Corbyn’s Labour is not a movement of the left. It’s a movement for democracy.

In accepting the Labour leadership for the second time in 13 months, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of the need to “unleash” the potential in the ideas, talent, and creativity of Britain. In the hands of another, this would be just another banal rallying cry for their economic policies. For Corybn, it was a call for extending Labour’s franchise. For putting the voice back in the vote. His success is not due to a sudden increase in popularity for socialist ideals, even though these underpin his image. The more central magnet is that Corbyn is projecting his version of Labour as truly attentive and responsive to the electorate. His message offers, in fact recommends, more citizen participation in the political process, first and foremost. If citizens are having hard time, then let’s hear about it, loud and clear. The Tory’s do not have this perception of an attentive ear. Why Corbyn does, is partly due to his back to the wall defence of the democratic process. It’s why he has never wavered in defence of his right to lead, and why he doesn’t play around with ideas pertaining to Brexit’s dilution. His message is backed up with action. Theresa May may skillfully hide the disconnect between her conservative government and the working classes as she deflects Corbyn’s wielding of voters’ questions in parliament, but it’s a doomed strategy as long as she belittles him. Labour is attracting new members in the hundreds of thousands, and this gravitation will demand tactful consideration from the silent majority, who struggle to make sense of the maturity of Labour’s message through the smokescreen of media hysteria and MP tantrums. It is political populism in its best form. Principled, peaceful, and resilient.

Of course, it is other forms of this populist energy that we see channelled through new and unforeseen political vehicles. Resentment and exhaustion with the ‘establishment’ has fuelled Trump’s psuedo-Republicans and Sander’s Democrats. It charged Brexit and will bubble beneath further uneasy Euroskeptic referendums to come. As flocks of people line up behind what seem like radical options, they stretch the political spectrum, and the centre becomes weaker and more opaque. But it also becomes redefined. It must fall towards democracy, irrespective of the left/right axes. The energy rattling it is tangible and powerful, but also combustible. It will at some point, if not channelled responsibly, erupt into violence. The flickering of its flammable components can power great things, or it can burn them to waste.

The problem much of the British public have had up until now is a lack of impetus to get involved and reinvigorate democracy, because there hasn’t been a clear way forward. The neoliberal “consensus at the centre”, so described by Chantal Mouffe, has muffled the votes of the increasing portions of society for whom the status quo ignores. Corbyn’s Labour provides a crack in this ideological stranglehold and beams in an alternative. Those who shriek about Labour’s end are only partly right: it is the end ofthis Labour. The party is shedding the stale skin of its recent stewards because it is no longer fit for purpose. It’s MP’s need to accept this and halt the infighting. New ways of doing things are the only way to harness the stifled calls for change.

Shifts of this nature are naturally going to attract opposition from established politics, in the same way that any established order defends itself. Some do rightly fear that it will fail, but who can say for sure? It’s clear that that politics needs an overhaul and clean out. Our complacency enabled the steady accumulation of mess. What starts as a small tear in a pair of jeans soon turns into a large drafty hole if unattended. And it doesn’t look cool. But if negligence is to blame, then involvement surely deserves our respect.

Momentum is the name of Corbyn’s support organisation, and as a commentary of his rapid accent, the name seems alone in its congruence with reality. It has become apparent that Labour’s future success requires its rebirth, and the reaffirmation of Corbyn’s helm will only draw more supporters to the cause. His offer of a more responsive democracy is proving just the tonic to the pernicious reverberations of political apathy.

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An Open Letter to Generation ‘Why’

An Open Letter to Generation ‘Why’

When my Bolivian guide started throwing sticks at the howler monkey seated high above our heads, I joined him. Realising as he flung the fallen remnants of the rainforest that they were never going to split the entanglement of foliage and collide with our passive primate, I didn’t see the problem. The monkey was way out of range, and me, a foreigner, wanted to see that damn monkey move. There’s no tangible problem here, right? Yet I still felt a scratching discomfort, largely fermented by the deep gaze of the jungle resident, as if he held nothing but contempt for his supposedly intelligent cousins.

I’ll digress for a moment and be straight; I want to talk about climate change. But don’t click away; I understand your disillusionment with the subject, and I can’t match the humour of Imgur or offer bikini selfies, but this is, you shouldn’t be surprised to know, more important.

It’s no mystery why the melancholic helplessness of climate change hyperboles lose out to the more instagram-able, digestible and optimistic stimuli which are flung our way at cosmic speed. We seem eternally clasping for control of our runaway youth, defeating the omnipresent reality of its fleetingness by embracing impulsiveness, while trying to keep a wise eye on the treadmill below whose sharp edge reminds us not to fall too far behind in the economic rat race. Who’s got time to confront the mortality of the seemingly insurmountable challenge in trying to bed mother nature, when she seems ignorant to our own internal plights? There seems to be a bubble which we are living in, and we urgently need to find a way to pop it.

It’s the same bubble which subsumed me and my fellow backpackers in Bolivia last year. It’s not hard to fall unconsciously into propagating ignorance while subduing ethical responsibility, when these instincts are competing with a ‘traveler’ mentality concerned solely with maximising personal pleasure. We dismissed eco-friendly tour options based on price and failed to have one reflective conversation on the byproduct of compliance with our chosen tour’s operation, which I find rather analogous to our attitude towards climate change. Our justification for not engaging with it seems to come bound in acceptance that any single individual’s behaviour will change nothing.

Even more of a barrier with climate change is its abstractness. We tend to like more palpable targets for our outrage, like dentists who shoot African lions. Then we seem more than happy to open the floodgates to international vilification, signing petitions in protests and contributing to newsfeeds that resemble nothing more than the 21st century angry mob. A similar incident in my native New Zealand this year involved an X Factor judge who made some hatefully unhinged remarks to a contestant that sent the entire country on a hysterical witch hunt in the name of publicised bullying. Both of these events undoubtedly deserve our condemnation. But what’s a mystery to me, is how to channel this level of passionate rage onto the one issue that our generation desperately needs to grab by the balls and shake into submission. Much like the European refugee crisis, which has itself been contributed to by a global warming exacerbated drought, we appear to be sleepwalking towards catastrophe until some catalyst like the drowned toddler reprograms our mass attention to the seriousness of the challenge, albeit just late enough that humanity’s suffering is already well underway.

Taking New Zealand again as an example, approximately one third of 18–34 year olds don’t agree that there is a scientific consensus on human caused climate change, and the same amount are unconcerned with the potential impacts of climate change on society in general. Despite a clear concerned majority, that’s still one in three of us, the future leaders and hopeful saviors of our comfortable post-industrial existence, who still don’t grasp the perniciousness of our predicament. Either we’re still wading through the murkiness permeated by the deniers, or there’s a fundamental disengagement with today’s realities of a 97% climate scientist consensus, overwhelming endorsement of anthropogenic climate change by almost every major scientific body including, without failure, all national scientific institutions, and incredibly, the holiest of endorsements from the Pope himself.

Instead of becoming outraged at an overzealous X Factor judge, why don’t we get outraged at the inability of our elected officials to put in the necessary steps to protect us. In almost 30 years of structured climate change mitigation talks, we have failed to stop the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in a 2015 year set to be the hottest on record, with global average temperature about to hit 1C of warming since pre-industrial times, corresponding with record CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The absolute maximum safe limit of 2C is wildly unachievable under current mitigation agreements, with predictions we’ll hit at least 2.7C even if current targets are met.

And just to drive the urgency home: CO2, as you may or may not be aware, takes hundreds of years to be removed from the atmosphere, via various natural processes. That means that just cutting CO2 emissions today, would not automatically normalise the climate. The hard truth is we are already committed to the effects of global warming for a minimum of two centuries.

Fact: We are the last generation with a chance to plug the damage before it sweeps away not only us, but our children and grandchildren, and we are obliged to do so. It is grossly naive, to think that the consequences of continued current trends will not burst through the illusion of the invulnerable civilization and tear it apart. Carbon emissions must be ripped from the persistent claws of capitalism now, so the truly punishing effects can be buried in the sand, in place of where our heads are now.


And now for the inspiration, because 2015 is not just literally steaming, it’s carrying the hottest positive momentum to date. You may of heard of the Dutch citizens who in June won a lawsuit, the first of it’s kind, forcing their government to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% within five years. Or maybe you’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio advocating the revolutionary runaway fossil fuel divestment campaign, which today totals assets worth over 2.6 trillion dollars. There’s increasingly firm rhetoric and commitments from the world’s two biggest emitters in the US and China, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy from Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, which has resulted in energy prices from renewable energy comparable to gas and coal. Dealing with climate change isn’t only about avoiding disaster, it presents an opportunity renegotiate our fundamental relationship with the natural world, to create a balance between it’s needs and ours as the first steps towards a more sustainable and fair economy.

Most importantly for us today, COP21, the climate summit in Paris at the end of this month, where delegates from 196 countries will attempt to sign in universal commitments aiming to steer us off 2C of warming, is the capitulation of all momentum thus far, and needs to be the turning point in humanity’s management of climate change. If there was ever a time for our generation to stand up and be heard, it’s now.

This isn’t about being a ‘leftist greenie’, a tree hugger or a political nut. We don’t need to buy power saving lightbulbs, turn vegan and take shorter showers. We just need to become engaged with the defining issue of our time and understand that it will affect us all.

Surrounding these talks, over 1500 monumental demonstrations are planned across the globe with the aim of becoming the biggest climate mobilisation ever. Last year almost half a million people marched in New York alone, and this year is set to comprehensively dwarf that. If you only attend one protest or march in your life, make it this one, for a simple reason:

The leaders at the summit must be mortally aware, that they cannot leave without comprehensive, unprecedented, aggressive steps to fight climate change.

Do we want to stumble over answers to our children, who we’ve condemned to the harshness of Earth’s violent side through our inaction? They will not understand our tolerating the pillaging of the natural world any more than we understand history’s tolerance of slavery. They will ask why. Why we allowed ignorance to weigh on our foresight. Why we stigmatised the need for change under a cover of abundant superficialities. Our generation cannot be defined by an unanswered question.

Naomi Klein on the reality of COP21

Naomi Klein on the reality of COP21

The below is a summary of Naomi Klein’s points in the wake of the ‘historic’ climate agreement signed at COP21 in Paris over the weekend.

Naomi Klein is a leading author, journalist, and commentator on the climate crisis and the economic system which sustains it. This summary is based on her talk on the 14th December at UCL’s School of Slavonic & East European Studies at the conference: Socialism, Capitalism and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe. Direct quotes are annotated as such.

While the text speaks of taking action to limit global temperature warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels, with the ambition to keep it below 1.5C, there is no legal mechanism within the text to facilitate this.

The INDC’s, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, essentially the pledges each nation volunteered to the agreement as a base commitment, when aggregated lead to 3-4C of warming. And a business as usual path based on current trends will result in between 5-6C (Note: this prediction is based off steady observations of the effects on global temperature by carbon released into the atmosphere, and doesn’t account for ‘shock’ effects’, features of the climate system with dramatic and unpredictable outcomes, such as the runaway melting of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, or the release of methane in the Arctic permafrost which could result in warming on a scale far beyond these predictions).

When the deal was struck, this resulted in “the bizarre clapping of governments failing to meet their own goals.” Within the text itself there is acknowledgment of this fundamental paradox: that the legal structures within the text do not achieve the goals it has set itself, and as a way of mitigating this, the parties have agreed to meet every five years to reevaluate.

“Who knows, maybe Donald Trump will do more than Obama”.

Naomi made the analogy of a doctor explaining to their patient that the patient will die in a few years from high blood pressure if they don’t radically adopt a healthier lifestyle, and then that patient decides to exercise less and eat four hamburgers a week instead of five.

The inclusion of the 1.5C also has an interesting context. During the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, a draft text which set a goal of keeping global warming to under 2C that was being produced by the bloc of developed nations, was leaked to the conference floor. This spurred dramatic, emotional responses by delegates from Africa and low lying Pacific nations who were pushing for 1.5C, crying out that 2C of warming equaled climate genocide; Africa would burn, and island nations would be extirpated by rising sea levels. Naomi was present, and she described it as one of the most emotional moments she’s ever witnessed – it was protest in the face of the elite, who had essentially said sorry, you’re GDP is just not big enough to warrant saving. The 1.5C limit, and it’s ties to fundamental human rights, is very much a reason for it’s inclusion in this new agreement.

Not once in the text are the words ‘Fossil Fuels’ ‘Oil’, or ‘Coal’ stated.

The text sets the goal of ending anthropogenic emissions above what sinks take out of the atmosphere at some point in the second half of this century. Besides the wildly unspecific time frame, scientists are telling us this needs to occur before 2050.

The fossil fuel industry is quite literally at war with the Earth. The idea of a ‘climate budget’, allocating the known reserves of oil based on factors such as historical accountability and size of GDP, is not built into the agreement, despite the well known fact there is a fixed limit to the amount we can burn from oil reserves while staying below 1.5C. This means corporate interests are still able to exceed this limit under the current agreement, which makes all the rhetoric nothing more than hot air.

“If they can’t say fossil fuels, then they sure as hell cant regulate fossil fuels”

There is too much emphasis on technological ‘fixes’

The text pushes for investment in research and development of new technologies, particularly on carbon sinks. Dodgy fixes like geo-engineering, false solutions such as clean coal. People like Bill Gates and Richard Branson are looking at market solutions to this problem, when it’s the very nature of the market which is to blame. It’s easier to imagine extracting carbon from the air, than it is to change the economic system.

“The only way you can accept this deal, is if you’re a technological fantasist”

“Do we live within a system capable of saving itself?”

What is needed, is a push for massive investment in the public sphere to get 100% off fossil fuels. The change will pertain to a “strategic economy”, one that will grow some years, and in others will not. There will be high emissions initially to facilitate the change, as we build and develop the infrastructure for a clean economy.

“We’ve now waited so long, the climate struggle cannot be solved by the endless growth model of capitalism”

Naomi argues, as she does in her book This Changes Everything, that “Climate change is the best argument we’ve ever had against this type of Capitalism”. That rather than seeing the situation as a crisis, we should see it as an opportunity. The idea of ‘green’ jobs should be redefined to include anything carbon neutral. There are estimates that there are 10 times as many jobs in the green sector than in the fossil fuel industry. Germany, in the midst of the world’s most aggressive renewables transition, propelled by civil will, has seen about 400,000 new jobs in this sector, up from 160,000 10 years ago. In California, 4000 of its 10,000 firefighters, the front line against climate change accelerated devastation, are prison inmates, paid about $2 a day while saving the state hundreds of thousands in costs. Examples like these are untapped potential. In a re-organised economy, hopefully with the implementation of a basic income, the movement will be to take people off jobs which harm the planet while still experiencing economic growth.

In some cities, like Beijing, where the pollution epidemic is regulated on a local level out of necessity, the corporate elite are even worried to let their kids go outside. The very people whose wealth is built on a carbon heavy economy, are realising the world they’ve created is toxic for their children. It’s this sort of awaking that needs to happen throughout civil society; that our neo-liberal free market economy is directly opposed to an ability to live harmoniously on this planet.

The issue is an economic one, the environmental concerns are only byproducts. While the agreement in Paris is rightly hailed as a diplomatic success, it remains a disaster for humanity. Not on any fault of the negotiators, they are simply restricted by the omnipresent influence of the market. With this realisation,  the push for change must come from us, civil society. Political will on it’s own has and is proving incapable.

 

 

A Non-British View of Corbyn Slandering

A Non-British View of Corbyn Slandering

Since arriving in the UK almost six months ago, I’ve been quietly soaking in the slosh of British politics, hesitant to form any rash judgments at the peril of being labelled a pestering peasant from one of the glorious empire’s failed penal colonies, New Zealand. However, I’d put it to staunch throated Brits that my lack of entrenchment gives me a rather uninhibited insight into your state of affairs, one that I’ve become unexpectedly fascinated with.

Now before you get too smug, this is in large part simply due to ideal timings; I just so happen to be in your country as my own sense of ‘giving a shit’ or righteous opinion has started to emerge out of post pubescent ego-centrism, and your political discourse, still horny from the election, just happens to be the one at hand to scrutinize. This is not to say New Zealand politics is lacking in flavour – our ‘pig-gate’ for instance was instead a ‘pony-gate’, where the horsing around involved the overzealous hand of our prime minister and a waitresses innocuous braid.

The reason I’ve felt compelled to put in my two cents, sorry: pence, is because of comments your enigmatic prime minister made this week at the Conservative party conference, referring to the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn as someone who thinks “the death of Osama Bin Laden was a tragedy”. The reason I’ve taken specific exception to this, is that the activity of propagating misinformation deliberately and knowingly to play into the circus of the popular press is none that a head of a nation should be engaged in, even more so when they represent such a seemingly civilised global force. The context for Corbyn’s comment, which is a mouse click away for anyone who looks, reveals that his opinion is that the assassination rather than capture and trial is the tragedy, fitting into his wider point of the entire 9/11 episode as a tragedy.

Cameron’s follow up point was “No. A tragedy is nearly 3,000 murdered one morning in New York”. Which is tellingly, considering that in the obscure old clip of Corbyn he’s trying to enlighten us from, Corbyn’s own follow up statement was the “World Trade Centre was a tragedy”. What does this mean? That they agree, and it’s all a terrible misunderstanding? How delightfully conciliatory. No, what it means is that Cameron calculated that wide swathes of the public, upon hearing or reading his dribble, would not independently seek out the context of Corbyn’s comment. That context very clearly exposes Cameron’s point as nonsense, and without it, a reader or listener is simply left with the PM’s dirty characterization, of which he referred to as ‘the only thing’ you need to know about Corbyn. The sad thing is that for people already ideologically displaced from the Labour leader, that inherently false fact will ring true.

For those who would argue this is simply partisan slandering, nothing new, happens everywhere, that is accepting of a system that is more concerned with the means to stay in power than the wielding of that power in your interests, and worse, accepting that in the face of a genuine driver to reform that system. Whether you support Labour or not, you must value their effort to change how the overall political beast behaves. For me, Cameron’s comments, the perverted execution of cherry picking by a head of state to stigmatize the opposition rather than engage with the important substance of what is said, is simply inexcusable. Despite the bedlam of the United States presidential nomination race, you would not see Obama making such insults. What Corbyn stands for, is the constructive, rational debate of issues, absent from debate of personality. This is his ideological constitution, and it works in the benefit for everybody; for his opponent to disregard that notion, and go for a cowardly knife to the ribs instead, is unsettling. David Cameron should be ashamed, and the British people should be ashamed for him.

Another to jump on the Corbyn scaremongering was Tony Blair, drawing the analogy that the inability of Corbyn supporters to heed the advice of himself, Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock to abandon their doomed backing of the new leader is like a driver continuing through a roadblock despite the old boy’s insistence that they’ve been “up and down this road many times” and it’s full of dangers and ultimately failure. Tony, you may have traversed the roads behind us, getting a few flat tyres of your own, maybe even on some of the same terrain, but you do not know the road ahead. Nobody does. Spare us your righteousness.

The discontent towards engaging and exploring issues productively within the political sphere and much of the mainstream media is not going unnoticed by the public, and it cannot be in the interests of Cameron or other politicians to display such playground antics in the face of voters who are over the gossip and bullshit. The front page article in an Evening Standard last week was titled: ‘Lord Alan Sugar: We should all move to China if Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM’. While simultaneously showcasing the unveiling of Sugar’s new luxury apartment building in London, a city riddled with hungry gentrification, a plutocratic housing market and growing poverty, the article shamelessly ran with the celebrity’s unjustified slandering of a man whose world view is by virtue focused by in large on the impoverished in society. These are the papers Cameron and others cater to with their poisonous dribble, hoping that some of it will seep into the minds of ignorant readers.

All of this weak criticism is something Russell Brand could testify on, given he was labelled “a joke” by the PM during the last election despite having followers and youtube views numbering in the millions. If you actually listen to Brand, if you look past the flamboyancy and the whimsical aura, you’ll find that’s where the jokes stop. His sound, rational arguments have amassed a huge fan base, all similarly discontented by the political complex, so by calling him a joke, you’re also calling his followers a joke, followers with as much sense of intellectual virtue and justice as anyone else.

From what I’ve observed these are all examples of the larger trend, to play into the fantasy and perceived demagoguery wherever possible, and we should all find that insulting. Whatever your views on Corbyn, whether you think he’s ultimately electable or not, is frankly irrelevant. His camp is unlike most others, refusing to sink to petty kicks under the table, or boisterous ramblings in parliament, and focusing exclusively on the content of the debate. The disruptive momentum of Bernie Sander’s campaign in the US, where many parallels can be drawn with Corbyn’s, is I hope indicative of an increased political engagement within my generation and others. Maybe they are the early signs that we are sick of cleaning up after this perpetual shit-fight.

Featured image: YouTube/exadverso

Creating the #MurderFilter

There you go humanity, your deranged, postmodern horror film is real.  The voyeuristic murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward in America this week plays like a reality TV show, and thereon lies the danger. It feels like entertainment, doesn’t it?

I think after the initial shock of a crime so unusually exposed, newsrooms around the world were basking in unspoken undertones of glee, for the crime, as horrific and sickening as it is, feels as perfect a development for tabloid media as the front facing camera was for vain adolescents.  To a society obsessed with narcissistic voyeurism, where we’re all tangled in the aptly named web, this was a murder for the whole family to enjoy. Photos and videos of our dinner and cats are so banal nowadays, it was only a matter of time before homicide joined the party.

Yet rather than the sensational splattering of the story and it’s disturbing images across news outlets serving some zombified desire on our part to frenzy on a story so in tune with the immediacy and intimacy we demand of our social media, the lively manner of the media in reporting it is simply cut from the same film of factors that sprout the Kardashian clan in equally frothy fashion from the rear page – a clear, digestible narrative and big colourful images.

Picture books for adults.

They will sell copies and lots of them, with very little ‘journalistic’ work to be done. And while capitalism might defend their right to do so under the ‘operating as a business’ cloud, this is where the fourth estate is really hurting us.

Scanning across the newstands one would be mistaken for thinking what they were looking at stills from a first person shooter video game. Allowing us to quite literally see through the eyes of the killer, to gaze upon the hellish terror clasping his victims in their final moments, all while we wait to pay for our groceries, is ethically reprehensible. The Sun even imposed an explosive gunfire graphic in front of the barrel of the gun, as if we needed reminding that guns do in fact fire.

Whatever political assertions that can be fed into the discourse surrounding gun control or mental health treatment, this story is much more fascinating as the perfect paradigm of the reckless way in which the media feeds us. Publication or broadcast of images taken by the killer in his deranged rampage not only quite immorally fulfills his wish to have them seen, but injects an invisible understanding into the void between audience and performer: that if you record similarly compelling images, we as a society, regardless of how morally repulsive the content, the context, the implications for the warping of society’s collective decency, or the impact on the family and friends of the victims, we will air it. At the risk of conjuring up platitudes, this is murder for the digital age, not unlike something you’d see from a Black Mirror episode.

Any justification for broadcasting sections of the murder video under the defence that they are representative of the story and thus important to it are baseless claims; moral integrity and responsible management of the power the media wields over our cultural perspectives should win out every time. Where were such assertions after the Charlie Hebdo attack? The action then, by media outlets worldwide, should have been a coordinated effort to brazenly print, on mass, the cartoons at the centre of the spectacle. That is how statements are made about the type of world we want to live in. Both then and now, media have set the reference at pure self interest; the only difference being then, it was out of fear; now, it’s because of money.

There’s a hashtag being wielded by many news outlets in the wake of this tragedy: #WeStandWithWDBJ. Does showing solidarity really need to include broadcasting chilling images of their final moments? The only thing they should be showing is that they will not do the attention-seeking work of psychopaths on their behalf.

Violent images of war zones, riots or other socio-political crises are examples of material that serves to expose us to the reality of life outside our bubble. They change perspectives and inspire action. Isolated sociopaths on a path to destruction are blips, and sensationalizing their crimes is more than just a missed opportunity to show off the integrity and solidarity of media groups in a refusal to do so, it grants an extra notch of radical social acceptance that works as a detriment to us all. This isn’t some violent movie causing concern with parents. This is real life. This is the pollution of a clout of violence and superficialness that is pulling us further and further into our bubbles of abstract digital comforts and timid social perceptions instead of grounding us in the world where real change and progress occurs. This is crime presented like an outlandish hollywood blockbuster. Lets hope it doesn’t turn into a franchise.

Breathing Below Sea Level

Breathing Below Sea Level

It was never expected to find myself working in Amsterdam’s despicably infamous district of sex and despair just three weeks into my Netherlands stay. When you need cash, you’ll do anything for it, and the red light district is ripe for opportunity, a magnet for the world’s most respectable gents and innocent ladies; these were my excitable customers. Wielding only a wink and the promise of a good night, my responsibility was to give them a proper Amsterdam experience. What was the job that left me feeling sweaty, violated and covered in other peoples saliva every night? A promoter, for one of Amsterdam’s pub crawls, which, dare I say it, was a rather fun one at that. But promotions, as anyone who has had the misfortune of dabbling in, can be a crueler mistress than those found in darkest of Amsterdam’s alleys, where even the red lights don’t shine.

Work began in the afternoon, and somewhere between a boozy headache and a cigarette, charisma was channeled. Like my peers, I got good at spotting the good targets. Sports shoes? No deal, they’re Dutchies. A wolfpack of lads in bold jackets idling across the tram tracks with a glint of marvel in their eyes? Bingo. Approaching with a sly grin, I’d leave them with a flyer and some genuine well wishes from one traveller to another and hope upon hopes that they would show up that night, gifting me my precious commission for another McBacon/Chilli Chicken hybrid from the omnipresent yellow arches.

On the days when, well quite frankly, we couldn’t muster much strength to equip a smile and fight for our pocket change, simply strolling the streets of Amsterdam’s centre was a charm. This strange personal ownership of the alleys and bricks grew with the familiarity of trodding them day after day until you quietly concur  with the tourism slogan ‘I Amsterdam’, before punching yourself in the nose for letting such a biggity thought pollute your mind.

But then again, there is that grand view you get the first time you step out of Amsterdam’s central station, the bustle of the trams and bikes and vast legions of foreign voices sliding through each other underneath century old monolith hotels while the harbour kisses the stone below. Or the first time you realise, as you stroll the city’s infinite canals, that night has sparkled the crisp air and the fairytale land you see before you, the elegantly rustic bikes piled against rows of intimate pastel townhouses all leaning, competing, for a view of the warm tugsten glow of the canal, is for the moment, home.

And the pub crawl, while the most soul destroying, health crippling, energy looting job I have ever held, really wasn’t so bad. For starters, everybody was in it together, like one big incestous family laughing at eachothers B.O. The crawlers were almost all from Australia, the UK, or Canada, and loved to hate the gig, but nonetheless found themselves raving past the close of their shift most nights, living a free party in one of the planets most popular tourist destinations. The tourists who crawled with us, well they definitely kept it interesting. Every night I would accept a wet spray from another boozed up life-lover telling me I had the best job in the world. I can see his point, in the same way that a rollercoaster attendant has the best job in the world. They get to ride the coaster for free and give that thrill to a new group of enthusiastic babblers every day. But the thing is, when you ride the coaster everyday, you learn it’s highs and lows, the parts that make you sick, and it loses it’s charm, so you’d rather just not bother with the highs if it means you can skip the lows. But you’re still fucked, cause someone has to clean the vomit off the seats.

I guess the double whammy to my time on the pub crawl, the dual sword that made it both the incredibly interesting and rabidly vile chapter that is was, was Grandma. Grandma, the sweet German lady with a devils tongue, was my saviour. With nowhere to stay in Amsterdam, I, like so many pub crawlers before me, ended up on her living room floor, sharing it with some of my fellow crawlers and only having to deal with a daily dose of Grandma’s absurd lectures and hilarious abuse in return. The ground rules were simultaneously crystal clear and as ambiguous as threesome etiquette. Can’t use the power sockets. Got it. 7min showers max. Easy. No cooking in the kitchen. Only paying €7 a night, fine by me. Sit in Grandmas chair where she’s invited me to sit countless times before. Well now I’m a filthy English pig.

When I first moved in, Grandma loved me. She gave me chocolate, her piss-taking was light and always ended in ‘darling’, and I could effectively ignore her irrelevant ramblings in the middle of the night by pulling the blankets over my head with no thought of offending her. All due respect to the woman, she used to run a bed and breakfast that was listed in the Lonely Planet, is well known and respected in the local community, and clearly has a kind heart. But in her elder years, as I met her, the onset of some kind of dementia formed a startling fusion with her outspoken personality, which led to some bewildering conversations. Vladimir Putin’s daughter living in Holland was a common topic point, usually while you were desperately trying to clasp at the last hour of sleep through the streaming morning sun as your afternoon shift loomed. Another was the reminder several times daily for a week that the cleaner was coming on Tuesday; this was important because we could not be seen and therefore at home, our existence in her quarters depended on us being discrete.  I asked her to repeat herself once, and she told me, completely consumed with rage, to go and fuck my mother.

Gradually, I felt myself waning on Grandma’s popularity list. There was the towel situation, where after she kindly took it for laundry, it vanished, and I would have to ask her everyday for it’s whereabouts, only to be shouted at that this is not a hotel and that she’s not in the business of giving out towels, before giving me a towel. It came to a head when she knocked on the bathroom door while I was mid shower and furiously accused me of using her towel; “Sorry Grandma” the only appropriate response. Often she would bring home food for us, but the atmosphere of being treated like secret stowaways while an elderly European lady fed us food scraps, elicits thoughts of another Amsterdam resident, Anne Frank.

One morning, or likely early afternoon as we usually slept off last nights shift until late, I was woken by talk of spare ribs gifted by the butcher downstairs. However, as if Grandma was punishing me something, I was refused any while she force fed Char and Suz, two English girls also inhabiting grandma’s carpet space. It was a blatant tease, a cruel show of favouritism to reinforce her status as queen bee. She would ask them, “shall we give him some?”, while the girls chomped and she chuckled. Eventually her stern visage cracked; Grandma did have a heart, you just had to earn it. But these ribs, these devious ribs, were not as they seemed. From the microwave she pulled a monstrous, sloppy, lukewarm hunk of ribs and slapped it into my hand. Still groggy and barely awake, this was breakfast, and she was our Miss Trunchbull, forcing us to devour every inch as though we were poor refugees. The sad truth was, we were; I was living off sugar bread and Mcdonalds, and the chance for some pure protein was never going to be refused. I forced myself to devour the feast and was eventually left pondering my concerning reality, standing there in a volatile German woman’s kitchen, barely dressed or awake, mouth and fingers coated in thick orange sauce, picking slime from my teeth as radioactive pig meat churned my insides, about to hit the streets, jump giddily in front of strangers, spend the night herding them between clubs, recite my life story to every boozed up beacon of fun who asks, drink my hangover into oblivion, wobble 45 minutes back to Grandmas in falling apart hobo shoes, unsuccessfully try not to wake her, cover my head with a pillow at four in the morning to dull the captivating tale of an old property dispute, and then to repeat the cycle be woken six hours later to find her standing over me trying to have the same exact conversation

Then one morning, I screwed up. I had hung my towel out on the balcony the previous day, and, needing a shower, I quickly braved the morning chill in my underwear to grab it, aware but unconcerned that the balcony was surrounded by other apartment blocks. Hoping to avoid waking Grandma and having a bewildering conversation with a heavy head, I tried to be quick but quiet. Yet despite my ninja movements, as I skulked back inside a familiar shaky voice trailed into my semi consciousness.

She wobbled around the corner a second later and immediately asked me me what I was doing out on the balcony. I explained politely, but I could see it in her eyes, hear the wheezing in her breath: Grandma was pissed. She wasn’t happy that I had gone out there in my underwear, thinking it would draw attention to the hideaways in her house, and that everybody could get kicked out. Then she hit me with logic: “If the Arabs see you out there like that, they think it is okay to come in here and rape us!” No amount of “Sorry Grandma” would cut it this time; she told me I could have my shower, but after that, I had to leave.

And just like that, one morning, my life in Amsterdam was over. With no where else in Amsterdam to live wielding no savings and an income well below minimum wage, the magical chapter was over. I ended up getting a new job for a small TV channel a week later in a nearby city called Utrecht, which truly saved me, both financially and healthwise. And while it’s all to easy to take cheap shots at my time on a crazy old German lady’s floor, working as a pub crawl promoter in the city of sin, in so many ways, it is one of my most treasured experiences. The pub crawlers were family, the nights were a riot, the banter excellent and the location, well, my office was the streets of one of the most seductive and enchanting cities in the world. So even though my time there was less than that what €20 buys behind a red tinted window,  I can definitively say, hand on nose: I Was Amsterdam.

 

The Top of the Middle of the World: A Journey to the Northernmost point of South America

The Top of the Middle of the World: A Journey to the Northernmost point of South America

In the darkness of the pre-dawn, was when the jeep first broke down, and we hadn’t even made it out of the village. The jeep had made the rounds to different hostels and was now full; a Finnish couple, a girl from Argentina, and a guy from the south of Colombia. If it could, the jeep would probably have more tales than all of us combined. It looked like a crumpled soda can coated in dry mud, and combined with it’s driver, who was swept away in hot anger from repeated unsuccessful attempts to start her while simultaneously conducting a yelling fit with his angry wife, there was enough to draft up a reality show pitch.

I had been warned that the journey to the northernmost point of South America in Punta Gallinas, Colombia, was not the most smooth of journeys. This land is governed by the indigenous Wayuu tribe, a culture which successfully fought off Spanish colonisation, preserving that culture but remaining in relative exclusion from the rest of Colombian society. There is little tourist infrastructure here, the only visitors feeling their way along the La Guajira desert peninsula with multiple buses and shuttle jeeps.

My mission had begun 72 hours prior flagging down a public bus from the highway which runs between the gorgeous palm tree littered Caribbean coast of northern Colombia and the mist shrouded peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In my mind embarking on this journey was a mystical, captivating notion; riding through the desert like Indiana Jones with a jeep as my camel just to stand atop this majestic continent, cut off from wifi and the gringo trail, as isolated as I could possibly be from the comforts of my previous existence in tidy Auckland, New Zealand. A few days prior, a lovely Swedish backpacker who had just came from Punta Gallinas had outlined the path I must take. Her handwritten note was my map; four place names which I would need to transit through. After two hours on the bus I arrived at the first, 4 Vias, which translates to ‘Four Ways’. And it is just that. Simply a large, four way intersection where two endless highways snake out of the horizon and clash, spurring out of the grisly dirt the growth of a handful of wooden food shacks and entrepreneurial jeep owners. It was one of these that offered to take me to Cabo de la Vela, the launching pad for Punta Gallinas. I jumped in with a couple of friendly Dutch travellers, and we boosted along the desert highway to hazy infinity. The ride was the perfect opportunity to observe one of the most bizarre habits of certain Colombian drivers. For no tangible reason, and with no car to overtake, they steer the car into the oncoming lane and just STAY THERE, with any passengers sharing concerned glances with each other in silence. When an oncoming car is a hundred or so metres away, that thankfully spurs a change back to the perfectly acceptable and more importantly, legal lane, and allows the foreign passengers to restart normal breathing patterns.

We arrived in Cabo de la Vela after an extended stop in the bustling desert town Urubia which didn’t simply serve as a requested ATM stop, but also for gas, a quick repair to the jeep’s transmission, and for the driver to catch up with half the townsfolk at either a slow crawl along the sidewalk or a complete stop for the full elbow-out-the-window babble. The sun was slipping towards the horizon as we arrived, drowning the desert settlement in a warm maternal glow. It radiated from the beach, whose sand merged with that of the desert and lined the long calm crescent bay. Alongside the chaotic rabble of a childrens’ beach football game, a young kitesurfer would skip along the water’s edge before surrendering to the wind and allowing it to whisk him several metres into the air. A dirt road runs parallel to the beach and is straddled with hammock filled beach huts and small wooden buildings containing kite surfing schools, hostels and restaurants. I stayed in one of the beach huts, little more than three timber walls and a roof where a hammock dangles facing the sea. This was a place where wifi is a dirty word, where electricity is as scarce as pillows, where if you want to order dinner you tell the chef that morning. That first night I fell asleep to strobing tropical storm far out in the Caribbean, it’s restless lightning exploding in silence miles behind the stormy mist, illuminating the blended grey canvas of sky and ocean every couple of seconds for hours on end.

cabo de la vela
Tyres & Kites – A recipe for paradise

Despite the serenity of this already isolated village, I was determined to kick on to Punta Gallinas as soon as possible. The owner of the hostel whose hammock I rented made a phone call, and quickly a ride to Punta Gallinas for the next day was organised; the driver rocked up and briefed me and two Israeli girls who also wanted to make the trip, and all seemed to be set for a 5am pickup. Of course that wasn’t the case. As I found out over beers later in the evening, the driver had counted the Israelis twice when they had enquired earlier in the day, meaning we were actually short of the five passengers they consider the minimum number for the trip. It still didn’t stop me rising at 5am in the hope I would see another jeep making the journey, but nothing was gained but bags under my eyes. That following day, Juan, an English speaking Colombian friend I had met the night prior, translated the grumbling incomprehensible Spanish of my hostel owner; there is only one car in the village that goes to Punta Gallinas, so asking around the town at different places will appear only as inflated interest. With this I held my tongue, hoping for something that night but feeling stifled at leaving my trip in the hands of somebody who cares much less than me. I killed the day hiking to a hilltop shrine which gave a rugged view of the ocean crashing onto the harsh edge of the desert and in the afternoon, when I saw signs outside a beach hut advertising trips to Punta Gallinas I almost enquired, if not for a plump man in the shadows of the hut chuckling with such aggression at his amigo that with my uncertain Spanish I felt as uncomfortable as Billy Ray Cyrus watching the video for ‘Wrecking Ball’.

rock coast
I guess there are worse ways to kill a day.

Later, the owner of my hostel informed me there was no hope for a full jeep for the morning. Disappointment reigned; resigned to the fact I would have to kill another day and day’s budget in this desert outpost. I was only saved when, smoking a cigerette on a tyre in the sand just after dusk, a dark jeep pulled up in front of me. In the passenger seat was Juan, exclaiming he had found me a ride to Punta Gallinas for the next morning, and after speaking to the driver next to him I became ecstatic; out of nothing, I would finally be heading off to the top of the middle of the world. I would later click that the driver was actually the aggressive laugher who I avoided earlier.

Somewhere in the prodding of the jeep’s innerworkings in that first pre-dawn breakdown the vehicle sprung to life, and not another thought was wasted on the consequences of the same thing happening in the desert. It was a full three hours of jarring tail bone assault through mud filled trenches and gaping potholes before that exact thing happened. The problem was when the engine was switched off, as it was with the first inevitable toilet break. Que the hissing and spluttering of the driver as we patiently waited, seeking cool shelter from the intrusive glare of the sun under the open boot door of our jeep. The verbal garbage of the driver was a language he by some miracle shared with the jeep, because after 15 minutes of assaulting the engine; taking the front wheel off and stabbing at the steel intestines beneath with a metal pole, he bullied her back to life.

jeep
Great start.

Along the route were countless indigenous Wayuu settlements, where local children posted at checkpoints held ropes taught across the road, forcing any approaching vehicle to stop. I had read in the Lonely Planet that these children ask for candy; in reality it could have been money but either way I’ll never know, our crafty driver and his assistant would say something in Spanish at every barrier which convinced them to drop the rope and let us through. Poor kids only wanted a Moro.

Eventually, we stopped at the base of a mammoth sand dune. As soon as you exited the car you could feel it, a force, and excitement at what lay on the other side that made you forget the dull ache in your legs and hips and want to sprint up the dune like an excited puppy. The ocean whistled at us somewhere from the other side, it’s gale howling and whipping hot sand at our legs. It forced you to counter-act your weight, trudging against it through the loose particles of the steep dune  Up and over the gentle smoothness of the majestic dome was the sight we’d all been waiting for. No it wasn’t THE northernmost point, that was still to come, but it was close, and ever so magnificent. An unrecognisable white capped Caribbean ocean, which hurled itself from beyond the earth’s curve to slam it’s beautiful blue on the stark beige of the desert mainland. In front of me the dune dipped sharply a hundred metres down to a small cove beach, but along the coast to the left, it merged with tall rocky outcrops where small tufts of green had clawing their way through the surface and small reefs nestled in the harsh confines of the cliffs’ jaws. The wind, the embodiment of the place’s power, ripped through my hair and scratched at my skin; it shouted, no screamed, the intoxicating truth that this was what travelling is all about. This was raw isolation. Not another group of souls to shout at across the wind, to corrupt your view of the invigourating vista. It was one of those places that when you eventually turn away, you are forced to turn back again, choked by the reality that you need to delay that last glimpse, knowing your photos will never live up to the stimulation of the reality.

dune
I’m not crying. I’ve just got sand in my eyes.

At our next stop, the assistant produced a joint. There was no denying this was a special trip. The vista this time was a huge pale green lake cut out in a canyon from the rocks of the land. As we moved on again, it seemed it wasn’t a lake at all, but the branch of a harbour which splintered into the mainland from the inhospitable chaos of the open ocean.

Driving into our accommodation, run by the local Wayuu population, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. The place was incredible, not because of it’s charming wood deco restaurant or sleeping hammocks hiding from the howling onshore wind by one log-bound wall, but it’s location. It was nestled atop a thin slice of elevated land, on one side, the attention seeking Caribbean ocean lay at the base of ruthless rock cliffs but on the other, another, huge, lake-like branch of the bay, still as the night, it’s green contrasting the mud shore. Mangroves several metres off shore posed shoulder to shoulder to form small walls, the whole body of water twenty or so metres below the level of the hostel, so standing on the edge of it’s cliffs you could gaze upon the whole thing hanging magnificently below like an emerald cut into the rock. In a dried out part of the canyon, two football goals had been erected to create a mud field where locals kicked around a ragged old ball with peeling fur panels. We stayed for a few hours, taking a warm engrossing nap in the hammocks, before we were woken by the driver, jeep already running, for our last excursion of the day. Unbeknownst to us then, the forward thinking driver and his young helper had ‘prepped’ the jeep, going through the motions of their wheel removal stabbing strategy to get it started ahead of time.

This final little journey, just a five minute ride, was to a steel frame lighthouse, poised to look across the sea unobstructed, for it was at last, the northernmost point of South America. Just some jutting rocks and a bit of beach, there are more postcard spots around the coast, but it’s beauty was in it’s isolation, in the feeling it erected in you of knowing almost 400 million people are clinging to the belly of the continent at your back. It was like being a student of the earth, simply a speck blessed enough with the consciousness to be able to admire it’s monstrous beauty. Standing there, after five months away from home, not knowing when next I’ll see my family or hometown, using an imaginary compass to picture all the world’s continents relative to my sand-submerged feet and above all, the two tiny islands tucked into the bottom corner of the world, the islands I call home. It was a typical journey defining moment, bleached into the memory by relentless sun, a sore arse, and a little bit of weed. To top it off, we only ended up breaking down one more time after that.