Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Last stop – Tahiti
March 5, 2010, 04:49
Filed under: Tahiti, Travel

‘Nothing’ doesn’t necessarily come cheap. Doing ‘nothing’, that is, especially when that ‘nothing’ takes place in an over-the-water bungalow on Tahiti’s Bora Bora lagoon; where lapping waves lull you to the most blissful sleep; where fish the size of footballs and the colour of molten gold can be seen directly beneath your glass-top coffee table; where the most arduous decision of the day is choosing between grilled mahi mahi fillets or marinated duck brochettes for dinner, and whether to try a glass of French rose or chardonnay.

Of course, you could scuba dive or kite surf, or jet ski, or sunbake or shop for pearls or float in a boat or paddle a kayak or read that book or watch that sunset or sip another cocktail or …

But that would be doing something, and we came to French Polynesia to do nothing. Thing is, it turns out that ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ fit together in Bora Bora as snugly as my ice-chilled Tahitian Hinano lager inside its neoprene bottle holder, where the neck is tapered tighter to hug the glass and keep your beer blizzardly cold.

Salut, juicht toe, prost, skol, au revoir and goodbye from the man formerly of Amsterdam.

Click image to see Tahiti Flickr set


Stoney-faced in Rapa Nui
February 26, 2010, 14:00
Filed under: Chile, Travel

Ever wanted to get away from it all, to really get away? Well, the one place on the planet that is furtherest from human habitation is Rapa Nui. Apart from its 4000 inhabitants and a steady stream of tourists, the nearest thing to a permanent civilisation is almost 2000 kilometres away to the west in Pitcairn Island, or roughly the same distance east to Chile.

Such isolation has its challenges. Lots of things have to be flown in (there is no port or ship loading facility), and this costs lots, as does maintaining basic infrastructure and providing essential services. Most roads are not paved, but are dusty rock-strewn tracks with potholes as big as tractor tyres. Packs of mostly friendly dogs either lie about in the molten humidity or bark wildly. Come to think of it, most of the humans on the island, including the tourists, did too.

Centuries of tribal warfare has left the island stripped bare of any forestation, leaving no trees for shade and a landscape more barren and infertile than most deserts. So everything has to be flown in, and this costs lots.

A common mode of local transport is on horseback, and piles of manure left on the streets of the island’s only settlement lend the air the scent of a stable. That’s why you need to take a torch with you at night because the street lights don’t always work, and you never know what you might tread on after dark.

Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory, so this means good ice-cream and tasty pisco sours are never far away. Neither are the stoney-faced statues (know as moai) that define the island’s international identity and provide its chief source of income. Most moai were desecrated  during prolonged internecine fighting hundreds of years ago. Apart from the free-standing monoliths at various stages of construction on the slopes of Rano Raraku (the volcanic quarry where the statues were carved), most other moai have been re-erected by locals, usually with the help of aid organisations or philanthropic initiatives, to not only preserve an integral cultural legacy, but attract tourists as well.

And it works. More than 50,000 of us turn up annually, and most of these during the ‘peak’ season from December to March, when the tradewinds abate slightly and the UV meter drops from Extreme to High. True, you can scuba dive or ride a wave or hike a hill or burn some skin while here, but you can do these elsewhere, probably cheaper and likely much better.

For us, Rapa Nui was a very convenient stopover, a neat midway rest stop on our long haul home across the Pacific from Santiago to Sydney via Tahiti. It’s a stopover, not a destination, which you could probably say about a lot of Asian or Middle Eastern cities (Bangkok and Hong Kong; Dubai and Abu Dhabi), but they are stopovers you could easily revisit, and Rapa Nui is definitely not.

Click here for Rapa Nui Flickr set …

Argentina – no country for vegetarians
February 20, 2010, 18:50
Filed under: Uncategorized

Placeholder for essay to come later.

In Patagonia
February 6, 2010, 17:58
Filed under: Argentina, Chile, Travel

Like Bruce Chatwin In Patagonia, we went to the southernmost town in the world:

Ushuaia began with a prefabricated mission house put up in 1869 by the Rev. W. H. Stirling alongside the shacks of the Yaghan Indians [the lowest form of humanity, according to Darwin]. For sixteen years Anglicanism, vegetable gardens and the Indians flourished. Then the Argentine Navy came and the Indians died of measles and pneumonia …The settlement graduated from navy base to convict station. The Inspector of Prisons designed a masterpiece of cut stone and concrete more secure than the jails of Siberia. Its blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest of slits, lie to the east of the town. It is now used as a barracks.

That was in the late 1970s, when Chatwin came this way. Today, the prison come barracks is a museum, like Alcatraz, open to the public and meant to show how penal justice was dispensed a century or so ago. Mornings in Ushuaia began in flat calm for Chatwin:

Across the Beagle Channel you saw the jagged outline of Hoste Island opposite and the Murray Narrows, leading down to the Horn archipelago. By mid-day the water was boiling and slavering and the far shore blocked by a wall of vapour.

He also noted that, “The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. The men worked in a crab cannery or in the navy yards, kept busy by a niggling cold war with Chile. The last house before the barracks was the brothel. Skull-white cabbages grew in the garden.”

Well, the men and women today are much more friendly, they’re reproducing and most likely work in tourism or hospitality, though the cannery survives, supplying the plethora of Ushuaia’s restaurants with the local King Crab delicacy, a crustacean sensation unequalled for size, taste and the wrangling, wrestling effort needed to separate its succulent flesh from the hardest shell I’ve ever tried to crack. Eating one is an exercise in resistance training.

Plus, we cruised the Beagle Channel, lunched at Estancia Harberton, rode the El Tren del Fin de Mundo (the train at the end of the world) as well as the Old Patagonian Express, trekked the Parque Nacional Tierra Del Feugo and ate more Argentinian beef than is humanly possible. Later, in El Calafate, we clamped crampons on and toured the Perito Merino Glacier, as well as criss-crossed the Chilean border into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, perhaps the alpine highlight at “The Uttermost Part of the Earth”, with its rugged granite pillars soaring almost vertically to nearly 3000 metres above the Patagonian steppe. Welcome to the end of the world; where nature in all its glacial glory lies untamed and unfurled.

Click image for Patagonia Flickr set

Tango in Buenos Aires
February 3, 2010, 03:22
Filed under: Argentina, Travel

Click image to see tango Flickr set

Iguazu – a very tall waterfall
January 28, 2010, 02:13
Filed under: Brazil

Click image for Flickr set of Iguazu Falls.

Rio postscript – a streetcar named desire
January 26, 2010, 22:46
Filed under: Brazil, Rio de Janeiro

He looked like your regular beggar, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, maimed or crippled, I thought, as he held out his hand pleading for charity or change. This right on Copacabana’s Ave Atlantica – probably the busiest thoroughfare in Rio – albeit on the quieter side of the street, just off the car parking stretch and in between major hotels, where the street lighting was slightly dim, and only occasional pedestrians would wander, most likely en route to their accommodations, as I was. Six lanes of teeming traffic and a generous median strip separated us from the promenade along the actual beach, with its tatty kiosks, piles of coconuts, bright lights and constant stream of sunburnt humanity in various stages of undress. It had cooled down to a 30 degrees and was very sultry.

Others just in front of me walked right by the beggar, as I was about to, when he ‘miraculously’ got to his feet and grabbed me by the upper arm in a grip that was not normal or acceptable. Caught completely unawares, I instinctively tried to brush his hand away, protesting in English as he muttered something in Portuguese, but he would not let go, and as I tried to back away with his vice grip still attached, he growled; “Give me money,” then produced a reasonably sized knife from the sleeve of his other hand and pointed it at my stomach.

You don’t rehearse or imagine how you might react in these situations, though in a town like Rio, with all its warnings about muggings etc, the prospect is never far from your mind. The reality, mostly, is that these young men born into abject poverty and with very little prospects out of the favela slum, don’t want to cause grievous bodily harm; they just want your cash, and quickly.

I said no. Don’t ask my why. I just said no. It wasn’t a dare or a rehearsed response; it’s just what came out. And with each subsequent refusal of mine his limited English became more aggressive: “See knife,” he said, angling it closer: “Give me money.”

“No money”. And I kept backing away towards the corner where others might be walking, ‘for reasons of security’, and still his grip remained. He was of similar build but probably slightly shorter, very dark skinned with a scar on his cheek, like Omar’s in The Wire. He was bare foot, his head closely shorn, his clothes were soiled and torn, and he was deceptively strong.

The blade looked more like a large steak knife, with a serrated edge. In the darkness it even looked rusty (the things you notice?), and he held it, not pointed out front any more, but ‘upside down’ with the blade running along the underside of his wrist, and so concealing it to some degree from others.

“I have no money,” I repeated, which he seemed to understand because he repeated it too. Truth is I had about $40 cash buried deep in a pocket, which takes 2 hands and a fair bit of fiddling to retrieve at the best of times, let alone when a knife is being pointed at you. And given he had a tight hold on one arm, there was no way I could access the cash anyway. Not that I weighed this up at the time.

He looked away suddenly (at something or someone approaching, I don’t know?), but a flicker of recognition or resignation flashed across his face, and he let go of my arm, hurried to a fence a few metres away, picked up a small plastic sac, and disappeared into the night. The whole episode probably lasted less than 10 seconds.

Shaken, but not stirred, I headed in the opposite direction of my assailant in search of police. No sign of any. Went back to the hotel, but waited for a family to head in the same direction and ‘lurked’ close behind. And for the remaining 36 hours in Rio, I was looking at every man approaching me and seeing if something was hidden in his hand or on his face, and I turned my back constantly, on the lookout for anyone intent on sinister deeds. It was not the ideal way to end my stay.

I even chickened out of my last planned adventure; a desire to ride the only remaining streetcar across the colonial aqueduct through the crumbling, bohemian grandeur of Santa Terasa all the way up winding Rua Joaquim Murtinho to lunch at Largo Dos Guimaraes. (This the area British train robber, Ronnie Biggs, hung out for all those years.) Guidebooks say avoid Santa Teresa on weekends and particularly if alone, but if you do go, stick with a group but be wary of pairs of youths on mopeds. This was Sunday and I was solo. Not the best timing. It’s a poor area, which ironically is probably safer at night when the streets come alive with the sounds and beats of samba.

Now the chances of being accosted are fairly slim at the best of times, given the millions who visit this city. So the odds of being mugged twice in 2 days was unimaginable, right? I came back from a ferry trip across the bay to Niteroi early Sunday morning (my last day), which deposits you in a ‘not very safe’ area anyway. The transport from here was always going to be a taxi with a working meter and an older driver; the ‘brave’ destination was go to the streetcar station at Bonde or take the coward’s option and head back to Copacabana. I opted for the former and asked the driver to slow down as we approached the Bonde station. I wanted to suss out the neighbourhood, to see if there were commuters or tourists providing security in numbers, but people were generally thin on the ground, except for several pairs of youths on mopeds, so I said to the driver: “Copacabana, por favor.”

This is what it had come down to; travelling around in a taxi fearful of getting out unless there were hordes about. Not what travel is for me. But would I recommend Rio as a destination? Absolutely. Just take heed of the precautions, go with a companion possibly (if that’s not too dire) and make sure it’s a weekday you choose to ride that streetcar named desire.

For reasons of security
January 23, 2010, 14:30
Filed under: Brazil, Travel

Peter Allen and Barry Manilow have a lot to answer for because Copacabana is crap. Ugly high rise hotels line a long curved beach, and the tepid warm water is not that clean, nor is the sand. Haven’t seen a wave all week; and they call this paradise. Heavily armed tourist police patrol the beach, ‘for reasons of security’.

The city however, is extraordinary. The sheer physicality of its topography, with its high-density living, its frantic noise, its mega energy, its kamikaze bus drivers, its smouldering heat, its tropical downpours, its blizzardly cold beers, its poseurs and pretenders constantly parading along promenades, all make it feel like you’re living in a permanent fast lane with no drop-off zone in sight.

In one of the many little kiosks along the beach, a barman took a green coconut and held it upright in the palm of his hand and with a very sharp, shiny machete he lashed down at the top of the coconut and sliced off a section, then he did it again but from a different angle, taking another wedge off the top to make an opening, and if the machete slipped down the side of the coconut, his hand would have been separated from his wrist, but this didn’t happen. After that, he added some ice cubes and a straw and charged 3 reais (about $2) for a coco drink. It was not very refreshing, and so I only ordered caipirinhas after that (mashed limes, sugar syrup and cane liquor, shaken over ice) because they are extremely refreshing in the heat, but more than four can make you a bit tiddly, which is why it’s wise to have some acaraje (spicy prawn croquettes) as well, ‘for reasons of sobriety’.

Everyone wears Havaianas, probably for reasons of national prosperity or identity.

In the favela slums, the drug barons and their armies keep the peace (and everything else) because the police don’t go there, unless a gang war breaks out, which is usually for control of territory. The last ‘war’ was in 2004 and it lasted 40 days. Only marijuana and cocaine is traded; there is no heroin at all. The drug boss of the largest slum (120,000 plus residents) has a nickname that translates from the Portuguese to ‘baby’ in English; this according to Simone, the guide of the excellent favela tour I took. Apparently ‘Baby’ moves house every week or so, ‘for reasons of security’.

Rio’s Maracana football stadium holds 100,000 plus and I went to see a game between two arch rival teams in the local state league that was played in scorching temperatures, and fans where kept apart by polizia with batons the size of baseball bats. (These were different police to the ones on the beach beat.) You had to lift up your shirt at the security check point on entering to ensure you weren’t carrying firearms or other weapons.  Most males (and many females) took their shirt off, and left it off anyway, which had horrendous consequences on the trip home (more later). Fans with drums and horns and trumpets and trombones made more noise than a symphony orchestra, and sounded much better. Thankfully, the section I ended up in was the victor on the day (3-0), and it was the largest contingent by far, so I felt safe because there is safety in numbers, but there is also very bad body odour when the same numbers pack into the metro to go home.

The jockey club races 4 days a week (entrance is free) with about 8-10 races each day, and I only lost about $50, but that’s OK. Spent maybe $100 on expenses though, mainly rehydrating refreshments because it was about 35 degrees well into the night and there was still 2 or 3 races to go, but I didn’t stay because I wasn’t sure when the last bus from the jockey club back to Copacabana was, and I may not have had enough money for a taxi. There was a tiny  crowd, which was 95% white , 99% male, plus 1 gringo who looked decidedly out of place wandering around and carrying a camera, but the numbers attending slowly went up as the temperatures came down. The concierge gave me 2 tips before I left; the first one ran last and the second one was to don’t even think about walking back to the hotel at night, ‘for reasons of security’. See a Racing in Rio Flickr set here.

The roads, the beaches, the sites, the thronging metropolis, all feel crowded and stretched to bursting point now; so how will it cope with a Football World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games just 2 years later? The city authorities may have to call a truce and enlist the drug barons’ armies, ‘for reasons of security’ and efficiency. Welcome to Rio; mind the irony.

Click image to see Rio Flickr set

Amsterdam ends
January 18, 2010, 18:07
Filed under: Amsterdam, Travel

There was a photo in the local press over the weekend of favela children cooling off under a hose (or fountain?) attempting to relieve Rio’s stifling heatwave, and the reality hit home that I was about to head home: Amsterdam has ended.

Most of my housemates at Grote Bickersstraat are here for a year, so they’re only half way through their stint as an international student, and I guess if this was the case, you’d pace yourself knowing the annual demands of seasons, subjects, borrel (drinking) sessions and semesters, which is what I think I’ve done – pace myself, that is – albeit subconsciously, but for only half that time.

And so now as Australia Day approaches, my time is nigh, and I want to move on, to meet Anita midway home in South America and trek through Patagonia. So with exams over (Distinctions across the board, with one HD), the goodbyes are done, the cell inspection passed, the housing bond refunded, the bike ‘recycled’, winter clothes donated and excess baggage posted. Ah, out it all goes, but not before a Cafe Thijssen double espresso. The last photo has been taken, the final tosti eten, and farewell drinks at Cafe De Gouden Reael, consumed. It’s goodbye cheap red wine and cans of tuna in brine; I won’t miss my feet freezing, but the wholemeal multigrain baguettes will be hard to beat.

All expectations (academically, professionally and geographically) thoroughly and chillingly exceeded.

Due to the obscene departure hour (8am), I stayed the final night at an airport hotel,  Citizen M, and it is a little bit Futurama meets The Jetsons. Take a look at the pics below. Eames and Vitra furniture everywhere. I was sure Scotty was about to beam me up at any stage throughout the shower, a cylindrical, transparent tube with a water faucet as big as a dinner plate and with more pressure than your average sports masseuse. You could check in, spend the night, watch movies for free on a big plasma flat screen, dine in the cafe/bar (portion control meals you heat in a microwave or dress your own salads), have breakfast and check out without ever coming into contact with a single staff member, for it can be entirely self serve, from start to finish. You just swipe your room card (issued from an ATM-like machine on checking in) and the tally keeps increasing, charged directly of course to your credit card, for there is no cash whatsoever in this establishment. Rest assured, there are staff if you do need assistance, but for the most part, they’re conspicuous by their absence. It was voted best new hotel/concept 2009 by the Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

Note loo at left (an opaque glass door slides around you), see the transparent cylindrical shower tube at right; mid frame is a pedestal basin, with bed and plasma screen beyond. Outside the window is the runway.

Funky foyer, one of 6 'rooms' that make up the ground floor. This one regarded as casual business; apart from the bank of check-in machines, other 'rooms' include formal business, children, TV, games, cafe and bar. WiFi free everywhere.

Strangely, I think I feel ready to return to work too, though that won’t be until after Easter, so there are still a few months remaining of wandering and wondering, of reading and dreaming … and then came the boarding call for Iberia flight IB 3215 to Rio de Janeiro, via Madrid, so I raised my arms as if held at gunpoint, but it’s only the full body scan treatment, although the woman in front of me was persistent in her resistance, she was eventually convinced the revealing technology was in all our interests as it was meant to deter the occasional terrorist.

Perhaps the final entry in this blog must wait, to allow some ‘distance’ before a closing reflection can be fully articulated, or appreciated, of the semester this man spent in Amsterdam.

Stopover in Braunschweig
January 15, 2010, 15:36
Filed under: Germany, Travel

I met Evelyn in 1988. She was waiting for a friend at London’s Victoria Station, having just arrived from her German home town of Braunschweig. I too was waiting for a friend at London’s Victoria Station, having just arrived back in England from Spain. We both had big backpacks and each of us noticed the other standing around, staring at the crowd in search of someone known. I think it was she who offered first to ‘watch’ my pack while I went looking for my friend. Not sure this would happen in our more security conscious times today. I must have accepted, failed in my search, and then returned the favour. We did this several times during the afternoon for each other, all to no avail.

That’s how we met. We have caught up many times since, both in Europe and Australia. And we are still in touch 22 years later. She is married with children and that is her and her youngest boy, Finn (below), getting some very fresh air late in the day in snow covered fields just beyond their back fence.

The bird in the picture below was one of many that were feeding in a tree in their yard right outside the window, so I grabbed the Nikon and snapped a few hundred shots during the course of a morning, while we sipped tea (Germans don’t do coffee well at all) and ate divine cakes in Remembrance of Times Past.