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Educate me, please! Why I don’t like Gustu, Klaus Meyer’s Bolivian restaurant

16 Dec

A piece of rather long-form journalism coming up below. This is not so much a restaurant review as a review of a restaurant concept.

Have a read.

Bolivia doesn’t disappoint Western eyes set upon it for the first time. On my first visit in 2007, walking across the border with Argentina at dusty La Quiaca onto dustier Villazon on the Bolivian side, I was agog as four-foot tall octogenarian women, teal-stained and creased of face and bent almost 90 degree over, race-walked past me with several bags of cement slung over their backs. In my brain, two synapses met and made love: one, all the clichés I’d boiled up about what I expected Latin Americans (never mind Andeans, never mind Bolivians) to look like, gathered from travel guide books and Flickr photo galleries, and two, the bit where you learn something brand new that only The Road can teach you. That mixture of the expected with the unexpected is what well-heeled gap year students come to find in a place like Bolivia – that, and the cocaine.

But what do well-heeled visitors, expats and gringo inhabitants of the country want of the place? In my opinion, not what Gustu has to offer – well, not yet, anyway.

Gustu is one of several high-end restaurants across the Andean countries that has opened to cater to the region’s emergent middle classes, who mingle with said expats and gringos. They all have the means to enjoy the extraordinary ‘authentic’ culinary riches of the region, but packaged up in a thoroughly chic, modern and sanitary (read, ‘safe’) environment. Un poquito de Londres en los Andes, or un peu de Paris perhaps, or Copenhagen, where founder Klaus Meyer is from.

Gustu is all about gastronomy; not just food, but the experience around it, is the vision. And as the founder of Noma, voted best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011, Meyer knows how to give monied punters what they want. Noma’s thing is the wrapping up of Nordic cuisine, produce and culture in a world-class, two Michelin star environment. Forbes magazine describes it as a place where at least one dish in every meal “makes you glad to be alive”, which helps when you leave a couple hundred quid poorer.

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu is a repeat of this idea, but in very different cultural circumstances. It’s somewhat the grown-up version of the Andes’ hostel trail, where foreign gap year kids congregate with their equal numbers from other rich nations, llama jumper-breasted, to enjoy the infamous marching powder among the reassuring safety of their peers. I take no issue with those scenesters: they’ll be stacking shelves and selling hedge funds soon enough, so let them blow off steam and try old wine in new bottles.

But Gustu is a jarring upgrade on the concept of something new in familiar surroundings, with its waitresses in thigh-grazing, black corduroy pollera and matching black shirts. It is too little of Bolivia inside an Ikea pastiche of a European dining experience. It neither satisfies the genuinely curious visitor with sufficient local ‘authenticity’ nor delivers enough first-worldliness to draw La Paz’ nouveau riche week after week. It just isn’t much fun to be with, or to look at – and I visited twice, just to be sure.

It’s unusual for a restaurant reviewer to tackle décor before food, which will be mentioned last here, but that’s what you consume first in any restaurant, and the first cut is the deepest. To return to my maiden voyage over the border, I had my mind (enjoyably) bent by the sight of all Bolivia’s authentic madness, the elderly women, their bright pollera with their bowler hats, the frontier wilderness mixed in with breathless mercantilism.

You’re a long way from it here. For a start, Gustu is a million miles (and two hours of tailbacked traffic) across town and away from the bulk of La Paz civilisation, in the white, wealthy quarter of Calacoto. Here, men in army fatigues guard romantically-lit private streets from sentry boxes. Once arrived, yes, Gustu beckons you into Copenhagen with its understated entrance. But on stepping in, it’s dead quiet. No music plays. It’s a bit cold, and the aircraft-hanger like walls are painted a flat clay grey. There are no photos, paintings, sculptures, no pieces of Andean art, nothing to get your mind into gear for a new and exciting experience costing more than most natives’ monthly wage. Compare that with Noma’s interiors – yes, grey, but a lighter, warmer, tonal grey – with furs draped over easy chairs, rustic brick walls and aged wooden beams. Something to feel, to look at, to be inside of.

Not so much at Gustu. A couple of small couches at the entrance next to the bar are made up in what is presumably Gustu’s take on ‘Andean’ fabrics: stripey, colourful and rough. The same fabric hangs down from the high ceiling in the form of long lampshades. Colour, yes, but not Andean or Bolivian colour. I’ve come for dinner in some sort of clown prison. Take a trip to the ethnographic museum in the centre of the city to discover the breadth, intricate beauty and meanings of regional textiles. They aren’t just there to be pretty for us foreigners. Patterns vary by region, tribe, age, family, ayllu, trade, ritual, time of year – but they all say something, flora, fauna and human life in the Andean cosmovision, in ambers, maroons, shocking pink, neon green, and earthy brown. Stripey yellow and red is no kind of Bolivia I’ve known, and sits badly with the deadening attempt to Europify with empty grey walls. What is perplexing about this is that Gustu’s interiors were overseen by a Pacena fashion and homewares designer, Joyce Martin. I wonder what the brief was.

I search the faces of other diners to check the clientele: of maybe 15 tables, only about four are taken, on both visits. The one within earshot is a trio of American journalists having the food explained to them by Jonas, the blonde, Danish restaurant manager and sommelier. Behind me stuck in a corner is a young, monied-looking couple with a small baby, looking rather miserable. A couple of yanqui tourists sit way over the other end of the place, and then there’s myself and my two friends, a photographer and a music teacher, both from La Paz.

Wheat..and chaff

Before our starters come the bread rolls. Part of Gustu’s business plan, Jonas tells me, is to open a bakery in the city; he tells me that Bolivian bread is awful. The rolls are fine, nothing like the ones I’d been eating for breakfast at my friend’s house near El Alto – but no better. The butter was served on a little slate with a silver butter knife: Paris was interrupting rudely, as Parisians do, and I felt positively dainty manhandling it onto my roll. Is this the cosmopolitanism that local visitors want of this place, I asked myself, and if so, do they know if this is what Europe feels like? I found myself bristling again looking at the small grey knotted serviette in which the bread arrived, undone by the waitress on the table as if setting down Huckleberry Finn’s worldly belongings. I looked through the printed menu for the explanation of this ritual, and glanced at the walls for gringo helping signs, but the waitress made no attempt to translate. I didn’t understand.

The aguayo in action. You'll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo:

The aguayo in action. You’ll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo: Jaime Ravallo Camacho, Flickr

I asked my friends what this was all about. They suggested that it was supposed to emulate the aguayo, the large square of hand-woven fabric used by Andean peoples to carry foodstuffs to and from the market – these are trading and agricultural peoples – to carry wawas (babies) on backs up and down mountain passes or on city buses, and to serve food or coca leaf in a traditional apthapi ritual, something I was lucky enough to attend myself on my trip this year. I could see this was an attempt to incorporate something very Bolivian into the Gustu experience, but why not use the Andean textiles aguayos are made with, instead of a boring grey cotton napkin? Make the breaking of bread a Bolivian statement in the colours that travellers will see on the streets.  Wawas continue to be carried in aguayos, and stallholders continue to trade their wares on them. Why hasn’t Meyer brought his clueless foreign diners into his vision with a simple explanation of that history and meaning, without so much as a paragraph on the menu?

I mentioned that I visited Gustu twice. My first visit was aborted after my two-hour trip there because my friend, a Bolivian who lives in Germany, didn’t turn up. But Jonas calmed me down with a cocktail of Singani, orange and thyme. Singani is the national eau-de-vie, a brandy-like spirit distilled from Muscatel grapes, served warm up in the colder reaches. It’s not a drink I like, but clothed in citrus and finished with a sharp little Sunday roast herb edge, it was a pleasingly innovative turn on a Bolivian tradition.

Other visitors might not know what Singani is; and perhaps they’d enjoy their visit more if they were told. Jonas has written about his plans to get big wine producers to mentor Bolivia’s winery minnows and capture this new world. I think he could really make it happen for Bolivian wine. I can only hope that with this, he tells the story he finds to Gustu’s guests.

Onto the food. My costillar de lechon, pork cooked gently in milk and butter served with onions and pears, was good. There wasn’t much of it for 115 Bolivianos, but that’s haute cuisine for you. My friends had the llama with chuno, the former of which is out of many locals’ price range these days, but the latter – a grey, freeze-dried potato – a dietary staple for the masses. I liked Jane Black’s review of Gustu in Food & Wine that reveals Meyer’s first llama meat delivery showed up wrapped in a blanket (possibly an aguayo?) in the back of a taxi. Now that is authentic! It brings back memories of taking lanches (a bastardised version of the word ‘lunch’ I have seen in Bolivia and Brazil) in the central market of Potosi, the historic silver mining city where for the first time, I clapped eyes on meat butchery Bolivian style. A very portly lady presided over an ancient, flaky wooden beam, over which huge sides of cow flapped in the breeze just a few steps from where myself and two travelling friends were wolfing down bowls of steaming sopita.

It wouldn’t pass an official inspection back home. But it’s how many Bolivians really live.

Absent Andes

Not much of human life is here at Gustu yet. The lack of ambience and community in Gustu jabbed me in the back throughout dinner and left the biggest impression. Jonas explained that he just didn’t know why it was so quiet, that this was really unusual. I went on a Wednesday and a Friday night, and both were the same. Fair enough, restaurants need some time to get the word out and punters in. But I think Gustu will continue to struggle attracting first and repeat customers beyond the first flush of glowing publicity it has enjoyed. Meyer has himself spoken about the difficulty Gustu has persuading Bolivians to visit, indicating a fundamental problem with his vision here.

For what it’s worth, my dining partners said they would come again, but maybe for a special occasion – though our bill came to 750 Bolivianos, a little more than the average monthly household income (in a country where not too many people are in regular salaried employment). And other local friends were not keen on trying it at all.

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo:

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo:

Sure, maybe some wealthy locals will enjoy the prisonesque walls if they think that’s the height of Western opulence. There is strong demand in Bolivia for foreign things. The same food presented in a regular food stand or cafe would cost around 20-30 Bolivianos, and many people’s mum’s make delicious, fresh specialties for the daily family meal that rival Gustu’s. So there is a gap for Meyer to bridge with the locals. Bolivians know their food is good; they love to eat. A first-time gringo diner may be unaware of the sheer variety of foods that are unique to the Bolivian topography and climate systems: jumbo pods that contain not peas but something akin to candyfloss, potatoes that are brown on the outside but shocking pink on the inside.

Apparently, Gustu is compiling a registration of all the weird and wonderful foodstuffs his team come across. Its team is gathering a lot of information about the biodiversity, cultures, histories, cultivation and uses of Bolivian produce. But none of that is made available to diners, despite the time and money the Melting Pot foundation puts into training its young charges on all of this. Before one tastes the ceibo flower, one sees it on the plate, and has the chance to marvel at just how far from home they are. So why not provide some details, some photographs for the punters – in the menu, on the walls, through the waiters’ descriptions?

There’s no excuse for the lack of atmosphere. La Paz is a city of intellectuals, of artists, of dreamers, and Bolivia’s population is young. They stand at a unique crossroads in Bolivian history, inculcated with all the regional stories, cultures, beliefs, traditions and habits of this complex country, but with both feet firmly in the 21st century, with its J-Pop, network games, smartphones, women engineers and worldly ambitions. Its many creatives strive against a lack of funds and materials to produce work in all media rivalling the quality anywhere, and reflecting their own take on what it means to be Bolivian. Any number of those creatives would surely throttle a chance to hang their work on these very large walls, to be seen, to be heard. But they are shut out here. My dining partners both play cello in the city’s youth orchestra. One of them is also a member of the iconic Wara rock-classical orchestra, pride of the city. But they play for free, smuggle knock-off Chinese-made cellos in on overnight buses, study from books of photocopied text, and they’ve never had access to string wax nor horsehair to replace their bows. Still, they sound incredible and they would not be out of place at the Royal Festival Hall.

Why can’t some of their players be drafted in to play intimate, low-key sets in one of the very draughty corners of Gustu, to welcome in diners with the sound of cosmopolitan Bolivia set against the most earthy of Bolivia’s riches – its food? Why is Gustu’s take on Western chic so deadening to the senses when an intensity of home-grown expression sits on its doorstep? Much has been made of the Melting Pot foundation bringing in disadvantaged young Bolivians to train up in the gastronomy business. Why, then, do I only see white faces cooking up my food through the plate glass window to the stainless steel kitchen – but distinctly local youngsters in all-black outfits doing the serving and saying very little?

Questions abound from the strangeness of the Gustu experience. Surely Meyer is aware that Bolivian wine, while unknown in Europe and Northern America, is very gluggable? On a boozy night out to some very tacky nightclubs in Cochabamba, a city one day’s bus ride from La Paz, I bought too many bottles of Tarija Aranjuez red from the local cornershop at 25 Bolivianos each (£2.20) and enjoyed every slurp of what tasted like a leather-and-tobacco Bordeaux. (I almost bled through the eyes when three bottles of it, bought in duty-free at La Paz airport, were taken off me at Madrid airport.) Tourists with money will be making a pilgrimage south to the Tarija wine region and the vineywards on their organised tours, only just now opening up. Why is Gustu sneaking these wines out without making something of it for pig ignorant gringo punters like me? My dining partners seemed to be having out of body experiences sipping the rose we ordered, but the waiting staff didn’t attempt to explain to me the story or location of these wines. Yes, I need an English translation, as most of Gustu’s visitors will. If you’re asking people to pay for the Europe-in-Bolivia experience, and you want to educate and delight them, then help them out with staff who can answer questions in the international language of business about the produce on offer. It may sound pretentious, but that’s the reality of seeking out gastro-tourist dollars. Meyer isn’t maximising his golden opportunity to showcase Bolivia.

Most of the reviews Gustu has had are glowing; the next big thing in gastronomy, another triumph for Noma’s founder, yadda yadda. These reviews are written by people who are not usually familiar with Bolivia, are sent on paid-for press trips with the quid pro quo of a positive review, and always appear to contain surprise that Bolivian food isn’t slop gathered by the hands of homeless children from open sewers. I think it’s clear that these reviewers go to Bolivia expecting bad food in a poor country, and come away relieved to find something that speaks to their Western sensibilities about experimentation and first-class surroundings, not to mention hygiene. It’s that safety factor again.

Fair enough. But is that all there is? The offering is, to me, not enough – not exciting, adventurous, Bolivian enough, while the Eurocentric touches come across as bland. A couple of purple potatoes and some llama steak washed down with a Singani cocktail is not worth the air fare, nor the long taxi ride to the splendid isolation of Calacoto in an empty clown prison. Meyer has a large space into which he could easily invite Bolivia and become a Hadron Collider of local and global cultures. The vision needs a lot of engineering.


Essay: “A problematisation of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy in Chile and Colombia to propose ‘contentious coextistence’ as a form of national reconciliation”

11 Sep

Today is the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, leading to the reign of terror whose legacy still plagues Chilean society today. I’m off to see two films marking the event, ‘Death and the Maiden” and “Nostalgia for The Light” tonight at Bolivar Hall, both recommended by my human rights tutor Par Engstrom at UCL’s Institute of the Americas where I’ve just completed my MA in Latin American Studies.

Thinking back to what I learned about Chile and the Pinochet era in that class, this week I dug out three of the sources I found more useful in learning about that time and about its legacy: Patricia Verdugo’s “Chile, Pinochet and the Caravan of Death“, Leigh Payne’s “Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence (The Cultures and Practice of Violence), and the essay “Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy” by Alexander Wilde. I used all of these in my examined essay for the human rights class. which I present below. This was my first ever academic essay writing exercise (I don’t think you can count GCSE level!) and I picked a horribly complex, un-black and white issue, arguing that reconciliation after such atrocities as committed by the Pinochet regime can never be settled of wiped off the national psychological accounts, so rather, society must seek to bring ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ together with equal value, to find common ground.

Margaret Thatcher and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, March 1994, Santiago de Chile. Photo:

Of course, this is a hugely challenging and controversial viewpoint, and my essay can probably be accused of being naive, idealistic, unrealistic, ignorant, and coming from the easy standpoint of someone who has only ever read about such atrocities, never experienced them. I would not argue forcefully against those accusations, but I found the experience of reading widely about truth and reconciliation efforts, ‘contentious coexistence’, and cases where this process had taken place seemed to point to a truth: that after so much pain, hate, fear, and generations deep, no amount of retribution or ‘reconciliation’ can change memory. Chile’s own truth and reconciliation efforts are regarded at the success benchmark for other countries that have tried to deal with such atrocities in this way, but Wilde’s essay makes plain shortcomings and failures in that approach, though it is regarded as the best one on offer. But people have to live, and find a way to go on, so I examined cases where, beyond simple ‘truth telling’ followed by simple ‘reconciliation’, forms of contentious coexistence between ‘victoms’ and ‘perpetrators’ of violence had been tried in Chile and Colombia, arguing for this model. I imagine that there would be a range of views on this essay, but in memory of the events in Chile, and to show how ‘live’ and complex those legacies are today – for those affected and students of the time – I’m posting it here.

I highly recommend reading the three sources above: only Wilde’s paper reads in the ‘scholarly’ style that some find hard to process, but is still compelling enough to be worth the effort, while the two books are ‘plain English’ in their style and are very accessible, if grim.

“A problematisation of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy in Chile and Colombia to propose ‘contentious coextistence’ as a form of national reconciliation”


Much of the scholarly debate around reconciliation within the transitional justice context is heavily biased towards the perspective of victimhood of an authoritarian regime – the tortured, the disappeared, the murdered. Human rights law applied through truth and reconciliation commissions seek reparations for victimhood, through which post-authoritarian democracies offer their societies national reconciliation. This essay asserts that this bias towards victimhood comes at the expense of the role to be played by perpetrators in understanding the violence, context and history that led to terror regimes and their perpetration within them, and the thorny reality that there is often more crossover between victim and perpetrator than truth commissions can reveal. The bias in reconciliation discourse encourages a common victim-perpetrator dichotomy unhelpful to the project.

I problematise the dichotomy and argue that transitional justice must valorise perpetrators in reconciliation discourse by looking at examples where perpetrators are also, or have been victims, recognising that perpetrators and victims of such violence have different, but equally weighted perspectives, with a view to constructing national reconciliation. I propose that equalising these actors leads us to a form of ‘contentious coexistence’ (Payne 2007: 279). In this case, rather than two opposing groups (victim and perpetrators here) competing for sovereignty, a range of groups, identities and realities co-exist. I compare the cases of Chile and Colombia, specifically Chile’s Caravan of Death and Colombia’s programme of demobilising and reintegrating former illegal combatants into civil life, as two examples where clear victim-perpetrators exist, explaining how they break the dichotomy. I sketch the implications this has for reconciliation discourse and summarise that through this process, we can re-evaluate what we mean by national reconciliation when victims can be perpetrators, and perpetrators victims.


As democracy scholars contend for a definition of the word, scholars of human rights and transitional justice debate definitions of ‘reconciliation’. Post-authoritarian democratising societies seeking reconciliation likewise contend for clarity; who are ‘we’, and who gets to be part of ‘we’? Society is thus split into distinct groups of victims and perpetrators. This creates a victim-perpetrator dichotomy, with clear sovereignty awarded to victimhood. Perpetrators feature only minimally, as a force to be extinguished, neutralised in the clamour for justice after brutality.

In part one, I set out some of the discourse on defining ‘reconciliation’ in transitional justice literature, and its bias towards what it identifies as ‘victim’. Part two presents my theoretical base and assertions for breaking the victim-perpetrator dichotomy as a route to reconciliation, viewed as contentious coexistence. Part three demonstrates in practice where perpetrators are also victims, in Chile and Colombia. Part four is a conclusion of my thesis.

Part One: Defining reconciliation and the victim bias

There is no definition of reconciliation; trying to pin down this “will-o-the-wisp” (Weinstein 2011: 7) may be futile. But it has common characteristics in the transitional justice literature. As Latin American post-authoritarian societies seek to use international law governing human rights, guaranteeing the rights of victims to truth and justice – and expressed in the form of truth commissions – much of the literature is dominated by that perspective. The ‘duty to prosecute’ (Orentlicher 1998:2551; Mendez 1997:261) is one important expression of transitional justice ideals, but reinforces the victimhood bias. Reconciliation has been viewed as a vision of “reconstituted society” formed upon “democratic principles, rule of law and observance of human rights norms”, as an evolution from simply punishing “evildoers” (Weinstein 2011:2). But without defining democracy and with wildly varying comprehensions of human rights norms, it is hard to establish.

Huyse (2003:19) captures the essentially contested nature of reconciliation. By his estimation, “backward-looking” reconciliation focuses on healing, reparations for survivors, constructing “a common vision and understanding of the past”. A “forward-looking” interpretation focuses on getting victims and perpetrators to “get on with life, and at the level of society” establishing a “civilised political dialogue and an adequate sharing of power”. The former definition characterises the bulk of scholarly debate on reconciliation. Most Latin American countries that have been through the truth commission process focused on forming one official version of the truth from which reparations can flow to victims. Renner (2012:51) finds academic discourse predominantly framing reconciliation in relation to truth commissions. She sees reconciliation as an ’empty universal’ (2012:52) – an ideological goal delivered discursively, which assumes that truth-telling itself will deliver national reconciliation. The vagueness around the term has, Renner (2012:56) says, encouraged an accepted a ‘reconciliation paradigm’ based in three assumptions: that reconciliation is opposed to retribution, that it requires truth-telling, and that truth-telling and healing are best achieved through truth commissions (2012:56).

There is, however, a corridor of literature pressing for the valorisation of the perpetrator in reconciliation discourse, with the broader focus of coexistence for all of society and recognition of difference.

Govier and Verwoerd (2004) criticise the way victims and perpetrators are created in opposition in the literature on peace studies as an oversimplification (2004:371). Having worked on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004:377) Verwoerd’s views reflect the weight of real experience among practitioners of reconciliation in complex, post-violence societies.

Echoing Huyse’s (2003:19) forward-looking model, Bankowski (c2007:49) sees reconciliation as a process of asking ourselves how we can take responsibility for wrongs “that we or our society has committed”, but argues that reconciliation framed in terms of “the sacred victim” (c2007:51) produces a concentration on rights and reparations that stands in the way of putting the self and community in question. He says: “Reconciliation has to start from the recognition of our common humanity and equality in pain and affliction” (c2007: 55) – “we cannot, oppressor or victim, escape….by constructing purified selves” (c2007:55).

Shifter and Jawahar (2004:127) see the trend in Latin America towards establishing one version of the truth as leading to reconciliation defined as “peaceful coexistence and respect for difference”, finding that justice for perpetrators “is only one of many tasks that must be undertaken” (2004: 127). They believe, though, that amnesties “are not incompatible with reconciliation, provided they are a product of genuine negotiation and are not imposed or forced, as Chile’s was” (2004:127). But amnesties by their nature are always imposed or forced; they do not simply materialise out of thin air.

Humphrey (2002:105) argues that states seeking to establish truth through remembering dichotomise reconciliation and justice. He argues that reconciliation through trials is a function of a new government seeking to found democratic legitimacy by stigmatising the “predecessor’s programme and not just individual accountability for ‘crimes against humanity’” (2002:132) and that this means reconciliation “reconstitutes everyone as members of the same political community”.

Humphrey picks two quotes from Taylor (1994:200 in Humphrey 2002:123) to end his assessment of reconciliation: one, that the Latin American ‘Nunca Mas’ truth commissions failed because truth “constructs, invents and is exclusionary”, and two, that remembering is also, therefore, a process of forgetting (Taylor 1994:200 in Humphrey 2002:123). In all of Latin America’s ‘Nunca Mas’ truth commissions amnesties were imposed, subjugating and omitting perpetrators from the process in favour of Bankowski’s “sacred victim” (c2007:51).

Part Two: The victim-perpetrator dichotomy, and the more complex truth

Tristan Anne Borer (2003:1090) offers three Venn diagrams of two sets apiece, victim and perpetrator, which I use here as the theoretical model from which my assertions arise. The first is two co-centric circles side by side; the second sees the circles start to overlap, and the third set – representing her thesis that there is much crossover between victims and perpetrators – not only overlap, but have serrated edges, driving home the point that binary opposition does not tell the truth about pre- or post-conflict relationships. From here, I assert that deconstruction of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy into a more nuanced picture, where we discover the victim-perpetrator, makes the dichotomy hard to sustain. We no longer have two opposing sides to reconcile, nor one side to which all reparations are directed, but rather a set of people with complex relationships and their own interpretations of society. The implications for transitional justice are that perpetrators are valorised in the reconciliation discourse, seen here as a form of contentious coexistence (Payne 2007:279).

Evidently, the concept that perpetration is more diffuse among society is an uneasy one. The focus on legal structures to deliver truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation in the transitional justice literature might be a response to this unease, isolating victim and perpetrator into separate groups and within those, defining types of victim and types of perpetrator or crime that make life simpler. Latin American truth commissions set their definitions narrowly, within specific kinds of crime, or a specific set of dates. Borer’s model shows that some of those individuals may be ‘the enemy’ too. Politically, for a new government at pains to demonstrate adherence to democratic ideals and to be seen to deliver justice, to recognise this could be destabilising – one outlook on the fervour for amnesties founded by post-authoritarian governments, as supported by Humphrey’s thesis (2008:132).

Halperin and Weinstein (2004:562) recognise the value perpetrators must have in reconciliation. They suggest a process of rehumanising must occur, where participants in war and conflict must learn to live side by side to engineer the shared “social capital” (Putnam 1993:163 in Halperin and Weinstein 2004:562) needed for society to rebuild itself. They contend that social reconstruction in a transitional society depends on people acting in concert to rebuild societal structures, “requiring respect for and the synthesis of divergent views” (2004:575).

Huyse (2003:67) organises offenders in violent conflict into primary and indirect in a way that widens society’s perpetrator net. Primary offenders committed acts that can be brought before a criminal court based on international and national laws, the type of perpetrator that is simple to identify and receives most of the attention in the reconciliation process (Huyse 2003:67). Indirect offenders are “silent offenders” – they profited from the perpetrating regime, remained silent or inactive in witnessing human rights violations (Huyse 2003:67).

Payne (2008:138) believes victims of torture hold insight into perpetrators that outsiders do not share, know that perpetrators have no choice but to perpetrate in order to stay within the authoritarian security structure, and that they might have done the same in that situation. They sense how context and history bore down on perpetrators because they share some element of it. After speaking about what they did, Payne (2008:138) says, perpetrators are viewed as equals by victims, without having forgiven them. On that basis, we arrive at Payne’s contentious coexistence (2008:287), where instead of two contending perspectives, a fledgling or recovering democracy enjoys the contest of a range of views and alliances – a spectrum of victims and perpetrators, and victim-perpetrators – in recognition that one version of the truth is neither obtainable nor desirable. Society must play its part by acknowledging history and context that led up to the regime and to perpetration; acknowledging its part in contentious coexistence.

Part Three: When are victims perpetrators, and perpetrators victims in Chile and Colombia?

The Caravan of Death (the Caravan) was a death squad directed by General Augusto Pinochet three weeks after his September 11, 1973 takeover of the Chilean state, sending a military delegation by helicopter to five military garrisons across the country. Its aim was twofold: to round up civilians named on a list of supposed state enemies and murder them, and in so doing, to terrorise the military into compliance with a regime ousting elected government against a long democratic tradition. The Caravan delivered brutal torture and extra-judicial executions, directed by the General’s second-in-command but physically carried out by officers stationed at the garrisons with no prior notice of the Caravan’s arrival or goals. This diffused perpetrator status among often young, inexperienced officers at a time when Chilean society viewed the military as unobtrusive, professional and trustworthy – conferring an unquestioned confidence in the institution across generations prior.

In Colombia, generations of widespread poverty and a societal tradition of extreme political, factional violence, conflated with US intervention that led the Colombian government to resort to draft “indigenous irregulars” into perpetrating terror in state defence (Tate 2001:164 in Theidon 2007:69), brutalising everybody in the civil war characterising the country today. A National Committee of Reparation and Reconciliation is charged with compiling an official historical memory, with a view to democratic strengthening [United States Institute of Peace: 2012]. Colombia began a process of collective demobilisation of combatants in 2003, which since 2006 has been succeeded by a focus on individual disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants into civil life. There are some 43,000 ex-combatants involved in these processes throughout Colombia (Jaramillo, Giha and Torres’ 2009:4) in a country where over 70,000 people died in the conflict in the 20 years to 2008 [Amnesty International: 2008].

Both Chile (Hayner 1994:621) and Colombia have sought to establish a single version of the truth on their conflict experiences. Chile had two truth commissions, in 1990 and 2003 (Hayner 2002:xi). Both countries have used amnesty to extract truth from perpetrators, and draw up reparations for victims from testimony, establishing a firm victim-perpetrator dichotomy in a transitional period. In the DDR approach to perpetrators Colombia (perhaps accidentally) recognises perpetrators as victims in a nation long scandalised by violence. This could be evidence of a pre-postconflict environment akin to democratic transition.

First, to Colombia. Jaramillo, Giha and Torres (2009:37) contend that victims are today an integral part of the legal procedures to prosecute perpetrators. In assessing victims’ participation they refer first to Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace Law (JPL) and its three official classifications of ‘victim’ (2009:37):

  1. A person who has suffered direct harm to his or her personal and emotional integrity, or suffered financial losses, or whose fundamental rights were violated as a consequence of the criminal acts of organized illegal groups, is considered a victim

  1. It is presumed that the next of kin within the first degree of consanguinity or civil relation to the person assassinated or disappeared are victims, although following the decision of the Constitutional Court, other family members who prove that they suffered harm may also be considered victims3.The JPL considers as victims the members of the army and National Police who have suffered physical and psychological harm due to the actions of members of the illegal armed groups.

    Applying Theidon’s (2007) interviews with ex-combatants that have been ‘reintegrated’ into society in the DDR process places some of those in the first and second classification. One interviewee, 28-year old “J.M”, deserted the guerilla group National Liberation Army when some of its members assassinated his younger brother. He is a victim and a perpetrator.

    Govier and Verwoerd (2004:372) underscore this when they explain that a person who is perpetrating by supporting violence against “the other side” can concurrently be a victim if, for example, a relative of theirs has been killed in political violence.

The third classification of victim in the JPL includes the Army and National Police. This does not recognise that those groups initially joined forces with paramilitaries who, on the recommendation of US military advisors, enlisted “indigenous irregulars” in the Colombian government’s counterinsurgency plan, and created these groups by emergency decree in 1968 (Theidon 2007:69). A presidential decree in 1989 made them illegal (Theidon 2007:69). In this estimation, paramilitaries are victim to that switch in legal definition, becoming enemies of the state and terrorists – perpetrators – after 1989. Jaramillo, Giha and Torres point to controversy around classifying Army and Police personnel as victims (2009:37) and the exclusion of perpetrators of state crimes from the process [International Centre for Transitional Justice: 2012].

On the first classification, what Colombian can claim not to be a victim of one of the described forms of harm by one of the organised illegal groups who, prior to 1989, had legal status by presidential decree? Is, then, not all Colombian society a victim, necessitating the conclusion that many victims are also perpetrators?

Now to Chile. Theidon (2007:76) says her interviewed ex-combatants “blur the line between victim and perpetrator”. Most of her interviewees were foot soldiers – “cannon fodder that is woefully expendable” (Theidon 2007:76). This echoes in the case of those carrying out the directive behind Chile’s Caravan of Death. Oleguer Benaventes Bustos, second in command at the Talca regiment at that time, believes the Caravan’s goal was “[t]o instil fear and terror among the commanders. To prevent any military personnel, down to [the] lowest ranking officers, from taking a false step: this could happen to you!” (Cardenas 2001:30. My italics). The Caravan inspected garrisons as the helicopter landed, testing for disloyalty to the new regime among officers, with the aim of intimidation [Center for Justice and Accountability: 2012]

Comments made by Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who in 1999 ordered the arrest of five retired military officers who were participants in the Caravan, alongside the arrest of General Pinochet on human rights abuses, indicates the victim-perpetrator status of junior officers:

I am convinced that the junior officers, at least, believed in good faith that they were doing something for the good of the country…[t]hese are people who deeply repent their participation in the executions, and consider it perhaps the worst time of their life.

(Jane Gabriel and Isabel Hilton 2001: Correspondent special: Caravan of Death, British Broadcasting Corporation)

We can consider those individuals victims in the context of the societal norms around respect and trust for the military, in a long tradition of its subjugation to the sovereign power of Chile’s body politic. Most of the 75 individuals murdered by the Caravan gave themselves up to it voluntarily, calmly co-operating when arrested in a night raid on their homes, or appearing in front of new military authorities for the crime of working for the previous government (Verdugo 2001:1). The concept of their lack of safety, or of subterfuge, did not enter their minds. This is because the military enjoyed uncontested trust within a “strong legal culture” and long democratic tradition (Verdugo 200:1) was practically Chilean DNA.

This DNA worked in the same way for military personnel, who Verdugo asserts were “forced into fratricidal violence” (2001:1) by this history. For almost 150 years prior, Chilean society saw the military as subjugate to political life. With exception to the 1879 War of the Pacific, the military had no external battles to fight and was viewed by society as a harmless mix of “marches and melodies” (Constable and Valenzuela 1993:40); a safe place to stow less intelligent sons. Constable and Valenzuela (2003:54) assert that Pinochet’s junta sought to secure role reversal of that historic pecking order. Soldiers failing to follow orders “risked being demoted, arrested, or worse” (Constable and Valenzuela 1993:54).

This perspective is nonetheless challenging. Consider the case of Armando Fernandez Larios, who was a junior officer that perpetrated in the Caravan. In 2003, he was found liable by a Florida court for “torture, crimes against humanity and extra-judicial killing” in the murder of Allende government economist Winston Cabello at the Copiapo garrison [Center for Accountability and Justice (a): 2012], where Fernandez Larios was stationed. Fernandez Larios had argued that he was not liable as he was simply following orders and was a junior officer [United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, Southern Division 2001:8]. Without removing agency or blame, we can consider Fernandez Larios – with emotional difficulty, but logic nonetheless – to be a victim of the aforementioned history and context, and still view him as a perpetrator. He satisfies Borer’s (2003) model of victim-perpetrator even if he also satisfies Huyse’s (2003:67) direct and indirect offender status, the latter because he went onto become a Major in Pinochet’s army before resigning in 1987 and fleeing to United States protection [Center for Accountability and Justice (a): 2012].

In his work on ‘irruptions of memory’ in post-authoritarian Chile, Wilde (1999:480) points to a number of studies that, he says, argue authoritarian characteristics have been “a consistent feature” of Chile’s historic political institutions – “integral rather than exceptional” and pre-dating the Pinochet regime. He points to a ‘conspiracy of consensus’ (1999:476) among political elites, observable between irruptions, that permeates society at large as a “widespread aversion to conflict” and a low level of societal trust generated not just by dictatorship, but also by political polarisation in years preceding (1999: p. 476). It has been argued that the party politics of Chile today are a continuation of mid-nineteenth century social cleavages and trio of ideological blocs, formed into institutions that sought, and seek, to “reach deeply” into the mechanics of civil society (Scully 1995:100). Wilde points to a scholarly literature that suggests Chile’s conspiracy of consensus is a deeply ingrained character of political culture (Wilde 1997:480). In sum, officers summoned to torture and murder civilians were victims of societal norms operating in the reality vacuum that was the weeks after Pinochet’s power grab.

Verdugo (2001:i) implores us to see her pivotal inquiry not “in search of a useless and painful voyage to the past”, but as a contribution to “fraternal reconciliation”. This seems to echo the history affecting our soldiers as described above. Does Verdugo, likewise affected, see her book as another ‘irruption’?

Referring to Borer’s third set of circles and applying it to the cases of Colombia’s civil war and Chile’s Caravan as proxy for the Pinochet era of authoritarian rule, we can better understand that reconciliation must involve perpetrators, because we can also view some perpetrators as victims at some stage. Alongside victims of human rights abuse and terror, these perpetrators can tell us about the pre-authoritarian society and how this informed the period in question, giving us the context to shed new light on perpetrators and valorise their input when national reconciliation is the aim. In turn, this can deepen democracy.

Part Four: Conclusion

In this essay I have presented my thesis that the weight of transitional justice discourse on reconciliation falls too heavily on victimhood and on reparations for victims of widespread terror. I assert that this created a victim-perpetrator dichotomy that colours our notions of what reconciliation is to carve out large swatches of society from the process of reconciliation. In trying to show that the dichotomy is an oversimplification of the truth of pre-and post-conflict societies, I have presented ideas from a narrow corridor of the transitional justice discourse and also from peace studies to show that victims can often be perpetrators, and perpetrators victims, examining two specific cases in Latin American societies to show where these groups clearly exist.

I have shown that, in breaking the victim-perpetrator dichotomy we can re-examine our notions of national reconciliation and that we must valorise the role of perpetrator if we genuinely seek national reconciliation. I arrive at the concept of contentious coexistence as the resting point at the end of this thesis, a place where not just two opposing groups and ideas compete – and one is more heavily weighted in both society’s mind and in the relevant scholarly literature – but where a range of groups, identities and realities can co-exist, carry different, but equal weight and compete, which can lead to democratic deepening.

In the case of Chile, described as a ‘nation of enemies’ (Constable and Valenzuela: 1993), scholars point to regular ‘irruptions of memory’ (Wilde: 1999) that visit society because various realities about the era of terror have not sufficiently been dealt with. Chile dichotomised victim and perpetrator in its search for reconciliation and in subjugating what perpetrators could tell them about context and history, papered over awkward truths that may point to the causes of that period and how to deal with its fallout over successive generations. Wilde’s ‘irruptions’ are proof enough that a single truth has not materialised in Chile, and that a range of truths will continue in contention. In sharing this experience without contending for sovereignty over it, and with time having passed, perpetrators, victims and victim-perpetrators may share Huyse’s (2003:19) forward-looking “civilised political dialogue” and recover the germ of reconciliation.



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Correspondent Special: Caravan of Death, 2001. Videorecording. Produced by Jane Gabriel and reporting by Isobel Hilton. UK: British Broadcasting Corporation.

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Huyse, L. (2003) ‘The Process of Reconciliation’ in D Bloomfield, T Barnes and L Huyse (eds) Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

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Jaramillo, S; Giha, Y and Torres, P. 2009. Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Colombia. International Center for Transitional Justice [online]. pp. 1-57. Available from: [Accessed 1 November 2012]

Mendez, J. 1997. Accountability for Past Abuses. Human Rights Quarterly [online]. (19) 2 pp. 255-282. Available from [Accessed 4 October 2012]

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Scully, T. (1995) ‘Reconstituting Party Politics in Chile’ in S Mainwaring and T Scully (eds) Building Democratic Institutions: Governance in Latin America, 2nd. Edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Shifter, M. and Jawahar, V. (2004) Reconciliation in Latin America: A Fine Balance. [online] The Inter-American Dialogue XI (1) pp. 127-135. Available from [Accessed 1 November 2012]

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Verdugo, P. (2001) ‘Foreword’ in P Verdugo (ed) Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death. Coral Gables, Fla. : North-South Center Press

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Wilde, A. (1999) ‘Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy’, Journal of Latin American Studies 31, pp. 473-500

Dangerous service, absent customer service: welcome to easybus

23 Jul

I’m publishing here a copy of the letter that I have sent to the customer services, and separately, the refunds department of easybus, a business providing bus shuttle services between three London airports and the city itself. I used the service coming home from Gatwick in June this year and their driver forced three people to squeeze into two seats (myself, my boyfriend and a stranger), meaning there was one less seatbelt for us than is legally required. This was after breaking the contract made between passengers and easybus that, if you already hold a paid for ticket, you will be given priority to take a seat on your scheduled service over those who turn up without a ticket. In fact, one bus refused to let us on and gave priority to a bunch of people who turned up without tickets; the next bus allowed more passengers without tickets on first, then squeezed myself and my partner on to the one remaining seat in the front alongside another passenger without a ticket. What followed was a very scary ride home in the early hours of the morning.

Why am I publishing this letter? Because I have sent it to two postal addresses for easybus complaints, the chairman and head of PR at easygroup, and I’ve tweeted easybus with my complaint, all over the last seven weeks. The single response was a one-line reply from the PR saying that someone would be in touch: over one week later, of course, no one has been in touch. I have now advanced my complaint to the ‘regulators’ – though they have no legal powers even to force easybus to respond, but they’re all us British bus users have. I hope they can get easybus and/or easygroup to act like a professional business, rather than a stone.

Three worrying things: one, I’ve told easybus about their having appearing to have broken the law, or at least, put passengers in grave danger. Two, they have failed to defend themselves against that serious accusation. Three, they don’t appear to care about the reputational risk in complaints being made public, and complaints about complaints being made public. A quick Google search shows a long list of angry people who have complaints about easybus, some of whom have contacted the business and experienced the same wall of silence. I’m willing to wager that few people will have made as many attempts to give the business opportunities to put this right as I have given easybus and easygroup. And yet the silence remains intact. So as a customer, I am left with no other forum but the public one, publishing my letter and my frustration. As a journalist, I’m extremely tempted to write about this for a travel supplement or magazine: surely then they’d take note?

It feels very much like easybus has a habit of ignoring complaints (based on what I have read online from others who have had no response), and hopes to simply keep making easy money from a poor service while relying on the fact that their silence is backed up with a sore lack of powerful regulators or ombudsmen. Complaining about this has taken my time and money, neither of which any of us have to spare on poor service, and the bodies I’ve contacted to help me (Bus Users UK and London Travel Watch) have no powers to compel easybus or easygroup to modify their attitude.

7th June 2013

To whom it may concern,

I write with a serious complaint about your service and to claim a full refund on the two tickets I bought for your service from Gatwick Airport on 07 June 2013.

On the morning of 07 June 2013 my partner and I were waiting for your easybus service to collect us from Gatwick North Terminal. We had bought two tickets and had our printed ticket/receipt with us. Our tickets were timed for 00.40 but we were waiting from about 00:00 for an earlier bus, as stated as permissible by you as printed on the ticket. As we had bought and reserved two seats that your ticket stated were able to be used up to one hour before or after the time stated on the ticket, we expected to simply board the next bus.

When the next bus arrived the driver made the choice to admit 4 passengers who had no tickets and were paying on the spot. I showed the driver my ticket as these people were boarding, and reminded him that he is bound, as the ticket states, to let us board as a priority because we have already got tickets. The driver refused us still and admitted these other people who were paying on the spot.

Further, he had at least two empty seats in the van and two in the front: when we wanted to board using these the driver stated that he could not allow this because he was going to collect more people from the other terminal. We were therefore left no choice, with the terms of the ticket broken by your driver, to wait for the next bus.

When the second bus arrived, we were sure to show him our tickets first as there was one other individual waiting to board who had no ticket, and the bus looked almost full. This driver said that all three of us must squeeze onto the two empty seats in the front, as it was likely that the next service would not show up at all. I was incredulous at this. I know that it is a legal requirement that easybus ensures each passenger has a seatbelt: one of the three of us would be forced to go without. I reminded the driver of the rules stated on the ticket which meant that he was supposed to prioritise pre-paid customers, and should allow myself and my partner to take the two last seats, not to squeeze a third person on between us without a seatbelt. I reminded him that to do so would mean easybus was breaking the law and putting its passengers in danger. He simply responded that we had no choice and argued that it was an act of charity to let the third passenger (who had no pre-paid ticket) on despite having no seat for her, because of the likelihood that no other bus would show up that evening.

We drove into West Brompton feeling very much at risk: my partner is very tall and practically sat with half his backside up against the door to make room for this on-the-spot customer to share my seat. I was in between them and felt very unsafe with all of us squashed up together. As we were so squashed up, my partner and I tried but failed to find and secure the two seatbelts available. The third passenger had no belt available.

As a consequence, easybus broke the law and put all three of us in great danger in order, as I see it, to squeeze in one more paying customer than is safely possible in your vehicles.

The law states that only one person is legally permitted to sit in each seat fitted with a seat belt. It also states that it is the passenger’s responsibility (aged 14 and up) to ensure they wear a seatbelt on a minibus or coach. Easybus removed the possibility of being able to discharge this responsibility by implying that there may not have been another bus for several hours if at all that morning and forcing a third passenger into two seats and leaving absolutely no room to move or fasten the available seatbelts.

In the easybus terms and conditions 7.1 on passenger behaviour, it states that passengers “must wear the provided seatbelt at all times whilst the vehicle is in motion.” How could easybus expect passengers to comply when it knowingly allows in a passenger for whom there is no seatbelt available?

You can read the legislation on seatbelts here

When we complained about our experience to the driver he said that the first driver should not have left us as it is the driver’s responsibility to make these decisions. However, I want to stress that I take no issue with our driver. The two drivers we encountered appeared to be under pressure with driver or service drop-outs that evening (which begs the question of whether we would simply have been left without any bus whatsoever had we tried to take the 00.40 service that the second driver claimed would not likely turn up).

My issue is with easybus and the way it runs an entirely shoddy and dangerous service. This service resulted in two drivers overriding the contract between passengers and itself to prioritise customers with tickets in hand, and failed to guarantee the safety procedures it is legally required to.

I have four things I want easybus to do to respond to this complaint as a matter of urgency:

Refund in full the £17.98 I paid for two tickets, and the £2.20 cost of sending this letter to easybus refunds and easybus customer services by Royal Mail Signed For second-class postage in both cases (because you do not provide an e-mail service).

Explain why on-the-spot customers were prioritised on these two occasions over two pre-paid customers who should, as stated on your ticket, take priority.

Explain how easybus defends breaking the law by failing to provide one passenger a seatbelt, and forcing two more to go without being able to use their seatbelts.

Declare whether easybus pays commission or any other form of incentive or reward to drivers for taking passengers who pay on the spot.

I have sent this message to the office of the chairman of easygroup. The same letter is copied to the easybus refunds department and the easybus customer services department.

I hope that you will respond soon, in writing (you can e-mail me or respond in writing through the post).


Melanie Stern

Wanderlust: Five reasons to get friendly with Bolivia

21 May

Earlier this month I managed to squeeze in the first piece of journalism I’ve done since I began my life as a Master’s student in October 2012. I was asked to write a blog for Wanderlust, a monthly, British travel magazine – one of the finest – about my experience travelling in Bolivia. The published piece is below – have a glance. I am going back to Bolivia in June for my fieldwork – studying the consumption of second-hand clothing in La Paz and Cochabamba – very exciting times! I only passed through La Paz on my last trip, so this time I’ll have a fortnight to see what it’s all about (and I’m particularly excited to visit the National Museum of Art, which seems to contain a boatload of old religious art, one of my favourite things).

Cochabamba's La Cancha market

Cochabamba’s La Cancha market

The World Economic Forum says Bolivia is the world’s unfriendliest country. Melanie Stern shares her five reasons why the intrepid should ignore and get there pronto

The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report put Bolivia first in a list of ten countries it deemed the least friendly for visitors. In the category “attitude of population towards visitors” Bolivia ranked top of the least friendliest nations after Venezuela, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, among others.

I’m sure intrepid travellers thought two things in response: that sounds odd, and why don’t I see for myself? Bolivian people are definitely friendly – they are curious about visitors, eager to help you get the best out of their country and they want you to leave happy.

Bolivia is emerging strongly from a long history of post-colonialism and neo-liberal economics, and its infrastructure is adequate for the needs of keen travellers. Part of the fun of experiencing a nation in Bolivia’s phase of development is negotiating a new culture and can be readily navigated by anyone with common sense.

Most people who spend time in Bolivia don’t forget it in a hurry, and they come away with new friends and an enriched view of the world. Follow the bumpy roads, the frigid plains, eat where the locals eat, and you’ll be duly rewarded.

Here are five reasons why you should get to Bolivia now.

1. Experience first-class trains at third-class prices

Any UK resident who commutes to work by train can forget the gnawing rage of exorbitant prices for late, cancelled, dirty and overcrowded trains. Bolivia’s train network is tiny – most of the network has fallen into disuse because the bus network is so vast and convenient – dirt cheap, squeaky clean and takes you through two completely different, dramatic landscapes. The seats are well padded, recline a little, the toilet is clean and stocked with paper (more than can often be said for the UK’s local trains).

One trip visitors should enjoy: going north from Tupiza (the stopping off point to horse-ride in the lonely, ferrous quebrada where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have made their last stand), take the train to Uyuni, the town where tours across the famous salt plains begin. The train leaves around 6.30pm arriving in Uyuni around midnight. The benefit of an evening train in is that, amid the endless lunar-like, uninhabited landscape, the unimpeachable darkness draws your eyes upward. You’re rewarded with an incredible soot-and-diamonds skyscape.

Bring a blanket for the ride (buy a good fleece in the market at Tupiza, and treat yourself to a polar jacket while you’re at it; they’re dirt cheap and very useful in high-altitude Bolivia). Then cosy up and keep taking in the big chunk of star-gazing that this train trip affords you.

2. Unmissable markets and unique food

If you’ve heard anything about Bolivia, you’ve heard that it’s poor. You equate poor with lack of food, or decent food. But that’s not true in Bolivia where market food stalls are an unmissable part of a visitor’s experience. Take the salteña, Bolivia’s answer to the pasty (and incomparably tastier). It’s a palm-sized, American football-shaped baked pastry shell consisting of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken or beef, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices,and parsley. Grab a handful of serviettes with your purchase; part of the experience is that the juice inside the shell runs down your hand as you munch. After a few goes, you’ll master it.

La Cancha market in Cochabamba, a city that marches on its stomach, is good for a tasting trip. Try silpancho, meat schnitzel with rice, fried plantain, onion and beet salad and a lively picante sauce. Wander through the vegetable market taking in all the colours and varieties of the freshest produce that you just don’t find in even the biggest supermarkets.

If you’re up for a beer made from corn fermented by human chewing, get your hands on some chicha – it’s a traditional beer but has an acquired taste!

3. Volunteer somewhere really different

Travelling to a poor country, you might be inclined to get your good on. There are many volunteering and gap-year companies operating in Bolivia, as well as lots of NGOs. These are a good way into volunteering in Bolivia: and you’ll come away with new skills and a wealth of experiences.

Want to build an eco-farm for local Chapare residents as an alternative to the cocaine trade? Want to see inside Bolivia’s health system and lend your expertise? Want to work with animals that only exist in this part of the world? Bolivia does it.

While you’re volunteering, you’ll work with local people, and regardless of your level of Spanish, you’ll be taken under-wing. You’ll eat together, party together, hear about real life there for better or worse, learn how to swear in perhaps several indigenous languages, and get golden tips on travelling onwards to places the usual tourists will miss.

Bolivians are well aware that their world and your world are very different; ask them the questions about Bolivian life and politics, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong friendship. Bolivian families are protective. If you’re young and female, do all the things you want to do, but phone your host and let them know you’re going to be out late. Even if you’re in your 30s. They’ll sit home worrying otherwise, because while you’re with them, you’re part of the family. You’re no hostel guest – they want to spend time with you.


4. View Bolivia’s best landscapes

So many tourists only pass through Bolivia for a couple of days, on their way to Peru or elsewhere. The intrepid should extend their stay and jump on a bus to see a bit more. Most Bolivians use the bus network to travel the country and the wider Latin American region. With such incredible biodiversity, and such diverse ways of living (houses on sticks in the rainforest, self-built apartments on the city limits, crumbling colonial outposts in the ancient cities and in the Eastern missions area, gated and guarded villa-style mansions for the few wealthy), bussing it doubles up the travel-learning experience.

Each city has a big bus terminal with all the bus companies selling tickets from little offices next to one another: visit a few to ask how much they charge (ida is one way,ida y vuelta is a return), and ask to see the bus if you want to know what you’re getting into.

Trips may be several hours or they may be overnight, or all day. On smaller routes going through villages and isolated areas, you can expect to travel alongsidecampesina (indigenous) women in pollera and pigails, transporting anything from chickens to potatoes or clothes for sale in the markets, other foreigners, and locals of all persuasions. The ladies selling snacks will be there if your bus is an overnight one.

Enjoy the scenery, the hairpin bends and the craggy mountain passes, or the steamy cloud forest climbs, as well as long tracts of Inca road or Spanish colonial pebble dash that make the bus rumble. Take your polar coat, a big bottle of water, some biscuits, your iPod, a little torch and some toilet roll (toilet stops on the way won’t stock it).

Any bus traveller coming into La Paz at first light will be open-mouthed at the sight, as the bus begins to descend from the mountains into the valley of El Alto, the sheer scale and steepness hits you in the face, millions of tiny houses battling gravity to cling to the mountainside, and a million lights blinking with promise.

More locally, Bolivian city transport relies on colectivos (shared taxis) and micros(minibuses) – always have a few Bolivianos in change handy to pay, and have your camera ready to take snaps of the carnival-styled micros that look more like they’re ready to cart diablada dancers. The designated stops micros have are known to locals but not marked on the road; to ask a driver to stop you need to holler ‘en la esquina, por favor!‘ (the corner, please!) to them in enough time for them to stop. It’s not always a corner they’re stopping at, but that’s a catch-all term for a stop. Be loud or be unheard.

5. Colonial culture

The city of Potosi in Bolivia’s south (the world’s highest city at 4,000 metres above sea level) might at first seem quite depressing, but it’s a must-do if you want to understand more about Bolivia’s people and history. A roughshod, down-at-heel little town at first sight, Potosi was the centre of the Spanish empire for 500 years because a little mountain there, cerro rico, continuously produced enough silver to bankroll the expansion of Spanish power across the continent and to Asia.

Today, old churches are the lone representatives of the grandiosity and wealth that characterised the colonial city. You can enter the mines in cerro rico (still in operation) with a guide who is a former miner and a local, who can bring to life the story of the mine and the ruinous legacy for the Bolivian and indigenous people making up the mining community – as well as for the Bolivian national personality. In the centre of town is the Casa de La Moneda, the site of the old colonial mint, now a museum for the mint’s original technologies and for an incredible collection of colonial religious art which, interpreted by a guide, complements your understanding of how silver and Catholicism refashioned Bolivian society.

The main market in Potosi might freak you out: butcher women hang man-sized slabs of meat over flaking, high beams of wood, no sanitation equipment to be seen. But don’t miss a chance to have lunch in the market – try the broth, a sort of minestrone with jumbo-sized pasta or loaded up with quinoa. Bolivians may lack the finer things, but they know how to use spices and flavour to perk up any food, and they’re always pleased to see visitors are willing to judge them not by home standards, but by their own unique riches.

Melanie Stern is a business journalist and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Latin American studies at University College London, focused on Bolivia. You can read more of her reporting on Bolivia at her blog, and follow her on Twitter @melvstern.

Financial Director: Raising hope for Haiti

2 Oct

British medical charity Merlin won a charity prize last night and their tweeting about it reminded me that I had interviewed its director of finance, Vicky Ennis, in the aftermath of the Haiti disaster in 2010, about how charity finance people lead efforts to respond to major emergencies of that scale. Very much enjoyed researching and writing this article, and speaking with the finance directors from several charities who responded to the Haiti disaster – have a read.

One of Merlin's mobile clinics in Haiti. Photo from

One of Merlin’s mobile clinics in Haiti. Photo from

The utter devastation suffered by Haitian citizens after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck on 12 January rendered the biggest humanitarian response ever recorded, reports claim. No ballpark figures yet exist, but several billions in individual donations combined with government gifts and a raft of large celebrity cheque signings amassed unprecedented sums, all within days of the event.

Getting it into the country in those first few days, though, proved impossible. Most of Haiti’s infrastructure and banking system are out of action; roads are decimated by mudslides or mountains of rubble from the estimated 280,000 collapsed or badly damaged homes and commercial buildings. And what use is a single dollar bill in a place where the markets, their suppliers and the ports allowing essential imported goods in are destroyed ­ while their proprietors may be among the estimated one million homeless, or the 530,000 dead or injured?

In fact, due to the level of disturbance, the response from UK charities to these challenges was quite literally to bundle up thousands of pounds and wire it to Haiti through neighbouring Dominican Republic. Vicky Annis, head of finance at medical charity Merlin, explains that her team of 12 finance staff had to do just that from its central London headquarters. “It has been quite literally a case of three or four members of my finance team taking £3,000 in cash down to our local Western Union several times a day,” she reveals. “It’s enormously time consuming.” Merlin was one of the first charities that had no previous business in Haiti to land there after the disaster.

David Membrey, acting chief executive at the Charity Finance Directors’ Group, confirms this has been practice elsewhere. “I know in the case of the 2004 tsunami that some charities, in the weeks after the event, were literally sending staff out with rucksacks full of dollars,” he says. “The destruction was so wide there that you could be on a project where there might not be a working bank for a 100 miles. It’s not a long-term solution but it’s a practical one.”

Faith-based charity Cafod’s head of finance James Steel has to employ his skills of persuasion and pull in help from around the business to cover sudden need from finance. Cafod has a financial accounts team, a financial management team and a humanitarian finance team, he explains, as well as donation processing people to call on if it needs extra hands.

Charity FDs say they were not hit with the response for Haiti until between 72 hours and the first week after the event, once trustees and directors (including the FDs) had decided on their level of response. Says Steel: “In early February, while Haiti was going on, we had external auditors going through what we’d done in Southern Sudan and Mozambique with a toothcomb. You’ve got to balance that over the life of a response to something like Haiti,” he says. “It brings a level of complexity into the organisation.”

In and out
While the process of getting money in the door is now automated thanks to online and text donations, FDs in even large charities found themselves struggling to upscale dramatically in the first days after Haiti to get it out again. It meant diverting finance staff from modest teams away from their usual duties, diverting funds to hire temporary staff or persuading other managers to get their non-finance volunteers mucking in.

“This office was full of volunteers processing credit cards on the weekend, because suddenly we had this massive surge and we had no time to plan around it,” says Joe Ghandhi, head of finance for Médicins Sans Frontières UK. “I was ringing our 0800 number first thing every morning to test the response time and some of our country websites had real bandwidth issues, so we had to switch things around.” MSF already had around 800 staff in the field on a long-term programme.

Cafod’s Steel concurs. “In the 2004 tsunami appeal we couldn’t change the message on our freephone donation number. It was Boxing Day and I was in the office trying to change it, but we couldn’t get hold of anyone,” he says.

Charity FDs are learning valuable lessons around how to plan for these problems that really hamper the increasingly common emergency responses they have to make.

In other, ongoing ‘silent’ crises such as the conflict and mass displacement of people in Jos, central Nigeria, or responding to the immediate needs and longer-term rebuilding efforts in Sumatra after last September’s earthquake, getting funds to disaster-struck communities on a regular basis proves difficult, too ­ and is part of the FD’s remit.

Cafod’s Steel reveals how far down in the detail FDs mobilising resources can be. “We’re making quite a big response in Jos and for that we had very immediate spending needs. We decided on the Friday that we needed money to respond and it got there on the Monday” ­ good going, given that getting money into rural Nigeria is difficult and we work with a lot of individual clinics there, says Steel. For Haiti, Cafod sent four people immediately, “but we were short on dollars, borrowing them right, left and centre, making sure they’d got credit cards: small things, but just making sure that they had what they needed.”

Informed response
MSF’s Ghandhi highlights the communication skills needed from FDs in crisis response. His finance function worked closely with its fundraising and press departments on the Haiti appeal to stay informed about what campaigns were running, as it has a direct impact on his mandate. “Because of that, finance knew early that we had a fantastic response from the public so we then had to shift quickly to asking donors to donate for our general programmes rather than specifically for Haiti,” he says. This fulfils its other longer-term projects and uses money wisely.

Keeping track of what is spent where, as well as building an overall plan to rebuild communities is something the charity FD needs to balance. Cafod’s Steel says that 72 hours after the Haiti earthquake his finance team were finalising areas of responsibility for spending mechanisms and for setting a framework for accountability.

“You need to establish mechanisms for receiving money, setting up o utsourcers which can be complex, then working out how all of it is going to get back into your database and how it is going to be accounted for,” he says. “You’re sending people to Darfur and you have to meet their pension and payroll needs.” Merlin’s Annis designated an additional finance person to manage everything to do with Haiti from the UK and assigned a specific code to all costs arising from the response, to make accounting for it simpler.

“Now it’s about bringing in all our financial procedures and controls so we can understand where we are for developing a full budget, having that reporting on cashflow and having an idea on a weekly basis what cash is going to be required in the field, and managing how we transfer the money on a much more regular basis.”

She adds: “We need to identify our Haiti spend against different donor projects and split them down into project level, start reporting against it and understanding where we are on our budgets.” Merlin will place a permanent country FD in Haiti for the next six months to oversee this reporting process.

MSF’s Ghandhi will need to finance the rebuilding of its three field hospitals, all of which were badly damaged in the earthquake. “I have to talk with our central team about how much we can spend over the next three years, say, to fix them ­ so our campaigns have to match that amount.”

Against the backdrop of what corporate FDs have had to manage recently, the work charity FDs have done to respond to Haiti and other disasters is impressive. “It can be difficult to scale up in a very dramatic way ­ something that no one in a sane world would do ­ but you just have to do it,” says Cafod’s Steel. “There is the supply chain management, procurement is very difficult and there is all the political stuff.

We had a briefing in early February from someone who just came back from Haiti and his message to us was, ‘why send tents when the rainy season is coming, can’t we get into semi-permanent construction’. The logistics of getting materials into the country with no infrastructure make that absolutely impossible.” At some point, though, they’ll just have to.

The charity FD and disaster response
In regular contact with charities across the UK, the Charity Finance Directors’ Group has the big picture view on how the sector responded to Haiti and some chronic issues charity FDs face in disaster response. Acting CEO David Membrey spoke with Financial Director about his observations and where he saw the troublespots for FDs.

• Logistics
“A good charity FD really understands the operational networks and logistics of the charity better than anybody else. They should know what is where and they should understand the systems that will tell them how many blankets they’ve got at their depot in Wigan, for example. If they don’t, they should know where to get it.”

• Sector-wide collaboration
“If you don’t have a programme in Haiti you don’t have to set one up overnight: you piggyback on somebody else. That happens a lot in the charity sector as they all know each other and often get together, so can share resources. They can do more if they share resources than they can if they work in isolation and there’s no point ordering the same thing for the same area.”

• Disaster planning
I know of some charities trying to set up a network of warehouses and facilities to house goods for emergency response across the world, rather than mobilising stuff from, say, Europe to be flown to the Caribbean or Asia at a moment’s notice. The next disaster of Haiti’s kind is not likely to be in London, so why keep all your stores there? FDs of charities need to think about this and I know they have done.”

• Donors should listen to the FD’s funding decisions
“Donors to the 2004 tsunami wanted to see immediate results and it was difficult for many charities to reconcile that with the need for long-term planning. The fact that a lot of that money wasn’t spent after two or three years was viewed negatively, but charities wanted to make a lasting difference, to rebuild homes so they won’t fall down the next time. That is a very real issue for FDs: they have to say, ‘no, at the moment the bank is the best place for it’.”

Financial Director: Falkland Islands’ CEO Keith Padgett on preparing for oil wealth

7 Jul Fires in East Falkland Island. Flickr/By NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. 2007.

I’m quite proud of my latest work for Financial Director, where I was editor until last May. It intrigued me to learn at the start of 2012 that the finance director for the Falkland Islands had been promoted to its chief executive. Why would a British Overseas Territory need a CEO, I wondered – and do they report to the Queen? I made some enquiries and managed to get in touch with him to organise the interview I turned into this piece, which is a departure from the usual profile style FD magazine runs because, well, the job and the setting are pretty unique. The man, readers would be pleased to know, is an absolutely standard finance man from the grass roots up, but took a life less ordinary. My only question now is: where does the job of Falkland Islands CEO take you for your next job?

I went for the interview because the Falklands and its future is so newsworthy this year, with the anniversary of the Argentine-British conflict and because it is on the brink of becoming an island of the oil rich. It was a real pleasure to explore it – if only FD’s budget could stretch to sending me out there.

I must give some props to Richard Crump, who I hired as my deputy editor and who now acts as my de-facto editor in my freelance life, for succeeding in getting some original photographs of Keith in situ. To see one go here.

Have a read.

Fires in East Falkland Island. Flickr/By NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. 2007.

Fires in East Falkland Island. Flickr/By NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. 2007.

LAMENTING THAT Financial Director’s budget won’t accommodate a flight to Port Stanley, I ask Keith Padgett, chief executive of the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) since his promotion from director of finance in March, to paint me a picture of what he sees from his office window: “I can see the bay that is Stanley Harbour; on the other side the rolling hills and mountains beyond it. Straight in front of me is a flagpole with the Union Jack on it.”

Google Maps adds some more: there’s the 1982 Memorial Wood, the Falklands Brasserie, the Victory Bar. Two blocks over is Victory Green. Zoom out of the port inhabited by most of the Islands’ 2,478 residents and suddenly there’s just wilderness – nothing but long, lonely highways crossing vast tracts of land, where half a million sheep graze and where no trees have ever grown.

“It’s a place you either like straightaway, or you don’t. There’s no half measures here,” says Padgett. “Everybody knows who you are; everybody knows what I do. If I go to my local pub, I end up talking about government stuff in some way.”

Padgett arrived in the Falkland Islands in 2001 as its treasurer, fax machine in hand, advised of its perilously slow dialup internet. A Barnsley boy and local government finance careerist, he married in Port Stanley (the Islands’ governor, who acts as the Queen’s representative, gave the bride away), and little more than a decade on, Padgett has the future of his wedding guests in his hands. As for the internet connection, it remains one of their biggest problems, he admits.

Big opportunities

Its biggest opportunity is the quest for oil. As Argentina reignites the Falklands sovereignty debate, Padgett is studying the effect a major oil find could have on the economy, environment and way of life so cherished by locals.

Five exploration companies drilling around the Islands are hoping to find between 8.3 billion and 60 billion barrels of oil, three times what remains of the UK’s North Sea claim. A report published in February by analysts Edison Investment Research suggested FIG could see a $180bn (£116bn) windfall in tax royalties from oil. That compares with its current main source of income, fishing for Illex squid, which brings in $23m annually, demonstrating the pressure under which Padgett currently finds himself.

“I’ve commissioned a study – I call it the ‘ringmaster’ study – and what I want from it is for someone to come and tell us what kind of circus we might have down here,” says Padgett. “There’s going to be rapid expansion of the population and the amount of money in the economy, so it will affect us in all sorts of ways, and we need to be prepared for that.”

The expansion has already started. Padgett reported a million-pound budget surplus last December on the back of drilling income (as well as a bumper Illex squid crop). When the budget was prepared, there weren’t even concrete plans to drill. In the next financial year, Padgett expects another surplus, again from drilling revenues.

While he has received assurances from the industry that onshore effects will be limited by keeping floating extraction platforms and storage kettles, he will spend on readying the Islands to provide a support industry to rigs and vessels. But the tension between the potential for historic economic development and preserving a way of life is palpable.

“We need to spend on dock and port facilities, and short-term accommodation – and we’ll have to look at our immigration policies,” he says.

All this upheaval could change the Falkland Islands to a very different place by the end of his tenure, but Padgett expects the status quo to remain. “People down here are very conscious that they don’t want oil to change the place significantly. That is going to be a difficult challenge. We are not going to allow a free-for-all – it will not just be a case of grabbing every drop as quickly as possible,” he insists.

Having climbed from treasurer to deputy financial secretary and then to financial secretary proper, in 2008 Padgett felt ready for the CEO job and applied. He lost out to Tim Thorogood, but four years later had built the networks to demonstrate his non-financial skill.

“Although I was in charge of treasury, I was spending a lot of time in policy advice in all kinds of areas – running all kinds of things – and other service managers were looking to me for advice. So I had became a sort of de facto CEO some years ago,” he explains. “Everybody knew me and I knew them. I knew what the Islands needed.”

Village green feel

A place where the entire machinery of government is run by 550 people is going to have the village green feel. Padgett and the other members of the Legislative Assembly take on several portfolios at once; the director of education doubles as director of health.

“This place is different in that people expect me, as chief executive, to get involved in all kinds of things you’d employ a specialist to do in a UK organisation,” Padgett admits. “We’re an island that is very resourceful. One body does everything central government, county councils and parish councils do. Everybody turns their hand to all sorts of things, and that applies all the way through our society right up to the top levels of government. It makes life a lot more complicated.”

With the Argentine sovereignty row – which analysts Edison say is the single “proverbial spanner in the works” for FIGs’ oil ambitions – looming large, Padgett could expect a change to his daily life. He is “absolutely positive” that Argentina will increase the pressure, but says it makes little impact on his work.

“It’s frustrating and it’s annoying – we have shortages of things because of political interruptions – but they aren’t things we can’t live without,” he says. “Argentina has reneged on almost every agreement we had with them anyway, so there’s little else that they can actually do. We’re not particularly concerned and our major partners in the oil industry are also not too fussed.”

Padgett even thinks that Argentine president Cristina Kirchner’s provocations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands are helpful. “The amount of rhetoric Cristina produces gives us a world stage to say our piece. Before that, we had a difficult task getting anyone interested in the Falklands side of the argument,” he concludes.

Five travel firsts

1 May The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

By their nature, travel fiends are always in the throes of planning their next trip, so they’re hard wired to obsess about the future. No one really talks about their formative travel experiences – the very earliest ones, on childhood holidays, where something so we might think quite mundane now elevated an annual two weeks in August time-share holiday to something magical and personality-forming. What were the moments back in time that led me to the travelling experiences I seek in adulthood?

I was thinking about the most effecting moments in my travelling life so far and I was surprised to recall a bunch of almost inane non-events that, in hindsight, were pivotal travel firsts – something small that happened, or occurred to me, while I was travelling for business or pleasure, that felt instantly new. Rolled up into a ball, these moments become a back-story as to who I came to be the person that writes these words today, whether I’m on the road or at home. And surely it’s that which underlines how important travelling is as one of many life experiences. Here’s a selection of five of my travel firsts.

Travel first #1: Aloe relief, Bahamas

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

As a child I had horrendous eczema that plagued me every day and night. But I was lucky to have a dad who, in the 80’s, had fallen into well paid sales jobs in IT, so he could afford the regulation middle-class fortnight somewhere hot in the summer school holidays, where my skin could heal a bit with the humid climate. My very earliest holiday abroad was when my mum and dad took me and my brother – it was 1986 so I was 6, he was 4 – to the Bahamas, which, by reaching into the furthermost and fuzziest corners of my memory, I recall being a place of whitewashed villas with sandy paths and great stands of aloe vera plants. Unaccustomed to the tropical heat and unforgiving sun, my parents being from Glasgow and on their very first trip somewhere so exotic, I got sunburn, which combined with eczema is no fun. I have a picture in my mind of my mum hacking a long, prickly leaf from a huge aloe plant growing outside the door of our villa and smearing the cold gel up and down my arm. What a strange sight to a little girl from Luton: to see her mum mutilate a plant and use its leaves to soothe my skin. In that memory, the colours are azure blue, to jewel green, to coral red and pale pink sand. Colours that are alien to the average Luton-dwelling child, for obvious reasons, I think that palette somehow stayed with me and became part of a subconscious search for exotic shades in yet more far-flung locales in my adult life, as a backpacker.

Travel firsts #2: Luxury business travel introduction, Switzerland

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

My first big business trip came in 2002. I was in my first proper job as a hack and was dispatched, with my bosses and the other reporters, to the three-day, once-annual Swiss Futures and Options Association conference, held on the rugged, remote hilltop Burgenstock, next to Switzerland’s monied Lake Lucerne. I had no idea that luxury of this level existed, nor that corporate events in the financial world were equally sumptuous and decadent. Walking into my suite overlooking the lake – complete with Milka chocolate-style cows munching on grass beneath my balcony, complete with ringing cow bells – I was confused to see that my bathroom had two basins. One entire wall of the room was given over to wardrobe space, as if those who stayed here brought a month’s worth of ball-gowns and Salvatore Ferragamo business suits. I couldn’t understand why I had so much floor space, equivalent to the entire size of my rented Brixton flat.

On my first night, returning from my first experience at a gala dinner where Chateauneuf-de-pape flowed like water and three sets of silver cutlery almost exposed my lack of high society etiquette, I walked into the room to find the balcony doors wide open and the curtains flapping in the breeze. I looked around and sensed that everything was slightly different to how I had left it four hours previously. I must have been robbed! Feeling panicked, I ran to the reception and reported this. A bellboy was dispatched to check out my story. Timidly waiting by the door while he hunted around, he walked over to me and pointed at my bed. It was perfectly made: there was no way that was me. “You haven’t been robbed madam. Your room has been cleaned.” The bellboy pointed to a chocolate placed exactly on the centre of one of my freshly fluffed-up deluxe pillows. “They clean the room and change the sheets and towels while you are gone – and they leave you a chocolate,” he reported. “They leave the balcony doors open just to bring fresh air into the room.” And that was how I learned that there was another half, let alone how it lives, which was a useful education for someone who would go on to spend four years writing about old family business money.

Travel firsts #3: Trusting your tour guide, Morocco

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My dad won a time-share apartment in the faux-whitewashed villas of the Miraflores golf club resort in Mijas, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, through work and we spent the last two weeks of August there every year until I was about 14. After I’d become old enough to successfully protest at being forced to join the family holiday, I had not been back until after my dad sold the time-share but he decided, in 2004, to book a reunion trip for all of us (now five with the addition of my 12-year old sister). It wasn’t as much fun as a young adult: for one thing, I had by then been living in London for four years and wasn’t about to regress to tagging along with the olds, save for the free meals and board.

One day pottering in the shade of the faux-Moroccan styled club house, I saw some leaflets advertising day trips: pay Eu30 for a guided day tour to Tangiers, Morocco – North Africa! It might as well have been to Mars, so mysterious and seductive was the prospect of seeing Africa. I’d never been further than Spain without my parents at that point and I signed up on the spot. It didn’t disappoint: there were tagines, haggard old men in billowy white kaftans with skin like dried up teabags haggling over carpets, a snake charmer, mint tea served in the shadow of the medina, street koran schools and hole-in-the-wall bread ovens – the whole Mark Twain. But what was most instructive was that on the ferry from the port of Algeciras, our tour guide took the group’s passports and kept them in a supermarket bag until we were stepping off the boat on our return. I was naïve and not well travelled, but I was immensely worried by this need to disabuse us of our legal documents. I argued with him: why did he need to keep our passports? What if we needed them? But to no avail, and I was too lily-livered to force him to return mine. I had visions of it being spirited away to some private corner of the boat, copied by expert forgers and tens of new Melanie Sterns, of all colours and creeds, emerging to register Amex cards in my stead. (It didn’t reassure me that I saw several tiny, makeshift floats drifting by from the porthole in open sea, hosted by – as I know now, and didn’t then – absconding Moroccans desperate to enter Spain unseen.) I may never know what that was all about, but the next time my passport felt at threat I hid it in my knickers. No one was going there.

Travel firsts #4: Flying solo, Spain

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

As a lonely insomniac child, you get used to finding little worlds of your own to keep entertained. On one of my summer holidays in Spain with my folks (I think it was probably 1993, as it was the holiday from which I’ve got a photo of me in a crop top which I paired with a Marks & Spencer full length button down denim skirt – stylish!), I was in the nadir of my insomniac phase and, lying silently still in the dark while everyone else slept, I decided to go outside. Creeping out into the brilliant white living room of our villa, I saw my dad’s keys on the breakfast table and five minutes later, I had unlocked the front door and was outside in the big world with all its palm trees and balmy night air. I walked; I walked without aim or direction, but it didn’t matter; I was exploring in the darkness.

I ended up on the bridge over the Autovia del Meditteraneo, which marked my exit from the safety of the resort and my crossing over to ‘everything else’ – the world at large. Over the other side of the bridge it was so…different. There was a little road alongside the autovia with a few houses on it – they were all different, but that same villa-style. A side path led down to the beach; it had that slightly pinky-brown sand here and there. As I got onto the sand, the black sky was turning navy, and I caught sight of the lights attached to fishing boats out to sea. Apart form the hum of the autovia behind me, and the sound of the waves ahead, there was no noise, and no one around. I walked and walked along that beach for what must have been an hour or so; or it could have been a few minutes. Eventually, I realised that I was far away enough to feel afraid, and in any case, it was now morning. I scooted back the way I came, quietly stole back into the villa – everyone still fast asleep, crickets still singing – and back into my bed, whereupon I think I fell asleep for several hours. I think it was that night that set in me a decision to see more, to go further: not to be afraid.


Travel firsts #5: Passport panty control, Romania

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

After my little day trip to Tangiers, I wondered if I shouldn’t try something a bit more hardcore in holiday terms. My flatmate, Hayley, had sucked me right in with her tales of living in Japan and backpacking through Laos and Cambodia, so I asked her if she was up for a low-budget trip somewhere that felt far away enough to be challenging, but was gentle on someone as fearful of backpacking as I was. We agreed on a week in Romania (EasyJet still flew to Bucharest for £30 then) and a week in Turkey, connected by a ferry trip down the Black Sea coast. In the event, the ferries had long ceased operations, but having gotten ourselves to Viru Viru, a paradisical and totally undiscovered beach-side commune on the Bulgarian border, we heard a coach came through a couple of times a week that we could join at border control which would overnight us to Istanbul. We did catch said coach, but it wasn’t long before we discovered we were the only tourists on what was actually a routine contraband smuggling route, evidenced by the rotund, headscarved women who, with the border guards’ (perhaps wilfully) backs turned, furiously squished bottles of Jack Daniels and packets of cigarettes down into the legs of their woollen tights and threw on cable jumpers under which they hid tucked-in t-shirts full of the same, before loading onto the coach.

Once on our way, one of them started asking in broken English if me and Hayley would take some of their goods ( and by this time, they had moved the goods from their person to behind the ceiling panels of the bus, in plain view of us tourists) so that they could get them through the Bulgaria-Turkey border. Hayley almost said yes: too much of a cautious Carol, I used my power of veto and instructed Hayley not to make eye contact with anyone on the bus for the rest of the night. And mindful of the Morocco ferry incident where I feared I’d lose my passport and be lost forever in a foreign land without my papers, I slipped my passport into my pants where I knew there was only one way anyone was getting hold of it. Pulling into Sultanhamet at first light and first prayers, with our smuggling friends dozing around us, I yanked my passport out of my knickers, roused Hayley from her sleep and together we bolted off that bus and into a new city, papers intact. You don’t realise how painful it is to have your passport scrape past your sunburned stomach in a rush.