Friday, May 17, 2002

I read in the Economist about East Timor's impending independence, and about how everyone wishes the new country well. The Economist tends to do this whenever a new country comes into being for some reason, and this seems a bog standard article.

Oddly enough, and in what will not ultimately prove to be as big a digression as it appears, I was reading "The Salmon of Doubt" last week, the final book from the late, and greatly missed Douglas Adams. This book consists of about ten chapters of an unfinished novel, as well as various other bits and pieces of his writing, either unpublished or unpublished in book form. One of them is an interview from a British magazine.

What is the most remote or bizarre place you have ended up?

Easter Island is, of course, the most remote place on earth, famous for being farther from anywhere than anywhere else is. Which is why it is odd that I ended up there completely by accident. I learned a very important lesson from this, which was -- read your ticket

When were you there and why?

I was flying from Santiago to Sydney and was a bit tired, having spent the previous two weeks looking for fur seals, and didn't wake up to what the plane's itinerary was until the pilot mentioned that we were just coming in for our one-hour stopover on Easter Island.

There was a little fleet of minibuses at the airport, which whisk you away for a quick peek at the nearest statue while the plane refuels. It was incredibly frustrating because if I had been paying attention the day before, I could have easily changed my ticket and stayed over for a couple of days

What was amusing to me was that I had a very similar experience myself once. I was flying back from Nairobi to London on Sudan Airways in March 1993. (Why was I flying Sudan Airways? Because it was cheap, because I was a poor student, and because I wasn't aware just how dicey the civil war in the Sudan actually was. This particular flight would be hijacked a couple of years later). On the plane, I was reading a copy of the Economist. (I was one of those sad students who reads the Economist religiously. I got over it, although I still browse the magazine from time to time, and it does admittedly make good aeroplane reading). I read an article about the imminent independence of Eritrea - an article that read very similarly to the article about East Timor above. The plane I was in started to descend. As we descended further I saw a relatively small city outside the window. Eventually we landed. On a building, I saw "Welcome to Eritrea". Unlike Douglas Adams, reading the ticket wouldn't have helped me, as Sudan airways hadn't advanced so far as to puting all the stops on the ticket. However, this did qualify as a really obscure and potentially interesting place where I accidentally found myself for an hour. I certainly would have liked to have got off the plane for a couple of days to explore the place, but I didn't have the opportunity.

Eritrea was in some ways a similar case to East Timor. You had a small area with the misfortune to be right next to a larger country, despite a very different history. You had the small area incorporated into the larger country through actions of dubious legality. You had a struggle lasting decades during which time the rest of the world didn't recognise the struggle. You had the rebels eventually winning, and the small country achieving independence and recognition. And you had seemingly honourable people taking over the new country and promising to learn from past failures.

While things looked very promising for Eritrea in 1992, Eritrea has since fought another war with Ethiopia, which has retarded its development immeasurably. While there is no reason that things must go this way in East Timor too, it is a relatively depressing thought.

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