costa-Del-Soulless”, so needless to say my expectations weren’t high. The beach was dirty, the bars were crawling with middle-aged white men cruising for young Thai women, and, critically, it started raining while I was there. After some time of both my travel partner and I trying to be positive and pretending that it wasn’t awful, we tentatively broached the topic and found that we were of one mind. So we left.

“This was where quiet holidays came to die.”

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Too Much Too Soon: Iran and the Interim Deal

Photo from Flickr user: anouri

Photo from Flickr user: anouri

At the time of writing, the International Energy Association, the international organisation designed to monitor nuclear energy and weapons, has recently begun monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, as Iran has started curbing the enrichment of its uranium. This is one of the first and most important steps in the implementation of a deal that took headlines around the world. The deal concerns the infamous Iranian nuclear program and the sanctions that have been placed on Iran because of it. 

The deal is significant because it indicates a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, as it is the closest that these states have been since 1979, whereupon the new revolutionary Iranian regime began referring to the US as ‘the great Satan’. It is also significant, because it places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, a program that has worried states around the world and in particular American regional allies like Saudi Arabia and especially Israel. The deal, which took effect on 20th January, limits the enrichment of uranium to just 5% and it requires that any of Iran’s uranium that has been enriched to 20% be ‘neutralised’. 5% and even 20% is far short of what is needed for a nuclear weapon and is more in line with what is necessary for nuclear power, which is what the Iranian regime states is the purpose of their program. (An explanation on the heavy water plant at Arak, used for the creation of plutonium, an element which can only be used in nuclear weapons, is not as forthcoming.) The deal also prevents Iran from creating any more centrifuges, which are used for uranium enrichment. In turn, the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, Russia, China, the United States, France, known as the P5—the permanent members of the United Nations security council—plus Germany) will not impose further sanctions and will transfer £2.6 billion to Iran for the sale of some of its oil. Current sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical, gold and precious metal, and automotive industries will also be temporarily lifted. So what Iran gets is temporary easement for its embattered economy, and what the P5+1 get is dialogue with Iran, a state with a very isolated and fiercely ideological political executive.

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Photo from Flickr. User: anouri

This is only an interim deal, meaning that it is temporary and that it will expire in six months. This limited time frame is where the deal becomes interesting. What the deal did was limit the Iranian regime from expanding the quantity of its nuclear program by limiting the number of its centrifuges. What it did not do was prevent the quality of the existing nuclear program from improving, in that it does not prevent the Iranians from conducting further scientific research on nuclear reactions. By giving the Iranians a sizeable portion of money, though not sizeable enough to truly help the economy, the P5+1 may have given Iran exactly what it wanted. What the P5+1 desired was to give Iran incentive to come back to the table in six months’ time and to give Iran a show of good faith – the money and trust were samples of what could be on offer if Iran comes back into the international community of states. What they may have done is given Iran money to continue research into its nuclear program, a program that many fear is designed to yield nuclear weapons. Given Iran’s political and ideological outlook and isolation, a nuclear Iran scares many people. As well it should.

The P5+1 have shown a lot of trust in a state that does not deserve it. As a supporter of the radical and violent terrorist organizations HAMAS and Hezbollah, not to mention a supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, a regime that is figuratively and almost literally covered in blood, Iran is not a country that is likely to yield to normal rationality anytime soon. The regime is revolutionary and therefore loses its legitimacy when it begins to diverge from its goals of an Islamic revolution, one that would implement Sharia law and have catastrophic consequences for Israel and all Western states that practise secularism. Therefore, for the sake of its legitimacy in the eyes of its domestic supporters, it must continue on the path it has trodden and it cannot waiver. The Iranian regime is very pragmatic but only insofar as that pragmatism is designed to keep the revolution afloat. When the P5+1 agreed to sanctions it gave up far more than it got and it released pressure on a state that will not yield to any other type of communication. When all of the parties to the negotiations return to the table in a short while, the P5+1 will be in a weaker position and Iran in a stronger one. Whether Iran will come back to the table in six months’ time is not a given. If it does, it will be expecting to get far more than what it got the last time around, and it may be expecting far more than any state is willing to give.

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Book Club: Evocación: Mi vida al lado del Che

 

When I moved to Cuba I decided that in the five months I was there I had to read at least one full-length novel by a Cuban writer in Spanish before I left. Easy enough, right? Well, it turns out I’m a picky reader and it took me almost four months to find the perfect book, which satisfied my criterea: historical, interesting, fun and original. Evocación, the autobiography of the Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, was the lucky winner.

I know what you’re thinking already: a novel about a Cuban revolutionary is not very original at all. However, this one is different because the author is in fact Che Guevara’s wife. Throughout the book Aleida recounts her life at Che’s side and unlike most writers who portray him as an icon, her account is brutally honest and she never appears to hide anything from the reader.

The Cuban Revolution through her eyes doesn’t seem as grim and daunting as most other historical accounts of it. For her, a girl falling quickly in love with a handsome, intelligent revolutionary, the world is an exciting place and the Revolution seems like a fairy-tale. She claims, whether truthfully or not, that she wasn’t always interested in the man who was the face of the movement and it was his softer side that pulled her in. The way she tells it she didn’t fall in love with a fighter, but with a poet and a dreamer: an image of Che Guevara we’re not all that accustomed to.

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The Bucket List

Have you ever sat down and thought up a list of the places that you want to visit before you become old and wizened? Here at Exploration, we spend most of our lives doing just that. Now we’re turning our thoughts into text: our writers have been given a sack of imaginary cash and told to go and plan where and how they’d spend their five dream days abroad. This is Jess Collett’s Bucket List.

1. The Orkneys

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney by scrappy annie (www.flickr.com)

Of course, being Exploration’s resident historian I’ve stuffed my bucket list with historical sites I have yet to visit and am desperate see for the strangest reasons. That’s the way my mind works unfortunately: offer me a ticket to see a town that is historically famous for being, say, the world capital of halibut fishing and I’ll set off the happiest woman in the world. At the top of my ever expanding bucket list – from which they will only let me choose my top five – are the Orkney Islands. As I’ve said already in a previous Hidden Histories article, the islands boast some of the best preserved prehistoric sites in the world, which give visitors a fascinating look at the pilgrimage sites, homes and even the furnishings used by our prehistoric cousins. Stone age cabinets? Brilliant.

2. Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The Rila Monastery was built in the tenth century and has seen countless years of academic and religious activity. It is a beautiful complex, rebuilt extensively throughout the nineteenth century and epitomising the links between spiritual and social daily life in Bulgarian history. It also stands as an ongoing symbol of subversion: here you can learn about the continued survival of the traditional Slavic way of life, even after Bulgaria had endured centuries of occupation and oppression by different groups of people, from the ancient Ottomans to the 20th century Communist party. I just like the idea of rebellious monks, okay?

3. Ostia Antica, Italy

Between them, Pompeii and Herculaneum attract a lot of visitors and get a lot of acclaim. But while I do aim to visit them both someday, it’s Ostia Antica that’s made it to my Bucket List. As well as being Ancient Rome’s foremost seaport, this is a well-preserved site that paints a remarkable picture of a place that had to evolve a great deal over its four hundred years as an important Roman town. Ostia Antica has faced sacking by pirates, been turned into a country retreat for the aristocracy and seen several of its neighbourhoods rebuilt by some of Rome’s most notable figures. I think I may also be attracted to it because I loved reading about it in the Roman Mysteries series.

4. Saint Petersburg

There are so many sites across Russia to see, but Saint Petersburg deserves to sit near the top of anyone’s Russian bucket list. Do I even need to justify why I want to travel there? Ok: it boasts beautiful architecture, amazing theatre, wonderful music, links to fantastic works of literature and – of course – a long and fascinating history. Different Russian regimes have come and gone, but the city has remained as great as it ever was.

5. Craco, Italy

Craco, Italy by HTB (www.flickr.com)

Craco is an abandoned commune and village in Matera. Abandoned buildings and places always inspire strong feelings in me. I love to explore towns and buildings that are frozen and preserved, though they sometimes fill me with such a sense of sadness and loss that it’s quite difficult to balance the emotions I feel when I’m walking amongst them. But they’re always worth seeing, and to that end I’d say that Craco really is my cup of tea. For starters, as you arrive there you see that, because it was built on a steep hill, the town sits on the skyline and has a really striking profile that leaves an impression all on its own. Few people still live in the city – most of the locals left long ago because of famine and the threat of landslides – which has left the village to be devoured by time. Imagine it. Death and life being maintained in a village and is slowly destroying itself. Rather poetic, isn’t it?

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Where to go in Winter

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is over, New Year’s resolutions have already been broken and we’re trying to push ourselves through what’s been statistically voted the “most depressing month” of the year. To that end, if you’re already on the look out for a far-flung place to escape to, here are five recommended winter visits to consider.

VENICE, ITALY

Italy’s aquatic city hosts the Venice Carnevale between February 15th and March 4th this year, and this time round the festival is set to be bigger than ever. Every year, thousands fill the streets in costumes of all shapes and sizes, to immerse themselves in the colourful history of the city. Masquerade masks are a main feature of the event and the ones you’ll see people wearing might be made from leather, porcelain or even glass, and you can easily buy your own in one of the numerous market stalls around the city. Go this year, join in with the fairytale and fantasy theme and enjoy numerous carnival events such as ice skating and costume contests. Beware though: some of the attractions can be pricey though.

PARIS, FRANCE

One of the most iconic cities in Europe is a wonder to behold in the winter. Enjoy a weekend away there by taking the train from London St Pancras and you’ll be in the centre of Paris in about 2 hours. Why not go with a lover or close relative: Paris explodes with romance this time of year, especially around the Valentine’s Day period (be warned of the stereotypical influx of other loved-up couples at this time though). Sit and enjoy coffee and pastries in a café just off the Champs-Elysées or make the most of the indoor (and therefore warm) attractions like the Louvre or the Musée de l’Orangerie.

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