Monday, 18 June 2012

Hic Habitat Felicitas

This is the first time I ever drafted a ramble for this little blog and decided against posting it. The attempt started as a high-brow and yet entertaining dissection of consumerism across cultures and became nothing more than a rant about hotel buffet dinners. Clearly there's much more to say than that, it having been a good few months since I last wrote anything here. And by 'good' I don't just mean in the rather derivative sense of 'that's a lot of time', but good with a genuine sense of 'life is good'. It is, really, and if any sort of revelling in small joys is going to provoke nausea, I can only suggest heading elsewhere for the next few hundred words.

I live near a store that sells everything. In Abu Dhabi, of course; in Sussex I live near a pub that serves pizza and a bus stop that infrequently provides anyone with anything, but out in the U.A.E. I can find nearly anything in the Aladdin's cave that operates nearby. It does always seem a lot closer than it actually is, and never do I feel hotter in Abu Dhabi than when I misjudge quite how far the storefront is and then end up sweating into the a/c and wondering whether I really needed some more deodorant - of course, by that point I always do need some more deodorant, and I may as well by a new shirt on the way back. But this time it was worth it. It was a friend's birthday, and I had foolishly asked her what she wanted.

Never asks a girl what she wants. She probably doesn't know. She may think she knows, but she probably doesn't. Typing 'she' just then I accidentally inserted an 'o' and wrote 'shoe', which actually is probably one half of what she thinks she wants. If intelligent design had meant girls to want shoes, they'd have four feet and be far less romantic. This girl didn't want shoes anyway, or romance. She wanted a pony. Now, though I did visit a stud farm on my tour of the seven Emirates, I didn't bring an Arabian mare back with me. I had only the dirhams in my wallet and not a stable in sight. But I did have this godsend of consumerism. One half-hour of searching later, I emerged clutching a small plastic vaguely equestrian figurine. Job done. I bought a girl a pony. And another girl shoes, but they were red and she really wanted them.

This other girl also taught me the Spanish for 'Batman'. Turns out they do just tend to say 'El Batman', which was something of a disappointment. I was hoping for 'Bat-Hombre' - I mean, try saying that like Christian Bale. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that's not even a literal translation into Spanish anyway - with that, Batman becomes 'El Hombre Murciélago', which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, especially when you grew up speaking a language with a strong aversion to vowels. It also rather ruins the theme tune. ('Dunah dunah dunah dunah -  El Hombre Murciélago!') This summer's film is sadly far too dark and edgy for such a lighthearted jingle. It's called 'The Dark Knight Rises', or 'El Caballero De La Noche Asciende'. This then translates back into English as 'The Knight Of The Night Rises', or, even better, 'The Night Knight Rises'. I can only home Alfred tucks Bruce Wayne (Bruno Díaz!) in at bedtime with the words 'Night night, knight night'.

So what else have I learnt these past few months at the world's honours college? Oh - yes. Resort hotel buffet dinners. They're a tad excessive, but so is staying at the places that serve them in the first place for a university trip. My chosen institution is a place where 'restraint' got filed away behind 'racism' and ahead of 'robbery' in the list of things we really just don't do, and if we can hire a bouncy castle to commemorate half a year later something that happened by accident and was mostly just mildly inconvenient then why not. I mean, really, why not. People enjoy it. They do. If it makes you smile and not just because half the girls show up wearing dresses then go ahead and let's do it again.

This past semester certainly involved a few such extraordinary events. I was in New York for a weekend and debated for half an hour; I camped in a sandstorm and then, just a week or two later, in a rainstorm; I watched all of David Lynch's filmography (save The Straight Story and including all of Inland Empire); I volunteered at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and taught kids how to program robots; I wrote about graffiti in a stairwell and on Facebook's new Timeline design; I confused two classes by appearing on the wrong end of our usual Abu Dhabi/New York video-conference; I stood up for more comedy, was surprised by a picnic and given a huge microphone-shaped cake all on the same weekend. Life is good, but plastic ponies and El Hombre Murciélago still give me more kicks than reeling off every detail of a five day trip around the U.A.E.

Maybe in my old age I just can't comprehend the bigger picture. I've just entered my third decade, and I'm not getting any younger, which is good because that would be unnatural and weird. Life doesn't really feel any different, but then It's early days yet, and I'm sure that's just what Elizabeth Windsor thought. And then - wham, bam, thank you ma'am. You've been reigning for sixty years and it's still raining. I was out there on the Mall for both the Jubilee concert and the procession the next day, and what a feeling it was to be British. I don't trust a lot in this country - I just paid £3.30 for a coffee and missed a connection after my train was delayed - but when Prince Charles stood up there I was genuinely proud to be part of this entertaining, endearing, endangered place. 

That's not even just because of Kate (or Pippa, for that matter), but the royal couple do more than make up for the weather and the expensive caffeine doses. Watching Charles, Camilla and the Queen go past on their carriage was certainly a vaguely reverential moment, but as Harry, Will and Kate trotted by, I was overcome. Quite honest here. There was an aura around them, and I just wanted nothing more than to be recognised, to be liked by them, just to know them at all… They just seemed the most gorgeous and wonderful people you'd ever see. If we are to have a royal family, I'm glad that glamour is part of it. Who needs Grace Kelly when you've got Kate Middleton as your princess. And Harry gave us a thumbs up.

Just before and just after the Jubilee I showed two dear friends around London, one of whom described the Shard, the latest addition to the London skyline, as much more like something you'd expect to see in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Of course, the Arab invasion of London has been much more subtle than that (why build a skyscraper when you can buy Harrods?), but I think the glitz and glamour of it all can be British in its own way. The pomp and circumstance of the Jubilee was our response of the bling absurdity of Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch The Throne as we turned our eyes to our very own, though I would have liked to have made it to that concert. (A last minute decision in that regard had said friend, Shaquille O'Neal and I scrambling for tickets.) 

The highlight of British avant-garde glitz, Damien Hirst's For The Love Of God, is currently lurking at the Tate Modern. Approaching the display enclosure, the other friend didn't realise the piece was titled such and thought the Tate was simply asking visitors to 'turn off all mobiles for the love of God' and to 'deposit all large bags in the free cloakroom for the love of God'. A vernacular invasion. Font issues aside, the piece itself attracted a lot of controversy when it was first exhibited, as you can expect of a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. I'm glad the naysayers aren't in charge. It's beautiful. Perhaps more so than Kate. Exquisite. It's like the perfect pop song - deep and meaningful and yet gorgeous at the same time. But does it really need to take up the whole Turbine Hall this summer? Where's Anish Kapoor? What cultural criticism. Perhaps that's enough for one day. If I keep going I might have to deconstruct Prometheus, and no-one would enjoy that. I'll go read a book or something. Back soon. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Synecdoche, Everywhere

Berlin, London, New York, Abu Dhabi, Amman. Three months and nary a blog post to be seen? 2012's been busy. We started the New Year in London. We had our own miniature fireworks, and we set them off outside, and there wasn't any trepidation or apprehension or even excitement about starting 2012. The past year took me through sixteen countries and wondering what next after the gap year. Here I am now, sitting in Abu Dhabi, pretty content with where that helter-skelter ride left me. It's Spring Break in these here parts - I flew back in from Jordan this afternoon, and leave tomorrow for a tour of the Emirates. This time last year I'd been to the UAE for a weekend, had recently returned to post-quake Japan and was wandering around Okinawa. I wasn't expecting the next 365 days.

The OED tells me a synecdoche is 'a part for a whole', and that's all I can manage. I'm condensing the past eighty days or so into a few paragraphs, and while I'm not quite attempting to Jules Verne you with having gone around the world in so many days, 2012 has been busy. Berlin was a sophisticate city with a past but facing the future. New York was the cold hustling bustling metropolis that reeks of opportunity it's always made out to be. Amman was on the verge of everything, tipping its falafel vendors towards its hip cafés and waiting to see what happens. And Abu Dhabi? I don't live there - I live in my university - and it's still not quite El Dorado or Narnia or even Hogwarts but it's close.

Berlin was with family. London was with friends. New York was with university. Amman was me flying solo, mostly. The first saw me - or didn't see me - eating in a restaurant in the pitch black, with only my sister for company and German chatter all around. We arrived in what felt like a fairly normal bar, until we looked at the menu full of riddles and met our blind waiter. He led us, hands on shoulders caterpillar-style into the darkness, where we found our seats and eventually our food when it arrived. I know people only say 'You get used to it' when referring to something you clearly don't, but eating in the dark became relatively normal quite quickly. You get desensitised to being desensitised. Scoop around the plate with fork and fingers, find the food and giggle all the way through to dessert.

We never made it to dessert on New Year's Eve. Friends made paella, which washed down with some nineteen-year-old, cupboard-stashed Becherovka, made for a mean culinary start to 2012. NYC doesn't give up easy though, and paying a dollar for a slice of pizza isn't bad when it's New York pie they're serving up. I was there for little under three weeks, studying under the previous director of the Met. I finally got to see the bowling alley under the Frick (I know, I know - pics or it didn't happen...), I watched the Upright Citizens Brigade for free two weeks in a row, and, of course, jumped around on the piano at FAO Schwarz, although not with quite as much aplomb as Tom Hanks. Though when have I ever managed something with quite as much aplomb as Tom Hanks.

And then back to Abu Dhabi. That sentence should never really sound mundane, but it's becoming part and parcel of how things run round here. And running they have been - a few weeks back had me out in Oman, running up and down hills in a desert valley having slept out on the beach the night before. And then blogging about it afterwards for my social media internship in the Athletics Dept. I cracked out the bow tie to host our last Open Mic night, which normally see me prancing about attempting a comedy set - this time I left it to the clothes to do the talking, but I will admit to attempting some freestyle rapping my fellow MC in front of the baying crowd. Finally a play too - having spent most of my time back at school wrapped up in the theatre, it was fun/exhausting/frustrating/amazing to get back into eight-hour rehearsals, line-learning and spending five hours every night with the same two dozen people.

I'm even coping with coastal biology - new semester means new courses. And travelling alone in Jordan. It rained, I barely speak the language - just enough to bemuse the taxi drivers, even the ones who want to talk Shakespeare and Poe with me - and it's hardly the world's most straightforward place. But that's all part of the fun. I made it down to Petra, which means I've ticked that off alongside Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, Rio's Christ Redeemer and Rome's Colosseum, leaving just Mexico and India to go on that basically made-up list of today's seven wonders of the world. It's hard to complain about that kind of life. Not that I'd even want to - when you're sitting drinking your Arabic coffee looking out over a Roman citadel with a whole city to explore the next day and a place to lay your head that night, you really have got it all. Or at least enough for now.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Back In Time

So it all started with Citizen Kane on Monday 12th September. Or maybe it was Dune on Friday 23rd. Orson Welles told me that memory is 'the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race', and Frank Herbert that 'the beginning is a very delicate time'. Two truths more relevant to your first semester at college could, I'm sure, be easily found, but that's all we've got for this evening and so we'll go from there. Fourteen weeks I was away in Abu Dhabi, and that makes it about three months since I last sat down and reckoned out what I'd been doing into a snappy little post. That's an awful lot to boil down into a half-dozen paragraphs, and such an attempt is hardly my cup of tea. We're aiming for the highlights, of course, but we'll make do with what comes up along the wander down memory lane, and hopefully we'll still end up with some lights to guide our way, high, low, or otherwise.

I've watched a few films then. Beanbags, projectors, popcorn, sofas, TVs, donuts - I still enjoy a good film. Not so much this 'film v. movie' debate that keeps cropping up, because they're one and the same, aren't they? And when you look back at three months of your rather recent life, you do tend to see it as running celluloid, with the handsome star, the dramatic music, the montages, the love interest(s), the climax and then no resolution whatsoever because you're still working it all out long after the imaginary credits have rolled. But I don't want to have to wonder whether or not my past three months have been a film or a movie - whether they've contained any artistic merit, or whether it was all just duff scripting and pretty girls and what a pity about the protagonist.

Is there artistic merit in the day-to-day drudgery of shower-class-lunch-meeting-run-dinner-essay-talk-sleep? Not when you put it like that. But remember that conversation or that harebrained scheme or that crazy idea that actually came together a month down the line... Looking back with a bit of time on this side and everything acquires a neat little glow - I suppose we call that 'serendipity' these days, now that I'm a literature major. I can define myself by more things now than I could three months ago. I might even call myself a comedian, having now made a fool of myself and not too many other people on one, two, three and a half occasions, not counting the dry runs back in Tokyo. I guess you'd say I've come a long way, but then it's still the same old me.

I did watch the English team in this year's Rugby World Cup, from beginning to end - something I had to go to Abu Dhabi to do. Nothing quite like middle-aged men shouting over a warm pint on a weekend morning to remind you of home. I'm not sure there's any artistic merit in that either, but then it's all part of the rich tapestry of life, as my father would say, and he's right, as per usual, because there was nothing quite like getting out of the apartment and forgetting about the essay on the U.S. Constitution due that evening to cheer on the good old boys with their flaky shirts and even flakier playing. You had to get out occasionally. And if that took dressing up like a Blues Brother and going to a film screening on the beach in a suit and hat, then that's what it took. We were on a mission from God, after all.

I did spend some time trying to get into more classrooms then I needed to, and ended up taking the science kids' course for a week just to see what they were all complaining about. It was all in the spirit of journalistic investigation, and an article did come out of it eventually. Hasn't been much of extracurricular writing this term, and I'll see what I can do about that in the New Year. A few workshops with a real life New York critic perked up my ears and pen, but besides scratching down ideas for stand-up topics, my nib's been quite firmly pointed towards academic notes and even the odd bit of Arabic vocab. Next semester will see the first time in a dozen years that I haven't been trying to learn a language, so that should spare me a few minutes here and there. We'll see what we can do in 2012. 

It's going to be a very depressing year, on the face of it. No gap this yah. End of the teenage years. One year closer to end of education and the real world. I'd never quote myself, but to take a quote from my article on that Foundations of Science course, one professor did say, 'Although the life of students is very difficult, twenty years down the line you’ll look back and think how wonderful it is’. And it is kinda wonderful. I live with my friends in one tower block in a perpetual summer. We sit up until midnight to throw surprise birthday parties with ice cream cakes and terrible presents. We had a week off, so we went to Sri Lanka and watched the elephants bathe in the river and who cares then about GPAs and letter grades? This term I grew back my moustache and watched all of Twin Peaks and stood on the prow of a yacht with dolphins jumping around me. It was wonderful. 

So my university's been called 'a little utoptian'. I can deal with that. Should make for more interesting writing, at the very least. There's a fair bit of bluster, and often there's hot air blowing around the offices and the classrooms as well as out on the streets. The emails I receive from the Global Education dept do come with the endnote: 'We relate to each other because we are similar. We learn from each other because we are different.' That's a pretty high standard of conversation. I'm happy debating the pros and cons of marrying a mermaid for now, but that's not to say that isn't a valid truth. Different is good, and that's something I've gone by since my father bought me a chrome Buzz Lightyear. (I still wished he was decked out in the familiar white and green spacesuit for a while, but Dad did persuade me in the end.) I suppose old Orson Welles was right after all - 'A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember', and if he has a blog, he may well even write about them. Three months later.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Travel Is Fatal

I shoot film. My camera doesn't have an LCD screen, any megapixels, or even zoom. It was made in the USSR, out of black gritty plastic, and it has a wheel to wind on the film that I turn with great satisfaction after each shot. I carried my camera around South America and Cuba this summer, and I got the photographs developed during the week I spent in England on my return. They look pretty nice. Lots of vivid blues, glowing sunshine, tasteful vignetting and dark shadows. Still have six photos left on the last film, which means I left for Abu Dhabi with a roll full of Cuba, so no pictures of Havana, Trinidad, Camaguey, Santiago or Baracoa developed as yet. Which also means no mention of any of the Cuban cities on here. It's been a while, and I can't manage three weeks in Cuba, a week in Blighty and three in Abu Dhabi all at once. So we'll save Cuba for a rainy day, but don't worry - there's sure to be plenty of those out here.

I can say that Cuba was hot. Let's stop walking for a cool beverage every quarter of an hour hot. Hot enough that the cigar smoke was cool. It was warm. But Abu Dhabi? A new world no-one's brave enough to walk around in. The air's like a swamp. And the buildings have a clinical coolness to them that rivals every morgue you've never been in. I'm in here in the requisite cardigan and chinos, while outside even the birds are sweating. Coming from a country where we swoon at even our moderate, maritime climate, I've always found there something quite disturbing about the hot sultry night, and never more then when I first arrived, waiting for my transfer from the airport to the accommodation with a half dozen Californian gurls who were eleven hours out of their time comfort zone and a little freaked (as they'd put it) by the chirpy Englishman whose upper lip was not only stiff in the face of jet lag but also shaven after two months of hiding behind the gap yah 'tache.

Austen was going to call Pride and Prejudice First Impressions. S'pose there's not that much difference between the two now, having been through nigh on three weeks of the former, all based on the latter. Nothing nasty, of course - we are very nice, friendly, intelligent, tolerant people, or so the prospectus would have you believe, and we'd never be so cruel as to judge other kids by where they're from, what they're wearing, how they talk, &c. But just watch us. You can talk all you like about us being one-hundred-and-sixty young global citizens,  Belarusians and Bostonians, Muslims and Christians, future world leaders, but in the end we're a bunch of teenagers thrown into one tower block left to our own devices. Go figure, as my American colleagues like to say. Not for long though - the establishment spent the first week shepherding us from enriching experience to enlightening lecture, and you better not stop smiling, because this is full-on social interaction at its globetrotting best.

The faculty like to point out how many countries we're all from, how many nationalities make up our graduating class, and just quite how many languages we all speak between us. I'm not that cosmopolitan (key buzzword) myself, so expected they'd like to blend me in with some really culturally diverse flatmates. But no, they like to keep the old colonial brothers together. Meet, George, my American buddy; Paul, my Australian mate; and John, my South African bru. Affectionately known as 'The Empire'. We moved as an old-world wolfpack, those first few days, and escaped most awkward introductions with wit and continual blathering. This did cover most of the silences, but means I don't really know anyone's names. Still. I think I also scared most people off introducing themselves to me after I stood up with some comedy at a variety show that first week; turns out everyone else was just as entertained at being asked the three same consecutive questions - name? nationality? intended major? - as I was. Go see it on YouTube.

I suppose there's more to us all than just facts on a spreadsheet or attributes printed in a specially-bound commemorative book celebrating the class of 2015. I hope so anyway. Coming from an all-boys boarding school in the south of England, the world's honours college was always going to be different, but of course it's also reassuringly similar. Thankfully all the male posturing of the first few days wasn't wholly homoerotic this time, and at least jokes about my own social inadequacies become self-contradictory when girls laugh at them. Sort of. Socialising aside, the kayaking trip through the mangroves at half past six in the a.m. was a nice wake-up to the fact that I wasn't going to university in London town, though I suppose the complete absence of a world outside my little ivory tower/fishbowl has also been a rising sensation. Not that I'm complaining.

Sorry. Back now. Just went to listen to 'The Boy In The Bubble' by Paul Simon. ('These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long-distance call ...' ) Most of the music we were exposed to during that first week was all terrible dance music, as seems to be par for the course for organised parties. We were all shipped off to the Hilton for the night and left to steam for a few hours on a rather wet dancefloor. We'd been warned by the current sophomores that the Hilton dance party was a night in which relationships were born and friendships cemented; tongues were waggling for hours during and afterwards. We enjoyed (?) no such shenanigans, but it was a possible high point in the absurdity of our welcoming week. Throw in Ikea and Ferrariworld and you've got freshers' week, Abu Dhabi-style. 

Now how about university academics AD-style. Try a four-day week, with an eight-hour working day on a Sunday and a four-hour Tuesday morning class that starts at 8:15. Elementary Arabic carries a heavy workload, and I do happen to be taking two of the most notoriously intense classes this institution has to offer. One's taught by the university's president, and for the other I've already read the Song of Songs in various translations, The Upanishads, and listened to three hours of Radiohead. When people come into the room and I'm sitting in the dark drinking water out of an unfortunately shaped glass bottle listening to Thom Yorke wail, they do form a certain opinion. It's working well for the flawed tragicomic image. 

And then there was a fire. Unfortunately I'd already drunk all my water, so I couldn't rush up the thirty-odd floors between where I live and where the smoke was coming from, but I did rush down the eight between our flat and the lobby after realising that the whole system wasn't just going haywire and that we shouldn't be playing laser-tag in the corridors. So yes, we did see the beginning of September 11th standing outside in a parking lot watching our American university's tower block burn in an Arab country. What of it? We sweated it out for an hour or so outside before heading down to the campus and sitting rather damply for a few hours having looted the cafe and found the most comfortable sofas. Turns out that no matter how many Tic-Tacs you eat one night, they'll never be an alternative to toothpaste. Especially not at four in the morning.

With no classes the day after - giving me a four-day weekend, if anyone's counting - I even found time to go to the gym after I'd finished reading the US Constitution. The treadmills in Japan have nothing on these machines. All decked out in glorious purple, our colour of choice, full colour screens and the option to plug your iPod into the treadmill itself for ease of use... I'm already smitten. No existential crises as yet (see below), but no doubt we'll have them before long. Even already worked out rotas as to who is allowed to go to the gym at when, because no-one wants to watch my masochistic adventures with the free weights. Pretty much covered the blog's standards by now - crippling insecurities, reference to global news, gym sessions, awkward (pop) culture references, and terrible wordplay. I suppose all that's left is the meaningful sign-off. (See? This is meta-blogging.)

My academic year is divided into three semesters - 'Fall', January, and Spring. 'Fall' and Spring are fourteen weeks long with a week or so's break in the middle. My January Term (J-Term) is three weeks long, and of the four I'll pas before graduation, I can spend two abroad. This year, I'm looking at either a course based in the then-balmy Abu Dhabi, London, Florence, Buenos Aires, Shanghai or New York. We had the requisite talk this evening about how to best appreciate our time abroad, and how to better ourselves as citizens of the world. They had a Chinese proverb ('It is easy to see, but difficult to learn.') but I'd always prefer Mark Twain's to any other two-bit epigram. Recognise the post's title yet? 'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness'. Maybe. Comes from The Innocents Abroad, published way back in 1869. I didn't realise they'd invented humour yet. Read it while finishing up in Cuba, and thought its closing sentiments captured nicely the gap year and the years to come; for although we were, are and will be 'merely pausing a moment to catch fitful glimpses of the wonders of half a world', we will still have been there, and laughed, and tried to dance, and we'll remember that, so - well - why not?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The MP Diary And The Rest

Wake up. Shrug off sleeping, stretch out limbs and curl up again, not quite almost ready to face the day afresh. Sit up, work out where we are again, where the bathroom and the toilet is, who's sleeping over there, or underneath, bottom bunk full or empty? Is there even a bottom bunk, so maybe no need to climb down carefully another ladder that creaks enough to wake up whoever's still down there sleeping still. Find the towel and the soap and the shorts and make it over to the taps, aim for the bowl and flush (no paper down the pan, not on this continent) and turn on the shower head, step up under and cold. Happened too many times this trip for my liking. Started in Brazil, and hasn't been any fun since. Even in Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, the cold water still slides down your back even when you're out kayaking across a warm lake so fantastical that even Spike Milligan made it sound imaginary, and he had some imagination.

Borders, whether from sleep to waking or from country to country, are always vaguely harrowing experiences. Made it across from Bolivia into Peru only a few minutes before they closed the frontier for the night, and after a two hours journey in a minivan, Peru didn't feel that different from where we'd left. Puno, on the other side of the Goons' lake, wasn't up to much save a pretty cathedral and a hip bar, but then once you've been served warm lemonade at a seaside bar you know this isn't the town for you. Onwards then, and that twenty-two hours bus to Lima, all the way across the width of the country for Mary-Jane after a night on Pizza Street first, and then Pete was out early the next morn to meet his beloved at the airport. And so now there are three.

Mary-Jane of course doesn't carry a wallet, free-spirted girl that she is - never to be tied down by material possessions. so we've never carried three of those round with us. Except now we can't even manage two, after a loss in the centre of historic Lima. It might well have fallen out my jacket, or I might well have had my pocket picked - not to worry. I've had that wallet, brown, leather, Ted Baker if you happen to see it, since I was fourteen or so, and there's always a time to move on. Lost a fair few objet trouvés but then you have to eventually; a driving license, a passage from Socrates on the nature of madness, my father's Napier student ID card, a credit card or two, a receipt from a girl at Jessops who laughed more than she had to, a leaf I'm amazed was still left, a little piece of my card with my address my prep school gave me when I was twelve and in France, &c. But why be tied down my material possessions, right? Onwards and upwards, and I suppose it's easier when your pockets are lighter.

I'm all for leaving the scene of the crime, but this was my wallet, and it was full of all sorts of semi-valuables, so I'm at least thinking about insurance. (If mine covers me against kidnapping, you'd hope it would manage to sort out some petty theft.) There we were, standing talking to a sceptical member of the tourist police, when after a few crackled calls on his radio we were standing in the centre of a crowd with a squad car pulled up on the curb. Ushered in and whisked off to the station, siren wailing, we all found it a little too funny. Pete did have to pretend his hysterics were tears of pain at whatever crime Lima's finest thought we'd suffered. Into the bureaucracy upon arrival and I was giving my first ever police statement in Spanish. Where did I have lunch? Is that the church with the catacombs? Was I Irish? But they had sat us all down and listed to me, so I shouldn't complain. My trust in the whole process was rattled a little after the departure of the officer who had driven us to the station - not because he'd left, but because he came back five minutes later to fetch his forgotten hat.

The next day, having lost a wallet but not too much sleep over the matter, we made it to Arequipa. A view from the top of a cathedral, the only decent pizza we've had in South America, a British consulate who was out to lunch and now a phone that didn't work either - a mixed lot. What better to do than head white-water rafting? All of the boxes ticket, we didn't head north quite yet, but did climb again in altitude, up to Cuzco, and to the no-stars, self-proclaimed dark and gloomy and German-owned ('What do you expect?') Royal Frankenstein Hostel. I don't normally mention proper names, but I gave out one for Palestine, just in case you were passing through, and I can't help but at least give the Frankenstein credit where it's due. An iguana, a few piranha, an eccentric German, a Braveheart poster in the room, schnappes by the name of 'Frankenstein's Blood' and just off the main square - all I'd ever want in a hostel. Even had hot water, as did the fortunately named Agua Calientes - our next stop.

Perching between gorgeous Peruvian mountains and swarming with tourists, it's a Marmite place, but with that scenery it was hard to write it off completely. The town's the basic stop-over point if you're heading to Machu Picchu, and since we couldn't quite manage the Inca Trail but similarly couldn't face the spectacular ruins surrounded by everyone other Tom, Dick and Walter who's come to the continent, we wanted to up at half four in the a.m. and watching the sun rise over the top. Barely should have bothered sleeping, what with the marching band camped outside our window - and the window of our first triple room at that - but watching the sun rise out of the coach window on the way up to the top was quite something. As was Machu Picchu itself, I suppose. If the ruins were in Fishbourne, or even Pompeii, they'd still be quite something, but put them at the top of a mountain surrounded by grass-green rising peaks clouded with mist and you've got something that's really quite spectacular. But you know that.

Back to Lima, then, definitely not just to catch Harry Potter - true, really; we had to make a connection to get up north - and to Trujillo and the surfing capital of Peru, Huanchaco. Didn't really achieve much on the surfboards, but at least the water was warmer than Cornwall. Slept through the football match we meant to get up and watch, but did manage to trade in my battered and rather clichéd edition of Chatwin's In Patagonia for a 2005 edition of the lit. magazine The Believer, which means I'm now quite hot on obscure literary fiction from about six years ago. Try me. Did just about keep me going during the two-hour wait in an almost abandoned bus terminal in a border down in northern Peru, waiting to catch our next bus on and across the border into Ecuador. Arriving at immigration at two in the morning and queuing in the heat for a stamp I can barely read was probably worth it in the long-run, but at the time - not so much.

Guayaquil was hot. Humid hot. The seafront walk seemed more like a theme park than a boardwalk, what with all the overheated children running about. One night in our most luxurious hostel and one in our least was a study in contrasts too. Was too hot to get up to much save the obligatory beer-drinking and watching the iguanas laze in the park, but the sluggish river did give us the opportunity to catch a boat down it that evening, and it even had a bare libre. I pity the girl at the ticket office. What does bare libre mean? Free bar. For all the drinks? Yes. Everything? Yes. Where do we sign up? The next morning's bus to Quito was plenty of fun. We only had one whole day in the capital, but it did include a climb up a basilica that left the knees quaking, a few churches and a curry in the evening. Turns out you can't drink in Ecuador on a Sunday after four in the afternoon, which our reunion with an old friend Hugo was quieter than it could have been, but familiar faces are always welcome.

I could really do with one now. Caught a flight this morning from Quito to Columbia, that was fine. From Columbia to Costa Rica two hours later, that was fine. But we go to catch our connection to Havana? Delayed, leaving at four in the morning. We'll put you up in a hotel until then. Have dinner on us. So here I am. In a Best Western in San José in Costa Rica, with seven hours until we meet in the lobby to leave for the airport, and I won't even count how many hours until our flight. Been reading the guidebook to Cuba, and excited about getting there, but for once I don't think I can say it's the journey, not the destination. We'll see how it goes. At least the internet access is free, because I'm not sure how far our meagre remaining funds will stretch - we didn't want to bring any US dollars into Cuba, see. Glad my phone shortcircuited back in Peru too. But what is there to moan about - I've got a free dinner in Denny's coming up. Better dash.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Grand Gringo Tours

When you venture into a wildlife preserve the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined, you do expect to encounter some rare creatures. The Pantanal may not have provided much in the way of native species, but we did spot a rare breed almost extinct in England. Some assert that they are merely mythical and even that claims to the contrary are only ever made by drunks and family members. So it was with some surprise  that we encountered a trio of Nice Etonians deep in the Brazilian wetlands. Their true colours were dulled after a few months in unfamiliar habitats, but this is common in migration season, typically lasting a few months after leaving the mother's nest, the alma mater. Gap year anthropology's been at its best in Bolivia, where we've been on the trail of all sorts of garden variety and exotic creatures. 

We've finished for piranha alongside a wisecracking Irish traveller and trekked barefoot through mud with a French couple whose terrifying cameras  left us whispering about using it right and preferring sighs to size. Nowadays we have to be careful what we say, because turns out the couple across the bus' aisle may well understand our discussing the merits of Hobbes' view of the natural state of man.  On the subject of popular culture, the films on the buses have improved further west, and going from Brazil to Santa Cruz in Bolivia we even had both Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. Maybe it's called 'The Death Train' because it also features Adam Sandler. 

Within twenty-four hours or so, we'd made it through Santa Cruz and into the mines at Potosí, so into the gates of hell and down the mines. It's the highest city of its size in the world, and yet all you go there to do is go down down down in these mines that have been mined in almost the same way for centuries. Buy your soda and your coca leaves and your cigarettes and your dynamite for the miners, don your mask and boots and let's go. Temps shooting up and ceilings falling down; you don't come here for the happiness index rating. Same with the Bolivian buses. But then you get to the salt flats the next day and you're in your jeep with two crazy lovely Danish girls and you really still feeling harrowed by those mine shafts when you're staring over salty white landscapes spreading out for kilometres or Technicolor lakes dotted with flamingoes? 

Not really. But try sleeping in minus degrees in a hostel made of salt. But then really do try running into a hot thermal spring at half six in the morning, which made La Paz with its pancake breakfasts and its llama foetuses and its curry houses and its running hot water a whole different place. Especially when you get in after an overnight bus one morning and don't leave the bar all day after watching the Wimbledon Mens' Final on English time and drinking barely even on Bolivian time - maybe back on Japanese time. But with free shots every ace, how could we not? Did mean the next day was a tad rushed, but we saw all we wanted to and made it to our bus to Bolivia's own Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Renting a kayak and paddling about out there was quite something, and a far easier form of transport than the minibus that evening across into Peru. But we made it, had a pleasant half day in Puni and then onto Lima, meeting Mary-Jane, and the fog. Even after another twenty-plus hour bus journey, we're still not sure about the natural state of man, but after Bolivia, we're pretty sure about the natural state of nature: we'll take the views any day, never mind the cold. 

Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Month Of Sundays

Clearly it's exceptionally difficult to find time during any given Sunday to blog merrily away. It hasn't quite been a month, but three weeks isn't that far off, and at just over a quarter of the way through our little trip, it seems I ought to improve my writings' timings if there's to be any record of our travels at all. Perhaps not wholly true - Pete has uploaded a fair few photos, and all of our select F'ook friends can bear witness to the gradual convergence of Ben's hair and beard length. Besides that extraordinary visual pleasure, there are also waterfalls, pretty churches, drinks and views. Alongside which, I can be seen sporting an almost identical wardrobe to that which went to Jerusalem with me, thereby giving the impression that, on Facebook at least, the Holy City is somewhere east of Rio de Janeiro.

I mustn't get ahead of myself, on this blog at least. Sitting on a coach as I am, typing away after only the first hour of this nigh-on-twenty-four-hour-long journey east to Campo Grande, I would very much like to be ahead of myself, by almost a day. But not to complain. We have become quite inured to long journeys, and odd ones at that. From San Ignacio, we went north to Iguazu, and its cascades, as the Spanish would have it. From the quiet Jesuit ruins of San Ignacio, where the exhibits preached of cultural tolerance and peaceful coexistence, the Jesuit missionaries and local tribesmen having led by example hundreds d years ago, we left for the waterfalls.

In their tourist-proof setting reminiscent of a theme park, the falls themselves are a bizarre mix of stunning natural scenery and the best mankind has to offer in taming it. Paved paths, liberal splashings of concrete with dashes of railings, and a buffet restaurant. When Eleanor Roosevelt saw the falls, she remarked, 'Poor Niagara'. I think now she'd say 'Poor Iguazu'. I shouldn't complain - it was a brilliant day, even with an early start to avoid the midday coachloads. Our attempt that evening to make it into Brazil was less straightforwardly impressive. Two bus tickets had us paying in dollars and using up our last pesos. Led to a blacked-out car, driven across the border and the the stretch of no-man's-land between the countries, passports stamped at either end, and then abandoned at a bus station somewhere on the Brazilian side of the water. Two hours later a coach arrived that would take us, overnight to Curitiba.

We had barely survived the mysterious car journey, only just the seemingly interminable wait in a terminal full tired language that was far too different from Spanish for our liking, and then the coach trip itself. Cold, wrapped in sleeping bags, contorted up against the front window upstairs and waking every few hours with cramped knees in pain. The armed customs officials who peered into our bags and took away a woman for ten mins of questioning did little to reassure our spasming joints, and by no means ourselves, though Pete has by this point given up and aimed instead for some shut-eye. We can only assume the other passengers were smuggling blankets, because that's all they seemed to carry on board with them. Understandable, considering the damp chilly Curitiba we turned up in at some grey hour early the next morn.

The city was quite like a pretty girl with a hangover. General reception upon meeting her a tad frosty, didn't look great at the time but you imagine would under better circumstances, some of it shone through a little later in the day, and then only in the evening do you realise that if you want the best tankard of German beer and plate of sauerkraut this side of the Atlantic than she's the one to go with. So Curitiba was something like that. Some half-guessed Portuguese and embarrassed sign language later, we had a ticket to São Paulo. Spirits were high; a few emails exchanged that morning had found us the generosity of two charming Paulistas. And that was how we ended up driving down a dirt track  to the lake in the dark with a woman I met over the internet.

I mustn't get ahead of myself, I shouldn't complain or jest either in the case, because between them Aurelia and Lodovico, as I like to call them, ensured we had a brilliant time in São Paulo. As soon as we arrived, the ever-smiling driver Lukas whisked us off, still smiling over the top of the language barrier, to an apartment belonging to Lodovico, where we'd stay the next Monday to Wednesday. That evening however we were whisked once more, this time by Aurelia, and to her place by the lake, a gorgeous house where we passed almost two days' worth of very happy hours, enjoying the (Brazilian winter) sun by the water's edge, eating wonderful food and sipping caipirinhas and a chilled beer or two in the entertaining company of Aurelia and friends. Thank you for such a far cry from the cold showers in Curitiba.

Have come to the conclusion that if hell exists, it must be an eternal cold shower in the knowledge that hot water and even baths do exist, just somewhere you're not. Maybe heaven. Perhaps. Nature of an afterlife aside, Many thanks to Lodovico for lending us the keys to his apartment - it made exploring São Paulo far more civilised than it might been otherwise, gargantuan as the place is. Ranking alongside megacities Mexico City and Tokyo, Sampo is vast. We explored the galleries, the restaurants and the plazas and yet I'm sure there's always more. To leave the metropolis to a small tropical island then was a contrasting wonder. Ilhabela - beautiful island - gave us two days of sun, beach, bars, sunny beach bars and swimming in waterfalls' pools.

Striding up a dirt track for a few km, we finally found the place that had looked so obvious on the map. The man behind the counter didn't seem very impressed by our  Portuguese (not so much broken as never put together), so naturally he switched to French to explain where we could swim and that we should cover ourselves in his waxy gloop of an insect repellent. Oui, monsieur, dredging up my GCSE vocab. And if that weren't enough in addition to the freezing wonderful water and the inevitable still-itching insect bites, the half a dozen shots of the local firewater, brewed right there and then, did nothing to worsen our mood after a nice early afternoon freshwater dip. The next morning we set off early to make our bus back on mainland to Rio. A ferry in the morning sun was nothing against our previous journey to a bus station - three (rush)hours on São Paulo public transport was rather painfully tedious.

As Ladly Planet puts it, 'Rio usually digs its paradisiacal claws into most tourists', and it's easy to see why. The people views are why people started needing thesauruses. And then dictionaries to check how to pluralise 'thesaurus' when they saw how many they'd need. Again, we enjoyed the generosity of a local, the gregarious Henri. Sharing an apartment with him, we made it all over, starting with Ipanema, where there's another word that needs to be - the song should be about more than just one girl. You want to write songs about all of them, and all of each one. Our first evening, after a few beers and a glass of champagne, we made it to Rio Scenario, a samba club in Lapa that makes Tokyo's Womb look mundane. Surreal backdrops, live music, beautiful people and all after a glass of champagne. I lost Pete, and was reduced to embarrassing the locals with my gringo moves, but fun was had by all methinks.

Looking back over our time in Rio, I don't think of the half-naked men foaming at the mouth who came bursting out of a favela to try to rob us of all our earthly possessions. Even the open-sided tram into Santa Teresa or the samba-filled cog train up to Christ the Redeemer or the stunning cable-car across to the Sugar Loaf pale in comparison to where they took you and what you saw there. The city is beautiful. The mountains rise out of the city like vast elephantine ghosts, unconquered above the busy beaches that look out over a bay that stretches round against a coast full of joie de vivre. Brazil's great cities have indeed been paradisiacal (and not that predatory) and I do feel like Williams' Blanche, relying on the kindness of strangers such as we have. Much better than the streetcar we saw in Curitiba, a streetcar named Solitude.