Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wiped off the map

It’s always interesting reading about countries whose names have been wiped off the map. Anybody who has ever collected postage stamps knows exactly what I mean. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, its name was replaced by the names of its six component republics. In the same fashion the USSR became Russia and some of the other former USSR republics. A short time later, East Germany was removed, when it reunited with West Germany.

Korea is now two Koreas, China is two Chinas. The India of the British Empire disappeared to become India Bharat and Pakistan, and later Bangla Desh too. The new India wiped the remaining European enclaves off the map when it annexed Goa and Pondicherry and a few others in the 1960s. Today’s maps show only one Vietnam, one Indonesia and one Malaysia; each of those nations once comprised several separate pages in collectors’ stamp albums.

Sometimes the mapmakers are called upon to make only minor changes in names, following regime changes. The People’s Republic of Poland dropped the word People’s (all in the Polish language, of course) after the collapse of the Communist regime. The Republic of Venezuela added the word Bolivarian in its 1999 Constitution, following an election that brought in a new Government.

The Union of South Africa became the Republic of... in its 1961 Constitution. If the place we now know as Israel ever enfranchises all its subject people it might well change its name to Palestine, following a change of regime. There has been a terrible hoo-hah since Reuters reported the Iranian President’s prediction in 2008 that the Israeli regime “...will soon disappear off the geographical scene”; but it really shouldn’t be a big deal, except for the current regime itself.

The dissolution of empires is commonly accompanied by new national names. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were wiped off the maps after the Great War of 1914-18 – not by military conquest, quite, but by the Peace Treaties that followed the War. Dissolutions are occasionally reversed. After a few years of political independence after the 1917 revolution, parts of the old Russian Empire were absorbed into the new USSR – a Russian Empire by another name.

Much depends on the political preferences of victor nations, after wars. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the creation or re-creation of several nations in the Middle East, some of which were considered European colonies under League of Nations “mandates”.

The Western powers’ choice of Palestine as a new territorial home for the world’s Jewry set the stage for the savage fiasco that we see today, with each of the two ethnic groups claiming naming rights. Palestinian maps show the invaders’ land as “Occupied Territories” and Israeli ones show its native reservations as “Disputed Territories”. The cleaning-up of the old Ottoman map is proving to be a long drawn-out affair.

Empires’ and nations’ boundaries change according to the demands of history and military power. It’s no longer true that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Today, the sun never sets on the American Empire. The British people were intensely proud of their empire, brutal though it was for its conquered peoples; but that was then. Americans tend to be embarrassed by theirs, and indeed by the very word “empire”.

Britain used to rule everywhere marked pink on maps of the world, and felt no shame. The USA is not yet ready to brag about the extent of its territorial over-reach. American maps don’t even identify all its satrapies and bases by a single colour, for goodness sake.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Tombs of Jesus (T 5 - Jerusalem 1960s)

(Travellers’ tales, fifth episode – January 1965) 

The Orthodox-and-Catholic tomb was identified by the mother of the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire. She comes with pretty impressive credentials, so she may have been right. Her site is protected by an ornate cathedral with all the traditional bells and whistles, and about as romantic as a brick wall.

The Protestant site – or the Church of England, at least – was identified by a famous English general more than 1500 years later. And thank God for his English perseverance, because his tomb is in a sweet little grotto – a terrifically romantic place altogether. The Emperor’s mother also unearthed four or five (I forget) nails from the One True Cross, which sounds like pretty diligent work from an old lady, three hundred years after the event.

Linda and I walked the original Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, while trying to resist the temptation to buy any souvenir crowns of thorns from the shopkeepers along the way. “You should buy, effendi! For these, two piastres (or whatever the currency was) – for those, three piastres. You should buy those!” They looked identical. “What’s the difference?” I asked. “Oh, sir! On those, the thorns are much sharper. Feel them, madam!” Our resistance fell away in the face of such logic, and we bought a wreath of sharp ones for the equivalent of two shillings Sterling.

Disappointingly, there was only one site claiming to be where the Holy Manger had stood, in Bethlehem. I have a fuzzy memory of peering into a dark hole in the floor of a second ornate cathedral. You’d think General Gordon might have come up with something better, but he must have been called away on business. The sole unrivalled site had also been identified by the Emperor’s mother. What a busy old lady she was – and so devout.

All these sites were in Palestine, in 1965 – in that part of it that had been given to Jordan in the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Since then, Israel has occupied so much of the territory that it’s hard to say which country they’re in now. All the best Old Testament sites were in Palestine, too, but probably aren’t now. So were most of the United Nations refugee camps for Palestinians expelled by the people they saw as European invaders. (Palestine has been wiped off the map since then, of course...)

We took the liberty of visiting one of the camps, and had tea with a family there. Most Christian Palestinians – Christians since the time of the Apostles, presumably – had given up and emigrated. Generally, only Moslems stayed, trusting in God and their corrupt leaders. They’re still there.

The only way out of Palestine for us was north to Syria. The Jordanian authorities would let us cross into Israel but not come back. That meant flying out to Cyprus from Tel Aviv, and we weren’t ready for that. The barbed-wire of the cease-fire line was fifteen feet from our hotel door, and that was as close as we got.

Instead, we took buses up to Damascus and were shown the very window used by St Paul in his famous escape. That was cool, not least the actual scuff-marks from his sandals on the wall, miraculously preserved. They didn’t actually look two thousand years old – although, in that dry air, who knows?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Almost American (the imperial heartland)

Visiting my son in Guatemala just after the second US invasion of Iraq, we met up with a young Canadian couple from Vancouver. The man didn’t sound Canadian (couldn’t pronounce “oat and aboat” properly), so I asked “Where before that?” The couple exchanged a doubtful look, then shrugged. “He’s from Texas”, she admitted. The presence of my obviously hippy son had eased me past the barrier of denial.

Thirty years before, I’d met plenty of pretend-Canadians with American accents – angry, betrayed and embarrassed over the invasion of Vietnam. Life is full of embarrassment for young idealists whose homeland is on a brutal imperial rampage. There is a wall in Washington memorialising the fifty thousand US patriot-invaders who died in Vietnam, but there is no memorial for the two million civilians they slaughtered.

I almost became an American myself, back in 1965. I filled in a form at the US Embassy in London, the clerk gave me a ticket, and I sat down in a crowd and waited to be called for an interview. Half an hour later, the Tannoy called for number 23; my number was 104. Huh. Time for Plan B. Around the corner at the Canadian Embassy I filled in another form, was interviewed immediately, and a month later was living in Toronto – reunited with Linda and learning all about curling and ice-hockey.

We were both on our way back to Australia, as soon as we could afford the tickets or until we got a better offer in someplace warm. In those days, Canadian snowbirds used to fly down to Florida and pay agencies to have their cars driven down. Newly married, we packed one of those cars with everything we owned and headed south to look for jobs in the Bahamas. There in Nassau, we all watched American TV, ate American food and learned about baseball and gridiron football. Our employers fleeced American tourists and helped rich people dodge American taxes. (No of course we didn’t fleece tourists. Just joking!) It was a good life, almost American.

We do the same things today in Cayman, pretty much. Many of our children go to US colleges, and come back only slightly changed. Americans work in our watersports operations, our hotels and restaurants, and our construction industry. Not in our banks, though, for fear of moles. We are an offshore tax-haven, after all. The CIA has its agents here, but MI6 (Britain’s equivalent) keeps them out of the banks. We’re a British colony, as Bahamas was in the ‘60s.

Wives go on shopping trips to Florida, husbands on non-shopping trips to Las Vegas. We all fly through the US to points north, east, south and west. Miami is our favourite transit point, despite the sour welcome extended to foreigners by immigration officials on the way in, and the intimidation by TSA perverts on the way out.

I guess the American Dream is still alive, but it is looking increasingly fuzzy at the moment. Can the imperial heartland really be turning into the Oceania depicted in George Orwell’s “1984”, or into the German Reich of the 1930s, or into someplace equally frightening? The “1984” entry in Wikipedia shows too many similarities for comfort. Perpetual war is being used to justify the Empire’s pretend-paranoia which in turn justifies domestic oppression. In his book, Orwell called that oppression Big Brother, and it is closing in fast on America. History reports that the Germans were caught by surprise, too, when domestic oppression snuck up on them.

In 1965, I preferred America over Canada. With a bit more patience I might have become an American. Now, I am wary of even changing planes in Miami or Newark on our way to and from Europe. I prefer the family to fly via Toronto instead. Oh, the irony!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Introducing Erica (expat websites)

Sharp-eyed visitors to this site will have noticed the link (below, right) to “Expatria, Baby”. It’s the blog of a young Canadian woman, Erica Knecht, who lives in Japan with a Swiss husband and baby daughter. She reckons looking after one’s young child is the best job in the world. As a onetime house-husband and parent of first resort, 1981-86, I happily endorse the sentiment. I don’t know why more men don’t do it.

She has been writing entertaining blogs for time enough to have swapped links with several expats in several spots around the world. I’m her first link in Cayman, and she’s my first anywhere. Mine is by far the less sophisticated site of the two. I don’t even know how to partition a site among categories and topics. Maybe it can’t be done at; I’ve no idea.

Most of my items are commentaries on Cayman’s social and political scene, of interest mainly to local residents. New overseas visitors who don’t know who McKeeva and Dart are will have to identify them either from the context or from, our local news source and forum. Recently I have branched out into personal reminiscences of youthful travels (e.g. Zorba the Greek), and a couple of tentative efforts at revisionist history (e.g. The Children of Israel). At the moment, everything is lumped in together, and it shouldn’t be.

Erica’s site carries links to a couple of dozen other expatriates’ sites. Each writer’s experiences are different, and there is much of relevance to Cayman’s expats. There are hundreds of blogsites indexed at – something for everybody, in most nations and territories in the world. Among so many expats, I risk being dismissed as an imposter – an immigrant pretending to be an expat. If there were an Expats’ Club, my membership would have long been revoked. Well, maybe, maybe not.

We came to Cayman in 1978 with our little son as transients, intent on charging our batteries and bank balance in this tax-haven (our third) before going back on the road again. Thirty-four years later, we’re still here. We are citizens; we vote; we travel on Caymanian passports; this is our home. Unfortunately, a significant voting bloc of native-born citizens (descendents of European and/or African immigrants, all) doesn’t take kindly to furriners living amongst them. So when they say we’re expats and not “real” Caymanian at all, how can we argue?

My blog-postings, and my weekly newspaper columns, are written for all Cayman’s residents – native Caymanians, long-term immigrants and transient migrants alike. I have a reputation among them all for being a grumpy old coot who wastes his time trying to convert the unconverted to the virtues of human rights and fiscal responsibility and peace and love between the brothers and the sisters. Not a grumpy old coot who can’t wait to leave, but a grumpy old coot who can’t be persuaded to leave.

This is a small island-community of about 15,000 ethnic Caymanians, 15,000 long-term immigrants and 20,000 transient workers. There is plenty of scope for cultural conflict. New readers who bother to trawl back through my blog archives will see what I mean. My October posting titled Freedom of Speech is as good a place as any to begin.

Ah well, I’ve gotten off the track a bit. We’re here to introduce Erica. All together now: “Hello-o-o, Erica!” That’s the spirit. Long may she flourish. With the blog-name she chose, how could she not? Expatria, Baby! What a classic.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Retirement worries (Cayman finances)

Retirees looking for places to live outside their own countries are spoilt for choice these days. The Internet reports on hundreds of places for English-speaking retirees, maybe thousands. All of them are tax-free, practically speaking, and all are cheaper than Cayman. Cheapness may become important to all of us, the way things are going.

There is talk of currencies collapsing. What does that involve, exactly, and could it happen to our Cayman Islands Dollar? What assets should we invest in, to provide income in our retirement years? Our Pension Funds are beyond our personal control, but how should we invest our other savings? There are lots of options: rental properties here and abroad, stock markets, gold & silver, foreign currencies... Will our wages keep pace with rising prices? Will interest rates rise again? Why am I asking all these questions?

Answers soon come. This is an introductory essay, the first of what will be an occasional series on the general topic of retirement. A “currency collapse” is another way of saying “hyperinflation”, and that is the one thing every retiree ought to be scared of. Hyperinflation can kill off just about everybody’s retirement dreams, when currency is replaced by barter, and the law of the jungle replaces the written laws we are accustomed to.

There is no effective hedge against it. Gold, maybe, but gold is really just another medium of exchange. The only difference between gold and all the world’s paper currencies is that its exchange value is harder for the financial Mafia to manipulate. Even then, only in bullion form. Futures contracts are just paper, too. A written promise to deliver gold to an investor who has bought it, is just another promise.

Financial-management ability is at a premium in hard times, and very few people have it – or recognise it when they see it. It’s not just retirees who suffer from not finding it when they need it. Some working people put their mortgage payments on their credit cards, for goodness sake. Some top up their mortgages to pay for everyday expenses. Some people have no idea how to economise. Those are serious defects.

Caymanians who are defective money-managers are usually bailed out by a government that is itself defective. It spends its revenues with an irresponsibility that is staggering. Cayman’s private sector keeps the government supplied with far more revenue than it knows how to spend wisely. The Social Services bail-outs merely pour good money after bad.

Debates are raging, in the Western mainstream media and alternative media alike, over the world’s financial chaos. At least our unsophisticated little territory has money enough to waste. The financial powerhouses of the world are under the control of a “New World Order” regime that creates money by journal entries, and invests it in invasions of foreign nations. Bomb a city to smithereens and then award contracts to rebuild it. Never mind the morality, look at the billions gained.

Corruption in the international investment-industry has spread like a cancer through virtually the whole system. In Cayman we are largely protected from the greed and corruption so rampant in many other communities. We lead a charmed life. Our tax-haven clients include plenty of arms manufacturers and investment funds of ill repute, but our local lawyers pay themselves mere millions instead of billions. Our commercial banks subscribe to a standard of ethics that Goldman Sachs and J P Morgan abandoned years ago. Our government is grossly over-borrowed, but our status as a British dependent territory has protected us from the insanity that is modern Greece. Even our politicians are honest compared with those of the US and Europe. What does that tell you?