Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

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The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

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Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

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My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

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A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

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Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

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Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

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Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

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What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

A Railay Nice Place

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I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

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walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes

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Brisbane was deserted. The bus pulled into an empty terminal. There was no one on the information desk, no one at the ticket counter, no one in the cafés and bars.

All through the city, the lights were off, the shutters were down, the plazas were empty of people. Even the bottle shops, the pubs, the adult shops and the “gentlemen’s club” were closed; the “topless hairdressers” must have had the day off.

My hostel had its usual Friday night barbecue on the roof, but it was soft drinks only because it is illegal to buy beer on Good Friday in Queensland, except in a restaurant with food.

It is a much bigger deal than it is in the UK, where office workers get a day off and the banks and public buildings are closed but the shops stay open, the town centres bustle, the roads are gridlocked and there would likely be a popular uprising if they tried to make it illegal to buy beer.

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Brisbane will never be as cool as Melbourne, nor as glamorous as Sydney; but it is worth a couple of days. There are heritage buildings like the Italianesque City Hall and Treasury Building slotted between modern blocks, and botanic gardens, and public art, sited seemingly at random: a stainless steel alien standing at crossroads as if he were waiting for the lights to change before he set about colonising the earth; and a herd of kangaroo made from machine parts on and around a bench.

I divided a couple of hours between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, then sat outside with a Wagyu burger and espresso, watching a big monitor lizard muscle towards a man eating his lunch on a bench beside the river.

He tried to shoo it off with his foot but it ignored him, and he moved his legs to the other side of the bench and got ready to run. The lizard stayed where it was and kept looking at him and he realised, then, that it wanted a bit of his sandwich, so they shared it and both left happy enough.

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The Queensland Museum has some dinosaur bones, a lot of stuffed birds, a big fat dead snake and dead cockroaches the size of matchboxes. But I only really went in to see Bert Hinkler’s Avian.

I knew about Hinkler already: an Australian who settled in England and became a test pilot with AV Roe & Co after the First World War. He was the first to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1928 in an Avro Avian, a little, single-engine, open-cockpit biplane made out of wood and fabric.

The biplane hangs from the roof, now, at the Queensland Museum and looks even smaller and flimsier than it does in photographs. I have flown short distances, as a passenger or with an instructor, in the similar but more advanced de Havilland Tiger Moth and it is a raw experience after even the most basic of modern aircraft. You are buffeted by the wind; it stings your face. Though you are wrapped in a fur-lined flying jacket and scarf, the cold still finds a way in – and it will be a great deal worse at the sort of altitude you would fly when crossing continents. There is the constant roar of the engine and the whistling of the wind in the wires and it would – I am sure – send me crazy after the first two hundred miles.

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It is hard to conceive of flying the older, more basic Avian across the Channel to France, let alone the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin across Europe and Asia and the lonely expanse of the Timor Sea, at a cruising speed of less than 80 knots, averaging the equivalent of London to Prague every day for fifteen consecutive days.

But once Hinkler had done it, a procession of adventurers followed him, CWA Scott, Jim Mollison, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson; they shaved days off his time, until, by the late 1930’s, several had reached Australia in around five days.

I knew all this, yet still imagined it a great ordeal when I sat, two months later, in the economy cabin of a QANTAS jet on a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA.

© Richard Senior 2016

Historic image: By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Flying Visit to the Grand Canyon

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It was only 275 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Back home, that would be the sort of journey you plan for months and talk about for years, but travelling, back to back, through Australia, New Zealand and the US had changed my ideas about distance irrevocably.

I was going to go by bus. I had done similar bus journeys often enough over the past few months: Port Macquarie to Byron Bay (249 miles), Airlie Beach to Cairns (385), Nelson to Christchurch (257), Franz Josef to Queenstown (219), and most recently LA to Vegas (270). But then the agent told me that the bus came at five in the morning, and that meant getting up at four, and four is a time to come in, not go out.

There was another way, though. If I gave up on the idea of a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon and went to the South Rim instead of the West, I could go on an executive plane for the same sort of money, and get up at a sensible time.

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I would never get to fly in an executive aircraft in the ordinary course of things, so it was worth doing just for that. It was essentially a miniature airliner but with the trim level of a Mercedes, and the whole experience hinted at what regular flying might be if airlines gave two shits about passenger comfort and the cabin crew were not on such power trips.

At ground level, only the intense dry heat reminds you that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert, but from the air you see that there is little for a hundred miles all around it but mountains and dust.

We flew east over the Hoover Dam, proud symbol of a lost Keynesian world, across the Arizona state line and on over the West Rim and the glass-bottomed Skywalk and followed the canyon round to the airport at the South Rim, where the captain pulled off a perfect landing, shaving off height as we floated down the runway, easing the nose up, and finally settling it gently on the wheels.

So did I do okay then?” he asked brightly, but did not get the applause he deserved because most passengers expect every landing to be like that and complain if it is not, even in a 20-knot crosswind.

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Of course the Grand Canyon is massive; we all know that. The sort of people who fill their heads with facts and reel them off at half a chance will tell you that it is 277 miles long, a mile deep, four miles wide at its narrowest point, and eighteen at the widest.

But figures like that never mean very much until you see the thing for yourself. The vastness of it astonished me. I gazed across at the opposite rim, as you might look towards the outer suburbs from the tallest building downtown, and deep down at the floor where the Colorado River, which carved this great gash into the earth, looked a pathetic trickle.

My eyes recalibrated for the scale, and when I looked round, the people on a nearby ledge seemed for a moment the size of toy soldiers until I refocused again.

The colours in the rock constantly change as the sun makes its way across the sky, from red to orange, from violet to pink; from cream to beige to gold, from grey to blue to green. I could have stayed and looked all afternoon at the contours and folds, the stripes and shadows, the ever-changing palette.

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There were warning signs everywhere exhorting people not to try hiking to the floor of the canyon and back in a day but a cheerful group of guys appeared at the rim having done just that and I would almost certainly have had a go myself if I had been there long enough. It looked eminently doable to me.

As it was, though, I only had an hour left to walk the first bit of the trail, down and round, down and round and then turn back, get back on the bus and back on the plane to Vegas.

© Richard Senior 2016

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

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For generations, Sydneysiders tumbled out of the pub, looked up at the Harbour Bridge and felt compelled to climb it, in the way that others are compelled to make a hat of a traffic cone. They used to be able to scale the gate, negotiate the spikes at the top, then go up the steps to the arch.

The legendary climber, Bryden Allen, did it the hard way. He squeezed into one of hangers from which the deck is suspended, climbed 200 feet up the inside (“rather like caving…great fun”), roping onto struts, until he got to the lower chord of the arch, where – in his estimation – the “real climbing” began. He had to stretch backwards to reach the lower lip, grip on rivet heads, let his feet fly out into space and force himself up onto the ledge with his arms, and once there, repeat the move on the upper lip six feet above him. “From there the climb [was] easy,” he reckoned.

A decade later, the French high-wire artist, Philip Petit, climbed the bridge one night, strung wires between the pylons and walked across them in the early morning in full view of the rush-hour traffic. The police were good-humoured about it, even when Petit continued performing by relieving one of his watch and tie; but they arrested him anyway and the court fined him $200.

By 2011, when the former soldier, Michael Fox, climbed the bridge to protest the custody laws, the fine had gone up to $3,000 and there was talk of three months in jail, but the judge might have seen the irony of a custodial sentence and left it at a fine.

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The bridge is now watched by CCTV and patrolled by security guards and, in this jittery age, it is too easy to imagine a drunken prank being misread as a terrorist incident and some poor student being shot down from the arch by snipers.

But anyone with $228 (£140, US$170) to spare can now climb the bridge quite legally. Prince Harry’s done it, Oprah’s done it, and Usain Bolt, Katy Perry and Matt Damon. So have I.

The breathalyser seemed an unnecessary precaution at half-past ten in the morning, but the whole thing is organised like a commando assault.

Once the Climb Leader was satisfied that nobody was drunk, she handed us each a pair of overalls in BridgeClimb’s corporate colours and sternly warned us not to take anything out onto the bridge: not a camera, not a phone, not even a handkerchief. It seemed, again, a bit over the top, but then I suppose a dropped handkerchief could do plenty of harm if it draped itself over a motorcyclist’s visor.

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We were allowed sunglasses, provided they were secured with a cord round the neck like your Grandma’s reading glasses; and there was an optional clip-on BridgeClimb cap for anyone who wanted to look more of a dick than they already did in the overalls.

Then, once we had gone through a metal detector to check that we had done as we were told, there was a training session to make sure we were familiar with steps and ladders – just in case we had reached adult life without using them. We were kitted out with harnesses and one-way radios and, as often in Australia, more or less forced to apply sun cream.

We went out in single file behind the Climb Leader, clipped into the lifeline and followed her up a series of service ladders, as the cars and the bikes and the trucks thundered past, through manholes, under stanchions, watching elbows and heads, until we came out on the top of the arch. Helicopters constantly buzzed the bridge, as if this really were the military exercise it felt like.

It was thrilling, in its way, but it is not really an adrenalin activity. There is no sense of danger. A clumsy person could probably twist an angle or even break a leg, but a clumsy person could break a leg walking to the shops. It is hard to see how someone could fall off the bridge by accident.

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It is worth remembering that none of the 1,400 men who worked on the bridge between 1924 and 1932 used any protection at all, and only two of them fell off. They only had rivet heads as footholds, too: now there are steps welded into the arch. It is, in truth, more of a walk than a climb.

Nonetheless, it is quite something to see the business end of the bridge close up. You get a much better sense of its scale than you ever can from ground level. The Climb Leader told us that it was 440 feet above the harbour at its highest point, although to be annoyingly pedantic it is actually 440 feet above mean sea level. She also said that it was the longest single-arch bridge in the world, and apart from five others, it is.

The view silenced everyone: right across the harbour, over the Opera House, the Botanic Gardens, the Rocks, Circular Quay and the financial district beyond it, out east over Bondi Beach, north over Luna Park and Manly, and west towards the Blue Mountains. It is worth your $228.

We crossed over to the western side of the arch and walked back towards the south pylon, down the ladders and inside. I had lost all sense of time while I was out on the bridge. It felt like half an hour, perhaps an hour, had gone by but in fact it was three and a half.

© Richard Senior 2016

Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang

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The gong sounds at 5am and the monks rise and gather in the prayer hall and chant. As the sun comes up, they leave the temple and walk, barefoot, with alms bowls hanging from shoulder straps towards Sisavangvong Road.

Each of the city’s thirty-three temples disgorges its monks and novices and they converge on the main street and join the long line –a few hundred strong – of bright orange robes, shaved heads and alms bowls.

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The locals, and often Western travellers, kneel along the side of the road to await the procession, shoes slipped off respectfully. As each monk passes, he slides the lid from his alms bowl, wordlessly and without expression. A woman, making sure to keep her head below the monk’s as tradition demands, tosses in a ball of sticky rice and he slides the lid back on. The city is silent except for the padding of bare feet on the pavement and the scraping of the lids on the bowls.

Luang Prabang, with its fairytale name, is embraced by the mountains of northern Laos, and scored across by the broad Mekong River and the sinuous Nam Khan. It is the fourth largest city in Laos but that translates to the scale of a small town in Europe with half a dozen major streets and a population below 50,000.

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It is compact enough to see in a day, but absorbing enough to be worth staying for several. It is calmer even than Vientiane, but not so soporific. The main roads are lined with colonial buildings with porticos, balconies and shutters; the side streets with traditional wooden houses. Bougainvillea bushes explode over walls, palm trees stoop towards roofs.

The monks glide in and out of view. The smell of incense wafts from the temples. The gongs sound, the monks chant. There is a gentle thudding of drums, a clash of cymbals, a howling of lutes and plinky-plunk of xylophones.

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The swooping roofs of the temples are stacked three-deep and topped by horn-like finials formed into the shape of nagas*; the facades are gilded and intricately carved, and there are glass mosaics telling epic stories of birth and death, work and play, town and jungle, hunters and fishermen, elephants and tigers.

Luang Prabang is an established stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and increasingly on the mainstream tourist trail, as well. But the Western interlopers have not taken over in the way that they have in Vang Vieng.

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There are agents all along on the main street, offering mahout training, bike tours and transport across the border to Thailand. But just a few steps away, there are buffalo sausages drying on racks, chickens scratching in the trash and street markets which make no concessions to tourists with raw fish laid out, right next to vegetables, on sheets on the road, smaller fish twitching in bowls of water and blood running down the street from the meat stall where every bit of the pig but the squeak is piled up for sale.

It is noticeable, though, that quite a few businesses are run by falang** as if they arrived, years ago, with a backpack and the idea of staying two or three nights but could never quite bring themselves to leave. It is that sort of place.

© Richard Senior 2016

*River serpent

**Loosely “Westerner(s)”. Cf. Thai farang and Khmer barang.

En El Hospital

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In Argentina I was bitten by mosquitoes. Then I was bitten by bed bugs. I had lost count of the bites by the time I got the ferry to Uruguay – and, there, I was bitten by sandflies, or something as small and pugnacious. Dozens of them died in the DEET on my legs; dozens more got through and bit me. Horrible things.

One bite smarted as if I had been stung by a wasp. I ignored it until late in the evening when it blew up like a balloon and turned yellow.  I slapped a big plaster on it until morning, then went to the pharmacist for antihistamines and more plasters. I showed her the bite.

“¿Do you have médico?” she asked

“Medico?” I guessed she was talking about some kind of insurance scheme until I dredged up a memory from my desultory attempts to learn Spanish. “Oh! Have I seen a doctor? No, I haven’t.”

“Deberίas: you eshould. Pienso que might be espider.”

“A spider?”

“Sί, espider.”

Where do I go?”

El hospital. La próxima block.”

There were a dozen or more clinics crammed into two cross streets, each covering a separate discipline but my Spanish was too hopeless to work out which was which, and they all, in any case, had the sleek corporate look of institutions who specialise in sending big bills to insurers.

But there was a grubbier building with “Emergencias” on the sign above the door and no smart reception with blonde wood floors and expensively bland art on the walls. It was the familiar chaos of an A&E unit with coughing, sneezing, crying children, hobbling adults and ice packs clamped over painful bits.

¿Sί?” said a guy in a white coat, and I explained – in English – why I was there.

No espeak espanish,” he said with a smirk and seemed to think it was a clever line, because he sniggered and repeated it to several other people. Nobody laughed except him.

Someone else pointed to a sliding window in the far wall and I went over and spoke to the guy inside and he had no English either but called over a girl who spoke Spanglish like the pharmacist and took me through to the accounts department.

No espeak espanish,” the sniggering man called out to the girl as we passed, but she ignored him. I imagine that happens to him a lot.

You need for to pay,” they told me in accounts.

How much?” I asked, but they didn’t want to talk about figures until they had swiped my card and then, when they found out what card I had, didn’t want to talk to me at all. They sent me over the road.

No aquί,” they said across the road.

¿Hablas Inglés?” I asked, but they didn’t. Nada. No una sola palabra. Lo siento.

But where should I go, then? ¿Donde?

“Fuera de la clínica, a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias»*.”

I gathered from the gestures and the occasional word I understood that she was directing me back to the hospital from which I had come.

“Erm, I think that’s where I’ve just been and they sent me over to you?”

“Fuera de la clínica,” she repeated with a sigh, louder and a little more slowly, although it was still just a blur of sound to me,“a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias».”

Oh bollocks to it, I thought, and went out to enjoy my day.

But my mind always looped round to spider bites. What kind of spider? Why did the pharmacist think I needed to see a doctor straight away? In the end, I had to go back to the hostel and get onto Google.

It seemed clear enough: if you were bitten by the sort of spider toxic enough to leave a blister like that – and assuming it didn’t kill you outright – you either had to be rushed straight to intensive care, or there was not much a doctor could do for you, except prescribe things which you could buy over the counter, anyway.

But the blister got bigger overnight and I read some more about spider bites and found horror stories – admittedly in sources like The Daily Mail – about people who had been bitten and left the blisters to take their course and ended up with agonising ulcers, gangrene, and worse.

I was due to go back to Argentina, up to the far north and then down to Patagonia, but I would not, now, be able to do the trekking and climbing I had planned. I thought that the bite would more likely than not turn out to be nothing to worry about; but if there were any real risk of getting the symptoms I had read about, I wanted to be at home, not in a backpacker hostel, still less in a hospital where hardly anyone spoke English.

So I went back to BA and got the next plane but one to London.

© Richard Senior 2016

*I’m sure this is terrible Spanish. It’s the gist, of course, not the actual words.

Journeys through the Rain

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The rain had followed me all the way down the North Island. It didn’t rain all day, all every day, but it did rain every day, and some days it rained all day. Then I got to Wellington and it stopped, and stayed stopped as I took the ferry across to Picton and buses on to Nelson and then to Christchurch.

But it was raining again as the TranzAlpine Express pulled out of the station. I wondered whether its promise of “the trip of a lifetime” was meant to apply in all weathers, but I had not read it literally in any case.  It depends on the rest of your lifetime, I guess.

The train spent the morning threading its way through an operatic landscape from east coast to west, from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the rain spoiled none of it: not the illimitable mountains, not the great swathes of forest with splashes of yellow and brown in amongst the dark green of the pines, not the fathomless gorges, not the fast-flowing rivers way down below. I would not think to call it a trip of a lifetime, but it was a nice way to spend a morning in New Zealand.

It was drizzling in Greymouth, which suited it. The girl on the desk cheerfully admitted that hardly anyone stayed there anymore. There was a For Sale sign outside the hostel. A German couple were the only other guests. “I love NZ but not Greymouth” someone had written on the wood of a bunk in the dorm room I had to myself.

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It stayed fine, for a change, the next morning, as the InterCity bus chugged down the coast road and stopped off in the little town of Hokitika for a lunch break.

It stopped outside the National Kiwi Centre, which in the happily small-town way of New Zealand is a modest clapboard building, next door to Jeff Evans Plumbing. They had New Zealand eels, which they told me were anything from 85 to 100 years old and a tuatara, which they called ‘the oldest living dinosaur,’ as well as the kiwis, which I never managed to pick out of the simulated darkness.

The rain started to slap against the windows as the bus continued south to Franz Josef, where I had a hostel booked. It felt like a ski resort with its log cabins, chalets and homely wood smoke. The air was mountain fresh.

There was an anonymous poem from the nineteenth century framed on the wall of the hostel. It was simply called The Rain:

It rained and rained and rained.

The average fall was well maintained 

And when the tracks were simple bogs 

It started raining cats and dogs. 

 

After a drought of half an hour 

We had a most refreshing shower 

And then most curious thing of all 

A gentle rain began to fall. 

 

Next day but one was fairly dry 

Save for one deluge from the sky 

Which wetted the party to the skin 

And then at last the rain set in.  

Franz Josef Glacier was hidden behind cloud, so there was nothing much to do but go to the Glacier Hot Pools. There are three pools in the middle of a rainforest with glacial water heated to 36, 38 and 40 degrees. It is open air, but with a canopy to keep out the rain.

I only had time, in the morning, to see the glacier from the bottom of the mountain, but it was still impressive from there: a bluey-white torrent of water, eight miles long, stopped and frozen, filling a crevice in the mountain like expanding foam.

I got back on the bus, then, for the last time, for a final dash south to Queenstown. It was an eight-and-a-half-hour run, but I had got used to spending all day on a bus by then.

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Needless to say, it was raining. But if it blurred the sky into a miserable smudge, it at least made the waterfalls dramatic. The driver stopped, briefly, to let us get out and scramble through the forest to go look at one.

The road twisted inland, past Mount Cook, and wound tightly round the mountains – sharp right, sharp right, sharp right, sharp left – and the driver kept the speed up, taking a racing line in the big old bus when he could see far enough in front.

In the late afternoon, we shot over the Shotover River and pulled into a car park in Queenstown.

© Richard Senior 2016

Casablanca’s Forgotten Colonial Heritage

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Just as the muezzin began the call to prayer, a man lurched into the middle of the boulevard, swayed like a palm in the wind, then tottered diagonally at speed to the pavement and collapsed at the feet of another man sitting outside with a café noir. He pretended not to notice.

Casablanca is not Morocco,” said the novelist, Paul Bowles, in 1966, “it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco’s flank”. It is different, for sure, from the rest of Morocco, but it is as much Morocco as Marrakesh, and as interesting in its way. It is just not the Morocco the tourists expect.

There is an ancient Medina, but it is not much to look at and the tourists hurry away disappointed and urge others not to go. They miss the point, though. Casa is not about souks and snake charmers, carpet shops and donkey trains: it is about the ville nouvelle.

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The French meant the new town to be a shop window for the Second Empire. General d’Amade let slip the scale of their ambition in 1928 when he wrote that, “by the end of the century, French North Africa will be the United States of today, with Casablanca stepping into the shoes of New York”. Of course, that was not quite how it worked out.

Planners and architects, frustrated by the conservatism of the authorities in France, flocked to Casablanca where they were free to do more or less what they liked. They schemed grand boulevards, lined with palm trees, connecting to monumental squares. They imported Art Nouveau and Art Deco and blended in classical Moroccan touches to create a Néo-Mauresque style of their own.

Jean Vidal’s short film, Salut Casa, shows what Casablanca had become by 1952: a beautiful, bustling city with spotless streets and gleaming white facades, and honking cars, dozens of bicycles and the occasional camel, and pavement cafes, grand arcades and luxury shops.

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The streets are not spotless anymore; the facades no longer gleam.

Boulevard de la Gare was the grandest of the grand boulevards in colonial times, stretching proudly from Casa Voyageurs station to the old Medina with upmarket shops beneath its porticos and marble-floored arcades leading through to adjacent boulevards. The luxury shops are long gone from what is now called Boulevard Mohammad V.

At the station end of the street, the rusting shutters look as if they were rattled down decades ago; the signs are from a bygone age. One shop has been gutted behind the grille and filled up with 10, 15, goodness-knows-how-many years of Coke cans, cigarette packets, fast food containers and rubble, all coated with a thick layer of grime. Ruined men lounge in doorways and rummage in bins. Kids kick a scuffed football between the walls of an alley.

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But to fixate on how much the ville nouvelle has declined is to see the glass half-empty. The point is how much has survived.

Casa Voyageurs’ clock tower can still be seen way down the boulevard, just as the planners intended in 1923. It is always half past two, twenty to six or a little before quarter to ten, depending which clock face you check. The monumental buildings which the camera panned across in Salut Casa are by and large still standing.

Restaurant Petit Poucet is much as it was under the French Protectorate, with the original bar which Albert Camus, Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Édith Piaf have all leant against.  At the end of the block is the Maroc Soir and Le Matin newspaper offices. A few letters have dropped off the facade, so Le Matin is now just  e Ma  n, but it is a nice example of Casablancan Néo-Mauresque, as is the Central Market across the road with its keyhole-shaped arch and green zillij tiles.

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Avenue Hassan II still has dazzling white Art Deco buildings, the town hall, the law courts and the Main Post Office from 1918 with its columns and arches and a frontage of zillij tiles in emerald green, royal blue and gold

You could lose a day wandering the streets in the scalene triangle between the Medina, Parc de la League Arabe (the French called it Parc Lyautey) and the Central Market, remembering to look up to see curving balconies, zillij tiles, ornate brise-soleil, entrance gates worked into the shape of peacocks and bouquets of flowers, ghost signs from the days of the Protectorate, and the huge stone crown topping La Princière salon de thé.

There is a hint of a renaissance in downtown Casa. The Art Deco Cinéma Rialto and half a dozen period hotels have been beautifully restored inside and out. The new tramway has thinned out the cars whose exhausts had been filthying the grand old buildings since colonial times.

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But there is a tension between those who want to preserve the heritage and those who have to pay for its upkeep. The old Hotel Lincoln is emblematic.

It was the first landmark building on Boulevard de la Gare, a masterpiece of Néo-Mauresque. But it lost its lustre after the French left in 1956 and the owner has, reportedly, wanted to tear it down for decades so that he can build an office block. Campaigners persuaded the authorities to list it as a historic monument, and since then it has been left to rot.

The roof caved in a long time ago; one floor collapsed in 1989 and killed two people, another section fell down in 2004, killing a homeless guy who was sheltering inside, another in 2009, and yet another in 2015. Only the crumbling walls of the central section survive…for now*.

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Casa’s future is hard to predict. It could become an African Valencia with its Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades rejuvenated, or it could be another Coventry: a city which once had buildings worth seeing.

© Richard Senior 2016

*2020 UPDATE: The facade of Hotel Lincoln is now being preserved and rebuilt as part of a new 5 star hotel project by a French consortium