Obamania Worldwide – The Dreams & The Reality

OBAMANIA & OTHER REFLECTIONS ON A SUNDAY MORNING

Barack & Michelle ObamaThe effect of the Obama victory overseas has been impressive. Much like the initial outpouring after September 11th, 2001, since November 5th, 2008, I have come across a newfound sense of support for the US from many different corners of the world, and the support is quite similar in intensity. For most foreigners with whom I speak, the sentiment goes along the lines: You, Americans (at least on the coasts), faced with the biggest worldwide economic crisis in a century, 2 long unfinished wars, an Osama Bin Laden still on the lam, the prospect of ecological disasters and the risk of more voter scandals (untested new urns), overcame the urge for a recidivist reactionary vote, to adopt and hail its base values by electing Obama.

What is driving this support around the world for Obama? In part, I detect an enormous feeling of hope, like the release of a good dream.Dream He represents hope that change is truly going to come. What is said can be done. That diversity is not just a buzz word. I also detect that many are putting their hopes on the shoulders of Americans to rebolster the world, a world that is increasingly rocky. Beyond the economic crisis and environmental concerns, the Western world is worried by the deeper, structural issues including the rise of China, the Russian renaissance, the continuing splintering of nationalities and ethnicities as well as the omen of global terrorism. I don’t mean to have visions of grandeur for the Americans, but we all need to dream and many people seem to have tied up their dreams with Obamania. Aside from the 66.7 million American voters, Muslim communities around the world, the African community (well beyond Kenya), even a town in Japan have identified or associated themselves with Obama. And in the “If the World Could Vote” site, 87.3% of the nearly 900,000 people (up from the 49,000 I wrote about in my September post) casting their online selection for Obama.

Few would doubt that Obama’s plate is eminently full. As a black Parisian radiologist, Maxim, said to me, “it is a poisoned gift.”

For Obama and the Americans, all the real work is now ahead and it will be important to observe (a) the level and effectiveness in the bipartisanship — I have been positively impressed by the effect of President Sarkozy had in bringing in several valuable Socialists into his government; and (b) how Obama manages against the oh-so-high expectations. If the Democratic party were to get a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate (3 seats still undecided) and with the strong House representation (between 255-259 seats), there is a chance that Obama will be able to put through a good portion of his vision. But, what happens systematically — it seems no matter the president, the party or the country — is that there is a boomerang effect some 12-18 months after induction into office. The dissatisfied electorate then “punishes” the standing leader, curbs his or her power and the result is a near lame-duck experience for the remaining years. I have started to think that this is just a natural cycle in democracy. More likely than not, an external and/or unexpected event will likely occur that will unbalance the apple cart and, whether or not his policies have had time to work, will have a material impact on his presidency. It does seem ironic that an unexpected event will be likely. But, this, too, seems to be a part of the natural cycle.

Four More Reflections

As I ponder this Sunday morning, there are four more things I would like to say about the past couple of weeks.

China Flag1/ Don’t you find it symbolic that the Chinese bailout plan at $586B is just below the US one in size ($700B)? Although, compared to its GDP (China’s is estimated at US$3-4 trillion versus $14 trillion for the US), the Chinese effort is far more seismic. You get the feeling that the turning point is around the corner. The burgeoning question for me is how will we, Americans, manage to alter our mania for consumption, so much a fibre of today’s US society?


Speed Limit = 50 mph 2/ Forty’s are in. Obama, at 47 years old, joins a healthy stable of “forty-something” leaders. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is the youngest I could find at 41 years old. Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev and Sweden’s PM Fredrik Reinfeldt are 43. Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, Ireland’s Brian Cohen and Spain’s Jose Luis Zapatero are 48. Canada’s Stephen Harper is 49. I am sure that I have missed out a few others — but these are all (with the exception of Harper) leaders born in the 1960s. [Note, among other notables, that Sarkozy (53), Merkel (54), and Putin (56) are, with the majority of other leaders, in their 50s.]

3/ Seeing that Obama is a Web 2.0 President-elect (he has his own Twitter, MyBarackObama blog, YouTube, etc), how far can he be a Sustainable Development-President as well? See here for a prior post on the relatedness of web 2.0 and sustainable development. Certainly, this article by Thomas Claburn at InformationWeek
would seem to back up the possible correlation. ADDED 22 NOVEMBER: I was turned on to this NY Times article, “Generation O get its hopes up” (Nov 7) after publishing this post. Obama communicated in a way that “spoke” to people. As the article writes, “Government under Mr. Obama, they believe, would value personal disclosure and transparency in the mode of social-networking sites. Teamwork would be in fashion, along with a strict meritocracy.”

4/ Did you realize that within two days of each other, Obama won the US Presidency, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Paris Masters 2008 and was crowned #1 for France, while Lewis Hamilton became the youngest ever Formula 1 Champion? As both Hamilton and Tsonga are 23 1/2 years old, Obama at 47 is exactly double their age. And all three of them are métise (specifically a black father and a white mother). Rather remarkable, no?

Your thoughts?

Kenya Safari Holidays April 2008

Kenya – A Recap of our 6 days in the Great Wild Bush

We arrived in Kenya at Nairobi International airport on our holidays in May and, somewhat predictably, spent the first 30 minutes in a highly disorganized line up to get through customs. We had already purchased our tourist visas at the Kenyan Embassy in Paris only to find that you could do the same thing at the airport customs counter. In fact, buying the visa at the customs counter would have been quicker than the time we spent in the “regular” queue to have our passports stamped–much less when you add the two separate trips to the Kenyan Embassy in Paris. Our main confusion was that we didn’t know which queue to join. There was an empty counter for “All Other Nationals” and two other manned counters for “Kenyan nationals” and “East African Nationals.” When I think back on the customs lines in Paris’ CDG Roissy airport, I believe the confusion is probably comparable, but it is always more challenging to figure out in a foreign country.

Our guide, Ibrahim, met us outside the baggage claim. We then made an one-hour journey – through some back roads – to the house of my old Kenyan friend and schoolmate from the Old Mathouse (OMH), Martin Seth-Smith (Ker & Downey Safaris Kenya). Along the way to Martin’s, we were able to view the Kibera slums (which are the second largest slums in Africa and even more impoverished than the townships of Alexandria and Soweto in RSA). We had a wonderful evening reminiscing and catching up. The next day, we headed off at 8am, in a deluge of rain.

Our driver, Ibrahim, was a stalwart, serious and gracious man. Aged 68, Ibrahim presented himself more like a 50-55 year old. Having been a guide for 35 years, he knew all the roads well and safely steered us through our 6-day trip. Ibrahim, a Muslim, comes from the Kalenjin tribe (a tribe known for its long distance runners, and the tribe from which came Kenya’s second President, Mr. Daniel Arap Moi). Ibrahim described how he used to run 10 miles to and from school that was situated on top of a hill.

Among the marvelous experiences in Kenya, and despite being in the rainy season when animals are not migrating through Kenya, we managed to spot each of the Big Five, including a rare and fleeting view of a scampering leopard, as well as just one cheetah (one of the remaining 15,000 on this earth). While we were out looking for animals, I wanted to pick up a bit of Swahili. Cheetah in Swahili is Duma (the name of one of our most wonderful babysitters when we lived in Paris back when…). The cheetah can get to 45mph in 3 seconds and looks so approachable… Tricky.

At Mara Intrepids in the Maasai Mara (6 hours from Nairobi), the tented sleeping arrangement was a first for us all. Including the enormous hippo sounds that woke us in the early morning, it was a wonderful experience. Also, the children absolutely enjoyed the Maasai tribe induction where they were entertained morning and afternoon with bow & arrow making, Maasai clothing and dancing (or rather jumping vertically). The Mara Intrepids Camp was, all told, the best quality we experienced.

We did one night at the idyllic Sweetwater tented camp. The restaurant-side watering hole that attracted all forms of animals was a great spectacle. One highlight was the visit of Morani, (the Little Warrior) the tame black rhinoceros (photo to the right). A pleasant home video on Morani was done here on YouTube. We also did a 1 1/2 hour “night safari”, which, at the heady price of $80/person (including the kids), was a complete fiasco. Aside from the fact that the only animals we saw–that we were not able to see during the day–were one big white owl and 2 mongooses (or should that be mongeese). And, what other animals we saw, the one spot light lamp gave us a poor viewing. Of course, the hoped-for “hunt” was not to be had the evening we went out. But, the main problem with our ride was the impact of a rain shower that rendered the road into a skating rink. We got stuck in the mud twice and, with the jeep bucketing from right to left and back, our eyes were glued on the road rather than on any animals.


Driving from camp to camp afforded us a view of the “inside” of Kenya as opposed to airplane hopping and just seeing the refined camps sites. This meant that we saw the poverty of rural Kenya, the hard working farmers, the lounging men, a woman carrying wooden benches (tied by rope and affixed around her forehead) and the enormous number of young children, many of whom were sitting on the side of the highway. There were even a few instances when I spotted machete-wielding children.

Driving on the roads of Kenya meant that we also saw the state of the infrastructure. Some of the roads were in such poor condition and so bumpy, it made picking your nose an extremely hazardous (if just as unsightly) habit. You also see the presence of police – there were police checkpoints roughly every 15 kilometers. We were stopped only once in the 7 days.

In another insight into the Kenyan way, on our way down to Amboseli, we had to make a stop at the Catalyst Travel Agency office in Nairobi to meet John, the “agent.” In an unfortunate and ungracious act, John (read: the boss) dropped 48 bottles of water on the street beside the jeep and obliged our guide to pick up the bottles without lifting a finger to help. An unnecessary humiliation

After our visit to Sweetwater, we made a brief stop at the Sweetwater Primary School, run by Mr Peter Bitaka. We met all the children and delivered a little care package. Education will be at the heart of progress in Kenya as in so many other developing countries.

Kenya, whose name was abridged from the Kikuyu name of Mount Kenya, Kiri Nyaga (“Mountain where God is”), boasts a population of 35 million people, up from 7 million 40 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the major ethnic groups of Kenya, which has 43 different tribes are as follows: Kikuyu 23%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 11% (such as our guide Ibrahim), Kamba 10%, Kisii 6%, Meru 5%, Maasai 1.8%… I believe the 1.8% Maasai might be understated. In any event, driving through Maasai Mara, you obviously see mostly Maasai and, it would appear that it is a group that is growing fast. Non-Africans (Asian/Desi, Anglo-African/European, and Arab) amount to 1%. Refuting Wikipedia’s entry, I also believe that there are many more Indians, especially in the Mombassa region.

In terms of religions, Wikipedia lists the religious affiliations accordingly: Protestant and Quaker 45%, Roman Catholic 25%, Islam 10%, Traditional Religions 10%. Apparently, for those of you studying US social studies and the founding of Pennsylvania (like my son), Kenya actually contains the largest body of Quakers in a single nation.

For a review of the 4 lodges we stayed out, we’ll go with a quick star system:
1* (poor) up to 5* (great)

Animals Accommodations Service
Mara Intrepids (Maasai Mara) **** ***** ****
Sarova Lion Hill (Lake Nakuru) *** *** ***
Sweetwater (on the Equator) **** **** ***
Serena Amboseli *** ** **

While we went in the midst of the rainy season, we were lucky enough not to be dumped on too badly. There were few people in the lodges (the first three we were running at something between 30-40% occupancy). As for the political unrest, there was nothing to see. We were spoiled with views of Kilimanjaro on both days. A French journalist we met at Amboseli told us that there were many more animals to see in Tanzania. That did not stop us from seeing plenty of animals and enjoying our safari experience. However, next time, maybe we will head for the land of Zanzibar…

No Country for Old Men – Film review

No Country for Old Men – Film Review: 4.7/5.0 stars

“No Country for Old Men” was one of two films that I saw on the plane from Dubai to Paris, both of which featured Vietnam veterans. And, I was totally surprised by the strength of this film since I hadn’t read up about the film ahead of time.

The New York-based Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) have created a powerful film noir style that is masterfully applied to No Country for Old Men. Having just been on safari in Kenya, observing the ouster of the “older males” among various animal species, one is reminded of the pitiless nature of Nature.

Directors of Raising Arizona (whacked out comedy), The Man Who Wasn’t There (film noir) and the whimsical Barton Fink, the Coen brothers are returning to American cinema what generic Hollywood is taking away: superior plots, unpredictability and thought provocation.

No Country for Old Men
, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (which I never read), was released in November 2007. Among the clever parts to this film is the ability to express extreme violence without necessarily showing it. And, among the finer surprises, evil is not vanquished…if anything, it is insidiously starified. And, with all three main characters’ lives intertwined yet rarely overlapping (physically), you never really know who the “hero” is. And the ending is designed to make you reflect. There is no gratuitous happy ending in NCFOM.

Featuring non-standard actors for Coen films, NCFOM has, all the same, a strong cast:

  • Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (for Whom the Bell Tolls?);
  • Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss (the man who never quite makes it);
  • Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh (pronounced so close to sugar you can taste it);
  • Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s wife, Carla Jean Moss;
  • and, finally, a somewhat unbelievable Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells (the supposedly toughest SOB bounty hunter).

Amply recognized, No Country for Old Men was honored with numerous awards: three British Academy of Film awards, two Golden Globes, and four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See here for a slew of other “official” reviews of the film (4.6/5 on average). Definitely a film to see when you are not feeling down, though.

Emirates Airline marvels again on Nairobi-Dubai-Paris

Emirates Airline logoAfter a first experience on Emirates Airline, two weeks ago (post here), I have since taken three more flights with Emirates (EK). Turns out our first experience was not one-off. We flew from Dubai to Nairobi a week later, then on Thursday we did a double header: Nairobi to Dubai (5 hours) then Dubai to Paris (7 hours) with a two and half hour layover in Dubai’s bustling airport. Each time, the flight (in Economy) was a pleasure.

This last time, we added a special wrinkle, something we could have made a real flap about: a last minute injury. At 1pm on Thursday, our very last day on holidays, my son, Oscar, fell by the pool on a lava rock and gashed his knee. So badly, that it needed 6 stitches which were put in by the Serena Lodge (Amboseli) medic. The “operation” took over an hour and a half (including having to find him, first) and happened on our room’s balcony (i.e. outside), replete with monkeys onlooking (photo to right; one of them finally managed to steal some cotton).Kenya Amboseli Monkey watching first aid

With Oscar sown up, we hit the road (and in Kenya, that is not an understatement). Our valiant driver, Ibrahim, took us to Nairobi airport in a little over 5 hours, with Oscar stretched out in the backseat. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and were able to get a decent seat for Oscar in order for him to keep his leg straight as much as possible.

On the flight EK722 (May 1) to Dubai, the staff were good enough to reserve a set of four seats which allowed Oscar to sleep stretched out for the full 5 hours. I would like to signal out the kind Dubai Airportservices of Mohamed Haji. When we got to Dubai, Oscar got a fast and furious nose bleed. This afforded us a visit to the Dubai Airport medical centre. A doctor from Senegal and a nurse from Kerala, India, took care of Oscar’s nose then reviewed and re-dressed his knee. All clear. And very civilised! Then Oscar was taken by wheelchair to the “Special Handling” area which meant a comfortable seat, juice and biscuits… The rest of us managed to find seats outside (although they are at a real premium at the overcrowded Dubai departures level).

Our flight EK073 (May 2) from Dubai to Paris was as pleasurable as the flight out (again on the Boeing 777-300ER), if different because of Oscar’s leg.

Here are the further thoughts I would like to add to the prior post regarding the EK service:

* The flight attendants are very international — intentionally, Emirates recruits from a very wide array of nationalities, allowing them to announce at the outset: “On this flight, we have crew members speaking the following languages…” On this EK073, there were 10 different nationalities. Some kind of proof that diversity pays! The wonderful staff that helped us out included the energetic Lydie (an Aussie) and dapper Aman. There was also the kind Z’ied (notEmirates Airlines ICE sure on the spelling).

* Each seat is equipped with a “ICE” (information, communication, entertainment) system. The ICE digital wide screen is a touchscreen (super easy to use) and is as good as it gets.

* The USB slot at each seat (to the right of the telephone-cum-“remote control”) is to allow passengers to view your holiday pictures on the wide screen TV or to listen to your personal media player through the ICE system. IPODs can even be read if they are set to “disk mode.”

* The ICE booklet (for May) is very agreeable to read and shows the extremely wide variety of options and selections available. It even includes a set of good old rock’n’roll box sets, a random set of audio books (Crime & Punishment, David Copperfield, Tom Peters Live in London…), comedy (Monty Python, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers…) and a brief guide to the anthology of major composers and classical musical periods over the past 500 years (nice pedagogical touch, no?).

In any event, as if I needed any further proof, the very day we took our flight back, the newspapers were splattered with the Emirates financial results: profits rocketed up 62% to Dh5.3 billion in fiscal year 2008 (Mar) on revenues of Dh41.15 billion, despite a Dh1.83 billion extra fuel bill. As this Gulf News article writes, Emirates Airline is indeed an important part of the Dubai success story:

“Emirates contributes about Dh47 billion, or nearly a quarter of Dubai’s Dh198 billion GDP, to its economy, the airline said yesterday.”

Hopefully the bosses of these flight attendants will get wind of their great service. In the meantime, I can only say: fly Emirates whenever you can!