Saturday, December 14, 2013

Meeting Xica, the 50-Year-Old Mermaid

She is too old to ensnare sailors under her spell. Nonetheless she has an impressive fan club, including me, who fondly celebrated her 50th birthday with her. Xica is the matriarch manatee at the Manatee Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center (Parque Mamiferos Aquaticos) in Itamaracà Island in the northern state of Pernambuco in Brazil. Seeing manatees which I had never seen before was on my bucket list.

Mermaids, the mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have been part of seafaring legends since the ancient Greeks. After many months at sea, sailors commonly mistook manatees for mermaids. Even a seasoned navigator like Christopher Columbus was fooled by these creatures. He reportedly saw three of them when sailing near Hispanolia Island in the Caribbean Sea. Their physical appearance strongly disappointed him; they were not the beauties he had dreamed of!

IMG_2498     IMG_2490

Xica is no beauty either. She has an ugly bump on her back, the result of an accident when in the wild. Incapable of fending for herself, she was rescued and now lives peacefully with other manatees in a large sea water pool. During my visit the sanctuary was taking care of ten manatees, including two babies born in the premises. The young ones will eventually be released. In Brazil, manatees are on the endangered species list, victims of loss of habitat, accidental encounters with boats and poaching. Fortunately local fishermen no longer hunt manatees. I agree with Columbus, manatees are not sexy marine mammals. However, in spite of their size, one feels like hugging these meek and peaceful beasts whose bulbous eyes project gentleness.


In addition to manatees, injured dolphins are common wards of the Center, but we could not see them. If manatees are gentle, unassuming animals, the local iguanas don’t shy away from the visitors; they are even pushy. During my visit, a one-meter long creature followed me around. I was wary of so much attention. It lost interest after I took a close picture shot. I had met a vain iguana.

Itamaracà is a small island separated from the mainland by mangrove, the manatee habitat. The east coast faces the open sea. In the 1980s, its beaches made the island famous. These white sand beaches were the playground of the rich inhabitants of Recife, the capital of Pernambuco. Now they attract a more popular section of the population. If week-ends bring the crowds, on week days the beaches are quiet, even quaint. Un je ne sais quoi which makes them very charming.

IMG_2461    IMG_2515

The first visitors to the island were not tourists but prisoners. World over, islands have been prized as secure locations for penitentiaries and Itamaracà Island has three of them. Current technology, whether used by jail wardens or inmates, no longer justifies building prisons on islands. As a matter of fact, a week before my visit in November, 22 prisoners escaped. About half were caught in the mangrove, the others are still on the run. Penitentiaries and jail breaks do not spruce up the image of Itamaracà. To burnish the island’s reputation the local decision makers bank on its historic landmarks, one being Fort Orange, an imposing 17th century Dutch fort.


The Portuguese settled in Pernambuco around 1537. Recife was built on an island among marsh and mangrove and Olinda close-by on a hillside. The settlers started a flourishing sugarcane business. This was not lost on the Dutch who coveted their trade. They invaded the coastal areas of northern Brazil around 1630. Their occupation lasted until 1654 when the last fort surrendered to the Portuguese. The Dutch erected sixteen forts to protect their conquest. One was built in Recife. Because the Dutch forts were destroyed during the sieges, the constructions which one visits now are Portuguese.

Under the short Dutch management Recife or Mauritsstad, its Dutch name thrived. Some 3000 settlers moved to the new colony seeking economic opportunities and religious freedom. Many were Jews; the first synagogue of Latin America was built in Recife. With the return of the Portuguese, the Inquisition was enforced and many Jews left for New Amsterdam, now Manhattan.

The Dutch colonization lasted only 24 years but its influence lasted much more at least if one believes the local tour guides. The Dutch occupation has become the bread and butter of the city tourism! This development will have delighted Count John Maurice of Nassau, the enlightened governor of the Dutch colony. In spite of what tour guides claim, Dutch Recife was probably not very impressive in terms of urbanization. I am no naysayer but it seems to me that this Dutch legacy is more fiction than fact. The synagogue is probably one of the few Dutch landmarks still standing, and it has been recently restored. Now the historic part of the city is a hodge-podge of buildings, many dilapidated from the 18th century churches and convents, 19th century government edifices to 20th century skyscrapers. What really strikes the first time visitor is the forest of skyscrapers probably three times the size of Manhattan. Recife metro counts some 3.8 million people, and most of them must be living in high rises. The beautiful Boa Viagem beach is now totally rimmed by a solid wall of skyscrapers.

Antidote to Recife’s skyscraper jumble is the colonial city of Olinda, a few kilometers north. Founded by the Portuguese and ransacked by the Dutch, Olinda is a UNESCO World heritage site. This town is for colonial churches fanatics, otherwise, skip it and go to the beach. The Dutch burnt most of them, but during the 18th century they were rebuilt by the Portuguese with an overload of golden adornment.


   IMG_2561 de

Recife is a three hour flight from Rio de Janeiro. Itamaracà Island is a one hour drive north from Recife, but it took me three hours to get there, thanks to snail-speed public transport and a protest which blocked the traffic for hours. Public transport in Rio is poor but one can choose to pay more to travel in comfortable air conditioned buses. Pernambuco doesn’t offer such luxury, all buses belong to the popular category: rickety, dirty and over-crowded; the hardship is alleviated by the good nature of the passengers. During the trip I watched my fellow passengers. White and black folks are a minority, the mass of them are everything in between, reflecting centuries of miscegenation.

Within the island, mini vans were the transport of choice. My foreign accent (no one could guess its origin) gave me instant prestige and I was invited to sit next to the driver instead of being squeezed on the backs seats. I also rode taxis, plentiful even in the most remote parts de the island. Itamaracà drivers are a chatty bunch, and my trade-mark curiosity was fully satisfied.

Xica the gentle sea mammal does not make headlines in Recife; a more sinister sea creature does. Pernambuco holds an unwelcome and vexing record that of having the most shark attacks (57 since 1992 when records were taken) of the Brazilian coastline as well as the highest shark attack-related death rate in the world. Bull and Tiger sharks are enthusiastic man bitters, they love the warm waters off Pernambuco State and migrate along a deep water trench parallel to the Boa Viagem beach where most of the accidents happened. They also feed on the coral reef between the beach and the trench. Pollution and environment destruction have also disturbed their routine. Every Pernambucano as the inhabitant of the state is known has his or her explanation for these deadly attacks. The Pernambucano doesn’t taste sweeter than the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro resident), but there are more of them in the warm waters of Boa Viagem, hence the high number of casualties.

Coincidentally, Recife owes its name to that reef, the killer sharks’ diner table.

This blog is dedicated to my friends Kathleen and Richard who can spot sharks from their balcony overlooking Boa Viagem beach.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brazil: What Changes, What Stays the Same


A brief for fans of Brazil and NSA spooks.

Last June, upon my arrival in France, I wrote a blog article on what had changed for the better and what hadn’t. To my disappointment, the list of notable improvements was much shorter than that of status quos. I have since moved back to Brazil and must sadly report that the same is true here. Positive changes are few and far between! My inspiration dried up as a result of this depressing situation. I am aware that it is an overwhelming challenge to keep my friends captivated by my blog, let alone the eavesdroppers of the National Security Agency (NSA). If Angela and Dilma’s emails and phone conversations are of prime interest to President Obama, they are not of the kind of material that would hook the thirty-something-busybodies who makes the rank and file of the NSA. Hopefully these rapacious readers will find titillating tidbits in this text, ditto fans of Brazil.

One positive change took place in June when millions of Brazilians of all age, income and skin color took to the street to voice their anger at their government’s lavish expenses and politicians’ corrupt and selfish life style. The crowd called for changes. Tax payers’ money was flowing to big events such as the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, as well as lining the pockets of a large number of politicians and officials at the expenses of education, health care and basic social services. For decades, ordinary Brazilians have put up with these excesses, their tax money (and rates are amongst the highest in the world) going into white elephants and mega-projects of no social benefits. Not surprisingly, Brasilia the capital enjoys the highest GDP per capita in the country.

Brazil is soccer mad. It is therefore astonishing that this frustration exploded at the occasion of a soccer championship which as a matter of fact was won by the home team.

The government’s binge hit a raw nerve with people who pay taxes through the nose and get little in return in terms of social services. Middle class Brazilian have to buy expensive health insurance and their children must attend private schools. Brazil is an expensive country, and its indecently high taxes further increase the cost of living. Food stuff carry sale taxes well above 15%, even Brazilian staples are not spared: Coffee 20%, water 38%, black beans 17%, soccer shoes 46%, shaving cream 57%, bikini 33%, and caipirinha the national drink a whopping 77%! Obviously these taxes hurt the poor more than the rich, so the government has set up Bolsa familia to help the former. It is a modest cash transfer with some strings attached: the family must send its children to public school and have them routinely medically checked. Smart trick, the government gives with one hand what it takes with the other. The recipients of Bolsa familia are grateful and form a trusted electoral clientele for Dilma’s party.

Dilma’s government was shell shocked by the street protests and the political elite in Brasilia took fright. Hasty promises were made, some wrongs were corrected, and many legislators pledged to play by the book. This was June, now in November it seems that nothing has happened as little has changed. The only noticeable and controversial change is the import of 4500 foreign medical doctors to be shipped to remote rural communities and urban slums, locations shunned by Brazilian doctors. The majority of the doctors are coming from Cuba. Exporting doctors has been a lucrative business for Cuba. It has been reported that the Brazilian deal will allow the Castro Jr. government to pocket nearly US$ 3500 per doctor! A much better deal than exporting cigars.

Rio de Janeiro is also changing, right now for the worse. The city is a mammoth construction site with little to see over ground as the action seems to take place underground. In the Leblon suburb where this blogger lives, every day there is less space to walk and drive as streets are dung out by heavy machinery for the future subway tunnels. All this construction pandemonium is supposed to be finished before the Olympic Games in June 2016. As construction is already behind schedule, few bet that Rio will be ready. Catching up and cutting corners the Brazilian way will probably kick in next year. For the tax payer it is a toxic mix of over budgeted sloppy work, and kick back.

For next year Soccer World Cup, some are more ready than others. If many stadiums are still being built or refurbished, the prostitutes of the state Minas Gerais are ready for business. They will be able to charge their customers’ credit cards. They have signed a deal with the government bank CAIXA (best known for offering mortgage loans to the lower middle class).

This is good news for motels. In Brazil, motels are love hotels which rent rooms by the hour. Because they are falling out of fashion with young lovers their rates have fallen nearly 9% in a year. For a country which reports a 6% inflation rate, it is a notable drop. Many motels are being reincarnated into tourist hotels which are much in demand and which for the period of the World Cup will seek to maximize their investment return.

Like the motel business, Brazil’s economy has slowed down. Additionally, the country’s self-confidence took a beating when its flamboyant and over confident billionaire Elke Batista filed for bankruptcy protection in October. Batista managed to loose US33 b in 16 months. His oil-and-gas business was based on over-optimistic forecast of oil reserves, and it crumbled when the reserves were re-assessed downward. As the Rio golden boy, he accumulated expensive toys, which are being let go at bargain prices. Too bad, his yacht Pink Fleet which used to cruise in the bay of Rio didn’t find a buyer. It has been sent to the scrap yard. Let’s hope that his Ferrari and Mercedes have a more dignified fate.

Finally there is a change which is regarded as positive for making one’s life simpler: money at the touch of a finger. My bank has adapted its automated teller machines (ATM) with fingerprint sensors. No more senior moment at the ATM when one forgets his or her PIN code. As a senior citizen, I already miss the stimulation of remembering my access code. This technology is touted as more secured and convenient, but this being Brazil one still runs the risk of being mugged at the door of the bank. Et plus ça change and more they stay the same.

Dear NSA agent, thank you for taking interest in my writings. I feel so valued and so much safer.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Expendable and Indispensable: Bring Up the Bodies

Expendable like the Tudor wives (even worse: four out of Henry VIII’s six wives were disposed of); and indispensable like the king’s wily chief minister and âme damnée Thomas Cromwell.

It took me two months to finish reading Bring up the Bodies, a 482 page historical novel written by British writer Hilary Mantel. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall (which I haven’ read) and Cromwell is the main character in both novels. Having read Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII and seen countless movies on the titillating Tudor period, I enjoyed Mantel’s contribution to the saga for which she won the Man Booker Prize.

I labored through the first one hundred pages of the book. I was confused by Mantel’s writing style. Her constant use of pronouns is often confounding. Cromwell, the central character is referred to as “he” in the present tense. When there is a dialogue between Cromwell and other individuals, it is hard to figure out who says what. For the sake of clarity, she adds “Cromwell” to “he”. So it reads: “he, Cromwell”.

The book focuses on Cromwell’s wheeling and dealing during the year 1536. He was Henry VIII’s political, religious and marital “fixer”. Cromwell’s main tasks were to prepare the ground for Henry VIII’s third marriage, break with the pope and seize the assets of the Catholic Church, and as importantly increase his own wealth and prestige. The king had taken a fancy to Jane Seymour; second wife Anne Boleyn had to be discarded for him to wed his new love interest. The book ends with six dead bodies in the Tower of London: Queen Anne, her haughty brother and her four alleged lovers.

Henry appears as vain and cruel but romantic (he was in love with five of his six wives!), dithering and a religiously insecure monarch very dependent on Cromwell. At the same time, he often acts like a sneaky and spoiled child, a bon vivant driven by his emotions. Although obsessed by his perceived declining libido, Henry has a one-track mind: he wants a male heir and will resort to murder to achieve his aim. This being said, six time-married Henry was canny and smart enough to stay on the throne for nearly forty years!

Mantel relishes in revealing Cromwell’s shrewdness and swiftness in disposing the burdensome wife and she gives a virtuoso rendering of Anne Boleyn’s downfall and demise. A complex individual, Anne Boleyn is hard to read. The darling of 21st century feminist historians and novelists, she had few friends at the Tudor court. Like the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra before her, she got very bad press from her contemporaries. Her ambition-driven ways made powerful enemies even in her own extended family. Anne was a woman with a past, a mercurial queen probably too smart for her own good. The book makes clear that by stepping in male territory she was taking risks. From time immemorial, royal wives have first and foremost been valued for their reproductive capacity with a bonus for those able to produce a healthy male heir. Royal consorts are two-legged wombs, ideally blue blood and low maintenance. Anne did not fit the role, and Henry got tired of her. Even by the royal standards of the time, the wives of Henry VIII had a short shelf life.

In the book, Anne epitomizes the demanding and nagging wife. Her successive miscarriages combined with the rumors of her infidelity ended the king’s affection for her. Exit the self-confident Anne, enter the compassionate, modest and plain Jane.

Cromwell, the smooth operator orchestrated six perfect and swift trials on seemingly fabricated charges, and endeared himself to Henry. In the British islands, Cromwell is an awe-inspiring surname. Thomas is the first bearing the name. The second was his nephew Richard who became a military dictator and a very unsavory individual during the Puritan Revolution. Thomas Cromwell is often described as canny, shrewd, mean, evil, villainous, devious, ruthless, lustful and greedy. Mantel describes his skillfulness and no-nonsense approach to the Tudor bedroom politics. She also highlights his efficient handling of the Reformation, the break from Rome and its meddling pope.

Beheading was the Tudor punishment of choice for the elite. The rich Catholic Church was de facto beheaded by Cromwell. Exit the pope. Henry, although still a practicing Catholic, became the head the Church of England and was no longer challenged by a counter power. The impounding of monasteries and church income was a financial windfall for the king and for his efficient chief minister.

                         Bring up the Bodies Continental Style

In crushing the church and enhancing the monarchy, Cromwell took a page out of the book of another advocatus diaboli, Guillaume of Nogaret, in early 14th century France. Both Nogaret and Cromwell were civil servants and commoners, had studied law and took no prisoners when serving their kings.

Nogaret was a colorful character. His services were also generously rewarded with titles and lands by the French King Philippe IV the Fair. As a matter of fact he was the lord of my village, Calvisson, in the south of France. Philippe had a prickly relationship with the pope at the time. He resented Rome’s theocracy and meddling in national affairs. Not only did Philippe want more elbow room but he was short of funds to bolster his authority and modernize his administration. He dreamed of submitting the clergy to his authority in order to grab a share of church income. Nogaret was a very hands-on operator. As such he was dispatched to Italy to abduct the pope; during the scuffle he allegedly slapped the pope’s face. The helpless pope died soon after the episode. A pro-French successor was elected.

However Nogaret is primarily remembered for his key role in wiping out the order of the Knight Templars. The Templars were monks and soldiers; the Crusades over they had diversified into banking and other commercial pursuits. The Knight Templars were operating all over Europe, but were most influential in France. Philippe, who owed money to the Templars wanted to get rid of them and confiscate their assets. Fabricated charges of heresy, blasphemy and sodomy were brought against the order’s leaders. Thanks to false confessions and betrayals the dismissal of the order was swift. The leaders were slowly burnt at the stake. Legend has it that the grand master cursed the king, Nogaret and the pope for his lack of support.

The three of them died unexpectedly soon after. Nogaret’s death was particularly gruesome with a twisted body and a tongue thrust out.

Philippe the Fair had only one wife. However, his reign ended with a sex scandal of royal proportion. His three sons were cuckold. The daughters-in-law’s lovers were tortured, castrated, skinned while alive and finally hanged. The princesses were locked away in a fortress. When Philippe died, the three future kings were without wife and without heirs.

Bring up the bodies on both side of the English Channel!

I                          Indispensable but Expendable

Nogaret died before becoming expendable but Cromwell’s good fortune ended in 1540. Like Anne Boleyn, Cromwell met his death on the scaffold, regrettably in the hand of an unexperienced executioner a “ragged and butcherly miser” as a witness wrote at the time. This will be the topic of Mantel’s last novel of her Cromwell trilogy

thomas        guillaume
Thomas Cromwell (By Holbein).                 Guillaume de Nogaret (anonymous).
                                          SEPARATED AT BIRTH

Saturday, June 29, 2013

France: What changes, What Stays the Same


Let’s start with what has changed as this list will definitely be shorter.

Currently taking my vacations in France, I was pleased to be able to fill up my refrigerator in the evening (except on Sundays). An increasing number of small neighborhood super markets now stay open until 10 pm. Even in La France Profonde, the name given to the whole of France outside Paris and the French Riviera, many restaurants now welcome patrons until 9 pm. The most extraordinary event took place in Tours, a small town in the Loire Valley renowned for its magnificent Renaissance castles. On a week day, we were served lunch at 2 pm! This is unheard of.  The Saint-Honoré restaurant deserves a Michelin star.

Another noteworthy improvement is the opening hours of department stores in Paris. Nowadays one can shop until apéritifs, drinks before dinner. A visit to le Bon Marché, the upscale Rive Gauche department store, can be enjoyed until 8 pm. This schedule hasn’t really caught up with the locals as the store was nearly empty except for a few Brazilian tourists checking Brazilian swimsuits. With summer in mind, le Bon Marché is promoting trendy Brazilian items from accessories to body care.

On the other hand, the -what stays the same list- is long.

There is something which, year after year never changes: that is the feline invasion of my small garden in the village of Calvisson in the south of France near Provence. The neighbors’ cats use it as an oversized litter box.  One of my first task is the time-consuming and malodorous poop scoop. At the same time, cats have to be bluntly warned not to return. In this area, human ingenuity shows its limitation as felines consistently outsmart man. It is very frustrating to learn that Calvisson cats react to chemical repellents as if catnip weed! Spraying fresh pepper keeps them away for a limited period of time until the next rain. The local cats belong to a fearless breed and to this author’s despair always return to the crime scene

This requires major remedies. All other solutions exhausted, a toy gun was purchased with a magazine of plastic foam bullets. Even from a very short range, the gun scares the living day lights out of the cats. It is very satisfying to see a cat running for its life, even if these stubborn beasts sneak back in when one looks the other way. Scoreboard: Humans 2, cats 1 until October, when owner gone, cats will re-occupy the garden.

Slow changes epitomize France. Visitors sometimes wonder if France lives on a different planet. It holds out against its perennial foe, la mondialisation, or globalization, like Asterix the Gaul against the Romans. French people only work 35 hours a week and enjoy five weeks of vacations a year.  Work stoppages are nonetheless recurrent. Strikes are a way of French life. Labor strikes are answers for everything. In the matter of strikes the French are head and shoulder above the competition; they even go on pre-emptive strikes, just in case. The French word for strike is grève, but it is not used in France. The customary term is mouvement social which sounds innocuous and less offensive than strike! In English, social movement doesn’t mean strike!

Mid-June, in a four-day period, France suffered two mouvements sociaux in the transport sector. One affected air transport and the second SNCF, the state railways. For good measure, during one day these two strikes overlapped leaving millions of travelers and commuters stranded, scrambling for alternative transports. Fortunately, the patron saint of travelers St Christopher was on my side, I providentially escaped both strikes. I flew to Paris one day before the beginning of the air controllers’ strike. The railways strike ended the day I took the train back to Calvisson.

During my trip to the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World heritage site, friends and I visited the Renaissance castle of Azay-le-Rideau (photo). This small 16th century castle looks like a gem reflecting in the river. It is one of the most visited in the region. Like many French castles it was largely built with ill-gotten money. Azay was the property of the King’s treasurer-general who doubled as the mayor of the near-by city of Tours. After a damning royal investigation, fearing for his life the treasurer fled France.  Since it had been built with money looted form the public purse, the king rightly confiscated the chateau.  Recently, another French treasurer (budget minister) had to leave his post in disgrace for having hoarded dirty money in a secret Swiss bank account. Et plus ça change….


                     azayle rideau

Actually, this year a change took place in my Calvisson garden. Contrary to previous years, the persistent villains, the cats have been one-upped by… snails. At night, an army of gastropods munch all the garden’s new plants. In the morning one can see the snail’s shiny slime on the garden slabs. They ate my potted basil not even leaving the stems. Hearing my misfortune, friends from Cannes on the French Riviera suggested that all the basil-fed snails should be harvested for cooking. To add insult to injury, they even emailed me recipes for basil & garlic escargots. Instead, I purchased some slug control and let it work. Finally, one by one, I picked up the survivors and threw them over the wall into my neighbor’s garden. Let him eat snails.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Catherine and Her Twelve Toy Boys


For nearly four decades Empress Catherine II (1729-1796) ruled Russia like a hermaphrodite creature. She alternated female finesse with male ruthlessness. She was a powerhouse in the council chamber as well as in her bed chamber. Her deft and intelligent leadership contributed to transforming a backwater country into an assertive European nation. Her self-confidence was enhanced thanks to the performance of twelve younger but hunky gentlemen who successively catered to her sexual needs. Expandable, they were generously rewarded when dismissed.

I have just finished reading the delightful biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (Random House, 2011). Catherine the Great is still fascinated biographers who have written hundreds of biographies in tens of languages. Massie’s biography was the second one I read. Decades ago, I read in French Henri Troyat’s landmark Catherine the Great, which is more a novel than a biography.

There was nothing conventional about Catherine’s life. In 1762, she became Empress of Russia by setting up a coup d’état against her wretched and eccentric husband, Tsar Peter III. Soon after Peter died in mysterious circumstances, probably murdered by his wife’s fellow conspirators. Catherine was therefore an usurper. During her long reign, she had to look over her shoulder. No less than 26 pretenders to her throne plagued her reign, some more threatening than others. One even claimed to be her husband. Actually, during her reign, Catherine had fewer lovers than competitors.

Robert Massie is sympathetic to Catherine and does not pass judgment over her taking the throne in such an unorthodox and ruthless manner. Some historians have been trying to rehabilitate the short-lived reign of Peter III, however few miss him.

Sophie (her original Christian name) had been summoned to Russia from Germany to become the teenage bride to the Russian heir, also German born. Catherine began to write her memoirs at an early age. One can suspect that she was not always entirely candid. Her memoirs are her legacy, a vehicle to justify her actions. A couple of unsavory facts have been concealed or water down. These memoirs remain an important source of information for countless biographers. 

      Catherine,(left) Gregory Orlov (middle) Gregory Potemkin (right)

catherinepic       orlov  potemkin

Catherine’s life reads like a novel. She wrote that at the beginning of their marriage, Peter was more a friend than a lover. She further claimed that her husband never consummated their marriage and that her first son, Paul, was the fruit of her first extra-marital affair with a courtier. Paul who was born after 8 years of marriage, not only looked very much like Peter but acted as erratically as him when he succeeded his mother. Catherine may not have been entirely truthful on this issue.

She had three lovers while married. As a widow, she collected nine more. Many of them were former Guard officers. She was a serial amoureuse: she couldn’t function without love. She was straightforward about her lovers who always escorted her. Her favorites were multi-tasked: in addition to their bed duties, they ran errands and even undertook official missions. They became younger as she aged, toy boys in today’s parlance. Catherine’s last toy boy could have been her grandson. Sometimes she treated him as if he was.

Peter III was killed by the brother of Catherine’s lover du jour, Gregory Orlov. She considered marrying Gregori out of love and gratitude, but changed her mind. She was confronted with the same power/love dilemma as Queen Elizabeth I of England before her. By taking a husband, a woman relinquished most of her independence. Having just secured the throne for herself, Catherine did not want to share power with anyone not even a loved one. Needless to say Gregory felt devalued but he had enough common sense to stick around.

In additional to Paul, Catherine had three other children, all out of wedlock. Her pregnancies were clandestine and she is not remembered as a doting mother.

Catherine was very much her own woman; she was the first truly enlightened autocrat and her achievements and leadership talents are still praised. Her sexual life was considered scandalous by European standards. Conversely, the affairs of Catherine’s male peers were praised. In her memoirs, she acknowledged her sexual needs with confidence, a very non-conformist behavior for an 18th century woman. Obviously Catherine the Empress of Russia could get away with it.

At the outset of her reign in 1762, she was at her sexual peak. In this man’s world, Catherine may have felt very lonely, and sex was the therapy she needed to boost her confidence and self-esteem. Her lovers were selected with care. The résumé of a would-be toy boy needed to include the following attributes: speaking several languages, French being a must as Catherine used it in her correspondence with luminaries such as Voltaire; love of culture; good taste; witty pillow talk; tact; interest in politics; and hunting and horsemanship.

Her successive lovers were obviously aroused by the power and prestige their function carried, as well as the financial rewards. In today’s parlance, they received a golden handshake when dismissed. In her roster of lovers, three were not toy boys. They made names for themselves with Catherine’s help and prodding. One became the last king of Poland, and two others distinguished princes. Her real soul mate was Gregory Potemkin who was totally devoted to her. She had deep feelings for him during her entire life. Potemkin even had a famous battleship of Bolshevik fame named after him. He had many useful talents and Catherine took advantage of them. His most noteworthy accomplishment was to enlarge Russia by grabbing territories from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Rumor has it that Potemkin may have been Catherine’s second husband.

In love, Catherine was a trend setter. She made use of toy boys long before the term was even coined. She also understood the value of golden handshake to ensure that a deal ended amicably. There is a secret garden she hides as Bruce Springsteen would sing, and she kept a few skeletons in her closet. Was she a regicide? Did she secretly marry Potemkin? History is on her side as in politics the end justifies the means. Contrary to the craziest myth, Catherine died of a stroke alone in her lavatory, not crushed by a horse during an equine intercourse.

Catherine is also remembered for her brainy quotes such as: “Men make love more intensely at twenty but make love better however at thirty” and “I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly.”

Monday, April 8, 2013

Farewell Maggie


Margaret Thatcher exited the world (with a capital W) on a fateful day in November 1990.She had been betrayed by her ego and sense of self-righteousness and the emasculated Tory grandees showed her the door of 10 Downing Street.

Today she died.

I was an early fan of Maggie. Not a Briton, I never paid much attention to the intricacies of her political agenda, controversial or not.For me, she was a woman who had broken the glass ceiling.She was the first woman to lead a major western nation since Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great! Unlike these two rulers, she was neither a daughter nor a widow.She was a bottom-up elected politician.She reached the top of the British political pyramid through hard work, determination, and her unwavering positions.

In the macho political environment she was the odd one out.Not a feminist, she didn’t mentor other women; to the contrary she relished her queen bee status in her cabinet.Her friends and allies piled compliments on her.Her rivals, enemies or even negotiation opponents fell over themselves in portraying her as a virago.The Soviets allegedly coined the term Iron Lady. Foes went on records with gross and sexist comments.Sadly, the French were the crudest in this department. When Maggie stood her ground in negotiations, exemplifying typical Gallic misogyny, President Chirac reportedly said that she was a housewife who wanted his balls on a tray.

Maggie Thatcher epitomized the stateswoman.When she was ousted in 1990, she was replaced by a non-entity and, for the British Tory party, it has been downhill since. Thatcher is the true role model for women who want to make a difference in politics.So ladies, get on with it, stop moaning and go for it. Remember who said: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Brazil Reality Show

  If the recently elected pope is Argentine, God is Brazilian. During a private audience, Dilma the president of Brazil good-humoredly reminded Pope Francis of this fact. God is Brazilian is the title of a 2003 Brazilian film. Visitors to Brazil are also reminded of it. Brazilians are thankful for being blessed with a rich and well-endowed country, marvelous weather, great music, and beautiful women among other pluses. The Argentine pope should pay attention. Dilma may have taken the opportunity of meeting the pro-poor people pope to promote her government know-how in reducing poverty. She might even have offered to co-operate with Francis’s multinational Catholic corporation to fashion family allowance schemes. Pope Francis needs to launch similar schemes to regain the upper hand over the populist policies of the followers of the late President Chavez of Venezuela. Thanks to its bolsa familia schemes, Brazil has managed to notably reduce abject poverty without creating a cult-like devotion among the beneficiaries. Statistics indicates that Brazil is the most populous Catholic nation in the world. This record may not hold for long as the Evangelists grow at the expense of the Catholic flock. The Evangelists are aggressively converting souls in the big cities’ favelas. Their message predominantly appeals to the urban poor and the emerging lower middle class. This Evangelical church is increasingly politically outspoken. Its gospel is so conservative that a large number of the recently converted no longer want to march with the samba schools during Carnival. They feel that Carnival is evil. Non Evangelists complain of the forceful proselytizing drive of the pastors. One Assembly of God pastor, Marco Feliciano who is also a congressman is making headlines. Thanks to shady dealings and back scratching among members of the House of Representatives, Feliciano was elected to chair the Human Rights Committee of the House. Feliciano has a left a track of racist, sexist and homophobic Tweets; he is unrepentant and for good measure not ashamed of collecting large amounts of money from his flock. To ensure that money is quickly paid into the church account, he customarily requests the credit card pin of the church-goers. His church was the first in Brazil to collect 10% tithing through credit card payment. Feliciano lives in an ostentatious house and has six imported cars. Since his election, endless demonstrations have prevented the Committee from doing any work. Following the public outcry, the House’s fellow members are trying to figure out how to remove Feliciano without losing face. On the other hand, Pope Francis has gained “pope star’ status in Brazil. He is expected to come to Rio in July 2013 to attend World Youth Day. This Catholic youth festival may attract as many as 2.5 million visitors and out stages both the Word Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016). Thanks to these two events, Rio is enjoying an overdue urban renewal. The city is relishing its new status as the “place to be”. The downtown harbor area is being totally spruced up. Donald Trump is projecting a couple of showy corporate towers. The subway is being extended so commuters can zip from their homes in the expanding western suburbs of Barra to the downtown business centers. In the meantime, all these construction sites make the life of Cariocas painful. On the bright side, the city is bubbling with events and projects. Notably, two outstanding museums have opened. One is dedicated to Latin American art (Casa Daros) and the other to Rio’s culture (Museo de Arte do Rio, MAR). When both Sugar Loaf and Corcovado hide in the clouds, the frustrated tourists will have worthwhile alternatives. Rio is no longer only relying on its natural beauty; it is becoming a city of culture to emulate Paris or New York City.


To host the soccer World Cup, Brazil agreed to upgrade and even rebuild several stadiums before a June 2013 deadline. So far, only one, the Minerão of Belo Horizonte is fully completed; the others are unacceptably behind schedule. Red tape, corruption, over optimistic planning and plain incompetence are the main causes for the delay. Shockingly, the laggards are the principal venues: São Paulo Itaquerão and Rio Maracana stadiums. To add insult to injury, the Brazilian soccer team is far from being in top form; so far, it has only managed draws against less prestigious teams. It is very vexing for the host country. The structure of the legendary Maracana stadium is old-fashion. It had to be partially rebuilt to offer the level of comfort international fans deserve. Infrastructure around the stadium has still to be built. Everything was more or less going according to plan until an embarrassing glitch popped up.


Not everyone in Rio is pleased with this frenzy of urban renewal. For decades, without hindrance, a native Indian community from the Amazon had been squatting in a 19th century derelict building, the former Indian Museum. To enhance its legitimacy, the community renamed itself the Maracana tribe. This rebranding was not sufficient to avoid eviction from the site. The Rio municipality wanted to raze the building to make way for a parking for the stadium. The Indians refused to leave willingly. The tug of war lasted for weeks and attracted media attention to both Indians and building. During the final scuffle, the police used tear gas and the Indians bows and arrows. It was an unbalanced fight and the urban Indians were forcibly removed from their home. The Indians lost the battle, but the historic building won a new breath of life. It will be refurbished to become another museum, that of the Olympic Games.


The Maracana tribe has been provided with temporary accommodations in a less urban part of Rio. In Brazil, museums have more support than Indians; a local politician even stated that the Indians’ place was in the forest!

PS. Pictures freely downloaded from the Internet O Globo).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

There is no free lunch in Jackson, Wyoming.


Jackson Hole is a mountain ski resort located at the southern tip of Grand Teton National Park in the state of Wyoming. If the top one percent of Americans in terms of wealth ski in Aspen Colorado, the 1% of the 1% head to Jackson Hole. At the end of my winter tour of Yellowstone National Park, I visited the town of Jackson which lies below in the valley; it qualifies as “posh rustic”.


                                 Grand Teton Mountain Range.

After indulging on wildlife and raw nature in Yellowstone National Park, I was ready for culture and history in Jackson. I paid a visit to the small museum of the Historical Society. Although native hunter-gatherers and French Canadian fur trappers occasionally set up camps in the inhospitable valley, Jackson was only settled for good in the 1870s. In addition to the expected paraphernalia used by the early settlers, the walls of the museum displayed pictures from the many films which were shot around the city. I was particularly interested in the pictures from the classic Western movie Shane shot in 1953, with George Stevens the director and Alan Ladd the lead actor.

I had seen Shane in the 1960s but barely recalled the plot except for a bloody saloon scene, a staple of Western films. The pictures and their captions brought back memories and interesting tid-bits. One of the settlers’ log cabins still stands in the Gros Ventre Wilderness of the Grand Teton National Park. Although Ladd played a gunslinger, he couldn’t shoot straight, and the actor Jack Palance could not ride a horse. In spite of these shortcomings, the film was a great box office success.


The friendly on-duty guide stated that the museum needed more display space. She proudly informed me that in February 2012, Quentin Tarantino brought his film crew to Jackson to shoot footage for his latest film Django Unchained. The filmmaker uses the snow-capped Grand Teton mountain range as a backdrop for the action. I had not yet seen the film and became very curious. Subsequently, I asked my wildlife tour guide to show me some of the locations as well as the Shane legendary log cabin.

Jackson is a fitting environment for Django, the promising bounty hunter. He had recently been freed from shackles by Dr. King Schultz, a German itinerant dentist cum bounty hunter with an aversion for slavery. It is in this snowy valley that Django, the former slave gets his first on-the-job training by his smooth-operator mentor.


Django, Dr. Schultz, & human booty. Courtesy of Q. Tarantino. Grand Teton Mountain Range in the background.

On our way to check a fox den in the Gros Ventre hills, we stopped by Kelly Warm Spring where Django takes an invigorating bath. The den was empty, so we returned to the plain where a couple of lazy moose where lounging half hidden in the thick snow. We drove past the National Elk Refuge and headed back to town.

With their dead human booty, Dr. Schultz and Django are also seen riding by herds of elk and bison on their way to cash their rewards. When I finally saw the film this particular footage brought back memories of my sleigh ride in the Elk Refuge. The day was polar cold and the thick blankets thrown on our knees didn’t do much to warm fingers and feet. In winter some 7000 Rocky Mountain elk take refuge north of Jackson. It is a migration dead end as the city was built on the elk migration route towards the south. The refuge was established 101 years ago to prevent the elk from starving to death during the harsh winter months. When the native grass is gone, alfalfa pellets are distributed to supplement the elk feeding.


Such a large concentration of elk, big horn sheep, mule deer and bison attracts other opportunistic animals mainly bald eagle, coyotes and even wolves. “Welfare” is a word excluded from the American lexicon and the elk are not enjoying a free lunch. They actually contribute to their upkeep. Mid-March the elk start dropping their antlers; Refuge staff, helped by the Jackson District Boy Scouts, collect the antlers and organize the once a year May auction. In average, US$ 77,000 is collected. Eighty percent of the proceeds are donated to the US Fish and Wildlife Service towards the feeding program and the Refuge management.


Apparently, Tarantino was so taken by the magnificent herd of elk and bison that he decided to add an additional scene to his film. Django Unchained brings the elks a bonus in food and publicity. Their fees were not disclosed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fire and Ice: Yellowstone National Park in Winter


Yellowstone is one of the coldest spots in the United State of America. In winter it is appropriately referred to as the deep freeze with temperatures frequently falling to minus 66 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 54 Centigrade). Yellowstone is both frigid and white, as snow abundantly falls, even sometimes during the summer months. Some three million tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park during the April-October season. Since winter access is very restricted and the visit is not cheap, only 100,000 tourists visit between December and March. I was one of these happy few. As expected, it was polar cold and white.

But there are splendid rewards for hardy visitors. They are welcomed by spectacular crowd-free scenery, unflappable wildlife and an awe-inspiring thermal system.Yellowstone is the oldest nationally protected area in the world.


The park was founded in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act. At the time, ecosystem protection was both an untested and forward-thinking idea. Subsequently, the creation of the park generated a multitude of controversies, arguments and quarrels which still enliven the visits of today’s inquisitive tourists. The national park idea encapsulates the concept of sustainable development-which was coined more than a century later-namely to protect nature for today’s enjoyment without compromising the enjoyment for future generations. This concept is still polemic in the 21st century, imagine then! Yellowstone National Park is an American icon to visitors and an abhorrence to many citizens of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the three states that it straddles.

Yellowstone is literally loved to death, in the grip of mass tourism in the summer months. Democratic access to the park conflicts with conservation goals and sustainability objectives. A winter visit offers a very undemocratic way of escaping this dilemma. The thick snow fittingly blankets the footsteps of mass tourism.

Yellowstone is an extinct super volcano produced by a 16.5 million years old hot spot inferno. The last eruption took place 600,000 years ago. Fire (molten rocks) rages at only 3 to 5 miles below the surface. The park is a steaming and bubbling cauldron of hot springs, fumaroles, geysers and mud pools. This cauldron is actually a restless sunk volcano, a caldera which shakes, rises and sinks as per the mood of the hot spot underneath the earth crust. Up to 5000 mild earthquakes are annually recorded.

If winter gives Yellowstone a break from human assault, the season is not free of controversies. Winter is the playground for the park’s predators, the wolves and the snowmobiles! Their respective fans are on opposite sides of the fence. The former wants more wolves and no snowmobiles. The later want unobstructed access to the park and believe that a good wolf is a dead one. My goal was to sight the wolves (reportedly a US$ 35 million a year business) in the Lamar Valley in Eastern Yellowstone and get close to the bison (another much maligned species) without being pestered by noisy and polluting snowmobiles.



Life is tough in the snow covered cauldron. If the wolves make the best of the season, their prey and the other species are struggling to stay alive. To keep warm, bison, coyote, and elk mill around geysers and hot springs, and tourists flock to the rustic warming huts. Although few, they are strategically located within the park. Their on-duty ranger is a welcome presence. Even lowly places such as the heated lavatories, become much sought after places. Yellowstone rangers are the park’s guardian angels, even more so in winter when their skills and park knowledge contribute to keeping casualties low.

Snow coach transportation is an experience not to be missed. The Bombardier snow coach, a model which has not evolved much since the 1930s, is the most fun to ride. Equipped with front skies and rear tracks, this retro snow coach can speed at 40 km per hour. During our week in Wonderland we had plenty of traffic excitement. One of our four Bombardier snow coaches drove into a ditch and had to be abandoned. Fortunately, no one was injured in this freak accident. The same day, the rear of the snow coach I was riding was hit and damaged by a speeding snowmobile. The snowmobile driver crashed on the road. Medic and doctors, all of them rangers were quick to come to the scene and the injured fellow was taken to the hospital. Reckless driving, accidents, noise and smoke pollution have compelled the park management to drastically reduce the number of snow mobiles. Mother Nature is certainly thankful.



Winter in Yellowstone is a world of superlatives. The pristine snow covered wilderness is overwhelming, intimidating and even awe inspiring. Stillness is only broken by the rumbling of the geysers, the bubbling of the mud pods, the roaring of the waterfalls and the howling of the wolves.

Winter is the best season to spot wildlife, except bears which hibernate. We spotted six healthy wolves at a distance, small brown and grey dots on the snow. With powerful spotting scopes we were able to observe the pack frolicking for half hour, until we got too cold and stiff. In January 2013, eighty one adult wolves and eight pups were recorded, down from over 120 in previous years. Disease, fight and shooting have taken their toll. A wolf venturing outside the park is a dead wolf as both the states of Montana and Wyoming authorize killing. Last year, several collared wolves were shot.



No need for spotting scopes to watch the bison; they roam everywhere. Their population is estimated at around 4000. Winter is tough on the herd. Foraging for grass under the deep snow is an exhausting activity. Bison look easygoing enough but they have a short fuse, and are fast and agile. They can charge without warning. I took a solitary morning stroll around the famed Old Faithful geyser to enjoy the geothermal activity. The ranger had warned me that there was some bison activity in the vicinity. Right he was. Suddenly, I faced a herd of females with their calves standing on my track. They were taking advantage of the warmth provided by the hot springs. It was far too cold to wait for them to move off and it was too long to go back on my track. I made my escape in a foot-deep fresh snow.


             west thumb

During this detour I met another local denizen. At first, I was apprehensive, a wolf or a coyote? To strengthen my resolve, I decided that it had to be an inquisitive coyote. By the time my cold-stiff fingers reached for my camera in my warm pocket (batteries lose their energy in subfreezing temperatures) the beast had disappeared into the bushes. I walked fast towards Old Faithful looking over my shoulder. Later, I was told that coyotes customarily lurk in this area.



The winter wilderness of Yellowstone is a world of contrasts, serene and eerie, gentle and wild, still and thundering, ethereal and earthy. I found the mist-shrouded West Thumb Geyser Basin particularly intriguing and inspiring. Words cannot describe the beauty of this surreal landscape. The color, light and thermal activity keep changing during the day. It is a magical show of ice, snow, colorful fumarole and haze.


                    Old faithful

In winter, days are short and temperature is extremely cold. Many landmarks are off limit, as only bits of the park are accessible by snow coach. Walking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are challenging in deep snow, and do not get you very far. The bitter cold forced me to restrict my exploration. Between my hourly visits to the dependable Old Faithful Geyser, I reluctantly stayed indoors and warmed up by the fire place of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Because so few people are fortunate enough to visit the park in winter you feel privileged to be part of an unspoiled but glacial Wonderland.