Country Reviews: Weeks 9-10

The Khalifa family has been ruling Bahrain since 1783, and as of late, that rule has required a heavier hand to keep Bahrain away from the Arab Spring fervor that hit in 2011. The country is considered particularly susceptible to that kind of revolt because the population is majority Shia, while the ruling family is Sunni. That said, human rights groups have said that freedom of speech has been improving in recent years, so that’s something. Bahrain is unbelievably tiny, and yet it’s composed of 30 different islands. Also, they’re known for their sick Formula 1 race tracks.

Colonised by Germany, then became part of South Africa after World War I, fought a 25 year bush war (check out this 1987 WashPo article about it), and finally achieved independence of its own in 1990. Now, Namibia is seen as one of the most stable African countries. For one, it’s actually sticking to term limits! But there are still racial tensions, often spurred on by economic inequality. The white minority owns half the fertile land.

Slovakia was borne out of the ‘velvet divorce’ in 1993 – that is, the bloodless revolution that led to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. It hit a rocky start to independent governance, made even more difficult by trust issues with the EU and NATO. The two international bodies felt Slovakia’s first Prime Minister Meciar was authoritarian and too nationalistic, and Slovakia’s accession into the EU went much smoother once he was overthrown in 1998. In the most recent Slovak elections, an anti-migrant party made huge gains, just as Slovakia is about to assume the EU presidency, so that could go a long way towards shaping policy in the European migrant crisis that is still ongoing.

Somalia was considered a failed state for much of the last 50 years. After independence in 1960, communist leader Siad Barre had temporarily held the country in his grip (united, but not ideal), and his fall in 1991 led to complete anarchy. The country is made up of many smaller clans, and in ’91, those clans created many fiefdoms across the nation. The ensuing chaos gave birth to Al Shabaab, which has terrorized Somalia and surrounding countries for years now. The map in thisBBC article shows just how much territory Al Shabab actually holds in Somalia, and they impose a very strict version of sharia law in the land they control.

2/3 forest, 1/10 water – Finland sounds like a nature-lover’s paradise. Assuming he/she can handle the cold winters and ‘white nights’ of summer, a 10 week period when the sun doesn’t set. The Finnish love their land so much they have something called ‘Everyman’s Right,’ which states that about 90% of the land in the country is open to anyone, for camping, berry picking, fishing, whatever. In the spirit of ‘sharing’, Finland’s government also decreed that broadband internet is a universal right, and telecommunications companies in the nation are required to provide all residents with internet.

It’s not often you hear of a country purposely trying to hurt its reputation, but in 1987, the regime in charge falsely reported that Myanmar’s literacy rate was really low in order to get UN debt relief. The literacy rate in Myanmar is actually astonishingly high though. Myanmar’s military junta ruled for decades, but is now starting to lose a degree of power. The opposition party, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won overwhelmingly in elections last fall. The junta will still have a significant portion of parliament, however, because the constitution dictates that as a necessity.

Youngest country in the world. Won independence in 2011, after fighting Africa’s longest civil war. But as one of my colleagues says, they won independence but lost the ability to feed themselves (my cheeky response was that freedom feeds their souls). Half the population doesn’t have access to clean water. And despite an abundance of oil, the economy is in the gutter. I was however pleasantly surprised to read about about South Sudan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. And most of the population follows traditional religions.

I read a lot about the Republic of Cabinda, a region of Angola that has declared itself a sovereign state, but is unrecognized as such by Angola and most of the world. The interesting thing about Cabinda is that it’s a coastal region not even connected to the rest of Angola; it’s separated by part of the DRC. But most of Angola’s oil source is in Cabinda, which would explain why they don’t want to let it go.

Let’s journey back to the Ottoman empire, and even before then actually. From what I read, Syria has always had a very diverse population, and the Ottomans actually encouraged that pluralism. They subscribed to the belief that diversification, and representation from each of those groups, would allow for the most stable society and prevent rebellion. But after the French adopted the Syrian colony in 1916 (after the Sykes-Picot), they instituted a centralised government, and played favourites with the various minority groups. That tradition continued on within the government that assumed control after the French (in 1944), and you could argue that those ethnic differences and clashes are what led to the Syrian Civil War that’s now entered its fifth year. And now having typed that all out, it sounds shockingly similar to what happened in Rwanda before the genocide…


Country Reviews – Weeks 5-8

Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802-1431 AD, spanned Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnsam. And Angkor Wat, which was built in the empire’s capital, is the world’s largest religious monument. I read a lot about women’s rights during this time, because it was astonishingly progressive. For one, Angkor Wat’s many sculptures feature mostly women. Commerce throughout the empire was almost exclusively handled by women. And the king was attended by an all-female bodyguard.

ST&P is to Portugal what Australia is to England. The country was first colonised by Portuguese convicts in the 1400s. They held the country well into the 20th century, with clashes becoming more and more violent towards the end of Portugal’s settlement. In 1953, Portuguese rulers killed hundreds of African laborers in what is known as the Batepa Massacre.
The country now relies on cocoa and coffee exports and hopes to begin exporting oil soon. Also, very interesting social dynamics here. There are absolutely no higher education institutions in the country. And its people are very accustomed to the idea of open marriages and any kids that result from those marriages.

I understand that it’s a little controversial for me to even have Taiwan on this list, since it’s technically not even recognized by the UN as a country, but that in itself made it a region of intrigue for me. It’s been mostly autonomous since 1949, though Taiwan and China still engage in verbal spats from time to time, and can be a source of tension in the U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan’s newly elected president is its first female head of state, and she’s an opposition figure expected to possibly ruffle some feathers on mainland China. Worth watching out for.
Also, fun fact- Taiwan was home to Asia’s largest LGBT festival ever last October.

Right on the border with Greece, Macedonia has been at the center of the Europe refugee crisis for the past few weeks. They’ve closed their border, leaving thousands stranded on the Greek side. But Greece’s issues with Macedonia go back to the latter’s inception. The two have a conflict over Macedonia’s name because the Greeks are concerned that the country wants to annex a region in Northern Greece by the same name. For a while there, Greece even persuaded the UN and NATO to refer to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

So of course there was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. And there’s been a lot of debate lately about President Kagame being allowed to run for a third term. I’ve read a lot about both of those though, so I tried to focus on culture/geography instead. One of the most bizarre things I found was imimigongo, or cow dung art, traditionally made by women. It’s often dyed red, white or brown and painted on walls and pottery in geometric or spiral patterns. These pieces can be really beautiful – take a look.

Tragically the departure point for most African slaves coming to the New World, and the source of millions of blood diamonds which were at the root of civil war from 1991-2002. Then there was ebola, which killed more than 400 people, and a third of the international funds set aside to help Sierra Leone with the health crisis are missing.

It’s located at the crossroads of the the Abrahamic religions’ holy lands. Also, there are more Palestinian refugees than ‘original Jordanians’ in Jordan. And there’s no oil, which is unique for a Middle Eastern country. The economy survives mostly on tourism and foreign aid, primarily from the U.S.

It’s the 3rd largest economy, but is very removed from the world stage. For example, Japan rejected 99% of asylum seekers last year. It’s extremely insular. And until recently, that’s extended to its defence policy as well. From 1633-1853, it was illegal for foreigners to come to Japan and for Japanese citizens to leave. Obviously, things have lightened up a bit since then, but after its shenanigans in WWII, Japan adopted an isolationist policy under which it does not interfere in external conflicts in any way. It’s now starting to reconsider that, under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership.


Home to Europe’s only three volcanos. Country with the most UNESCO heritage sites. Most wine exports. Lots of fun superlatives here. Also, lots of corruption. In the 1990s, there was an operation called ‘mani pulite’ (clean hands) which exposed corruption at the very top of government, includiong former Prime Ministers. That led to the demise of what was called the ‘first republic,’ a group of corrupt elites. And many of them committed suicide after being exposed. But corruption is still very much a problem in Italy’s government, for example Silvio Berlusconi who was PM from 2008-2011.

The name comes from Kanata, which is Iroquois for village or settlement. Canada is the world’s 2nd largest country, but 90% of its population lives on or near the border with the United States. The U.S.-Canada trade partnership is also the world’s largest. Though they have territorial spats over the Arctic, with Denmark as well. Also, the province of Quebec has pushed for sovereignty in 1995 and 2006, but failed to achieve it both times.

One of far too many Central American countries where the U.S. has been a tad over-involved. That’s because America has always wanted control over the very strategically placed Panama Canal (15,000 ships traverse it every year), and the U.S. did have exclusive control over it from 1914-1999. Part of that ‘overinvolvement’ included the U.S. invading Panama in 1989 to depose the military ruler (Manuel Noriega) who had lost their favour. Fun fact: He ended up evading capture by hiding in the Vatican diplomatic mission, where the U.S. did not have jurisdiction. They flushed him out of there by blasting metal and rock & roll music.

Formerly called Nyasaland. Lots of poverty – 40% of the country lives on less than $1 a day. I read a lot about the country’s first president – Hastings Banda. He seems to be a bit of a controversial figure – head of the country’s nationalist movement and jailed by the British colonialists, but then had great relations with South Africa’s white minority apartheid government after he became president in 1963. Actually, Banda had great relations with the Western world in general, but that might have been borne largely due to need for foreign aid.

Was part of Yugoslavia for 90 years, and after that fell apart, Serbia & Montenegro were a union state from 2003-2006. But at that point, Montenegrins voted for independence and created their own state. That said, the populations of the two countries are still very mixed. 33% of Montenegro’s population are ethnic Serbs. Random fact: The Tara River Canyon in Montenegro is the deepest and longest canyon in Europe.

Lots of labour issues here. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery (in 1888), and poor people are still exploited and forced into labour there. That’s because of the vast poverty and therefore desperation. 1/3 of the population of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas (slums). Child labour and sexual exploitation are also very prevalent in the city. Meanwhile, they’ve got a political crisis as the government runs out of money and corruption is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

First East Asian country to implement Sharia (Islamic) law, and the similarities with Middle Eastern countries go on. Brunei has tons of oil, its citizens don’t pay taxes, and they each get a share of the oil money from the government. That’s lead to a very rich, high standard (and cost) of living, similar to that of the GCC countries. And the Sultan’s lifestyle/assets certainly represent that standard of luxury.

I feel like former Soviet states go one of two ways – they either end up loving Russia, or hating it. Latvia is one where ethnic Russians, who make up about 25% of the population, have gotten the short end of the stick. There’s a lot of resentment against then in the post-USSR era, and it manifests itself in laws like one passed in 2004 that restricts the use of the Russian language in school. And to further promote their own culture, students who fail the Latvian language test three times are denied citizenship.

Made up of 170 islands, Tonga is the last Polynesian monarchy left. But even that is fading away. After 165 years of feudal rule, Tonga elected its first parliament in 2010, and its first non-nobel Prime Minister in 2015. The royal family ended up losing hold on its power because the citizens became aware of its gross mishandling of funds. For example, one king hired American Jesse Bogdonoff as both a court jester and investment manager in 1999. Bogdonoff lost 26 million dollars belonging to the Tonga government, and many citizens still blame him and his sponsoring King for the country’s failing economy.

The country is mainly divided into an Arab/Muslim North and a Christian/Animist South, and the two halves have struggled to get along since independence in 1960. That’s recently been exacerbated by Boko Haram attacks, as Chad has pledged to help fight the group in Nigeria. Chad is rich in gold, uranium and oil reserves, but as a recent of the constant conflict, there’s both high poverty and bad infrastructure. And fun fact – there’s only one movie theater in the whole country.

Tiny country in West Africa that was colonised by the Germans, French and Brits at different times, but it seems like the French have had the most influence there. The current president is Gnassingbe Faure, son of Gnassingbe Eyadema who led the country for 38 years, died in office, and was promptly succeeded by his son. The opposition has cried foul at the last two elections (in 2005 and 2010), but the European Union has deemed both free and fair.

There’s of course a lot to know about Iran regarding its place in the world – most recently, its place in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, the Nuclear Deal signed last year, the Iraq Iran War, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the U.S. overthrowing the Shah.. on and on. But it’d be too much for me to delve into in a short paragraph. SO instead – I bring your attention to Zoroastrianism, which was founded in Iran in 224. It’s one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, and was one of the most powerful religions when it was first founded. Today, there are believed to be less than 200,000 followers globally.

Name comes from the indigenous name for the islands – Xaymaca, which means land of springs. And what sounds to Americans as ‘Jamaican slang’ is actually the primary language of the country – Jamaican Patois. Seriously, check out that video. She breaks down the terms and they sound like abbreviated versions of English phrases I’m familiar with, and then when she says them quickly, it’s completely incomprehensible to me. But super cool. Also, I hadn’t realized that Rastafari is actually considered an Abrahamic belief based on the reverence of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, crowned in 1930. And true Rastafari apparently find the term ‘Rastafariansim’ really distasteful.

I am absolutely fascinated by Poland’s behind-the-scenes kingmaker. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a former Prime Minister, now officially just a member of parliament, who pretty much runs the country from the sidelines. He’s got the ears of both the Prime Minister and President, and steers them towards his right-wing, catholic, Euroskeptic ideologies. The man is also just very strange. He is obsessed with cats, only accepted his salary in cash when he was Prime Minister, and has worn only black since his twin brother Lech (who also was President at some point) was killed in a plane crash in 2010. There was also a period of time when the twins ran the country side by side, as PM and President.

Home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Also, as part of my study of this country, I watched filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s movie ‘The Look of Silence’, and his interview with Talk to Al Jazeera. Both focus primarily on the massacres that took place in Indonesia around 1965 and 1966. The government rounded up all ‘communists’ (which included everyone they felt didn’t cooperate with the regime) and had them slaughtered, often in gruesome ways. Oppenheimer’s movies include some of the perpetrators of the violence reenacting the murders they committed, often with shameless pride. Something I also found really interested was that despite their obvious hatred of communists, some of the policies of the Suharto regime directly mirrored policies taking place in communist China around the same time. For example, the ‘transmigration programs’ that shuffled landless farmers to less inhabited lands at the end of the 1970s  sounded a lot like the Cultural Revolution that took place in China just a few years earlier.

One of many Latin American countries where the United States did a ton of damage. The U.S.’s fear of communism taking root in Central & South America led to decades of interventionist policy that made it difficult for democracy to develop in many of those countries. The result in many cases, particularly here, is extreme poverty and gang violence. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and youth gangs called maras rule the streets in poorer areas. To be fair, the poverty isn’t solely the fault of the U.S. of course. Lack of strong leadership at home is also to blame, and the environment in some cases. For example,  Hurricane Mitch in 1998 destroyed 70% of crops in Honduras.

Country Reviews – Weeks 3 and 4

Okay I’m seriously backlogged on this post, so I’m going to keep it snappy. No long rambling paragraphs. We’ve got 14 countries to get through, and I’ll still be about 10 behind. Oops.

Felt it was about time I researched a gulf country, given that I’m here. I didn’t know much about the British influence in the UAE until now. It was one of the ‘Trucial States’ formed with the British from 1820 to 1971. The various sheikhdoms that later became the U.A.E. agreed not to cede land, power or treaties to anyone except the British, and in exchange, the Brits protected them from pirates in the region. The part of this I found most interesting was that it’s been disputed whether there ever were pirates in that region to begin with. And that the Brits eventually left because they felt their security forces were spread too thin.

Also – the UAE was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Read a lot about the House of Saud and Wahhabiism – specifically how the ruling party these days gets its legitimacy from the religious leaders, which explains a lot about their domestic and foreign policies. Something I stumbled upon unexpectedly was the government trying to encourage a female labour force, if for no other reason than to improve the national unemployment rate. They’re doing so by creating all-women workplaces, which may not be considered the ideal approach in Western eyes, but at least it’s something.

Also – they’re currently constructing the ‘Kingdom Tower,’ which will be the tallest building in the world when it’s completed.

U.S. intervention is pretty much the bane of its existence. The U.S. government had backed the ruling Nicaraguan party for decades, until 1979, when the Marxist leader Sandinista staged a coup. Obviously, the U.S. didn’t like that. And it engaged in economic sabotage, and supported domestic terrorist rebel groups called Contras, to bring Sandinista down. That did eventually work out in the U.S.’s favour, but it didn’t win over hearts in Nicaragua. For years, the U.S. pushed for exclusive rights to the building of a Nicaraguan canal, meant to rival the Panama canal. The U.S. lost that fight, and China is now building the historic structure – even if that construction does keep being delayed due to environmental concerns.

I’d already known a bit about Darfur, the Sudanese civil war, and the consequent national split. So I focused on history prior to that, and statistics more recently.

Regarding the former –  I had no idea Sudan was co-ruled by Egypt and Britain for a time. It was called the’Anglo Egyptian Condominium,’ and lasted from 1899-1956.

And regarding the latter – I didn’t realize just how food-insecure Sudan is. There isn’t a ton of arable land, and the fertile land that exists is closer to war-zone areas. That means there’s a striking amount of poverty as well – something like 60%.

Literally had no idea this country existed before today. It’s a small island off the eastern coast of Africa, mostly inhabited by Africans and Arabs, and it’s in the Arab League. Known as ‘The Perfume Islands,’ Comoros was a French colony until 1975. It consists of 3 islands. There was a fourth called Mayotte, but it elected to stay a French colony when the other three became sovereign, and it’s still a territory of France today. Might have been a smart choice since Comoros has seen about 20 coups since independence, and it’s extremely dependent on foreign aid from South Africa and the African Union.

Tiny, tiny principality between France and Spain. It’s so small that it has virtually no army of its own, and its ‘co-princes’ are technically the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell (in Catalonia, Spain). Together, they’ve ruled Andorra for 700 years.

Only 11,000 people live in this pacific island nation, where they make a significant portion of their money by selling their internet suffix (.tv) to television providers! That said, the economy still needs a lot of help, since the land isn’t that fertile and it’s also slowly disappearing as the oceans rise. So several countries jumped in to help out with a trust fund, mainly the UK, Australia and New Zealand, with a bit of help from Korea and Japan as well. The trust fund accounts for 20% of Tuvalu’s economy and is spent with regard to a series of checks and balances. And the most astounding part of it to me was that I really couldn’t find any benefits of this for the sponsoring nations. A wholly altruistic economic venture? I must be missing something.

It’s capital, Dhaka, is known as the Rickshaw Capital of the World, and despite its tiny size, Bangladesh is the 7th most populated country in the world. It’s war for independence from Pakistan, finally achieved in 1971, was sparked by a passion to hold on to their mother tongue, and politics over the past 20 years have been dominated mostly by 2 leading, and rivaling, women.

Mongolia’s nomads are so cool! 40% of the country lives a nomadic lifestyle, herding livestock around the country. They’re amazing at horse riding and hunting with falcons and live in portable homes called ‘gers.’ And 33% live in or on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. The city’s geographical location in a valley, with camping nomads living all along its outer rim, create a pretty intense haze of smoke above the city. In fact, it’s got one of the worst air pollution ratings in the world.

I’ve been obsessed with Peru since 7th grade, when I had to do a project about it. Macchu Picchu and other Incan ruins have always held a fascination for me, and this was a nice excuse to google them all over again. And despite my interest with the ruins, I didn’t know how unique the country was aside from the ruins. It’s got deserts and jungles, and it’s name means “Land of Abundance.” That said, there’s also an abundance of coca leaf – Peru is the world’s largest producer of the cocaine-ingredient after Colombia, and drug trafficking accounted for 17% of the country’s GDP in 2009.

Another tiny country – this one’s population is so small that it has more companies than citizens. I also found it really unique that the citizens of Liechtenstein voted to give their prince MORE power in a referendum in 2003. That vote gave him the power to dismiss the government, nominate judges and veto legislation.

So there’s of course a lot happening in Yemen politically and militarily right now, and much of it goes as far back as the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. But I wanted to focus more on the culture. Yemenis carry a small dagger called a jambuja, and the average wedding lasts 21 days. I also didn’t know that there are 200 islands technically part of Yemen, with the largest one called Socotra.

There have only been 3 presidents in Gabon since its independence, even though that was in 1960. The longest-ruling one was Omar Bongo, who led the country for more than 40 years, and was then succeeded by his son Ali. Gabon is ailed by a huge wealth gap, and most of its citizens are farmers. Something I found really cool about it was their use of masks, traditionally worn at all sorts of ceremonies – including births, weddings, and funerals.

It was the last colony left in the Americas when it finally got independence in 1981, and even then, a border dispute with Guatemala meant that Guatemala didn’t recognize Belize until 1992.

Belize is all about the Mayans. There are tons of ruins here, lots of jade, artefacts, the Mayan codex which was found at Altun Ha (one of the most famous Mayan sites in the world.) There’s also Caracol’s ‘Sky Palace’ which is the tallest point in Belize. I also had no idea how tropical the country’s land was – it’s got jaguars and howler monkeys and toucans.

Country Reviews – Week 2

New week, new list. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

What I found most interesting about Zimbabwe was the Lancaster House Agreement – a deal between the Brits, Americans, and Zimbabweans that was signed as a prerequisite to full independence in 1980. It specified that after a 10-year period, the UK and America would pay white farmers in Zimbabwe to leave their land, so it could be redistributed among the black population. That’s because under colonialism, the 3% white population held about 80% of the fertile land. Thing is, in typical colonizer fashion, the Brits and Americans reneged on that deal when 1990 rolled around. And without the extra capital, Mugabe and his government couldn’t buy the farms from the white landowners. In their frustration, they began to just seize land instead, leading to falls in production and food shortages and consequently, a disastrous economic spiral. Inflation rose to 500 BILLION percent, and Zimbabwe’s currency became virtually unusable. They now use a ‘world currency basket’ (exactly what it sounds like – a mix of many world currencies), including most recently, the Chinese Yuan. It was adopted into the basket last year, but is just now being made available for everyday use, which is what led me to studying Zimbabwe last week!

On a positive note – Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in sub-saharan Africa, and the largest waterfall in the world (Victoria Falls).


It was the first black-led republic in the world, having won independence in 1804, and that in itself is super cool. What’s more, it won that independence as a result of a slave revolt.

But what I found absolutely fascinating was a few centuries later – the 29-year father-son dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier – also known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc. Francois was elected in 1957, and then just held on to power through ruthless violence and oppression. He created a terrifying gang called the Bogeymen to carry out his demands, and ruled until his death, after which, his son took over. When Baby Doc took the ‘throne,’ he was only 19 years old, making him the youngest president in history.

Another fun fact, they were huge believers in Vodou, which is an official religion in Haiti to date.


When I first think of Sri Lanka, I think of the decades long civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil Tigers. It left 70,000-80,000 dead.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself instead reading about the culture of multi-faith celebrations across the country. There’s Adam’s Peak – at the top of which, there’s a gold-encased footprint. Interestingly, almost every religion claims that footprint belonged to someone in its history. Which leads to multi-faith pilgrimages there every year, mostly from December to May. People climb the mountain in throngs in the dead of night, stopping at cute little tea shops along the way. I also read about a multi-faith village called Kataragama, which has a Hindu temple, Buddhist temple, and mosque all side-by-side, living happily in coexistence.


So I’ve been reading about Turkey quite a bit for work this year, so I already knew a bit about the Kurdish issue, Erdogan’s iron hold on the country, Erdogan and Gollum (lol), Turkey and the EUTurkey v. Russia, and Turkey fighting ISIL. Which are the main things that pop up when you do a general search.

I also knew that Turkey is seen by many as a combination of East and West. But I never realized that only 5% of Turkey is in Europe. That said, Istanbul is still the third most populated city in all of Europe!

I also knew nothing about Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus. It’s been occupying the northern part of Cyprus since 1983, in what it (but no other country or international body) recognizes as the ‘Turkish Republic of Cyprus’. The rest of the world sees that settlement as illegal occupation.


Honestly, it sounds like a mysterious fantasy world. It’s local name (Druk Yul) means ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon, and it’s near impossible to visit. The government sets a quota of tourists each year and must individually approve each one. And before 1970, no outsiders were allowed to visit at all. TV and internet didn’t arrive until 1999. Bhutanese locals are required to wear the national dress whenever they’re in public.

I’d imagine part of their insulation comes from the fact that they were never colonized, which is so rare for that region of the world. Both India and Britain handled Bhutan’s foreign affairs for a while, and India’s influence in that regard remains extensive, but given the Bhutanese’s insular nature, they weren’t too concerned about external politics.

And even their concern about internal politics is rather interesting – they monitor progress using ‘Gross National Happiness’ instead of GDP, which is just bizarre.

On a darker note, in the 1980s and 1990s there was an ethnic cleansing of Nepali Hindus who had been living in Bhutan for generations. Many fled back to Nepal, and the Bhutanese refugee centers there partake in the one of the biggest resettlement programs in the world.


Ok lightning round:

  • A third of the population is under the age of 14, in a striking contrast to the many aging populations around Europe (and in Japan).
  • The Moscow-backed President has been in power since 1952. He weathered a five-year civil war right after national independence in 1991, but he held on to the office. High insecurity ever since means the country relies heavily on Russia for security assistance. So it’s no surprise that Moscow’s influence remains high.
  • Poverty fell from 80% to 32% in the past 15(ish) years. But despite that, high unemployment and economic troubles make Tajikistan youth highly susceptible to radicalisation. That’s furthered along by the crackdown on practicing Muslims (i.e. forced beard shaving), despite the fact that the country is majority muslim. The secular government is just scared of the Islamist opposition party, against whom the aforementioned civil war took place.


First country to leave Yugoslavia, in an almost bloodless, 10-day revolutionary ‘war.’ It was the most liberal and prosperous region of Yugoslavia before it left, which made its transition easier than the other Yugoslav nations. But independence has still been difficult. Slovenia’s export-dependent economy was hit hard by the 2012 recession, and its reputation for liberal politics took a hit when they started revoking residency rights for non-Slovenes. Also, their populations is declining. Eep.

But! This is pretty cool: 60% of the country is forested, which sounds beautiful. They have about 10,000 caves. And the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was filmed in a Slovenian valley!

Country Reviews – Week 1

Hey there. Been a while since I wrote anything on this site. Seems to be a recurring theme that I revive it after at least a year away. So here we are.

This time, I’m brought back by a pet project I started. For posterity’s sake, here’s the announcement I posted about it on Facebook:

Working in an international newsroom for almost a year has taught me much about the world, but more so, it’s shown me how little I know. I’m learning a lot just by absorbing knowledge from the brilliant people around me, but I want to take a more active role.

So starting today, inspired by Lena Krause, I’ll be researching one country every day. I know a few hours of research will hardly make me an expert, but I hope to get a cursory sense of the countries’ cultures, histories, & politics. Each morning, I’ll post the country of the day here on fb, so if you have any advice for websites or journalists I should check out during my virtual travels, please let me know!

Today, I’m starting with the world’s most populous country – China.

I honestly had no intention of writing anything about my research. But since I started, I’ve found that talking to people about what I’ve learned has been half the fun, and it’s helped solidify the knowledge in my brain. So I figured I might as well go all the way with that approach – posting a little bit about my research online.
Here’s the plan – At the end of each week, I’ll take a day off from researching, and post the most interesting/striking/surprising facts I stumbled upon. One per country, more when I’m feeling particularly chatty (or more likely, indecisive).
This is what this week brought us:
Hefty one to start with, really. I suppose the bits I found most interesting were the 1950s-70s – after the Nationalist Kuomintang Party was driven out of power, to the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China, led by the Communist Party, began its reign. Some say their civil war never really ended, because there was no official treaty. Taiwan continues to maintain, and somewhat fight for, its independence. Beijing claims its part of their territory.
I was also fascinated by what followed the ROC’s banishment, particularly the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and following ‘Cultural Revolution.’ During the GLF, the government tried to centralize control of agriculture, to fund mass industrialisation. But the economy instead tanked during that period, marginalizing Chairman Mao, who commenced the Cultural Revolution to try and save face. During that period, old buildings and customs were destroyed, higher education all but shut down, and about 17 million urban youth were sent to work on rural farms, all in the name of purging capitalism.

None of that worked too well though, and the current constitution, adopted in 1982, integrates some capitalist values.

Researched this North African country on the fifth anniversary of its revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring across the region. I’d already read a lot about that prior to this week for work, so I focused my research mostly elsewhere. Fun facts:

        • It was a French colony until 1956, when it won its independence. That same year, it abolished sharia courts.
        • Home of the oldest minaret in the world, at hte Mosque of Uqba
        • 30% of the parliament is female

Everything in my research was happy, happy, happy. Literally. Denmark is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world. It has one of the highest minimum wages globally. Least corrupt government. So I specifically looked for the dark side for balance: There’s a general lack of diversity, its citizens have the highest private debt in the world, there’s low productivity, growing income inequality, 4th largest per capita ecological footprint. Also, it’s far-right, anti-immigration People’s Party is gaining popularity. Yikes. Still seems like a nice place to visit. Copenhagen is high on my tourism list.

Something else I didn’t know – Greenland is a (generally autonomous) territory of Denmark!

Big contrast from Denmark – Niger is consistently ranked the worst place to live, according to the UN. It’s got almost every public problem you can imagine – overpopulation, food insecurity, drought, poor education, low life expectancy. Niger didn’t ban slavery until 2003, and there’s frequent violence as the ethnic Tuareg group fights for greater autonomy. Here, I had to specifically look for some light: Niger banned hunting to protect its wildlife in the early 2000s. I thought that was pretty unexpectedly sweet. And they’re working on the education problem – Some villages hold literacy classes, and citizens have to show proof of their attendance in exchange for food aid. Seems like a decent incentive.

Chile is widely regarded as the most stable South American country right now. It’s also one of the most geographically diverse – with glaciers and lakes, but also the world’s driest desert. Chile owns Easter Island, the world’s most isolated island, well known for its monolith statues. And it’s an extremely catholic country – didn’t legalize divorce until 2005, and because of the stigma associated with divorce, many couples live separately, sometimes even with new families, while they stay legally married.

World’s first muslim-majority country with a secular republic. Azerbaijan’s economy relies heavily on oil and gas; it’s rich in both resources, and that’s brought in a lot of international investment. But it’s also bogged down with human rights violations – chiefly government corruption and crackdowns on the media. There’s also a decades-long territorial dispute. The Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh wants to secede from Azerbaijan, which led to violent uprisings in the past. Today, it’s still recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is mostly self-governed.

What interested me most about Austria was its Declaration of Neutrality after WWII. It was one of several European countries (Finland, Sweden, Ireland & Switzerland as well) to state its impartiality in the Cold War. In Austria’s case, the declaration was a prerequisite for its return to sovereignty in 1955. It specifies that Austria will not engage in any foreign alliances, nor will it allow foreign military bases on its soil. Thing is, while the latter part has held, the former has not quite. Austria has worked with NATO’s peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and UN military operations across the Middle East and Africa.

One more random fact – At least 65% of Austria’s electricity is generated via renewable energy, mostly hydropower.

Okay that’s it for now. ‘Til next week.

Archive: Camel Races are a Thing

So this post is a little overdue, but a few weeks ago, I went to the camel races here in Qatar! They’re about an hour west of the city (which is, incidentally, halfway across the width of this tiny, tiny country) in the middle of the desert.


The track is 8 km long, which is just under 5 miles, and I’d estimate that about 20 camels races in each run. The whole experience was unlike anything I’d expected.

First of all, the entire arena is very open. You can casually stroll into the area where the camels are being prepped for racing and take as many pictures as you want. You can walk across the track, and I did… multiple times. There was no one standing by to stop us, which was shocking because that means a little kid could easily run into the track to say hello to a camel and get trampled. Sorry, that’s morbid.

Moving on… There were three main “venues” from which to watch the races. There was the starting gate, which looks very similar to typical horse race gates. (That’s about where the horse comparisons stop. Camels run a lot slower and they’re not nearly as graceful.) There’s a bar both in front of and behind the camels. It seems sort of like the idea is to make them feel claustrophobic so they really run out of there when the front bar is lifted.

You can stand RIGHT on the sidelines as this happens. It’s pretty exciting the first time, but gets routine really fast. The finish line is a very similar experience. You stand right by the track, watch the camels finish the race, la dee da. Again, really cool once or twice, and then that’s it.

The last “venue” though really doesn’t get old. As soon as the front bar lifts at the starting gate, everyone rushes over to these buses that then drive alongside the camels as they run around the track. It’s great because you can see the camels really up close this way – though to be honest, that’s as bad as it is good.

The thing is, from up close, you start to feel bad for the camels. They have small robot jockeys on their backs, and the camels’ owners (along with a ton of other race viewers) drive alongside them to make sure they’re up to speed. If a camel isn’t running at the pace its owner wants it to run, they remotely control the robot jockey and it starts whipping the camel. The extreme exertion makes the camels start slobbering a lot. The spit starts to collect on their mouths, resembling foam, and it then travels down their necks. Their lips also flap all over the place as they book it. It’s kind of disgusting, to be honest, but you also feel for the poor things.

We went on the bus ride a few times, and it was exciting every time. Everyone is clamoring for a good shot, so the atmosphere is competitive and fun. The radio also plays very loudly in the background as some sportscasters call the race. And of course, moving with the camels means you get to take some very cool pictures. I’m no photographer, but I did my best. Here are the rest of the pics:


Archive: Damien Hirst, Ladies and Gentlemen

Last week, I teased you with a rather gruesome picture, and promised to write a post about it soon. So here it is (I’ll get to that particular picture eventually.)

For the last few months, the Qatar Museum Authority set up a Damien Hirst exhibit right next to the Museum of Islamic Art. It was free and open to people of all ages, which was interesting given the morbid contents of Hirst’s work. The goal was to start a conversation about art. There were stations for people to write about their thoughts after they went through the exhibit, and apparently, the QMA also collected video reactions from people around the city.

The exhibit started before you even entered the museum. Its facade was representative of the work inside. The building was white and rectangular (an unusually ordinary shape for this city of architectural creativity) with colored dots all over it.

The dots are important because they’re arguably Hirst’s most famous work. There was a whole room dedicated to “dots paintings,” and more were sprinkled throughout the museum. The idea is that the dots are all the exact same size and spaced the exact same distance from each other. And that distance is also the diameter of each of the dots. It’s a very mechanical-looking piece, as if it were just created by a robot, but Hirst paints each dot individually, which means they have all unique brushstrokes (not that you can really see them). According to the museum pamphlet, Hirst’s point was to make it look like it was made “by a person trying to paint like a machine,” with the ultimate goal of “pinning down the joy of color.” And “the formulaic approach…replicates pharmaceutical companies’ over-simplified scientific approach to life.”


This railing on the pharmaceutical industry was a motif throughout the museum. One piece was just a large glass cabinet with medicine bottles inside. There was another large glass cabinet with hundreds of pills lined neatly end-to-end on each shelf. These cabinets are supposed to represent the human body, which we pump with vitamins and supplements and all sorts of other medicines. Hirst argues that half the time, we don’t even know what pills we’re consuming, but we take them because we believe in science and we believe in doctors and just do what they tell us to do. But he believes these pills just create a false sense of security and give the idea that we can cheat death. The medicine cabinet pieces, first inspired by the very full medicine cabinet of his late grandmother, are supposed to challenge that belief.
There were also a lot of preserved animals in this exhibit, also meant to force us to “stare death in the face.” There were sharks preserved in formaldehyde with their mouths wide open.
A pregnant cow and calf were both cut in half, preserved in glass boxes, and positioned so that you could walk between the two halves of their bodies and see their innards. There was a decapitated cow with it’s head on a table and it’s body on the floor inside yet another glass box. I didn’t take any pictures of these – not because they were too gruesome, but because there was so popular that I couldn’t get a proper photo with all the people in the way.
This was another intriguing piece:
It’s a man who has skinned himself, from head to toe. He’s holding the knife in the air in his right hand, and that’s his skin hanging over his arm like a shawl. It’s a disgusting concept, but the statue itself is so majestic and beautiful. I can’t remember if there was a point to it other than that juxtaposition, but nonetheless, it’s interesting.
The stained glass behind him, which was also all around the room, was similar in that it’s gorgeous, but made entirely from butterfly wings. And since you kill a butterfly when you pluck its wings, they’re, in a sense, made from death.
There were a lot more morbid pieces in the museum, most of which I read about and took in, but didn’t take pictures of.  But there is still the matter of the rotting cow head.
The second I walked into this room, I could smell a stench in the air – and I’ve got an awful sense of smell. There were two glass boxes placed adjacent to one another. One had a rotting cow head, and the other had just a small white box in it with a hole in it. I’m not sure what was in the white box… maybe another head. Both glass cages had flies buzzing all around them. They were put in there as larvae, but they fed on this cow and a small dish of nectar in the corner, grew up, reproduced, died, and were succeeded by their fly babies. I suppose this was also supposed to go along with the motif of facing death and nature in its most carnal state. Mostly, it was just gross and disturbing. But fascinating at the same time. Also, notice the dots in the background.
So it seems I’ve come full circle (pun unintended). And there you have it, Damien Hirst’s “Relics.”
As my friends and I were walking out, we tried to decide if we’d enjoyed the exhibit or not. I’m still not sure. But the gallery did make me think. Mostly about whether art is supposed to inherently make the viewer feel something, and if the artists’ intended meaning is relevant. For example, those dots meant nothing to me. But knowing that Hirst meant for them to look mechanical, and almost boring, changes my perspective. And I would never have considered a medicine cabinet artwork, but I can see his point after reading about it. I’ve always felt that a piece of art is good if it strikes you on its own – if it can speak for itself. But that’s not entirely fair. Poets use words to explain their art, as do musicians. So why should physical art be different? Food for thought. Which is good, because I won’t be consuming any real food for a while after staring at that bloody head.