(Because you seem to be prioritising profits over public health.)

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Photo by Paul Bienek on Unsplash

To American Airlines, which — during a global pandemic which we still don’t yet have a vaccine for — insists on packing flights as full as possible.
To the American pilot who walked past me after security, coffee in hand, with his mask resting below his lower lip.
To Philadelphia airport, which urges travellers to practice social distancing over the loudspeakers but where security officials cram people into queues like cattle going through a dipping pen (I overheard one saying: “Don’t worry about social distancing — you’re about to board a flight!”).
To the passenger who, when on board, took about 10 agonising minutes to eat a gigantic salad on the other side of the aisle (and later pulled down his buff so he could cough into the cabin).
To the many travellers milling about US airports and planes who refuse to cover their noses — and not just their mouths.
To the man who blew his nose in Arrivals.
To the tout who, mask resting on his chin, came close to ask if I wanted a taxi. …


24 hours of being totally unplugged feels like a mini-vacation

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Photo by Gerrit Vermeulen on Unsplash

During this eternal sped-up slo-mo spring, I’ve been oscillating between feverish bursts of productivity and glassy-eyed inertia. I’ve managed (just about) to stay on top of deadlines, but with a media diet that has left precious little energy or inclination to tackle Worthwhile Things during the time that’s become available because both travel and travel writing (previously, a not insignificant portion of my output) have both evaporated.

Instead: feeling guilty. Guilty at how my novel-in-progress has foundered on the quicksands of digital distraction. Guilty that I’ve devoured hundreds of articles online, but haven’t been reading Crime and Punishment or Emma. Guilty that I haven’t yet started trying to learn Portuguese again (for the eighth time). …


A shocking lack of diversity at “The Economist” is damaging the publication’s credibility

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Edited in London, The Economist’s coverage of business and politics spans the globe. Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

Of the many things that stand out in Pankaj Mishra’s masterful New Yorker review of Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large, a history of The Economist since it began publishing in 1843, was this:

The staff, predominantly white, is recruited overwhelmingly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and a disproportionate number of the most important editors have come from just one Oxford college, Magdalen.

It got me thinking about exactly how much racial diversity there was. A bit of digging showed that after the activist Ahmed Olayinka Sule wrote an open letter in February complaining about The Economist’s lack of black staff the publication admitted that, as of August 2018, less than 1% of employees were. (Scrolling through its media directory, I actually didn’t manage to spot a single black face.) In a letter in response to Sule, The Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton-Beddoes partly justified this shocking stat as being the result of the publication needing “to hire from the deepest talent pool possible”. …


The mind-altering power of being in nature without your smartphone

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In spite of months ago having abandoned social media and deleted my phone’s news apps, I still seem to be bombarded by dispiriting news. In my birth country, South Africa, I only so much as have to glance at the front of a newspaper to see headlines about rapes in taxis and children gunned down deliberately by gangs. In the business and politics sections of the paper, things are gloomy, too — sky-high unemployment and ballooning public debt, a government paralysed by inertia, an opposition wracked by division. …


The City of Angels is, by turns, enchanting and infuriating

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Photo by izayah ramos on Unsplash

I’m not sure when I first fell for Los Angeles. Was it when I watched LA Confidential? Or read Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man? Or started following lifeserial (back when I was still on Instagram)? Regardless, when I finally met the city in person — back in 2015 — my infatuation only intensified. I was staying in Santa Monica. I jogged on the beach, took cheap, slow buses to other parts of the city (Echo Park, Silver Lake), browsed bookstores, brunched at Gjelina, lolled by The Standard DTLA’s rooftop pool, and climbed up to the Griffith Observatory. …


Two weeks of physical labour left me with far more than just dirt under my fingernails

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View from an outbuilding doorway.

From Glasgow to the Scottish island of Jura it’s half-an-hour by helicopter. Not having one of those at my disposal, though, it takes me most of the day to get there. First, a large bus winding along moody lochs and around mountains to Kennacraig. Then the big CalMac ferry to Port Askaig on Islay — which is little more than a pier, a pub and a hotel. And then another, much smaller ferry that battles swift currents to deposit me at the lonely jetty at Feolin.

A bus is meant to take me to my final destination on the island, but I can’t spot it. There’s a minivan with “Corporate Tours” emblazoned on the side that I assume is there to collect tourists. Only once it has departed and there’s no sign of any other vehicle that I realised that must’ve been it. I board the vehicle when it returns an hour later, one of only a handful of passengers — mostly children who attend the high school on Islay. The 25-mile journey northwards gives me a sense of the island: moors and peat bogs, secluded bays, the soaring breast-shaped Pap mountains, an occasional cottage. …


The land of good food and the great outdoors

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Surfers at Cox Bay beach, Tofino. Photo by Shlomo Shalev on Unsplash

Seattle, my first taste of the Pacific Northwest, was a good place to start: a sprawling, vibrant, multicultural city surrounded by water. Given that it’s home to some of the world’s biggest brands — including Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks — it was not surprising that cranes and jackhammering were omnipresent.

The best view of this boomtown is from atop the 184m-high Space Needle. Built in 1962 and recently refurbished (with the world’s only revolving glass floor installed), it’s a spectacular structure, imbued with all the sleek and heady optimism of the Space Age. I hate crowds and unfortunately it was overrun with them (at least shelling out extra for a “Blast Pass” meant we could head straight up, instead of having to wait for hours). As I squeezed between the selfie-takers, I was grumpy. Finding a gap at the window, I paused, watching a boat’s wake slash a dark V across the mercury-glimmer of the Puget Sound. It was a sight so ordinary and yet so exquisite. …


Breaking sharia law was a lot of fun — and a little scary too

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Photo: Lingbeek/Getty Images

On my first evening in Abu Dhabi, we take a taxi to McGinnigans, an Irish pub where everyone — all the expats — end up on Friday nights. Just like almost everything else in the United Arab Emirates, it’s in a shopping mall — boldly marked with green illuminated lettering out front.

I drink beer, then a whisky, maybe two? I dance a bit with my friend Debbie who’s lived here for several years and her colleague Fran (also a teacher). Sometimes I just walk around, eyeing everyone hungrily. I suss out who the gay guys are; there are two Moroccans; I’ll sit down at the table where one is sitting later on and he’ll look slightly panicked as we make small talk and I realize he’s waiting for someone else. I move on after telling him to enjoy his night. There’s a beautiful Arab guy, sitting alone in front of the beer taps at the bar, nursing what looks like a gin and tonic. Debbie tells me I should strike up a conversation, gives me dirhams (I still haven’t withdrawn any cash) to buy a water so that I can stand next to him. I’m old enough, drunk enough, and brave enough to say hello, asking him if he’s from the UAE — he says yes — he turns away to stare at the rows of booze bottles ahead of him. …


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a startlingly powerful portrait of the immigrant experience — and an unflinching dissection of tragedy and trauma, large and small.

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Every so often you read a novel that leaves you a little breathless. A novel so darn good that it haunts you like a bruised rib, reminding you of the power of fiction, the potential it has to move, connect, provoke, and bear witness.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the debut novel by Ocean Vuong, is one of these. Vuong has already gained much critical acclaim with his debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. His first foray into fiction will surely result in more of the same.

Styled as a letter by the protagonist, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother, the novel traces this Vietnamese boy’s journey to early adulthood in gritty Hartford, Connecticut. …


Meditation is a calming sanctuary I carry with me wherever I go

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Photo by Teddy Thornton on Unsplash

We all need places we can retreat to. A place where we can pause, where we stop doing and, for a little bit, just be. Some people return regularly to a nearby park, or the hushed solemnness of a place of worship, or the gilded quiet of a grand old art gallery.

Given the amount of travel I do, I don’t have that luxury — because I’m on the move, there’s not a place in my day I can go back to again and again in search of solace. …

About

Alexander Matthews

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