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.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Mendibuses and Satalan

Nine days on the continent down, and only twenty-seven of those hours spent in coaches - not backpacking badly by any means. We´ve made it through Argentina's capital, its second city and apparently its second second city and currently sitting in San Ignacio, home of Jesuit ruins and not much else, hence I´m sitting here with Pete wondering how to pass the next blog-posting session. Have been meaning to get down to this for a while, especially considering quite how lacking in lustre and polish the last post was. Am still not quite sure whether posting every now and then from hostels' computers will lead to better posts than dashed-off-but-at-least-bedroom-written, but I suppose we'll all get to find out. 

I did while away an hour or three on the rather lengthy and luxurious coche cama coach journey looking back over all we have accomplished, and have come to the conclusion that there´s just no point attempting to whack off a travelogue here and there; else you get semi-rants like below which highlight a few travelling details and architectural marvels, but are low on anecdotes and odd occasions. From the post below on Jerusalem, you'd never know how exquisite it is, after a month in Blightly, to drink cheap Arabic coffee on a damp sofa watching a man beat a dog chained to a post. Or quite how exciting it is to make it through Israeli border control and into Palestinian territory, stroll down a grafittied wall of such terrible stark just-there-ness and then get stoned by little kids who you won't give any money. 

But this is a new Page (har har) in the travel diary, and though I don´t quite miss Israel, there's a lot to be said for comic encounters with American monks (¨You're British? You do look like Prince William¨ Does that make me Kate?) and breakfasting while people walk the path of Jesus past you, bearing wooden crosses. Or even riots happening outside the church you´re in and ubiquitous 'Gun 'n' Moses' tees. But enough of that little patch of fervent land. We´ve got 1000s of km to cover out here, and we've barely scratched the surface. Not scratching much actually, especially not mosquito bites - wouldn't want to get into bad habits. No malaria as yet, but I was struck down by a bad bout of food poisoning that laid me up good and proper for twenty-four hours or so. And in Buenos Aires' premier party hostel too, meaning that when the music from the club next door stopped at seven in the morning, you'd then have half an hour to fall asleep before your roommates got back from their respective-but-not-quite-respectful nights out.

Everyone did keep telling us about the city's party scene. Suffice to say that the only time we'd have the dorm to ourselves was when we were going to bed; the other folk (two law school grads and a nurse) slept in and stayed out far later than we ever managed. My stomach didn't help matters, but we did go out on the town porteño-style for one truly remarkable evening. At least we've done it and all that. After a steak, red wine and a few beers, perhaps we weren't probably energised, but that didn't stop my making a fool of myself in the now nototious 'Two Cups, One Girl' diplomatic incident. Though we'll leave the gory details until after this blog's watershed (very late indeed), I can tell you it's never a good idea to attempt to talk to a young lady on a loud crowded dancefloor while you´re holding two full plastic cups of beer for no good reason.

It was a minor relief to escape the yah atmosphere of B.A. Most everyone in our hostel was young, English-speaking, and after a rollicking time. Not that we're not part of that, but do forgive us for visiting the sights ever now then. I am sorry I don´t have the mental and spiritual strength to fly for thirteen hours to the capital city of Argentina and then only see it in the dark, out the window of a cab going from a club, through bleary eyes clogged with secondhand smoke and beer goggles. I do think that would have made things easier for everyone. As it is, we bussed out to Rosario for a few days of calmer wandering, and to enjoy our first brush with Chinese cuisine on the continent. Also shared a dorm with an Italianate transvestite who left at four in the morning. At least we've done it and all that.

Carrying two guidebooks with us. One is 'mine' and one is 'Pete's'. Mine is the Footprint Handbook, which is predictably quite ecologically-minded and vaguely comprehensive. Pete's is Ladly Planet, which recommends places built for things other than sleep. In fairness, each covers the other's faults quite nicely. Just realised that this does all give us the look of party-haters who crave only culture and a few Zs each night. This is only partly true. We just don't want to be like the American who set an alarm at half seven and slept through it for ten minutes until a Frenchman swung (like Tarzan, honest) out of his bunk to then carefully place the offending phone next to the sleeping Yank's head. That I could handle. Him then packing away while delivering a spectacular monologue on the best manner in which to treat local women - choice phrase, ¨Get them all pregnant. Then if they say, 'But stop, I'm too pregnant!', just ask yourself ¨What is too pregnant?'¨ - was a touch too surreal to be taken seriously on a Saturday morning pre-croissant.

But a Chinese buffet and a sixteen-hour coach journey later, we've made it to San Ignacio. We've even attempted to get into an invitation-only club along the way. And watched a water feature dance to the tune of 'We Are The Champions'. And of course, that's what makes travelling interesting, not the landmarks and the statues. Córdoba's Plaza de España? Grey and fading. Getting interviewed by Argentinian television on the contemporary art installation there? Interesante. Decided that when you send a postcard home, there are two things to make a fuss over. The first is the picture of where you've been on the front, and the second is the story of what happened on the back. No matter how many words that pretty postcard snap is supposed to be worth, give me the story everytime. As long as it's not just another yah nightclub in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. 

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Access Delayed

In six hours I'll fly away to Madrid, and from there on to Buenos Aires. In three months' time I'll come back, so this is the last time in a while I'll find myself sitting at my undersized desk tapping away on this particular laptop. Blogging is still of course on the cards, but not quite sure how well I'll manage it all without my own computer to lug around with me; mobile posting with poor formatting might well be all I'm left with. But how else to share all I want to share? Postcards are so twentieth-century; not even two-thousand-and-late, while writing a blog is very 2008. But the sense of history isn't quite as intense as it was this time last week, in the narrow corridors of Jerusalem.

The Old City's divided into four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Arab. Each has its own feel, each its own people, its own churches, mosques, synagogues, cuisines. In our little hostel, tucked away outside Damascus Gate, firmly in the Arab quarter, we had a fairly decent if narrowly-bunk-bedded base from which to wander around the dingy little streets. Israeli solders at every corner, all young, and the women far to darn attractive for armed people you probably shouldn't stare at. We'd already played the eye contact game earlier, at passport control, which wasn't too much fun.

Turns out that having an entry and exit stamp from the U.A.E. both entered in the same fifty-hour time period marks you out as suspicious to the state of Israel. Who knew? The lack of accommodation, a visible return ticket, an obvious connection to Will, and a barely decent reason to visit the place (sightseeing? tourism? in a poltical hotspot that also happens to be the one of the most significant site in the world's three largest religions? really?) as well as Will's numerous Malaysian visas left us high and dry for a few minutes as they worked out what to do with us. But we made it in, packs were carouselling and we were in the minibus to Jerusalem, just as your god intended.

If I'd had one of my own - God - then I think the city would have been terrifying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was supposedly crucified, was one of the most godawful places I've been to in a long time - almost up there with the Japanese immigration centre on Tennozu Isle (see below). The whole city in fact was bizarre. The Wailing Wall had a ring of absurdity to it, watching as we did the Jews pray at the beginning of Shabbat on Friday night. The Dome of the Rock? vast, stunning, and perhaps the most intriguing if only because we weren't allowed to go inside as non-Muslims. Couldn't even go down certain streets that led to various entrances to the place.

Mark Twain, whose Innocents Abroad chronicles a trip from New York to this Holy Land, gets across what struck me most about the place:

Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. So small!  Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of thirty thousand ... A fast walker could go outside the walls of Jerusalem and walk entirely around the city in an hour.  I do not know how else to make one understand how small it is.
It's oddly minuscule. The whole place has the feeling of a storm in a teacup. The Mount of Olives is really more of a molehill. We did go outside, into the new city of Jerusalem, around its hallowed walls, and that was fast-take-out hummus and American teenage Jews enjoying the drinking age. Don't get me wrong; I'm not decrying the place, only its reputation. My guidebook recommended reading the Bible as a primer to the city. Wouldn't bother. See it for the history and what it is now.

Along the way also popped into Palestine, took a quick peek around Bethlehem. Separation Wall was awful, quite literally - was in awe at just quite how determined the Israelis must have been. The Palestinians we met were charming, friendly, welcoming, etcb. All you could really want in hosts at your hostel. Had wander around the city, even finding a shopfront sporting the name 'Nazi Dental Laboratory'. Thought we'd leave that for another day and went back to the leopard-print beds in what is apparently the only hostel in Palestine: the House of Peace (, if you're passing by). Still think my hostel in Okinawa has spoiled me for the rest of the world. We'll see what they're like in South America. But now I really must go.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Green And Pleasant Land

Home for a month, and have posted nil up till now. This has been sufficient time that I feel I can stray away and onwards from Japan, with no tedious lists of what I miss or rants over our failings as a nation and a people in comparison to them folk. Instead, a humble insight into the stop-gap between adventures. It all goes seem to go a tad more slowly here, but that's been quite nice, really; home-cooking never did anyone any harm, and handing over my laundry instead of washing it all myself is a distinct advantage of returning to the family seat. The present's also been ticking by rather lazily perhaps because I've spent a fair part of it thinking of the future, with decisions having been made on the further education front and plans on the next few jaunts off out of Blighty.

Although I could walk almost everywhere I wanted to go in Tokyo - and I do miss that - I couldn't drive anywhere, and I did miss the easy independence that a car gives me. I've flitted hither and thither in my bright red little motor, although with it's meagre engine (at less than a litre she's hardly one for the fast lane) I fear 'flit' may be too optimistic a verb. Perhaps 'trundle' would suit better. Before getting back in my car though, I had to face British rail travel, and up to London at that. The Tube doesn't have much on the JR Yamanote line - no jingles at all to be heard, let alone different ditties to tell apart Green Park and Victoria,  and certainly no signs to tell any bereft little girls that dropped teddy bears can be retrieved from the tracks with a claw-like implement, never you fear little lady.

But London. Into Charing Cross, past Trafalgar Square after a call in a red telephone box, a coffee in the café downstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, across to Holborn for lunch and then over the Thames to the Hayward Gallery, then an early dinner on the South Bank and a Tube journey from Waterloo out to Islington for a play at the Almeida before back to Victoria and a train home. No kanji, no Tokyo crowds - a whole different plodding breed - and coffee and sandwiches and pizza and just that view down the river as the sun is coming down. There ain't a city like it, I think. But no, I'm not going to university there after all; that will be over in Abu Dhabi, thanks for coming.

That was only the first day back. The following week had Brighton with M, after a few renditions of classic musicals' best numbers with a healthy dose of nostalgia (we weren't singing, never fear) and then off to Hants for beers and a pub pint and more golf than I've managed in years. English sun isn't quite like that anywhere else as well; it comes out with a vengeance, and it doesn't like pussy-footing around. Despite radiation jokes on all sides, been most pleasant not to have been pussy-footed around myself, as straight back into life as we know it (or I know it) it was. Parents even upped and left for a week, leaving me again back in London a few times, and of course there was some wedding on the Fri.

As public holidays go, it had a vaguely Marmite-tinge to it, but I loved it, no shame in saying so. Tell me all you know about that dress and I'll throw in a factoid I picked up along the way. The hats? The swords? The trees? The children? The crowds? I only really saw the latter, but it was a fine end to a few days of all I like in London. Anything that gets that many people excited that doesn't involve any sort of competition is good enough for me - no-one loses at a wedding, but the city doesn't see crowds like that 'cept for marathons (pure one-up-manship) and I suppose it's up there with the World Cup for international viewing figures. On my front, throw in Frankenstein at the National (literally spectacular), an afternoon at the Udderbelly and a filming session at the Tate Modern for a few days of fun.

A night out in Sidcup washed down the week up until the wedding - drama students reach a full enough bloom for me on a Thurs night out with the inevitable theme of Kings & Queens, and I was happy to get back to the normal reserved quiet British masses on the Fri. That night had seen a 3 am call to the M&S garage for a sandwich, noodles and curry after Pete and I had raced (trundled) up the M25 for a two-hour delayed arrival in Plastic Red, a club that knocks Womb into a cocked hat by all accounts. Fuelled by that late-night carb fix and the two or three hours of sleep that came between hitting the sack and up again for the train, we made it through the happy day at Hyde Park and then back to home and some sleep. Fair bit of that in Blighty these days.

Two birthdays later - my own and my Gran's, though she does trump me by sixty-one years - and that's a month in England. Where next? Not very far away if that bloke William Blake was writing about had stuck to his word. I suppose he might still be mentally fighting away with his insomniac sword (though perhaps he left it somewhere so it could catch a few Zs), but it seems more likely that he didn't manage to build Jerusalem over here, so I'm off to Israel and Palestine for a few days come Friday 13th with a good pal of mine. Especially excited by the prospect of eating at Holy Bagel. And all the churchy/mosquey/synagoguey stuff too. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011


One of Stevie Wonder's great albums, is that. Now I'm leaving Tokyo come Tuesday morning my time, and tonight will be my last sleep in my bed of the past few months. So although I'll try to avoid getting too reflective or melancholy or even spiritual, à la Stevie, thought it might be worth writing a little something tonight, even if just to counteract my last post's rather 'down' feel. But there'd be no Innervisions without 'Living for the City', which is a nice title but a black tale (in more ways that one) of living in a city when everything you've got just keeps going down. And so - here, and not in order of to-be-missed-most, after a swinging (almost) three months, is what I'll be missing come Wednesday...

1.) All The People I Didn't Meet
Trust me, they seem pretty cool. And pretty nice, too. We could even just go with pretty. There are a helluva lot of them round here, this being one of the most densely populated collections of metres cubed in the world, so the minuscule but hardly insignificant fraction that I did shake the hands of, say hello to or share a drink with will have to be my representative for the rest. I'd have liked to have been able to speak to more of them with a bit more fluency, but we've coped on both sides, and it's been fun. I'll be back one day, and I get the feeling most of these folk think they're on to something here, and won't be leaving anytime soon.

2.) All The People I Did Meet
From the comedians to the cougars, the bartenders to the bachelors, the waitresses to the weight-lifters, I think I've had fun with most of you all along the way. I'm not quite sure who that apostrophe's addressing, as I haven't spread the word about this here blog around those whose antics may feature in it - rude, perhaps? Over-protective? Not sure, but no complaints so far. To all those who laughed that extra bit loudly at the open mic nights, to all those who put up my hour-long lunch-breaks and inability to use Photoshop, to all those who smiled wearily when I went to eat even more toast... Why thank you. It's been charming. 

3.) The Toasty Mornings
For most of my stay here, that 'toasty' has been only in the sense (and it may be a new one) of 'involving toast'. The temperature when I'd crawl out of bed before work in the not-so-early a.m. was hardly balmy, even once I'd switched on the heater. But the prospect of golden peanut (butter) cream melting on just-so toasted bread was enough to get my down to the bathroom and under the hopefully-not-radioactive water in enough time that I could probably enjoy my coffee and Kindle time. And did I mention the toast? Also - the quiet. Save for the occasional rattle of the early commuter fetching his coffee from the vending machine, those twenty-plus minutes were quietly nice.

4.) The Surreal All-Nights
Remember that scene in The Jungle Book, where all the apes are dancing to the tune of King Louie singing 'I Wan'na Be Like You'? That's how I moved in Womb, only one of the globe's top clubs, to the sound of Sasha, only one of the globe's top DJs. No regrets, obviously. But as if turning the lights on at the end of the night wasn't bad enough, leaving the club and discovering it was bright outside? I was in there for a little over six hours, and the walk back through Shibuya at dawn was enough to make me sure I'm going to miss this here place. And that was only one night... Throw in and indie gigs and some U.S. Marines and it's been swell.

5.) Day-To-Day
So getting up's not too bad and I can have a good time into the wee hours of the morning, but that wouldn't count for diddly if I couldn't get myself a hot coffee out of a vending machine or meet people by a statue of a dog or learn how to treat a green light the Japanese way or ride the subway to-and-fro or see all those cherry blossoms or just watch all these people in all of this city that just keeps on going - there's always more, and what earthquake are you worrying about? We're here for a good time, not a long time. But now I'm off and out. That'll be a 'sayonara', then, I guess. So long, Tokyo.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Cry

You know things aren't going well when it all gets a little bit worse after you leave work. It's not like today had even been a particularly exciting day at the office; I wrote another review of a movie I haven't seen, and watched some video of a Swiss girl writhing around on the floor with a guitar between her legs as some sort of preparation for writing another review, this of a contemporary dance piece. The walk back to my little room in Harajuku could even warrant the description pleasant, with the evening sun sliding down the sky and that summery feel in the air, the sort for cliched romance and mediocre poetry. But then I reached said little room, and switched on the laptop, and tried to rearrange my flight home, and just - why.

I'm quite partial to British Airways. I have no particular complaints, most of the time. But after three attempts to navigate their ridiculous system, and three unknown errors encountered only ever at the close of the process, I was lethargically miserable. So I contemplated my options, and noticed the word 'plate' was in 'contemplated', so set off with a heavy heart for dinner. A burger? No thank you. But there seemed no alternative.  I must resist! My heart had sunk, my tread was heavy, but my spirit was strong. So onwards. Across the road. Alas! A red light. Forced to wait. I could see a Thai restaurant across the way. A destination! My hunger began to rise; the sinking of my heart had depressed him too, but now he was awake, and he must be fed. To the food!

But what's this? A handshake from out of nowhere, an American accent, a Japanese face. Who are you? 'My name is Yujiro. I am standing as a candidate to become governor of Tokyo.' He was still holding my hand in his white glove. He spoke English with fluency, he even swore in the language, which was surprising in a way that's difficult to explain why. (I suppose we expect the West to have a monopoly on shit.) He was campaigning as a youthful force, throwing aside the old and the old-fashioned; Tokyo needs a new force to lead it out of the recent turmoil; he gave me a flyer, told me to look him up on Facebook; asked me how old Boris Johnson was, and told me he was young; so that's why England is doing well, apparently, except for our debts, of course.

He's got a video on YouTube, a little old I think, called 'Obama City and Democracy'. Play spot the influence all you like, but I liked him. Made my evening, perhaps. The name of his campaign? 'Change Tokyo'. After three weeks out of the city, I can see that already. It's changed. The peanut butter's moved about a metre down the shelf at my nearest convenience store. The Lindt shop, which I used to watch getting built, though I never knew then it was going to be a Lindt shop, has leapt from scaffolding and buzz-saws to polish and vacuuming. A whole new alleyway seems to have appeared in my neighbourhood - guess I never noticed that before, or maybe the earthquake stretched Harajuku out a little. And there's no dark chocolate and no lemon-flavoured Vitamin C drink cartons in the shops anymore. Where have they gone?

Tokyo scares me a little now. I was easing into it. I'd just got used to her ways; it's like I went to the bathroom and when I came back she'd changed  the colour of her eyeshadow. I didn't notice immediately, but then- what'd you do that for? The old way was quite nice. Well, no, not to offend, this isn't not nice, but... Why change? I was happy before. Now I'm just - unnerved. So, yes, I'm leaving. Next Tuesday, if B.A. gets its act together. A week early. Got other things to think about, like where to spend the next three, four years of my life. Finish work on Friday, which is the deadline for our first post-disaster issue. Look out for the film review if you get a copy. Would you be able to tell I hadn't seen it? I doubt it. You haven't noticed I've never actually been to Tokyo. Actually just been writing this from my bedroom at home.

You wouldn't come up with half this stuff from a bedroom in the south of England. Japan is way out like that. I think of it as a grand big, black-tie dress-coded cocktails-and-dinner party. Most of the time, I've felt like I was in a lounge suit and tie. A little out of place, but throw out some good one-liners - and even I managed at least one of those at the last open mic night - and everyone forgets about the slight wardrobe mishap and you're on your way to a good evening. Other times, it's like wearing a full-on wardrobe malfunction. Maybe even like turning  up in a wetsuit, flippers and a snorkel dangling out my mouth. Not so much feeling out of place as knowing your only options are to laugh or cry.

On the subject of inappropriate clothing, I certainly stood out strolling down the street in Okinawa on a Saturday night. You've got all these U.S. Marines out on the town, and it's then that you realise why these stereotypes exist - maybe you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but these guys were the real deal, these are the good ol' boys, according to what I'd been led to expect of a member of the American military. And then's there moi. The Marines can tell I'm not Japanese, and so can the Japanese, but in my close-fit leather jacket, my skinny jeans and my white shoes (natch), they can all sure tell I'm not a soldier either. Where you from, kid? England, I say. And back to Blighty soon.

Monday, 28 March 2011

In The Bathroom...

...everyone can hear you scream. Or so I imagine. Judging by the odd looks when I emerged, they can certainly hear your sharp intakes of breath and quietly high-pitched expletives. Although they may just have been startled by my face, which was a rather spectacular shade of red. This was obviously enhanced by my embarrassment, suspecting they'd heard my pained expressions as well as now being able to witness its cause: south-of-England-style sunburn, in its most brilliant and bright variety. In one day on the beach, I think I probably exposed myself to more harmful radiation than if I'd stayed in Tokyo. At the time, I knew I was burning - but I always burn. Not until my return did I realise that this was perhaps something a little worse. So armed with after-sun (aloe and menthol), I retreated to the bathroom.

I don't know whether it was the gel's aloe, or whether it its menthol. It might just have been my highly sensitive nipples. But whatever it was, it stung like a scorpion on acid. A week later, and I'm still peeling a little bit. But of course, no pain, no gain, right? From that - today's favourite t-shirt, spotted on the man who cooked my burger (and what a burger) was 'No rain, no gain'. Maybe he does some farming on the side. I at the moment do nothing on the side. I do nothing as a main, it's the dish of every day. Of course, not literally - you can't sit in a hostel's living room all day, nice as it is with its leather armchairs and wi-fi. I watch obscure mockumentaries at the local film festival, I write short stories and I find neat cafés to read neat books in. These have all been on the menu since the weekend, now that everyone left.

I do get occasional emails, some of which checking I'm coping with all this radiation and general Japanese danger. I feel rather absurd when I answer, telling family (and) friends I am why yes still in Japan, and have spent the day lazing on a deserted beach with some Oxford girls who picked me up, paddling occasionally in the azure waters and watching the fish glide over the shallow coral reefs. Of course, I was then rather red for the next few days, probably as some sort of prescient karma for being so crass as to refer to Pan and Amélie merely as 'good company' and 'Oxford girls', when really they deserve a post of their own in thanks and memory. And while on memory and memories - plenty of them, not mine, at Pan's own blog (sorry):

Having latched onto the two them, together with a then-accompanying Hollander, I passed a pleasant nine days in their aforementioned good company, during which I of course posted briefly. It was in their company that I enjoyed a local island's beach, and in theirs that I saw most of the wonders mentioned below. They have now gone to a better place. Well - two better places; Thailand and Oxford, respectively. Since their departure, I've passed an entertaining weekend - entertaining evenings and early mornings would be more accurate - with Goldie, a young man from Sheffield, by eleven years in Japan, and awamori, the local firewater, most of which has been in Japan for far less than eleven years, save a few tasters sampled at the local brewery.

So here I am, all alone in Naha. Although you do struggle to feel quite lonely in this particular city. Feels like Hong Kong selling a Japanese take on Americana by way of Brighton and every other metropolitan seaside city of the world. I've seen a man walking his cat in a red silk coat. The cat, that is, all dressed up. Recycling vans come round each morning playing 'Greensleeves' (I think; else the tune remains mysterious), and that only adds to the cacophony. This is Tokyo-loud, but difference is it all dies off after about ten p.m. Can't say I particularly appreciate the local music, and especially not the Musak, but my quite little coffeehouse/bar plays jazz records, and is decorated with old radios, record players and television. All some of my favourite things, and now including John Coltrane's fourteen minute take on the Sound of Music classic.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


That would be the nickname of the 88mm FlaK 18, a German anti-aircraft and anti-artillery gun last used in 1945. I never got to see, hear or feel that particular weapon, just as I missed out on the earthquake that rocked Japan last week, measuring an eight-point-eight (or acht-komma-acht) on the Richter scale. Didn't stop me leaving the city on Monday afternoon, after a depressing and empty day at the office, and a Subway sandwich that was marred by my continual fear that a subway wasn't the best place to hang out during an earthquake - and no pun intended; my Subway is in a subway.

I'm in Japan until April 19th, which is just about a month away. The holiday feeling in Tokyo was just about beginning to wear off, and there was I, really just getting into the swing of day-to-day life in the metropolis. I could have quite happily gone on with that, but after the 'quake, the worries set in. Not so much radiation; I struggle with stuff that's there but I'm not conscious of (cf. David Foster Wallace's joke below), but the planned black-outs, the food shortages, the empty houses and office, and that I couldn't have peanut butter on toast whenever I wanted because people have started hoarding bread... No longer holiday, and no longer mundane enough for me.

But the ground shaking every few hours, and my not knowing whether it would mean falling postcards or wobbling streetlights, that really did put me off too. So boarded my hastily booked and packed for flight for Okinawa - 'closer to Taiwan than Tokyo' - come Monday afternoon, and been down south every since. Holiday is very much back on the cards. Good company and temps hovering around twenty have found me castles, ducks, salsa, manatees, barbecues, cliffs and curry. 'Surreal' is still the word of the day everyday, so a return to form there. No-one likes a comfort zone, and evenings with U.S. Marines and competitive games of Jenga are never going to get monotonous.

I'd like to think that there's only so long you can spend each day browsing the BBC's latest earthquake stories, and combing the major newspapers for latest developments. There may be such a limit, but at the moment if they hype, I read. Mildly entertaining at best, unnerving at worst. The Japanese news services seem to be understating, the foreigners over, so that line down the middle is the preserve of common sense, which as they all say, ain't so common. But there's no radioactive rain down here - we're quite happy with putting up with the ordinary watery stuff,  though I could do with some more sun, please. If I'm going to holiday, let's make it worth my while, and all that yen.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Another Country

It's very difficult to eat cheaply in fancy London restaurants. Fortunately for me and my sophisticated palate, I can eat well and with a well-deserved beer in Tokyo for about £6. Today surely earned its keep on the beverage front. It has been, and excuse my French, un de ces jours. Over dinner, did reach halfway through Updike's novel, which seems to be about escaping the confines of one's life, and little details keep hitting home in rather horrible ways. Of relevance here, though, only: 'The difficulty with humorists is that they will mix what they believe with what they don't - whichever seems likelier to win an effect.'

I awoke rather happy, which now doesn't bode well for my having Spidey Sense. But all the same, I showered and breakfasted,  and was out the door and still cheerful all the way onto the subway. My app for getting around the city's system gives me a direction and a destination; I of course confused the two, which delayed arrival. Upon finally arriving at Tennozu Isle Station, a mere ten minute walk from the Immigration Office, my destination, in order to obtain my re-entry permit, so that my visa won't revert to a tourist's when I reentry Japan come Sunday evening, I discover the map downloaded and the real-world (though it seemed nothing like the real world around me) map with the usually handy 'You Are Here' did not seem to coincide. So after much deliberation, I set off.
In what soon proved to be the wrong direction. I realised the closest station to the Immigration Office was actually on a separate island from the bldg itself, and so I headed to the bridge. Across, and now surrounded by lorries, truckers, and shipping containers, piled up like Lego bricks. I had now placed myself somewhere on my own map, and was content to follow it block after block until I eventually reached the entrance to the swarming Office. The Japanese, mostly, are content to frustrate the foreigner by the old motto of 'Rocation, rocation, rocation', and no more. Once found, backstreet restaurants tend to be worth the hike/hype; brands like A Bathing Ape deliberately site their franchises in tricky-to-find-but-easy-to-stumble-upon locations.  The Immigration Office had no qualms about over-doing anything. This was proper Kafka kitsch.

Upon my eventual arrival, I approached the main desk cautiously, and procured a copy of the Form for Reentry Permission. It was only once this had been grasped, and as I was filling it in before I could go upstairs to Section D, that I realised I was listening to, broadcast across the main atrium, a polyphonic rendition of the tune to 'I Vow To Thee, My Country', or at least a section from Holst's Jupiter. And this, only days after I'd been subjected to a similarly simplified orchestral version of a few of The Beatles' hits in the sauna. (The gym: 'We see you, skinny Britisher, pumping your seven kg, and we remind you - no matter how good you get, eventually you'll be nothing more than Musak listened to by naked men in a steamy room.') I took the stairs two at a time.

Not so much follow the yellow-brick road, as follow the primary-coloured strips of carpet to the relevant section. No ruby slippers here, though, as you take your ticket to hand in your form, passport and Foreigner Registration Card, and 172, that says, and 119 just flashed up on the screen. A hasty email to work that I may be late, and down in the chairs with the Japanese folk. Why were they here? Were they not actually Japanese? What visas were they on? James Whitcomb Riley ('when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck') would have been out of his depth here. 

Having already filled in the form downstairs, nothing to do here but wait. Nervously glanced at clock. Of course, the Office was only open from nine am until five pm on week-days. Foreigners? With visas? Probably don't have jobs, eh. Number eventually comes up. 'You must go downstairs and get payment stamp, then come back up right to me'. Off I trotted, to the FamilyMart down the stairs that deals with visa payment stamps, and got myself into the queue for the one till of four that issues the stamps. Considered leaving the queue to by myself a biscuit at one of the other tills; would have taken me no time, them being empty and all. But got the stamp, trotted back up the stairs, found my lady, gave here the new stamped form, retreated, reappeared at the call of my name, received my newly-stickered passport, and trotted off to work.

Rang in on the way back to the Tennozu Isle Station on the first island, thinking I might not make into work by the time suggested in earlier email, which was rather prescient, considering the signs to the monorail station I now needed led me three sides of a square, and was told my editor had left the company that morning, and is never to return. I fear not so much Bienvenue au Japon as Bienvenue dans le monde. And after a Sunday of no worry, lazing in park life, finding an abandoned CCTV camera, watching girls ride ponies in central Tokyo, and reading an autobiography of Edward Hopper. I'll take that world, merci beaucoup. But to another country on Thursday, and 30+ degrees c.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Three Things Viciously Circling

The first is the rainbow-coloured disc that means my little black MacBook is struggling with something. It's been spinning around and around for far too high a %age of the past ninety minutes. The second is the chocolate/sweet cycle, by which I need one after the other and the other after one. All this sugar has come in useful keeping me awake long enough for that disc to stop spinning, mind. And I need to stay awake because of this third - the more I do, the more I have to write about, the less time I have to write. Just realised this third isn't especially circular in its process, but on the walk back tonight it felt like there was something cyclical to it. In short: too much exciting, not enough writing.

Did manage a perfect circle of a wander today, camera in hand. Minox 35mm point 'n' shoot has died, and only after a month or so after purchase, so left with Konica SLR; fine for wandering towards black 'n' white shots of girls on steps, but will have to re-place/pair the broken for anything resembling fast snapping. Closed today's excursion in a French coffeehouse with a crepe, a beer and  Rabbit, Run. Crepe came with that French salted(?) caramel sauce that I can never quite decide if I love or hate. Bittersweet. Spoke a little French then, but not much Japanese. Mon père was here this weekend, catching up with the son after a few Korea/career days, and has suggested conversation classes, and, yes, after 3+ months in Japan, perhaps a little more language might be nice. But I work in and with English, and have a growing suspicion, fear, belief that I always will... Much introspective considerations of the future lately, and Updike isn't helping.

But searching for the levity in life is proving a little more uplifting; comedy may well be the only field in which describing your efforts as 'laughable' isn't putting yourself down. Self-deprecation does seem the basis of my schtick so far, but considering branching out into animal impressions. After surviving last Monday's Japanese haircut - an episode with mysterious Russians, a Colonial coffeehouse, elusive hair-care products, and far too many emails - I've been able to up-end the joke of all dark-haired British teens looking like Harry Potter in Japan with the realisation that I now instead resemble Emma Watson on a bad face day. Most of my limited set is based on encounters with said fairer sex, but it would be giving the game away to reveal details; the Tokyo audience can't tell the fact from the fiction.

In various states of worklag I've suffered from similar delusions. Stieg Larsson's fictional Millennium magazine keeps blurring with my own workplace, and David Foster Wallace's similarly fictional film-maker, James Orin Incandenza Jr (or Himself, or the Mad Stork), keeps appearing when I'm clicking through eBay listings for Canon XL1s (that's a plural; not to be confused with the XL1S, or even the XL2. Similarly, it's not advisable to confuse Larsso's Ronald Niedermann with Wallace's Don Gately, to whom Incandenza appears in a manner quite different to my own experiences, to clarify). Just finished, clearly, both David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. The latter doesn't seem to need my opinion, but on the former, here's the joke the South Shore biker Bob Death tells on p. 445 - 
This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' and swims away, and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, 'What the fuck is water?' and swim away.
 Sure funnier than saying you look like Hermione Granger.

Now that I'm quoting, this whole time I've been living here I've been reminded of that line from Belle and Sebastian's 'I'm A Cuckoo' - 'I'd rather be in Tokyo / I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh / And watch the Sunday gang in Harajuku / There's something wrong with me, I'm a cuckoo'. So watching them Friday night over at Studio Coast was something of a bonus. Past ten days have been pretty kind on the music front; another Milla and the Geeks gig, turns out they're off to Texas (I think) for a festival, so sayonara on that front. But highlight has to be two Wednesdays ago, with a secret DJ set from and of Black Eyed Pea'd fame. Found out via Twitter at about eight, raised some funds and raided Freshness Burger, dressed up to the nines and was there queuing for a midnight set. Left at five in the morn, sky the colour of a bruise, and found myself a McMuffin on the way back.

Culinary satisfaction has also been high over the past week - there. That's the weather forecasting tone I've been searching for. - with a highlight, alongside that Thursday's early a.m. Golden Arches, of Sunday morning's breakfast with Dad. After four weeks of peanut butter on toast, instant coffee, a satsuma and lemon-flavoured vitamin water, the Capitol's French toast with maple syrup, coffee, orange juice, pastries, toast and butter, and croissants and jam really made the day as it was so far. That weekend, the two of us walked and eat and talked our way through the city, with the marathon, Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower, the Imperial palace gardens, the Diet bldg, and Ginza's bars and lack of live music all now under our belts, of which at least mine need loosening come Monday morn. Morn and dawn is not much sooner than I'd like it to be down my end, and much planned for my Sunday, with donuts and that Velvet Underground track scheduled ante meridiem. This time next week I'll be in Abu Dhabi - now there's a thought. And there goes another one.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Lucky Gym

I have now started my internship, and am enjoying the delights of daily relations with a chair and a computer once again. Things picked up with today's revelation that there's a Subway that only takes an acceptable-lunch-break-length's to walk there, eat and journey back, so that's a fairly regular six-hundred yen that I'll be losing out my pocket every afternoon sometime 'twixt one and three. Does beat sitting in the smoking section at Tully's Coffee drinking bitter black caffeinated hard as nails water and chewing on a hotdog with bizarrely finely grated gherkin atop it. Doesn't beat a cigarette-sucking Japanese man who could have easily lived in three centuries leaning over to you, taking the little milk sachet/pot-let out of your very hands and then prising the plastic/foil seal off it for you with Krueger-esque fingernails before unceremoniously dropping the whole milk/seal/pot in your gasoliney coffee.

But having now left the delights of that particular coffeehouse, Subway it is. Once again, Japan has managed to take something I know much better than the back of my hand and just mess with little details, which completely addled my sleep-deprived (and in a rather Pavlovian manner, expecting coffee with lunch) brain. Subway Tokyo-style, you go up, you choose your filling and bread, which were understandably different from the UK, but, yes, I could deal with that, but then they toasted the filling and the bread separately. And then my sandwich artist put the salad on first. Then the filling, and then the topping. By the time he asked if I wanted a drink with that in flawless English the Queen and maybe even Kate Middleton would have been proud of, I was almost quivering.

On the subject of nervous wreakages, had a minor existential breakdown at the gym. Having now returned to my treadmill overlooking the lights of Shibuya, and once again started up the regular half-hour staring contest with the crows that roost on the roof of the building opposite, I fast discovered that after a week of sedentary browsing and evenings of what I will tentatively call comfort food but really means easy calorific fixes after long days at the office (which from now on will of course be remedied by work-out sessions and McDabstinence), but after all that I could no longer cope with forty-five minutes at eight-and-a-half km./hr. Add it up, calculate the calories burnt or unburnt - the guilt sets in, and you head back to the gym and do the manly thing and then have to head back to your little room and iron four shirts and the testosterone just about levels out

Back in the gym: we - the treadmill and I, connected by the wire from my earphones that seems to link us charging forwards but not heading out over the precipice of the five floors between the sheer glass window and the paved concrete below, along with the five feet of feminine something that I couldn't see in my periphery but was wearing perfume for her work-out, so was worthy clearly of some of my peripheral attention - clocked in just over twenty minutes  before I caught sight of my years flashing (literally) past my eyes: 20:01, 20:02. 20:03, 20:04, 2005, 2006... by the time we hit 20:20 and then 2030 and then 2040 my sweat was running cold as sweat can get before it's not sweat and you're frankly just leaking a little out of fear.

Sometimes I sweat just because it's a hot room and I'm still wearing my coat. I think that's fairly usual. Was such a case last Friday, after I (sort of) blagged my way into the opening reception for an exhibition based around Spike Jonze's new short film, I'm Here. You can watch it online, though I won't patronise with a link, though I'd recommend find it. Like Where The Wild Things Are but with twentysomethings who also happen to be robots falling in love in L.A. It's the invention, the creativity, the ideas that get me. Anyways, fan-boy issues aside, event was sponsored by Absolut Vodka, blah, feeling gregarious, blah blah, met Sonny Gerasimowicz and Meryl Smith, blah blah blah. But didn't meet Spike Jonze, Andrew Garfield, or Sienna Guillory. Admittedly, they weren't there. But then, come Saturday, I did walk in on the (and I quote) 'godawfully pretty girl' from Miila and the Geeks at her little store in Shibiya. 'Cept I didn't realise it was her until after I'd asked her if this tiny little indie record store carried any records by her band, and then discovered who she was. Awkward in my fave kinda way. And she's going to mail me her record. And she invited me to her next gig. And we tweeted each other. 

But on a more realistic note - p'haps even an aside - have now gained a place at a university of choice. Out of five chosen, two offers so far from three that didn't interview, and one rejection from the two that did. Seems my ex-girlfriend (and current girl friend, sorry M) was right when she told me, 'Jamie - you're much better on paper than in real life.' And so I blog away merrily, free from angst and worries, you know.