What is Humans Write?

26 09 2009

Memorial fence at Ground Zero, New York (2005) taken by TriciaThis is Humans Write, the travel blog with a difference: we don’t just talk about the places we visit, we talk about the people who live there.

Met any inspiring people? Discovered a different way a community/country deals with a social issue? Saw a public protest in the country you visited? You can write a blog about it, upload pictures or sumbit a video clip on Humans Write!

There are three simple ways you can use the Humans Write blog:

1. Get information on a country or a theme – read the entries about the place you are visiting. Blogs/pictues/videos are created by other travellers like you. We share our opinions, observations and experiences of the country we have visited. You don’t have to be a journalist or work in human rights to submit a blog, you just have to be interested in what’s going on around you while you’re travelling.

2. Go on the discussion forums – If you can host someone coming to your country, are looking for a place to stay, can be a guide or just need some some information from a local, let us know on our discussion forums. All we ask is that if you do use information from our site, or stay with someone from our community, you submit a blog in return.

3. Submit a blog – share your experience of what you discovered about human rights or social issues in the place you visited. Post pictures you’ve taken while in another country or send up a video clip of you or something you’ve filmed.

Esther (a Humans Write community member) in IndiaSo, what is a human rights issue anyway?
Well, at Humans Write we think anything that affects communities and individuals in the places you travel to are worth hearing about. This could include how communities and individuals are tackling poverty, gay rights, environmental awareness, women’s rights, discrimination, responsible tourism, the political situation – ANYTHING that has an impact on the lives of local people. It doesn’t have to be an academic piece, or written like a research paper – just share your thoughts and experience about a place you’ve visited.


Australia: dreamtime down under

11 12 2009

It’s been three years since I lived and studied for a year in Melbourne, Australia. I fell in love with the good weather, friendly people and sense of space that seemed magical to a Londoner used to close proximity with about eight million other people (usually all at the same time, on the same bus at rush hour).

But, like most Brits who head out there, I had absolutely no idea about the struggle of the indigenous Australian peoples for autonomy. I had never heard of the ‘Stolen generation’ of ‘aborigine’ and mixed-race children who were taken by the Australian government and placed in white homes as servants or boarding houses, often never seeing their families again. (Amazingly, this policy of enforced removal only stopped in 1997.)

It’s incredibly difficult for me to encapsulate the full and complicated situation of how race is entwined in the fabric of Australian society. As an outsider, I often found myself shocked by a comment from a white Australian about how “Aborigines love to get drunk” or “they don’t like to work, just get benefits”. Equally, I met white Australians who didn’t want to talk about it at all, finding it too trivial or too complex a topic to discuss. There were those who actively spoke out about the then Howard Government’s refusal to even say the word ‘sorry’ (whatever that’s worth) to indigenous Australians.

One day, near the end of my stay in the country, my friends and I travelled north to Cairns. It’s a small, muddy town with three bars and probably more backpacker hostels than the whole of continental Europe (almost all of them run by Brits who went for a week and ended up staying). The town thrives on the back of the thousands of people who travel there to visit the Great Barrier Reef and spot sealife, snorkle, scuba or just break bits off to take home (illegally).

While there, I met the first indigenous Australian I had ever seen in Australia. Lying outside a shop, stinking of booze, occasionally shouting something. Several people stopped and laughed, others took photos, and a few shook their heads in disgust. After walking around him and entering the shop, I saw ‘traditional’ didgeridoos, ‘authentic’ boomerangs, dreamtime stories and a whole batch of other ‘Aborigine’ paraphenalia for sale.

It’s only now, years later, that I sometimes think about this incident and struggle to work out its significance. Perhaps there’s none. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the appropriation of  ‘aboriginal’ culture while indigenous Australians are still on the margins of society. Perhaps I’m embarrassed that I travelled to a country without understanding a single thing about its history, including 200-odd years of colonisation by European invaders/settlers.

I’ve since found out about some current activism going on in Australia and Europe, and thought I’d post the links. If you’re heading Down Under, they’re worth a look.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy: www.overlander.tv/category/australia/canberra

European Network for Indigenous Australians’ rights:

Egypt: who are the Nubians?

18 11 2009

Deborah D, 27, UK

I came across a Nubian settlement only once in my fifteen days in Egypt. Traveling along the Nile, south to north, meant that i came to Aswan, a prominent tourist spot where the effects of the rising waters of the Nile were obvious. Objects of archeological value like the statues at the Temple of Rameses II had been broken up and re-assembled further inland. As with most cyclical weather phenomena the seasonal flooding of the banks along Aswan meant that the settlers along it (the Nubians) had to learn to adapt to it. That is until the effects of overpopulation began to take hold. With more people and less available fertile land the Egyptian government decided to build a dam to control the rising waters. The dam caused the permanent flooding of lower Nubia and meant Nubians had to find a home elsewhere.
In the market places I was referred to as Nubian (because of my dark skin), my mate Alex took to calling me Nubian princess which i think he did to get a rise out of me, they were after all the most impoverished members of Egyptian society.

While visiting the settlement (which could only be accessed by boat) it became glaring obvious that there was a disparity between the average Egyptian and the average Nubian. Even though in ancient times they were of the ruling houses and Egypt had had black Pharaohs, it appeared to be that they now resided at the lower end of the societal spectrum and made a living farming and making items of touristic value. They are black while the average Egyptian is brown, they have a separate non-Arabic language, they are essentially a community of people much like the Kurds in Iraq. With no real land to call theirs and not being totally accepted by the mainstream populace, i found that they were almost entirely self sufficient. With their own schools, food supplies from farming, it seemed like only the most ambitious of them set foot outside the poverty bullpen that had been created for them by the government (inadvertently) and sought a life in the larger cities like Cairo. At least as a tourist, that’s how it seemed to me. In any country, in any society there is a class or caste system that favours one group of people but is disadvantageous to another. Most times these systems are built on the premise of race or ethnicity. Nubia exists now only in theory, the settlements and sense of community amongst the inhabitants are all that remain of a race that once had a kingdom so large, it spread from Northern Egypt into Sudan.

Romania: “I understand nothing at all”

12 11 2009

Luciana Grosu, 21, Romania

‘Anarhism’ or ‘anarhie’: the Romanian words for anarchism. No one could say it better than Romanians right now as the country is struggling with economic, social, and political chaos. The critical economic situation determined the Government to propose laws that would diminish wages and pensions. Yet the constant political fight led to the collapse of Romania’s governing coalition, so 11 Ministers took charge of the country. Eventually, the Parliament passed a motion called “11 against Romania” and the newly-formed Government fell.

“The Government fell, so what?!”  a young graffiti-man asks with aggressive indifference. He is very blonde, yet wears urban black from head to toes. He is about to put his colored signature on the Titan metro station walls. He is anxiously looking around in order to make sure nobody sees him. “Look, I don’t care! All political parties are thieves! I don’t trust Government, I don’t trust President, I don’t trust Parliament! Thieves! Damn them all!” A violent answer to the peaceful question: “Who would you vote with next month?” Like many young Romanians who grew up in the communism-democracy transition times and who refuse now to get involved in political life, he thinks democracy to be a useless thing. “Nor democracy, nor dictatorship, nothing would work in Romania! I don’t believe in the myth of organized society! Down with all the authorities!” After a few moments of silence, he turns to a more philosophical way of thinking: “I don’t believe in collective salvation, only in individual salvation! Laws and rules are made by criminals for fools! No more leaders for me!”

“Very hard times for Romania, indeed”, says Veronica Marinescu, 49 years-old, Physics university professor at Magurele Institute of Physics on the outskirts of Bucharest. She is still holding in her hand the exercise book she recommended to students at her first course today. She wears blue and her eyes are sad, but calm. The country seen through her old glasses is an endangered, but not yet condemned place. “Romania should remember its European heritage, its Christian faith, its centuries-old values, its ideals of unity and solidarity. Today we are in the middle of the disaster, but this country survived many wars and crises. Maybe we’ll rise again”. Then, she remembers her own critical situation: “If the new law is voted in the Parliament, teachers will see their salaries drastically diminished and there will be no funds left for research. I have ‘no plan B’ for that. Except of going to protest in the street, of course,” she adds with a bitter smile.

Everything is so crazy in Romania right now! Teachers, miners and policemen protest together in front of the Government. Eleven people hold 21 minister positions! Government falls and all the parties think of a German –origin Prime-minister as the best solution. Yet all the political leaders are busy announcing their candidature for the November presidential elections. I understand nothing at all!” cries amused Mircea Dan, 35 years-old. He is at Carrefour Colentina supermarket, reading carefully prices and ingredients labels, trying to buy the most with less money. After all, Romania is still submerged in the economical crise. “Pensions are very small, so are state employees’ salaries. Medicines are expensive, but health care is beyond basic. Taxes rose, so now it is impossible to run your own, little business”. He has no solution for Romania: “I’ll emigrate. Maybe.  I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stay to watch TV every night and laugh!”

Romanian youth are disappointed and angry, ready to rebel or to leave the country for good. Older people try to find comfort in religion or the faith in Romania’s ability to resurrect like the Phoenix bird. Romanian press talks about insecurity, power abuse, poverty and dirty political games. Corrupted politicians fight for power. Maybe this is not (yet) anarchism. But it could become.

Israel: poverty in Tel Aviv

11 11 2009

Maria W., 24, Germany

When it comes to Israel and human rights issues there is a lot to talk about. Not long ago the country was blamed for denying Palestinians access to water and that’s only one point of a long list of Human Rights abuses it is accused of. In the last three years the UN Human Rights Council issued 20 resolutions against it most of them concerning the Middle East Conflict.

Walking around in the middle of Tel Aviv all that seems to be pretty far away – although it is in fact only a few kilometres. But on the city’s streets people are busy with other things. Like shopping.  I have never seen so many shops for clothing, shoes and accessory side by side in any other city. Apparently Tel Avivians like shopping quite a lot. Some of them. Probably the minority.

Between all the shopping bags and the latest fashion in the shop windows, right in front of a Burger King branch an old man is lying on the pavement. When I was in Tel Aviv two weeks ago I walked past him a few days in a row always finding him at the same spot. He seemed unconscious with his mouth half open, his eyes half closed.

One day the mans pants slipped a bit and when I slowed down a little while walking past him like I had done the days before, I could see a big wound on his right leg. It looked serious and I was wondering whether he had the possibility to get medical attention somewhere.

You can probably find a scene like this in every big city: homeless people lingering around, lying and sitting on the street, begging for money. And at the same time people going to work in their suits, coming out of shops with a bag full of cloth in every hand, big cars and big sunglasses. But in Tel Aviv that contrast seemed to be even bigger to me since absolutely no one walking past him seemed to care. Did anyone at all actually notice him? Let alone giving him a few Shekel.

Israel is a country with huge social contrasts referring to property, capital, education and income. One third of the children lives below the poverty line which means they have less than 1 720 Shekel a month. That’s about 335 Euro. A report by the Israeli National Insurance Institute shows that 23.7 % of the Israelis population lived in poverty in 2008 while social services  by the state were cut and an immense amount of money was spent on security and as subventions for the settlements.

It seems the countries policy is completely concentrated on the conflict with the Palestinians and that there is not much time left for domestic policy. And for human rights within the country. Walking past this homeless man and knowing all that made me wonder whether the Israeli government really takes care of its people like they always say and like a lot of Israeli believe. Seeing him lying on the pavement makes me doubt it.

Bihar: corruption, caste systems and colour festivals

2 10 2009

Tricia C, 25, UK

My visit to India was the first time I’d ever been outside Europe, the US or Australia. I’d read Gandhi’s autobiography, bought a few guide books and got vaccinations for some vaguely disturbing diseases. The news was forever churning out stories about India’s rapid economic development and shaggy haired types who’d returned were full of stories of how ‘poor but happy’ most Indians were. Spiritual awakening, good food and possile amoebic dysentry, here I come, I thought.

Now, the first thing to realise is that India is big. Really big. We crossed it by train from Chennai in the south to Delhi in the north, so trust me when I tell you this. So if you hear someone say “I went to India”, it doesn’t mean much. It’s like saying “I went to Europe”. Goa is different to Rajastan, which is different to Kerala, which is different to Tamil Nadu… In the month we were there, one of the places we lingered longest was the state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India, and one with a chequered past of corruption thanks to a colourful politician called Lalu Prasad Yadav (if you really want to get a mixed reaction from any Bihar locals you meet, just ask about Lalu).

We were there for Holi, a colour festival that involves throwing… you guessed it… coloured powder, water, whatever at friends, enemies and strangers. It all got a little raucous and ended with me covered in yellow sandlewood powder and purple… well, I’m not sure what the purple was. It’s a time, apparently, when Indians invite over people they have fallen out with to make peace. (Not sure what I’d make of a dinner invitation anytime round this date!)

Of all the intense experiences of my trip, one offhand comment by an Indian guide triggered a lot of thought. “Here are some natural swimming pools,” Pandi chirped happily, and then pointing to one pool he added, “that one is for Dalit people.” Having read a little of India’s recent history I was shocked by this. A Dalit (or, as they are also perjoritively known, the ‘untouchables’ – the lowest ‘caste’) has been the president of India. Yet here was an Indian referring to segregated swimming areas in 2008. In another instance, an Indian teacher told me Dalit children who went to school were sometimes treated badly by her colleagues.

We were curious to know how the Indians we met even knew how to distinguish castes. Many told us that they ‘just knew’. The position of Dalits in India, and South Asia generally, is complex – it seems to be a mix of genuine progress and very real discrimination. I’m not qualified to draw any conclusions on the situation, but I’m genuinely interested to hear about the experiences and thoughts of others who have visited India and Indians themselves.

Berlin: tourism and human tragedy

26 09 2009

Esther G, 27, Mexico/London

Hello fellow travellers. I recently visited Berlin and being there prompted some thoughts that I would like to share with you. Many of my friends had told me Berlin was uber cool, and once I’ve been there, I would never want to leave. Yet I found visiting Berlin made me feel sad, mainly because you can’t escape constant reminders of the tragedy that was the Second World War and the East/West division of the city.
Germans must feel tired of being associated to these particular events, and want us to visit their country to see that they are much more than the world wars. So, I went to Berlin not knowing what I would find, or how I would feel, and keeping in mind the challenge of not stereotyping Germany.

My plan failed, Berlin did not allow me to forget the dark past of the city. Every few blocks I would come across a memorial plaque, or an information post, a part of the wall, a building that had been used to captivate the handicapped, a holocaust memorial, or an old checkpoint to cross from East to West.
So yes, I found Berlin to be very cool, trendy, young, alternative, cheap and full of party goers. But I also found Berlin to be challenging and it made me think about the tourist industry based around the history of human tragedy.
To give an example: Check Point Charlie, one of the check points between East and West Berlin. A few years ago that was a place of control, fear, hope, and oppression. Today, you can pay a euro and take a photo of yourself with two very handsome actors disguised as soldiers who smiley pose in front of the “theatrical” point. For a few Euros more you can even get your passport stamped with a fake visa.

Or, the Holocaust Memorial. Visiting the memorial felt similar, dozens of people wondering in between the sculptures, playfully shouting, taking photos, smiling, climbing, playing hide an sick, etc. in a place that is there to remind us of one, if not the most horrific, human rights abuse: genocide.
I felt strange at these places. I understood that there had been great grief associated with both events: the holocaust and the east/west division of Berlin, but going there and being a tourist, taking photos and playing produced mixed feelings in me. On one side I resented the fact that I was enjoying those sites as if they were part of a Disneyland amusement park. On the other, I was happy that humanity has moved on and we don’t continue to dwell in the same grief, we can look the past and accept it, moving into what is next.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this feeling with you.  Any thoughts are welcome.