Monday, October 26, 2015

Sometimes, you have to turn back

This is a belated addition to my series on our travels in 1964/65. Earlier reminiscences are identified in the Archives with the letter T, beginning with “Checkpoint Charlie” in December 2011.

My big adventure began after the Munich Oktoberfest in 1964, driving south in my Beetle into the unknown with a South African chap I’d met at a Youth Hostel. Somewhere in Yugoslavia our road suddenly ended at a river. Damn and blast! The nearest bridge was an hour away, back the way we’d just come. My map hadn’t actually promised a bridge, and it was a dirt road in the middle of nowhere; but I felt cheated, all the same.

Ah, but there was a ferry. Not a vehicle ferry as such, but one of those cable pontoon-things for pedestrians and animals. The villagers enthusiastically produced two planks, eight or ten feet long, and laid them from the ground up to the level of the deck. It was a fair gradient, and I started to drive slowly up the planks. Now… Those who have driven Beetles will know that they have virtually no weight in the front (the engine is in the rear), and are therefore very sensitive there. I felt the planks sag, and knew immediately that they wouldn’t take the weight of the whole car. 

I rolled back and asked for thicker planks, but there were none to be had. Perhaps I could take a run at the boards and get on deck before they cracked. “What do you reckon, Paul?” “Well, it’s your car”, Paul said. So, reluctantly, and to the villagers’ great disappointment, we retraced our tracks to the bridge. I wasn’t at all happy; I never liked having to retrace my steps. But, well, sigh… sometimes, you just have to turn back.

A couple of days later, we almost slipped off the side of a hill on another dirt road, with occasional patches of ice. Paul jumped up and down on the back bumper to give me just enough traction to get past the patch. A bit scary, but this time my stubbornness was rewarded.

Looking back, I must have had more confidence than it seemed at the time. Later in the adventure, Linda and I bluffed Bulgarian border-guards into letting us take contraband currency into Rumania, faced down Egyptian Customs officials who looked askance at some shoddily forged currency-exchange slips, and persuaded East German border-guards to let us pass through the Wall into West Berlin at a no-entry point. In my youthful arrogance I took it for granted that all those successes were simply my due. 

Budget travel demands confidence. You must believe in the mission. You’re taking on the whole world, with no backup except the nearest consulate, if you could reach it, and no security besides your American Express cheques if you weren’t robbed of them. So every minor victory is hard-won. How could the gods fail to be impressed with our innocent goodwill and delight in immersing ourselves in foreign cultures? And indeed they didn’t fail us – although they put a scare into us (mainly Linda) every so often, just to remind us (me) who were the gods and who weren’t.

One of my major regrets is that we never got to visit the Greek island of Rhodes. We had an opportunity, during that trip, but again I chickened out. At a village on the coast of Turkey, there was a man with a boat – and some decently thick planks – who offered to take us and the car the ten or fifteen miles across the water for about forty dollars. The ridiculous illegality of the challenge was tempting. 

Could I sweet-talk the Greek officials into letting us enter, assuming my little dictionary could supply me with the right words? Would the forty dollars include bribes? Would we ever be able to get to the Greek mainland, via other ferries and other islands? Mmm. Not easily. Maybe we could leave the car in the village and go across to Rhodes by ourselves for a couple of days. But that would bring a new risk.

Forty dollars was a huge amount of money for those villagers, and if the young foreigners could afford to pay that, maybe they could afford to pay handsomely to buy their car back when they returned. It wouldn’t have been fair to them to put such temptation in their way. (In some parts of Turkey, private cars were virtually unknown, to the extent that all cars were called “taxis”.)

In the end, common sense won out. We turned away and wended our way north to Istanbul and onward into the Soviet Empire. There were other challenges, and one notable failure to charm or bluster our illegal way through a border. That was disappointing, too; but you can’t win them all. Sometimes, you just have to turn back.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The right to kill

Murder has always been a totally tribal offence – by which I mean it’s only offensive when the deed happens within one’s own national community, and not elsewhere. The murder of foreigners rarely disturbs anybody. 

One doesn’t have to be Jewish or Christian or Moslem to accept that The Ten Commandments have always been purely tribal in their application. The prohibitions against killing, stealing, coveting and the rest of them don’t apply when foreigners are the victims. Tribal traditions all over the world endorse this judgment. Traditions of hospitality – where they still exist – generally outweigh the predatory urge, as many a backpacker has learned to his delight. 

(However, the tradition is more in the nature of a truce, in times of conflict. These days, young US backpackers would be wise to masquerade as Canadians – as they used to do back during their nation’s invasion of Vietnam.)

Modern nations are simply closed-minded tribes wearing a thin veneer of hypocrisy. Human behaviour hasn’t changed in ten thousand years. The modern concept of human rights has never stood a chance of superseding tribal rights. Our Western communities all claim the right to kill foreigners at will and without restraint. Mercy is for wusses.

Generally, we don’t recognize the deaths of foreigners as a bad thing; and therefore their murder – even en masse – can be safely shrugged off, even if it’s we who are the predators. Indeed, our political leaders become indignant when somebody else horns in on our killing-fields. Our NATO governments claim first-dibs on homicide in Syria, for instance, and are angry at Russia for its intervention. The cheek of it!

A “foreigner” isn’t necessarily someone of a different nationality, just as a “tribe” isn’t necessarily a nation. In the context of religion, a foreigner is someone not of our faith; in cities he may be a member of a different street gang, or of the Police; in the Police Force he’s a resident of the ghetto – or, increasingly, any non-Policeman. To severely autistic individuals – out-and-out psychopaths, for instance – he’s everybody and anybody.

By popular definition, a psychopath is someone who commits wholesale murders without remorse. That pretty much describes every NATO nation’s political leader and every one of his or her lieutenants. And every terrorist, of course; I don’t mean to imply that NATO’s leaders are any worse than terrorists. 

This perceived right to kill is a horrific conception, when you think about it. Such savagery is unexpected in our modern world. Yet civilians in their millions fall victims to it every decade. A former US Secretary of State, when asked about the morality of the US embargo on the sale of medicines to the people of Iraq, cheerfully defended it. The resultant deaths of half a million children had been “very much worthwhile”, she said. The recent bombing of the Medicins Sans Frontieres hospital in Afghanistan was barely a blip on the radar of the current Secretary. “Meh...”

It’s fair to wonder how mankind manages to survive this perceived right to kill. One plausible explanation is that one community’s tribal instinct is in some degree countered by another community’s survival instinct. After all, a weaker tribe’s members would be better off surrendering and living as slaves, than to die fighting a battle they can’t win. Though not on all occasions…

In Too Many Gods (posted here in December 2011), I quoted from the Biblical legend of the fate of one defeated tribe:

And they warred against the Midianite and they slew all the males. And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captive, and their little ones. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel to commit trespass against the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man. But all the women children that have not known man, keep alive for yourselves.

Slaughtering prisoners of war, raping and killing their widows and sons, and keeping the little girls as sex slaves… it all seems somewhat excessive to anybody handicapped by a “live and let live” sentiment. Yet the practice is as common today as it was then. ISIS does it, and NATO nations do it, and their allies.  “We have a right to kill you, and we will kill you, and torture your families. The most you can hope for is that our soldiers will keep your daughters alive for their own purposes.” Dear God!

Mankind’s tribal brutality really hasn’t improved any in the past three thousand years, has it?