Another Day in Swakopmund

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Another day in Swakopmund, another group of travellers, another early minibus out to the dunes.

This pretty German Colonial town is marketed as Namibia’s adventure capital. There is sandboarding, quad-biking, ballooning, camel-riding, sky-diving, parascending and deep-sea fishing. Yesterday was sandboarding, today is ATV’s.

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Travellers stepped out of the minibuses which had collected them from tour agents, guest houses and campsites around town. We were funnelled inside, given waivers to sign and helmets to wear, and led off in small groups.

I pulled on the helmet, started the quad bike and we rolled out of the centre in line astern behind the guide, past grassy hillocks into the open desert. The sun cast long shadows behind us, the sky was a deep and improbable blue, the sand glowed orange and pink.

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Skudding across the floor of the desert, throttle wide open, engine howling, feeling the heat rise from the crankcase, looping up, along and down a high dune, treating it like a berm on a mountain bike trail, kicking up the odd puff of sand; back onto the flat, then bumping over the crest of a smaller dune. The driver in front takes the next one too slow and bogs down; the back wheels dig in, churning up sand in clouds. I swerve round her and keep the throttle open and make it up and over the top, getting momentarily airborne.

It is a landscape of majestic nothingness: a sea of sand blown into waves by the wind, the colours changing as the sun rises as the morning unfolds. They filmed Mad Max: Fury Road here, using these dunes to represent the apocalyptic landscape of a world after a nuclear war. In reality, the toxic smoke would block the sun for years and start another ice age, but only the cockroaches and hardier sorts of wasp would mind: humans and everything else would be extinct.

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The guide raised his hand to get us to stop, left his quad bike running and walked off into the desert. He came back with a namaqua chameleon in his hand. When he released it, the dark chameleon began to lighten until it was a similar colour to the sand, although it is said to be a myth that they change colour for camouflage. It shuffled off, then, with its comedy power walk, all elbows and knees.

We pressed on into the desert and the surefooted ATV’s clung to the side of the dunes, and powered up steep slopes and rolled down the other side, and I felt in control throughout and never in much danger and came round to thinking that the popular idea that these things are deathtraps was just scaremongering by the tabloid press.

Then I heard later that one of the guys I had got the minibus with that morning had gone over the handlebars and wound up in hospital with a broken scapula.

© Richard Senior 2016              

Nickel and Dining It: Gentrification in Downtown LA

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Nickel Diner is on the front line of the gentrification of downtown LA. It is on Fifth and Main, which puts it a block west of Skid Row, but the borders are fluid. Knots of homeless guys loiter on the pavement nearby.

There was a rundown taco shop in the building before, but the authorities closed it because it was being openly used by dealers. It lay empty for years and, when Nickel Diner’s owners took out a lease in the noughties, pigeons were nesting inside. When they stripped the paneling, they uncovered a menu from the 1940s painted on the wall in bubbles of cheerful colour: Boston baked beans 15¢, Chili with beans 30¢, Hot dogs 19¢, Delicious sandwiches, salami or cheese 20¢, Hamburger 25¢, Root beer 10¢. They made it a feature of their nouvelle diner with its burgundy leather, austere tables and downlighters, which are said to be uplighters glued upside-down to the roof.

The menu is a hipster twist on diner food. Steak and fries, but served with chimichurri and a rocket – arugula, I should say – tomato and avocado salad.  The beef stew comes garnished with an ancho chilli sauce. The hash is pulled pork, instead of corned beef. The pastry chef used to work for Thomas Keller at Per Se and Bouchon. The maple-glazed bacon donuts are justly famous.

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The immediate neighbourhood is smarter now than it was when Nickel Diner first opened and the staff carried pepper spray on their way to work.  Just across the road is the Beaux Arts former Hotel Rosslyn, the biggest and possibly grandest hotel in LA when it was built in 1913. Old photographs show it towering above everything around it, with the proud illuminated sign on its roof announcing “the New Million Dollar Rosslyn Hotel”. (The much-derided Mel Gibson movie The Million Dollar Hotel is named for it.)

In its heyday, the Rosslyn competed for the custom of business travellers with the notorious Cecil a block to the south, but – like it – ended up in single room occupancy, better-known as a flophouse. Back in 2001, the LA Times ran a feature about drunks and crackheads and junkies and dealers who lived, did business and overdosed there. But now it’s been cleaned out and converted into lofts and is marketed at young professionals who want to live in this “vibrant urban area”.

They are all lofts in LA. They might be in the roof space, where lofts are traditionally found, but might just as well be in the basement. Every flat on every floor of a twenty-storey building is a loft, and you might think that is wrong on so many levels.

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The Pacific Electric Building along the street opened in 1905 as offices and a gentlemen’s club, before that meant strippers and lap dancers. The Pacific Electric Railway had a terminus at ground floor level, and there are still “Danger” signs from when you had to look out for trains. But now it’s the Pacific Electric Lofts.

There are coffee shops where you can get a cappuccino with your choice of beans and milk and sit and drink it among digital nomads with beards and full-sleeve tattoos; there is a deli selling superfood salads, craft beers and quinoa.

Yet, drop one street, and there is no sign at all of gentrification: just discount stores and empty units. East of that, every pavement is lined with tents and old sleeping bags laid out on cardboard and litter and old shopping trolleys, and several thousand homeless people, many disabled, sitting in wheelchairs or hobbling on crutches, many obviously mentally ill. It is not somewhere to linger, or go anywhere near at night.

© Richard Senior 2016

VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

Welcome to Morocco, My Friend

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“You tell him fuck off.”             

“Haha. I’m not doing that.”

“Yes! You tell him ‘FUCK OFF!’ and he fuck off.”

“Well he might fuck off if you told him to but he wouldn’t if I did.”

It had seemed a good idea to get to Morocco the classical way, through Spain by train and across to Tangier by boat. But it had meant two long days of travelling and an evening ferry which sailed an hour late (it apparently always does) and no longer comes into the old port but to Tangier Med, fifty-odd kilometres along the coast.

I had taken it for granted that the bus into town would stop right outside the terminal building, but it didn’t, and there was nothing to tell me where it might stop. I asked people at the stores in the port but they gave me instructions so vague they were of no use at all; the security guard on the gate was the most precise with “out on the road” accompanied by an expansive wave of the arm. There were several roads.

The sort of people who loiter around every port in the world approached me with ostensible offers of help but their tone and mannerisms seemed better suited to an early-hours argument about a spilled drink. I walked away from them all. Eventually, a girl who worked in the port showed me the way: through the car park, over a verge, out onto the main road, up to the top of the hill.

The only space on the bus was on the back seat, either side of a big guy with his legs spread wide and the look of a man who is never too far from considerable violence. Nobody, it seemed, dare sit next to him. I stood. But then a helpful Moroccan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was space on the back seat, so I had to go sit there. Then the driver flung the bus round the corner and I fell on top of the hard guy.

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He picked me up with a look of extreme impatience and when I struggled with my bag, grabbed it with one hand and slung it into the corner of the seat. I squeezed in next to it and tried to become invisible.

Another shifty guy got on at the next stop and gave me the hard sell for an unofficial taxi, but I declined that and set off walking towards the Medina.

My guidebook said that muggings were “not unknown” along the Cornice, but that slippery formulation – popular with writers who are not sure what they mean – could embrace everything from they have happened on rare occasions to they happen all the time. I walked briskly, in any case, with my 20 kilo pack and 10 kilo day bag.

The closer I got to the old Medina, the more figures slipped out of the shadows and walked in step beside me.

Buenas noches,” they tried. I ignored them.

Bon soir.” I looked straight ahead.

Buena sera.” I kept on walking.

 “Hello.” I quickened my step.

You have hotel?”

 “Yes thanks,” out of the corner of my mouth.

You want hash?”

No thanks,” still not looking at them.

They peeled off and melted back into the shadows, except one who stuck with me all the way, keeping up a constant monologue.  “Welcome to Morocco, my friend.

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 “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere,” he said. “I’m a good guy.” He told me that several times and I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Ask any of these guys,” he added, gesturing towards the men sitting in doorways, as if I could really approach them and say – in English – “excuse me, but is this guy a good guy?”

The old Medina is a wiring diagram of alleys and I tried to orientate myself while pretending I knew exactly where I was going.

I can help you, my friend,” said the good guy, “just tell me where you want to go”.

Eventually, he wore me down, and I did tell him and he took me up into the Medina but I refused to follow him down the quieter, darker alleys and stood ready to run if – as I expected him to any minute – he pulled out a knife.

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But then I saw a sign for the hostel and relaxed a little. It seemed conceivable that he really was a good guy. I gave him 20 Dirhams for his trouble and he suddenly became very angry and demanded 200. I had only just arrived and was not sure whether 200 Dirhams was a little or a lot and was certainly not going to whip out my iPhone and look it up. I gave him the money with bad grace and worked out later that he had earned about £15 (US$20) for 10 minutes work, which is a lot more than I used to get as a lawyer.

Heroin,” spat the manager of the hostel when I told him the story; “immigrants,” he added. He was the Moroccan equivalent of a Daily Mail reader.

You tell him fuck off,” his assistant advised, if anyone else approached me.  He checked me in and I walked round the corner to find a restaurant and ended up in the Petit Socco and sat at an outside table at Cafe Central, which – though I didn’t know it then – was Burroughs’ local when he lived in Tangier, strung out on heroin, writing the disturbing, hallucinatory masterpiece, Naked Lunch.

I went to look round after dinner, up the street to the Grand Socco, down the next street and into the souks where the stalls were still trading, even though it was late.

My friend…” a man called. I ignored him.

Mon ami…”

Amigo…”

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The lane which I thought took me back to the Petit Socco turned out to be a dead end.

My friend…”

And the man I thought I had shaken off ten minutes before had, in fact, been following me all the time. “My friend,” he said, with about as much friendliness as angry men who tack “mate” to the end of “have you got a fucking problem”.

I ignored him and walked away but he hurried after me. “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere. I’m a good guy.” A different guy but word for word the same lines.

I stopped, turned abruptly, and went in the opposite direction, but he stuck with me like a missile locked on target. “I can help you my friend.” I told him I didn’t need any help; I told him to go away, although not in the words suggested by the guy at the hostel.

What’s that yellow building?” I asked, pointing at nothing at the bottom of the street. It is an old trick but he fell for it and as he looked down the street, I sprinted up it, back to the Grand Socco, and down the first street – the wrong one – towards the port, wondering how I was going to find my way back to the hostel.

At the bottom of the hill, though, I recognised the street, past the bars, along the front where I had walked with the first dodgy guy, and the steps leading up to the Petit Socco, then the alley which led through to my hostel.

I got back and slept fitfully, waking at intervals from complicated nightmares.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Curious Classics of Colonia

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An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

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I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

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There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

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Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

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A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

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There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

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Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016   

Journeys in the Sun

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It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.

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A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.

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I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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