TRCH

Chartered Territory: An Engineer Abroad

31 March 13 words: James Walker
A coup d'etat in Nigeria, the Hong Kong handover and a trip to global happiness capital Bhutan...
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Ben Zabulis 

What changed you from being a self-confessed 'reluctant traveller'?
The catalyst essentially came in the form of a growing awareness, via sport and current affairs, that somewhere out there laid a world of intrigue and excitement, an awareness which feeds off that well-worn cliché ‘there’s more to life than this’. Whilst enrolled upon a Civil Engineering degree at Trent Poly, the presence of overseas students and a hint of distant opportunity enticed further. Armed therefore with a BSc and a sense of liberation, a few post-graduate jobs up and down the country failed entirely to compete with a growing hunger for adventure. Surprising all, I applied for a post in Nigeria, though nobody was more surprised than my parents who would recall how, as a child, I would fall lamentably homesick when barely a stone’s throw distant.
 
In Nigeria you witnessed a coup d ‘etat…
The military coup remains a very Nigerian method of disposition. Since independence in 1960 a succession of plots, each bearing the hallmarks of well-penned, Machiavellian subterfuge, were perpetrated, not by gun-toting, military hoodlums as one might assume, but erudite, well-educated and highly trained graduates of Sandhurst and the like, this one would prove no exception.
 
An official wireless announcement, repeated at regular intervals to the customarily solemn strains of martial music, informed us of the coup. Although few people ventured out we ourselves decided on a day in the office – how British! Few people were about and a heightened presence of military stood ready to deal with any counter coup manoeuvres, the usual follow up to a change of government in these parts; additionally, an evening curfew and airport closure were imposed. Although the situation remained tense, Lagos returned to normal after a few days. 
 
 
Did it help the locals?
Naturally nothing improved for the average Nigerian, just another cycle of austerity, retrenchment and corruption. Nobody was too frightened by the experience and even though the chance of being caught in counter-coup crossfire existed, the Nigerians were generally far too neat and well-versed in their actions to allow that; ammunition reserved for government ministers and loyalists. 
 
During your travels you’ve witnessed some serious global events, how do your accounts enhance our understanding of these?
It’s unusual for a travel book to venture into ‘serious global events’ territory, most happenings being unpredictable and nigh impossible to plan for, the Hong Kong handover proving the exception. Nevertheless it’s highly interesting to get caught up in a world event and being able to witness and record it from an entirely lay perspective, providing an insignificant individual’s view rather than that of a professional reporter or unfathomable press releases of government sponsored organs or NGO experts. It can provide a softer, more humane and occasionally contrasting view to more official media versions.
 
Having visited so many places, is their anywhere in particular that stands out?
An isolated nation, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan certainly stands out; opening to tourism in 1974 and gaining television only in 1999. Not an iota of crass commercialism exists in Bhutan, a benevolent and much-revered king at pains to preserve national identity, culture and environment; eudemonically advocating ‘Gross National Happiness’ over ‘Gross National Product’. The only nation to maintain a traditional dress code, street scenes conjured images of a period film set, a place seemingly locked in the past, but in a nice way; exactly how I imagined the world to look if transported back in time, six-hundred years or so, to a feudal society of liege lords and serfs. It was easy to feel a little conspicuous, the only foreigners in town and the only two individuals not in traditional garb.
 
Interestingly, two aspects in common with Nottingham, a rich textile heritage and the sport of archery featured strongly; many fields replete with coloured target butts and keen toxophilites, wielding bows and quivers, looking every inch the medieval Robin Hood. Not many places exist, let alone places separated by over two-thousand metres of elevation, where archery and textiles have attained historical prominence; the thought occurred that here lay the ideal opportunity to foster a civic twin-town proposal…
 
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"I've been talking, talking happy talk..."Punakha Dzong, Bhutan.

Having embraced so many cultures, do you think writing this book has offered a form of mental travel, a way perhaps of keeping the journey going?
In one way yes, writing the book was certainly a labour of love by which these journeys and experiences could be effortlessly relived; therapy perhaps, in essence the tempering of a wandering spirit’s withdrawal symptoms, a torpid spirit fed up of seeking solace amidst the travel publications of a well-stocked bookshop. It helped me understand that the process was more than a homely writing exercise, it was a measure of how deeply the people, places and cultures encountered had penetrated within; helped me realise that if anything the journey had only just begun. In addition, and more importantly perhaps, the book works on several levels; principally as an inspiration for others who might wish to do similar and, not least of all, because at the end of the day I thought it to be a tale worth telling.
 
What did you miss most about 'home' when you were away? 
Obviously family and friends and, certainly in Nigeria, a comfortable and civilised lifestyle which had been willingly squandered. This, when today’s instant communication was nothing but a dream, telephones being next to useless and letters, if they ever arrived, taking weeks. Grappling with one’s sanity amidst the sultry decrepitude of Lagos, desperation had me tuned into the World Service football results in which the mention of one’s home city, albeit sadly limited to an end of week football score, proved oddly uplifting.
 
Elsewhere, clearly the Brit within, a good old steak and kidney pie would never have gone amiss and I remember asking my mother, jokingly from Japan, to mail me one for Christmas. When in Hong Kong I would often pack a supply of the Fray Bentos tinned variety in my suitcase, goodness knows what the airport x-ray operators thought, nonetheless, the pies travelled well! Apart from that there’s nothing that I would particularly miss about England; if there was, it might be worth staying.
 
Is home a physical or a mental space?
Home is definitely a physical place though I’m not sure where that might ultimately be, perhaps the ‘keep moving’ philosophy is somehow apt. Hilary, my partner, and I have set up home in all manner of places, we have no ties or baggage as such and relish the challenge. Historically, my parents and indeed many wider family members had travelled far from their birth places, seems I’m deemed to do likewise, perhaps it’s in the blood after all.
 
 
What was it like when Great Britain handed back Hong Kong to China? 
For over a decade prior to the handover the whys and wherefores had been debated endlessly, similarly the outcome: untrammelled capitalism or harsh totalitarianism? In fact, before my arrival five years earlier, daily conversations centred largely on that impending handover of the last British colony to a hard-line Communist regime. Enamoured by the British, the Hong Kongers were definitely not; the liking of their mainland cousins however, appeared considerably less. 
 
Deliberations grew plentiful and focused clearly on the implications, uncertainties and possible hardships to be faced even if the Britain’s much-vaunted smooth handover would ever be achieved. The Joint Declaration however, would prove a calming influence which kept many a person’s black dog firmly leashed; the agreement safeguarded Hong Kong’s way of life, by guaranteeing the existing capitalist system, for fifty years under the ‘One country, two systems’ edict.
 
‘I wish you were safely home in England,’ urged mother anxiously down the blower from Blighty; with little trust in communists, so spoke a generation who had fled the ruthless wartime occupation of eastern Europe, observed helplessly the brutal quashing of a Prague Spring, not to mention the more poignant Tiananmen massacre. Perhaps such trepidations were not unwarranted; with barely hours to go columns of Red China troops were massing, impatiently, at the border. 
 
But it didn’t kick off…
No commie tanks crossed the border that fateful night or any other night for that matter; gun-toting troops of the People’s Liberation Army proved surprisingly silent by failing to run amok and picking-off, as they might have done, Hong Kong’s irritable dissidents. Copies of Chairman Mao’s little red book were confined, as before, to the territory’s quaint antique shops. As Governor Chris Patten departed it appeared that a significant number of locals never wanted this particular ‘colonial oppressor’ to depart in the first place. A newspaper article next morning quoted a lady who, interviewed during the Mr Patten’s final afternoon walk-about, awarded a ‘70% mark for his performance’ over the five-year term. A respectable score to bow out on, after all, I doubt there’s many a prominent leader, east or west, who would rate so highly on leaving office.
 
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The author (4th from left) stood in front of the handover flag.

How did the ‘one country: two systems’ doctrine impact on your daily work?
Three days later, with the hullabaloo over, everybody returned to work. The sight of a red Chinese standard fluttering atop my place of employment seemed incongruous but reinforced the ‘One country, two systems’ doctrine under which life would thus be lived.
 
I was indebted to a colleague when, following handover, one of the lowered colonial flags became a treasured keepsake; neatly folded and delivered into my hands, not unlike Mr Patten’s example. I regarded my version however as slightly superior; at least they’d had sufficient time to wash and iron it. But then again, unlike Mr Patten, I was spared the somewhat pressing need of a waiting boat to catch. Shortly after taking possession, and at the behest of work colleagues, this symbol of oppressive colonial rule was raised once more; this time in the office as a backdrop to an impromptu, for-old-times-sake photo-call. 
 
Emotions were indeed running high, people remaining unsure of what to expect in the new Hong Kong; ‘If you’re still here then it must be okay,’ expressed colleagues in the days following . Not afraid to voice out, clearly a few people appreciated our presence though we stayers-on, it must be said, were equally apprehensive of what the future held. Nevertheless, months later I was invited to Police HQ to attend the force’s passing out parade, having been invited by a Chinese friend who was graduating that day. It was amazing how the venue had retained, post-handover, a dominant British aura. It remained evident throughout the day, from the crested plaques of prominent British regiments adorning the dark, wood-panelled walls, to the marching police band, performing such favoured communist classics as Cock o’ the North; musicians attired in crisp tunics, plaid pants and tam o’shanters. The band led the squads off to a haunting rendition of Auld Lang Syne; tears of joy, I wager, would undoubtedly have welled in the eyes of Robbie Burns himself. Amongst such officially sanctioned Britishness, one could be forgiven for thinking the handover had been little more than a dream.
 
Immigration is a hot topic in current political debates…
Immigration is something of a double-edged sword; on the one hand it can provide much needed labour and expertise and, on the other, additional strain on services. I remain in favour of a peaceful Europe free of borders, with social mobility, diversification and multi-culturalism, perhaps the influence of my parents who arrived here in the post-war years to work in factories and mines, the world admittedly a very different place back then.
 
Nowadays, the immigration argument is further compounded by over-population, too many people chasing too few jobs; automation did for us in the 60s and 70s and it’s not going to get any better from here on in as population booms. I read recently that London is set to grow 1.25 million by 2031, staggeringly that’s equivalent to a city the size of Birmingham today. At grassroots level however, one doesn’t have to venture too far to discover such hackneyed sentiments as ‘They’re taking our jobs’ or ‘They’re undercutting our labour rates’ which is not exactly fair as it’s British companies and British management who are behind the recruitment, can’t blame the poor immigrants; supply and demand, it’s as simple as that! 
 
Have you witnessed similar arguments on your travels?
I was in Nigeria when thousands of working Ghanaians were chucked out, in Japan when discontent of illegal Filipinos surfaced and in Hong Kong after the handover to witness growing concern over an influx of mainland labour. It is indeed a wonderful world but a very crowded one.
 
How does Nottingham rate in terms of friendliness?
Nottingham would be up there with the best. I’m sure that every city or country would love to be regarded as the friendliest, in reality it would be difficult to pinpoint any place as being particularly less so than any other even though, on occasion abroad, I have found myself on the receiving end of racial abuse and ridicule. It mattered not, for each person that may have resented my presence, there were literally thousands who didn’t; the ‘kindness of strangers’ phrase a cliché but a true one nonetheless, kindness received quite often from the most unlikely of sources.
 
You’ve seen the world but returned back to Nottingham. Are you mad?
In a word: yes!
 

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