A Cruise, but no Death on the Nile

After four weeks of packing and moving and after a long day’s flight and hair-raising (if you have it) taxi ride, we felt the need for a little bit of R&R, in this case, rest and relaxation. So, the day after arrival we decided to spend doing nothing, mostly beside the swimming pool.

Now if you know anything about Wilma and Paul you will know that they are not people who are likely to be idle. Well, I say that; this is certainly true of Wilma, but if idleness were to be an Olympic sport Paul would be likely to be selected for team GB!

By the afternoon, however, we were tired of idling and were ready to get into gear and to do something. Somebody suggested a cruise on the Nile. We were told that there will be a relaxing meal, some Egyptian entertainment, and a beautiful time in the warmth of the evening observing Cairo from a cruise ship.

Now, we’ve got to admit that this put us in mind of film based on an Agatha Christie novel, starring, Peter Ustinov or David Suchet. Death on the Nile is certainly not something that we wanted, but the idea of being served a posh meal, on linen tablecloths, on a cruise ship slipping silently down the Nile, did have its appeal.

After an hour-long journey by taxi, in which we enjoyed/endured the same excitement and terror as the previous night, we found our boat and hurriedly went abroad. I had said to Wilma that this really was the celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary: exotic and romantic.

As most of us know, expectations and reality often do not coincide, in fact they often collide. This night was one of those non-coinciding and definitively colliding type of nights! As we entered, any idea of a 1930s, Art Deco dining room immediately disappeared from our imaginations.

What we encountered was something more like greasy café buffet canteen on water! The long tables—the linen table cloths were nowhere to be seen—were crushed together in something like a scene out of Shawshank Redemption. A crowd of people, mainly of oriental descent, were queueing waiting for the buffet to be served to them. Rather than appearing like they had just dressed for dinner, they looked more like they had spent the day being ushered round tourist spots too quickly and being harried by groups of hawkers with greater persistence than the average sand fly.

We were ushered to the front of the queue—an encouraging sign—and given a table a table right beside the buffet salad bar. The queue passed right beside us further reducing the exotic and romantic feel. Being gallant, I joined the queue and Wilma, dressed in her beautiful summer dress, looking lovely, but rather forlorn and disappointed sat quietly and waited for me to reach her so that she could join the queue. The food, as it turned out, was rather good. This table placement actually turned out to be a blessing as nobody else could actually get to the table next to us due to the adjacent queue. Once everybody was served we were left in ‘peace’.

Our illusions of a "Poirotesque" soirée were further damaged by the live music. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't remember in the film Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot joining in enthusiastically in a hearty rendition of "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands!" I am also slightly vague in my memory of the singer in the dining room of Poirot’s Nile Cruiser, launching in to a version of "My Way" or “What a Wonderful World”! I was more than ready to finish my meal and clamber upstairs to the outside part of the boat to enjoy the warmth of the night and the peace of the Nile.

This turned out to be the most relaxing and peaceful part of the evening. We were ensconced on the port side of the boat and were able to see bright lights of the restaurants and bars lining the Nile. Neon was the preferred chemical alongside the river. Whether they were boats, hoarding or even mosques, neon was it!

Many of the hoardings were modern adverts for every kind of gadget; mostly gadgets average Egyptians could never afford. One especially caught our eye. This was an enormous advert for a Chinese mobile phone company. The two people photographed in the ad, were clearly rich, European in dress, light-skinned, and Western. Their mobile phones seemed to transform them into the persons that we all want to be. Happiness was a simple mobile phone purchase away. This advert sold happiness in wealth, European clothes and goods and Western values.

I was wrenched from my reverie by the boisterous sounds of a tinny species of pop-music. This came from, what one could only describe a series of neon lights on water! Every now and then, one of these slightly crazy-looking, noisy boats went past. Some seem to be inhabited by very few people, some inhabited by too many. There was one where a group of young men were running up and down and doing acrobatics to “la Vida Loca”, using the crossbars of the boat covering as parallel bars. Others seem to have been hired by families who are celebrating either a wedding, or some other family gathering such as a birthday. The unifying factors were colourful, flashing, brash lights, enthusiastic activity and ear-splitting noise. These mobile discos seemed to be competing with each other to give the most intense experience.

My reflections on the evening revolve around expectations and reality. For Wilma and me, we thought we would get a European style, private experience, cruising along the Nile in silence. The experience we had, however, was something altogether more Arabic. It was loud, communal, and wholly different from anything that Europe would have to offer. Our Eurocentric understanding of reality is constantly questioned by encounters with the ‘cultural other’ that we do not understand, perhaps we do not like, but is perfectly valid in its context. For the average Egyptian, happiness is being sold to them in shiny, Western clothes and mobile phones. The reality, as we, and they know, is something quite different.


From the Airport to the Hotel


Giza Pyramids

So, we arrived for our stay in Egypt; two locations and three purposes. The locations were Giza and Anaphora. The first two purposes were R&R and R: Rest and Relaxation, in Giza, and Retreat in Anaphora—the third purpose was T. No, not a “drink with jam and bread” but Teach, also in Anaphora.

When you go to a place for the first time, it is both exciting and terrifying. The experience of visiting a new place, especially a new city is just that. Wilma and I have been many new places in the world. We have generally got lost within a day or so: exciting and terrifying!

Well, when we arrived in Cairo, we were immediately lost because we could not find out planned taxi. After half and hour of phoning and looking we found Mohammed outside. Apparently, taxi drivers are not allowed into the airport, which questions Francis Bacon’s assertion about mountains and prophets: the mountain will certainly have to move, because Mohammed can’t!

The journey from airport to hotel would take an hour and a half of excitement and terror. This is not that we haven’t travelled in wild traffic before—Buenos Aires, Cochabamba, Lima, Kuala Lumper, Taipai, Addis Ababa and Casablanca just to name a few—but it’s that you forget how exciting and terrifying it is!

As Wilma pointed out, the city council were wise in not wasting money on painting lines on the road; they were surplus to requirement! Where there would be 3 lanes in the UK, Cairo boasts “six-lane highways.” The mention of lanes, however, is misleading because the cars do not proceed in a straight line or lane, for that matter. Where drivers perceive a gap of approximately 5 cm in the lane in front of them to the left or right, they seem to feel the need or divine call to accelerate into it. This is accompanied by the braking, accelerating and swerving of several other vehicles avoiding collision. Added to this are numbers of pedestrians crossing between the cars, judging how to cross with frighteningly pin-point accuracy. And this is just the thing…it works! Wilma’s comment to Mohammed that he is a good driver didn’t seem to reach the required level of admiration.

Apart from the aforementioned, a couple of observations on the journey are worthy of mention. Firstly, the traditional and the modern in harmony. So many commentators (especially Right-Wing Western ones) assert that traditional Islamic ways are not compatible with modern life. Two incidents call this into question, Firstly, the ubiquitous nature of the smart phone. Everybody has one. And everybody is always looking at them. I observed, in rather an alarmed fashion, the driver of a “combi,” with at least 15 passengers, texting, honking, swerving and shouting at the same time: who says men can’t multi-task! Apart from the horn, a smartphone is an essential accompaniment for any self-respecting car, bus, lorry or motorcycle driver in Cairo.

A second example is one which, I wish, I could have photographed. I observed a woman, in a traditional, if rather tightly-wound headscarf, walking through Cairo Airport chatting way on her smartphone. Nothing unusual there, you say. True, but the smartphone was firmly wedged into her headscarf, which allowed her to carry two suitcases at the same time! Gadgets4Us could have not invented a better mechanism! The traditional and the modern were seen to be in perfect harmony; and without any mass-produced plastic thing.

Another observation is one that will not surprise anybody who has travelled in the majority world, or anywhere else, come to think of it. I mean the sickening and widening gap between the rich and the poor. On our journey we were often distracted from what was on the side of the road by the almost Waltz-like nature of the vehicle procession in front of us. After several minutes of hyperventilation, the impression of imminent death receded, and we started to observe the shops and businesses, mainly on our right. There were the typical array of plastic containers, shoes and food outlets. There were, however, also many posh boutiques. As we were speeding along, I noticed a Gucci handbag shop and a sharply-dressed woman, with her newly purchased bag, emerging from it—the shop not the bag. I am surprised she didn’t break her neck, falling down the steps as she was wearing, the most vertiginous heals I had ever seen and, to make it worse, sunglasses. And all at 11.30pm to boot!

At that moment we braked so hard the fear of imminent transferral to glory returned. The reason for the braking was not another motorcyclist cutting us up, but a speed bump in the middle of the highway! Incidentally, some of the motorcyclists appear to by escapees from Cirque du Soleil, given what they have balanced on their vehicles! This little braking incident, however, drew my attention to a few people on the left-hand side of our road, one in particular. She was almost bent-double, dressed in, what can only be described, as sepulchral rags. She must have been over seventy, but here she was, taking advantage of the traffic, slowing for the speed bumps, to beg a few Egyptian Pounds, or more likely shillings. What was a woman of such and age doing this at 11.30pm on a Thursday night? She should be at home surrounded and being fed by her children and grand-children, watching the Egyptian version of CBB or something, not on a busy highway begging.

The contrast between the two women could not have been more marked. One rich beyond the poor’s wildest dreams. The other poor beyond the rich’s darkest nightmares.

What came back to me as I write this is Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, The Mission. He said, that we must accept this reality because, “the world is thus.” Is he right or was Cardinal Altamirano nearer the mark when he replied, “No, Señor Hontar, thus have we made the world, thus have I made it.”

The airport to the hotel was a revealing journey, not only about Cairo, but reality.


Is the alternative narrative actually alternative?

OK, my previous attempt at creating a theological discusssion failed dramatically. Here's another try.

Hollywood is attempting to move away (in its own way) from a white, male dominated narrative; i.e. the white male superhero comes in and kills the bad guy, saves the world and gets the girl.

Now here's the thing, I reckon ("I" being white, middle aged, middle class and male) the latest pro-African movie (Black Panther) and feminist movie (Tomb Raider) seem to challenge that narrative.

I don't think they do. Why? Well, because the hero (T'Challa or Lara) still uses the same methods as the white dude to carry out their mission (Batman, Superman or Spiderman). This constitutes mainly violence and the threat of violence.

OK, my theological problem with both of these films, and most others is this. By the way, this is the theology bit. Christ triumphed over evil, sin and the evil one, not by violence (redemptive violence Hiebert calls it) but by suffering on the cross. This questions Hollywood's actual narrative (actual as contemporary and actual as the real narrative); i.e. violence is a [the] solution to geo-global issues.

John's gospel makes it abundantly, and disturbingly (as His followers) clear that the divine method of redemption follows the course of suffering not triumph. In John's passion narrative, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of (ek) this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from (ek) another place” (John 18 36, NIV). It is clear from what Jesus says that this "other place " (where his kingdom comes from) does not consider violence as a solution to political issues [i.e. who is king?], unlike our movies.

Then later in the narrative this interchange takes place, "When Pilate heard this [this being, that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and therefore king], he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” [cf. John 18:36] he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:8-11), Even with the power to free himself, Jesus did not consider violence as the solution to his, rather critical predicament.Matthew 26:53 clarifies that legions of angel could be drafted in to resolve Jesus' problem but he would not do so and therefore, Peter's use of violence was not needed.

Two issues emerge here. Firstly, where Jesus comes from, the heart of the Father, violence does not solve political issues. Secondly, even when God himself, has the power to free himself via violence, he chooses not to. Suffering is preferable to violence These are both counter-cultural narratives and put into stark relief two films which claim an alternative narrative. They change the colour or gender of the hero but don't change the essential problem.

Some questions to consider. Firstly, is it possible to make a film where "anti-racist" and feminist values are promoted? Secondly, is it possible to have a film that does not simply nod to the massive talent of black actors and to female actors but also promotes their values (I am assuming that both are non-violent and willing to suffer; cf the suffragette movement)? And finally, can the, what I consider to be, the alt-right narrative of Hollywood films be changed and thereby redeemed for the kingdom of God?

My critique is that pro-African and Feminist media have not emgraced a radical enough agenda, or is it simply violence sells?

Comments please. Shoot me down!


Dark stories for dark world

The Guardian ran a story this week “We need the darkest Christmas stories. These are dark times”. Basically its message was that the writer was sick of glitz and cloying schmaltz and wanted a bit of of pagan magic with her mince pies. She mentions several darker stories but doesn’t actually get down to telling us why times are so dark. I guess it’s obvious!

Trump threatening nuclear war in the Korean peninsula, the imponderables of Brexit, homelessness on the rise, strains on the NHS, protests against the government in Argentina, Spain and many other countries, the ongoing fight against ISIS, the terrible war in Yemen, sexual harassment of girls, FGM, the list goes on.

So we want to drown our misery in glitz and schmaltz or do we stare into the darkness of our own darkened souls and despair? Or is their alternative?

The real Christmas story offers such an alternative. What could be darker than the Nativity? Suspected adultery, possible divorce, astrology, a despotic king plotting the death of a rival, a Middle Eastern family fleeing oppression, infanticide, and displacement of a vulnerable family to a foreign country: and that’s just Matthew’s gospel! Definitely not for the children. One can hear the outraged headline in the Daily Mail.

“Children traumatised by ‘realistic’ Nativity. Is this what Christmas is about?”

Well, frankly, yes. It is about all these things. It is about danger to the vulnerable, power plays by the despotic, scandal, murder and uncomfortable foreigners. That is exactly what Christmas is about.

But into this darkness comes something else. The baby and child at the centre of this whirlpool of dark forces, brings hope. Not the hope of escape from the darkness, because, as we know, thirty years on, he is the victim of, just as dark political forces jockeying for position in an equally deadly game. Rather, the hope this story brings is hope in that darkness. It is the hope that says, despite all the evil, despite the machinations of the rich, despite your utter impotence to escape, God is there, he is still there.

God doesn’t give us glitz and schmaltz to drown our sorrows. He doesn’t forces us to look into the dark soul of human despair. Jesus Christ shows us a reality far grittier than any Oliver Stone movie but the hope is that God still in control. There is, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “the deeper magic”. This is the deeper magic of resurrection.



A Methodist theologian from Uruguay, Federico Pagura wrote a Tango about this.

Because he entered the world and history;
because he broke the silence and agony;
because he filled the earth with his glory;
because he was light in our cold night.

Because he was born in a dark manger;
because he lived sowing love and life;
because broke hard hearts and
raised the downcast souls.

For this reason we have hope;
For this reason we fight with vigor;
For this reason we look with confidence to the future (in this my land).

Because he attacked ambitious merchants
and denounced wickedness and hypocrisy;
because he exalted children and women
and rejected those that burned with pride.

Because he carried the cross of our griefs
and savored the gall of our wrongs;
because he accepted to suffer our condemnation,
and so die for all mortals.

Because a bright dawn saw his great victory
over death, fear and lies;
now nothing can stop his story,
nor his eternal Kingdom nor his return.



Notes from a Very Small Island - Sign? What Sign?

As you can tell we had a great time on Lanzarote. The landscape and how Manrique used it was a marvel.  Another marvel is how the island road administration expect non-islanders to find their way around!
I have already mentioned how Cesar Manrique wanted to limit the numbers of advertising hoardings on Lanzarote. He was successful and, it must be said that, not being reminded how, "we're lovin' it" or how "every little helps", we aren't and it doesn't, right! I have been able to survive really quite well without the constant reminder that it is my responsibility to send as much money as possible, with the. Motivation of "helping the economy". Stuff the economy I say!
Anyway, returning to Lanzarote, one of the side effects of this wonderful campaign of Manrique's is that the signage in general is a little, how can I put this, creative. Or put a little less gently, maddening, moronic and mmmmmmmm miserable! Road signs seemed to be designed to slow traffic down, because that was the only way you'd see them before you had passed.
This caused a little friction between the navigator and driver. "So" said Wilma, "turn, left, HERE!" This leaves any sensitive driver pleading with his navigator to give more than 3m warning when making a 90' manoeuvre at 80kph! The problem was the sign was tiny in the extreme, tucked behind a cactus and tilted raffishly at 65' in the wrong direction!
On the way to the volcanoes and lava fields, we were reliably, and confidently informed...by a brown sign, that the place we wanted was up a side road 14km away. So, off we set, excitedly twittering about, lava tubes, lava bubbles, and lava bombs (yes they are just as scary as they sound). Several minutes and more than 14km later we came to a T-junction. Hmmm! We clearly had missed the road but didn't know how. There were no recriminations just calm statements that, yes, I had been watching the road. I find driving safer that way!
Well, we duly turned round a the T and discovered another reliable brown sign confidently telling us that the volcano tour was 13km away. Apparently several locals misinterpreted the grinding of Paul's teeth as a sign that the volcano was ready to put itself about a bit again.
So 3/4 of the return journey later we discovered a sign--to the volcano--only visible from our return side! Our trusty Renault Twingo, encouraged by this positive result sprang into action and less than 5 minutes later we looked upon the turning off to the volcano as Christian had looked upon the Celestial City.
We had gotten lost before. You've got to understand the road signage on Lanzarote, it hates you! Well, maybe that is an exaggeration. Perhaps in sympathy with Manrique's vision, it simply does not want to exist.
Come to think of it, all of this is rubbish. You have got to understand that not all road signs are meant for cars. We discovered this when we followed several signs purporting to Indicate the way to far flung places, but turned out to lead to a dirt track. I eventually worked out (don't laugh, it happens) that the wooden dun coloured signs are for seasoned walkers. Yes, the destination may lie 30km eastwards but these are walkers' signs. Once I had that established, I could move on, and misunderstand another type of sign on Lanzarote!
Earlier in the week we had had an equally if not more bizarre experience related to this unique Lanzarote (or should I say 'Lanzagrotty') phenomenon. We were attempting to free ourselves from the vicelike grip of the back streets of Playa Blanca, when I rashly turned off on to a side road. This road led into what seemed to be, the twilight zone.
This was not so much a ghost town, because the ghosts had not been born yet. Here was a road, in a wasteland, with parking spaces but no buildings. I don't mean places where there are the beginnings of building work, but just land, bare, virgin, I don't know how else to put it, land. We wandered a few blocks in the car, not in a normal fashion because normally you wouldn't know what was round the next corner. We could see for 10km across the desert or at least deserted land.
We came close to escaping from our personal Emin Muil (sorry for the LOTR reference again) only to be thwarted by 10m piece of rough ground, that our trusty Twingo refused like a spooked racehorse refusing at the second circuit at Beecher's Brook. Finally, we came to, what Wilma described as "a big road". We headed north, we knew we needed north. So admonished and chastened, we vowed never to go to Playa Blanca again. Up to now we have kept that vow.

Notes from a very small island - 2

 With a brilliant architect and artist

The fact that I have not heard of an architect or even artist, is no reflection on her or his brilliance or creativity: it is solely down to my spectacular ignorance. Anyway, we discovered that Lanzarote and its tourism (not on the coast) was down to a man called Cesar Manrique. Manrique was, by turn, a visual artist, an architect, a gardener and an early environmental campaigner.
Born in 1919 to a poor family from Lanzarote, he travelled widely and learned greatly from artists around the world. He returned to the Island in the late 1950s and started working on the island and learning from it, drawing inspiration for his art and architecture.
His desire was to create art and architecture that complemented the island's story and structure. Interestingly he never used materials from the landscape to create. However, he used the structures of rock as a basis and backdrop for his work. He would use plaster and plastics to tie in the lava structures to the walls of a habitable space. The effect is fabulous,
He was the inspiration behind the man-made parts of the Jameos de Agua as well as the "Mirador del Agua" which overlooks the north of the island, and clings to the cliff of another volcano. He also designed some spectacular art pieces within that Mirador. A true genius.
The final day we had our hire car, we visited his house that he designed and had built and where he did most of his creations. It is mainly build within "lava bubbles"' caused by trapped gas which was expelled when the lava cooled. My trapped gas has never been so creative. Anyway, Manrique joined several of these bubbles to create living spaces, eating areas and lookout places.
Manrique used the idea of natural light, which had observed in the Jamelos to great effect in these rooms. The ever present volcanic grit was used as a planter for the garden borders.
He also campaigned against the over commercialisation of the island, getting laws passed to limit the advertising signs (great) as well as the size and positioning of road signage (boo, and we'll get on to this tomorrow).
All in all Manrique was a brilliant and wholistic artist. One commentary said he was able to "convert aesthetics into ethics."
Sadly, he died in a road accident in 1992 but his influence is to be seen over most of Lanzarote.

Notes from a Very Small Island

The land of volcanoes
To get away from the cold and damp of the UK in December, we often take the opportunity to get to the sun on a cheap package holiday. This year we went to Lanzarote.Lanzarote is 60km by 25km so is a very small island.
The whole of the island is volcanic. It has so many volcanoes that every direction you look you can see conical hills, some perfect and others with one side which has slid down. It reminds me, rather fightingly of Mount St. Helens! Much of the ground is covered by volcanic grit. The main function of this seems to cause vigorous exercise by slipping its way between the sole of your foot and the sandal. This causes a great deal of energetic jumping and can turn the colour of the surrounding air a distinctive blue!
We saw a couple of fascinating features caused by fast moving lava. There is a seven kilometre long "lava tube"  running under the island. Two tourist features demonstrate this: the "Jameos de Agua" and the "Cuevas Verdes". The first featured an entrance and exit with an underground lake in between. There is also a collapse in the roof of the lake between the exit and entrance which, when the sun is high enough, shines down into the lake with spectacular light. It is touristy but quite beautiful.
The "Cueva" is a lot less touristy and is a kilometre long walk through a lava tube. It put me in mind of the mine of Moria, though with fewer orcs! I still mentioned that we "are in good hands Mr. Frodo". According to Wilma, I repeated this joke several times, so unlike me! Anyway, our particular Gandalf was called Marcos. I think that he must once have had a person in the tour have nasty head injury. The number of times he cautioned us to mind out heads, or "ciudado con la cabeza" was quite touching! I am convinced, however, that he knew little English other that was written on his script! His pronunciation was truly creative. In Spanish, however, he was very well informed, giving detail way beyond the script to those who were interested.
Later in the week we also went on a bus tour around the lava flows in the South-West of the Island. The Lord of the Rings theme continued as the landscape looked like the description of the Plain of Gorgoroth. Whereas the "Cueva" was formed 20,000 years ago, these flows are just 300 years old! The descriptions from an eye witness sounded truly harrowing.
That same day we also visited the visitors' centre, located about 4km away; I guess somewhere on flat ground! The two men in the office spoke to us in English but we really didn't understand. I told them, in Spanish that we understood the local lingo. One of them clearly thought I was showing off, unusually I wasn't. He said "and Chinese", at which Wilma piped up "just a little", in Mandarin! The poor man was a picture, with several emotions fighting for dominance of his face! I think the result was a combination of disbelief, discombobulation and defeat!
The landscape of this island is truly inspiring. The landscape has inspired artists and architect to creat some fascinating work. But more of that tomorrow.
It is also inspiring and challenging knowing that God is still at work, creating and recreating his wonderful world.