This week’s blog is dedicated to the memory of ex shipmate and activist TED HOOD who recently passed away. He accompanied me to some of the places listed below. He was an all round good bloke and a fun travelling companion. R.I.P Ted.
This quote from the really admirable Douglas Adams helps me come to terms with the existence of simply horrible places on our otherwise awesome planet.
David would like to balance this by identifying his 7 least favourite locales. The first five places are within nations that he normally has the highest regard for. Only the last two are actual countries. Read on.
Despite appearances in reality David is not a completely negative cynic. Only a little bit! Some of the places David refers to he visited some time ago and they may have lifted themselves out of the quagmire. If so; good for them and apologies to those who enabled the resurrection.
Shit holes: 1- BELIZE
I start with my most recent visit. Recent is relative. It was over a year ago, just before the planet went into a collective meltdown, or was it lockdown? I loved Belize. Having crossed the border from Mexico by bus I liked what I saw. Then I ended up in Belize City. What a shit hole.
It was aggressive, ugly and, even by my standards, down right sinister. I am not a city person by preference and usually only stay either to see friends or by necessity. But I try to see the positives in any large urban situation. I am an experienced traveller and know how to cope in large cities. However, here I felt extremely uneasy and made plans to leave as soon as possible.
Luckily just one hour and 40 kms south of Belize City I started to experience a really laid back and tranquil country and very much enjoyed the rest of my stay.
It’s small wonder that in 1970 they moved the capital to Belmopan.
Shit holes: 2 – PANAMA
It’s not generally appreciated that the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal is actually much further west than the Pacific side – don’t believe me? Check it out on a map. I have been to Panama on several occasions; all to do with Greenpeace and all connected to the all-important canal and the ships passing through there.
On my first visit in 1998 I was confronted with that east/west v Atlantic/Pacific conundrum and for the first few days it confused the hell out of me as I criss-crossed the length of the canal trying to establish where we could attempt to stop a soon to arrive shipment of nuclear waste travelling from Europe to Japan.
The capital Panama City is located a little away from the Pacific end of the canal. It is a rich, modern and vibrant city – if you like that sort of thing.
In stark contrast at the other end of the canal, on the Atlantic side, is Colon. This is a colonial town in a very sad way. Everything is run down: architecture, the people, law and order. When I was there it was a frontier town and seriously dodgy.
As our target ship, a dedicated nuclear transport called the Pacific Swan, would be entering the canal from the Atlantic simple logic dictated that we resist the temptation of the comforts and safety of Panama City. We had to grin and bear it in Colon.
At first we stayed in the only hotel in town. It was like something between a Gothic novel and the final scenes of Apocalypse now. After a couple of days we were lucky to find a sympathetic priest who allowed us to camp in his church.
Just to illustrate the lawlessness of the town I was ferrying some activists one day in a rental car. We were stopped by the police and I was told I’d gone through a red light. My colleagues and I searched in vain for a traffic light, let alone one that was red.
I relayed our observations to the police who responded with:
“Señor, you are in plenty trouble.”
In a light bulb moment I realised where this conversation was going. I asked:
“How much trouble?”
“Thirty dollars trouble.”
I paid him in cash but decided to forget about asking for a receipt!
When I related this story to our Panamanian “fixer” he was outraged: “That’s xenophobic, they only charge locals fifteen dollars.”
Our presence in the town was beginning to attract attention – gringos with money to spend. We didn’t dare venture out at night and the priest suggested we barricade the church doors with pews. We set watches to listen to the VHF radio monitoring ships approaching the canal. A few days later and bingo. We successfully boarded the ship and were able to leave the hell hole.
Shit holes: 3 – RUSSIA
I travelled several times to Russia. In Moscow, soon after the collapse of communism, I experienced the contrast of the pathetic window displays, with a tin of peas juxtaposed between a pair shoes, compared to the amazing sheer awesomeness of the metro stations – where it was still prohibited to take photos.
From sampling the delights of a hotel menu when after ordering I was told my selection was off. And, the next item. And, the next item. When asking what WAS available I was told; meat balls. I was there a week and the same ritual was repeated every evening. After perusing the menu I would eventually be told there was only one dish, meat balls AGAIN.
In Vladivostok I witnessed the sad demise of the ex Soviet Pacific fleet. Once mighty and glorious warships were lying all over the harbour either sinking or beached like stranded whales – all suffering from lack of maintenance.
After experiencing the truly impressive St Petersburg I had to experience the ignominy of leaving a ship in Kaliningrad.
In those days
Kaliningrad was a place to LEAVE and definitely not a place to stay.
It took me about 12 hours to get from the ship to the airport. I was sent from one bureaucratic outpost to the next. Each time faced with the same barrage of questions – I paraphrase:
“Why are you here?”
“Because I am leaving a ship.”
“Where are you going?”
“Because I change planes for France.”
“Why are you going to France?”
“Because I live there.”
“Why do you live in France?”
And on and on it went ad nauseum.
I simply wanted to leave.
Shit holes: 4 – CROATIA/BOSNIA HERZEGOVINA
Perhaps it’s the nature of my work while in Greenpeace but on many, many occasions I would end up in areas covered in toxic dumps or industrial graveyards – most definitely not frequented by travellers and most decidedly depressing.
Likewise war zones.
I was in charge of a small team sent to Croatia and Bosnia in 1992 during a lull in the fierce fighting there. We’d been sent to study the environmental impact of the war. It was actually a futile gesture when all that anybody wanted to talk about was the cost in human life. Nobody gave a fuck about a few dolphins dying in the Adriatic. But this is written with the long wisdom of hindsight.
Everywhere we went was death and destruction. It was all very grim and depressing, a long way from the vibrant and prosperous countries they were to become. But at that time I couldn’t wait to leave.
One way we survived was that the warring factions were desperate to show us the damage inflicted by the other side. We were generally accompanied by a police escort as we went from village to village. In each village we would meet with the mayor, there’d be propaganda, speeches and the inevitable toast.
Slivovica is described locally as plum brandy. As we drove, or rather lurched, from meeting to meeting we quickly began to realise that it was not so much a drink but rather rocket fuel. There was no such thing as designated driver – it was a dodgy diplomatic situation to refuse a drink – definitely all for one and one for all!
Shit holes: 5 – UK
As a Brit this is the one country I can be critical of and get away with it. You’ve probably all experienced the highlights of my country but few of you will have felt the displeasures of places like Grimsby – its delights are all summed up in the name.
I had the displeasure of spending 3 weeks there while with Greenpeace along with Cleethorpes, a seaside resort – the perfect anachronism.
Shit holes: 6&7 – SAUDI ARABIA and KUWAIT
Separate independent countries but united only in being the asshole of the western world.
Physically and geographically Saudi Arabia is actually stunning; particularly with the splendour, mystique and enormity of the desert areas. I can’t vouch for Kuwait as when I was there in 1991, immediately after the first Gulf war, it was entirely covered in soot and the sky perpetually dark because of the 350 oil fires set alight by Saddam Hussein.
No, I relegate these two international pariahs to the bottom of my personal pile because of their atrocious treatment of women, their brutal involvement in Yemen and their appalling record on human rights – simply refer to the recent behaviour regarding Kamal Khashoggi. All despicable activities.