Monday, January 29, 2018

London: Expensive but Well-Run, except in Heathrow aka Hell

There isn't much to say about London that hasn't already been said, so I'll keep this short. 

1. Almost all of London's museums are free, though they ask for donations. Everyone knows about the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone, but don't miss the National Portrait Gallery right around the corner from the more famous National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Many people, including me, also overlook the Victoria and Albert Museum. 
Me, hanging out with ol' George.
2. England's "mature" cheeses are delicious. So is Scottish fruit jam. 

3. London's bus system is fantastic, and some buses run 24 hours a day; however, they do not accept cash. You must buy an "Oyster" card (same system as Hong Kong) and put cash on the card for single rides, or purchase a daily or weekly option. The daily or weekly option covers all public transport within London, including the subway (aka the Underground), buses, and trains. I bought an Oyster card from an Underground station and chose the weekly option because I wanted peace of mind when getting from Point A to Point B, which often requires bus, train, and Underground usage. Even though I speak English fluently (most of the time), I needed help buying the pass from the machine, because the interface isn't intuitive. Most tourists will need a card covering Zones 1 and 2. 
Overall, London has excellent public transportation but also one of most complex systems in the world. When people joke about the fascists and "trains running on time," they're providing a valuable history lesson: if day-to-day issues like public infrastructure don't work consistently, the most aggressive politicians tend to get elected--and rarely focus their gaze only on the mundane. In any case, don't hesitate to ask easily-identifiable employees at the stations to assist you--all of them were uniformly helpful and knowledgeable. 

4.  I loved the British Library. It hosted a fantastic Harry Potter exhibit (entrance required a fee), but even without the special exhibit, the library would have been a great experience. Check out the cafe inside.
Visitors to the special exhibition are *not* allowed to take photos.
I have no idea where this photo of Rowling's early drawing of the Potter characters comes from.
No idea whatsoever. 
5.  Speaking of Harry Potter, if you want to see where much of J.K. Rowling's inspiration comes from, visit Oxford and Cambridge. They're only about 2 hours by train from London's city center and well-worth seeing. Though Cambridge is larger than Oxford, a daytrip is all you need for both cities. Try to arrive early--some of Cambridge's attractions are only open between 12 and 2pm. I liked Cambridge's vibe much more than Oxford's, but Oxford had incredible exhibits in a tiny museum inside Weston Library, including a handmade Christmas card by J.R.R. Tolkien. 
Not allowed to take photos in Weston Library.
Once again, I have no clue where this photo of a page from JRR Tolkien's 1936 Christmas card comes from. 

Note that out-of-London trips are not included in the Oyster card weekly or daily pass--you must buy separate tickets. 

6.  Don't miss Harrods, the original "everything store." It's easily accessible by bus. You can spend hours in this massive place and never get bored. You might even get lucky and see a magic show in the toy section. 
Now owned by Qatar, but formerly owned by Princess Diana's almost-father-in-law.

7.  I'll end with two cautions. England is not part of the Schengen zone, so many tourists, including Americans, receive six month visas on arrival. Partly as a result of this longer-than-typical visa provision, Heathrow airport's immigration staff are known to overreach. 

I've had issues with Heathrow airport's immigration staff every single time I've visited. I truly believe most of their immigration employees are incompetent, poorly trained, and/or do not want to be there. Stated another way, Heathrow's immigration officers are the only people in the world who make America's notoriously bad TSA look good. In a city as vibrant as London, perhaps Heathrow is where you apply to work when you give up on your dreams--and your life. Nevertheless, there's no excuse for asking tourists totally irrelevant questions. Accepting irrelevant questions as normal rather than offensive and illegal creates a slippery slope where privacy is nonexistent and employees provoke animosity against all government services. 

In my case, after presenting evidence I had an e-ticket to the Dominican Republic from Heathrow, I was asked where I was going after the Dominican Republic. Last time I checked, despite Sir Francis Drake's remarkable prowess, the Dominican Republic isn't under the United Kingdom's current legal jurisdiction nor was it ever an official British colony.

Let's quickly consider the purposes of immigration control and the laws immigration agents are tasked with enforcing:

a. Are you a criminal or will you be engaging in criminal activity?
b. Are you going to overstay your visa?
c. Do you have enough money or access to money to stay in the country you are visiting without becoming a burden on public welfare or accessing other public services you have not paid into? 

d. Are you here for a legitimate purpose or do you intend on working off the books? 

All the questions above logically relate to the ultimate goal of determining whether a visitor is entering a country for a legitimate reason. If you don't have money, you might engage in criminal activity or work illegally. If you cannot articulate a clear reason for visiting or if you don't have evidence of an outward-bound ticket, you might be intending to overstay your visa. If you have a criminal history, you are less likely to be entering for a legitimate reason. 

Thus, questions like how long you are staying, where you are staying, whether you have credit cards, how much cash you have on you, whether you have evidence of an outward bound ticket, whether you have family members in the country, what your job is, and even whether you are pregnant, all logically relate to the reasons Parliament passed laws empowering immigration and customs agents. In short, the Immigration Control Act of any country, not just Britain's, is designed to eliminate visitors who will pose a burden on the country's services or people. It is not a license to ask visitors stupid questions.

When I deliberately raised a ruckus with the Heathrow employee after she posed questions only a moron would ask a visitor with over 30 stamps in his passport and evidence of an outward bound ticket, she called her manager. The way I play this game is simple: if you screw up, you are either racist or incompetent--pick one. If you, the manager, accept your employee is incompetent, then you must admit you are responsible for poor training and oversight. In other words, you put your own job at risk. In the alternative, if you, the manager, accept your employee might be racist, what exactly do you do when you can't discipline her without the possibility of spending taxpayer monies against an entrenched union? I like this game. I encourage any government employee or contractor to play it with me at any airport. 

After checking my evidence of an outward bound ticket and directing me through the same process a second time, the higher-up who came to see me walked away speechless when I asked whether it was logical to send me back to the same immigration employee I had accused of racism or incompetence. I was let through the second time under the same employee and supervision of another manager. 

Moving on, the second caution about the United Kingdom is its prices. Even with the pound's devaluation post-Brexit, everything in London is probably more expensive than back home, unless you're from San Francisco or Tokyo. Should that discourage you from visiting London? I suppose it depends on whether you are willing to endure Heathrow and its unmerry band of men and women. Good luck. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dominican Republic: What is the Opposite of Despacito?

All my life, people have been telling me to slow down. I talk too fast, walk too fast, and write so fast my teachers compared my handwriting to Egyptian hieroglyphics. For the first time, I've found people who operate at a similar speed--and it feels wonderful. In the Dominican Republic, everyone speaks Spanish faster than in any other country I've visited. Their best modern writer, Junot Diaz, practically invented his own literary style. It's as if everyone realizes being Dominican means being different, so why not take it up a notch and let others catch up? 

Most people who visit the Dominican Republic will stay only one day in Santo Domingo, the capital. They might venture to Santiago, 
La Romana (my choice if I could live in the Dominican Republic), or San Francisco de Macoris (not to be confused with San Pedro de Macoris), but almost all of them will use the capital city as a launchpad to more popular beach towns or resorts such as Punta Cana, Boca Chica, 
Me, when I was younger and innocent, in Boca Chica ;-)
Samaná (and El Limon waterfall), Bayahibe, 
and the lesser-known Juan Dolio. I think tourists are making a mistake bypassing Santo Domingo, and I suspect in ten years' time, the area known as the Colonial Zone aka Zona Colonial will lose its charm as more corporate and foreign investment enters, driving out locally-owned small businesses like Carmen and her Cafeteria Carmen, which doesn't have a sign because almost all her customers are regulars. 
Dominicans have the best smiles in the world.

I'll give you a quick rundown of the must-see places in Santo Domingo, and you can decide for yourself if you want to stay my recommended three days. 

Visit Kah Kow Experience, take the chocolate tour (15 USD), and add the soap-making or chocolate-making workshop. 
Is that you, Tyler Durden?

Get a cappuccino and Vietnamese salad at Mamey Libreria Cafe. 

See the Monumento Ruinas de San Francisco (not technically open as of January 2018, but still interesting). 

Go to Parque Colon, see the Columbus statue and if you're lucky, some performers. 
Go to Grand's Cafeteria y Bar and try the national dish, La Bandera, which has a rice base surprisingly similar to the Persian tahdig. (How two totally different countries ended up with the same unique rice dish is something I'd like to know.) Grand's didn't have locrio or res/carne guisada when I visited, but you can try those dishes at the more upscale restaurants in Plaza Espana in the evening, an 18 minute walk from Grand's. 
La Bandera con concón with zapote and melon juices (sin leche).

My favorite drinks are zapote juice (without milk) and morir soñando. I do not recommend the mofongo, and I even tried it in Santiago, which is famous for it. (Note: mofongo should not be confused with sopa de mondongo, a Costa Rican soup.) 

You like baseball? It's the national sport. Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Juan Marichal all hail from the Dominican Republic. Catch a game at the local stadium, Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal. 

Want an interesting-looking statue? Check out the Monumento de Fray Anton de Montestinos on the Malecon. 

Personally, my highlight was Catedral Primada de America. It's not an architectural masterpiece by any means, but how many Catholic churches have Andalusian-inspired tiles and glass-stained artwork that look like something Picasso would draw? 
So there you have it. I won't hide my bias--I'm a fan of the Dominican Republic. No other place has more color, more energy, and more friendly noise. If there's a heaven, you'll probably see Dominicans welcoming you with their beautiful smiles. For me, talvez algún dia, puedo conocer a Lola De León. Hey, nerdboys and men can dream, sí? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

Bonus: below are my favorite Junot Diaz quotes. If you haven't read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you cannot call yourself a true bibliophile. And I'm not just saying that because I identify with Oscar. 
"Beli at thirteen believed in love like a seventy-year old widow who's been abandoned by family, husband, children, and fortune believes in God." (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"It would have been one thing if like some of the nerdboys I'd grown up with he hadn't cared about girls, but alas he was still the passionate enamorao who fell in love easily and deeply. He had secret loves all over town, the kind of curly-haired, big bodied girls who wouldn't have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming. His affection—that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in his vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability—broke his heart each and every day." (Id.) 

‎"For the record, that summer our girl caught a cuerpazo so berserk that only a pornographer or a comic-book artist could have designed it with a clear conscience." (Id.)

Bonus: don't miss my favorite dulcería in Santo Domingo, Dulcería Maria La Turca, near Calle Mercedes and Calle Jose Reyes. Her cakes and flan are incredible. The store has been in business around 84 years. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Historians in 2255: the Simulacrum Society vs. the Savages

It is now 2255. Two historians review the recent past

Historian 1 and Historian 2 have been trying to understand why the United States of America began its downward spiral in 2016. At first, when told about the country and its military spending, advanced technology, and two oceans to protect it, along with some of the smartest people in the world, they struggled to understand its collapse in 2166. 

2166 was the year of America’s Second Civil War, when nationwide militias banded together, refused the central government’s demands to give up their weapons, and went on the offensive. Many Americans tried fleeing to Utah, but people in Utah had been preparing for such an event for decades and refused entry (but not assistance) to most internal refugees.  By chance, Canada had built a wall several years ago, which now prevented Americans from fleeing north. After the militias were put down, the United States of America existed in name only. The country continued its core strength of security products—no other place protected and transported physical items so well—but there was nothing united about a country where cities and states revolving around academia competed each year with cities and states revolving around military culture, with both factions trying to increase funding each year at the expense of the other. 

H1: I really don’t get it. On the surface, all the data in the year 2000 indicated the United States would continue to dominate for centuries. 

H2: I thought the same as you, but once I did a deep dive, I realized America’s strengths were also its greatest weaknesses. At the same time greater clarity of direction was needed in a fragmented world, America’s checks and balances began working against it. Nothing could get done, and all change became necessarily incremental. 

H1: What’s the problem with incremental change

H2: In ordinary times, nothing. One of America's problems was that it had already borrowed money from future generations to pay off senior citizens--or, more accurately, entities serving senior citizens--in ways that distorted federal, state, and local budgets. Today, we’re all under some centralized government—well, most of us are, while others prefer to live more simple lives—but back then, America had to deal with political factions on three different levels. It’s a great system to prevent centralization of power, but Americans didn’t realize that increasingly dangerous cyber-threats plus a reduction in the efficacy of its naval power meant its system of government was less effective than competitors. 

H1: Ok, so America’s engine of progress would have slowed down a bit. That’s the price you pay for checks and balances, isn’t it? 

H2: Sure, but what good are checks and balances if the politicians before you 1) made promises based on artificial financial engineering; and 2) used debt to give their constituents everything they wanted, but in unsustainable ways? 

H1: We’ve solved these problems today with everyone guaranteed a basic standard of living, so why was money such an issue back then? 

H2: Today we’ve realized there’s no point in an economic system that prioritizes labor arbitrage (i.e., currency manipulations, outsourcing, insourcing) when robots can do most of the work for us. Back then, humans were stuck in a winner-take-all system because of technological threats making it harder for small businesses to grow without debt or costly third-party assistance, and also complex cross-border regulations preventing small and even mid-sized businesses from becoming truly global. How do you compete with larger, established players when your website can be subjected to a DNS attack, or when you need import-export permits and connections to make sure your goods aren’t “lost” along the way to the customer? 

H1: Wait, didn’t Amazon offer excellent tech services at a low cost to everyone, including small businesses? 

H2: Yes, and in doing so, it increased its own dominance because it had software to analyze the data coming from those third-party accounts. In effect, America’s technological leaders used data and AI to further distance themselves from their smaller competitors--when they weren't buying out or copying them. 

Think of it this way: today, we see no point in maintaining separate armies in each independent country or community. We realized the costs—both financial and otherwise—for smaller, developing countries to match the technological aptitude of larger countries were prohibitive and counter-productive to world peace. We also realized any war between advanced countries or their proxies would be potentially catastrophic—and by catastrophic, I mean world-ending—not only to residents in each country, but to everyone else. 

Once we agreed the usual models wouldn’t work because human decision-making wasn’t yet developed enough to predict or even prevent human error—the 2018 Hawaii false missile alarm being one example—the only solution was increasing cooperation between all nuclear powers and satellite owners. I’m not saying countries still don’t try to disrupt other countries, but we mostly agree that using resources that could improve residents’ domestic conditions is preferred to an arms race with no end and mutually assured global destruction

Developed nations did try to encourage less developed countries to boost infrastructure, but imposing the same regulations of a developed country on a developing country soon proved counterproductive. I read somewhere that a traveler passing through a developing country’s airport had a much easier process than a traveler to a so-called advanced country, which tells you technology wasn’t working the way humans intended. There was even a story where humans replaced retail workers with machines, but there were so many inefficiencies in the software, the human worker experienced more drudgery, obviating the tech’s utility. Initially, developed countries relied on labor arbitrage to fix these gaps, but soon it became obvious having separate systems in each country that weren’t at least minimally compatible with each other made no sense. 

H1: I understand what you’re saying, but even today, we have tech issues. I’d like to think we won’t collapse just because we have technological issues. 

H2: Yes, but because we can manipulate our DNA, we don’t have similar social problems. If you want to be a different skin color, a different body type, etc., you can accomplish that—as long as you consent to 24/7 neurological surveillance so researchers can gather biological data that helps improve our systems. 

In 2016, unlike now, artificial differences separated humans, who put up artificial barriers to protect themselves. Almost every so-called legal advancement served only to increase segregation and inequality, which led to social strife. 
July 1979, National Geographic
As lawyers were busy discovering new ways to segregate their clients’ interests from political unpredictability, people post-Snowden realized they had unwittingly sacrificed privacy for little to no increase in efficiency or security. Governments tried to recapture credibility by becoming more transparent and encouraging open debates, but in an age where knowledge and the ability to absorb it logically was highly dependent on multiple factors outside an individual's control, these attempts backfired. 

In short, Western governments in the 21st century found themselves outmaneuvered by the more nimble private sector, hamstrung by union and other rules prioritizing politics over customer service and merit, and generally at a loss on how to deal with the vestiges of prior administrations, which had made promises based on economic assumptions no longer necessarily true. Would China continue to buy debt denominated in U.S. dollars? Would the U.S. consumer accept a free trade paradigm where a strong dollar improved their quality of life while shifting production to other countries? How would “most-favored nation” status work fluidly in an age of multiple superpowers, each possessing proprietary technology and particular special interests? 

H1: [chuckles] Ok, you’re getting too wonky for me. So the old ways weren’t working for everyone. Why didn’t the leaders change things? 

H2: If only it were that easy. Remember we said all political change was incremental? Once you include massive, multi-generational debt into the equation, change becomes even more tricky. In the United States, the majority of the federal budget was on autopilot after 2001. Its government kept funding operations, including foreign overreach, through a legal maneuver called appropriations, which had been designed only for short-term use. 

Lacking fiscal discipline, even basic changes such as legalization of drugs and reducing the ROI on long-term obligations couldn’t be done uniformly, much less internationally. For example, why would a country like Singapore, which could actually control drug imports due to its small size, sign up for drug liberalization? In Singapore's case, the cost-benefit analysis fell firmly on the side of drug enforcement, whereas in America, police were outmanned and often outgunned against drug enterprises, starting as early as Miami in the 1980s. 

[Editor's note: America's comparatively strong dollar and its failure to eliminate cartels meant that civic institutions--and therefore progress and opportunities for arm's length collaboration--south of the border were hamstrung. For instance, how could any Mexican police department, even if funded properly, attract ambitious employees when it faced a stronger currency next door and less employment flexibility (i.e., no "access to cheap skilled labour and a strictly anti-competitive use of lethal violence"), especially if cartels functioned as de facto welfare and jobs agents in local communities? Also, in the absence of competent local police, why wouldn't the logical progression be a military-industrial complex? From Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security: "You almost had a shadow government that controlled huge amounts of economic activity in a totally unaccountable way." (Inside the American Mob, S1:E1, 2013)] 

H1: Why do you focus on drugs? Today, we can get any drug we like, and scientists are working on even better ones. 

H2: You have to remember that our economic system today is different from the ones around Earth in 2018. Today, when we are born, we all receive a pre-set allocation of BlockCoins that can last us our entire lives if we are reasonably careful. Different pods and different countries have rules on how we can spend these BlockCoins, but they are universally transferable, though prices are different depending on one’s location. Most countries provide a staggered number of BlockCoins until the age of 40 (the age limit increases as more anti-aging advances are discovered) to promote prudent spending. If someone runs out of BlockCoins today, they will most likely relocate to a less expensive pod or country or even go “savage” and move to a non-technologically advanced pod. As we know, under this economic system, women gained much more political power and wealth, and now dominate most high-level non-military governance positions. 

H1: I dislike the savage pods. They receive our protection and some  of our medical advances without contributing biological data. Some of them come around when a child gets sick, and even I felt sorry for the savage who received CRISPR treatment for his son in exchange for a lens implant that unwittingly allowed a BlockCoin billionaire to secretly spy on sector B6. 

H2: [Cocks one eyebrow] Interesting. Well, humans in the 21st century worked all their lives to gain enough wealth so they could finally pursue their passions and dreams in old age; in contrast, we go to school to learn what most interests us and then receive training to help us choose occupations based on our specific abilities and desires. 

Personally, I'm surprised earlier humans agreed to have their data mined without compensation while paying for medical care, education, housing, and so on. Many people even went in debt for such essential items. 

The reason we're able to enjoy such a high quality of life today is because we voluntarily provide constant, real-time biological data to the pods and central research unit. Most of us accept the tradeoff between a lack of privacy and the goal of a perfect singularity, i.e., a human being with at least the same level of abilities as the most advanced machines. Data is anonymized before being sent to the pods and central research unit, but you and I are able to access results and CRISPR suggestions based on individualized data. Rogue actors pose no threat because central military command can freeze and/or obliterate any specific area immediately with the unanimous consent of the revolving 7-member Security Council, chosen every three years based on the countries producing the most innovative breakthroughs in science, music, math, and engineering. Members with conflicts of interest must abstain from voting, but generally speaking, since everyone is born with the same number of BlockCoins, persons in all countries are somewhat valuable to other countries, so cross-border violence and aggression are counterproductive. 

Sadly, our ancestors created a suboptimal system in which they delayed their passions and dreams until old age. 

By Stephan Pastis (12/5/17); notice of fair use provided to licensor June 20, 2019.
To assuage their neuroses, they engaged in terrorism, violence, illegal drugs, and other diversions we find anachronistic. Such improper behavior necessitated large budgetary outlays for police and military forces, obligations which grew larger every year. Funding such expansion required debt at levels that would never be paid off completely as well as non-financial complexity like infiltration and surveillance

For example, it was not uncommon for a police unit to pay undercover officers to infiltrate or surveil a gang dealing in drugs. In other words, while the police were infiltrating drug dealing gangs and sometimes even running drug operations themselves, they were spending money trying to stamp out the same operations, which were busy expanding into other areas of business, even going so far as stealing donations to nonprofit centers for online resale. Illegal drugs formed the core of the revenue that allowed crime to expand, which led citizens to authorize more funding for crime-fighting, which then allowed more surveillance, less overall privacy, more segregation, and so on and so forth. At some point, humans realized they needed to decriminalize drugs, fix immigration laws to mitigate human trafficking, and not waste funding on self-defeating strategies, but until that moment occurred, citizens bickered over a lack of funding for other areas even as most local tax revenue was going to public safety operations

H1: Violence, debt, crime, not being able to pursue one’s passions until old age…and you haven’t even mentioned disease and sickness yet! I don’t mean to be rude, but why did these people even bother? 

H2: Many of them didn’t. Suicide rates and depression were highest in the most developed countries. You despise the savages, but they mock us, too. When they’re not calling us a “Simulacrum Society,” they’re comparing us to the pods in The Matrix (1999). 

H1: I’ve heard those criticisms before, and they’re evidence of the savages’ lesser developed tastes and intellect. In The Matrix, the machines were using us, but we are using the machines. 

H2: Are you sure about that? If the machines took over, wouldn’t they be advanced enough to use neuro-data sets and AR/VR technology to make us think we were still in charge? Anyway, to answer your original question, why did humans endure under such counterproductive systems? A review of literature would lead you to the answer of love. No matter how low or damaged someone was, it was normal to persist in the belief that someone, somewhere loved him or her or would love him or her. 

H1: Ah, so gender relations were optimal then? 

H2: [Sighs] Actually, in America, they were quite low in 2018. 

H1: Surely you’re joking. 

H2: Humanity many centuries ago recognized that men and women comprised two sides of the same puzzle that needed union for happiness, but in practice, men and women could rarely get along unless the male met a female when he was starting out or not successful, and the female stayed with him even when she could have chosen someone more successful. The best case scenario was stated most aptly by comedian Chris Rock: “You can be married and bored, or single and lonely!” 

H1: I’m not going to say we’ve solved gender issues, but at least it’s much easier to keep occupied and motivated without a significant biological other. Very few humans today think love is the central goal anymore. We live too long, and it’s not difficult to find people who accept short-term relationships. 

H2: But that’s exactly why the savages mock us. They say we’ve discovered every innovation except the most important ones. Do you remember their last line in the most recent debate? “Give me a life difficult enough to value the important things, enough time to find them, and enough life to enjoy them—no more, no less.” They say the difficulty is the point. In the struggle is my salvation, and so on and so forth. 

H1: They have all kinds of ideas. One of them argued that although we can better analyze specific DNA sequences or identify harmful strands, we still don’t know the total impact of modifying one DNA sequence on all the other sequences ad infinitum. But of course the researchers have accounted for this issue and use AI to run simulations on all possible outcomes. 
H2: I think the argument was that AI only knows what data it receives under a specific rule set, so if a human being programs the AI with data only known up to x date, what if the human being is unintentionally eliminating mutations not in the data as of x date? 

H1: Once again, the researchers account for these possibilities by running all possible sequences. 

H2: But how can AI know what it doesn’t know? Are we correct in assuming biology follows very specific rules like chess or that the simulations can account for all possible mutations? 

H1: [Cocks eyebrow] Are you getting wonky on me again? 

H2: Fine. Back to relationships. The correct answer is, “I don’t know.” Some couples worked out, some didn’t. Our lives are far more predictable than theirs, but we are less likely to engage in permanent relationships or reproduce naturally. 
"Pat" Boone, one of America's most famous personalities, in a magazine from 1957.
I remember reading an author discuss his time watching couples on the London Underground. He said he didn’t know what love was, but he could always see it when it was there. According to him, love wasn’t at all abstract—it was literally there in the quickness and shape of a smile and the subtle ways happy couples subconsciously mimicked each other’s body movements. Once he realized he could see love, that’s what he aimed to achieve, but right after he set the goal, he realized his silliness. He could not accomplish such a goal on his own, and he could not predict when or if it would happen. There was probably an equal chance in his life of never finding love as seeing it. 

Yet, realizing he could see love, that it wasn’t entirely abstract, encouraged him to spend more time on people and to try to see why they behaved the way they did. Why was that woman wearing that brand, that color? Did she believe it helped present a better version of herself, and she wished to attract a specific someone? Or had she saved up for months to get an item so she’d have an easier time being spoken to with respect? What did she intend to convey by choosing this color, this dress, over another?

H1: Perhaps it was the only clean laundry that day. One never knows with the savages. 

H2: Maybe that’s the point. 

[Part II is here.] 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018) 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lisbon: Extremely Touristy, but Tastefully Done

Lisbon (or Lisboa in Portuguese) grows on you. Lacking a specific central attraction like Disneyland or the Eiffel Tower means non-EU tourists tend to overlook the city. It hasn’t fully integrated its fascinating history in a meaningful way, but even the most casual visitor will notice an Arab-style castle near French-themed architecture near a Catholic Church that claims to have archeological remains of a mosque. The good people of Lisboa’s Tourism Board might direct you to Belem’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (aka the Jeronimo Monastery, a must-see), where an entire room on the top floor is dedicated to Portuguese and world history, and they’d be right to do so, except the exhibit doesn’t teach you about the rise and fall of different rulers in any coherent way.
Geronimo! Wait...
If I lived in a country that had history involving the Moors (don’t miss the exhibit inside Castelo de S. Jorge), Napoleon, and the Crusaders, I’d at least try to explain why Portugal and Brasil are the only major countries today that speak Portuguese. Hint: apparently when Napoleon, the greatest military strategist of his time, arrived in Portugal as part of his fearsome sweep across Europe, some of Portugal’s royalty fell out with other family members, fled to Brasil, and then declared Brasil’s independence. I can’t be entirely sure, though—as I said, there’s no attempt to merge everything together in a meaningful way for English speakers. I read elsewhere that Portugal’s navy found the best route to ship spice from Goa, India, an admirable niche because there must have been fierce competition from the East India Companies as well as the Spanish Armada. In any case, if you visit Lisbon, consider staying in the Rossio or Restauradores district, near the beautifully-designed Estação do Rossio (Rossio Train Station).
I stayed at Hotel Gat Rossio, which had excellent breakfast. After two nights, I walked to the train station and visited Sintra, the best decision I made. Sintra is wonderful, a World Heritage site that includes Parque Natural de Sintra and Parque de Monserrate. Before I get into the details, let’s finish up with Lisbon. Why come to Lisbon when more intrepid tourists go to Coimbra or Sintra instead? 

First, Lisboa is easy to navigate. If you’re a new traveler and seeing Europe for the first time, it's a fine idea to go to Lisbon first. Except for its malfunctioning tram ticket machines, Lisbon is idiot-proof. All three “touristy” sections in the city centre are accessible by bus or walkable (you can try for tours, but you won’t need a guide if you have Google Maps). A Lisboa Card, available in 24, 48, or 72 hour increments, provides discounts to most tourist attractions along with free public transportation, including buses, trains, trams, and the subway. A direct airport transfer bus isn’t free but it’s discounted with the card. (I’m happy a direct bus exists, even when the subway or a more circuitous bus route will get you to the airport--like I said, idiot-proof.) 

The Lisboa Card comes with a booklet listing numerous attractions all over the city, along with helpful and detailed blurbs. I don’t know why every major city doesn’t offer such a card, along with a detailed booklet. It’s perfect advertising for lesser known attractions, especially away from the city centre, and it helps subsidize the local transportation system. I’m sure consultants are busy right now figuring out nickel-and-dime strategies (e.g., in small print, insert an additional charge to take photos in a museum) to increase revenue rather than more straightforward, sensible solutions. Those erratic tram ticket machines I mentioned earlier? You don’t need to bother with them if you buy the Lisboa Card. As I said, except for the direct airport bus, all public transport is included. 

Second, both Lisbon’s food and service are good, a rare European combination. Seafood and pastries are the highlights. Everyone will suggest going to the Belem neighborhood and getting the pastel de nata (aka egg tart), but the egg tarts everywhere in Portugal are excellent. I’m having one now in Lisboa Airport (code: LIS) with extra cinnamon in the soft center, and it’s delicious. I also found a plain flan—like flan pudding but without the caramel—but don’t expect to see it on every menu. I saw it only twice in the windows of nondescript restaurants, the kind where construction workers come to take shots together before returning to finish the day. 
Coming from Morocco, I was unhappy with Lisboa’s dining prices, but my trip afterwards to London convinced me I was wrong to complain. (If you’re going to a country that uses the euro, get used to things being at least a little more expensive than a usual backpacker/early retiree itinerary).

Third, if you stay in Rossio, you will have access to the train and can visit my favorite part of Portugal: Sintra. Sintra’s decision to protect its natural beauty has resulted in a park with castles and scenery that look straight out of a Disney film. Within a few minutes after entering Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira, Parque Natural de Sintra, and Parque de Monserrate, I felt a kind of awed calm I haven’t felt in years. Sadly, when one travels often, regular and “ready-made” tourist attractions become bland. So many places use the same experts and consultants, every museum in the world will eventually have the same Moroccan tiles, cobalt-blue Persian bowls, Christian Orthodox mosaic tiles, antique guns, and Greek pottery. In Sintra, I remembered why I travel.
Most tourists will need one to two nights in Sintra, and two to three nights in Lisbon. I didn’t go to Coimbra, but I imagine it would be an excellent daytrip. I have a flight in a few hours and just enough time for another cinnamon-infused pastel de nata. Adeus and abrogado.