Aldo Benini

Some travel writing


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2019 / 1988 – Pakistan: An obituary rekindles old memories: The few select who have earned the honor of an obituary in The Economist do not usually intersect with the circle of persons with whom I have shaken hands. This is an notable exception, going back to a single encounter in rather bizarre circumstances.

2018 - Northern Reflections” is the fruit of traveling, by car, from Montana to Minnesota. Our conversations with local people may not have been representative, yet public art and decor in small towns suggest how some of these communities view themselves.

2015 – Switzerland evokes trains and chocolate; these indeed are never far, if seemingly trivial. Yet, what is both Swiss and far from the madding postcard? To mitigate triviality, I have arranged impressions in triplets, with titles that suggest a quality or direction: Army knife precision vs. organic and soft; cracks vs. promise.

2015 - During a weeklong program in Cuba - before the US tourist tsunami if ever there will be one - , I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth of artistic and musical education in this socialist society.

[Added in 2014:] I have never been to Bhutan, but in 2008 Bhutan came to me, through the Smithsonian Folk Festival. Here some impressions looking from afar into the famous land of Gross National Happiness.

2014 - With three friends in three German cities I celebrated their birthdays. "Land of beneficial order" highlights my passage through the university town of Bielefeld, which I had not seen since 1997. Germany strikes me as a well-ordered country, now less a place of great ideas, and more of assiduous improvement on small ones. The evidence for such a claim, of course, is slim and subjective.

2014 - Sometimes we witness spectacular cultural events, but remain foreigners because we cannot decipher meanings and messages. I was left speechless by a street parade in Philadelphia's Chinatown, which I enjoyed the most for its sumptuous colors.

2011 - Much can be said in favor of traveling on backroads, far from the scripted and canned places that gird the main highways. Good luck had us meeting a most creative artist in a little known place "out West". Dan Klennert creates large sculptures from discarded pieces of steel and driftwood.

2009 - The "People of Sylhet" in this album are among those whom I met during my morning and evening walks in suburban villages and in a former rubber plantation in northeastern Bangladesh. Several of them I saw repeatedly and got to know them a bit in their personal and work lives. Their dignity amid poverty is the message.

2008 - In "Return to Liberia", we drive across rain-soaked Monrovia to visit a rehabilitation center for adolescents who had been traumatized in the war, and share the joy of young and old in their annual celebration with the community.

2008  -  "Sunday morning in the Dili fish market" offers a few glimpses at the wonderful color spectacle that tropical fish offer to the eye of the beholder, plus some of the goings-on in this lively spot of East Timor.

2008  -  "Glimpses of Assemblies" takes its cue from an NGO photo poster in Nepal, to embrace images of a few small groups of people in that country. I took these photos while traveling to visit self-help organizations of bonded laborers that the Lutheran World Federation aids. A local secretary drew a person peeking in while standing on its head - I noticed this detail too late to comment on his sense of humor among members who have gone through harrowing oppression.

2007  -  "Encounters in Tanzania" gathers portraits of people that I met during four rewarding weeks with the Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service (TCRS), visiting its Community Empowerment Program (CEP) near the border with Rwanda and Burundi as well as in the hinterland of Kilwa District near the Indian Ocean. These images are meant to capture what the French might call « les gestes élémentaires de la vie sociale » , basic forms of human expression that spring from a universal grammar, although one that we in the industrialized world sometimes find difficult to reconstruct.

2005 - "Apnar chobi tulbo? - May I take your picture?" is an uncommented album of portraits that I took in Rangpur, northwestern Bangladesh. I usually ask for permission to take photos of individuals; and several people there have known me for years. Still, the ethics of photographing people is always problematic. The father of a rickshaw-repair boy whose meagerly equipped workplace in the main street I took pictures of insisted that I must take his son to "your country to educate him", provoking a public ruckus. Over time, I have grown more restrained and chiefly focused on public events that actively invite taking pictures.

2005 - "Sociology at 100" - It has always been my policy to go to one centennial only of any professional association of which I am a member. It was, therefore, particularly fortuitous that the American Sociological Association should celebrate its 100th anniversary in nearby Philadelphia. Although less than marginal to the network of American sociologists, I imbibed some of their novel work and the historic retrospectives with rapt attention. I have always felt that the width and depth of this community contributes to an informed self-description of US society; and this in turn strengthens internal democracy as well as international solidarity. This is a postcard from that happy week with my wife Janet, in seminars and in the city.

2004 - "A brief glimpse at Aldo's workbench" was meant to help friends understand what I was doing within the Global Landmine Survey, with an illustration from Vietnam. However, my facade of cold statistics was broken when citizens of a commune under survey objected: "Your map is wrong. We know this, because the bombs fell on the neighboring village, not us. They killed every one – men, women and children."

1998 / 2007 - "The Railway as a Metaphor of Swiss Society". After nearly ten years in print my “Modern Switzerland: A Volume in the Comparative Societies Series” (McGraw-Hill 1998) has been pulled off the shelves. Its concluding chapter took readers on a symbolic train journey across the country. I reproduce it here, augmented with some more recent photos and brief comments.

1989 - "A Short Walk in Afghanistan" is  the account of a seemingly futile chase after prisoners of war in which I, alongside several other ICRC delegates, took part in 1988. Tired, thirsty, and increasingly blind to outside signals, I narrowly avoided stepping on a landmine. This, and work on evacuation systems that would transport numerous freshly mine-injured Afghans, prefigured a deeper emotional rapport to my role that I was to find, ten years later, in the Global Landmine Survey.


The image on this page is from a storefront that I admired in Hargeisa, in 2002, during the Somalia Landmine Impact Survey. As with public notaries, writing has been a means for me to give more durable accounts of things that otherwise will fall by the wayside in our short personal and corporate memories. I am not so sure about my skills as a "key doublicater" ..


I plan to include more travel stories and photo albums over time.


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Last updated:  7 February 2019