Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
On this day six years ago, Helanya said ‘yes’. It was in Riverside park, New York, on a bench with the inscription ‘…forever…when the wind whispers…’. (A tip for future proposal-hopefuls: I asked her to marry me on that spot because I couldn’t find the place where Kathleen Kelly meets Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, although we found it immediately afterwards, of course. It worked out well, though, that place was pretty crowded.) Much of that day is a blur. I remember that as we were walking home to our illegally-rented room-stay apartment on the East Side (those were the days before Airbnb), we got absolutely soaked in an unexpected autumn rain storm. We hid out in a Central Park cabin until the worst had subsided. But I was happy, she seemed happy, and that made me even more happy.
Today is another day for celebration. Tonight, Helanya will become an alumna of Utrecht University. She graduates with a Masters in Economics and Law. I am told she did pretty well. #proudhusband
Now to figure out how this thing called a dishwasher works…
(Also: a shout-out to my brother who got engaged last week! Advice: buy a dishwasher with only one button.)
For most of May, I walked in the footsteps of my father. Literally. Starting on the 6th of May, we hiked the Camino Primitivo, an ancient route from Oviedo in the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela on the west coast. 343 kilometres in 11 days. It was tough but beautiful. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
My father had turned sixty the previous year, and I decided to let him choose his birthday gift. (My gold standard for him is chocolate and I was unable to conjure up something more creative.) Sensing an opportunity, he mentioned that he has a short ‘bucket list’, and that hiking the Camino is at the top. Not knowing much about the Camino, I happily agreed. I would be in Europe in 2016 in any case, and we tentatively decided that May would be a good month to go to Spain.
His preparation started almost immediately after this conversation. He would put on his backpack and, almost daily, hike the 24km mountain route from our home in Paarl, South Africa. He would send me tonnes of emails of people who had done ‘the Camino’. Deciding to do some research of my own, I soon realised that there were many decisions to make long before arrival. What route? How many days? How to get there and back? Where and how to get a ‘Camino passport’? What shoes to wear? What to pack?
We decided on the Camino Primitivo for mostly three reasons. The first was that it is a manageable length given our available time. The Primitivo is also, according to legend, the most ancient route. Fearing the Moors to the south, two bishops from Oviedo hiked the Primitivo around 800 CE to visit St James’ tomb. And, according to the few sites I could find, it was also a physical challenge. That sounded like something we would enjoy.
Our journey started on the morning of the 6th. We met in Bilbao the day before, and took an ALSA bus that arrived at 22h30 in Oviedo. We had brought no map of the city, and had to ask a few people before we managed to find our hotel. That is also when we realised the language barrier may be bigger than expected. The next morning we were up early, ready for our first day. We found the cathedral where we would start from, but were slightly disappointed that there were no signs pointing the way. We still had no map, and we thus walked, a bit less confidently, in a generally western direction. And then, after maybe half-an-hour and an increasing unease, a random woman stopped us and pointed to the street where we would see our first arrow – we had found the route to Santiago de Compostela!
It was a beautiful hike through the farms and small villages that dotted the hilly landscape. Our first night we spent in Grada in an overpriced, dodgy hotel because we could not find the albergue, the hostel for pilgrims. The second day we stayed with Micheal in his private albergue in Salas, although, looking back, we could probably have hiked a bit further. We paid for it on the third day, when we hiked a total of 40km to Campiello. The day was memorable for another reason too. Walking down a hill, my father in front, I slowed down a bit to enjoy the view. Thinking my father was still in front of me, I continued downhill only to realise, at the bottom, that he was not in front of me anymore. I could see the shells (pointing to Santiago), so I knew I was on the ‘right’ route, but what had happened to my father? I asked a farmer who was working in a neighbouring field whether he had seen anyone, but his English was as bad as my Spanish. He did point me to the actual correct route whence my father should come, and so I decided to run (with my 8kg backpack) back on this route. Needless to say, after about 1km of running (having already hiked about 25km), I was dead tired. I also realised I wasn’t on the actual correct route anymore: there weren’t any shells. So I turned around and ran the 1km back again, deciding that I would probably just walk on and hope to either catch up with him or wait at the next town. But fortunately, just before the ‘correct’ route intersects with my ‘wrong’ route, I could see him coming down a hill towards me. We had a few laughs afterwards, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. That evening, another 15km after my run, we found a wonderful albergue, Herminia’s in Campiello. That was also the first evening we would meet people that we would see throughout our journey, and ultimately in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
The next day the path split in two, and we decided to choose Hospitales. Here is the recommendation in a booklet we (unfortunately) only purchased after our trip: ‘The Hospitales option leads into the mountains and away from civilisation for most of the day. While this is one of the most demanding walks on any Camino, made more so by the lack of resources, it is strikingly beautiful with expansive mountain vistas unfolding in all directions.’ That is spot on. The views are just incredible, and we were fortunate that we had clear skies for most of it. (It can be misty, but the route is very well marked, in contrast to what we were told beforehand.)
That night we also had our first experience of one of the hallmarks of any Camino: snoring. We ended up in a room with 12 people. One of them, a Spanish guy, which we would unfortunately meet later on the journey again, had a remarkable snore which no earplug in the world could keep out. I’m not sensitive to sound; you can’t be if you’ve spent four years in a university dormitory. But I think I didn’t sleep more than two hours that night, and judging by the other people’s faces the next morning, neither did they. That is what makes the Camino a physical challenge: hiking 30kms and then not sleeping, and not eating very well, and hiking another 30kms, and not sleeping. We did this for another five nights until we reached Lugo, a city with an incredible Roman wall, where we decided to stay in a hotel. By that stage we were tired and dirty, but in good spirits. Our feet miraculously had no blisters (in contrast to some of our companions on the journey), and the next morning, after circling the Roman wall, we decided that we could push through to Santiago de Compostela in three days. That, in hindsight, was maybe the wrong call.
Our first night of the last stretch we stayed in a very nice albergue. Some fantastic paella was served, and the Spanish snorer had decided to go to a different spot so we could at least enjoy a good night’s rest. The route from Lugo to Santiago is less hilly. You walk along tarred roads most of the time. My expectation was that this would be easier, but it turned out that the hard surface was tougher on our feet and knees. By the second evening, after a 38km walk, I had cramps in my right leg, and my feet were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The next day would be our final stretch to Santiago and I hoped the legs would last for just one more day.
They didn’t. With about 10km to go, my right leg could barely bend. Those last kilometres, when you could see Santiago in the distance but it would not get closer, was gruelling. The road into Santiago (the French route, which we joined two days earlier) descends steeply, and I had to shuffle sideways for most of it, keeping my leg straight. There were hundreds of other hikers on this stretch. Some had been on the road for weeks, even months. You could see it in their faces and the only thing you could do is to applaud their achievement. There were unfortunately also those, in larger numbers, that had just signed up for three days or even just one day of hiking, and were now crowding the route. That did make it feel a bit touristy.
After we entered the town, there were another three kilometres to endure before we finally reached, through the archway, the Cathedral square. It is difficult to describe the emotions at the ‘finish’. Elation, yes, but you’re mostly just dead tired. (Our last day was another 38km.) We took a few photos and then went to get our compostela (certificate), and then to find our hotel. The rest of the week we relaxed in Santiago and Finisterre, a small village on the western coast of Spain where the Camino reaches the ‘end of the world’.
Many have asked me since we’ve returned whether the Camino is what I expected. I envisaged a lot of time philosophising, thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That did not really happen, because, and this is perhaps due to nature of the Camino Primitivo, most of your time is spent deciding where to step so that you don’t fall. It is a technical walk, especially because it is almost constantly wet and muddy underfoot (both of us fell twice, luckily without serious injury). Yes, there were times when you could let your thoughts wander, but often those thoughts just wondered about where the next shell indicating the route might be.
I did not come to any major new insights. And, actually, I am perfectly fine with that. I did something with my father which we both enjoyed. It was challenging – I lost 4kgs in 11 days – and that ‘intellectual break’ was perhaps exactly what I needed after an eight-month sabbatical. We did meet some fascinating people along the way, many with their own compelling (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories. But I also think the pilgrims that choose the Primitivo are slightly different than the rest: they are there because they want the physical challenge. And they are okay with walking for an entire day without seeing anyone else.
Will I do it again? Maybe, but there is no urge to return immediately. And yet, there are times that I miss the simplicity of it all. Only two sets of clothing. Only two choices of bocadillo (ham or cheese), only two types of coffee (with or without milk). Just me and my dad on a mountain path in a country where no-one speaks your language. And where it is sometimes good to get lost, so that you realise what it is you value most.
The Primitivo route I’d suggest (if you want to do it in 11 days):
Oviedo -> San Juan de Villapanada -> Bodenaya -> Campiello -> (via Hospitales) Berducedo -> Castro (bookings required) -> Padron -> Castroverde -> Lugo -> Ferreira -> Arzua -> Santiago
Our stay in Utrecht is quickly coming to an end. We’ve been here eights months, and it has been a wonderful time to be productive and also, sometimes, less productive. We traveled often, mostly to conferences and seminars, but occasionally just to explore new places. To Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and, the past weekend, to Ireland, one of the few places in Europe South Africans can enter without a Schengen visa. We rented a car and stayed in a wonderfully nondescript farm cottage with thick walls, a fireplace and a few dozen cows browsing outside our window.
Rural Ireland is a mystical place, exuding a sense of wonder. North of Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an ancient neolithic site that was built before Stonehenge or Egypt’s pyramids, around 3000BC. Evidence of long-distance trade suggests a sophisticated society, and entering the sacred tombs – where a beam of light only enters once a year during winter solstice – confirms an advanced knowledge of their environment and complex social rituals. This mystical aura lingers across Ireland, in the evergreen forests and tiny towns and black stone walls that dot the landscape, interspersed with more cows and sheep. We also visited the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the island, a breathtaking sight I won’t recommend to anyone with a fear of heights. (At least, the fear of watching others take selfies precariously close to a 120m slippery ridge.) And then it was back to Dublin, for some whiskey and music and, of course, a visit to the world famous Trinity College Library with its splendid Long Room (pictured).
Although our time in Europe is sadly coming to an end, the prospect of returning home – good wine, food and friends (and sun!) – is certainly exciting. But first, I will be taking a technology hiatus in the next month as I travel to northern Spain to hike part of the Camino de Santiago, starting in Oviedo. It will be a physical challenge but certainly also a psychological one: I cannot remember a time when I did not have access to email for more than a few days. Away from the busyness of modern life, perhaps it will be good to rediscover something of that mystical world the ancients inhabited.
Helanya and I flew to the south of Spain for a short Easter break last Thursday. We spent a day in Granada, another one in Córdoba and then took the train to Valencia where I’m currently attending the European Social Science History Congress.
Spain is an incredibly diverse country, and the South did not disappoint. Influenced by the conquest and settlement of Islamic Moors between 711 (when the Arab and Berber Moors of North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Christian Hispania) and 1492 (when the last Muslim stronghold surrendered), the old cities of Andalusia have a distinct architecture that reminds one of the deep layers of history. This is nowhere more apparent than the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba where a cathedral is built inside what was once a Grand Mosque. The incredibly impressive structure has 856 marble and granite columns, some of which date back to a Roman temple which had occupied the site previously. Layer upon layer upon layer.
Another highlight was the Easter festivities. The two nights we spent in Granada were filled with processions through the streets, which attracted what must have been almost the entire city of Granada. It’s difficult to say whether participants were in a reflective or festive mood – perhaps a bit of both – but the streets were still busy well into the early hours of the morning. The processions recreated scenes from the crucifixion of Christ, embedded within Catholic symbolism and, I suspect, many other customs that are unique to Andalusia. The layers of history are not only encapsulated in the built environment of southern Spain, but also in the beliefs, symbols and traditions of its people.
Of course, history never ends. Much as they have done for millennia, people continue to move in and out of Spain (the same year that the last Muslim ruler surrendered in Granada, Columbus ‘discovered’ America). Many North African migrants now cross the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life, while Syrian refugees flee their war-torn country. A visit to the south of Spain is therefore a timely reminder that Europe used to be far more integrated into their southern and eastern neighbours. Córdoba’s extraordinary Mezquita-Catedral was, lest we forget, designed by an 8th-century Syrian architect.
On Sunday, Helanya and I flew back to Utrecht after a wonderful few weeks in South Africa. I had time to catch up with friends and colleagues, meet with students, organise the final ERSA Economic History workshop in Cape Town, and even play a two-day game of cricket. And, of course, do some shopping for the wintery months ahead, including four bottles of blatjang and new hiking shoes to break in during the next three months for a Camino walk I plan to do in May.
I must admit, I was skeptical of the sentiment I would encounter on my return to South Africa. The end of 2015 was not a great time for the country, most directly (for those of us residing in foreign countries, at least) reflected in the rapidly-depreciating currency. The president’s expulsion of Finance Minister Nene, the prolonged protests at universities, and even the poor performance of the Proteas proliferated the pessimism. And the start of 2016, characterised by vitriolic social media slurs, seemed to not augur much hope that 2016 would be any better.
And then we returned and fell in love with our own people all over again. The food, the sun, the languages, the opportunities. Bright students with bright ideas. A we-are-the-change-we-want-to-see-in-this-world attitude. When I was a student, apathy in student affairs was the main issue of the day. Not anymore.
That is not to say that all is well. Even through our over-nostalgic senses, we could feel the disappointment in the status quo, the hunger for a better South Africa. Race is at the forefront of national debates again. As I wrote last year, the narrow focus on race distorts the ‘remarkable story of courage, determination, perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds’ that black South Africans have written since the end of apartheid. By focusing on race, whites are made a co-author of a story that is not theirs to tell. And this remarkable story of self-empowerment continues, although some would argue for more abbreviated chapters.
More can be done, of course, to increase opportunities for all South Africans. It would help if the patronage politics that have become so endemic are tempered – how, I don’t know. It would help if we can encourage South Africans to start businesses that can sell to an outside world now eager to buy cheap South African products. It would help if we can provide quality education to kids that are currently excluded. But we should not dismiss the incredible achievements we have made too easily.
Yesterday I attended a workshop in Amsterdam. Some of the participants were from Sweden and Finland, two countries I have long admired for their open and innovative policies, and over lunch we discussed the immigrant situation across Europe. I knew, of course, about the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and the increase in right-wing activity, but I was surprised to hear about their own experiences: large anti-immigrant demonstrations that have strong racist undertones; academics receiving threats when they take a pro-immigrant stance; militias in the streets exercising mob justice.
It is easy to get pessimistic about South Africa when the State of the Nation is as fresh as a forgotten yogurt in a college dorm room. We have serious issues that need to be addressed fast. But we are not alone. Issues of exclusion, discrimination and repression exist in some of the world’s most enlightened (and educated) countries, issues that are unlikely to be resolved soon and may spill over into even worse forms of exclusion and violence.
Our walk to freedom and social justice may be long and winding, but at least our shoes are already broken in.
As I stare out of the train window, watching the neatly-spaced Dutch farms flash past, I spot a faint rainbow on the horizon. Make no mistake, during this time of year the weather is miserable. But thanks to El Nino (or the weather gods), the Dutch have had a ‘light’ winter so far, meaning that once every few days you can actually see the sun. My attention is drawn to the rainbow: it is unlike the rainbows we get in South Africa. There they appear after a thunderstorm, shiny and brilliant, connecting one side of the horizon with the other, and signalling the arrival of fine weather. This one, instead, sits low and distant. It signals the coming of rain.
Trains are wonderful for thinking, and I’m thinking about the year that’s been. One thing is certain: 2015 won’t be a year we are likely to forget. Globally, the Syrian war had far-reaching geopolitical repercussions: hundreds-of-thousands of refugees are still streaming into Lebanon and Turkey with a few thousand lucky ones ending in Sweden or Germany or Canada; the continued emergence of radical terrorist organisations resulted in the tragic events of Garissa, Kenya (148 students), of Sousse, Tunisia (38 people), of Paris, France (130 people), to name a few; the near-Grexit and the shift towards a more fragmented Europe; the rise of xenophobia and, most recently, Islamophobia, notably in that country most famous for freedom and opportunity. Russia and Brazil’s economies are tanking: the expected GDP growth per capita of both these countries is -3.8%. The world at the moment, it seems, is fragile.
But my thoughts are mostly with my own country. I don’t think many would disagree that 2015 was one of the most tumultuous years South Africa has had as a democracy. Yes, in 1998 interest rates moved upwards of 20% following the Asian crisis. The Rand collapsed after 9/11. In 2008 we experienced country-wide xenophobic attacks. We’ve had periods of extended strikes, notably after the 2010 World Cup and again in 2014. And 41 mine workers were killed by police at Marikana in 2012.
But 2015 felt more intense: the EFF was forcibly removed from parliament in February; in April, at least seven foreign nationals were killed in violent xenophobic attacks, and the firing of Finance Minister Nene in early December sent the Rand into uncharted territory. But the major events of 2015 emerged from an unlikely source: the leafy, calm campuses of some of South Africa’s best universities. Rhodes fell. Verwoerd was moved. Students, angered by the slow transformation of university infrastructure, curricula, and personnel, staged sit-ins, occupied public spaces, toppled statues, renamed buildings, and ultimately halted the sharp increases in student fees that had become the norm.
But these protests did more than just halt fee increases: they gave rise to a movement for social change that moved beyond party politics. They empowered rather than disempowered. They weren’t exclusively black, although they did – and continue to – confront the notion of white privilege. In truth, it is a conversation we should have had a long time ago but which, perhaps, needed the frankness of a new generation.
As I reflect on my own conversations with colleagues and students, one thing stands out quite prominently: the rise of female leadership. Of course, there had been female political leaders before: both the mayor of Cape Town and the premier of the Western Cape are female, for example, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, won Time’s prestigious Person of the Year award. But across South African campuses, women leaders rose to the fore. Their influence, I suspect, is a major reason the movement remained non-violent, even in the most testing times of police brutality.
My thoughts continue to return to a conversation I had with one such student leader earlier this year. We spoke about Stellenbosch and the difficulty of black students to call it home, when she remarked: ‘Johan, we don’t live in a world of rainbows and fairies. The Rainbow Nation is dead.’ I wanted to appeal, but had no immediate response. She had made her point.
I think about what has happened since that conversation: to Rhodes, to Verwoerd, to Blade, to Zuma. There is no doubt that the Rainbow Nation my generation envisaged has not materialised. (No matter how hard I try, though, I cannot let go of the euphoria I feel when thinking of the young, promising country, for me best memorialized in this (an inevitable sport) moment. Just watch the last seven minutes.)
But let’s not dismiss the idea of a Rainbow Nation entirely. There’s been an awakening. The rainbows and fairies may be gone, but the inclusive and passionate student movements of 2015, to me at least, suggest a different kind of rainbow. One that is less shiny and brilliant. One that is not entirely complete. One that signals the coming of the rain.
And in a country scorched, rain is exactly what we need.
*This is my 42nd and final post of 2015. During the last 12 months, more than 100 000 unique visitors arrived here. As always, I have to thank my lovely wife Helanya for her patience and proofreading skills. Because of the success of the blog, I’ve been offered a contract to write a monthly column for Rapport (in Afrikaans) and Finweek (in English) in 2016, a challenge I look forward to. Do have a blessed festive season. Travel safely. Rest.
And, finally, if you’re worried about the global economy, look at it this way: Ethiopia, India, the DRC, China and Bangladesh are predicted to grow at more than 5% in 2015. They are unlikely to slow down significantly next year. Together, they comprise 41% of the world’s population. That is still improvement on unprecedented scale. We’ll be all right.
Last week I presented a paper at the Economic History Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. As with the two earlier EHA meetings I attended (in 2010 and 2013), what impressed me was not only the quality and sophistication of the research, but the breadth of the topics and questions investigated. I listened to excellent presentations on how labour scarcity during the American Civil War affected racial relations afterwards (Tim Larson), on how concessions given to private companies in the Congo Free State affects development outcomes today (Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero), on how the spread of malaria in the US South raised the price of slaves immune to the disease (Elena Esposito), and on how US military investments during World War II had absolutely no long-term impact on local industrialization (Taylor Jaworski). (A story in the South African press this morning suggests that our own government’s attempts to stimulate local manufacturing through investment in military technology, the Centurion Aerospace Village, has yielded very few returns…) For the economists: what made these papers great were their transparent and innovative identification strategies, coupled with a simple but strong narrative. The full conference programme is available here.
The scale and scope of such world-class research in the US is reflected in the latest QS World University Rankings that was released last week. Ten of the world’s top 20 universities are in the US, and 18 of the top 50. In economics, the US advantage is even more dominant: 15 of the top 20 Economics departments are at US universities, and 21 of the top 50. Which explains why US universities attract the best talent from across the world, notably India and China.
As I’ve written before, if African countries are to benefit from globalization and innovation, it needs to send its students to places that can offer them elite education. That is why China sends 250 000 of their students to US universities every year. Some remain in the US afterwards, but most return, improving the quality of teaching and research at Chinese universities. Just look at how fast Chinese universities are moving up the QS rankings and you will realise the benefits of this system.
Despite what many might say, these rankings are important and becoming more so. Potential students use them to determine which university to attend, potential employees use them to decide where to apply for a job, scholars use them to choose where to spend a sabbatical or with whom to collaborate, and funding institutions use them to judge applications. For that reason it is great to see that Stellenbosch University, my home for the last fifteen years, is moving steadily up the rankings, from position 390 last year to 302 in the current edition. That progress is the result of incentives to produce quality research (Stellenbosch is in the top 100 universities globally in terms of citations received, the only university to break the top 100 in Africa). In the overall list, the University of Cape Town fell slightly to 171, but it remains the highest-ranked African university.
South African universities face the dual challenge of having to racially transform their staff body and improving their competitiveness. These are often seen as competing, mutually exclusive challenges, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Achieving transformation and competitiveness simultaneously will, however, require different (and possibly more demanding) solutions than only focusing on one or the other.
The answer is to look beyond our shores. Very few South African students end up at US universities. Importantly: very few black South African students study towards an (Economics) PhD in the US. This needs to change: We need to do much more to encourage our best and brightest (black) students to study abroad. Such a strategy, I believe, is the only sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape within a generation from mostly white to mostly black, while continuing to move up the rankings ladder.
A strong higher education sector has massive spillovers for the rest of the economy too. There is no reason Africa cannot aim for at least two or three universities in the top 100. Because of our location and affordability, South Africa can become a hub for the best and brightest African scholars. Exporting higher education services is a comparative advantage we should exploit. And students often remain in the country where they study; some of the most innovative (and most transformative) companies in the world were started by immigrant students who moved to the States to study. Think Google and Tesla.
The problem is the poor incentives for South African universities to make this happen. The Department of Higher Education gives large financial rewards to universities for each PhD that graduates. In contrast, there are no rewards for sending your best (black) students to go and study in the States. That means that universities do their best to hold on to their best students instead of encouraging them to obtain a degree from a higher-ranked university elsewhere, even though that might be in the student’s best interest. In addition, PhD bursaries are frequently available for South African students studying here, while a first year of studies in the States can be in excess of R500 000. (Fortunately only the first year is usually expensive; thereafter research and teaching positions can help.)
This is a market failure where the South African government should intervene. So here is my request to Minister Nhlanhla Nene: Do as China does (see picture). Provide several hundred bursaries for students to study in the States. Some of them will (and should) remain behind; for example, a South African Economics professor at Harvard will yield long-term returns for the South African economy in terms of research questions and collaboration. But many of the graduates will return to South Africa, filling positions vacated by a retiring, white professoriate. That is how you transform into a world-class African university.
As I write this, I discover an online article about the tragic events of the last few days at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Early on Thursday, a Westville campus residence was torched. On Sunday night, two cars and the building which houses the office of vice-chancellor Albert van Jaarsveld were torched. You don’t need a PhD to realise that this is not a sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape. Instead, let’s look at ways to send our intellectually gifted to the best universities in the world. And bring them back to train and teach the next generation of engineers, computers scientists and… economic historians.