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

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

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Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

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I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Why ‘Everywhere’ is Not on My List

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” – Susan Sontag

No one has been everywhere. A lifetime is nowhere near long enough to see every city, every town, every village, every cattle station, every desert camp in the world.

For all their international summits, official visits, personal planes and unlimited funds, world leaders only ever see a fraction of the whole. President Obama has visited 53 of the 195 countries which the US State Department recognises. David Cameron has been to 47, François Hollande to 69. The Queen has managed 117 countries in 63 years; Pope John Paul II kissed the tarmac in 129.

Michael Palin has apparently been to 96 countries; ‘Nomadic’ Matt Kepnes has been to 80-odd. I know travellers who have been to upwards of 70.

But somewhere around 300 people in the world are known to have visited every sovereign state. Mike Spencer Bown is probably the most famous. He set off travelling at the traditional age of 21 and went home at the markedly un-traditional age of 44. In 23 years of hitch-hiking across war zones, living with bushmen, being frequently arrested, and funding himself by buying and selling everything from furniture to gemstones, he spent time – seemingly months and years at a stretch – in each of the 195 countries.

Spencer Bown is like a real-life version of the fictional character which so many travellers become in their stories. Few, in truth, have the balls, the single-mindedness, or the entrepreneurial nous to travel the way he did. I would not even daydream about spending the best part of a quarter of a century on the road.

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It need not take that long, but it is far from a gap year project. A 24 year-old British guy named James Asquith travelled to 196 countries (the State Department’s list + Taiwan) over the course of five years, at the eye-watering cost of £125,000 (US$190,000) – more than, say, a school teacher would earn in the same timeframe, and far more than most 24 year-olds have seen in their lifetime.

Even if I had it, I would find it hard to justify spending that sort of money and that sort of time. But then, everywhere is not on my list.

Unless you have decades to spare, like Spencer Bown, the more places you choose to go, the less you can see of each. There is always a risk of spreading yourself too thinly.

Professor Yili Liu of Michigan University holds the record for visiting every sovereign state in the fastest time, 3 years, 6 months and 6 days. That might sound a long time, but it averages out at around six days for each nation. It would be punishing to keep up that sort of pace and – I imagine – extremely frustrating to get a tantalising glimpse of each country then hurry off to the next one.

I was in Australia for six weeks, but by the time I had worked my way up the East Coast to Cairns, I only had time to squeeze in a visit to Melbourne by taking internal flights. I had a month in each of Japan and New Zealand but it was not long enough to get right from top to bottom.  You need at least a couple of months to do justice to countries as big and diverse as China and the United States.

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But if you spend a month at a time in a dozen countries, a year will have gone already with 184 states still to see. Budget just a week for each of the others and you will have another three and a half years of constant travel ahead of you, and yet miss out on a lot of the day-long bus journeys through ramshackle villages, the share-taxis between towns, and the trains through epic landscapes which, for me, are half the fun of long-term travel.

When I looked at the list of nation states, I counted over eighty which hold no interest for me. The only persuasive reason to go to around half of those, it seems to me, is to be able to say that you have. I do not care about bragging rights and lack the gene which impels some people to collect. Some of the others are just too far away, too much of a hassle to get into, or too similar to places I have been already to make it seem worthwhile going. A few are too dangerous. Travellers like Spencer Bown prove that it is possible to travel through even the most lawless of failed states; but I would not get much out of it if I were constantly terrified of being murdered, caught in crossfire, or kidnapped and beheaded for a propaganda film.

There are perhaps another thirty countries which I have heard nothing but good about and which often appear on lists of places to see before you die, but just do not inspire me enough to get on a plane and go.

My travel list constantly evolves. It is an abstract list, not written down anywhere on a piece of paper, still less entered into a spreadsheet. The shortlist of countries I feel I must visit changes often but always numbers somewhere between 50 and 60. I have been to a lot of them now. There are another 10 or 20 which I hope to get to one day, but will not feel cheated if I never do.

It is a diverse list, which takes in just about every region, and includes the biggest and most populous nations and some of the smallest and least populated, island nations and city states, the very progressive and the very conservative, some of the richest and some of the poorest, countries with rainforests and countries with deserts, the peaceable and the belligerent, countries with well-preserved heritage and countries which are aggressively modern, secular countries, religious countries, most of the remaining Communist countries, flat countries and mountainous countries, hot countries and cold, the liberal and the authoritarian, agrarian countries and industrial countries.

But everywhere is not on my list.

© Richard Senior 2015

Departure board image: User: (WT-shared) 木更津乃風 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Khao San Road: a Flashback

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Everyone starts on Khao San Road. It is where Richard met Daffy in The Beach; “a decompression chamber,” Garland called it, “for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between east and West”.

It bustled with travellers coming and going. They arrived, pale and bewildered, in clothes far too hot for Thailand in December. They left, nut brown and relaxed, in singlets and fishermen’s trousers, with friendship bands halfway to the elbow.

Growling tuk-tuks inched through the crowds and parked. The drivers shouted out to every traveller, and so did the tailors, the masseurs, the “masseurs,” and the endless procession of hawkers.

EDM oomphed from bars which boasted that they never asked for ID, and backpackers who looked as if they needed bars which never asked for ID flailed in approximate time to the music.

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Monster signs protruded from the buildings, glowing, flashing, pulsating. There were tailors and jewellers and clothes shops; there were tattooists and body-piercers. All of them seemed to stay open all night

There was McDonalds, there was Subway, there was KFC. There was a guy selling deep fried scorpions. You could buy knock-offs of just about anything you wanted, trainers, watches, sunglasses, DVD’s. You could get a degree certificate and driving licence forged to order.

It was too much, then, on that first night three years ago tomorrow. It was just five days since I had handed back my corporate BlackBerry, and the first time in almost a decade that I had not been digitally connected to the office. It was the first time I had truly had a break.

I walked a block to Soi Rambuttri, which was a little less manic, in the way that Palermo is a little less manic than Naples. The bars had live singers instead of DJ’s and they murdered The Beatles, the Stones and Oasis, and one crooned “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring” in the style of a Rat Pack tribute.

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I was not expecting much from the ramshackle bar where I stopped for dinner, but it was late, I was tired and I needed to eat. It was great, though; all of it: the soft-shelled crab smothered in yellow curry paste, the red snapper barbecued whole, the nam prik dipping sauce piquant with lime juice, garlic and chilli, the steamed jasmine rice, the cold Singha beer.

As I sat and ate and heard Hotel California for the third and far from the last time that night, hawkers trooped through the bar to offer me things I didn’t want. No friendship bands, thanks: I’ve got some already. No lighter: I don’t smoke. No postcards. No playing cards. No sculptures of motorbikes. No wooden frogs which croak when you rub them with sticks; and, no, I don’t want a bigger one either.

I said no, I said no, I said no again. She said, okay fifty Baht for two.

I had been, then, to something like twenty countries, but, apart from a month in Hong Kong on business, it had been a week here and a long weekend there; ten days was about the longest I had been away. I had always, as well, known what I would be doing from day to day. This time I just had a few scribbled ideas of countries and cities I might want to see and no idea, yet, how to get from one to the other. But I had months to work that out.

In the first few days, I tried to see everything at once, as if I were in Thailand on a hurried vacation, as if I would be cross-examined later by over-competitive colleagues trying to catch me out with a ‘must-see’ sight that I had missed. But it registered soon enough that I was free until the summer to see and do what I wanted, and that none of the old shit mattered any more.

That was three years, thirty countries and five continents ago. The impressions I formed at the time seem naïve and unworldly in retrospect. I am not sure I would even notice, now, some of the things which enchanted me then. Some of the excitement has worn off along the way, but there is too much fascinating diversity in the world for travelling ever to become a routine.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gyeongju: Two Days in the Museum without Walls

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There are two or three blocks of forgettable shops south of the station, then a sudden lake of yellow rapeseed.

Narrow paths have been cut into the rape field and happy young couples stroll through the flowers, stopping to smile and make peace signs for cameras at the ends of poles they hold at arm’s length. The field is floodlit at night and more couples stream in and flashtubes pop across the field like a diorama of a battle.

Beyond the rape field, behind trees, older couples march along paths through the forest to a stream with their ski poles and sunhats and leisure wear as vivid as the yellow of the rapeseed and the blue of the sky. There are hazy mountains in the middle distance and the keenest start early and hike to them.

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Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom which ruled Korea for a thousand years from the first century BCE. The walking trails criss-cross the site of Banwolseong Fortress and there are fragments of the old walls in the undergrowth. The hourglass-shaped Cheomseongdae Observatory is still intact after fourteen centuries and sits, surreally, in the middle of a park.

The kings and their treasures are buried in two dozen grassy hillocks, like a much-simplified form of the Egyptian pyramids. One has been opened up so that visitors can look inside and the whole complex has been modelled into a park with quiet paths between trees and azalea bushes and traditional music piped in through hidden speakers, which gives it a dreamlike quality.

The same music plays, to the same effect, in the grounds of the royal palace. The pavilions and ornamental lake have been rebuilt and the gardens restored and you could stroll there happily for hours, at least if you were not being followed around by a school party repeatedly saying “hello” and “how are you?” because they wanted to practice their English and those seemed to be the only words they knew. It is wonderfully ethereal at night, when the pavilions are lit up and reflect in the lake.

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Gyeongju is known, with justification, as ‘the museum without walls’. I filled a day looking at temples and tombs, pagodas and wooden hanok houses and walking along trails through the forest. I planned to hike Mount Namsan, as well, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked and I gave up on the idea before I got there.

I set out early next morning on a bike which I borrowed from the guest house. It was a cheap, Chinese-made thing with brakes to trap fingers, sharp edges to scratch and protruding parts to bruise. It was a vicious cycle.

The shifter for the back hub refused to shift. The other had four positions for three gears. The first just made it click annoyingly, the second took me back to where I started, the third made the crank spin like a propeller, and the fourth made the chain come off.

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What I had taken, from the map, to be a quiet country road was actually a busy highway; it ran alongside the railway and sloped forever uphill. But there were cherry blossoms, white herons and mountains as well as the concrete, cars and trains.

I guessed that it would take around half an hour, an hour at the most, to ride to Bulguksa Temple, but it apparently takes longer than that in the car. The incline seemed slight but never let up until the turn off for Bulguksa, when it became a long, steep hill. Each sign implied that Bulguksa was round the next corner, or the one after that, and it began to feel like chasing a rainbow.

I got there in the end, though, and it is a splendid temple with pagodas, bridges, statues and intricately carved, gloriously painted roofs set in a forest you could lose yourself in for a day; but it was Saturday and brimming with day-trippers – of course, I was one of them – and instead of the serenity you expect at a Buddhist temple, there was the stress of a big city at rush hour.

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It would have been too easy to freewheel down the hill and follow my tyre tracks back to Gyeongju, and instead I took the long way round, up yet another hill, and hoped that it would lead into town. Eventually it did.

© Richard Senior 2015

Sunny Weather: Proceed with Extreme Caution!

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The sun came out in Britain this week. It was treated as a national emergency.

There were notices posted in train stations warning passengers to drink plenty of water and tell a member of staff if they started to feel unwell. The newspapers doubted whether trains would run at all, because – they predicted – the tracks would be likely to buckle in the 32⁰ heat. There was no point going by car, either, because the road surface would probably melt.

Old people were told not to go out and – in case it had not occurred to them – to try to stay cool. Ice lollies were suggested, and cold drinks. Spectators at Wimbledon were strongly advised to wear hats and use sunscreen. People everywhere slathered on factor 50, which is virtually whitening cream.

Academics were called on for learned advice as to how to survive the terrible ordeal of a sunny day. Wear wet clothes, said someone from Cambridge University, and open the windows upstairs and down. Fan your face, suggested a professor from Portsmouth University, stick your hands in cold water, take a lukewarm shower and eat curry.

Nightmare…misery…unbearable,” said the Daily Mail, although it said the same about the idea of Labour winning the election. Even the Daily Express took a break from hysterical rants about immigrants and ‘Europe’ to shout KILLER HEAT BLASTS BRITAIN. The editorial probably blamed the European Court of Human Rights.

As always in times of grave emergency – it was the same in the Second World War – ideological differences were put aside and the supposedly left-leaning BBC took the same line as the right-wing Express. “Heatwaves can have a profound effect on the body,” it declared on its website, “… it can be deadly”. It warned of the danger of heat cramps, heat rash, heat oedema, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Symptoms, it said, include confusion and disorientation. It perhaps should have added that they are also consistent with sitting in the park all day drinking beer.

By Thursday, the crisis was over. The weather map was covered in reassuring grey clouds and double spots of rain. It was bouncing off the roof by the evening, and the relieved population went back to planning its holidays to countries where the temperature stays around 40⁰ all summer and no one thinks anything about it.

© Richard Senior 2015

In Saigon with Graham Greene

“FOR THE THIRD time, and after two years, one was back. There seemed at first so little that had changed: in Saigon there were new traffic lights in the Rue Catinat and rather more beer bottle tops trodden into the asphalt outside the Continental Hotel and the Imperial Bar.” – Graham Greene,New Republic, 5 April 1954

Western journalists with bellies full of beer no longer crowd, shouting and giggling, into cyclos and hurry to the House of Five Hundred Girls. Grenades are not routinely flung into cafes. There are no fat Burgundians sautéing capons in butter. No jaded English reporters playing quatre cent vingt-et-un with cerebral French policemen. The casinos, the Corsicans, the cargo boats from France are all long gone. The sickly sweet smell of opium does not hang in the air. Girls in silk trousers no longer cycle to milk bars. The red flag flies, now, in place of the Tricolore.

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Yet there is a surprising amount left of the Saigon which Graham Greene knew when he reported from there in the dwindling days of French Indochina and distilled it into his classic novella, The Quiet American. The official name has been Ho Chi Minh City since 1975 but locals still call it Sài Gòn.

Greene’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, lived with his Vietnamese girlfriend, Phuong, in an apartment near the river on what was then rue Catinat. When the French left and Saigon became the capital of South Vietnam and rue Catinat became Đường Tự Do (Freedom Street), it filled up with brothels and drunken GI’s and fell into sleazy decline. Since reunification it has been Đường Đồng Khởi, or Total Revolution Street; but despite the name, it has gone back upmarket and has much the same character now as it had when Greene stayed there.

Fowler’s apartment is based on one in which friends of Greene’s lived in the old Saigon Palace Hotel, down-at-heel in the early Fifties but restored now to its belle époque splendour and once again a hotel, the 4-star Grand.

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If you take the walk which Greene often took, up and down Đồng Khởi, you will still see much of what he saw, amongst the high-rise modern blocks. Start down by the river, where Fowler watched the stevedores unloading American planes by arc light and the sailors on the pavement drinking beer, pass the Majestic Hotel, a block from the Grand. Call in for cocktails if you like, as Greene and his character did; or go back in the early evening to watch the sun set from the rooftop bar and feel the breeze from the Sài Gòn River. Carry on up the street, past the flamboyant fin de siècle opera, which the communists renamed Municipal Theatre to make it sound more democratic, to the Continental Hotel where Greene sometimes stayed and where Fowler met Alden Pyle, the Quiet American of the title.

Pyle lived in rue Duranton (now Bùi Thị Xuân) at the other side of what is now the Culture Park with its propaganda posters and hilariously slanted accounts of the war, and worked at the American Legation at 39 Hàm Nghi, a surprisingly modest corner block, which is still there now. He was officially part of an economic aid mission, but his real job was to supply insurgents with plastic explosives to stage atrocities which could be blamed on the communists.

Further up Đồng Khởi, beyond the Continental, is “the hideous pink cathedral” of Notre Dame and the neoclassical Central Post Office, with steelwork designed by Gustave Eiffel and maps on the walls of Saigon et ses Environs 1822 and Lignes Telagraphiques du Viet Nam et des Cambodge 1930. The mosaic of Ho Chi Minh on the far wall would be new to Greene, but he would not be surprised to see it, nor disapprove.

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There are surreal juxtapositions in the streets of what is now Ho Chi Minh City, District 1. The plate glass phallic symbols of the top dollar corporate world stand next to crumbling low-rise shops. Little old ladies in conical hats with yokes on their shoulders totter across the road as young men and women in this season’s fashions swarm around them on hurtling scooters. Just round the corner from Gucci and Louis Vuitton and restaurants priced for deep corporate pockets, there are street markets where everything is laid out on mats on the ground, with the meat buzzed by flies, and the fish kept alive in puddles of water, and a rat poking about nearby, which no one seems to mind. There is a timelessness amid the hectic modernity. As Fowler remarked to Pyle:

“‘If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes.’”

But the old Đa Kao bridge, where Pyle was murdered, was replaced in the 1980’s. The colonial block across from the Continental which appears in the 2002 movie in which Michael Caine played Fowler had gone by 2009. The Art Deco model for the rubber planter’s “so-called modern building (Paris Exhibition 1934?)” which Fowler thought about renting disappeared just last year. The notorious Vietnamese Sûreté, whose “dreary wall….seemed to smell of urine and injustice” survives for now as offices of the Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism, with the old cells in the basement, but it is about to be pulled down to make room for a luxury hotel. Colonial buildings all over town have been left to rot since independence, with old French shop signs still faintly visible, and missing render, and tin sheets nailed onto roofs where the tiles have dropped off, and shutters hanging by one hinge. They are gradually vanishing as Vietnam develops.

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There are still the cyclos – Greene called them trishaws – which pedal slowly through the pages of The Quiet American, but they might not be there for long, either, because the authorities apparently want shut of them.

“There seemed at first so little that had changed”.

© Richard Senior 2015

Learning the Ropes in Laos

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I was halfway through my first coffee of the morning when a bleary-eyed volunteer lurched through the door, cracked up a Marlboro and went to the fridge for a big bottle of Beerlao. I hoped to goodness that he was not my instructor.

The Lao staff and falang volunteers split the people who had climbed before from the beginners; and I was relieved to see that the guy with the searing hangover and beer for breakfast was going with the experienced climbers.

It had poured down all night and the rain had turned the dirt tracks to mud, but the tuk-tuk driver saw no reason to go any slower than normal, and we slithered and skittered towards the mountains, over a ramshackle bamboo bridge, and parked up and tramped across fields, through trees and over fences, and a guy said something about leeches which I wished he had kept to himself.

We reached the mountains and scrabbled up from boulder to boulder, over rivulets, grabbing hold of trees here and there for support, and went up and up until we got to a narrow ledge two thirds of the way up a karst several hundred feet tall. The instructor climbed another fifty feet or so up a near vertical face to secure the top rope, and I thought to myself no way…. No. Fucking. Way.

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But it was too late to wimp out, so I shrugged on the harness and threaded the rope through the loop and tied it into a figure of eight in the way that we had been shown and got the instructor to check it. I still imagined that the knot would unravel, or the rope would break, or the harness would fail, and in my head I was always free-climbing.

Just relax,” said the instructor, “take it slowly; get a good foothold then look around for the next handhold”. The trick, I realised, was to disengage the cowardly part of the brain which tries to stop you taking risks, and to focus on each separate move: take a step up, spot a crevice you can hook your fingers inside, think about where your foot will go next, haul yourself up and then plan where to go from there. Often I doubted myself, felt sure I would miss the hold or lose my grip and fall, but never did.

With each step up, the instructor tugged on the rope to keep it taut, so there was no changing my mind and stepping back down: once I lunged for a hold I was committed. I fought the instinct to look up to the top or down at the ledge, or – worse – at the ground, because whenever I did it brought an avalanche of nerves upon me. But I fought against the nerves as well, and carried on climbing, and then I was touching the rock at the top and feeling euphoric, and the instructor was talking me into letting everything go and leaning back, so he could let the rope out and I could abseil down.

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The second route looked a whole lot harder, with a section which went beyond the vertical and through a chimney in the rock, round a corner and over a lip. But again I coped better than I imagined I would and, with each move, I gained a bit more confidence and I was willing, in time, to spring up and grab for a handhold I could not quite reach at a stretch, and to lean back against an overhang for support and propel myself over a lip. I was a lot more relaxed that time, until right at the end when I had to lean out over the edge and dangle above the abyss as the instructor let me back down.

Then, as I waited my turn for the final route, I watched one of the experienced guys lead-climbing another rock face, and just as he got to within a few moves of the top, a rope loop snapped and he fell, and the next two or three loops broke, as well, with a succession of bangs and I stared in horror and thought that he was going to tumble to his death, but he was held fast by the bolts further down and dangled perhaps ten feet from the broken loop. He was a lot more relaxed about it than I was, though; and set off climbing again straight away.

I knew that I would go back to climbing after I got home, but could never envisage myself being as indifferent to falls as that. I am not yet.

© Richard Senior 2015

Why Travel? Ask the Earl of Oxford

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Maybe you travel for the challenge, or just for the hell of it. Or to learn about other cultures, or yourself. Or try out a language you learned in night school. Or see the cities where your favourite movies were set. Perhaps you want to escape a humdrum life, or recover from burnout, or salve a midlife crisis. You might want to put off the need to grow up, get a job and start talking at length about house prices.

Or else you had an accident in front of the Queen like the 17th Earl of Oxford. As Aubrey told the story in Brief Lives, with his spelling and capitalisation preserved:

 “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart”.