Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Papers: Apsley Cherry-Garrard


"The road to Hell might be paved with good intentions: the road to Heaven is paved with lost opportunities."

On the turntable:  Arsenio Rodriquez, "Sabroso Y Caliente"


Friday, February 17, 2017

If a Body Meet a Body Coming Down the Rhine





Scattered notes from a Rhine cruise that didn't really come off, June 2016...
 


The population of Amsterdam is an obedient one. Hash and prostitution may be legal, but no one seems to jaywalk.  The people are big too, and young.  Urinals stand at waist height for me, and I’m 185 cm.  I imagine that if you were any shorter than that you'd have to arch your back and make like Manneken-pis... 

..the Rhine is running high from the melting off of late-season snowfall in the nearby Alps, and the ship can't pass beneath the bridges to get to us.  We are forced to take the bus to Cologne and board the following day.  The rain keeps filling the river...

...we finally spend our first night aboard but awake to rain.  This day's section is the poets’ Rhine; the castles and towering peaks beyond serve well as inspiration for Romantic gushing in multiple languages.  Sadly the heaviness of the clouds presses down upon her waters and her looming hills.  While perfect for recalling the mood of the old tales of knights, and maidens, and corrupt Bishops, it is a far cry from the flawless blues skies of the tourist posters. Still, we make do...

...I had long looked forward to quiet mornings reading beside the rail, distracted occasionally by the passage of the landscape.  Instead, we sit moored in Mannheim, and those dreams are steamrolled.  Buses ferry us to the remaining destinations, but rather than waking up in a new town each morning, we are shuttled further and further each day.  On one bus journey, I am told (in confidence) by one of the staff that (s)he'd only experienced one-third of these cruises going as scheduled, due to the fluctuations of water-levels. (Note to self, only cruise in September.)  In fact, I had booked this very trip after reading that the autumn cruises had been hampered by water levels lowered due to climate change, and had intended to write a piece about how our changing planet is effecting travel.  I definitely got more than what I was looking for... 


...despite the monotony of the bus journeys, the cities delight.  Heidelberg and Strasbourg are picture perfect, but it is the smaller riverside towns that appease the most, singing and yodeling coming from every brauhaus. Europe in the lingering daylight of summer is a wonderful thing...      

...the Germans make good buildings and automobiles, but in the streets they make good obstacles.  Even in this high-season, the streets aren't particularly crowded.  But the locals seem intent not to see tourists at all, and will walk right through you...
 

...on our final day in Freiburg we find a quaint and pretty town, once you get beneath the graffiti.  The sun is finally out, so we sit with a beer in the square beside the cathedral, on a bustling market day.  I reflect on the past week and how it was the opposite of how I usually do my trips.  I tend to enjoy the road more than the destinations.  This time I found the destinations supreme, and the journey between was hardly a journey at all.

 
On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Little Girl Blue"
On the nighttable:  Bibhutibhshan Bandopadhyay, "Pather Panchali"


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sketches of Oz






I have a quite enviable position as a travel writer, in being able to take numerous trips per year.  The flip side is when the rate of travel is so great that I am left with little time to write it up.  I took a series of trips from late 2015 to late 2016, yet found myself reading about the places I visited, rather than writing about them.  I will post a number of sketches direct from my travel notes.  First up, a brief look at Australia, December '15...

The plane curls in over the Blue Mountains...

...the land below is all dry earth, parched trees.  No wonder my Australia clients gush about all the rushing water in Japan...  

...airport security is quite elaborate for a former penal colony...

...Nicole Kidman stands ten meters high on a billboard for Emirates...

...kids argue in a Volvo in Rush Hour traffic. My own taxi driver pops his gum...

...the beautiful Georgians lining Argyle Drive, hung with posters petitioning their survival...

...watching the red sails in the sunset of the Opera House over dinner...

...James Bond henchmen moonlight as crew on the ferry out to Hobart's MONA.  Bouncing on the trampoline set at the edge of the cliffs, feeling dizzy at the thought of pitching over the nets.  Finding more inspiration in a glass of wine out in the garden than in the art within...

...driving clockwise around Tasmania.  A living forest literally teeming with life, but for the road kill.  I've never seen so many dead animals before.  At least they break the monotony of trees, eucalyptus a perpetual grey corridor.  To reach a town brings relief...

...Strahan a small and quaint village built on a large cove.  Sadly the boats aren't running due to the cold weather.  The chill stays with us up to Cradle Mountain, creeping into the corners of our cabin, defeated once and for all in the fireplace.  We keep our hike the following day low, amongst the scrub, upper torsos perpetually in sunlight.  Above, the landscape is ruled by lingering snow...

...a series of good meals in Launceston, burned off with walks amongst her Victorian finery...

...the wild scenery of the east coast:  Bay of Fires, Wineglass Bay.  Encountering dozens of kangaroos on the hiks to the latter...

...after pints at Iron Horse Brewery, spying a kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree...

...Bicheno quiet and shuttered on an low season Sunday.  Finding the only restaurant to be Chinese.  Outside, a Singaporean family bickers in a mix and match of two dialects...

...Port Arthur like a cathedral, despite tragic history new and old.  Peace walks across wide expanses of lawn, darting in and out of ruined buildings...

...having a devil of a time at the Tasmanian animal rescue and rehabilitation center.  Amongst all the soft cuddlies, a Tiger snake lazes fat and bloated beside a log...

...a handful of days in Melbourne, walking, sipping, eating.  Having a chance meet with a friend on the rooftop of a bustling Siglo bar, then running into another friend at the very restaurant he had recommended a year before...

...the long queues outside every coffee shop at 9:10 every weekday morning.  It's as if Melbourne punches their time cards, then ducks back out for their first cuppa...

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Stollin'"

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Malaysian Sketches




1.
From the air, Malaysia appears as a carpet of palms...
  
...immigration queues seem separated by types of clothing:  Malaysians in Muslim attire; Chinese in business suits; tourists in shorts and T-shirts... 
 
...the pesky little issue with Customs.  Bringing gifts of sake to Japanophile friends, forgetting completely that Malaysia is a Muslim country.   

...Riding in from the airport:  A burnt-out truck in a rest area.  Billboards still welcoming those attending the 2015 ASEAN Summit.  Women on billboards, each a beauty, each in hajib.  Billboards of children, each studious, each bespectacled...

  ...All Asia is beginning to look the same.  You determine your whereabouts by the calendar rather than landscape.  If it's Tuesday, it must be Bentong...


2.
...walking the 3D cityscape of KL, like papercuts backed by jungly hills, the low rise of old town dwarfed by massive glass spires beyond.  In comparison, the cities of Japan are flat, a jumble of multi-level structures.  KL has no middle-ground, with deep gaps in the strata...
 
...early mornings sitting quietly on the veranda of a friend's flat in Damansara, listening to the birdsong until their voices are lost to the sound of cars.  Then the call to prayer.  There's a beauty in its cutting through the thin morning air, filling the valley with syllables that rise and fall as if the fickleties of faith. This is far more pleasant than what follows: the incessant and steady clang clang clang of the bell of the Hindu temple, jarring the gods awake.   One morning, I see a plume of smoke rising from the structure beside the mosque, a serpentine ribbon of smoke, charmed by an unheard flute. I turn away for awhile and as I turn back I see that the same smoke now coats the entire valley, the entire city, the entire view. I realize then that it's rain, rain that has come in sudden and hard. It's interesting being in a new place in the rain, to see how the locals react, how dramatically affected they are to what is certainly a common experience here in the tropics. It helps me notice for the first time that the entrances to all the shops lined shoulder-to-shoulder have overhanging balconies, no doubt for this very reason. Pedestrians and motorcycles begin to thin.  On a street or two over, a car horn begins to sound. Then the obligatory sirens...


3.
...the tourist hordes at Malacca have carried away piecemeal any charm the town may have once had.  And on this day too, it is overrun.  The streets in its World Heritage Chinatown have never ending traffic, making walking very unpleasant.  The museums and tourist sites themselves aren't terribly interesting, and look decades old.  More attention goes into the obnoxious tri-rickshaws that shriek as they go past.  Tourism reduced to its least common denominator, the Disneyfication of everywhere.  It bloody well is a small world after all.  Too fucking small.  But the food redeems...    




4.
...on the way to Cameron Highlands, at nearly every bend in the road are Orang Asli huts, their laundry strung along like pinafores...  

...seen from afar, the strawberry greenhouses of the Highlands are streamers of confetti littering the ridge line... 

... recreating Jim Thompson's final walk, through a stretch of jungle, mind ever conscious of tigers.  Thompson's villa itself is off-limits, owned by a businessman with no apparent sense of history.  Granted he owns the property, but the abuse of the surrounding jungle is criminal, in the felling of centuries-old Scottish pine, and the illegal drainage system.  Thompson's estate in Bangkok has made numerous offers to turn the site into a museum, but the owner refuses to budge.  Ironically, I lose my earring on the walk, not far from where Thompson himself disappeared in 1967...
 
...a quiet afternoon spent on the veranda, enshrouded by teak and rattan.  It was nice playing at being British for a day, having strawberry scones for tea, watching the limbs of the proud Scottish pines brush away the final winds of the waning monsoon.... 
 
...I am personally disappointed with the Highlands, long a place of mystery to me, due to the Thompson myth.  How much better to leave such places to the realm of imagination.  There is far too much building going on, large concrete hotels scratched out of former jungle. I come across a book that tells me that the government is attempting to "Restore the Highlands to its former glory," as if they themselves admit how unattractive it has become.  I'm not sure what the methods of restoration are, but in this case, subtraction seems better than addition...


5.
...the great mosque at Ipoh dimpled like the lunar base in some 70s sci-fi TV show. Still a beauty, in a beautiful town.  Worth an overnight next time...

...wending westward through the hills, crossing the Sungai Perak river and into the forests of rubber... 

...Taiping massacred, a living museum in its own right, almost the polar opposite of Malaccca in that no care at all has gone into any upkeep. Walking past monuments to former colonial glory has some charm, though perhaps not in the heat of midday.  Few tourists seem to come here, nor do they really need to I suppose.  LYL and I have a quick lunch in some nondescript little corner shop, ordering things hanging behind scratched glass. (I think that it must be tough to be a chicken in a country like this.  The Hindus avoid beef, the Muslims avoid pork, but chicken is fair game to all.) A young fellow nearby seems taken with me and my foreignness, though it may simply be his tall bottle of Guinness.  He repeatedly tries to talk to me, to find a common language.  LYL with her four Chinese dialects stays quiet, letting me have this moment.  I am able to figure out that he is a Burmese refugee, hard-up it seems.  He tells me that he is a Christian.  Am I a Christian?  When I tell him that if I am anything, it is Buddhist, he shifts into Hokkien and calls me a fucking cunt.  It's a small mind after all...     

 
6.
...where Malacca got it so wrong, Penang got it perfectly right.  In fact it is one of the best preserved of Asia's many historical capitals.  The recent street art isn't really necessary, being nothing more than a flourish, but doesn't detract in the least. As it is, the art is somewhat hidden, something you stumble upon, though these days you simply look for the usual mob armed with selfie sticks.  Georgetown's true art of course is its architecture, made more beautiful due to its utility. The beauty lies exactly in the fact that they are still being used. (The sole exception being the Pinang Peranakan mansion, which looks more like a dumping ground for antiques.  The house in Malacca is far better, though the staff there is uptight and unpleasant.) Most houses have been allowed to reflect their historical importance, like that of Sun Yat-sen, made all the more atmospheric for the clack of majong tiles coming from the house next door.  Some structures have been converted into bars and restaurants; others are abandoned, but look like they can be resuscitated rather easily.  Strolling the streets is a feast for the eye. As for the mouth, well the food in town can hold its own with any in the world.  Malaysia is sadly underrated as a food culture...

...  the aging queen, the E & O Hotel.  Our suite is spacious and harkens back to a time when travel was glamorous, without any self-conscious attempt to do so. Granted the staff is dressed in old period garb, but it feels like they have always done so.  History hangs heavy in the air like ghosts.  But they welcome, rather than haunt.  Much the same can be said about the Old Protestant Cemetery nearby.  A person can learn everything they need to know about Penang by simply reading the headstones.  So many lives lost young here, the price to be paid in order to build a colony.  I find the headstone for Thomas Leonowens, husband to Anna, of The King and I fame.  Incredible to think that in dying young, Thomas had set into motion the education of a future king, who would lead Siam progressively into the future...

 ...avoiding the crowds to go up Penang Hill.  We stroll the old abandoned cottages here.  I wanted to see the Bellevue Hotel since I had heard that they once had venomous snakes in the trellises above the dining tables of the garden terrace.  The hotel looks like it has declined in more recent years, and I assumed that the snakes, and the dining area itself, were long gone. (However a bit of searching online confirmed that they are still in residence there.)   We do find snakes at the Snake Temple further south, as promised.  The couple of dozen that we see are extremely listless, yet we tread very carefully.  I am very afraid of snakes, and it takes a fair bit of courage to wander about the place.  I am repeatedly startled while looking at a photo of something, then to suddenly notice a snake just overhead...


7.
...the climactic sunset of the final night, seen from the beach of Langkawi, as if the sky is set aflame due to sparks thrown upward by the collision of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.  Then the return flight through that same sky, a fortnight's worth of destinations far below, tell-tale traces laid bare for  eyes made experienced at their acquaintance.  


On the turntable:  Coleman Hawkins, "Imagination"

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

(untitled)





Playing peekaboo with the city,
Through the white of
Splayed fingers.
 
 
 
On the turntable:   Charles Lloyd, "All my Relations"

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sunday Papers: F. Scott Fitzgerald


"A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself."


On the turntable:  The Chieftains, "An Irish Evening"
 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Whack for Trinidady-o

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The historic towns of Cianfuegos and Trinidad have been forever paired by UNESCO as heritage sites, but they each have their own distinct character.  The former is typically Caribbean in that it is (slowly) facing the future, yet not at the expense of its rich colonial past.  Trinidad on the other hand appears happy right where it is, which is 19th Century Spain.   Renowned tourist sites can be divided into micro and macro types.  Kyoto, where I live, is the former, being essentially an ugly city filled with some marvelous sites.  Trinidad is the latter, for the town itself is a gem.  Nested on a long rolling series of hills between the mountains and the sea, it is a spiderweb of little lanes, cobbled with what I’ve heard best described as turtle-shells, and sloping downward toward drainages running down the center.   These irregular surfaces make for difficult walking, slowing everyone to a leisurely amble.  Those who can’t even be bothered to walk sit before low two-story buildings painted an array of hues, and punctuated with brightly colored doors.  When the pony-drawn carriage before you passes by a parked 1952 Chevy, you suddenly find yourself part of a travel brochure. 



Like in all the best towns, there is little to do but absorb the vibe.  We listlessly explore a couple of palazzo museums, poke our heads into churches.  Have the obligatory canchanchara at its namesake Taverna.  I also take the time to do a solo walk at dawn one morning, into the barrios well away from the tourist heart of town, where young dudes work on their motorcycles, and groups of young girls stroll to school in their uniforms.  Along the way I come across a Yoruba temple, in the courtyard of which a man is washing and plucking a chicken, either a result of, or preparation for, a ceremony of some kind.  



The slow pace of life in the daytime serves to pace the locals for their revelries at night.  Music is simply everywhere., in every café, spilling onto the streets.  Not far from the steps beside the Iglesia Parroquial where tourists sit and welcome the night, we dine at Paladar 1514, an antique shop of sorts crammed with the wares of five centuries.  This all adds to the restaurant’s ramshackle look, of crumbled brick and absent roof.  I believe that the structure actually is half-collapsed, and we dine alfresco safely between two columns.  Our waiter is a very young man who’s been working there for just a few weeks, and he deftly battes our queries about history in charming and amusing ways.   We are the only diners at first, but slowly others come to sit at tables overladen with ancient ceramic and glass (removed of course before the meal arrives). Another waitress comes on duty, moving through the narrow spaces as if dancing tango; all the movement is below the waist.  At some point musicians crowd into one corner of the courtyard, and before long I am pulled before them to dance with a young black woman that I'd seen flirting earlier with the mulatto bartender.  Trinidad has a certain racial ambiguity, its people even a greater array of colors than its buildings, yet seemingly devoid of any of the usual tension.  When I make this comment to my guide so tells me that Trinidad's port had been one of the points of entry for African slaves.  In fact, more African slaves arrived in Cuba than the United States.  This is mainly because the Americans saw the value in have healthy slaves to work and breed.  The Spanish simply worked theirs to death, to be replaced by new African slaves.  Things have improved of course, but G tells me that the lighter skinned tend to do better with education and employment, but the overt racism of the north is quite rare.           

 After dinner we climb atop the ruins of what had once been the palador's upper floor and from our perch atop a hill looked across the town.  Turning myself in a slow 360 degree circle, I spot at least five bands playing on rooftops on adjoining streets.  And the fun never stops, carrying on well into the night, as a pair of chatty old men have an animated discussion in the square across from our hotel.  Probably about anything but race.   





The final morning we drive out to the Sierra del Escambray, tracing the coastline lined with small, underdeveloped hotels before turning inland to climb and wind over the tendrils of hills pointing seaward.  Roads like these never fails to amuse.  It is as if there was no time or thought toward grading.  Far easier to just pave the hillsides, creating a roller coaster effect.  Always thrilling, always exhilarating. 



We stop at the park information center which has detailed information about the various hikes in the area.  Towering just above is a large hotel block that had once been a TB sanitarium.  We leave this soon enough, in the back of a massive Soviet-built troop transport.  We bounce along on the hard bench-like seats as the truck powers along the windy mountain roads.  Now and then small settlements will appear, small clusters of squat homes amidst all that verdant green.  Symbols and slogans of the revolution are everywhere, little wonder since that these hills were home to the revolutionaries for much of its struggle.  In that spirit I pull on my bandana, like some Corsican freedom-fighter.  



We climbed from the truck in a small village at the start of the trail.  Not far in we come across a decent-sized coffee plantation, shaded by massive trees.  This canopy shades us as well, as we make our way gingerly along slopes made slippery from the rain of two days before.  We come eventually to a tall waterfall, and a swimming hole that on this day serves as playground to a handful of foreigners.  On such a relatively mild day, I don't need feel the need to cool off, so I simply dip my lower half in the waters. 



The second part of the hike isn’t much harder the first, though it does require us to climb gradually from the valley. The views open up some, of the river we parallel, which in itself draws out more bird and wildlife. (Happily for me, Cuba doesn't have any venomous snakes, so ophidiophobic me can walk with my eyes pointing up for a change.) We leave the jungle at a small farm, not far from a series of bungalows where we’ll lunch.  We sit out on the veranda, eating a plate of chicken and the obligatory beans and rice.  It is a pleasant, bucolic  afternoon, though now growing hot.  When it is time to depart, our truck is nowhere to be found, so we sit awhile more in the shade, watching the chickens who, no matter how fast they can run, cannot outrun their destiny as tomorrow’s lunch. 



Back finally at our vehicle, for the long ride home.  Our guide G decides to pass the time in discussing Cuba and what it is like to live there.  For days we have politely avoided the topic of politics, it seems as if she finds it important to show how politics is intricately entangled with daily life. 



She tells us of the hardships of the Special Period, of a country in free-fall after the collapse of the USSR, its main economic trading partner.  The government did a remarkable job in strategically weathering out the crisis.  Not to say that the people didn't suffer.  Food production dramatically declined, due to the absence of fossil fuels.  But the Cubans are a clever people, due to a high level of education and resilient due to the embargo.  Bicycles began to appear on the streets, and many moved out into the countryside to crow their own food.  The diets became incredibly imaginative and innovative, with people substituting plantain peels for beef, and utilizing vegetables long overlooked.  One bizarre side effect was the huge reduction of deaths from as diabetes and heart disease.  



Cuba weathered this, as they weathered everything else.  But with exposure to tourists growing exponentially, Cubans are beginning to resent the stagnation of their island.  Most live on a monthly salary of $25 dollars a month, and I know that some of our meals cost more.   Yet despite this, she, along with all the other Cubans I met, truly love their country and have no intention to leave.  And therein lies the paradox.  To wait as patiently as the Cubans do, implies the belief that something better will come along.  And after fifty plus years, at no time does the future look brighter than it does now.  Obama seemed determined that part of his legacy be to open up the country, and I smile at the thought that the “Hope” slogan of his initial presidential campaign also holds meaning for the people of this nation.  Granted his successor seems equally determined to slam shut the doors again.  Yet a bigger factor is the fact that Cuba is taking its first baby steps into a future without Fidel. It is hard to picture a Cuba without Castro, despite the fact that the Cuban exiles in Miami and the CIA have been doing that for decades.  But the issue all along was with Fidel, and never the Cuban people.


So that hope stills exists.  Americans and their tourist dollars are now flowing in, and that will certainly change things.  It won't be long before the big corporate players follow, their insidious logos appearing on what has until now been crumbling facades.  Perhaps one of those logos might even be of a certain hotel chain owned by Obama’s successor himself. 



Personally I think that Cuba’s biggest potential lies in being a major destination for medical tourism.  This island is famous for the high quality of its healthcare system, and it exports more trained medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined. Americans are already finding inexpensive treatment in countries like Thailand, India, and Singapore, and it won't be long before they find relief closer to home. 



And home is where we are now turned.  It is long drive back to the airport, so we stop twice:  once for a long lunch stop at the living zoo of Fiesta Campesina, and later at a coffee stand alongside the highway.  I walk out to stand awhile at the road’s edge, looking at the silence and emptiness stretching away in both directions.  Cars are few, maybe one every minute, but it is this very dearth of vehicles, and the vintage of those that do, that enables me to have my own On the Road moment.  With nostalgia comes certain pangs: feeling the cool wind in my face, feeling the pull of the open road.  Part of it is inspired by being a prisoner of a minutely-controlled organized tour.  Part of it has something to do with all these 1940s vehicles drifting unhurriedly by.  Surely in one these are the ghosts of Neil Cassidy and Jack Kerouac, rolling on toward their own particular brand of freedom. It is something they share with the Cubans, who opt for a similar joie du vivre in spite of the top-heavy political system under which they live.    



I too had a wonderful journey, one of the best I’ve ever had, yet in its very scripted nature, I was never truly free to go my own.  I never got a chance to truly be in the landscape, rather than simply move through it.  I would have relished an evening sitting in the rocking chairs in the Vinales Valley. Or a few days spent meandering along the uneven cobblestones of the Old Habana, stopping only for the odd cup of coffee, or to poke around the bookstalls, before rewarding myself with a craft beer at La Factoria Plaza Vieja.  I fantasize about sitting at the bar and getting into conversations with the locals. 



But I notice that there is a definitive separation between the Cubans and the tourists who are beginning to move amongst them in greater and great numbers.  It’s unlike other cities I’ve been, where there’s much more engagement, more interaction.  Here, the Cubans continue to go about their business, or their lack of business, as the touts are as yet unpushy, choosing to let the big specimens of overseas wealth simply drift by   That ability to choose, implies a freedom that they’ve had all along.  Let’s hope they can weather the myriad of choices to be made as their island grows more and more open.  



Once the big hotels and international conglomerates return then surprise surprise, socially they won't be far off from where they were in 1959.  A more optimistic view is that Cubans, being proud, patient, and educated people, will take a slower more sensible approach to things.  But the people are most certainly hungry.  Not for food this time, but a chance to share their strengths with the rest of the world. 

 
On the turntable:  Cactus, "Rochester, New York 1971"