South Africa deports World Cup soccer hooligans

Well that didn’t take long. South African police reported yesterday that they had deported ten Argentine “soccer hooligans” who had arrived in advance of this month’s FIFA World Cup, scheduled to kick off this coming Friday. It was alleged the men were part of the notorious “barras bravas,” Latin American soccer groups renowned for their football-related violence.

Soccer and hooliganism have a long and violent history, especially in regions like Europe and in South America. The “bravas” have a particularly infamous reputation among World Cup organizers. Incidents involving the groups have resulted in fights and hospitalizations during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Apparently the Argentine hooligans aren’t the only unruly fans getting the boot from this year’s Cup – around 3,200 English fans with a history of soccer violence have also had their passports held by authorities to prevent them from heading to South Africa.

Given that hooligans the world over have given soccer a bad name, it’s not surprising to find South Africa is trying to crack down on this type of behavior. Let’s hope this year’s games are celebrated for their remarkable sportsmanship – not the juvenile behavior that has marred the sport for too long.

(Image: Flickr/Vironevaeh)

East of Africa: Sapphire of Ilakaka

After hours of driving through untouched landscape, a speck of civilization appears on the horizon. It’s a sizable town; modest in structure, but full of activity and commotion -even at a distance.

A patchwork of low-grade wooden structures stem from a single main road. Electrical wires criss cross each other in all directions, connecting small shanty homes with restaurants and makeshift offices with pre-fabricated Zain mobile phone shops.

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The main road is filled with pedestrians. A man with a turkey slung over his back fervently tries to make a sale with a local butcher. Several children pile onto a improvised sled, transporting an oil barrel that’s adorned with a hand painted message in English: “God is Good”. Next to them, three Chinese men in business suits carry large black briefcases into a shiny building that is marked as a gem brokerage.

It feels like we’ve rolled into a strange, Malagasy version of the Wild West, minus the cowboy boots and the saddled horses. This is Ilakaka, population: 30,000, and home to Madagascar’s booming sapphire trade.

As soon as we stop on the side of the road a few hawkers approach us. I try to explain in French that we’re not here to buy anything, but they insist that I come see their shop. Curiosity gets the best of me and I follow them to a small stall where a few men are clutching tiny plastic zipper bags filled with purple and blue stones.

There’s nothing elaborate about the presentation of the stones. They clear a bowl of meat for sale off of the table and empty the contents of the bags for me to inspect. An aging Indian man with a long beard sits behind a metal grille and counts out the prices for the stones. When it’s apparent that I’m really not going to buy anything, the bags get packed away as fast as they were dumped out.

I’m told that the Sri Lankans, Indians, and Thais control most of the gem market here, with a majority of the mining done by poor Malagasy father-son teams. They are lured by the dream of making over $10,000 USD in one find; truly a temping proposition in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

In the past eleven years, Ilakaka has been subject to an expansion that could be compared to California’s gold rush of the 1800’s. Sapphire deposits were discovered in 1998, when only 40 people inhabited the area. Now, 50% of the world’s sapphire comes from Madagascar, and Ilakaka is at the heart of the fever. The current official reports document 30,000 inhabitants, but locals insist that there are closer to 60,000 people in the town…a number that’s hard to track amidst high turnover in workers and unreported children belonging to working families.

Walking further down the road, I notice that the diversity for such a concentrated population is striking. Apparently, each of Madagascar’s 18 ethnic groups are represented in Ilakaka; and businessmen from all over the world come here to buy Malagasy gems. But because of the profitable nature of the business, violence has become prevalent in the rogue town.

The word on the street is that one of Osama bin Laden’s relatives was gunned down last year because of his visible success in sapphire trading. Another victim was shot in his hotel room only months ago while carrying a sapphire worth nearly $25,000. The local police claim to be attempting to control criminal activity, but low salaries and high bribes seem to be getting in the way of any tangible results.

But the violence doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone from coming to Ilakaka just yet. There are bars, brothels, and casinos…plenty of economic activity. But there are no established banks or sources of electricity from the national grid. Most of the shacks that the miners camp out in have no running water or sources of light; which on one hand, is good news for the ToughStuff sales team.

Within an hour, they’ve negotiated several deals and have even captured the interest of some of the wealthy gem brokers. They say that Ilakaka will be a good opportunity for trade and entrepreneurial expansion; undoubtedly a familiar sentiment in this dusty, lawless town.

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!

Postwar Iraq gets its “first” tourist

It’s been over five years since the invasion of Iraq, and the country seems to be slowly emerging from the ruins of five years of conflict. Yet despite the progress, most would agree there’s a long way to go before the country is ready to again welcome “Western” tourism. Random violence remains a real threat and many cities do not have the infrastructure of guest hotels, restaurants and transportation upon which any visitor would depend.

None of this seems to have dissuaded Luca Marchio, an Italian tourist whose random visit to the Iraqi city of Falluja was recently chronicled in the New York Times. The Iraqi police discovered Marchio on a public minibus, without a translator or guide, heading for the notoriously dangerous city of Falluja. The police, fearing for the man’s safety, offered Luca a short tour and then shepherded him back towards the “safer” confines of Baghdad.

When asked of his motivation for visiting the country by the Times, Marchio replied, “I want to see and understand the reality because I have never been here before, and I think every country in the world must be seen.”

Although truer words have never been spoken by a traveler, you have to question Marchio’s timing for his visit. The decision to travel to a formerly war-torn nation is a delicate one, a choice dictated as much by the willingness of that country’s citizens to receive visitors as it is by our willingness travel there. Does that make Marchio an outlier? Or is he a symbolic of a coming tourism boom as Iraq returns to relative peace and prosperity? Only the citizens of Iraq can answer this second question – let’s all hope the answer is eventually “yes.”

Making light of Colombia’s crime problem

issued January 2, 2009
There was much debate in the comments on my article about “dangerous” travel destinations — most of which pertained to the current clean-up of Colombia’s city of Medellín. Having traveled to Colombia for three months during the spring of 2008, I believe Colombia as a country (particularly the dangers of traveling there) is largely misunderstood.

Take Mike Peters’s “Mother Goose & Grimm” comic strip that was published a week ago on January 2, 2009.

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which includes over 500,000 coffee producers, were so offended by Peters’ suggestion that it is suing Peters “for damage and harm, detriment to intellectual property and defamation.” The federation is seeking no less than 20 million dollars, claiming that the cartoon links Colombian coffee to organized crime and “attacks the national dignity and the reputation of coffee from Colombia.”

As a cartoonist, Mike Peters seeks controversy, but this type is harmful to our already skewed perception of Colombia. Peters’s cartoon suggests that Colombia is a dangerous place. I’m not clear about how drinking Colombian coffee could be considered a dangerous activity, but there’s definitely a sense of fear in this comic strip with regard to crime in Colombia.

While I’m all for freedom of speech, I think in this particular instance Peters could have picked a topic that he knew more about or discussed a country that he really understood. Instead, this particular cartoon defames a nation and offers an unfair and inaccurate portrayal of Colombia and its coffee for all the world to see. I just hope readers will know the difference between sarcasm and reality.

[via the Associated Press]

Man sues United, claiming alcohol service caused him to beat his wife

A man on a flight from Osaka to San Francisco had too much to drink. Soon after landing, he started beating his wife. After he ended up in police custody and sobered up, he didn’t sheepishly apologize to his wife. Nope. He decided to sue United for serving him too much alcohol, which, he alleges, caused him become violent. The man, Yoichi Shimamoto, was arrested by police at a customs checkpoint after he struck his wife in the face half-a-dozen times. The suit alleges that United’s cabin crew served him wine at 20-minute intervals throughout the flight and that he was so drunk that he could not control himself. Shinamoto and his spouse are seeking $100,000 from the airline as well as more money for pain and suffering.

United responded to the suit, saying “We believe that a lawsuit that suggests that we are somehow responsible for the consequences of a passenger’s physical assault on his own wife is without any merit whatsoever.”

[via Today in the Sky]