Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Papers: Alessandro W. Mavilio


"Time is a traveler who never returns."


On the turntable: Cowboy Junkies, "Live in Europe 1990"
On the nighttable: Fridtjof Nansen, "Farthest North"


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Scenes from an Italian Roadtrip

 



Rome--
Flying into Rome to meet LYL.  We were meant to meet at a cafe on the Piazza del Popolo, but she and another couple were turned away because they were Chinese.  (Amazing this happening in a city surrounded by so much history, but apparently they've learned nothing from it.)  I begin a frustrated search, exhausted from a 12 hour flight, peeking into cafe and cafe under we walk right into each in a small back alley.  Love always wins...

...seagulls call out to one another in the street at dawn. Up the street, a group of men are hard at work at Trevi fountain, sweeping up the coins with long handled brooms before the tourists return to fill it again...

...I make a pair of visits to the Antico Caffè Greco, Rome's oldest bar.  It was been fueling poets and painters since 1760, including Stendhal, Goethe, Byron, Franz Liszt, Keats, Henrik Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Wagner, and more recently Morrissey and those noisy American girls at the next table.. I take my coffee amongst the Baroque paintings and antiques, served up by waiters in tails...   


Todi-- 
...tiny birds the same color as the tiles on the terrace...

...invisible villas and towns in the valley below, mere lights at night, but fully visible at dawn, spread across the deep rolling valleys of Umbria;  the sound of farm noises from somewhere below...  

... I am getting a good education in European wines this summer:  French wines are lighter so as to emphasize the subtleties of heavier food and rich sauces;  Italians are bold in order to add accents to the lighter pastas;  German wines the wild card, the sweetness counterbalances all that meat.  It is all made moot when I am served Chinese boar for dinner...




Castille Delle Serre--  After the quiet of siesta, noise begins to rise, mainly as squeaky birds. They perch nearby, battling with the pigeons for supremacy...

A platoon of lizards appear once the sun is gone, scampering down a wall now colored Tuscan. There is a distinct contrast with Umbria, in that the latter is the scenery of 19th Century painting where Tuscany is like a film location...

...the chill of the air at dawn is a reminder that autumn will come. And with it, the inevitable decay.  This castille as well shows its age, most dramatically in the industrial staples in the roof spire...


... a week playing connect the dots with the castle towns of Tuscany, vowel-heavy names that roll like the hills themselves: Perugia, Volterra, San Gimignano, Montaione, Castelfalfi, Lucca, Pitigliano, Montalcino...

...the ancient Etruscan cities further south, empty and forgotten, and Pisa on the sea, simply mobbed.  If all the tourists were to combine their strength and push, the leaning tower could be righted in a single afternoon...   

...and the headliner of the entire trip, Andreas Bocelli playing his annual show at the Teatro del Silenzio in Lajàtico.  A once in a lifetime experience, this night at the opera, as the silhouettes of castle towers fade with the light...

...every meal simply epic, one after another after another...  

...the final days wandering the rubbled sites of Rome, and a long quiet visit to the house of Keats and Shelley, finishing my visit in the 19th century before flying back to the 21st.   


On the turntable: Caetano Veloso: "Ciculado ao Vivo"
On the nightable:  Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, "Aparajito"

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Papers: Apsley Cherry-Garrard


"The road to Hell might be paved with good intentions: the road to Heaven is paved with lost opportunities."

On the turntable:  Arsenio Rodriquez, "Sabroso Y Caliente"


Friday, February 17, 2017

If a Body Meet a Body Coming Down the Rhine





Scattered notes from a Rhine cruise that didn't really come off, June 2016...
 


The population of Amsterdam is an obedient one. Hash and prostitution may be legal, but no one seems to jaywalk.  The people are big too, and young.  Urinals stand at waist height for me, and I’m 185 cm.  I imagine that if you were any shorter than that you'd have to arch your back and make like Manneken-pis... 

..the Rhine is running high from the melting off of late-season snowfall in the nearby Alps, and the ship can't pass beneath the bridges to get to us.  We are forced to take the bus to Cologne and board the following day.  The rain keeps filling the river...

...we finally spend our first night aboard but awake to rain.  This day's section is the poets’ Rhine; the castles and towering peaks beyond serve well as inspiration for Romantic gushing in multiple languages.  Sadly the heaviness of the clouds presses down upon her waters and her looming hills.  While perfect for recalling the mood of the old tales of knights, and maidens, and corrupt Bishops, it is a far cry from the flawless blues skies of the tourist posters. Still, we make do...

...I had long looked forward to quiet mornings reading beside the rail, distracted occasionally by the passage of the landscape.  Instead, we sit moored in Mannheim, and those dreams are steamrolled.  Buses ferry us to the remaining destinations, but rather than waking up in a new town each morning, we are shuttled further and further each day.  On one bus journey, I am told (in confidence) by one of the staff that (s)he'd only experienced one-third of these cruises going as scheduled, due to the fluctuations of water-levels. (Note to self, only cruise in September.)  In fact, I had booked this very trip after reading that the autumn cruises had been hampered by water levels lowered due to climate change, and had intended to write a piece about how our changing planet is effecting travel.  I definitely got more than what I was looking for... 


...despite the monotony of the bus journeys, the cities delight.  Heidelberg and Strasbourg are picture perfect, but it is the smaller riverside towns that appease the most, singing and yodeling coming from every brauhaus. Europe in the lingering daylight of summer is a wonderful thing...      

...the Germans make good buildings and automobiles, but in the streets they make good obstacles.  Even in this high-season, the streets aren't particularly crowded.  But the locals seem intent not to see tourists at all, and will walk right through you...
 

...on our final day in Freiburg we find a quaint and pretty town, once you get beneath the graffiti.  The sun is finally out, so we sit with a beer in the square beside the cathedral, on a bustling market day.  I reflect on the past week and how it was the opposite of how I usually do my trips.  I tend to enjoy the road more than the destinations.  This time I found the destinations supreme, and the journey between was hardly a journey at all.

 
On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Little Girl Blue"
On the nighttable:  Bibhutibhshan Bandopadhyay, "Pather Panchali"


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sketches of Oz






I have a quite enviable position as a travel writer, in being able to take numerous trips per year.  The flip side is when the rate of travel is so great that I am left with little time to write it up.  I took a series of trips from late 2015 to late 2016, yet found myself reading about the places I visited, rather than writing about them.  I will post a number of sketches direct from my travel notes.  First up, a brief look at Australia, December '15...

The plane curls in over the Blue Mountains...

...the land below is all dry earth, parched trees.  No wonder my Australia clients gush about all the rushing water in Japan...  

...airport security is quite elaborate for a former penal colony...

...Nicole Kidman stands ten meters high on a billboard for Emirates...

...kids argue in a Volvo in Rush Hour traffic. My own taxi driver pops his gum...

...the beautiful Georgians lining Argyle Drive, hung with posters petitioning their survival...

...watching the red sails in the sunset of the Opera House over dinner...

...James Bond henchmen moonlight as crew on the ferry out to Hobart's MONA.  Bouncing on the trampoline set at the edge of the cliffs, feeling dizzy at the thought of pitching over the nets.  Finding more inspiration in a glass of wine out in the garden than in the art within...

...driving clockwise around Tasmania.  A living forest literally teeming with life, but for the road kill.  I've never seen so many dead animals before.  At least they break the monotony of trees, eucalyptus a perpetual grey corridor.  To reach a town brings relief...

...Strahan a small and quaint village built on a large cove.  Sadly the boats aren't running due to the cold weather.  The chill stays with us up to Cradle Mountain, creeping into the corners of our cabin, defeated once and for all in the fireplace.  We keep our hike the following day low, amongst the scrub, upper torsos perpetually in sunlight.  Above, the landscape is ruled by lingering snow...

...a series of good meals in Launceston, burned off with walks amongst her Victorian finery...

...the wild scenery of the east coast:  Bay of Fires, Wineglass Bay.  Encountering dozens of kangaroos on the hiks to the latter...

...after pints at Iron Horse Brewery, spying a kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree...

...Bicheno quiet and shuttered on an low season Sunday.  Finding the only restaurant to be Chinese.  Outside, a Singaporean family bickers in a mix and match of two dialects...

...Port Arthur like a cathedral, despite tragic history new and old.  Peace walks across wide expanses of lawn, darting in and out of ruined buildings...

...having a devil of a time at the Tasmanian animal rescue and rehabilitation center.  Amongst all the soft cuddlies, a Tiger snake lazes fat and bloated beside a log...

...a handful of days in Melbourne, walking, sipping, eating.  Having a chance meet with a friend on the rooftop of a bustling Siglo bar, then running into another friend at the very restaurant he had recommended a year before...

...the long queues outside every coffee shop at 9:10 every weekday morning.  It's as if Melbourne punches their time cards, then ducks back out for their first cuppa...

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Stollin'"

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Malaysian Sketches




1.
From the air, Malaysia appears as a carpet of palms...
  
...immigration queues seem separated by types of clothing:  Malaysians in Muslim attire; Chinese in business suits; tourists in shorts and T-shirts... 
 
...the pesky little issue with Customs.  Bringing gifts of sake to Japanophile friends, forgetting completely that Malaysia is a Muslim country.   

...Riding in from the airport:  A burnt-out truck in a rest area.  Billboards still welcoming those attending the 2015 ASEAN Summit.  Women on billboards, each a beauty, each in hajib.  Billboards of children, each studious, each bespectacled...

  ...All Asia is beginning to look the same.  You determine your whereabouts by the calendar rather than landscape.  If it's Tuesday, it must be Bentong...


2.
...walking the 3D cityscape of KL, like papercuts backed by jungly hills, the low rise of old town dwarfed by massive glass spires beyond.  In comparison, the cities of Japan are flat, a jumble of multi-level structures.  KL has no middle-ground, with deep gaps in the strata...
 
...early mornings sitting quietly on the veranda of a friend's flat in Damansara, listening to the birdsong until their voices are lost to the sound of cars.  Then the call to prayer.  There's a beauty in its cutting through the thin morning air, filling the valley with syllables that rise and fall as if the fickleties of faith. This is far more pleasant than what follows: the incessant and steady clang clang clang of the bell of the Hindu temple, jarring the gods awake.   One morning, I see a plume of smoke rising from the structure beside the mosque, a serpentine ribbon of smoke, charmed by an unheard flute. I turn away for awhile and as I turn back I see that the same smoke now coats the entire valley, the entire city, the entire view. I realize then that it's rain, rain that has come in sudden and hard. It's interesting being in a new place in the rain, to see how the locals react, how dramatically affected they are to what is certainly a common experience here in the tropics. It helps me notice for the first time that the entrances to all the shops lined shoulder-to-shoulder have overhanging balconies, no doubt for this very reason. Pedestrians and motorcycles begin to thin.  On a street or two over, a car horn begins to sound. Then the obligatory sirens...


3.
...the tourist hordes at Malacca have carried away piecemeal any charm the town may have once had.  And on this day too, it is overrun.  The streets in its World Heritage Chinatown have never ending traffic, making walking very unpleasant.  The museums and tourist sites themselves aren't terribly interesting, and look decades old.  More attention goes into the obnoxious tri-rickshaws that shriek as they go past.  Tourism reduced to its least common denominator, the Disneyfication of everywhere.  It bloody well is a small world after all.  Too fucking small.  But the food redeems...    




4.
...on the way to Cameron Highlands, at nearly every bend in the road are Orang Asli huts, their laundry strung along like pinafores...  

...seen from afar, the strawberry greenhouses of the Highlands are streamers of confetti littering the ridge line... 

... recreating Jim Thompson's final walk, through a stretch of jungle, mind ever conscious of tigers.  Thompson's villa itself is off-limits, owned by a businessman with no apparent sense of history.  Granted he owns the property, but the abuse of the surrounding jungle is criminal, in the felling of centuries-old Scottish pine, and the illegal drainage system.  Thompson's estate in Bangkok has made numerous offers to turn the site into a museum, but the owner refuses to budge.  Ironically, I lose my earring on the walk, not far from where Thompson himself disappeared in 1967...
 
...a quiet afternoon spent on the veranda, enshrouded by teak and rattan.  It was nice playing at being British for a day, having strawberry scones for tea, watching the limbs of the proud Scottish pines brush away the final winds of the waning monsoon.... 
 
...I am personally disappointed with the Highlands, long a place of mystery to me, due to the Thompson myth.  How much better to leave such places to the realm of imagination.  There is far too much building going on, large concrete hotels scratched out of former jungle. I come across a book that tells me that the government is attempting to "Restore the Highlands to its former glory," as if they themselves admit how unattractive it has become.  I'm not sure what the methods of restoration are, but in this case, subtraction seems better than addition...


5.
...the great mosque at Ipoh dimpled like the lunar base in some 70s sci-fi TV show. Still a beauty, in a beautiful town.  Worth an overnight next time...

...wending westward through the hills, crossing the Sungai Perak river and into the forests of rubber... 

...Taiping massacred, a living museum in its own right, almost the polar opposite of Malaccca in that no care at all has gone into any upkeep. Walking past monuments to former colonial glory has some charm, though perhaps not in the heat of midday.  Few tourists seem to come here, nor do they really need to I suppose.  LYL and I have a quick lunch in some nondescript little corner shop, ordering things hanging behind scratched glass. (I think that it must be tough to be a chicken in a country like this.  The Hindus avoid beef, the Muslims avoid pork, but chicken is fair game to all.) A young fellow nearby seems taken with me and my foreignness, though it may simply be his tall bottle of Guinness.  He repeatedly tries to talk to me, to find a common language.  LYL with her four Chinese dialects stays quiet, letting me have this moment.  I am able to figure out that he is a Burmese refugee, hard-up it seems.  He tells me that he is a Christian.  Am I a Christian?  When I tell him that if I am anything, it is Buddhist, he shifts into Hokkien and calls me a fucking cunt.  It's a small mind after all...     

 
6.
...where Malacca got it so wrong, Penang got it perfectly right.  In fact it is one of the best preserved of Asia's many historical capitals.  The recent street art isn't really necessary, being nothing more than a flourish, but doesn't detract in the least. As it is, the art is somewhat hidden, something you stumble upon, though these days you simply look for the usual mob armed with selfie sticks.  Georgetown's true art of course is its architecture, made more beautiful due to its utility. The beauty lies exactly in the fact that they are still being used. (The sole exception being the Pinang Peranakan mansion, which looks more like a dumping ground for antiques.  The house in Malacca is far better, though the staff there is uptight and unpleasant.) Most houses have been allowed to reflect their historical importance, like that of Sun Yat-sen, made all the more atmospheric for the clack of majong tiles coming from the house next door.  Some structures have been converted into bars and restaurants; others are abandoned, but look like they can be resuscitated rather easily.  Strolling the streets is a feast for the eye. As for the mouth, well the food in town can hold its own with any in the world.  Malaysia is sadly underrated as a food culture...

...  the aging queen, the E & O Hotel.  Our suite is spacious and harkens back to a time when travel was glamorous, without any self-conscious attempt to do so. Granted the staff is dressed in old period garb, but it feels like they have always done so.  History hangs heavy in the air like ghosts.  But they welcome, rather than haunt.  Much the same can be said about the Old Protestant Cemetery nearby.  A person can learn everything they need to know about Penang by simply reading the headstones.  So many lives lost young here, the price to be paid in order to build a colony.  I find the headstone for Thomas Leonowens, husband to Anna, of The King and I fame.  Incredible to think that in dying young, Thomas had set into motion the education of a future king, who would lead Siam progressively into the future...

 ...avoiding the crowds to go up Penang Hill.  We stroll the old abandoned cottages here.  I wanted to see the Bellevue Hotel since I had heard that they once had venomous snakes in the trellises above the dining tables of the garden terrace.  The hotel looks like it has declined in more recent years, and I assumed that the snakes, and the dining area itself, were long gone. (However a bit of searching online confirmed that they are still in residence there.)   We do find snakes at the Snake Temple further south, as promised.  The couple of dozen that we see are extremely listless, yet we tread very carefully.  I am very afraid of snakes, and it takes a fair bit of courage to wander about the place.  I am repeatedly startled while looking at a photo of something, then to suddenly notice a snake just overhead...


7.
...the climactic sunset of the final night, seen from the beach of Langkawi, as if the sky is set aflame due to sparks thrown upward by the collision of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.  Then the return flight through that same sky, a fortnight's worth of destinations far below, tell-tale traces laid bare for  eyes made experienced at their acquaintance.  


On the turntable:  Coleman Hawkins, "Imagination"

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

(untitled)





Playing peekaboo with the city,
Through the white of
Splayed fingers.
 
 
 
On the turntable:   Charles Lloyd, "All my Relations"