Chasing the Sun Through Namibia

DSC_0420

South from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, then inland. Cutting through and skirting around the Namib-Naukluft National Park and setting down for the night in Sesriem.

Up again in the early hours. You would resign if your boss made you set off so early and so often for work as needs must when travelling in Africa. Yet you accept it, if not gladly then with only muted grumbling. Most days. Getting up in what ought to be the middle of the night, dismantling and packing the tent in the dark, shaving in cold water sinks under the supervision of an oversized spider. They are, as Hemingway put it in The Green Hills of Africa, “the discomforts that you paid to make it real”.

A peachy glow at the horizon, a penumbra of blue hint at sunrise as you head out towards the dune, 45 kilometres from Sesriem Gate.

shutterstock_307023341

Image: Shutterstock

It is a Thing To Do in Namibia. You have seen the pictures in the agents’ windows. The sky a cobalt blue which seems to have been created in Photoshop but is just how it is there, on a clear day. Dune 45 bifurcated by its crest. One side, in the sun, a searing orange: the other, in the shade, oil black. There is usually a Land Cruiser in the shot, at the base of dune, to show scale.

There are always Land Cruisers in the early morning, as every traveller who passes through stops off at the dune to climb the ridge and sit at the top and watch the sun come up.

It is 170 metres to the top, or 560 feet. Some of the travellers in front find it hard going, or their hearts are not really in it. They slow the line right down. It is a frustrating stop-start procession to the top.

shutterstock_1273326628

Image: Shutterstock

There is an odd light this morning. The sky is a lavender colour and the sporadic trees have a painterly quality.  You can tell that the sunrise will not be spectacular, but it is only polite to stay and watch it. There is a hold up again as people begin to pick their way to ground level, so you skip the queue and run straight down the side of the dune.

From there onto Deadvlei. A drive and a walk across the sand. Around the time of the first Millennium of the Common Era, floodwaters from the Tsauchab River carved out a hollow which became a marsh, where camel thorn trees took root. Two centuries later, the droughts came and the marsh dried up and dunes rose around the clay pit blocking the path of the water for evermore.

The trees died and the sun scorched their skeletons and so thoroughly drained them of moisture they cannot decompose.

DSC_0423

It is a starkly beautiful landscape, surreal as a Dali painting. You walk across the creamy clay, baked and tessellated by the sun. It contrasts with the rusty orange of the dunes around it. Dotted about are the remains of the trees which died in what we call the Middle Ages. You wander among them, give one an exploratory tap.

Later you head back to Sesriem, then push on south to Fish River Canyon. It is the next biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon. Less than a third as deep and half as long as long, but it has been around for 500 million years longer and, to put that into some kind of perspective it is about 250 million years since the first dinosaur, about 60 since the last.

You wander round the lip, gaze over the folds and contours of the rock and try to process the unfathomable scale. You stand at the edge and look down and, as often, someone takes it as a challenge. They balance on their hands and dangle their legs over the chasm. But you were not competing and take no notice.

DSC_0435

The late sun is casting deep shadows by the time you leave. There are tiny flickers of flame from campfires deep in the canyon. In the morning, you will travel on to Orange River and the next day cross into South Africa.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

Sailing in Sydney

I took the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the tower which sprouts from the Westfield centre and looked out across the city and over the harbour to the Heads. It was Sydney Regatta week and an abundance of yachts was sailing in the bay with spinnakers puffed up with wind, a swirl of blue and pink, purple and green.

I would be out there myself the next day.

Sailing on an America’s Cup Yacht had been on my bucket list since the summer of the previous year when I crewed on a boat in the Round the Island Race. I was not even sure whether it was possible, and had no expectation of making it happen on this trip.

But then I found out by chance about an outfit which ran voyages out of Darling Harbour in a pair of IACC yachts from the nineties.

The Darling Harbour Yacht Club invested US $10m in its challenge in 1992, when the International America’s Cup Class standard was adopted. Its boat, AUS 21, came sixth, out of nine, in the Louis Vuitton Cup races to decide which of the challengers would face the defending team.

The other one, AUS 40, was built for the Antibes Yacht Club as a challenger in the 1995 Cup with the flag number FRA 40. But it was not finished in time and, in the end, the nearest it got to the  America’s Cup was as a training boat for the Swiss challenger in 2000.

I was on the older boat with the better backstory. Nothing about AUS 21 looked dated, even if it was two decades past its prime by then. It was all Kevlar, carbon fibre and alloy, everything pared right down to save weight; everything streamlined. It made the yacht I had raced on the year before seem as clumsy and well-padded as a cross-Channel ferry. But then so did our place in the results table.

I had been sort of working then, even if I was doing it for fun and paying for the privilege: I had an appointed station and had to stay there and do as I was told.

This was different. Some of the passengers wanted no more than to laze on the deck and top up their tans and that was fine; but you could get involved if you wanted to. It would have frustrated me just to watch. I manned one of the grinders, as they call the winches which tension the sheets (that is, ropes) which trim the sails and regulate speed. It is a good upper body workout.

We raised the mainsail as we slipped out of the harbour and motored round Millers Point. The staysail went up as we passed beneath the Harbour Bridge.

Then cruising towards the Heads, making 8 knots according to the digital display. The yacht could do about 18 with a good wind behind it. Then heeled right over with everyone up on the rail. Then tacking across the harbour. Throwing my weight into the grinder. Sliding over to starboard. Heads down as the boom crashes across the deck.

We were out for around two hours then headed back, lowered the sails and motored under the Bridge. I watched a group slowly make its way up the arch.

I would be up there myself the next day.

©  Richard Senior 2020*

*Except America’s Cup images via Pixabay:

SWE 96

CHN 95

NOTE: For the avoidance of any doubt, this site does not advocate travel during the Coronavirus pandemic. Please consult the latest official advice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

IMG_2285

“There are gods here beside tango and football or soccer as we call it. There is beef….” – Anthony Bourdain

Grass-fed beef sizzles on the grill. Fruity Malbec swirls into glasses. Waiters scurry with plates and bottles. Customers wait in line at the doorway. Aromatic smoke from the grill wafts under their noses and into the street.

The parrilla is an Argentinian institution. They are on almost every block in Buenos Aires. The word means grill and rhymes with Alicia, and not as I thought with Mariaand, no, not with gorilla, either. Argentinian steakhouses elsewhere in the world try to recreate the ambience, but it rarely travels well.

DSC_0961

A parrilla can be bustling and informal like El Desnivel in San Telmo, where the walls are cluttered with old photographs, tango posters and beer adverts, and the chimichurri comes in a plastic bowl and locals jostle for tables with tourists clutching Lonely Planet guides.

But it could just as well be hushed and slick like Al Carbón in the Microcentro with its blonde wood floor, exposed girders and customers negotiating deals over food which is not just put on the plate but presented.

Or it might be as traditional as El Establo in Retiro with shaded gold lettering on the windows and an interior of wood panelling, landscape paintings and hunting trophies.

IMG_2287

But at the heart of them all is the long grill with a firebox at one end where burning wood glows red hot and the smouldering embers are shovelled up and laid beneath the  slats, which are v-shaped and on a slight incline to drain off excess fat, and the parrillero* uses a pulley to raise and lower the grill to regulate the heat.

By tradition, you might start with sweetbreads or chitterlings cooked on the grill. But the more squeamish can choose things like boquerones (marinaded anchovies), grilled Provoleta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, slices of prosciutto served with palm hearts, or empanadas, as if you will not have eaten several of those already.

Order bife de chorizo for main and you get a slab of sirloin steak the thickness of three fingers. Ojo de bife gets you ribeye, entraña skirt, vacío flank and lomo fillet or filet mignon.

IMG_2288

Surprisingly in a nation passionate about beef, the steaks tend towards overdone. By default, they come a punto, at best, which is medium well. If you want your steak cooked as it ought to be, you have to ask.

Muy jugoso, literally very juicy, is said to mean rare but is more often interpreted as medium rare. Vuelta y vuelta gets you something closer to the European idea of rare. At the other extreme, cocido is how my dad would have liked it: as if it had dropped into the firebox and been forgotten about.

It is often said that the only condiment needed for the meat is the salt with which it is grilled. But at some parrillas it will come with a bowl of chimichurri, made with finely-chopped parsley and garlic, a hint of chilli flakes, an abundance of dried oregano, olive oil and a good slug of red wine vinegar. There may also be salsa criolla, which is red and green peppers, tomatoes and onions diced and mixed with olive oil, wine vinegar, chopped garlic and a shake each of dried oregano and chilli flakes.

beef-416967_1920

Fries are the classic side dish, usually plain, sometimes a la provenzal with chopped garlic and parsley sprinkled over them when hot. There might also be a token salad of lettuce, tomato and onion.

Steak will not be the only main. Also popular are tiro de asado (short ribs), the Argentinian versions of chorizo and morcilla and – for groups – a parrillada or mixed grill. This might typically include vacío steak, chorizo, morcilla and achuras or organ meat. The ethos in Argentina is to use every bit of the cow, so there might be some surprising bits and pieces. They could serve you criadillas, if they have the balls for it.

Vegetarian options include cheese.

© Richard Senior 2020**

*Grill chef

**Except chorizo image via Pixabay

On a Slow Boat in China

DSC_0128

I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.

DSC_0072

Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

DSC_0042 (2)

Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

DSC_0035 (2)

You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.

DSC_0050

It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

How Hemingway Haunts Havana

DSC_0350

“You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain” – Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

I was standing in line outside the bureau de change on the day the ATMs failed.

The Cadeca*, to call it by its proper Cuban name, was in one of the grand colonial buildings which line three sides of the square. There are cafes at the ground floor in some of them, but La Perla closed in the Fifties. On the fourth side is the Convent of San Francisco de Asis from which the square gets its name. At the centre of the plaza is Fuente de Los Leones, carved from white marble with fountainheads in the shape of lions.

Cruise ships now come into the dock over the road where Spanish galleons once stopped on their way from the Indes and, much later, Hemingway moored Pilar on visits from Key West in the marlin season.

DSC_0358

Hemingway’s ghost is everywhere in Havana. There is hardly a hotel without a Hemingway Room; barely a bar without black and white photos of him on its walls, or a drink or a dish named for him on the menu. Spanish language versions of his novels are sold at the second-hand book stalls on Plaza de Armas alongside biographies of Che Guevara and histories of the revolution. Havana’s yacht club takes his name, and so does the marina where it is based. Each year it stages the Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament.

I inched to the front of the queue and swapped US Dollars for Convertible Pesos, the currency reserved for tourists. I walked, then, down Calle Oficios to the end of the road, turned right into Calle Obispo and, at the corner of the next block, was the Ambos Mundos Hotel.

There is a plaque on the wall to record that the novelista Ernest Hemingway lived there durante del degada del 1930. In a piece for Esquire in 1934, he wrote:

“The rooms on the northeast corner of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana look out, to the north, over the old cathedral, the entrance to the harbor and the sea, and to the east to the Casablanca peninsula, the roofs of all houses in between and the width of the harbor…. You take a shower, pull on an old pair of khaki pants and a shirt, take the pair of moccasins that are dry…walk to the elevator, ride down, get a paper at the desk, walk across the corner to the café to have breakfast.”

He wrote it in Room 511, which is now a micro museum. The same wire cage lift which Hemingway took on his way to breakfast rattles you up to the fifth floor. The room is laid out and furnished as it might have been in the mid-1930s and embellished with Hemingway memorabilia, books, artworks, a typewriter, old photographs and a scale model of Pilar.

DSC_0273

Two blocks further down Obispo, the bar and restaurant, El Floridita, still has its illuminated sign from the 1950s. The bar inside looks little changed since then. To the left, in the corner, a life-size bronze of Hemingway leans against it.

In Islands in the Stream, a barely-fictionalised version of its author saw that:

“The Floridita was open now and he bought the two papers that were out, Cristol and Alerta, and took them to the bar with him. He took his seat on a tall bar stool at the extreme left of the bar. His back was against the wall towards the street and his left was covered by the wall behind the bar. He ordered a double frozen daiquiri with no sugar from Pedrico….”

To this day, the daiquiris are very good and very famous. The version he described is now known as a Papa Doble. There is also a Hemingway Special with a splash of pineapple juice.

 

Across Havana Viega, La Bodeguita del Medio claims Hemingway as a one-time regular. It makes unremarkable mojitos and attracts a crush of tourists. It is a stop on the organised Hemingway tours where visitors are shaken down for pricey cocktails. But the only evidence he ever set foot in there seems to be a note with a dubious signature which hangs above the bar in Floridita.

By 1939, Hemingway had left Key West and his second wife and taken up residence in Cuba. Martha Gelhorn, famous in her own right as a war correspondent and soon to be the third Mrs Hemingway, found them a nineteenth century villa in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula.

IMG_2248

It came with fifteen acres of land and was called Finca Vigia, or ‘lookout farm’ for the view across the palm trees to downtown Havana. Hemingway would stay at the finca until 1960 when he left Cuba for the last time. In Islands in the Sun, he described a trip into town from what he there called ‘the farm’:

 “They rolled through the squalor of the village side street and turned onto the Central Highway. They passed the houses of the village, the two grocery stores open onto the street with their bars and rows of bottles flanked by shelves of canned goods, and then they were past the last bar and the huge Spanish laurel tree whose branches spread all the way across the road and were rolling downhill for three miles with big old trees either side. There were nurseries, small farms, large farms with their decrepit Spanish colonial houses that were being cut up into subdivisions….”

I squeezed into the P-7 bus near the Capitolio in Habana Viejo, more or less a straight copy of the Capitol Building in Washington. As the bus barrelled out of central Havana, it occurred to me that I had no idea how I might recognise the stop.

DSC_0189

I tried to follow the journey on iMaps and when it seemed as if I might be getting near, I forced my way to the front of the bus and spoke to the driver:

-¿El Museo Hemingway está cerca? (Is the Hemingway museum close?)

-No, está lejos, the driver said with a wave of his arm to denote distance.

The bus trundled on and I started to wonder whether I was even on the right one. But then the driver called out “Museo Hemingway” and pulled in at the stop. “Muchas Gracias,” I said and got off and followed the signs.

I walked up what I took to be the village side street which Hemingway mentioned, and where squalor had not so much disappeared as been shared out more equally. Then there was an imposing, tree-lined driveway and at the end of it, the gates were locked.

-¿Esto es el museo Hemingway? I asked a man in the grounds, although I am not sure where else I imagined I might be.

-Si, pero está cerrado” (Yes but it is closed.)

-¿Está cerrado?

-Se abra a las diez de la hora.” (It opens at 10am), he added.

It was almost 10am by the time I had managed, with my remedial Spanish, to work out what he was trying to tell me. The tour buses, by then, were arriving from Havana with the gringos who were doing this the easy way.

DSC_0187

Visitors are not allowed into the finca but the shutters and doors are thrown open and you can see most of it by peering inside. It is just as you might imagine Hemingway’s house to look. There are hunting trophies and bullfight posters, hordes of books and magazines, twentieth century art, and bottles with not much left in them. But it is hard to tell how much is original and how much reconstruction.

The official line is that Mary Hemingway, the author’s fourth wife, gifted the finca to the Cuban people when he died in 1961. But it is not as if she had any choice, as ‘the people’ expropriated all American-owned property that year.

Hemingway left Pilar to its mate, Gregorio Fuentes, until he too was overcome with generosity and gifted it to ‘the people’. It sits on blocks, now, under a canopy on what used to the finca’s tennis courts.

Casa_di_Ernest_Hemingway_a_Cuba,_la_barca_'El_Pilar'_01

Hemingway’s best work seemed to be behind him by the 1950’s. Critics dismissed him as a has-been. Then he wrote The Old Man and the Sea which won him a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for literature. It was set in the fishing villlage of Cojímar, eight miles east of Havana.

Gregorio Fuentes, barely over 40 when he hired out on Pilar, lived to be 104 and told visitors to Cojímar that he was the model for the old man of the book. It was not true, but he grew into the role and it earned him a few pesos in photo opportunities. In Gregorio’s later years:

“The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on the cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.” – The Old Man and the Sea

I was back at the Capitolio early next morning, then hemmed into another public bus heading over the bridge to Habana del Este.

IMG_2229

I was very obviously the only gringo in Cojímar that morning and felt conspicuous. I walked briskly down the main drag and into the backstreets, along broken pavements, past scabrous houses and rubbish-strewn patches of grass. The houses were shuttered. The occasional dog barked. A Soviet-era motorbike ring-ting-tinged down the street and was gone.

There was a desolate feel to the waterfront. A crumbling Spanish fort, a mouldering jetty and a monument to Hemingway: a bust on a plinth in a structure which looked like a bandstand but was made of concrete. The plaque beside it translates something like:

“From the population of Cojímar in grateful memory of the immortal author of The Old Man and the Sea, inaugurated on 21 July 1962, which would have been his 63rd birthday.”

The outsized sign of La Terraza del Cojímar does not entirely ruin the lines of the colonial facade. Inside there is a wood-panelled bar, hardback chairs and chequerboard tiles on the floor. About the only change since Hemingway’s day is the photographs on the wall of him, of Gregorio Fuentes and Pilar.

The bar is mentioned a few times in the Old Man and the Sea, anglicised as the Terrace. And in Islands in the Stream, the barely fictionalised Hemingway recalls acquiring a favourite cat:

“He remembered him the first time he had seen him when he was a kitten playing with his reflection on the glass top of the cigar counter of the bar at Cojimar that was built out on the rocks overlooking the harbour….

He looked out across the open terrace of the bar at the sea, dark blue and with whitecaps, with the fishing boats crisscrossing it sailing and trolling for dolphin. There were half a dozen fishermen at the bar and two tables of them sitting on the terrace.”

The patrons, now, are more likely to be visitors on a Hemingway tour, bussed in after visiting Finca Vigio in the morning and stopping for cocktails at bars where Hemingway might or might not once have drunk.

© Richard Senior 2020**

*A contraction of Casa de Cambio

**Excluding Wikimedia commons images

Pilar image:

By Gorupdebesanez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30941344

La Terraza image:

By Cryptus84 – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2460429

Cramming in Kyoto

DSC_0285

Rain slashed across the windows of the Shinkansen as it slid into Kyoto station. The seconds ticked past on the platform clock, 57, 58, 59, as it slowed and stopped and the minutes changed and the doors hissed open at the precise moment they were supposed to.

I got a bus to the ryokan, checked in and dropped off my bags. It was no weather for sightseeing, but I only had three days to spare in Kyoto if I were to fit in the rest of the things I had planned before I took the ferry to Korea. I scooped up my umbrella, or at least one of several 7-11 umbrellas in the holder, crossed over the road and soggily trudged round the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. I realised soon enough that I was just going through the motions.

DSC_0268

Nishiki Market was further up the street and had the considerable attraction of a roof. It is a long, narrow road which extends for five blocks and has about a hundred stores and stalls. There are bustling crowds and shouting vendors, banners and lanterns and signs.

Smoke issues from the yakitori stand, broth bubbles at the ramen stall and wagyu beef sizzles on the grill. Baby octopus is stuffed with quail’s eggs, skewered and candied. Tuna is cubed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and threaded on a stick like a lolly. Barrels are filled with pickled vegetables. Bottles of sake are arranged in ranks on tables.

IMG_2215

The sun had returned in the morning, the sky was blue, and I was out early on the bus to Arashiyama in the mountains at the edge of the city. The big draw there is the bamboo forest, whose stalks soar thirty feet in the air either side of the path, arch in on themselves and ration the sunlight. The bamboo crackles as it sways in the breeze, a sound like the first drops of heavy rain. Sunlight dazzles through gaps in the canopy.

Though it has big sights in abundance, Kyoto for me was not so much about them as the overall ambience. I idled along rural lanes, nosed into temples and could easily have made a day of it, hiking into the mountains, seeing the monkeys in the park, taking a boat out onto the river. But I was pushed for time and took the bus back into town and another to Southern Hagashiyama.

DSC_0040

I wandered up Chawan-zaka, or Teapot Lane, where some of the shops sell the kyō-ware pottery for which the city is known and from which the street took its name. At the end of it, the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex stretches up and straddles the hill. It is everything you imagine of a Japanese temple with Niōmon gates, halls, shrines, statues, bells, incense, a pagoda, and a view across the trees and the city to the mountains.

I headed down from the temple with half of Japan (the other half was walking uphill) into the picturesque streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, which are lined with old wooden shophouses. It is a tourist trap, ultimately, with its teahouses and gift shops but not spoiled by that. Even gift shops are fascinating in Japan. There are curiosities, too, like a shop which only sold maneki-neko cats and had them in every size, colour and material.

DSC_0068

The cherry blossom season was almost over. Petals were scattered like confetti after a wedding. They clogged streams; the wind made a blizzard of them and they piled up against the trunks of the trees. I found them in my hair and stuck to my clothes. But the gift shops were still selling cherry-blossom-themed parasols and fans. I had a cherry blossom ice cream in lieu of the lunch I skipped.

More narrow streets lined with wooden houses, more temples and gardens and the Maruymama-kōen park. Then, after a solid nine hours of charging about, back to the ryokan for green tea and a soak in the onsen bath in the basement.

DSC_0045

I started out next morning in the Gion geisha district when the sun was rising and the streets were all but deserted. Wooden merchants’ houses from the seventeenth century line the streets. Paper lanterns hang beside each door.  The neighbourhood slowly woke up. Tourists appeared, first in twos and threes then as a crowd. A black-suited salaryman hurried through on his way to work. Occasional geishas glided by on theirs.

I walked from Gion to Northern Higashiyama and along the Path of Philosophy which traces a canal at the foot of the mountains.  There are fine temples and gardens at either end and several along the way. Promenade gardens use the borrowed scenery technique which makes the surrounding countryside appear part of them. Koi carp swim under stone bridges in pond gardens. Zen gardens have raked gravel to represent the ocean and rocks to imitate mountains.

DSC_0279

There are craft shops and galleries and food carts, and signs with English words in no order which makes any sense. “Manner up” one demanded. “Please refrain from the entrance of the general one,” requested another. Though I say that while being unable to write a single character of Japanese.

In the evening, in search of dinner, I walked up Ponto-chō alley, and so did the crowds. It is just across the river from Gion and has the same wooden machiya houses. Many of them have been turned into izakayas* and red or white lanterns illuminate their facades.

DSC_0385

There was a British-themed bar called ‘the Sent James club,’ which I worked out after a moment was a mishearing of St James, as in the green space in London between the Mall and Birdcage Walk: Sent James a Spark. Elsewhere, there was British pub called the Pig & Whistle, which sold Belgian, Irish and Japanese beers, just like a real one might.

It was raining again when I left Kyoto but thankfully it did not follow me to Hiroshima.

© Richard Senior 2020

* Informal bar/restaurant

The Bo-Kaap: a Sense of Malays

DSC_0707

It was a century after the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a way-station for its ships.

Jan de Waal, sexton at the Groote Kerk, got into property development. He assembled a site at the foot of Signal Hill and built cheap huurhuisjes (literally, ‘hire houses’) on it. Back then, in the 1760s, they called the neighbourhood Waalendorp. It has had several names since then, but the Bo-Kaap* is the one which stuck.

The VOC** imported slaves to Cape Town from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malacca (Malaysia), as well as India, Madagascar and East Africa. It sent imams there in exile for preaching against colonial rule. They were followed, later, by Muslim artisans from India and elsewhere. The community came to be known, regardless of origin, as Cape Malays.  They settled in the Bo-Kaap.

DSC_0718

They alone were permitted to live there under Apartheid. Other groups were forcibly  removed. Anyone is free to move there now, but that has brought controversies of its own. Activists protest about gentrification, of the traditional community being priced out, of the neighbourhood losing its character.

But, to the outsider at least, the Bo-Kaap seems barely to have changed in going on two hundred years. There might be streetlights and telephone wires, parked cars and satellite dishes. The major roads might be metalled. But its heritage is surprisingly intact.

The newest of the houses date back to the 1840s and are in a recognisably English style, flat-fronted, flat-roofed, with wooden sash windows. The oldest are built to a Dutch pattern. There are still some of Jan de Waal’s original huurhuisjes. Houses are interspersed with mosques and madrassas. Minarets sprout between the flat roofs.

DSC_0724

All are painted in bold colours, bright yellow, pastel pink, lime green, powder blue, lilac and ochre. Some accounts claim this as a celebration of freedom by emancipated slaves after 1834. Others suggest it is more recent: a cheerful riposte to Apartheid. Neither, though, would explain why houses of about the same period are painted in much the same way in Kentish Town, North London.

Occasional words of old Malay are still heard on the streets. The few businesses are small independents. There is Fatima Mini Market, Star Supply Store and the Rose Corner Café with “warm worsies sold here,”and “koeksisters available”. These are luminous pink local sausages and spiced doughnuts coated in desiccated coconut.

In 1946, two years before Apartheid, the Ahmed family set up in business as spice importers. They established the Atlas Trading Company which is still operating today. The shop, according to the old letters under the roofline, and above the rusting goods hoist, used to be Müller’s Reserve Store.

DSC_0745

Atlas were a few doors further down Wale Street when I was there in 2014. The freehand signwriting on the shutters and bricks declared their business. (They have a corporate logo now.) But you would have known if you had passed with your eyes shut what line they were in.

Inside there was a wooden unit with glass-fronted drawers. Behind it were shelves piled with spices in bags and boxes and packets. There were wooden hoppers with metal scoops laid across the lids. Nothing much seemed to have changed since 1946.

But at end of that block, on the corner with Rose Street, the Bo-Kaap segues into the world of tech stores, car showrooms and chain hotels as abruptly as if you had stepped off a film set.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Above the Cape in Afrikaans

**Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, i.e. the Dutch East India Company

At a Glacial Pace

DSC_0207

Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

DSC_0209

Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

DSC_0172

Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

15027709_1834854110091647_2786598726016745399_n

In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

imageonline-co-straightend-image.png

Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

First Night in Havana

DSC_0724

The Godfather Part II captured the dying days of Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba. Meyer Lansky, thinly-fictionalised as Hyman Roth, and his Mafia associates had a vision of casino hotels right along the Malecón, the esplanade which curves around the waterfront from Old Havana to what was then the smart suburb of Vedado.

Batista – who really did have a solid gold telephone like the one we see Michael Corleone testing for weight and handing round the table – offered a gaming licence and like-for-like subsidies to anyone who invested more than $1m in a casino hotel. But, in the end, only a few were built before his government fell and the incoming Communists seized all Yanqui property. Lansky’s Habana Riveria was the biggest and grandest when it opened. It proved a catastrophic investment.

I stayed in the more modest Hotel Deauville, built in 1957 for the Florida boss, Santo Trafficante Jr. It was a nominal three-star by then, painted a jaunty blue. The casino, plundered by Castro’s rebels, was long gone and the hotel seemed to be slowly decaying. It would be entertaining on a morning to see what had failed overnight. On the second day, a button fell off the control panel inside the lift. On the third day, the whole panel was hanging by its wires. On the fourth, an out of service sign hung on the door.

DSC_0720

I was not expecting much when I went out to dinner. Even travellers who are usually delighted with a hunk of overcooked meat and a wilting salad were rude about Cuban food. I heard the story again and again of waiters presenting an expansive menu, but saying – no tengo (I don’t have it) to everything but chicken and rice.

Shortages are a fact of life in a command economy and memories are yet to fade of the so-called Special Period, when Soviet subsidies abruptly ended and Cubanos were forced to eat their pets and animals from the zoo.

But things are slowly, quietly changing. Private enterprise has been allowed, in a small way, for some years now. The restaurants were obvious beneficiaries. I happened upon Castas y Tal on the first night and went back more than once. It was a few steps from my hotel but would have been worth a walk.

 

The room was informal with contemporary lighting and the menu fashionably hand-written on the walls. It served nicely-presented reinventions of Cuban classics. The concept would have worked well enough in London or New York. Or at least it would if they had stopped putting red wine in the fridge.

The shutters were flung open in Castas y Tal and a breeze cut through the Caribbean heat of the evening. A boisterous crowd strolled up the road to the Malecón. At least one in each group had a bottle of rum by the scruff of the neck. Even at tourist prices, Havana Club costs about the same as the cheapest bottle of wine in a British supermarket. The lesser brands cost little more than bottled water.

– ¿Tienes ron? (do you have rum?) I asked at a street kiosk one night, fully expecting no tengo.

– Si, the vendor said and produced a Tetra Pak container, or a Communist equivalent.

– ¿Es ron? I asked doubtfully.

– Si, she confirmed, and it was and it was fine.

It was mesmerising to watch old American cars growl and grumble down Avenida de Italia in the twilight, drivetrains whining, exhausts belching smoke, and to reflect that they were not just the same type but the very same cars that prowled these streets when Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr were investing in casino hotels.

DSC_0728

They were of the same period but a world away from the cars used for tours run from Old Havana with their gleaming chrome and shining paintwork. These were everyday hacks, bodged up, repaired, put back on the road with half a century’s worth of whatever was available. The chrome was dull and rusting. Bodywork was dented and clumsily painted. Headlights were optional. A diesel unit from a Japanese pick-up might have been bullied into the engine bay, or a commercial body grafted onto what started out as a car.

The crowd stayed on the Malecón into the morning. Their volume increased as they passed round the bottle. I had left the door to the balcony open in lieu of air-conditioning and the shouting and singing funnelled inside. Eventually it blended with the rhythmic crash of the waves on the sea wall and the shush of the cars on the road and just became background noise.

A merry group with a Spanish guitar and a few shots left in the bottom of the bottle was still at it at seven in the morning when I went downstairs for coffee. The guitar player knelt to serenade a girl on her way to work but she ignored him and they shuffled off home.

I asked at reception for a scratchcard for the internet. – No tengo, they said.

© Richard Senior 2019

An Afternoon in Meknès

C3613CEA-D332-4034-9DD1-30031254D2AF

Lunchtime was over in the Place el-Hedim. There was one man left at the clusters of tables outside the cafes, smoking and sipping mint tea. A black-and-white cat, with no food to beg now, bent in a yoga stretch under a chair and scrubbed at its fur with its tongue. Families promenaded, hand-in-hand, line-abreast. Redoubtable ladies in pink djellabas and hijabs sceptically fingered tagines at the traders’ stalls.

In the souks beyond the square, Berber rugs hung from the walls. Babouche slippers and hand-painted plates were arranged in colour-coordinated rows. There were piles of olives and mounds of spices, and dates and figs buzzed by wasps.

DSC_0358

Meknès is the lesser known of Morocco’s royal cities, by which I mean I had never heard of it until I planned this trip. You could spend all day in the Medina without seeing a traveller from anywhere in the OECD, and you are hardly ever hassled. There is no need for the benign protection racket of the official guides of cities like Fèz, who are not so much there to show you round as to stop you from being constantly, constantly bothered by the men who block your way, get in your face and angrily demand to sell you some unwanted assistance.

The old cigarette seller sat on a ledge with his friend in a clean, white kufi cap and an ill-fitting jacket over a sweatshirt in the heat of the mid-afternoon. The cigarettes were an American brand with a health warning in French and the pack of 200 was unopened. People strolled by in woollen djellabas with the hoods up, and sweatshirts with the hoods down, and white thobes and prayer caps, and denim jackets and baseball caps, and none of them bought cigarettes. Scooters snarled past. Grands taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers across the road near the iconic gateway.

Bab el-Mansour boasts in its Arabic inscription, “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”. All of that might be true, but the gate leads to nothing but an art exhibition. There is a door nearby into the old city.

Moullay Ismail made Meknès his capital on becoming sultan in 1672. He was a son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty which runs right through to the present-day king and his rule overlapped with Louis XIV of France and William and Mary in England.

Horse-drawn calèches stand ready to clop you round the walled city and in and out of keyhole gateways, stopping at the roofless remains of Ismail’s cavernous stables which once housed 12,000 horses but are home now to a few retiring tabbies, and the mausoleum of the sultan himself which is an opulence of zellij tiles, archways, pillars, fountains, carved stucco and worked metal.

In the late afternoon in the ville nouvelle built by the French, where the buildings are blocky and functional and the pavements are broken and the shops sell stationery and sportswear, fruit sellers congregated on the corner of the street and bantered with customers. There was a man with a pushcart filled with leafy oranges, two more with bananas in boxes which warned in Spanish that they needed to be handled with care and a father and son team selling grapes.

DSC_0546

An imam, spotless in head-to-toe white, stood out from a crowd in tracksuit bottoms and scuffed leather jackets. A man with dreadlocks and the backs of his shoes turned down shuffled to the bottom of Rue d’ Accra and back every half hour or so. There was some unpleasantness on Rue Antsirabe between cackling teenagers and a loudly protesting old man. They had stolen something he had leant outside a shop and run down the street with it. But a woman burst out of another shop and made them take it back.

The scene faded to darkness. The crowds thinned. The fruit sellers packed up and melted away. The shutters came down on the shops. The call to prayer floated across the roofs from the Mosque.

I had only planned to stay in Meknès as a base for Volubis and Moullay Idriss, a stopping off point between Fèz and Rabat as I travelled down the country, but it had been well worth a visit in its own right.

© Richard Senior 2019

Bab el-Mansour image: Chris Martin from Decatur, Georgia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]