Saturday, June 26, 2010

Time For Some Wealth Redistribution

The revelation this week that the Spanish government has possession of the data concerning 3000 accounts in a Swiss bank has caused a certain amount of expectation. If the press reports concerning these accounts are to be believed, the total sum being held is a cool €6,000 million, which on average works out at 2 million per account. The suspicion is that a large part, if not all, of this money has been concealed from the Spanish tax authorities; meaning in theory that the country's deficit reduction plan should be in for a handy boost from these reluctant taxpayers.

We'll see. The union representing the tax inspectors has already protested that these very wealthy tax fraudsters may get a kinder treatment from the taxman than the rest of us can expect for far more minor irregularities. It seems that the owners of the accounts are being invited to voluntarily regularise their situation, meaning that they pay the outstanding taxes on their money together with interest. The problem is that tax fraud involving sums greater than €120,000 is a crime rather than an administrative offence. So for the holders of these accounts to get away with a "sorry, I forgot to declare my Swiss bank account...again" is going to raise inevitable protests as it effectively encourages fraudsters.

We don't know the exact number of people involved, as finance minister Elena Salgado has hinted that some of those involved may have multiple accounts. The data has come from the French government, and affects accounts held in a single bank several years ago. This means that we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg of where the real profits from Spain's boom have ended up. It's become very common in this crisis to hear a "we've all been too greedy" kind of lament which in turn gets used to justify us all paying the same price. Clearly some have been just a tiny bit greedier, and there is a real possibility that they will get away with it. Apart from the obvious recourse of criminal charges, I can see the case here for naming and shaming.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bilingual Education In Madrid....The Inside Story

Madrid's regional government likes to boast of its commitment to bilingual education, and funds expensive campaigns to that effect; most notably we had the recent "Yes we want" fiasco. There is another side to the story, as explained here by Blackboard the Pirate; South of Watford's first ever guest blogger.

With the school year - and quite possibly the national PSOE government - heading towards an end, and with Countess Aguirre’s private Comunidad widely cited as a model for Spain to follow, a genuine educational model is being bullied by Aguirre’s administration for the sin of being a better scheme than her own.

Thousands of Madrid’s schoolchildren receive tuition in both Spanish and English, in a scheme which – according to Aguirre’s propaganda – is “un modelo educativo considerado como el mejor programa de inmersión lingüística de Europa”. This isn’t true: it’s not even el mejor programa operating within her own Comunidad. In 1996, the British Council (BC) started up and part-funded a project whereby some schools would teach some lessons in English - not just English lessons, but other lessons too. Class teachers are assisted by asesores, native English speakers or Spaniards who have spent a long time in English-speaking countries and achieved fluency in English. Having started in just a few schools, it has thrived: a hundred or more schools across Spain are now in the project, including a number in the Comunidad de Madrid.

Keen to be associated with a popular idea, but not keen that anybody else should get any credit, Aguirre subsequently started up her own scheme – in which there are no asesores. It’s not really a bad scheme, but is manifestly inferior to the BC project. So, piqued by the existence of a better version existing on her own patch, Aguirre is trying to bully the Madrid schools into leaving the BC project and joining her own. Her methods of doing this have so far included:

(a) refusing permission to teachers in BC schools to attend training courses ;

(b) either refusing to let schools replace asesores who have left, or engaging in a lot of feet-dragging before allowing them to do so;

(c) her education minister refusing to meet parents complaining about this, on the specious grounds that she didn't have an available room big enough ;

(d) a late-in-the-day insistence that the BC schools pay for all their pupils to take exams they had not previously taken, costing them of thousands of euros which would otherwise have been available for books and other educational needs.

It seems to some BC project teachers that the intention is to make life increasingly hard for their project unless and until the schools jump ship and join Aguirre’s project instead, which some secondary schools have found themselves obliged to do. The chaos resulting from Aguirre’s meddling is documented in this report.

Is it an unfamiliar pattern? The public face is a forest of press releases with many pictures of Aguirre and many declarations of her greatness: the reality is bullying, empire-building, and a worse service pretending to be a better one. That’s the future for the kids Aguirre is using as pawns in a propaganda game, and conceivably the future for Spain as well.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....The Thorung La Pass

I woke up a couple of times during the night we spent at Thorung Phedi. At some point I realised that I couldn't hear the sound of the rain falling onto the roof any more. It also seemed strangely bright, as if there was a light on somewhere or - much more unlikely given the weather the day before - the moon had decided to show itself. I was too warm inside my sleeping bag and under the quilt to even consider getting out of bed to investigate. In any case, we were supposed to get up at 4 a.m. to get the early start for ascending up to the Thorung La pass. When our guide came to wake us up I discovered the real reason why the noise of the rain had died away. It was also the cause of the strange light.

I don't know how many hours it had been snowing, but there was quite a layer on the ground outside and it was clearly not about to stop. We entered the hotel restaurant for our breakfast, and it was already full of people. Some were already setting off. The reason for starting so early on the pass is because the winds at the top can get very strong as the day progresses. It must also be to get the views in the early morning, but that just seemed like a bad joke on the morning we were there. I live with a Spanish woman who doesn't do doubt, so I didn't say anything out loud but I'm sure there was a little inner voice wondering whether it wouldn't be a better idea just to leave the climb for tomorrow? Looking around I could see that nobody was about to suggest that idea. It seems this is what they call a holiday. So after breakfast I put on just about every item of warm clothing that I had with me, head torch on and off we set into the snow.

Even in darkness it wasn't very hard to follow the path, which ascends quite steeply from Thorung Phedi. Everybody followed the same tracks in the snow and the path was already quite well trodden. I adapted my slow, altitude influenced, mantra from the day before to set a walking rhythm I could maintain. Thorung Phedi...plod....Thorung La....plod. Despite the conditions the walking wasn't so difficult, the fresh snow was relatively easy to walk on not least because of those who had already helped to create the path. I became a leader of trekkers as we got higher. Not because of any special skills I'd developed, it was really just a result of people getting stuck behind me as I maintained my slow but steady pace. Occasionally someone would get fed up and go through the deeper snow to get round me, but most of my followers didn't seem to mind.

Soon after it started to get light we arrived at some buildings. This was the Thorung Phedi Base Camp, another 500 metres above where we had stayed and an alternative accommodation option for those who really want to be first over the top in the morning. I was a bit shocked to be here so soon, this was a little over half the climb we had to do and suddenly life didn't seem so hard. What I didn't realise was that the next part of the ascent is much longer, even if the climb is not so steep. Still, it felt encouraging to have got that first part of the walk out of the way.

On we went. The light of the early morning meant that everything seemed to be more or less the same colour, apart from the occasional outcrop of black rock. It was cloudy, misty and still snowing a bit so there was no visible line between land and sky. Although the light wasn't bright it had an effect on the eyes from constantly seeking the path in what seemed like never ending greyness. At times I found it a bit hard to focus on the prints left by those ahead of me. I had a sense of responsibility, my band of loyal followers was still there behind me. Thorung Phedi...plod....Thorung La....plod.

It seemed to take a long time to get to the pass, I've no idea now exactly how much time it took. But I managed to keep walking without stops as we got closer to the 5400 metre high point. Now of course this, as I have pointed out before, is a "tea house" trek so it seemed only right that high up there on the windy, freezing Thorung La Pass there should be a little hut with someone serving tea! It was already almost full when I got there, too much to be comfortable as more walkers pressed in from behind. I gave up on the idea of having tea and as there was nowhere to sit comfortably I just wanted to start the descent down the other side. The wind was already quite strong and bitterly cold, and taking my gloves off meant that I felt it on my hands in a matter of seconds. I had to take the gloves off off because I needed my commemorative photo of the sign marking the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit at 5416 metres. From here, it is (mostly) downhill.

I didn't know at the time that the descent was going to be much harder in many ways than the walk up had been. As we left the refuge at the top I soon managed to stray into some fairly deep snow and life got hard; there seemed to be significantly more snow on the other side of the pass. A couple of times I went in deep and had to pull myself out. Ahead everything still seemed to have the same colour, apart from the darker shapes of other walkers. After a while I managed to get back on the "path", which may or may not be the path that walkers normally take; it was simply the place where more people had obviously passed through the snow.

I fell over going down. Not once, or twice, probably I fell around 15-20 times on that descent; sometimes painfully. The number of times I almost fell is countless, at times every step seemed to carry the risk. I remembered the woman in the agency in Madrid where we had booked the trip. I asked her what kind of boots to take for the trek and she told us that we would not be walking on snow at any point! It's not her fault, our crossing of Thorung La coincided with the worst part of a weather front and it was just one of those things. But I had brought my lighter pair of boots that were just not good enough to get a grip on the mixture of snow and ice. They were great for the rest of the trek, and far more comfortable than my tougher winter boots, but at this moment and in this place they did me no good. The number of people that had already passed the same way meant that the path was slippery and treacherous, and there were times when I just waded through any deeper snow beside it so that I could stay on my feet for more than a minute.

The weather improved a bit as we got further down, we had to descend a total of 1700 metres from the pass down to our final destination for the night; the village of Muktinath. We even got a few faint rays of sun. Now I know that everyone with experience in higher altitude walking understands the need to use plenty of sun cream, even when the sun is not bright and especially when there is snow. It's just that at 4 o'clock in the morning in the snow I didn't think about it. Then as I skidded my way down the hillside I was hardly even aware of the sun breaking through, even though I felt warm again. Virtually all of my face peeled over the next few days as a result of that slight exposure to what seemed to be a very feeble sun.

Eventually I got down to where the snow had started to turn to slush, and my boots started to grip again and the ordeal was over. We still had quite a way to go, but at least I could walk normally again. We arrived at a point where there are a couple of restaurants, and I was grateful for the break and a drink. The hardest bit was well and truly over. We decided against having lunch here and carried on walking, the path was no longer steep and it was quite a pleasant walk now that we had left the snow behind us. The landscape even had a bit of colour again.

Down below us everything still seemed very barren as we got nearer to Muktinath, although there were a few brighter patches of green around the tiny villages.

Our first sight of Muktinath was of the temples that make this place a destination for pilgrims, both Hindus and Buddhists. The row of souvenir shops as we entered the village told us that this was not just a place for trekkers or locals. It seemed to me that round stones were one of the main offers in these shops, it shows that there is a market for almost everything. It was a relief to get to the hotel in the village after what had been a long and occasionally difficult day. Arrival was made even sweeter by the discovery that our hotel had a genuinely hot, butane gas powered, shower. Luxury.

We had another rest day programmed for Muktinath, largely I think to guard against any possible delays in crossing Thorung La. As we walked around that evening we didn't feel too enthusiastic about staying here, the village didn't seem to be as nice as Manang or other places we had passed through and the continuing presence of the clouds hanging over the mountains around us certainly didn't make the surroundings any more attractive. Anyway, we accepted the schedule as it was, had a couple of really well deserved beers and the best chicken curry we'd eaten on the whole route. Competition had not been too strong on that count. Then a very good sleep, without the sound of rain pouring onto the roof above us.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Cuts Create Conflict In Madrid

There was a noisy and brightly coloured demonstration in Madrid's Puerta del Sol yesterday morning. Most of the colour was a mixture of yellow and green, and came from the uniforms of those who collect the rubbish and clean the streets in the Spanish capital. They were protesting at a proposal by the company which has the contract for doing this job to reduce the size of the workforce, and there was going to be a rubbish collection strike starting today although it now seems there has been a late settlement avoiding dismissals.

The conflict was provoked by a decision taken by Madrid's mayor to stop rubbish collection on Sundays and public holidays as part of a drastic cuts package now that Spain's town halls are going to be prevented from going further into debt. As the unions pointed out quite reasonably, such a measure doesn't actually reduce at all the amount of rubbish they have to collect; it just means that in many cases it spends a day or two longer sitting in the bins. The odd thing about the measure is that rubbish collection in Madrid is supposedly financed by a specific tax dedicated for that purpose, and it is now being argued that the tax should have to be reduced by the same proportion. Gallardon's cuts have also led to yet another indefinite postponement for the bicycle rental scheme in Madrid that was supposed to start next year.

The cancellation of the rubbish strike doesn't mean an end to conflict over the cuts. Next week we are scheduled to have a strike by Metro workers protesting over pay cuts. This strike could turn nasty as the unions are threatening not to respect levels of minimum services which often make it seem there is no strike at all. The Metro workers were not affected by the national wage cuts imposed by Zapatero's government, their wages have instead been slashed by Esperanza Aguirre's administration. Some argue that the measure is illegal, as the workers affected are not funcionarios and their salaries are not controlled by the same legislation. As I pointed out the other day Aguirre is riding on the back of the government's wage cuts, which her party have opposed, to claw back money off other groups of public employees that she can then use as she chooses.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The IMF Thinks Spain Is Doing The Right Thing....Run For Your Lives!

The title of the post is influenced by a cartoon I remember about the war in Bosnia, substitute a UN safe zone for the IMF and you'll get the idea. In any case, I have to reveal that the Spanish press got it wrong today when they reported the IMF general secretary as predicting 20 years of growth for the Spanish economy, he was actually talking about his own salary at the time.

To be fair Dominique Strauss-Kahn didn't actually attempt to specify when those 20 years might begin, so he could still claim to be right even if this unexpected boom follows another 30 years of recession. The IMF is a big believer in the theory that if you push somebody into a deep well then you should get the credit if they eventually manage to climb out of it again. Even if you only manage to climb half way before falling back again they'll still claim the credit for your efforts.

Still, Zapatero was probably relieved just to get the endorsement without having the now habitual references to all the additional measures that are supposedly essential. It was nice just to hear someone talking about economic recovery, it's a concept that's gone out of fashion recently. That Zapatero has become a true convert to the cause was demonstrated by the reports of his meeting with David Cameron, apparently he urged Cameron to press ahead quickly with his cuts package. As if David needed any persuading.

The government is also pushing hard to make sure that the labour market reform (or state subsidised dismissal if you prefer) gets approved by the Spanish parliament before the end of the summer. It looks like the Catalan nationalists of CiU will be the ones to help them do that in return for a few still unspecified favours. The Partido Popular will divide over the issue, its Marxist wing will denounce the reform as an attack on the workers whilst the rest of the party will criticise it for not going far enough.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Perhaps Red Is Just Not Their Colour?

There is a suspicion that sections of the political right in Spain regard all this World Cup stuff as a dangerous diversion, with any Spanish success threatening their chances of evicting Zapatero at the next election. They probably slept soundly enough last night. Apart from that factor, it seems that some of the same people are upset about the Spanish national team being referred to as "La Roja".

Despite their recent dramatic swing to the left, there are still some capitalist roaders inside the Partido Popular who associate the term "La Roja" with Dolores Ibárruri; more famously known as La Pasionaria. So they are calling for a change of name, although the proposed "La Furia" doesn't really seem to fit with the languid passing game employed by the Spanish players yesterday against Switzerland. It will surprise few readers of this blog to discover that the even more ultra Grupo Intereconomía has also got involved in the debate by insisting on referring to the national team with the far more patriotic "La Rojigualda".

Meanwhile the Spanish press has picked up today on the way in which both The Times and The Guardian managed to use the Spanish defeat as an excuse to write about the relationship between goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the TeleCinco journalist Sara Carbonero. The pretext for leading with a nice bit of celebrity gossip was a fairly lame suggestion that the presence of Carbonero in South Africa may have affected the performance of Casillas. That's why they call it the quality press.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Such A Good Day To Reform The Labour Market

There are many who suspect that it was no accident that the Spanish government chose today to approve the decree reforming the labour market. The idea being that both the Spanish people and their media organisations would be too busy with Spain's first game in the World Cup to pay much attention to the detail of the government's reform. With the Spanish team losing unexpectedly to Switzerland such a plan no longer seems such a good idea, with no feel good factor to distract attention.

The reform contains few surprises, most of it had already been leaked as part of the fruitless negotiating process involving employers, unions and the government. The already existing contract that provides for 33 days pay for each year worked in the event of dismissal is now set to become the standard for those who are hired on indefinite contracts. What's more the government intends to pay 8 of those 33 days out of a state fund. There is also a relaxation on the amount that must be paid by companies that are in economic difficulties, although it's not at all clear how such circumstances will be assessed to stop companies from faking their situation through accounting tricks.

Of the other measures that have been talked about, such as the adoption of the "Austrian" model of a fund which workers carry from job to job, there is still no sign although the government says it will introduce a law expanding the measures adopted. The reform as it stands at the moment is not going to get the backing of employers who are continually seeking to reduce the rights of employees. Although I see no signs of anything that stops them from continuing to make massive use of temporary contracts anyway. Nor is it accepted by the unions, although the decision to postpone strike action on the measures until after the summer only helps to reinforce the impression that this will be a token protest.

As for the all powerful markets I suspect it's only a matter of days before we get some well paid "analyst" to tell us that the next increase in the cost of financing Spain's debt is because the markets think the reform doesn't go far enough. Apart from the way in which such explanations are dreamt up over a good lunch, it wouldn't make any difference to the treatment Spain receives at the moment if they were to stick the severed heads of workers onto the factory gates. Despite all the fuss made about the need to introduce these measures, they are of little relevance in a moment when the possibility of any economic recovery taking place at all is more than just an open question. It might be a better strategy to choose some good news for the day of Spain's next match.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Crash Landing For Don Quijote

There is no shortage of monuments to the bursting of the construction bubble in Spain, but amongst the most prominent should surely be the airport occasionally known as Don Quijote, located near to Ciudad Real. This airport was opened just before the crisis really started to bite as the first privately run commercial airport in the country, and has ended up going into liquidation with enormous debts.

Things never went very well for the project. Back in 2007 I wrote about the opportunist attempt by the airport's owners to mislead passengers into thinking that they might be landing somewhere near Madrid. The "Madrid Sur" plan had to be dropped following the protests against the idea, and eventually the airport opened as Don Quijote, but seems to have ended up as just being plain old Ciudad Real; which it is at least near to.

The first commercial passenger flights into the airport seemed to consist mainly of hunting parties from Germany but then Air Berlin threw in the towel earlier this year. Funnily enough Ryanair started flying into the airport just a few weeks ago, but following the announcement of the suspensión de pagos they announced their intention to stop flights. All of which would have left the airport as perhaps a good place to install a few more windmills. But then Ryanair have subsequently backtracked and announced that they will continue flights to Ciudad Real. It's a curious situation, given their liking for generous public subsidies for flying unsuspecting passengers into the middle of nowhere.

The airport has achieved the distinction of being a major contributor to the downfall of both of the Spanish savings banks that have so far had to be rescued by the government; the Caja Castilla - La Mancha and CajaSur. Total debts are estimated at being around €300 million. Sadly, it seems that the airport didn't quite get its own high speed AVE train station; although this formed part of the original plan. It would have been a station to rival that constructed near the unfinished desert-like urbanisations outside of Guadalajara, which on a good day is said to have as many as 20 users! Because Ciudad Real city already has an AVE station.

The 'pelotazo' associated with this disaster was not intended to be based around housing, there was instead a plan for a huge tourism and casino complex to be called El Reino de Don Quijote. Some of those behind this now phantom project were also part of the group behind the airport. It seems that all of these grandiose plans were hatched with the active support of the region's politicians, but Ciudad Real will have to wait a few years now for the Quijote miracle.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What Next, Che Rajoy?

"The Partido Popular is the party of the workers!". This was the startling claim made at the weekend by the PP's general secretary, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, and she rammed the point home by delivering her speech wearing what looked suspiciously like a Palestinian keffiyeh. The only thing missing to complete this guerilla chic scene was perhaps a Kalashnikov raised above her head. Now of course it needs to be pointed out that South of Watford anticipated this leftward shift by the PP over two years ago when bringing the glorious news about the re-election as Dear Leader of comrade Rajoy. With their evident liking for the trappings of old style Stalinism when organising their congresses, it was clear the PP just wasn't comfortable with traditional conservative politics.

Perhaps not all of the party will take well to the change of direction. The Madrid leader now referred to in an increasingly hagiographic Wikipedia article as "Doña Esperanza Aguirre y Gil de Biedma, Countess of Murillo, Grandee of Spain, DBE" may not feel very comfortable if she has to start mixing it with the proletariat. Although you never know, given her infamous economic difficulties she might want to add the title of La Condesa Roja to the long list. Certainly some of her employees in the Comunidad de Madrid have good reason to doubt her commitment to the workers. The decree by the national government that reduces the salaries of public employees leaves out many of those who work for public companies, but not directly as funcionarios. Espe, if you'll forgive the abbreviation, obviously felt this wasn't fair so she has decided to extend the pay cuts to employees of companies like Telemadrid or the Canal Isabel II water company. This has an added advantage, she can't touch the money saved by the government imposed pay cuts, but that which comes from her own measures will be available so that she can obey the Dear Leader's diktat that no PP governed comunidad shall raise taxes. Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I've Got My World Cup Widget

At last the waiting is over and we get some football! World Cup fanatics who use the Mac or an Android phone may like the widget that El País have prepared. You can put it on a web page too, but I reluctantly realised that I was going to have to resize my entire blog to show it properly on the sidebar.

Expectations over Spain's chances have increased even more following their drubbing of Poland the other day, although a few Spaniards I have talked to are very cautious about being over optimistic this time; the memories of previous failures in this tournament are still too fresh. However, they seem to be regarded as joint favourites alongside Brazil. I just hope that it is entertaining, too often the World Cup is like a slowly deflating balloon as football gives way to tactics and the teams that manage to progress are the most cautious and boring. Yes, I am thinking of Italy.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Economist And Francisco Granados

A bizarre and poorly researched article published in the Economist the other day used Francisco Granados, one of the senior figures in Esperanza Aguirre's administration, as a reliable source for a very tendentious article on Spain's public sector. Granados complains about how the Madrid regional government is able to cut down the number of official cars they use, but not able to get rid of the drivers.

This is of course a bit rich coming from someone who hires people onto the public payroll so that they can spend their time following his and Aguirre's political rivals inside their own party. Even richer for any of these people to parade themselves as champions of austerity when they hand out lucrative contracts to private companies which get as a visible result....absolutely nothing.

The article gives the impression that Spain has a vast, bloated public sector - a view of course entirely in keeping with the Economist's ideological traditions but very far removed from the truth. It needs to be pointed out yet again that Spain spends proportionately significantly less of its wealth on provision of public services than most other Western European countries, a situation that has not changed significantly during the years of the boom.

In any case, the real austerity measures in Madrid are those that result from decisions by the national government. The pay cuts for public sector workers will save Aguirre far more money than the very token austerity measures that she has introduced. The Economist ends up regretting that not enough public sector workers will be sacked to add to the already enormous ranks of the unemployed. A slightly earlier article by the same writer puts the blame for the near defeat of the government's austerity package on the 7 representatives of the Basque nationalist PNV. Perhaps Granados was also the source for that one, given that the vast majority of the votes against the package came from the PP, a detail not mentioned by the Economist.

So this is one of the journals that get used as a reference by those who take decisions affecting our future. In next week's Economist perhaps we can get Silvio Berlusconi giving us his views on ethics and clean government?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Manang To Thorung Phedi

It rained steadily during much of our second night in Manang, and was still raining as we resumed our route following the acclimatisation day. The weather was becoming a bit depressing, this was the fourth day of clouds and it seemed to be getting worse rather than better. We had come to Nepal at what is really the beginning of the peak season after the end of the rainy season, and nothing in our first few days of walking had suggested we would get conditions like this. It seems that this can happen at more or less any time, and our guide did his best to raise our spirits by suggesting that it wouldn't last too long. The shame was that we had passed at least three of the major peaks in the Annapurna massif without seeing them well.

We were now heading for Thorung Phedi which is the base from where we would do the ascent of the Thorung La Pass, lying at a little over 5400 metres. I was feeling recovered from the altitude problems that I had the day before, but it was perhaps just as well that the ascent up to Thorung Phedi is mostly a fairly gentle one. Even so, we would still be going up around 900 metres on the walk. Manang seemed very quiet as we left, there were few walkers and porters on the trail; a significant change from the previous days. The valley we had followed from the first day continues up towards the mountain of Tilicho, but the Annapurna circuit swings round shortly after Manang to head up a different valley.

The poor weather didn't mean that we couldn't see anything at all, there were views of some of the smaller peaks around us, small in this area meaning that they probably only reached 5-6000 metres.

Looking back towards the Annapurnas, it seemed they were to remain hidden.

The rain came and went as the clouds shifted around us, and the landscape became barer as we went above the tree line. But the path was mostly good and relatively easy to walk. We stopped for lunch at the tiny settlement of Letdar, which has a couple of hotels. Here we met a British couple with some bad news. They told us that they had met someone coming back down from Thorung Phedi because the weather was too bad for people to cross the pass and there was no room in the hotels there. They were going to stay in Letdar. I mentioned this to our guide, but he seemed to think we should try our luck in Thorung Phedi; we always had the option of returning if there really was no room.

So we continued walking after lunch, having crossed the now much narrower river we made our way gradually up the steep sided valley towards Thorung Phedi. At this point I began to feel the altitude, even though the path was generally not too difficult. To keep myself going rather than stopping all the time, I used a little mantra composed of Manang and Thorung Phedi to control my rhythm of walking so that I could keep going. Going slowly like this ends up being more comfortable than going faster but having to stop.

At one point we walked past a sign warning about rock slides and it wasn't hard to see the evidence of them. We got through this stretch without any problems, but it was difficult not to be a bit nervous about our eroded, rocky surroundings. The landscape was now truly bleak and as we got nearer to our destination the rain got worse again. By this point I wasn't looking forward to hearing about any problems of accommodation.

Thorung Phedi only has a couple of places to stay and nothing else, but we were in luck. The man who showed us to our room told us that some "crazy Israeli" had been telling people they couldn't cross the pass but it wasn't true. We had a room to ourselves, but even at this time of day it was too cold to spend much time in it. So we did what everybody else did and settled down for the afternoon in the hotel restaurant. It wasn't very warm there but the presence of lots of people generated enough heat to make it bearable. Outside things just got worse and worse, although you could hardly see anything through the steamed up windows anyway.

At one point in the afternoon I started thinking about how cold it might be at night and went to see if the hotel could provide us with blankets. They had a room full of heavy quilt type covers so I grabbed a couple of those for later. After spending hours in the restaurant reading, drinking tea, eating or just chatting we reached the point where it seemed like a good idea to sleep. We had to get up very early the next morning to do the 900 metre climb up to Thorung La.

Back in the room I made sure I had everything I might need to hand, this was not a night when you wanted to be looking for things in the cold darkness. Once inside my sleeping bag and underneath the quilt I was warm, but I lay awake for a while listening to the sound of the rain falling onto the metal roof. It had now been raining non stop for hours and showed no signs of giving way. I was thinking about the next day, if it was like this down in the valley I didn't want to imagine what conditions were going to be like higher up the mountain.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Got A Deficit Problem? Call Mariano

The Spanish government has been up before a higher tier of unaccountable government this week, as the European Union examines the austerity measures adopted by Zapatero's government. So far so good seems to be the verdict, but it's still not enough to please the EU. Meanwhile there was a national public sector strike today in protest against the wage cuts, which seems to have had variable success. People are not happy with the government's measures, but there is a lack of leadership and a lot of understandable confusion amongst teachers and nurses who don't understand how they managed to be responsible for the economic crisis. It just goes to show that a government of the left is almost always more successful in pushing through cuts, in the same way as a right wing government is more likely to get away with handing over territory to another country. Should the need arise.

The EU seems to be insisting on the labour market reform as a fundamental step, even though few observers seem to really believe it will have much effect in the current situation. I will of course be expecting an economic miracle boom once it is passed, no excuses accepted given that we have been told so often it is the only thing that matters in terms of economic recovery. The reform will be announced next week regardless of whether employers and unions have reached agreement, and it seems that both sides almost prefer the government to go it alone on this issue anyway. The unions will probably then call a token general strike which will also get variable support. Spain's union leaders are not about to surrender the possibilities of having their feet under the table in Moncloa, if the alternative is to be walking the streets with their members every day.

Anyway, perhaps all of this is unnecessary? If we believe Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy then the way to deal with a budget deficit is easy; you make it illegal. Then you promise big tax cuts! Insane, you might be thinking. That just shows you have little grasp of modern economics. There they are, governments all over the world trying to grapple with budget deficits and the answer is in front of them. Apparently, there was something of a split in the PP about whether to vote against the government's package last week or to abstain. The government only won by one vote because the Catalan nationalists of CiU abstained. The PP knew that the government could have been defeated and that the consequences of this would have been quite dramatic. It shows more than anything else that the PP will never put any other consideration above that of recovering power for themselves. Never mind the economy, there is an urgent need to deal with some anti-corruption investigations. Presumably Madrid's PP mayor is allowed to pursue his own policy on budget deficits?

Nothing that is done seems to change the reaction of the all powerful markets, despite the fact that each increase in the cost of Spain's debt is explained in terms of the country not having adopted the very mesures that are being taken. Although the story has changed recently, countries now get their credit ratings revised downwards because of the likely effects of taking the very same measures that the markets have clamoured for. I really need some evidence to convince me that the financial markets would like to see an economic recovery, because this sort of Catch 22 behaviour suggests more than anything else that they are enjoying the crisis. Why wouldn't they, given the amount of money that has been handed out to them?

Some governments are also enjoying the crisis. Nobody seriously believes that Cameron is sad about the prospect of making massive cuts in the UK. The Conservatives lost support before the election precisely because they were unable to hide their obvious enthusiasm for such a prospect, to be followed no doubt by a tax cutting programme for the next election. Now it seems that the EU's economic hardliners want to move the deficit ceiling for national budgets below its current 3%. Apart from moving the goal posts further back when most countries haven't even got near the half-way line this is just Rajoyonomics; it makes no sense at all. Putting it at 5% for the next 5 years would be a small step towards sanity. But of course the markets wouldn't approve as it smacks too much of a sneaky attempt to get out of recession.

Almost all measures being advocated at the moment fly directly in the face of economic recovery. I mean of course for the vast majority of us who don't make their living out of trading bonds or shares. You feel sometimes like saying "Helloooo, can you see us?". Those who currently control our destiny have nothing to offer most people except a continuing decline in living standards. If those behind the current measures seriously believe they will make things better, then why so much alarm over who will pay for pensions in 20 years time? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and just put those who don't survive in a neat pile at the back. At the very minimum it calls for a Roosevelt type figure, but there isn't even a sign of a new FDR emerging to (re)teach us the lessons that were already so painfully learnt 80 years ago.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Mediterranean Walks....The Cami De Ronda

I've done some great walking this year in different areas of the Spanish Mediterranean, so I'm going to group them together into a mini series of posts. We start with a weekend spent in Girona in March. The walking was really just an add-on to our annual calçotada excursion at this time of year, although this time the destination was not Tarragona. On the first day we did part of the Cami de Ronda, a coastal path that was created originally for control of the coast by the Guardia Civil.

The section we did, between the beach at Castell and Calella de Palafrugell, is beautiful. At times you walk along the beaches, at other times along the cliffs. Although the Costa Brava has something of a reputation for having been badly hit by ugly tourist developments, there are sections that are really quite well preserved in comparison with other parts of Spain's coastline. Even the part of the route that passes through built up areas is still an enjoyable walk. We stopped in Calella for lunch on the beach, it wasn't hot but it was warm enough. You have to bear in mind that this was just 36 hours before the great snowstorm that hit Girona and later Barcelona.

On the way back to our starting point we stopped off at the Barraca d'en Dalí, a hut used by the painter. Of course, this being Dalí, you wouldn't expect everything about the building to be completely normal.

After the walk we also stopped off briefly in the beautiful village of Pals, with views all the way to the Pyrenees, and to the coast.

Having overdone it with the calçots on the first night we needed to do a walk on day 2 that would create an appetite for the paella that would then in turn be justified by the exertion of the walk; if you see what I mean. The circular route starts in the centre of Tossa de Mar and ascends up to the peak of Puig de Cadiretes. Although it's quite a climb the route is very easy, because it follows dirt forest tracks and only the last part to the peak is a narrower path. This makes it quite possible to do in a morning, arriving back in Tossa conveniently enough for lunch.

No photos of the route itself, it wasn't a very clear day although there were still no signs of what was to come that night; it was far from cold. The views from the top of the peak are impressive. Tossa itself has a well preserved old quarter just above the beach as well as plenty of places to eat.

Two maps, one for each route, as Google Maps seems to have changed its behaviour by slicing routes up into segments and paging the results. Maybe I will find a way around this but for the moment each route gets displayed separately.

View Mediterranean Walks in Spain in a larger map

View Mediterranean Walks in Spain in a larger map

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Intereconomía And Sexual Education....Part 2

Having previously delivered such a thoughtful and insightful argument against condom use in Africa, the ultra rightwing digital TV channel Intereconomía has now turned its attention closer to home. Marvel at the cultured, mature and educated way in which they discuss the issue of sexual education in Cataluña, and the always respectful manner shown towards Marina Geli, responsible for health service provision in that region.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Pay Your Bill Bilderberg

Dear Bilderberg Club members,

I understand that you are passing a few days in Sitges having some meetings of your association. I also understand fully that yours is a private grouping and that the rest of us have no reason at all to know exactly what business it is that you are discussing. To be frank, I'm not really very interested in whatever it is you have to talk about. Nevertheless, it seems from what I have read that you may be addressing some issues that affect the rest of us, such as Spain's budget deficit and the provision of public services. I even understand that there may be some hostility expressed towards such services. Now I know that many of your members live directly off public provision (the politicians and royalty) and that some others (the bankers) do far better out of public subsidies than anybody else you could possibly care to mention. So given all of this, and the natural concern you will express about control of costs, I hope you won't forget before leaving to pay the bill for the costs associated with your very private meeting; currently estimated at €600,000 for policing alone. If you could also remember to put your rubbish in the bins provided it will also help greatly. Thanks a lot and have a great stay in Sitges!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Benítez Packs His Bags

Another adventure of a Spanish football coach in the English Premier League has come to an end with Rafa Benítez leaving Liverpool today. Benítez lasted quite a bit longer than Juande Ramos, who has yet to properly recover his career following his unhappy spell at Tottenham. For a while it seemed Rafa was made for Liverpool, after he arrived as a well regarded up and coming manager with an impressive track record at Valencia. Then came the extraordinary Champions League victory against Milan in his first season, a result which seems to have won him the unconditional loyalty of many of the fans regardless of the relative lack of success since then. You have to wonder how long he would have lasted without that great start.

This season has ended the dream, as Liverpool finished outside of the all important Champions League qualifying positions. Although there are obvious problems concerning the ownership of the club and its financial position, it's hard not to conclude that Benítez has his share of the responsibility. He became a slightly petulant figure at times, unable to deal with the mind games of the Mourinhos and the Fergusons; and always blaming the lack of success on the funds available for signing players. There lies the problem, because Benítez did get money to spend and often didn't spend it wisely. The result is a Liverpool team that is arguably poorer than the one that he inherited, something masked only by the continuing presence of Gerrard and the frequently injured Fernando Torres (especially when he is due to play his old club!). The departure to Real Madrid of Xabi Alonso, his best signing along with that of Torres, left a gaping hole in the team.

If the reported payoff is anywhere near to being accurate then he won't be suffering too much, especially with the rumours that he could soon end up at Inter Milan; albeit with a hard act to follow. Maybe Italian football will be closer to his idea of how the game should be played, several of those who played under him have criticised him for being a control freak unwilling to allow players to express themselves outside the bounds of his rigid tactical plan. The club may still be able to attract a relatively big name replacement although without much money to rebuild the team. One of the ironic consequences of the Premier League generating so much money is that it has attracted the attention of people who have zero interest in the sport but plenty of interest in the cash.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Just Because You're Dead Doesn't Mean They're Not Out To Get You

It's been almost a week since I posted on judicial madness, so I think it must surely be time for another episode. The actor Pepe Rubianes intervened in 2007 in the debate concerning the so called "papeles de Salamanca"; the archives which were removed from Cataluña in the aftermath of Franco's victory in the civil war. Rubianes said some things about the mayor of Salamanca which were not very complimentary, the mayor was at the time leading a noisy campaign to retain the archives in Salamanca.

The issue reached the courts, and Rubianes was judged to have offended the good name and honour of the mayor when he called him an idiot and suggested that he should drown in his own shit. From the provincial courts of Salamanca, the case has now reached the Supreme Court which strangely no longer seems quite so busy since Baltasar Garzón was suspended. The court has ratified the sentence with a judgement that is curious for two reasons. One is that they suggest that Rubianes had no right to say what he did because he is not a politician, suggesting that only political professionals are entitled to insult each other. The other curiosity about the decision, and who am I to suggest it may have prejudiced the ability of Rubianes to present his case, is that the actor died over a year ago.