Wow! These Are Some Odd Toilets Around The World

1. High tech Japanese toilet

You would need a degree in computer science to be able to use it. Featuring things like heating, massage and water jets. It comes with its own control panel and if need be you can use it to fly to the moon.
Japanese toilet

The Arabic squat toilet

This is for expert squatters only, and comes with no toilet paper, just a hose pipe to wash the private parts. Make sure you clean the area for the next sorry soul…

arabic toilet

 

3. The crap battle toilet from Cape Breton

Don’t ask us the purpose of this washroom, but I think crap battles are on the cards.

 

crap-battle

 

4. The gold plated toilets for the million dollar backside

At the opposite end of the scale we have some gold plated thrones for some discerning derriere.

gold-toilets

 

5. German not so private washrooms

 

6. Transparent toilet cool…but why?

transparent-toilet

 

 

7. A two way mirror toilet…

weird-toilet

inside

 

8. The urilift

A public toilet, that only appears out of the ground at night, to prevent public urination problems in Victoria B.C

urilift

 

9. A self cleaning toilet that…

Transforms itself into a urinal.

self-cleaning-toilet

 

10. The eco-toilet

Using fancy purification filters, this standing urinal enables plants to flourish for what purpose, we are not entirely sure.
eco-toilet

Why do Zebras Have Stripes?

How the zebra got its stripes, with Alan Turing

[intro]Where do a zebra’s stripes, a leopard’s spots and our fingers come from? The key was found years ago – by the man who cracked the Enigma code, Alan Turing.[/intro]

In 1952 a mathematician published a set of equations that tried to explain the patterns we see in nature, from the dappled stripes adorning the back of a zebra to the whorled leaves on a plant stem, or even the complex tucking and folding that turns a ball of cells into an organism. His name was Alan Turing.

More famous for cracking the wartime Enigma code and his contributions to mathematics, computer science and artificial intelligence, it may come as a surprise that Turing harboured such an interest. In fact, it was an extension of his fascination with the workings of the mind and the underlying nature of life.

The secret glory of Turing’s wartime success had faded by the 1950s, and he was holed up in the grimly industrial confines of the University of Manchester. In theory he was there to develop programs for one of the world’s first electronic computers – a motley collection of valves, wires and tubes – but he found himself increasingly side-lined by greasy-fingered engineers who were more focused on nuts and bolts than numbers. This disconnection was probably intentional on Turing’s part, rather than deliberate exclusion on theirs, as his attention was drifting away from computing towards bigger questions about life.

It was a good time to be excited about biology. Researchers around the world were busy getting to grips with the nature of genes, and James Watson and Francis Crick would soon reveal the structure of DNA in 1953. There was also a growing interest in cybernetics – the idea of living beings as biological computers that could be deconstructed, hacked and rebuilt. Turing was quickly adopted into a gang of pioneering scientists and mathematicians known as the Ratio Club, where his ideas about artificial intelligence and machine learning were welcomed and encouraged.

Against this backdrop Turing took up a subject that had fascinated him since before the war. Embryology – the science of building a baby from a single fertilised egg cell – had been a hot topic in the early part of the 20th century, but progress sputtered to a halt as scientists realised they lacked the technical tools and scientific framework to figure it out. Perhaps, some thinkers concluded, the inner workings of life were fundamentally unknowable.

Turing viewed this as a cop-out. If a computer could be programmed to calculate, then a biological organism must also have some kind of underlying logic too.

He set to work collecting flowers in the Cheshire countryside, scrutinising the patterns in nature. Then came the equations – complex, unruly beasts that couldn’t be solved by human hands and brains. Luckily the very latest computer, a Ferranti Mark I, had just arrived in Manchester, and Turing soon put it to work crunching the numbers. Gradually, his “mathematical theory of embryology”, as he referred to it, began to take shape.

Like all the best scientific ideas, Turing’s theory was elegant and simple: any repeating natural pattern could be created by the interaction of two things – molecules, cells, whatever – with particular characteristics. Through a mathematical principle he called ‘reaction–diffusion’, these two components would spontaneously self-organise into spots, stripes, rings, swirls or dappled blobs.

In particular his attention focused on morphogens – the then-unknown molecules in developing organisms that control their growing shape and structure. The identities and interactions of these chemicals were, at the time, as enigmatic as the eponymous wartime code. Based on pioneering experiments on frog, fly and sea urchin embryos from the turn of the 20th century – involving painstakingly cutting and pasting tiny bits of tissue onto other tiny bits of tissue – biologists knew they had to be there. But they had no idea how they worked.

Although the nature of morphogens was a mystery, Turing believed he might have cracked their code. His paper ‘The chemical basis of morphogenesis’ appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in August 1952.

Sadly, Turing didn’t live long enough to find out whether he was right. He took his own life in 1954, following a conviction for ‘gross indecency’ and subsequent chemical castration – the penalty for being openly gay in an intolerant time. In those two short years there was little to signpost the twists and turns that his patterns would take over the next 60 years, as biologists and mathematicians battled it out between the parallel worlds of embryology and computing.

In a cramped office in London, tucked away somewhere on the 27th floor of Guy’s Hospital, Professor Jeremy Green of King’s College London is pointing at a screen.

A program that simulates Turing patterns is running in a small window. At the top left is a square box, filled with writhing zebra-like monochrome stripes. Next to it is a brain-bending panel of equations. “It’s astonishing that Turing came up with this out of nowhere, as it’s not intuitive at all,” says Green, as he pokes a finger at the symbols. “But the equations are much less fearsome than you think.”

The essence of a Turing system is that you have two components, both of which can spread through space (or at least behave as if they do). These could be anything from the ripples of sand on a dune to two chemicals moving through the sticky goop holding cells together in a developing embryo. The key thing is that whatever they are, the two things spread at different speeds, one faster than the other.

One component is to be auto-activating, meaning that it can turn on the machinery that makes more of itself. But this activator also produces the second component – an inhibitor that switches off the activator. Crucially, the inhibitor has to move at a faster pace than the activator through space.

The beauty of it is that Turing systems are completely self-contained, self-starting and self-organising. According to Green, all that one needs to get going is just a little bit of activator. The first thing it does is make more of itself. And what prevents it from ramping up forever? As soon as it gets to a certain level it switches on the inhibitor, which builds up to stop it.

“The way to think about it is that as the activator builds up it has a head start,” says Green. “So you end up with, say, a black stripe, but the inhibitor then builds up and spreads more quickly. At a certain point it catches up with the activator in space and stops it in its tracks. And that makes one stripe.”

From these simple components you can create a world of patterns. The fearsome equations are just a way of describing those two things. All you need to do is adjust the conditions, or ‘parameters’. Tweaking the rates of spreading and decay, or changing how good the activator is at turning itself on and how quickly the inhibitor shuts it down, subtly alters the pattern to create spots or stripes, swirls or splodges.

Despite its elegance and simplicity, Turing’s reaction–diffusion idea gained little ground with the majority of developmental biologists at the time. And without the author around to champion his ideas, they remained in the domain of a small bunch of mathematicians. In the absence of solid evidence that Turing mechanisms were playing a part in any living system, they seemed destined to be a neat but irrelevant distraction.

Biologists were busy grappling with a bigger mystery: how a tiny blob of cells organises itself to create a head, tail, arms, legs and everything in between to build a new organism.

In the late 1960s a new explanation appeared, championed by the eminent and persuasive embryologist Lewis Wolpert and carried aloft by the legion of developmental biologists that followed in his footsteps. The concept of ‘positional information’ suggests that cells in a developing embryo sense where they are in relation to an underlying map of molecular signals (the mysterious morphogens). By way of explanation, Wolpert waved the French flag.

Imagine a rectangular block of cells in the shape of a flag. A strip of cells along the left-hand edge are pumping out a morphogen – let’s call it Striper – that gradually spreads out to create a smooth gradient of signal, high to low from left to right. Sensing the levels of Striper around them, the cells begin to act accordingly. Those on the left turn blue if the level of Striper is above a certain specific threshold, those in the middle turn white in response to the middling levels of Striper they detect, while those on the far right, bathing in the very lowest amounts of Striper, go red. Et voila – the French flag.

Wolpert’s flag model was simple to grasp, and developmental biologists loved it. All you had to do to build an organism was to set up a landscape of morphogen gradients, and cells would know exactly what to become – a bit like painting by numbers. More importantly, it was clear to researchers that it worked in real life, thanks to chickens.

Even today, chicken embryos are an attractive way to study animal development. Scientists can cut a window in the shell of a fertilised hen’s egg to watch the chick inside, and even fiddle about with tweezers to manipulate the growing embryo. What’s more, chicken wings have three long bony structures buried inside the tip, analogous to our fingers. Each one is different – like the three stripes of a French flag – making them the perfect system for testing out Wolpert’s idea.

In a series of landmark experiments in the 1960s, John Saunders and Mary Gasseling of Wisconsin’s Marquette University carefully cut a piece from the lower side of a developing chick’s wing bud – imagine taking a chunk from the edge of your hand by the little finger – and stuck it to the upper ‘thumb’ side.

Instead of the usual three digits (thumb, middle and little ‘fingers’), the resulting chicken had a mirror wing – little finger, middle, thumb, thumb, middle, little finger. The obvious conclusion was that the region from the base of the wing was producing a morphogen gradient. High levels of the gradient told the wing cells to make a little finger, middling ones instructed the middle digit, and low levels made a thumb.

It was hard to argue with such a definitive result. But the ghost of Turing’s idea still haunted the fringes of biology.

In 1979 a physicist-turned-biologist and a physical chemist caused a bit of a stir. Stuart Newman and Harry Frisch published a paper in the high-profile journalScience showing how a Turing-type mechanism could explain the patterning in a chicken’s fingers.

They simplified the developing three-dimensional limb into a flat rectangle and figured out reaction–diffusion equations that would generate waves of an imaginary digit-making morphogen within it as it grew. The patterns generated by Newman and Frisch’s model are clunky and square, but they look unmistakeably like the bones of a robot hand.

They argued that an underlying Turing pattern makes the fingers, which are then given their individual characteristics by some kind of overlying gradient – of the sort proposed by the French flag model – as opposed to the gradient itself directing the creation of the digits.

“People were still in an exploratory mode in the 1970s, and Turing’s own paper was only 25 years old at that point. Scientists were hearing about it for the first time and it was interesting,” says Newman, now at New York Medical College in the USA. “I was lucky to get physics-oriented biologists to review my paper – there wasn’t an ideology on the limb that had set in, and people were still wondering how it all worked.”

It was a credible alternative to Wolpert’s gradient idea, prominently published in a leading journal. According to Newman, the reception was initially warm. “Straight after it was published, one of Wolpert’s associates, Dennis Summerbell, wrote me a letter saying that they needed to consider the Turing idea, that it was very important. Then there was silence.”

A year later, Summerbell’s view had changed. He published a joint paper with biologist Jonathan Cooke, which made clear that he no longer considered it a valid idea. Newman was shocked. “From that point on nobody in that group ever mentioned it, with one exception – Lewis Wolpert himself once cited our paper in a symposium report in 1989 and dismissed it.”

The majority of the developmental biology community did not consider Turing patterns important at all. Fans of the positional information model closed ranks against Newman. The invitations to speak at scientific meetings dried up. It became difficult for him to publish papers and get funding to pursue Turing models. Paper after paper came out from scientists who supported the French flag model.

Newman explains: “A lot of them got to be editors at journals – I knew some colleagues who felt that pressure was put on them to keep our ideas out of some of the good journals. In other areas people were as open to new ideas as you might expect, but because Wolpert and his scientific descendants were so committed to his idea it became part of the culture of the limb world. All the meetings and special editions of journals were all centred around it, so it was very difficult to displace.”

Further blows came from the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster – another organism beloved of developmental biologists. For a while the regimented stripes that form in the fly’s developing embryo were thought to develop through a Turing mechanism. But eventually they turned out to be created through the complex interplay of morphogen gradients activating specific patterns of gene activity in the right place at the right time, rather than a self-striping system.

Newman was disappointed by the failure of the research community to take his idea seriously, despite countless hours of further work on both the mathematical and molecular sides. For decades, his and Frisch’s paper languished in obscurity, haunting the same scientific territory as Turing’s original paper.

High up in the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona is an office papered with brightly coloured pictures of embryonic mouse paws. Each one shows neat stripes of developing bones fanning out inside blob-like budding limbs – something the room’s decorator, systems biologist James Sharpe, is convinced can be explained by Turing’s model.

Turing’s idea is simple, so one can easily imagine how it could explain the patterns we see in nature. And that’s part of the problem, because a simple likeness isn’t proof that a system is at work – it’s like seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Telling biological Just So Stories about how things have come to be is a dangerous game, yet this kind of thinking was used to justify the French flag model too.

In Sharpe’s view it was the chicken’s fault. “If studies of limb development had started with a mouse,” he says, “the whole history would have been very different.”

In his opinion there was a built-in bias right from the start that digits were fundamentally different from each other, requiring specific individual instructions for each one (provided by precise morphogen ‘coordinates’, according to the French flag model). This was one of the primary arguments made against a role for Turing patterns being involved in limb development – they can only ever generate the same thing, such as a stripe or a spot, again and again.

So how could a Turing system create the three distinctive digits of a chick’s limb? Surely each one must be told to grow in a certain way by an underlying gradient ‘map’? But a chick only has three fingers. “If they had 20, you would see that wasn’t the case,” says Sharpe, wiggling his fingers towards me by way of demonstration. “They’d all look much more similar to each other.”

I look down at my own hand and see his point. I have four fingers and a thumb, and each finger doesn’t seem to have particularly unique identity of its own. Sure, there are subtle differences in size, yet they’re basically the same. According to Sharpe, the best evidence that they aren’t that different comes from one of the most obvious but incorrect assumptions about the body: that people always have five fingers.

In reality the number of fingers and toes is one of the least robust things about the way we’re made. “We don’t always have five,” he says, “and it’s surprisingly common to have more.” In fact, it’s thought that up to one in 500 children is born with extra digits on their hands or feet. And while the French flag model can’t account for this, Turing patterns can.

By definition Turing systems are self-organising, creating consistent patterns with specific properties depending on the parameters. In the case of a stripy pattern, this means that the same set-up will always create stripes with the same distance (or wavelength, as mathematicians call it) between them. If you disrupt the pattern, for example by removing a chunk, the system will attempt to fill in the missing bits in a highly characteristic way. And while Turing systems are good at generating repeating patterns with a consistent wavelength, such as regular-sized fingers, they’re less good at counting how many they’ve made, hence the bonus digits.

Importantly, a particular Turing system can only make the same thing over and over again. But look closely at the body and there are many examples of repeating structures. In many animals, including ourselves, the fingers and toes are more or less all the same. But, according to the flag model, structures created in response to different levels of morphogen would all have to be different. How to explain the fact that the same thing can be ‘read’ out from a higher and lower morphogen level?

Sharpe maintains that the concept of an underlying molecular ‘road map’ just doesn’t hold up. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for a long time a lot of the developmental biology community has thought that you have these seas of gradients washing over a whole organ. And because they’re going in different directions, every part of the organ has a different coordinate.”

In 2012 – the centenary of Turing’s birth and 60 years since his ‘chemical morphogenesis’ paper – Sharpe showed that this idea (at least in the limb) was wrong.

The proof was neatly demonstrated in a paper by Sharpe and Maria Ros at the University of Cantabria in Spain, published in Science. Ros used genetic engineering techniques to systematically remove members of a particular family of genes from mice. Their targets were the Hox genes, which play a fundamental role in organising the body plan of a developing embryo, including patterning mouse paws and human hands.

Getting rid of any of these crucial regulators might be expected to have some fairly major effects, but what the researchers saw was positively freakish. As they knocked out more and more of the 39 Hox genes found in mice, the resulting animals had more and more fingers on their paws, going up to 15 in the animals missing the most genes.

Importantly, as more Hox genes were cut and more fingers appeared, the spacing between them got smaller. So the increased number of fingers wasn’t due to larger paws, but to smaller and smaller stripes fitting into the same space – a classic hallmark of a Turing system, which had never been observed before in mouse limbs. When Sharpe crunched the numbers, Turing’s equations could account for the extra fingers Ros and her team were seeing.

That’s great for the near-identical digits of a mouse, I say, but it doesn’t explain why the chick’s three digits are so different. Sharpe scribbles on a piece of paper, drawing a Venn diagram of two scruffy overlapping circles. One is labelled “PI” for positional information à la Wolpert, the other “SO” for self-organising systems such as Turing patterns. Tapping at them with his pen, he says, “The answer is not that Turing is right and Wolpert was wrong, but that there’s a combination at work.”

Wolpert himself has conceded, to a certain extent, that a Turing system could be capable of patterning fingers. But it can’t, by definition, impart the differences between them. Morphogen gradients must work on top of this established pattern to give the digits their individual characteristics, from thumb to pinky, marrying together Wolpert’s positional information idea with Turing’s self-organising one.

§

Other real-life examples of Turing systems that have been quietly accumulating over the past two decades are now being noticed. A 1990 paper from a trio of French chemists described the first unambiguous experimental evidence of a Turing structure: they noticed a band of regular spots appear in a strip of gel where a colour-generating reaction was happening – the tell-tale sign of the system at work.

While studying elegantly striped marine angelfish, Japanese researcher Shigeru Kondo noticed that rather than their stripes getting bigger as the fish aged (as happens in mammals like zebras), they kept the same spacing but increased in number, branching to fill the space available. Computer models revealed that a Turing pattern could be the only explanation. Kondo went on to show that the stripes running along the length of a zebrafish can also be explained by Turing’s maths, in this case thanks to two different types of cells interacting with each other, rather than two molecules.

It turns out that the patterned coats of cats, from cheetahs and leopards to domestic tabbies, are the result of Turing mechanisms working to fill in the blank biological canvas of the skin. The distribution of hair follicles on our heads and the feathers on birds are also thanks to Turing-type self-organisation.

Other researchers are focusing on how Turing’s mathematics can explain the way tubes within an embryo’s developing chest split over and over again to create delicate, branched lungs. Even the regular array of teeth in our jaws probably got there by Turing-esque patterning.

Meanwhile in London, Jeremy Green has also found that the rugae on the roof of your mouth – the repeated ridges just above your front teeth that get burnt easily if you eat a too-hot slice of pizza – owe their existence to a Turing pattern.

As well as fish skins, feathers, fur, teeth, rugae and the bones in our hands, James Sharpe thinks there are plenty of other parts of the body that might be created through self-organising Turing patterns, with positional information laid on top. For a start, while our digits are clearly stripes, the clustered bones of the wrist could be viewed as spots. These can easily be made with a few tweaks to a Turing equation’s parameters.

Sharpe has some more controversial ideas for where the mechanism might be at work – perhaps patterning the regular array of ribs and vertebrae running up our spine. He even suspects that the famous stripes in fruit fly embryos have more to do with Turing patterning than the rest of the developmental biology community might have expected.

Given that he works in a building clad in horizontal wooden bars, I ask if he’s started to see Turing patterns everywhere he looks. “I’ve been through that phase,” he laughs. “During the centenary year it really was Turing everywhere. The exciting possibility for me is that we’ve misunderstood a whole lot of systems and how easy it can be to trick ourselves – and the whole community – into making up Just So Stories that seem to fit and being happy with them.”

Stuart Newman agrees, his 1979 theory now back out of the shadows. “When you start tugging at one thread, a lot of things will fall apart if you’re on to something. They don’t want to talk about it, not because it’s wrong – it’s easy to dismiss something that’s wrong – but probably because it’s right. And I think that’s what turned out to be the case.”

Slowly but surely, researchers are piecing together the role of Turing systems in creating biological structures. But until recently there was still one thing needed to prove that there’s a Turing pattern at work in the limb: the identities of the two components that drive it.

That mystery has now been solved by James Sharpe and his team in a paper published in August 2014, again in the journal Science. Five years in the making, it combines delicate embryo work with hardcore number crunching.

Sharpe figured that the components needed to fuel a Turing pattern in the limb must show a stripy pattern that reflects the very early developing fingers – either switched on in the future fingers and off in the cells destined to become the gaps, or vice versa.

To find them, graduate student Jelena Raspopovic collected cells from a developing mouse limb bud, in which only the merest hint of gene activity that leads to digit formation can be seen. After separating the two types of cells, and much painstaking molecular analysis, some interesting molecular suspects popped out. Using computer modelling, Sharpe was able to exactly recapitulate a gradual appearance of digits that mirrored what they saw in actual mouse paws, based on the activity patterns of these components.

Intriguingly, unlike the neat two-part system invoked by Turing, Sharpe thinks that three different molecules work together in the limb to make fingers. One is Sox9, a protein that tells cells to “make bones here” in the developing digits. The others are signals sent by two biological messenger systems: one called BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) signalling, which switches on Sox9 in the fingers, and another messenger molecule known as WNT (pronounced “wint”), which turns it off in the gaps between fingers.

Although classic Turing systems invoke just two components – an activator and an inhibitor – this situation is a little more complicated.  “It doesn’t seem to boil down to literally just two things,” Sharpe explains. “Real biological networks are complex, and in our case we’ve boiled it down to two signalling pathways rather than two specific molecules.”

Further confirmation came when they went the other way – from the model to the embryo. Another of Sharpe’s students, Luciano Marcon, tweaked the program to see what would happen to the patterns if each signalling pathway was turned down. In the simulation, reducing BMP signalling led to a computer-generated paw with no fingers. Conversely, turning down WNT predicted a limb made entirely of digits fused together.

When tested in real life, using tiny clumps of limb bud tissue taken from early mouse embryos and grown in Petri dishes, these predictions came true. Treating the cultures with drugs that dampen down each pathway produced exactly what the program had predicted – no fingers, or all fingers. An alternative simulation with both signals turned down at the same time predicts two or three fat fingers instead of five neat digits. Again, using both drugs at once on real mouse limb buds created exactly the same pattern. Being able to flip from the model to the embryo and back again – making testable predictions that are borne out by experiments – is a key piece of proof that things are working in the way Sharpe thinks.

And if the theory is finally accepted, and we figure out how and where Turing systems are used to create structures in nature, what can we do with this knowledge? Quite a lot, according to Jeremy Green.

“You can live without rugae but the things like your heart valves or your whole palate, they really matter,” he says. “The regenerative medics working on any stem cell technology or cell therapy in the future are going to need to understand how these are made. The growth factor research in the 1980s was the bedrock of the stem cell therapies that are starting to go into clinical trials now, but it inspired the whole world of regenerative medicine. That’s the kind of timescale we’re talking about.”

At Guy’s Hospital he sees close-up what happens when development goes awry. His department specialises in birth defects affecting the face and skull, and Green believes that understanding the underlying molecular nuts and bolts is the key to fixing them. “What we’re doing now is very theoretical, and we can fantasise about how it’s going to be useful, but in 25 years that’s the kind of knowledge we’ll need to have. It’ll probably be taken for granted by then, but we’ll need to know all this Turing stuff to be able to build a better body.”

In the last years of Alan Turing’s life he saw his mathematical dream – a programmable electronic computer – sputter into existence from a temperamental collection of wires and tubes. Back then it was capable of crunching a few numbers at a snail’s pace. Today, the smartphone in your pocket is packed with computing technology that would have blown his mind. It’s taken almost another lifetime to bring his biological vision into scientific reality, but it’s turning out to be more than a neat explanation and some fancy equations.

LSD Trip Experience in the Desert

An India guy named Eddy Gordo, decides to film himself taking an LSD trip in the Indian desert, apparently the desert is called Thar, while wearing headphones, in the middle of a sandstorm of sorts. Watch the video it’s really bizarre and interesting as at some points it looks like his head might explode.

The Most Expensive Watch Brands

World’s Expensive Watch Brands

Being one of the most treasured accessories for both men and women, watches come in different styles and are made from different materials. The cost of a watch highly depends on the material that is used in making it, the design, and the special features that it displays. There are the common steel watches as well as those that are adorned with diamonds and jewels. An elegant and stylish watch can easily receive recognition but a luxurious and expensive one is an envy of many. Expensive watch brands sell at over $25,000 to over $1 million in the market and if you have the resources and can afford to buy one, here is a list of the world’s most expensive watch brands to choose from.

Patek Philippe

Patek Watch

The Patek Philippe watch brand is among the top expensive brands worldwide. The model that has become the most expensive timepiece of all time is the Patek Phillipe Henry Graves Super complication Pocket Watch is costing 11 million dollars. It has 18-carat trimmings that are guaranteed solid and it took five years to design and build it. The other model, which has been categorized as a vintage piece, is the Patek Philippe 1527 Wristwatch made in 1943. The watch is adorned with eighteen-carat gold, 23 jewels, silver dial, and Gold Arabic numerals on the dial. The price is five million dollars, making it one of the most expensive watches. Another model is the Sky Moon Tourbillion 5002 P, which costs $1.5 million. It has 686 parts, double faced, with celestial movements. It also comes with special features like manual winding, 55 jewel movements, and a power reserve lasting 48 hours. The other material that is of interest is the crocodile leather band together with the sapphire crystal. The Platinum World Time Watch model will cost you a cool $4 million.

Vacheron Constantin

Vacheron Constantin Watch

This is a Swiss watch manufacture established in the year 1755 making Vacheron Constantin the oldest watchmaker known in history. In fact, it was the first to develop engine- turned dials. It is also among the best three worldwide in the production of traditional brands. The model Tour de l’Ile, sold for $1.5 million in the year 2005. Another model, Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers sells for $390,000 is an 18-carat rising gold case, an alligator leather strap, and a thin case.

Hublot

Hublot Tourbillon

This Swiss watch company that was established in the year 1980 is a highly selling luxury brand worldwide. The brand sells at between a few hundred to over a million dollars. The models, which initially cost a few thousand when the company was, started now selling at over a million dollars. The brand is common among many people who fancy fine watches because they are not highly expensive and many can quite afford it. The brand Tourbillion Solo Bang sells for $122,000 while the Big Bang Caviar, which is among its most expensive, costs $1 million.

Girard-Perregaux

Girard Perregaux

This is another Swiss watch manufacturer that specializes in expensive watch brands. The Opera Three Musical Hours watch model from Girard-Perregaux goes for about $420,000. Its features include a mini jewelry box, a drum, 150 mounted pins, and 20 blades. It is a watch that allows you to play music using a lever and depending on your likes, the watch has a personalization facility that allows you to choose your preferences.

Audemars Piguet

audemars piquet

This watchmaker has consistently produced the most expensive watches in the globe competing only with Patek Philippe in that matter. The Royal Oak is a self-winding watch with 52 jewel movements. In addition, it has an 18k gold case that is white, together with a bracelet that matches, transparent sapphire case at the back and a perpetual calendar indicating the time, day, week, month and the year including moon phases, leap years. Another model – Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-winding diamond watch is a slim one, of 37mm that is perfect for those men with skinny wrists. The new model is slim, only 37 mm but perfect for lean men with skinny wrists. The model is perfectly crafted in pink gold and has 40 diamonds in the shape that resemble the original model Royal Oak.

These are just but five expensive watch brands, but there are others that fall in the same group in terms of design and cost. The internet is fully of reviews and customers’ views or comments about this particular type of watches. The watchmakers are also doing their best to bring great brands in the market.

The Lure of Absinthe…

Absinthe refers to potent liqueur of emerald green color, made from a mixture of wormwood and a variety of herbs. It has amazingly-high alcohol content and a licorice flavor that users find rather appealing. Poets and painters hailing from Belle Epoque, France, passionately embraced the alcoholic beverage in early times. This action could have been due to its mind-altering effects or spirituous potency.

The drink was popularized by Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Manet and a host of other prominent 19th Century writers and artists. It served as symbol of French decadence during this time period. Though notoriously addictive, absinthe is slowly regaining popularity among smokers in Europe and generally the Western hemisphere.

Prominent figures in history have come under allure of the legendary alcoholic drink. They include Alfred Jarry, W. Somerset Maugham and Edgar Allan Poe. Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud are however the two scribes who most often are associated with the addictive beverage, apart from mythologizing it as elixir of Bohemes.

From its first medicinal use in Ancient Greece through its prohibition right before start of World War I, absinthe is rising in popularity once again. Artemisia Absinthium, known commonly as wormwood, is the chief ingredient for constituting absinthe. Wormwood was used for medicinal purposes dating back to the Egyptian Era, finding use as stimulant, antiseptic and tonic, whereby it remedied menstrual pains and fevers.

The Greeks offered it as prescription for anemia, rheumatism and jaundice. Romans utilized it for aiding in digestion and relieving stomach upsets. Leaves from this perennial were used for expelling intestinal worms, where the liquor obtained its name. Absinthium’ is believed to derive from apsinthion’, implying undrinkable, perhaps owing to its extreme bitterness.

Absinthe was produced at first during late of 18th Century in Val-der-Travers, Switzerland. Wormwood abounds here, together with other wild-growing alpine herbs. Pierre Ordinaire is the French doctor believed to have invented this alcoholic concoction back in 1792. The intention at this time was to patent absinthe as a medicine, though it tasted strongly of anise and licorice. Due to its often alluring color Come late of 1790s, this herbal mixture already was termed La Fee Verte, implying The Green Fairy in English.

Chlorophyll content present in the herbs used to distill the strong beverage laced it with the characteristically green color. Some dishonest manufacturers however adulterated the drink with toxic chemicals in a bid to achieve the color as well as clouding effect (louche). In reputable brands, the clouding effect resulted from precipitation of essential oils within the herbs.

Quite possibly, absinthe later developed a bad name owing to such disreputable acts, which posed grave danger to its consumers at the time. Major Dubied, a Frenchman, found the tonic impressive and having purchased the recipe in 1797, began manufacturing it for sale with Son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod. After experiencing great success with their modest Swiss distillery, Pernod split from Father-in-law in 1805. He then opened up a new factory in bordering Pontarlier, where he started producing small volumes of liquor. Production however later shot from 16 liters at infancy to 400 liters on daily basis within just few years.

The original recipe of Pernod Fils included a total of six aromatic herbs, which were namely Roman wormwood, wormwood, hyssop, anise, fennel and lemon balm. Angelica, nutmeg, juniper, dittany and star anise later on found way into the original recipe. There were other distillers who sprang up to tap into the market, which was growing quite fast, but Pernod Fils largely remained the standard.

Absinthe was mostly a European phenomenon, though it did take root in New Orleans that became the capital for absinthe in North America. The Old Absinthe House had probably turned to be the most famous city bar by when Prohibition came. While in New Orleans Alistair Crowley, the British occultist termed as wickedest’ in the world, composed The Green Goddess’, a lyrical essay describing abysinthe. In it he hailed the significance of absinthe in the life of New Orleans dwellers.

Even kitchen recipes eventually embraced the highly-intoxicating drink, which later got effectively banned in North America by the Food Inspection Unit in the US Department of Agriculture. The action was well-considered and followed rampant reports of proactive abuse of Abysinthe in Europe.
Today , this alcoholic beverage remains widely available for sale in France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Czech Republic, Ibizz, Andora, Japan and the UK.

A Journey to Kuala Lumpur

Soooo….. I don’t know where to start. Haha. The last few days in Kuala Lumpur have seemed like a really weird dream. When I flew in I was pleased to see that I didn’t have to fill out any forms at immigration and after I handed my passport to the official and gave my fingerprints, I was given a 90 travel visa. After that I grabbed my backpack and headed to customs which I was nervous about because I know how strict they are about drugs here and I was nervous because I have such a big bag I was surely to get searched. I was worried about having to explain that I’m not really a photographer here on business even though I have so much camera gear. As I approached I saw a family being searched and I thought “fuck”, but the customs official smiles and waives me through.

The bus system was really easy and I only needed one transfer to get to my hotel which was an hour plus from the airport and right on the edge of china town and what seems to be a big party district.

Very pleased with the city so far, I put my bags in my room, had a shower and decided to go for a little walk. That was when I was to feel culture shock for the first time. I didn’t make it ten steps before I noticed all the rats and cockroaches in the ally’s and on the sidewalk. I passed a restaurant and noticed that everyone was eating everything with their hands. I noticed one man with rice all over his fingers lean away from the table and blow snot on the floor and then spit. It’s a different kind of table manners than I’m used to but certainly not everyone here has such disregard for cleanliness as that “gentleman”.

The next block proved to be even more interesting. Every fifteen steps held very different and foreign smells from all the street vendors lined up along the sidewalk. A group of prostitutes stared at me from a corner and one turns a little and smacks her ass. The whole time looking at me with the same blank expression on her face. She licked her lips and I smiled but had to look away. I heard dance music coming from a bar across the street so I went over and stepped in. A woman led me through the crowd of drunk ( and I’m pretty sure a lot were on ecstasy) people to a table in the back. I ordered a pint of beer and when it was brought to my table I was handed a bill for 29 Ringgit($10)! I asked to look at a menu to see if I was being ripped off but it was correct for some strange reason (or they have a separate menu for suckers like me that don’t ask the price first). Lesson learned. I paid the bill sourly and decided to drink my beer quickly and leave due to the amount of people staring and giving dirty looks at the only tourist in the bar.

After I left, I only made it a few steps before a prostitute in a tight pink dress grabs me by the arm and asks me where I was from. I tell her Canada and she says “ohhhh I love cCanada”. She then leaned in and whispered “you want to give it to me for free? I have private room”. She kissed me on the cheek and I had to pull away and tell her(or possibly a him) that I was flattered but no thanks. She (or he) made a weird noise and as I walked away I noticed that a six foot tall lady boy was watching and he tells me she is crazy. I laughed and walked down another street. I asked someone sitting on a wall where I might me able to find a quiet bar to have a beer. Boy was that a bad idea. He pointed to a place across the street and I noticed the fluorescent sign that he was referring to. I walked in and look around and I notice a woman at a desk that just points to an elevator. Inside stands a man who I thought was just the operator but halfway up I notice a pistol sticking out of his pants and judging by the mean look on his face I figure he is more like a bouncer. The doors open and a short funny looking man rushes up to greet me. I notice it doesn’t look much like a bar. Then I see all the woman wearing next to nothing and lounging all over the furniture.

I realize what kind of place this is and at the same moment the funny looking man shouts something and they all line up. I told him that I am tired and just would like a beer. With a semi-sour smile he points to the bar without saying anything. He shouts again at them and they all return to their lounging (or resting unfortunately). I order a beer for a much cheaper price than the last place and the funny looking man leads me to a dark room full of men in lazyboy recliners with swiveling computer monitors. I had been really nervous since the elevator and I let him lead me to an empty lazyboy.

He tells me to relax for a while and I sit down only to think of how to get out of this situation without pissing anyone off. The computer monitor turns on and pornography displays inches from my face while loud moaning seems to be coming from speakers built right into the chair. I’m sure all of this is meant to arouse me but all I want to do is go back to my quiet little hotel room. I chug the beer and get up. The funny looking man, who must have been waiting only a few feet away, urges me to sit back down and relax. He asks me if I need another beer and I tell him no and that I am very tired from traveling. I lie and tell him that I will be back tomorrow for sure and finally his sour look changes to a fake smile. I get back on the elevator and the man with the pistol stares at me the whole ride down. I’m sure he is wondering why I am leaving so quickly.

As dirty and loud as it is, I am happy to be back on the street and headed to my hotel. Once I get there I immediately shower the filth from that place off of me and go straight to bed.

My sleep was filled with strange dreams and nightmares. I woke several times to the sounds of things scurrying on my hotel room floor but I am too exhausted to care. I wake in the morning to a tiny moth trying to fly around under my blanket. I wondered if it’s cocoon was in my blanket (the next morning I woke to the same thing so I’m pretty sure it’s a popular spot for larvae). I head straight out of the hotel to get coffee and breakfast. I find a nice clean looking place and sit down and order the Nasi Lemak (I’ve heard it’s one of the most popular dishes). It was good but I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone for breakfast. I find that the dried anchovies don’t taste the best after brushing your teeth. It was decently cheap though and I did finish everything despite a scruffy and dirty cat who kept bothering me and even jumped onto my lap a few times to get some food.

After that I decided to do something more familiar and go for a walk with my camera. It’s Chinese New Year right now and I thought I would be able to get some neat shots in Chinatown. I walked for twenty minutes and after taking about ten photos I was yelled at four times before I decided to stop. It was not like the Philippines where I would be thanked for taking people’s pictures. Instead almost all I got were dirty looks no matter how much I smiled or thanked them and one person even spat at my feet. On the walk back I tried asking people if I could take their picture and only a few agreed or gave me a slight nod of compliance. I decided I would go take pictures of landmarks instead. The immense Petronas Towers were even more breathtaking than I had imagined and the KL Tower was higher than I had ever been in a building. After that I got a little lost trying to find my way back. I’m also not used to the cars driving on the other side of the road. This is a first for me and I almost got hit by a motorcycle going extremely fast because I looked left first instead of right while crossing the street. He swerved a little and went by only a couple feet in front of me. He was going so fast I couldn’t even hear him until he was right in from of me. Another lesson learned.

All in all though, I am not disappointed at myself for coming into the city and not taking a bus straight out to a small town somewhere. I’m not a fan of big cities anymore and this is the craziest and most foreign place I’ve ever been…but it has been quite the experience though.

This post is written by Patrick Anthony Rojo who is travelling around South East Asia and is a freelance photographer.

Top 10 Rappers

Rap music is a vocal style that is associated with hip-hop. Rap is among the four pillars of hip-hop culture. There are many rappers who indulge in this musical genre. The following rappers should be on every list of the greatest rappers.

1. Biggie Smalls

biggie smalls
This rapper had a distinctive flow that was never heard of in the early 90’s. His lyrics were relevant and he also had a one in a million style. When it comes to the mic, Biggie had charisma. Many people loved his songs because they felt that they connected to him. His music was all about the realities of life. Most of the rhymes were mainly about transforming from being poor to being rich, which most people hold as a dream. Just like other artists, his death increased his popularity and ever since his tracks are rated as classics. Actually, many artists look up to Biggie as an inspiration. He had been labeled a discoverer of the Golden Era of Hip Hop.

2. Tupac

tupac
Tupac, conceivably, is the one of the most popular rappers of all time He is known to have an extremely wide fan base. One thing that makes this legend to be rated as the greatest rap artist in history is how he reached into areas in the community where people could associate to his material especially the ghetto. He showed his passion for what he does on the mic and he never held anything back. His lyrics may not have been all that, but one could get a feel of what he is saying through his songs. The fact it that he grew up in a rugged environment and on the streets made his fans relate to him and understanding better what he was rapping about.

3. Lil Wayne

lil wayne
People dislike Wayne because of how he does things differently on his albums. He has been in the game of rap for a long period and won every possible award is worthy to win for rap music. This rapper has never lost skill. Wayne is a talented artist and he cannot simply be ignored. His lyrics may not be a story telling like, but he is a rap artist who can manipulate words and think totally outside of the box. His different game of rap shows the reason why he has many haters. Despite the fact that he is the most hated rapper known, you can take time to listen to his lyrics before talking trash about him. He has been rapping from a young age and is still successful.

4. Eminem

eminem
He is known for his best beats, best signing, best lyrics, and best voice. Both of his personalities, Marshall Mathers and Slim Shady are enticing to listen to His songs are suitable for whatever mood you are in Whether you need to be pumped up or you are in the best frame of mind. This greatest rapper’s life made him what he is today. So far, Eminem is the best rap artist alive and the greatest of all time The first three albums he revealed to his fans were a style never seen before. His lyrics, word play, and metaphors are the best ever. Being the first rapper to blow up from the underground combating ground makes him an iconic never to be forgotten in years to come. His songs always talk about the real issues of life.

5. Jay Z

jay-z
This is one of the best rap artists still in the game and the most triumphant men in this universe. Learning the hard way from the streets, he struggled his way into a business person. It is through him that most of the greatest talents in the industry today have been discovered. He is the one that discovered Kanye West. Jay Z is in his 40’s and with a number of years, his lyrics have grown. Not many rappers have stayed relevant for such a long period. When listening to his songs, many people scratch their heads to the lyrics. His music has evolved to a place where it is almost an art.

6. Kanye West

kayne-west
This guy is not only a great rapper, but he is also a musician who has a crossover appeal. He is a very good producer too. These attributes are what makes him everyone’s favorite. Presently, Kanye is among the best rapper in the game. He has been an inspiration to those living the hard knock life. Although he is a college dropout, encountered late registration and graduation, he still sailed through. He blended hip-hop and soul music to make three classic albums. Even though he longer raps his previous tracks will be played and remember throughout the years. With such a discography, it is logic to rate Kanye as one of the top 10 rappers of all time

7. Macklemore

macklemore
Many rappers talk about girls and drugs, but Macklemore write lyrics about having fun and things that concern today’s life. He is more that a rap artist, he is a storyteller. All his songs paint a realistic picture of what he is describing. The thing that defines him as one of the greatest rapper is his real lyrics that connect with people.

8. Drake

drake
Of course, best-all-times rappers are associated with lyricism, which includes originality, sincerity in the rhymes and the best mode of delivery. With all these, consistency and production quality has to be in the limelight. Drake has all this in him. He makes music that is amazing to listen to The only reason why some people may overlook him is that fact that he also sings.

9. Krazie Bone

krazie-bone

Definitely, he is the most talented artist in history. He has consistence in delivering rap verses of high quality and he is ranked as the best lyricist. Krazie Bone is a legend. Talent is one thing nobody can ape and this rap artist takes over the stage with all his songs. He is one of the rappers today that write meaningful lyrics.

10. Nas

 

nas
He is an MC and not just a rapper. He also gives something to think about and this is because he knows how to bring discussions. Nas knows the hip-hop history and always a firm answer to today’s commercial rappers. He has influenced a lot of rappers today and is respected by many. He is among the rappers that made hip-hop a little bit different and better. He brought imagery and storytelling to hip-hop. Nas will remain a legend and an all time conscious rap artist. Who do you feel are the current best rappers in 2014 or even all time? Post your comments below.

Welsh Secrets

“Wales is a backward country.” I am sitting on the train from London, heading toward Carmarthen, Wales, where I am going to spend the upcoming semester. A young Englishman, after learning of my destination, is half talking to me, half to himself. I have already heard what he is telling me – that Welsh culture is a bit “behind” its progressive neighbors, the British.

“Backward? How so?” I ask him. He gives me a funny look and raises his eyebrows. “Have you heard the accent?” I shake my head and look out the window, watching the landscape slowly change as we head west. Sitting here in the train I see sheep running everywhere, in front of cars and around the streets of the villages. Drivers seem to ignore the sheep the way we ignore squirrels, letting them go about their business, patiently waiting as they cross the street. I become aware that the grass is a color green I have never seen before – a brighter, fresher green than the grass back in my home state of Michigan. The Welsh hills roll together, creating a depth that makes me wish I could paint.

I start thinking about what this English boy has just said about the “backwardness” of the Welsh. Of course they are not “modern,” like the British and the Americans. No one could expect a place with such intense natural beauty, like that of Wales, to boast the cosmopolitan lifestyle of London or New York. I knew that about Wales; it was actually a deciding factor when I selected Carmarthen as my location for my semester abroad. Now, I sit happily on the train, dreaming of the simple, easy days to come.

The train pulls into Carmarthen station in the late afternoon. The station is at the bottom of a large hill, and the city of Carmarthen gradually works its way up. In the early evening, the sun casts a pleasant sheen over Carmarthen’s quaint buildings.

On the way toward Trinity, the cabby takes a route that weaves through the town. As we pass all the pubs and restaurants, I am delighted to see that everything is just as I have envisioned: The Boar’s Head, King Cross, The Angel Vaults, Spread Eagle, Blue Boar. Fish and Chips! Fish and Chips! I feel as though I have entered old England, and am half-expecting to see men tipping their hats at curtsying women. Ah, the easy life.

I soon meet my flat mates and instantly I realize what the young Englishman on the train meant by the Welsh accent. He was right. I feel as though I have entered a country that speaks a completely different language. The accent is laced with a rhythm much different than American or British English. They speak words with a pulsating beat, like a heart or the flow of a wave. Everything is a question, dragging out the last word just a bit too long, hanging on to each remark.

I settle in. I meet my fellow Americans. By Friday night we are ready to explore. Unsure of where to begin, we decide to head to town to check out the pub scene of Carmarthen. The temperature is around 50 degrees, but the dampness and chill in the air here is sharp and cuts through clothes right to the bone. So, taking the weather into account, I put on a thick sweater. I assume that we will have a pint in a pub, watch some rugby and be home by one.

I am wrong.

Three other American girls and I begin the two-mile hike toward town. The pub we are headed to is Weatherspoons, one we will come to recognize all over the UK. When we enter, the place is packed. We can hardly find the bar itself. And then we hear it:

Born in the USA, I was, born in the USA!

We giggle together at the coincidence of the song upon our arrival. But we quickly realize that people are looking at us: girls giving us glares, men examining us head to toe. Within 30 seconds of our arrival at Weatherspoon’s we have been spotted as Americans. Smiling stupidly, we wait a moment then grab a booth in the corner, ordering drinks as quickly as possible.

We sip our Snakebites (a mixture of Carling beer, cider and black current flavoring…a drink I still miss dearly) and start replaying our awkward entrance. It is then actually look around and begin to understand. I glance back at my girlfriends and attempt to inconspicuously examine what they are wearing. We are all decked out in North Face jackets, bright reds and greens, Birkenstock clogs, loose jeans, hair in pony-tails and little to no makeup. (After a month of traveling around Europe I become very good at identifying on the streets what I call this “American uniform.”)

A common sight in Wales … spring lambs!

I turn my attention back to the pub scene. The women here are wearing blacks and whites, browns and neutrals. All are in heels with low cut shirts and high cut skirts. Skin is everywhere. The men are wearing pressed button-downs with khakis or dress jeans. I am no longer in a small local pub, but a bar in downtown Chicago. These people did not just get done with a day’s work on the farm; they are just starting a night out on the town. The Welsh knew us to be Americans instantly because we were the ones looking unsophisticated, simple and definitely unsuspecting of such cosmopolitan nightlife.

We finish the night and begin the uphill trek back to Trinity College. We are already discussing plans for the week to pick up a “few things” downtown to wear out. None of us had been prepared, and such a cultural faux pas will not happen again.

Again, I am wrong.

Most of the Americans at Trinity had previously signed up for an Outdoor Pursuits course, which promises to expose us to some of the natural beauty and adventure of Wales. I expect some pleasant walks along the shore or a few hours roaming the hillside with the sheep. I spend one Wednesday walking the Pembroke path along the coast of west Wales, spotting otters and seals, even surfers in the chilly water. The next week we explore the base of the Brecon Beacon Mountain range in central Wales. However, we all fail to realize that we have been “hill walking” at the base of the mountain range. Little did we know the intensity of the Welsh when they really go hill walking.

The next week, we head toward North Wales to Snowdonia, the home of the tallest peak in the UK, Mt. Snowdon. In the beginning, we marvel at the beauty. Yet after about an hour, something about the landscape starts to look suspicious. The ground is covered in a thin white layer…of snow! I look down at my meager hiking boots and continue on. An hour later, my group and I are trekking up the side of Snowdon with eight-foot visibility in three feet of snow. It is icy, and our instructor starts to hesitate, saying that death on Snowdon is not too rare. I glance around and can barely see anyone; my eyelashes are frozen and I definitely have lost feeling in one foot. But we continue. (Did I mention that my guide, Mr. D., is a 75-year-old Welshman?)

After four hours of struggling up the side of Snowdon, closely followed by training Army boys, we summit. Exactly five minutes after summitting, we turn around. Half-way down, however, the entire struggle becomes worth it. Within minutes, the storm passes and the sun peeks out behind the dark clouds. The view from Snowdon shows me a Wales I have never imagined. This is a Wales of harsh elements, power, beauty and resistance. I look at Mr. D: at 75, he has just taken us up the side of a 3,560 foot mountain! I am in awe.

The six-hour ride home from Snowdonia, weaving along the narrow, hedge-lined roads of Wales, is silent. We absorb the mountains, hills, valleys, sheep, cows, lakes and streams of Wales, the little villages hiding a secret cosmopolitan world. It is then I realize that Wales is not backward, or simple, but rather modest and humble. She stores her secrets quietly. Understanding Wales is like understanding her people – the accent is only hard to understand until you lean in a bit closer.

This article was written by one of our contributors filed under travel.

Union Black

As my departure date for London approached, well-meaning friends and family bombarded me with advice. Living as a minority in any country is never easy, but I would be living as a minority times two. Not only would I be an American in England, but a black-American. The next six months would take living out of my comfort zone to another level.

“They love black girls over there, you know, especially American ones,” I was often told, “You’re gonna have to fight those English boys off with a stick!”

I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comforting or not. To be admired is always a good thing, but exotification I can do without.

“They don’t like black people over there, you know, especially American ones.” I heard this, too. While it was not comforting, it was nothing new.

“There are so many black people over there, you’re gonna have the time of your life!” And I also heard the opposite. “Why are you going to London? You know there aren’t any black people over there.”

Looking back, one could say all these things about America, and they would all be true. I didn’t catch the irony then. I wondered how I would be treated, and whether I had made a terrible mistake. Maybe I should have gone to Barbados.

Pond-hopping

Everyone else I talked to who was studying abroad seemed so excited, but I could not shake this feeling of dread. They were excited because they would be living in another country for six months. I was scared for the very same reason. I pictured myself trying to find my way in a sea of potentially racist, potentially lustful scary white people with strange accents. They would be yelling at me from the street, calling me a demeaning names or doing other terrible things in an effort to belittle my heritage and my sexuality. And I was going to be by myself, in a place I have never been, an ocean away from everyone I care about.

That was the worst-case scenario.

I chose to study in England because, besides Canada, it is culturally the country most similar to the United States. I wouldn’t have to learn a language, and, I thought I would not be bombarded with culture shock. How wrong I was. The accumulation of little differences are surprisingly nerve-wracking. In Britain, the time is 21:42 instead of 9:42. The food is always just “slightly” bad. The sun comes out once a week, at most. On a particularly homesick day, these small discrepancies can make one want to open fire.

However, I’ve found that London more than makes up for these shortcomings. I was initially surprised at the number of black people I encountered. And not only black people, but people from all over the world. London is the most diverse city in the world, I’d been told.

My school, the School of Oriental and African Studies, is, within itself, very diverse. Claiming to be the world’s largest school focusing on Asian and African studies, it has students from over 110 countries, and 25 percent of students are from overseas. It was comforting to know that there were other students whose homes are outside of England. However, so far, I have only met one other black girl from the States.

Colonial Encounters

I still feel my “otherness” here, even more than I did back home. It is evident as soon as I open my mouth. I can feel it in my Colonial Encounters class, where my white, male, British professor almost smugly describes how Great Britain colonized most of the world, and how this colonization would come to be the basis for the racism that continues to plague certain countries today. Sometimes I can almost see my professor, dressed like some fifteenth century explorer, setting out on his new “discovery.” I am the only black person and the only American in the class.

In general, there seems to be less sensitivity than in the United States when it comes to race relations. I don’t think the PC craze was as strong over here; whether this is ultimately a positive or negative thing is yet to be determined. A few examples: In an effort to buy tickets to a professional soccer game online, I wandered into a fan chat room. Most were talking about the players, the games, the news. One topic stood out. A young man was talking about how he loves to go to soccer games but is tired of all the racist name-calling that goes on in the stands. Apparently, some of the white fans like to have fun by calling the black players racist and demeaning names such as “black bastard” and “monkey,” among others. The young man was pleading for the fans to use a little more tact in their cheering, as it made him uncomfortable. However, his request fell on deaf ears (or silent keyboards, as it were). People replied that he needed to loosen up a bit, that it was all in good fun, that it was not racism, and that he should stop taking it so seriously. I questioned whether going to a soccer game was really a good idea.

While walking around downtown once with some friends, I passed a McDonald’s and was almost run over by a young white man running out. Apparently, he was evading an Indian McDonald’s employee for some undetermined reason. Once across the street, he called the Indian man a “black bastard.” He got several strange looks from people on the street, and he ran away. Do these incidents represent the feelings of an entire country? Probably not. But even so, I wonder.

Another time I went to a club with a few friends, all of them black, British and female. I think we were the only black women there. We danced in a circle all night, having a great time. Throughout the course of the evening, we got hit on by a number of very drunk, white British guys who approached us and mumbled a slurred pick-up line that we couldn’t understand. We politely turned them down and continued dancing. But the great time ended when I felt something on my behind which, after I grabbed it and held it up, turned out to be a man’s hand. After I sternly berated him for his behavior, his friend expressed his surprise that we were not as “fun” as he thought. He said he had the impression that we wanted to have a “good time,” implying that he thought I was the kind of girl who didn’t mind someone grabbing my ass. Did he get this impression because we’re black? Because we were dancing? A combination of the two?

Perhaps I’m being hyper-sensitive, but it’s a tough call. I’ve certainly encountered my share of African-American jerks. So who’s to say whether it’s exotification or plain, old-fashioned sexism?

Stepping back

I have spoken at length with my flatmate, Kesha, the only other African-American female I have met here, about our experiences. She said that speaking to black British people here has helped her to see how little she knows about her heritage. Most of the black people here are African or Caribbean, usually first or second generation British. Kesha recalled people who assumed that she was African or Caribbean and asked what country she came from. When she responded that she was American, they wanted to know where in Africa her family and ancestors were from. For the first time, she realized she had no idea.

The incident points to a substantial difference between African-Americans and black British people. Slavery has, among other things, wiped out the histories of many African-American families. I can trace my own family back to the nineteenth century in South Carolina, but beyond that I can only say “somewhere in Africa”.

I have asked my black British friends for their impressions of African-Americans. One girl, Hana, is from Nigeria, but for the past three years has been an international student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She said that upon arriving in Baltimore, she was excited about getting involved in the black community there and forming relationships with the black students. However, she felt that she was treated like an outcast because she was not American. She finally stopped trying.

Thus, after having spent one month of observation and research, my conclusions are….inconclusive. Just like the United States, it is impossible to come up with one sweeping statement summarizing the racial mentality of this country. All the contradictory advice that people gave me at home is true. They like black people, they don’t like black people, there are a lot of black people, and there aren’t a lot of black people. In many ways, this country is not unlike America. With the many blessings that come with a diverse society, so do confusion, ambiguity, and gray areas. My experiences here have taught me a great deal about the culture of another country. They have also helped me to see my own country in a new light.

Seeking Asylum

Refugees in Cairo, Egypt

Tesfai lives in a cramped apartment with his wife and four of his children. His other children are scattered: two are imprisoned in his home country of Eritrea, two are somewhere in Sudan (the last he heard) and another is in Israel. Tesfai’s hair has turned white with worry and his eyes, which are cloudy from a medical problem he cannot afford to get diagnosed, are often full of tears.

Tesfai is not permitted to get a job in Egypt. His children cannot go to school, nor can they freely play with other children because of the security problems they face. They live here illegally, having unsuccessfully completed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) process that they hoped would grant them refugee status. Refugee status would allow them legal residency and protect them from deportation to their home country, where they would once again face the persecution from which they have fled.

Tesfai came to the Refugee Legal Aid Project (RLAP) near the end of my six months working there. He wanted help in getting the UNHCR to reconsider his case, which had already been rejected, appealed and closed. He described a situation not uncommon for refugees without official refugee status: “We live as though we are in prison, without freedom. Even my 16-year-old son was stopped by Egyptian security. We’re in a critical situation. Next to God, I only have you.” Egyptian security has a history of conducting racially-motivated arrests, rounding up Africans from buses, streets and even homes. Though the RLAP does not typically assist with re-openings of closed cases, Tesfai’s plea was hard for me to ignore.

The Refugee Legal Aid Project is a nonprofit, free legal service for people applying for refugee status at the UNHCR-Cairo office, which received over 13,000 applications in 2002, the highest number of any country worldwide. My job as a legal advisor was to demonstrate how clients met the internationally accepted refugee definition, laid out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: “A refugee is a person outside his country of origin who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The vast majority of asylum seekers we dealt with came from Egypt’s southern neighbor, Sudan; the rest have fled Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Liberia.

Tesfai’s case is common – a political dissident opposed to, and therefore persecuted by, the current regime. As a tailor with his own business, Tesfai secretly made uniforms for the underground political party to which he belonged. He fled to Egypt when other members of his group were arrested and tortured with electric shock, afraid that they would reveal his involvement, making him the next target and victim. After he fled, the police station summoned him; when he failed to report to the station, the government confiscated his property and beat his brother.

Unlike Kenya and Sudan, there are no refugee camps in Egypt. Instead, asylum seekers fend for themselves in an urban setting as they wait for their individual case to be heard and decided by the UNHCR. Asylum seekers want UNHCR to declare them to be refugees not only because it grants them protection from deportation, but also because it gives them the possibility of resettlement to a third country such as the United States or Canada.

The refugee application process can take years to complete. However, an applicant is better off having a case pending than denied, for his options are essentially exhausted once his file is closed. As with Tesfai, the only hope that remains is a reopening, something the UNHCR is reluctant to grant as there is currently a backlog of tens of thousands of cases pending decision and appeal. The Egyptian government refuses to take on the task of determining refugee status of individual applicants, as governments do in most other countries where the UNHCR operates. This means that the UNHCR’s role becomes one of judge and jury, compromising its responsibilities as advocate and protector.

I came to know Tesfai’s background over the course of several interviews, facilitated by an interpreter who was a refugee himself. Other interpreters, like 16-year old Somali Yasmin, have already closed files like Tesfai’s but still volunteer their time and skills to assist other asylum seekers. The majority of the office staff consists of international volunteers; there are only three Egyptian permanent staff members.

Scheduling interviews was often difficult given the stretched resources we had to work with at the RLAP. There were only so many interviews that we could hold at once, given the space limitations, and there were only so many interpreters with the necessary English skills. When I managed to get everything lined up, it was not surprising to find someone else conducting an interview in the area I’d signed up for, or for a client to be hours late, or for an interpreter to be double-booked. Frustrated at first, I learned to be flexible and make do when things didn’t go as planned. They hardly ever did.

In order to get a complete and accurate testimony, legal advisors spend ten to fifteen hours, sometimes more, with a client, while the UNHCR interviewer has only one to three hours to do the same job. We then write legal arguments on their behalf and accompany clients on the day of their interview at UNHCR.

Before beginning work in Cairo, I used to think that UNHCR was the hero hailed by refugees; I came to learn that this was far from the case in Egypt. During my initial training at the RLAP, I heard horror stories about inefficiencies and flaws in the UNHCR process, about the incredible backlog that keeps applicants waiting years for results and about cruel, insensitive interviewers. I prepared myself for the worst when I accompanied my first client, but found that evil was not lurking around every corner and that every interviewer was not actually a monster. While there is much to criticize, the problems are largely a result of bureaucracy, understaffing and stretched resources. As asylum applications have continued to increase over the last several years, the budget has shrunk, limiting the number of applications that can be screened as well as the assistance provided to those applicants recognized.

The most common reason for rejection while I was in Egypt was coded “LOC” – Lack of Credibility. According to a study recently completed by Michael Kagan, a former lawyer with the RLAP, LOC accounted for 75% of rejections in the first half of 2002, at a time when the recognition rate was only 24%. LOC meant one of two things: there was something in the client’s story that contradicted itself or some aspect did not agree with country of origin information that the UNHCR had. Appealing cases dismissed for LOC is like shooting into the dark; it is never clear what was deemed unbelievable or inconsistent. Assessing credibility is a tricky task: interpreters make mistakes, cultural misunderstandings arise, trauma negatively affects applicants’ ability to remember and a lack of education can make pinning down dates nearly impossible.

To an asylum seeker who has told the truth, such a judgment is hard to accept. Having been rejected because of LOC, Tesfai expressed his frustration: “I have told my case and testimony truthfully and honestly, but I have had problems communicating it. I don’t even know why I was rejected. If they need more detail, then I can give more detail.”

It was hard for me to imagine that my clients, including an author, an actor and a lawyer, would leave their homes, jobs and families to travel to Egypt to live the life of a refugee – insecure, poor and without access to education or job opportunities – unless they had a legitimate refugee claim.

On that first day I met Tesfai, he told me, “I would not have come to Cairo for nothing. If I didn’t have any problem, I would not have fled my country.” In front of his teenaged son, he spoke of having contemplated suicide as a better choice to his current life.

Tesfai was rejected because of LOC in an UNHCR era that has hopefully passed. Within the last several months, LOC as a reason for rejection has been phased out, at least partially because of the arrival of a new administrator. The culture of disbelief is fading and the recognition rates have increased.

In my final days at the RLAP, I helped Tesfai write a letter requesting a reopening. The day he returned to thank me, risking security on the street, his eyes had changed – there was a glimmer of hope where before there had just been despair. I left Cairo with many cases still pending and fates not yet decided, including Tesfai’s.