Thursday, June 29, 2006

Time to go, Ms Graffy

You will remember the furore caused by comments from an American diplomat suggesting that three suicides at Guantanamo Bay were "a good PR move to attract attention".

You may even remember that the diplomat in question is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (oops, no that doesn't mean making crass, insensitive or tasteless remarks, but perhaps it does in the Bush Administration...). Her name is Colleen Graffy and it might be interesting to ask her if she is now planning to offer her resignation, given today's decision by the US Supreme Court, condemning the basis on which detainees have been held.

Ms Graffy isn't a career diplomat, as her biography indicates. More interesting, however, is what her biography doesn't mention, i.e. her very recent past as a senior figure within the overseas wing of the Republican Party, Republicans Abroad. Yes, she's a political appointee!
Her record in that role included some of the most idiotic defences of Dubya's policies on virtually anything, acting as an apologist for the Florida recount scandal, and alleged attempts to flirt with a range of British television news presenters.

So it's time to go, Colleen. You clearly have no grasp of your brief (it's public diplomacy, duh...) and you have no comprehension of political neutrality in public service. On the other hand, you will have persuaded some neutrals that Americans are uniformly callous and vicious (it's not true but you are one of the public faces of US foreign policy, aren't you?).

The question is, do you have any fleeting familarity with the concept of resigning as a matter of honour? Probably not, I admit, although you had lived in England for long enough to at least be aware of it. Ah well, if there's any consolation, it is that you'll be out on your ear as long as the Democrats find a candidate who a) knows who (s)he will be when they wake up in the morning - Al Gore comes to mind - and b) has any sort of progressive, positive message at all (and don't tell me that John Kerry had one - if he did, would someone care to tell me what it was?).

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Thinking of thoughts of thinking - a long weekend of American liberalism

My apologies for the lengthy gap between posts but, ironically, the hardest place to find an internet cafe is the United States...

After Las Vegas, I headed to Washington for the 59th Annual Convention of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), where I served as a member of their Foreign and Military Policy Commission (I'm foreign and like things that go bang...). Now, I'll be the first to admit that, in ADA terms, I'm a bit of a hawk, but I tend to gauge the likely stance of the commission as a whole, and stick to matters of fact and accuracy rather than opinion. It's only if I think that I can actually win an argument that I tend to debate.

Now, the thing to bear in mind is that ADA actually describe themselves as liberal, something pretty brave given the conservative triumph in besmirching the word over two decades of relentless assault. Admittedly, it isn't necessarily liberalism as we would recognise it - they're closely connected to the union movement, tend to focus on government solutions to social problems and don't like trade agreements much - but they would be recognised as social liberals by most.

My contributions? A new policy on appropriate criteria for US military intervention overseas (multinational, supported by the United Nations or the appropriate regional body, backed with prior congressional approval and with stated objectives), the tabling of their policy on Guatemala (outdated, I believe) and the removal of their policy against NATO expansion, all quite pleasing.

ADA is a very internationalist organisation, something that we don't tend to expect from Americans, yet their foreign and military policy activists are well-travelled, well-informed and able to convey a positive image for America's place in the world. If they ever got into a position of authority, America would be far better respected in the world (so there's clearly no chance of that happening!).

One quirky feature was the venue, Gallaudet University. Gallaudet is the premier university for the deaf, so the campus is filled with young people communicating in sign language. Having spent the last five weeks in plenty of places where I don't speak, or comprehend, the language, it was strangely comforting...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A question of self-image

I couldn't leave Las Vegas without addressing an issue that has always nagged away at me, i.e. the question of self-image. This is without doubt an astonishingly shallow place and there is no pretense that it might be any other way. So, in a world of glamour and excitement, how do I see myself?

I've never really had a terribly high sense of self-image, even when I was slim and had all of my hair (and yes, both of those things were once true...). And I admit that one side effect of this trip is that I really must do something about the former when I get home (the latter, alas, is beyond redemption). However, I generally have the decency not to flaunt my lack of conditioning. Yet I find myself surrounded by people who are grossly overweight, or amazingly inappropriately dressed or, in some particularly frightening cases, both.

On the other hand, the young lady wearing a bikini top, and a rather small one at that, whom I encountered whilst drinking coffee in Luxor (the casino) looked like something out of a Beach Boys video or Baywatch. People like that, whilst very attractive to look at, make me want to hide.

Unfortunately for Americans, the population is tending towards more of the former group rather than the latter. Lest the rest of the world mock though, don't forget that the British and, more surprisingly perhaps, Australians, are racing towards mass obesity as quickly, if not more so. At least Americans and Australians actively celebrate the cult of beauty, because we British don't. Perhaps it's the climate, perhaps the sense of suspicion amongst British men in particular of anything with connotations of 'making an effort'.

Well, I've decided that it's high time that I exited the fat race, so I'm going to try and make some changes to my lifestyle. Wish me well in the months to come, I'm going to need all of the help I can get...

Viva Las Vegas?

Indeed, welcome to quite possibly the most surreal place anywhere on Earth, where the temperature peaked today at 106 degrees fahrenheit (that's 41 degrees celsius for those of you that prefer it that way).

It has to be admitted that, after the comparatively gentle charms of Luxembourg, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul, Kyoto, Rotorua, Auckland and Nadi, this has all come as something of a sensory overload, especially given that, thanks to the International Date Line, I got to experience Monday night in both Nadi and Las Vegas (don't try this at home, so to speak...).

However, inspired by the view from my 26th floor window overlooking the famous Strip, I did venture out into the stifling heat to see if Sin City is as described in the brochure. The good news is that it is just as excitingly weird as they say it is, with replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx, an entire hotel and casino decorated in the style of a medieval English castle, or New York, or ancient Egypt, if that's what you fancy.


It's also astonishingly tacky, with people trying to thrust cards into your hand bearing pictures of scantily clad and pneumatically breasted young women who want to 'entertain' you for a price (prostitution is illegal here in Clark County, Nevada, yet there are 117 pages of 'entertainers' in the local Yellow Pages!).

Of course, the main feature here is gambling. My first sight on getting off my flight at the airport was a gate lounge filled with slot machines - lots of them. I suspect that if you took them away, the terminal buildings could be two-thirds of their current size and still handle the passengers that flood into the city. Slot machines are everywhere and if, like me, you are staying in a casino hotel (Palms, and, if you have broadband, you must see their website
www.palms.com, check out the fantasy suites!), you arrive at the front entrance to be confronted by a sea of slot machines and, hidden somewhere far away, reception.

My problem is this, I don't gamble. I was trained as a mathematician (not a very good one I admit, but...) and I understand the odds, which are against me. This tends to take the fun out of it, if truth be told. What makes it worse is that the people playing slot machines always seem so miserable. They tend to look poor (as though they really can't afford to do this) and you sense that they're waiting for the miracle that never comes. It depresses the hell out of me, let me tell you...

And yet, I'm not one of those who would ban gambling, or tighten restrictions on it. If people want to gamble, they should be willing to accept the consequences of their own actions.

I have been known, on very rare occasions, to play roulette. I am possibly the world's least adventurous player, I admit, as I tend towards low stakes, high percentage choices but what can I say, I have fairly conservative personal morals (and yet I'm very liberal in terms of the moral values I apply towards others, go figure...).

But for now, I must leave you in order to prowl the night and, more importantly, grab a bite to eat...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Another gorgeous day in the South Seas

Welcome to Nadi, where I'm taking time out from my busy schedule of sunbathing, reading, drinking the occasional dip in the pool and drinking the odd cold beer or two to do a little light shopping and reconnect with the outside world.

Of course, I've never been terribly good at doing absolutely nothing at all. However, I have another two weeks of this booked in August so it could be looked upon as orientation. So, you see, I'm actually working very hard. You're not convinced, I can tell...

I did do a little shoping in Lautoka, buying two shirts intended to frighten or blind my fellow colleagues at the office and elsewhere, but my biggest success was to get my hair and beard cut - very short. I look reasonably good, I think. The locals were a bit surprised to see me wander in, but I slotted straight into the vital conversation taking place (England or Argentina for the World Cup?) and, for F$5, I thought I got a good deal.

Next stop, Las Vegas, where it is 106 degrees. I'm not planning to go outside unless it's absolutely necessary...

Fiji 29 Italy 18, your reporter from Churchill Park, Lautoka...

In a fascinating contest, world ranked number 12 Fiji defeated number 11 Italy in a game of two halves at a hot and humid Lautoka Park.

Despite having an 8.5 kg per man advantage in the scrum, the Fijians were unable to make significant headway due to poor technique and some gallant Italian resistance. Unfortuntely for the Azzurri, that resistance didn't extend to the rest of their display, as the Fijians ran in four first half tries, predominantly from open play, although their powerful forwards were difficult to stop in open play. In fact, if it had not been for a number of sloppy handling errors, it would have been easily imaginable for the Fijians to have gone in at half time much further clear than the 29-8 score already indicated. However, a sign of things to come was the fairly straigtforward pushover try scored by the Italians as the first half ended.

The second half saw an alleged Fijian lack of fitness tell and the Italians quickly scored a second pushover try, converted to bring the score to 29-15. Yet, confronted with a tiring pack and with superior fitness, the Italians then insisted on attempting to run the ball, despite an almost total lack of penetration. As a result, they only managed to add a penalty before rain started to fall with about ten minutes to go and the game ended 29-18 to the Fijians, their first victory of 2006.

At that point, the heavens opened and the cheerful crowd, including your reporter, fled for cover...

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Help! Am trapped in paradise!

Welcome to Lautoka, here in north-western Fiji. Finally, relaxation has been forced upon me but I thought that I should take time out to report in.

Fiji is warm, friendly and, above all else, slow. Very slow. Slow enough to be vaguely irritating if you let it. On the other hand, if like me you are desperately in need of rest and relaxation, this is an excellent place to be.

This is my fourth day and I have finally ventured out of the resort and around the coast a bit. The reason? International sport, as the Fijians are taking on Italy at rugby union. I sense that the Italians have got their summer tour right. England went to Australia, where it's winter, and got slaughtered. Ireland came to New Zealand, where it's even colder, and got beaten. Scotland went to South Africa, and Wales to Argentina, and they both lost too. Lautoka is a much better option, especially as the Italians actually have a chance of winning.

Otherwise, I've spent time by the pool, drinking the occasional beer and writing my memoirs, as well as planning for the next six months. I've also been practicing for Mauritius in August. Trust me, lying on your back in a beach resort takes real preparation. There are so many things to think about, such as what footwear to bring, what books to read, what music to download into the MP3 player and what excursions to organise.

The next stop is Las Vegas, where I have thirty-nine hours to get over the jetlag, work out which way is up, and explore the bright lights of the big city. Could be fun! More news as we have it...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Blown away in the City of Sails

I woke up this morning and sleepily grabbed the television controls to catch the end of the Angola vs. Portugal game. Nothing happened. I pushed the button again. Still nothing. And then I noticed that the clock in my room was flashing 12:10. I can't have overslept that badly, can I? Look out of the window, rain is blowing sideways against the glass and the wind is gusting at speeds above 60 mph... and I'm on the 27th floor...

Ring reception. "Oh yes, Mr Valladares, there's just been a city wide power failure. We've turned the generators on but nothing else will work until the problem is fixed." Oh, that's alright then. And everyhting is still down, except, curiously, this computer.

Rotorua was as much fun as I suspected it would be. I had my day at the spa (twice), enjoying a mud wrap on Thursday and a pumice exfoliation/Aix massage on Friday, followed by a lazy soak in the thermal pools. Having discovered the joy of spa, I'm amazed that women got away with keeping this secret for so long. What could be better than being mindlessly pampered for a few hours (and no, that isn't intended to be a challenge!)?

Saturday saw me at the top of the zorb slope and I now have a DVD of my first two rolls (isn't technology wonderful?). I really have got a taste for zorbing and would recommend it to virtually anyone. Check out www.zorb.com for more information...

Yesterday was a travel day and I made it safely to Auckland, got to the hotel and snagged an upgrade to the Crowne Plaza Club floor (free continental breakfast, free computer access, free drinks and nibbles in the evening...). But, yet again, I find myself sharing the hotel with rugby players. Last year, the Wests Tigers rugby league team were staying here, led by their star player, Benji Marshall. He's not very big, but when you see him in lycra, you understand why he's so popular (if you know what I mean). What there is is all muscle and he's certainly powerful for his size.

This time, the hotel is inhabited by the Irish rugby union squad, fresh from their 34-23 defeat by the All Blacks in Hamilton. Their scrum was pushed all over the park by the men in black in that game, but they pluckily fought for the full eighty minutes. I don't hold out a lot of hope for them in the second game though.

Finally, I got to meet the newest member of the Valladares family, Georgia, who is just 37 days old. She's kind of cute in a "small baby, can't tell who she takes after yet" sort of way. I'll add some pictures at some point...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Sometimes, a layover is a good thing...

I have to admit that I wasn't looking forward to the latest leg of my journey, Osaka to Rotorua via Tokyo and Auckland. With a 4.30 a.m. start, a nine hour layover in Tokyo and a four hour layover in Auckland, it didn't seem very promising...

But what of Kyoto? Well, I'm not a great temple person, it seems. They're all very pretty but I get greater pleasure out of feeding the koi (carp, and big ones too...) than out of the temples themselves. In the end, I took a day trip to Nara to visit the world's biggest wooden structure - coincidentally, a temple, I admit - with the most enormous statue of Buddha. I also took the opportunity to feed some of the national treasures wandering around the grounds.

Yes, the big thing to do is to feed the deer. Special biscuits are baked and sold to visitors, who then feed the deer. Watching Japanese schoolgirls squeal as they are assailed by hungry deer is quite amusing but these creatures mean business and will take a bite at your trousers if you aren't being sufficiently attentive. They are cute though...

I also got some shopping done. Two of my favourite stores are Muji and Uniqlo, both of which are ludicrously expensive at home. Not in Kyoto, they aren't. So I have some useful things to bring home with me.

Anyway, back to the journey. I got to Tokyo easily enough but what to do? I decided to go to Chiba by train and arrived to find quite a decent sized city. Best of all, it has a monorail, and not just a silly little thing to serve the central city area but a real commuter line. Well, I had to go for a ride, didn't I? I managed to fill about six hours, what with getting there and back by train, lunch and some browsing in local shops.

And now, here I am in Auckland, awaiting my connecting flight. I've grabbed a shower, some decent snack food and a very decent glass of sauvignon blanc (Koru Club lounges are wonderful) and feel like a human being - again.

The next stage is a relaxing one, with my annual day at the spa and another chance to go zorbing. Should be fun...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Once is unfortunate, but three times?

The recent accusations that an American unit massacred a group of twenty-four innocent civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha have come to the forefront due to the actions of US Congressman Jon Murtha from Pennsylvania. Murtha is a Democrat but, more importantly, he is a distinguished veteran and something of a hawk.

Normally, you would expect the Bush Administration to repeat its standard tactic of playing the man not the ball but in this instance, the evidence now appears overwhelming. A Pentagon official, commenting anonymously, confirmed that an initial investigation found evidence that Marines had killed the civilians and that forensic reports of bullet wounds contradict the troops' statement that fifteen of the dead were killed by an insurgent bomb.

Parallels with the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam are unavoidable and if there are any neutrals in America on the subject of the Iraq war, I imagine that many of them will be making their minds up now. Of course, I had a close up look at that a few days ago in Ho Chi Minh City and now I find that there is a third incident, one that took place in a small Korean town called No Gun Ri in 1951, which is still being denied by the United States despite growing evidence.

It is not denied that a number of Korean civilians were shot dead as they approached a part of the frontline defended by the 7th US Cavalry Division. The official explanation was that panicked soldiers opened fire for fear that the approaching civilians could conceal enemy troops. And yet, veterans of the 7th US Cavalry Division claim that they were simply following orders to fire on refugees.

The issue has rumbled on and in 2001, the Pentagon issued a report which concluded that the shooting of Korean refugees was "not a deliberate killing". Unfortunately, amongst the microfilms reviewed as part of the process of producing that report, there now emerges a copy of a letter from the then US Ambassador to South Korea, John J Murcio, to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk, stating that "refugees will be shot" if they advance towards American soldiers. Murcio said that he was informing Rusk "in view of the possibility of repercussions in the United States" from the implementation of the policy. Clearly, he thought that the policy was wrong, even if others didn't.

So, a coverup? Shoddy research? A combination of the two? Maybe, but it doesn't show up the US military in a good light and this in a country which is one of the loyallest allies the United States has...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Me, my friends and I on happiness


One of the problems with travelling alone is that it can be a bit isolating. I have to admit that the ability to turn to someone you care about and say, "isn't that X?", is an important one. And so, gentle reader, you'll have to stand in today.

Today, I thought that I would go to the zoo, here in Seoul. I'm rather fond of zoos, as I'm rather fond of animals. And whilst it was warm (about 29 degrees), it seemed like a good idea (for reference, I visited the zoo in Louisville, Kentucky on a day when it was minus 18 degrees celsius so my dedication is unquestionable).

What I didn't expect was that the zoo at Seoul Grand Park is rather "audience participation" in nature. The first picture is of my new friend, whose name I can't pronounce (it's Korean). He appeared unexpectedly with his keeper and, given that I'd gone all the way to malayan Borneo to see his relatives in the wild, how could I resist? As a cat owner, I know that the best way to make friends with an animal is to offer a hand very slowly so that the animal can respond. My new friend reached out, and held my hand, and then stroked my fur. So I stroked his and we spent a few moments bonding. Orangutans are such gentle creatures and it saddens me that their prospects in the wild are, frankly, rather grim. They have fingernails and long, delicate fingers and it was one of the most fun things I have done in many years.


I then went on to do something that I might never have done in the past. My next friend is an albino Burmese python, and I'd like to thank the keeper who kindly asked me if I had a camera so that he could take this shot. Isn't he cute?

Next, I found myself in a queue, being passed a plastic glove and, eventually, a whole fish (quite an attractive one, as a matter of fact), which I was encouraged to toss to a waiting sealion. Now, of course, I'm an expert in this particular art, knowing that you must toss the fish head first, as it is easier to swallow that way. Naturally, I spotted my sealion and tossed the fish straight down her throat. Gooooaaaaallll, Valladares!

Finally, I found myself at the elk enclosure, and encountered a friendly creature. It would seem that, having passed the giraffe taste test, elks find me quite palatable too, as my hand was thoroughly tasted by my elk friend, much to the amusement of the watching Koreans.

Being a foreigner in Korea is a bit like being a zoo exhibit. Small children wave and smile at you (and of course, I smile and wave back), and school children try to test their English out on you. Years of experience in India make it rather easier for me but I could imagine it being a bit daunting for a first time visitor.

And so, back to my hotel room, which has a computer in it, thus allowing me to post these pictures.