...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pilipinas kong mahal

Pilipinas kong minumutyá,
pugad ng luhá ko’t dalita,
aking adhika:
makita kang sakdál laya!

(Philippines, which I treasure,
Nest of my tears and poverty;
My aspiration:
to see you absolutely free!)

- the last verse of "Bayan ko" (My Country)

Even when I still lived in the Philippines, I of course already had the awareness that extreme poverty existed side by side with the everyday life that I knew of. But it was only after living a few years in Sweden -- seeing my country and my upbringing from a distance -- that I truly appreciated how the middle class life my family and my friends' families enjoyed was a true gifted privilege, in a ctiy where many hundred thousands of people only know and would only ever know a slum life.

I understand now that what I have seen were mere glimpses of that other, darker and desperate side of Metro Manila life. I remember grade school, being picked up by Mom and sitting in the passenger seat of our air conditioned car. Begging children about my age knocked at the windows, hoping that drivers could give them a few coins while the cars were stuck in a red light. I remember college, commuting in a jeepney on the way home from university. The beggar children would go through the open rear door of the jeepney caught in traffic. They would symbolically "polish" the passengers' shoes with a really dirty rag (to the annoyance of some passengers), and stretch out their hands as we passengers looked away and muttered an apology. But even as a university student, it never really occurred to me to ask why all these kids weren't in school, and why their families remained poor. The beggars and the homeless were just a part of the cityscape, much like unpleasant diesel fumes were part of the city air. And poverty, I suppose I thought, always have and always will be there, as inevitable as the city humidity that sticks to your skin but you could never really do anything about. As a journalist for the university paper, I also once went to Payatas, the big mountain of trash at the outskirts of Quezon city, where all the city's trash get sorted by people. It's an enormous place, wet, mushy, stinking and steaming. I can't even begin to imagine how it looks like in the rainy season. At that time, a trash slide caused the loss of lives but people continued to live there to eke a living. It's not a secret that many people make a living out of the trash in Payatas. But neither does it seem to raise any questions anymore. Questions like "how could these peoples' lives look differently"?

There have always been attempts by politicians to hide the slum life from view: by relocating the squatters to the outskirts of the city where there are no jobs; by erecting colorfully painted walls along the slum area so the makeshift houses would be out of sight for cars; and by building false facades along squatter communities, attempting to make them look like narrow Dutch houses from a distance! But attempts at "beautifying" the city only just amounts to putting plaster at a really gangrenous boil. The billion-peso question is, why can't we create a society that systematically goes to the root of this inequality; to raise the standard of living for all instead of just targeting the symptoms of extreme poverty? In grade school I thought I could make a change if I gave each sad-looking kid beggar a 500-peso bill. I don't believe that any more but I honestly think many Filipinos still do think that. Of course, that would solve some of the acute problems of poor individuals and undoubtedly also help them in the short term. But it never really gets to the root, does it? Despite our well-meant charity, poverty persists.

When Filipinos think about urban poor as a problem, I believe they most think about the risk of crime, drug use, the ugliness and the garbage. The rest of us build higher walls around our houses, trap ourselves in our cars, and avoid looking like we have money when we happen to be in certain places in the city at night. All that is just part of the reality of middle class life in the city. Some even feel proud of making it to semi-notorious places in Metro Manila without incident. But where did we even get to this point, that we have such urban poor that we have to "protect ourselves from"? We got there at one point. How do we solve the problem?

The new thing in theme of plaster-on-a-gangrenous-boil is the president's notorious "war", that has according to own police statistics, already killed thousands of urban poor in just one year. Even if you're not Filipino, it is unlikely that you have missed this in the news. The police are implicated and no one has been charged. In this war, the wretched poor are (as they always really have been) to blame for the city's demise and lack of security. And the solution has been (as it really always have been) to eradicate the symptoms, while the roots remain untouched.

Why am I writing about this in the first place?

Yesterday, I watched a documentary (Korrespondenterna) where Swedish television was in the Philippines. They followed a photojournalist covering the killings. It is a disturbing piece. They didn't exaggerate or anything. In fact, many things in the documentary resonated with what I already knew to be true in the Philippines: the class differences, abuse of power, desperation. But the piece also opened my eyes to the wretchedness, apathy and a face of ugliness in my dear, dear home country. I wished I never saw the piece, even if I don't regret seeing it.

Maybe part of makes the piece so disturbing is that it is so graphic. At first I was angry. I thought, besides family reasons, why should I even want to visit a society so dysfunctional? I should boycott the Philippines to show my disgust. Then I felt scared. What kind of city am I really going to come to when I go there? When I thought back on some of the scenes of the documentary last night, I was too scared I couldn't sleep well. As I lay there in bed, I thought that the TV team crossed the line of gruesomeness for me. The gruesomeness was something I really could have done without. It makes me sick. But sadly, it is also the truth.

Oh my poor home country! What are we going to do about you?

Here -- for anyone interested -- is the link to the documentary in SVT Play. It can be seen until May 2018: https://www.svtplay.se/video/15862571/korrespondenterna/korrespondenterna-sasong-19-knarkkriget?start=auto&tab=2017

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

A medieval bridge that disappeared

About a month ago, the local newspaper had an announcement for a guided archeological tour in Linköping. Stångebro, a medieval bridge that had been named in manuscripts since the 1000s but whose true location had been unknown, has been discovered while surveyors were digging an area for a planned fish ladder. The fish ladder construction came to a halt — at least temporarily — as national archeologists scanned the site for two weeks. Not one to pass these kinds of interesting things up, I went for the tour.

The tour of the archeological dig attracted more people than the archeologists expected!

It has always fascinated me how layers of earth could contain layers of history. As a child, I could kill time watching Egyptology shows. Dinosaur shows were OK too, but only more interesting if they were about the discovery of new bones. The curious thing is that the deeper one gets into the earth, the further you also get back in time (like looking into a better telescope and looking earlier back in time the father into space you look). I have always wondered where those extra meters of dirt might have come from! I remember, in a trip to Barcelona many years ago, I was at awe at  the completely preserved Roman city ruin that lay under the museum itself, accessible by elevator. According to a guide book, the local cathedral there likewise lay on the ruins of a Roman temple, which in turn lay on the ruins of not less than seven (!) older temples. The older the city, the more likely it has rebuilt its structures over older ones, so I had always until now mostly thought of city ruins as being under Roman cities, or in medieval trade towns like Visby. To think that it could be as near to home as Linköping!

According to the guides — themselves archeologists that did the digging — the site of the original Stångebro bridge used to be known to the medieval locals as the site where one could cross the river Stångån safely by foot. The bridge on that site must have been constructed at around year 1000, after the death of a particularly rich woman attempting to cross the river. Records from the time report that on her way home from a religious retreat from a cloister at Vadstena, her horse and carriage vaulted with the force of the river. The construction of the bridge allowed for safer passage, and it was for a long time the only land connection between the east and west Östergötland county. To the west lay, among other things, the important cloisters at that time. To the east were roads connecting Östergötland to Stockholm in the northeast. Swedish kings have been reported to cross Stångebron on their tours of the kingdom. The battle of Stångebro also took place there in 1598, that ultimately ended the union between Sweden and Poland.

 One of the archeologists telling us about the history of the site

Curiously, for being such a historic bridge, nobody really could guess where the original site of where the bridge was. The bridge presumably burned down, and a new bridge was built some kilometers upstream. It wasn't until last autumn — when the construction of the fish ladder at Nykvarn became an inevitable fact — that surveyors noticed the ruins of what must have been the foundation of an old bridge. Archeologists were called in, and more research over the last winter revealed that, in fact, there were medieval city sketches of the historic bridge, which had only come to light again from the depths of their archives because of this accidental find! Among other things, the location of the original Stångebro bridge was sketched in a property map of a wealthy man who had farms to the west and a watermill-powered metalworks hammer on the east. From what they could tell from the records, the man also lobbied for Stångebro bridge to be built where it was. So, for all the mystery of the bridge's unknown location, the truth was just really waiting to be read in some archive somewhere, had it interested somebody much earlier. But that's how historical research is most of the time, I guess.

The most fascinating thing about the dig was not the finding of the actual bridge foundations — they found two kinds, an older one of wood and a newer one (later middle ages) of stone — but what lay around the bridge foundation. The dig revealed that the bridge continued to a medieval paved road — the road to Linköping! — about five meters wide, with gutters on each side and remains of houses to one side. These were all previously unobserved before the dig, as the site was thick with trees.

 The medieval road to Linköping (coins were found dating to the 1800s), that extending from where the bridge used to stand. There were, already then, city standards for how wide roads should be: five meters. On both side of the road, there were gutters.

 The cellars in one of the houses. It had a gutter and a drain, suggesting that occasionally, the river filled the houses' basements with water.

The houses' purpose was only the archeologists' guess. A miller's house was recorded in the site, but the proportions didn't match a humble miller's dwelling. When they digged deeper, the archeologists also found that the houses' cellars contained a number of broken bottles with corks intact — wine bottles, although their contents are unknown, as they could have been refilled. This leads to a theory that at least one of the houses could have been a pub, but this theory also falls short as there is a record of a pub just a kilometer downstream, that would have existed at the same time.

 Some of the many bottles found in the houses. 
They are wine bottles, but perhaps refilled and re-corked with other contents?

The nature of the houses is still somewhat of a mystery to be figured out by archeologists with their carbon dating techniques, and laboratory techniques to identify traces of what were in the bottles. In the meantime, the dig also recovered other artifacts, some more interesting than others. For "road filling," the medieval constructors used old roof tiles, bricks and other objects. The archeologists found many of these strewn around, but perhaps, they concluded, they had no other purpose than as mere construction fill. More interesting finds were made along the road itself and inside the houses. On the road lay were some coins from the 1800s. Possibly some loose change that fell off some poor fellow's pocket? Inside the houses were fragments of stoneware — both local brown stoneware and faux china — and glass fragments, some patterned by pressing. In one of the houses, they found the remains of what must have been a tiled stove. And near it: the oldest coin they have found in the dig so far, from 1636!

At another station of the tour, an archeologist shoes us some of the artifacts found at the site.

 The box of artifacts, including weights for fishing nets, fragments of everyday objects such as plates and glasses, fish hooks, coins, oyster shells, the remains of a simple pipe, etc.

On the other side of the road, opposite the houses, were the remains of an old brick factory — a shed, and a kiln — but these were of more relatively recent dating, ca. 1800s, presumably after the bridge no longer was in use because of the construction of a newer bridge. This could be guessed because the shed was constructed partly over the road, which suggests that it was no longer in full use. Then, for some reason or another, they moved the brickworks too, and the once historical site fell into anonymity.

Overview of the dig site. Road to the left, houses with cellars to the right (where a coin from as early as 1636 was found). The block on the road is what remains of the brick shed, ca 1800s. To the man's left are what remains of the brick kiln. At the time of the brickworks, the road was probably no longer in use.

The archeologists expected that, with a week left until their dig was done, they would find older artifacts the deeper they dig. They document their work through photo-scanning of the area, to preserve knowledge about how the site looked like. Unfortunately, those photo-scans will probably be the only thing left of this only recently discovered ruin. At least for the moment, the local politicians — with the exception of the city archeologist — are still firm on continuing the construction of the fish ladder, that will effectively bulldozer away the traces of this piece of local history. A shame. After all, the river is wide. I  suspect that  the fish ladder being built so close to the banks is not only for the fishes' sake but for human eyes to behold the fish. And in that case, the interest of preserving a historical site for future generations may just lose to other interests, such as the aesthetic one. With all due understanding that the fish may want some help upstream, ultimately the building of the fish ladder over what people now know to be a piece of their city history just deals with a political decision to replace an older man-made structure with a newer, modern one. As in Rome, Visby or Barcelona in times past: we build over the structures built before us.

On a lighter note, I couldn't help feeling — when I noticed the logo of Arkeologerna (The National Arheologists) on the guide's vests — that its designer must have been a person with a pretty good sense of humor :-)

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Blog revival

It’s never too late to think of New year’s projects in July. After all, now that it’s summer break and things are a slower tempo than usual in Sweden, it feels as if the year is just beginning. The spring term flew by so fast, that literally I couldn’t remember all the things that happened if I didn’t write them down. A few highlights from the start of the year though:
  • My research project is going as planned and I am also about to start on new teaching tasks in the autumn term;
  • I went on my life’s first skiing vacation in Höglekardalen in February;
  • I got a visit from Lea and LJ and we had a very outdoorsy week in Abisko;
  • and last but not the least: after a year of irritation, anger and frustration about the co-owned boat project Fixa, I put my foot down, sold my share and bought my very own sailboat to start afresh on boat life.
The prospect of owning a boat by myself was a both scary and exciting in the face of a untested challenge. Before making the decision, my brain was telling me half the time that I shouldn’t bite more than I could chew. The other half of the time, another part of my brain was asking me what it was I was so afraid of. I made a list of pros and cons, and also how I could think differently, and constructively about the cons. That made me realize that the cons were all hypothetical scenarios that haven’t happened yet, and were only fears in my head. I was afraid that my abilities would not be enough to cut it (but that doesn’t exclude the ability to learn more!); that it would be an expensive pursuit (I could earn the money again); and I felt vulnerable pursuing a project on my own, that usually is pursued by two (but what are friends for?). The pros, on the other hand, were actual facts: I have gone courses on navigation, sailing and radio; I have some experience of boat repair; I already had a paid place at a summer harbor; and what experience and knowledge I would need on the way, I could learn.

I have already been out with the boat a couple of times and I tell you they have both been learning experiences where things that could go wrong eventually went right in the end (The latest adventure involved my anchor line knotted around the propeller – but more on that in another entry. Needless to say, it should never happen again!).

So, back to projects for 2017…

My first project is to get to know this boat this season, and learn as much as I can about how to maneuver and sail this long-keeled craft so I could end this season with a feeling of confidence. The destinations don’t have to be far; but getting there will be leaps of experience nonetheless. I look forward to a season of being the boat’s captain, with the responsibility and decisions that this entails, but with the humility that I still have a lot to learn and could learn from others with more experience. Even those who had owned boats for years must have started from somewhere – and basically, that started-at-somewhere is where I am.

The second project is, not least as this boat project goes along, to start writing in this blog again. Back in 2007, I blogged about our adventures with my first boat, Juanita. I wrote about other things too: Swedish food, my own food experiments, events that happened around the neighborhood, books that I have read, etc. With what I wrote, it seemed like my family could re-live all these things with me; they could also be read again and again. As I discovered Facebook and Viber, my blog posts have dwindled from twice a month to about twice a year. My plan is to have a frequency somewhere in between :-) That’s a start!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A factory worth visiting

a.k.a. What does whisky and Tabasco have in common?

Musicians in Royal street, New Orleans

Due to family demand, here are some pictures (and stories) of my recent trip to New Orleans. It was a work-related trip, but as usual because it doesn’t hurt to combine the best of both worlds, I also combined it with seeing my old friend Kristine who moved with her family to the U.S. when we were 16. She had been to New Orleans once before, on Mardi Gras the year after Hurricane Katrina. She talked about the good food, mood and music down in the Big Easy, as well as stories of resilience after the disaster. The choice for her to fly down from New York to meet me was not so hard for her either. Besides meeting me, I bet she just wanted to have a taste of those deep-fried, sugar-covered French donuts (“beignets”) from Café du Monde again ;-)

I want to be Bayou*

(*motto seen on a kitchen towel)
What struck me while on the plane to New Orleans is that it a city surrounded by wetland – if it isn’t standing right on it. Wetland is also what you immediately see once leaving the city limits by car. Highways are elevated several meters from the swamp below, to protect it from the occasional flooding of the delta. Flanking each side of the highway are thin cypress growing in the swamp. Their roots build up shoots reminiscent of mangrove roots, and their canopy is overgrown by lichen rather than leaves. In my imagination, I could easily picture alligators somewhere down there. It made me wonder why people settled there in New Orleans swamps in the first place. Bayou – a word I have only heard in Southern songs – turns out to be a slow-moving stream, sometimes a stream of slow-moving mud. Not at all the romantic stream I thought it was in Blue Bayou! It also made me wonder at humans’ capacity to build cities in the seemingly strangest environments. At least, I thought, the first settlers must have liked the weather. At the end of November, the temperature was humid and 22 degrees C, and the sun was hot by nine o’clock. On further reflection though, the settlers’ choice made perfect sense: before the age of the concrete highway, there was the mighty Mississippi River, and that made the city more accessible than what I imagined it to be “from land”.

View from the plane. The blue band is the Mississipi and if you squint, you see New Orleans as the group of buildings near the center of the picture.

Elevated highways

Swamp cypress, almost eerie with their long thin shapes and branches overgrown with lichen

The bridge to my mom's namesake

The Mississippi River, as seen from the banks of New Orleans. My colleagues and I went on a dinner jazz cruise on the river one evening. Food and music are two things hard to miss here!

One hot day at the Tabasco plant

A few days is not enough to explore New Orleans’ and Louisiana's history – not least its rich music history of the Blues. A few days just scratches the surface, by way of anecdotes, of for example the South’s history of slavery in cane plantations, or how New Orleans changed hands from French to Spanish rule and later got sold to American settlers. Kristine and I decided at least that this time we would explore Cajun food. And in Louisiana on this theme, a visit to the Tabasco plant on Avery Island is inevitable. It was a two and a half drive from New Orleans, through swamps (of course) and cane plantations. We crossed a few bridges too, probably the winding Mississippi, or its estuaries.

At the Avery Island moat bridge, a man hands out tickets from a guard house with a long stick (so you don’t have to get out of the car)! American convenience!

I first read about the history of Tabasco in Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, but going there myself is really something else than reading it. Geologically, Avery Island is interesting because it is not actually an island but a dome of rock salt (a salt dome), rising 50 meters above the plantations around it. With access to a salt mine below and to seeds of the pepper capsicum frutescens (the tabasco pepper) that could be grown around the island, Edmund McIlhenny already had two of the tree ingredients (besides vinegar) to make his now world-renowned hot sauce.

Kristine with a huge block of salt from the Avery Island salt mine. Today, the factory only uses a portion of their own salt for hot sauce production.

Help, I'm surrounded by giant condiment bottles!

Several years ago, when Kristine and I decided to meet abroad, we chose Scotland to visit whisky distilleries. In some sense, the Tabasco plant is not very different from those single malt distilleries we visited. For one, both whisky and Tabasco is made from few ingredients. For whisky, these ingredients are grain, yeast and distilled water. For Tabasco, they are chilies, salt and distilled vinegar. Second, like single malt whiskies, all Tabasco sauces can trace their origin from one single factory. Thirdly, both whiskies and Tabasco sauce involve an ageing process in oak casks, so their staff both include coopers, or caskmakers. The difference is that while whisky grains undergo fermentation first and then aged in the barrel after distillation, Tabasco chilies are fermented in the barrel and then sieved and mixed with vinegar before bottling. Fourthly, the production of whisky and Tabasco both involve fermentation of plant material (grain/fruit). Finally – perhaps a coincidence – there is also a common number: For an alcohol to be called a whisky, it must be aged for at least three years, while in the Tabasco factory, chilies are fermented in their barrels for up to three years.

If only you could smell this picture!

The smell in the barrel warehouse, with its stacks of chili-and-salt filled casks, was strong, pungent, with a distinct yeast smell with a spike of chili hitting you at the back of the throat.  
 In the part of the Tabasco factory where they mix the chili mash with vinegar continuously for three weeks, the smell was beginning to be reminiscent of Tabasco. If you could imagine making a vapor of Tabasco, that’s how it smelled. It’s a good thing that tourists only get to smell this from a controlled vent inside a glass-walled viewing deck. The smell was good, but probably should be inhaled in moderation!

 The mixing vats seen from a viewing platform (The Tabasco tour is self-guided).
At 11 AM, so many bottles have already been produced!

This picture of Kristine and me c/o a friendly truck driver, Gerry, who was making deliveries to the Tabasco plant and stopped on the road to take a picture of us.

The Tabasco plant is a happy place that spiced up our day! I went home with a suitcase stuffed with Tabasco products, tucked between shirts and socks. I imagine the airport staff must have spotted the characteristic bottle silhouette on their X-ray machines,smiled and said to themselves, "Hey, look! Another one of those hot sauce lovers!"

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