Sunday, 25 June 2017

The other final

Bhutan and Montserrat Island; what these two places could share in common?
Bhutan is a small independent country (one of the few in Asia that has never been a colony) in the middle of the Himalayas, between India and Tibet. It is an odd country; only 700,000 people living in several valleys on the south side of the eastern Himalayas.

Unlike Tibet and Mustang (see post), as Bhutan is located at the south side of the Himalayan range, Monsoons have no impediment to release liters and liters of rain every year over Bhutan. This makes bhutanese scenery remember the Alps, so yes, you'll easily hear everywhere that "Bhutan is Himalayas' Switzerland". But today, this won't be the main topic...

For me, the main curiosity of Bhutan is the strange system of government they have, and what this has meant in its recent history:

Until the early twentieth century, Bhutan was a country of quarrelsomes. Warlords were not only fighting eachothers in ongoing civil wars but, from time to time, they felt brave enough to attack India's British colonial Army. Every time Bhutanese challenged the Brits, they ended up losing, beaten and forced to pay a tribute to her Most Gracious Majesty... until they stopped paying, grabbed swords again, and got defeated in a testosterone never ending cycle.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a "Ponlop" one of the country's warlords, was able to defeat his rivals, he befriended the British and proclaimed himself king of the country. Thus, Ugyen Wangchuk was proclaimed Druk Gyalpo, meaning "Dragon King". You will see the dragon ("Druk") is an omnipresent motto in Bhutan. It was said that the highest mountains of the country were the dwelling of the Thunder Dragon, so they ended calling their country "Druk Yul"; the "Land of the Thunder Dragon. "

Wangchuk family continued to reign and, during the 70s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk began a modernization of the country based on, what he liked to call, the GNH (Gross National Happiness) instead of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The GNH concept is based on promoting the happiness of the population over the typical economic growth. A real 70's hippie-style concept. At the same time, they enacted laws to limit cultural Western influence and thus promoting Bhutan's traditions and way of life.

Indeed, the influence of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's guidelines marked the character of modern Bhutan: the quality of life is quite correct considering it's a 3rd world country and it doesn't correspond at all with country's position in the GDP ranking. It is also curious how these rules ensured the maintenance of Bhutanese culture and traditions. For example, public administration workers are required to always wear the bhutanese traditional dress!

Men's socks reaching the knee is a British colonial influence imported from India

Nowadays King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk

Now let's forget the Himalayas and focus on the island of Montserrat: This island is located along the eastern Caribbean. It is an English colony, with about the size of Formentera (the smallest and less known of the Balearic Islands) with only 5,000 inhabitants. It's a paradise island, lush and green but has a major drawback:

In 1995, after centuries of inactivity, the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted. The activity of the volcano, although it has declined in recent years, has not stopped and has obliged the southern half of the island to be abandoned. The capital's airport, port and many other island's key places have been moved up north. Obviously, the economy of Montserrat, closely linked to tourism, has been greatly affected. Meanwhile, many residents of the island (should them be called "Montserratians"?) have emigrated to the colony metropole: United Kingdom.

One of the main Montserrat Island's economic activities maybe still remain in the memories of pop and rock enthusiasts, especially those of my generation. During the 80s, one of the most famous music producers in UK, George Martin (known as the "fifth Beatle") set up a recording studio, the AIR Studios on the island of Montserrat. 80's bands such as Dire Straits, The Police, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd recorded their albums on the island of Montserrat. If you still keep British artists vinyl albums from the 80's, look at the credits. In many of them, you will find:"Recorded at AIR Studios, Montserrat."

Dire Straits in Montserrat, while recording Brothers in Arms album

So what ties a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas and a Caribbean island? And no, it's not  (only) men wearing high socks!

Answer is football. More specifically an exceptional match. An all-or-nothing final game. Bhutan and the Island of Montserrat face to face in a historical match to decide which was ...

...the Worst National Team of the World!

In 2002, the World Cup was held in Korea and Japan. In this edition, Dutch National Team failed to qualify for the Cup so, sad and frustrated, Matthijs de Jongh, a Dutch documentaries producer, decided to organize a match between the two teams ranked last in the FIFA ranking. At that time, the 202th position was occupied by Bhutan and Montserrat was the last one, ranked 203th. De Jongh got in touch with both national federations and, together with a Japanese film producer, organized the match.

Both countries welcomed the match with unbridled fervor. Due to the Soufrière volcano still creating some problems, it was decided that the match would be held at the Changlimithang Stadium, in Thimpu, Bhutan's capital. Both teams trained hard for months. Until then, neither team had not won an official match ever. In fact, Montserrat had never won even an unofficial match. In the case of Bhutan, they had been able to win a friendly match: they had won the powerful (not officially recognized) Tibet National Team (if you don't know anything about football, this was irony!). So, both teams had a ludicrous curriculum.

Bhutanese National Team

Montserrat's National Team

I wouldn't say I am a big football fan, but I must admit that football, if well managed, can have a unique capacity to unite, inspire and create incredible bonds. And that's what happened because of this match, so called "the other final" and held a few hours before, some thousands of kilometers away, Brazil and Germany played 2002 World Cup Finals.

The match ended with a clear victory for the Bhutanese: 4-0. It should be said that, because of food poisoning, Montserrat had seven losses. However, Bhutan dominated the match from beginning to end. This confrontation allowed bhutanese striker Wangay Dorji, to become Bhutan's all-time best player. That night he scored three goals; together with the two goals scored the following year against Guam National Team, made him become the leading scorer in the history of Bhutan Team, with a global mark of... five goals! This is an incredible feature if you consider that the Bhutan standings show, nowadays, a gloomy 31 goals scored versus 220 goals received in 5 wins, 4 draws and 51 defeats in Team's history).

The game ended with the delivery of a very original trophy: a cup that was divided into two equal parts, one for each team. Despite the defeat, Montserratians (?) fought until the last minute, and ended the match very proud about themselves and how they had played. Moreover, the whole experience and the warm and friendly hosting in Bhutan, would be long time remembered in Montserrat.

Wangay Dorji (10) Bhutan's top scorer and Charles Thompson (2), Montserrat's captain.

Since that "final" was played, both teams have improved a lot. This year, Montserrat is ranked 178th (of 209 members) in Fifa ranking. Bhutan, has reached 166th position!

If you would like to watch the documentary "The Other Final", you'll find it easily on Youtube.

The passion for football ended up joining two countries located more than 14.000km from each other. Apparently they had nothing (except long socks!) in common but a ball can do miracles!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Great North (2): One IKEA and two New Year's Eve

I guess for many readers, the idea of spending the whole Saturday at Ikea will cause them an anxiety attack and  an uncontrollable need to flee. To me, despite my passion for all that is Swedish, my blood runs cold when my wife says resignedly: "On Saturday, I fear that we will have to go to Ikea". Thousands of people, children running around between "Bjursta" tables and "Sultan" beds, and couples discussing whether it is better an "Ektorp" or a "Beddinge" sofa...

But what's the relation between remote and isolated places, and crowdy Ikea warehouses? Maybe for you, the Swedish furniture store is a nightmare, but there are people who consider Ikea as the best destination!

At the Gulf of Bothnia northern end, in the Baltic Sea, the Scandinavian Peninsula merges the European continent. The border between Scandinavia (Sweden) and the mainland (Finland) is marked by Torne river (in the map above is written in Swedish: "Torneälv"), that runs from the coast, northbound to Kiruna surroundings (see the first post of the series). At the same point where Torne river flows into the Baltic, there is a city; well, actually two cities; no wait, it's just one, Oh! forgive it!. People on the east bank of the Torne River lives in a town called... Tornio (long live originality!) that belongs to Finland. The town on the west bank of the river belongs to Sweden and is called Haparanda (Swedes are so creative!).

I said the fact whether it was one or two cities because, originally, it was a single village. For many centuries, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden and the city of Tornio (in Finnish), or Torneå (in Swedish), was a prosperous city, considered the center of all trade with Lapland. Even there are some historians who assert that, during the 17th century, the town was the richest in Sweden, despite its few half thousand inhabitants.

Sweden's defeat at war against Russia in 1808, made Finland fall into the hands of the Russians. By desire of Czar Alexander I, Tornio went on Russian Empire's side. But as border was established in the Torne river, and there were houses in both sides of the river, a small part of the city remained on the Swedish side. So the Swedes gave to this few houses that remained in their hands the name of Haparanda.

Russian laziness made the once prosperous Tornio fell into utter decay; and neigbouring Haparanda was too small to be able to prosper alone. With Finnish independence achievement in 1917, the situation did not improve much, and it was not until after the Second World War when Tornio's economy improved, especially thanks to the production of the successful local beer: Lapin Kulta.

But make no mistake, at the beginning of the 21st century, both twin towns, Tornio and Haparanda, did not offer many opportunities for young people. Many people was leaving towards the south, either Sweden or Finland, for studying or just to look for a better job. And this depopulation was not only happening in the main two cities; all region was losing inhabitants year by year. 

In the early 2000s, Haparanda's mayor, Sven-Erik Butch, had an idea. It could seem a foolish idea for those living far from the Arctic Circle, but for him and his team was full of sense. The mayor was able to contact Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea's owner, and asked him only one question: "Take a map of the Nordic countries, put it upside down, and tell me what you see" said Sven-Erik. So did Kamprad, realizing that lots of people, distributed in four countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia), had no access to any Ikea. 

On November 15th 2006, more than 5,000 people lined up neatly (as always in Sweden!) under a heavy snowfall, waiting for Ikea Haparanda's doors opening for the first time. Success was immediate, and in some months, Torne river commercial area attracted many more stores: I-Huset, Haglöfs, Candy World ... many brands found that the Arctic was a fantastic market! 

But, the economic potential expected by Mayor Sven-Erik Butch, was it real? Yes. Following the success of Ikea Haparanda, experts analyzed what the population of Arctic Circle represented as a consumption market. After the Ikea experience, however, survey showed the market was not splitted by borders; they analyzed the entire area population, no matter if people were Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian or Russian. And so, studies showed that there is a population of nearly 1.5 million people eager to buy, just as any European would, with the only difference of long distances. No matter in which country are they living, and in which country are sold the goods to be bought. If you look at the parking lot of Ikea Haparanda, any regular day, you will notice a difference when comparing with the rest of Ikea around world: it's full of coaches! Coach plates (and also car plates, of course!) show people come from every corner of the Great North to Ikea Haparanda. Many coaches leave early in the morning from remote locations, either in Arctic Russia, Norway, Sweden or Finland, full of Arctic inhabitants ready to travel more than 400km, and buy in Ikea. Then, at dawn, they get back on the bus and travel back home, maybe for more than 5 hours. Seems crazy, but Haparanda's Ikea has been able to revitalize the economy of both cities and stop their depopulation. 

Oops! And the two New Year's Eves from the post's title? It's simple: Haparanda-Tornio is one of the few cities (well, I do not know any other) that are separated by a border ... and in two different time zones! So, while Sweden uses CET (Central European Time, or UTC + 1), Finland is located in EET (Eastern European Time, or UTC + 2) zone. And this allows that each New Year's eve, people celebrates the first midnight 12 strokes in Tornio, and then, they cross the border and celebrate again a New Year, just one hour later, in Haparanda! 

As you can see, Tornio and Haparanda enjoy a very good relationship, and it's getting closer and closer. Gradually, both cities started to share municipal services, institutions and schools and now, they even share a golf course located in the border. So finally, they have decided to go one step further and become (legally) a single city. And how are they going to call the new merged town? Tornio-and-Haparanda? Haparanda-Tornio? None of these! Flaunting of great creativity skills, both cities have decided to get renamed (oh, my God!) as EuroCity!