Riding with the Gauchos

The gauchos were hard, taciturn men. Their English was limited. My Spanish was worse. “Signor,” one growled and handed me the reigns of a horse he had led from of the paddock.

I grew up around horses and rode them for a term at university. Yet I have never been remotely confident with them. They always seem to be in charge.

There had been helmets whenever I had ridden them before. In Patagonia, a beret is thought protection enough. My beanie hat would have to do. We had mounting blocks back then, as well. Here in Argentina, you either swung up in one fluid movement as the gauchos did, or you floundered about like an upside down beetle until you were shoved into the saddle, like me.

We clip-clopped out of the estancia*, escorted by a fleet of dogs. The hooves kicked up the dust.

– acortar, said one of the gauchos riding alongside and holding up his reigns.

¿Que?

-acortar

-Perdón, no entiendo

“Espeak Inglis?”

-Si”

“Shorten” he said and gestured on his own reigns.

But however much I shortened the reigns, it never seemed short enough. “Shorten,” the gaucho called out repeatedly. It did not matter much, though, because the horse took no notice of me, anyway. It knew the way and followed the others. It carried on walking when I asked it to trot but, later, broke into a trot on its own initiative.

The only other guests were a couple from Venezuela, but they were more competent with horses, and spoke proper Spanish, and had signed up for a longer ride. They cantered off towards Lago Argentino with some of the gauchos.

The rest of us passed along dusty tracks into the hills. The landscape was starkly beautiful with stubbly grass and clumps of bush interspersed with rocks. The sun-bleached greens and windswept greys contrasted with the emerald green of Lago Argentino and the snow-dusted mountains beyond it and the deep blue of the sky swirling with clouds which threatened but never brought rain.

On the way back, within sight of the estancia, the horse decided that it had done enough for the day and declined to go any further. It knew full well that I had no authority to make it.  

“Come on!” I said in frustration, as if to a car which refused to start, and with just as much effect. Then ¡vamos! as if it might be a language problem. In the end, one of the gauchos had to ride back and coax the horse in. It listened to him.

Back at the estancia, I was handed a gourd of maté and a silver straw.

Yerba-maté is a plant of the holly family native to the Southern Cone countries. Its leaves have been dried, infused in hot water and drunk since pre-Colombian times. The maté gourd is as ubiquitous in modern Argentina as Styrofoam coffee cups in London at rush hour. They are cradled by passengers on buses, drivers of cars, people riding pillion on motorbikes and passed between friends in the park.

It is said to be an acquired taste, which means that it is foul to the uninitiated. I drank some out of politeness, passed back the gourd and said muchas gracias and adiós.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Ranch

Gangneung at a Gallop

The route from the station to the guest house looked straightforward enough. Cross the roundabout, down the main road. Last side-street on the left before the bridge, then take the first right.

The 202 and 303 buses ran between the Intercity Bus Terminal and the railway station. Just make sure to check that the destination board read 시내 (downtown) and not 경포 (Gyeongpo).

A 202 appeared at the top of the hill and pulled into the stop, then a 303, then a few more of each. None was heading 시내. The passengers from the Intercity bus from Gyeongju thinned out until I was the only one left. Other Intercity buses came in and disgorged their passengers and they, in turn, bundled into buses and taxis, got picked up by friends or set off on foot down the road.

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The train station would have been a perfectly sensible point of reference had it not been torn down to make way for a new line since my guidebook had been published. I would find that out later, though.

The tourist information centre gave me a route map and circled the stop nearest the guest house. It was on a street without obvious landmarks but I got there by counting off the stops on the map.

I should have taken another bus to Ojukheon House after I had dropped off my stuff but set off walking instead and was committed by the time I realised how far it was. It was a boring route with nothing to see except concrete and road signs and petrol stations.

Ojukheon

Ojukheon was the home of the sixteenth century artist, Shin Saimdang, and her son, the Confucian scholar, Yi I. Neither is exactly a household name in the West but they are celebrated enough locally to appear, respectively, on the 50,000 and 5,000 Won notes.

The walls are surrounded by coiffured bushes and bursts of azaleas in purple, pink and red. Two flights of steps lead through a gateway into the complex of wood-framed houses topped with swooping tiled roofs.

Further up the road, and further than I thought, is Seongyojang House which is an eighteenth century complex of hanok* houses set into woodland studded with pine trees and overlooking a lotus pond.

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After trooping round the houses and up through the trails in the woodland and looking back down on the complex, I did not much relish the long walk back to the guest house, so carried on up the road to the beach. It was, yet again, a much longer walk than expected but I eventually came to a stop for the 202 bus.

First thing next morning, I walked to the building site where the station used to be and took a rail replacement bus to Gangdong-Myeong, where the military stands ready for when the shooting starts again.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Korean War ended half a century ago: a little-read chapter of a Cold War which itself is fading in the popular memory. But there was only ever a ceasefire agreement, never a peace treaty. The international forces fighting on either side went home, but the hostility between the two Koreas remained as hostilities went into uneasy stasis.

Jeongdongjin Beach (via Shutterstock)

The road to the beach is an agglomeration of tank traps, razor wire, sentry posts and heavily-armed patrols. At the optimistically-named Unification Park, there is an old US warship and a North Korean spy submarine which snarled up on rocks nearby in the Nineties and triggered an urgent manhunt. One of the crew remains unaccounted for.  

But the bellicose air evaporates at Jeongdongjin Beach at the bottom of the hill. Turquoise waves froth onto a pleasant stretch of sand. There are seafood stalls, a scenic train and a whimsical hotel in the shape of a cruise ship at the top of a hill.

Back in central Gangneung in the afternoon, I walked the five-mile trail around Gyeongpo Lake which meanders through grasslands, between pine trees, along boardwalks, past flowerbeds sculptures and statuettes, and from there up to the beach where I lazed until the light started to fade.

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I stopped to eat at one of the seafood restaurants which line the road along the beach and then took the bus back to the guest house.

Maybe it is was the Kloud beer which I washed the fish down with, but the journey seemed oddly exhilarating as the driver flung the bus round the corners and a warm breeze wafted the through the windows and the neon of the night shimmered from the facades of the buildings. 

I had allowed two weeks to make my way up South Korea from Busan to Seoul but that was tight and I was pushed for time at each stop on the way. I had to press on the next morning to Sockho.

© Richard Senior 2020

* traditional wooden houses

Mosaics and Mausoleums in Morocco

It was early in the morning and we headed north to the mountains against the traffic.  

Grands taxis careered in the other direction, towards Meknés, so crammed with passengers that they bottomed out over bumps. A man led a donkey along the side of the road. Others walked alone, dressed for work, miles from the nearest settlement.

We swung round a corner and passed a flattened jeep with its wheels in the air and shattered glass all around it. “Oo-la-la,” said the driver, but kept up the speed.

At the height of the Roman Empire, its southern border ran right across the top of North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. The province of Mauretania Tingitana in what is now Morocco stretched from Tingis (Tangier) in the north to Volubilis in the south, 20 miles or so from Meknés. It was here that Juba II, a Romanized Berber installed on the throne by Caeser Augustus, commissioned the building of a royal city in 25 BCE.   

It was already hot in the early morning. The sun dazzled and the sky was deep blue and cloud-free. I had the site to myself at that hour and wandered along the dusty lanes, poked about the ruins and scrambled over rocks and looked across the valley to the mountains.

Volubilis had been abandoned by the fourteenth century. It was ravaged by an earthquake, plundered for stone for building and all but forgotten until the French Colonial period. Excavations began before the First World War and continued after independence. About half of the 40 acre site has been dug out.

Intact mosaic floors have been unearthed in the ruins of villas, the remains of the underfloor heating exposed. A triumphal arch and part of the basilica have been pieced back together. Storks nest at the top of the reassembled columns. There are steps and plinths with Latin inscriptions and what is left of the public baths.  

Image: Shutterstock

Nestled in the mountains over the valley a few miles to the west is the town of Moulay Idriss. It is named for the founder of Morocco’s first dynasty and contains his mausoleum. It is a place of pilgrimage for Moroccans.

I declined the services of the guides who approached and tried to make my own way through the warren of lanes which thread up to the terraces at the top of the town. But I was surrounded and hassled and, in the end, it was easier to go with a guide: not so much so he could show me round but to keep the rest of the people out of my face.

We threaded between the claustrophobic walls, up flights of steps, round dogleg corners, past scabrous doors and flaking paint and sagging telephone wires and emerged on a terrace which looked down across the green roofs of the mausoleum and the scrum of houses which surround it and extend to the edge and tumble down the side of the hill.

I paid the guide his best and final price and he talked the driver into giving him baksheesh, as well. Then it was back to Meknés and a train the next morning to Rabat.

© Richard Senior 2020

Chasing the Sun Through Namibia

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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