Our man [formally] of Amsterdam


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

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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.



Closed on Monday
January 11, 2010, 20:11
Filed under: Germany

The arctic blizzards eased just enough for flights into Berlin, and when the plane finally came to a stop 50 metres from the terminal, its front wheels were buried in a pile of snow built up and left by the snow-plough as it fought full time to keep the runway clear. There was a walkway for passengers alighting planes that was carved across the tarmac but had turned to mush and ice, so you had to tread carefully all the way as the air froze your face and burnt your ears, and small children swung from the outstretched arms of their parents as they slipped and slid on the icy surface.

This is no climate for spectacle wearers as they either become streaked with sleet if outside or fog up with condensation on entering anywhere warm indoors. Laser eye surgery inquiries must rise this time of the year in this part part of the world, especially in weather like this.

The train from the airport to Berlin centrum was delayed, like many around the country that day, as were my intended rail connections heading south west, but I boarded anyway and about an hour later, with darkness approaching and temperatures plummeting, I sought refuge at a little town where I had to change trains. But the station at Lutherstadt Wittenberg was a long way from the little town and the walk was slow, treading carefully again, this time over ice or knee-deep in snow, and with a backpack weighing about 20 kilos. Found room at an inn and eventually slept contentedly with a belly full of beer, though not more than twenty.

Berlin airport, Sunday 10 January

A maximum of -5 degrees today, they say, and my hardiest shoes were hardly suitable. Wittenberg has remarkable UNESCO-listed sites, but they are all closed on Monday. So in cafes I read and write, and realise that in a week’s time I’ll be heading to Rio where the weather is a cloudy and sultry 35 degrees, the thought of which helps thaw my feet and melts the ice that’s nestled on my ‘unsuitable’ shoes, leaving a wet patch on the cafe’s wooden floor when I leave. Welcome to Germany; mind the freeze.



My big fat Greek speeding
January 9, 2010, 20:28
Filed under: Greece

The taxi driver was in his early twenties, large of build, clean cut, and a smoker. He seemed to know the hotel when I mentioned my destination in Thessaloniki, which is always a relief when arriving via the international airport in a new country or city. I pulled out the hotel booking confirmation as we sped out the exit, uttered the street name (just to be sure), and he nodded with a comforting, “Yes, it I know. Very nice. Full of lesbos.” Did he mean Lebanese or lesbians or some other semantic concoction lost in translation? All attempts at working out what he meant failed, so I leaned back and enjoyed the decrepit, dusty countryside as dusk set on the Thermaikos Gulf.

But this relaxed nature was very short lived because the road from the airport to the city is marked with 3 lanes, but we were in a ‘4th’, anywhere between the generous ‘shoulder’ alongside the guardrail and the median strip, as he weaved between cars, braking and accelerating in turn, and the whole time ensuring the speedometer never dipped below 100km/h.

“I’m in no hurry,” I said on several occasions. He spoke very loudly (so as to be heard over the blaring radio) and very quickly in response, but it was all Greek to me. Of greater concern was that he insisted on looking at me when he spoke, and without taking his foot off the accelerator. After that I didn’t say a single word. But he did; on his mobile in response to The Godfather ring tone. And he wasn’t in hands-free mode.

Both my feet were pressed hard to the floor and my knuckles were white against the peeling padded door handle. In the fading daylight I could see the red blur of banked-up brake lights way ahead, and was never so glad to see a peak hour gridlock in my life. The blood soon returned to my hands as I let go of the door handle and I took both feet off the ‘brake’. It was a peak hour crawl for the second half of the 30-minute journey, and I smiled inside, silently. Welcome to Greece; where speed seems to come easy.

See the Thessaloniki Flickr set here.



The big dump
January 6, 2010, 20:36
Filed under: Amsterdam

I entered the sub-terranean basement basketball court in the bowels of the Sports Centrum (aka the exam room) in glorious sunshine this morning, only to exit this afternoon into a postcard. The wind had dropped, the air had warmed (yes, warmed) and there was fresh snow everywhere. And it was still falling, great fluffly chunks of the stuff, and it squeaked when I walked. But oh how dangerous it was for  bicyclists as their tyres loose all traction in such conditions, with many coming to grief in a sprawling tangle of metal and rubber and loads of flying snow.

I had missed the pre-Christmas blitz of cold weather and icy canals due to the mini tour of North Africa and other parts Mediterranean, so it was kinda cool to see this today. I took the overland tram home from the exam venue instead of the much quicker underground Metro, and snapped these pics during the short walk from Centraal to my cell. Oh, and the exam wasn’t too bad either.

Tomorrow, pending a working airport, I head to northern Greece for another short tour of duty, stopping at Berlin and Braunschweig on the way back, via Albania.

Click image to see The Big Dump Flickr set.



The lore of the communal laundry
January 3, 2010, 19:53
Filed under: Amsterdam, Student

With more than 80 student tenants and only 4 washing machines, things can get a little ‘heated’ in the basement laundry, and we’re not just talking about  condensation from the 4 dryers. Having arrived home last night from the mini tour with a backpack full of soiled clothes, I was dreading the prospect of having to take several days to wash and dry more than one load.

Alas though, the place was deserted, except for the rogue panties and socks left behind in machines or dryers and pinned to the group notice board awaiting their owners’ retrieval. Strange that I felt such joy and contentment then at finding the laundry to myself, and we’ll probably not explore that point any more. Seems many kiddies are still on leave, and from a clothes cleaning perspective, that makes me happy.

But it was not always so. In the halcyon mid semester weeks of warmer weather and dirty collars from hours of late night dirty dancing, the laundry was a hot bed of frustration and delay, and into this maelstrom of liquid detergent and undergraduate detritus, something had to give way.

Which is how the laundry lore developed. I do not know if it was discussed at the body corporate or bar room level (probably the latter), but this is how it works. (Note, this only applies to washing, not drying, as some people have delicate intimates not suitable for the rough and jumble of a tumble dryer.)

You leave your clothes basket (or bag) and detergent in a queue in front of a washing machine if it is in motion. And the next day you’d go down to the basement and there would be your clothes shoved into your laundry bag awaiting collection on the bench.

There was no laundry fairy, just the poor sucker who happened to be there when the load had finished and the machine idle, for it was their ‘duty’ to empty the completed load into the supplied bag, place the contents of the next basket/bag in the queue into the machine (using the supplied detergent, which by the way, was mostly liquid, not powder, in case you were interested), and then set your own basket/bag down at the end of the queue. If you worked it right, and had an uncanny sense of avoidance, you never had to actually “do a load of washing” all semester. As for drying, well that was a free-for-all; it was every man for herself, but most ended up buying a clothes horse or drying rack anyway.

Join the queue

However, this lore does not work for people who may object to handling other people’s dirty laundry, but it seems many tenants had no such qualms. For those more sensitive types, you either had to wait for a machine with no queue (which could take weeks) or head to the laundromat on Haarlemmerstraat, which was quite expensive.

I mentioned this lore to some more ‘adult’ friends here in Amsterdam, who lived in apartments with their own washing machines, and they seemed quite impressed that a system of shared responsibility had evolved to solve a potentially heated situation. Someone even suggested the lore might be used to address climate change, but I don’t think it has much application beyond our humble but crowded basement laundry, but you never know.