Yeti Footprints

March 14, 2014

For Denis Doherty.

In the style of ‘Sad Steps’ by Philip Larkin

 

Groping back from the pub after a drink

I part hay bales of hair and am startled by

The straw-like quality; the lack of cleanliness.

 

Two o clock: booze-riddled patrons lie

Beneath the umbrella tessellated sky of The Crown.

There’s something beautiful about him:

 

The way his Friday burgundy shirt feels

Soft as kitten’s fur to hands or cheek

(Or any other part of the body that might caress)

 

High and preposterous and separate!

O Yeti of Love! Headmaster of art!

In all our memories: Guantanamo Bay! No,

 

One shivers slightly, looking at him,

The hardness and the hairiness and the paint-covered

Far-reaching mess of his office

 

Is a reminder of the Aloysius’ Donegal Yeti

That may never come again but is, regretfully,

In legend, undiminished somewhere.

 


10 Things the Guidebook Don’t tell you About… Peru

August 19, 2013

1. Construction. Everything is in a different stage of construction, half built buildings are everywhere to the point where some cities look like they wouldn’t have existed a few months previously. Piles of rubble squat on the streets in many areas. Juliaca is basically a building site. We were told that in Bolivia you don’t have to pay tax on your house until it’s finished so many people leave their houses unfinished on purpose. I’m assuming the same goes for Peru.

2. Horn honking. Particularly in Lima honking your horn when driving is just what you do. All the time. Honk if they’re driving too slow; honk if they’re driving too fast; honk if they won’t let you through; honk to say thankyou if they do; honk if you’re sat in traffic; honk if you’re not. It’s so noisy. It’s even got to the point where the council have put up signs saying “No Honking”.

3. Queueing. They don’t do it. Don’t bother trying. They will walk in front of you even if it’s obvious you’re waiting.

4. Food portions. The USA get a raw deal it seems, people always say that they serve massive portions. In Peru, they serve MASSIVE portions. How is one person supposed to eat all that?! I’m sure it’s generosity, but I feel guilty about how much I have to leave on my plate when I’m full! It is still a full plate! Three or four people could eat one portion here and be full.

5. Tourism. In some places, like the floating islands (crazy man made islands, made out of compacted reeds in Lake Titicaca), Tourism makes up 50% of the residents’ income. It’s big money. Aguas Calientes is almost, it seems, entirely made up of shops and hotels aimed at us. Shops selling “artisan” products are everywhere and of varying quality. Saying that, it makes it easy to be a tourist here and you always feel pretty safe.

6. Bartering. Although it is entirely out of my character to do this, being embarassed and British, you really can barter here. My friend Lisa was very good at it, getting prices halved sometimes. In Ollaytatambo we wanted to buy a little jumper for a child, she quoted us too much and wouldn’t come down so we walked away. The lady actually sprinted 100m after us saying “OK ten!!” and sold it to us there on the street.

7. Native Peoples. I had the impression that most native peoples in Peru would wear normal clothes and that those in traditional dress just did it for the tourists but this is very far from the truth. Many local people still wear traditional dress and the campesinos working the fields are certainly not doing it for tourism.

8. There are inca ruins everywhere. Like, actually everywhere.

9. Collectivos. I said this about Chile too but these are amazing! Taxis that pick up other people too and cost next to nothing for very long journeys. Only thing is you often have to wait until they’re full before you can leave.

10. Couldn’t think of any more so a guy called Tom has told me: if you drink alcohol at Machu Pichu you get banned for life. Something to keep in mind!


From Copacabana to La Paz

August 10, 2013

Fleeing Copacabana on Independence Night sans-camera felt about right for the experience we’d had there. Trying to fill the coach as we waited to leave, people ran around screaming “La Paz” while a dusty garage blocked our view of the sunset over the lake. Beauty only slightly missed by the chaos of it all. As we pulled away, the statue of an Inca leader saluted the hidden sunset.

I found it quite disconcerting that we continued to stay next to the lake for the next hour despite our destination being inland. Then a man dressed in khaki arose and began banging against the driver’s door. I was, at this point, quite concerned about the coach we were on. The driver let him in. 2 minutes go by and khaki man returns. He begins shouting directions in Spanish: we were all to get off the coach and get on a ferry and this would cost us 2$B. Everyone get off and queue.

So into the darkness we went, English people gathering, piecing together a translation and heading toward the few lights of the ferry port. We joined the end of the only queue available and watched as the people at the front went toward the outline of wooden decking and a half open boat at the end. Then off they went across Titicaca.

As we got nearer the front, each person said the number of tickets they wanted and a hand took their money and passed back tickets. You couldn’t see a face or body behind the blackened glass in this boleto-booth and as I got there I did the same: “Uno”.

We all hurried onto the boat, wrapping jumpers around ourselves in the altitudinal cold. People looked around at each other for support, their eyes asking “Are we going to be ok?” I stared at the incredibly starry sky – the lightning from previous towns flashed behind mountains creating brief silhouettes. I didn’t know.

Once across the water, club music boomed from a white washed bar and our khaki man ran off to the banos. We were suddenly surrounded by movement: party people buying street food on their way home/way out (knowing South Americans); tourism reliants immediately on call (they’d been waiting for us) and other bus groups wandering around in the surreal glare of the street.

Once back on the bus, it felt as if we might be able to relax. I put my ipod on shuffle and experienced a strange mix of Gogol Bordello, Bellowhead, Goldfrapp, the Artful Dodger and – most fittingly – OMC – How Bizarre.

The next section of our trip turned out to be even more uncomfortable, lit by the odd battered street lamp…

Through a meshed curtain I see
The road ahead -
White lines curve around mountain
Cars with hazard lights flashing
Litter the hard shoulder.

Night has enveloped the landscape
Constellations of villages
Reflect the night.
The chaos of Copacabana has been left
Under an electric sky.

Gradually the relics of farmhouses
Roll along the conveyor belt view,
A tollbooth proclaims
‘Welcome to La Paz’ and soon
We enter Surburbia.

Like a Ballardian dystopia
Houses left half made or half broken
Stutter past – not all empty.
One man, hunched, half broken
Kicks the dirt
Above the orange glow of light pollution.

On the last remaining wall of a wretched home
The word ‘Mas’ in white – More.
And rubble, piles of it, as high walls,
Above open drainage,
Act like no man’s land defences.

And within it all
Protected bricks of blue
Proclaim ‘Pepsi made here.’
The factory pipes shine as silver beacons
For the dream -
Capitalism.

A woman, in traditional dress,
Moves a wheelbarrow of rubbish
Toward a fire on the street.
She tips it in.

Hoods hangout at an abandoned tollbooth
Heads face the floor.
A Bolivian flag wisps through a broken window
Flying high for the poor.

The bus mopes along
Through this wasteland left in wait
And the lights of La Paz
Begin to liberate.

But behind us
One light remains in a windowless block
The silhouette of a hatted woman.
She stares at the blank walls ahead
Just another person the world forgot.


Machu Pichu: The Tourists Take the Dawn

August 1, 2013

Aguas Calientes
Your dogs are revolting -
Patrolling sectors
By night; three perch
Beneath my window, by 2am
Lack of sleep has me barking with them.

2 hours later, tourists take over
Following the scent of the station
Like ants toward their nest.
The queue of backpacks and sunhats
Extends into the sunrise
While condensed-milk coffee is sold
By the roadside.

A town of tourism rises early
And the sleepless nights in you, Calientes, show
In the rattle of fingernails she runs through her hair; the momentary stutter of her fluttering lashes; and the need in her face that says
Buy, buy, buy:

I am awake for you.

Buses come and run past
‘Te para ti?’
The queue moves slow
‘Cigarillo or three?’
But on each bus a reminder
Of our destination
And as we board and pull away, Calientes,
We are brought above you
Ascending, ascending, ascending until…

Abre los ojos, Calientes,
For above you is what you could be,
Where the sky’s canopy breaks
And an all powerful sun
Frees us
And awakes.


Lost in Lima

July 28, 2013

The bustling streets of Lisa seem to extend into the abyss: would-be hot-dog stands sell ‘Corn & Cheese’, peeled pineapple and churros filled with dulce de leche; buses stop and start as squashed faces stare out; traffic sprawls across all lanes, horns parping away to no avail. Getting through the street involves careful Metal Gear Solid co-ordination: make the wrong move and there could be a serious pile-up.

We were a little lost. Having spent the day in the historical centre, we had wandered slightly off the tourist trail and although it was only 3.30 it seemed Rush Hour was in full swing. In fact, it seems it’s always Rush Hour in Lima. At 10.30 when we’d taken the bus into town it had been the same – sandwiched in our tin can, my hips gripping the side of a chair, my feet finding space where they could, I felt as if I should be on my way to the office. Sat next to where I was standing a small baby perched on mum’s knee, stroking my suedette trousers consistently throughout awe-struck at the softness.

The streets remain full way into the night and early morning. It’s an energy I don’t see very often. In London the crowds are a slow moan through the grey, and although the skies here hang like film noir frames, it feels more a way of life. People zig-zag around eachother with ease and there’s a vibe to it almost, that something is happening; that wherever people are going it’ll end up better on the other side.


The Ladies of the Office Wear Black

March 11, 2013

As a little background – my friend and colleague has had his leg in a cast and has been spending most of his time in our office with it up on a spare chair. Now that his leg is finally healing, we are all missing him being around and it was suggested I write a poem. So here it is.

The Ladies of the Office Wear Black

 

Is it wrong to weep so as he walks

Atop granite and corridor laminate?

To watch the office chair spin empty

Without falling over and grabbing  it?

 

The ladies of the office wear black.

They are mourning until he comes back.

 

Am I stupid to feel hurt every morning

That my desk is less cluttered and clean?

To actually put things in his pigeon hole or e-mail

Rather than handing it straight to him?

 

The ladies of the office wear black.

They are mourning until he comes back.

 

When I phone and it goes straight to voicemail

When the coffee I make goes un-drunk

When the form captains all come a-searching

When that groove in his chair comes un-sunk

 

They can ask at my desk (and they will)

“But where is Mugglestone? Where has he gone?”

And I must have the strength to reach out -

“He has wings now, boys - he has flown”

 

The ladies of the office wear black.

They are mourning until

That moment, that thrill -

When he falls over again and comes back.


A German Beer Holiday in Chile (Valdivia)

December 8, 2012

In the mid-1800s in the south of Chile, a period of German colonization began in order to bring growth and development to the region. There was a period of massive unrest in Germany, and the landscapes in the Los Lagos region are very similar to Germany and neighboring Switzerland.

This period of colonization under President Manuel Montt had a huge influence on the way buildings have been built, the abundance of kuchen, and the quality of the beer.

The most famous brewery in the region is the Cervezeria Kuntsmann in Valdivia. Set up as a tourist attraction, you can take a tour of the vats and locations where they make and test the beer and there is also a museum tacked on in case you fancy looking at wax models of people in lederhosen.

The tour itself costs CL$5,000 which is far more than it warrants as you can see many of the vats exposed through transparent panes behind the bar – going in to the room and seeing them up close is not that thrilling. The tour doesn’t take you to anything much more exciting, and if you already know about the process of making beer, doesn’t teach you anything new.

The museum has some information about the previous Anwandter Brewery, which is famous in the region. It was the main cervezeria in Valdivia and was destroyed once by fire, and secondly by the earthquake in 1960. Kuntsmann began to be brewed for personal use after Anwandter went down.

At the bar, you have the opportunity to taste each of the eleven beers that Kuntsmann brew. There are two flavoured beers – blueberry and honey. The blueberry one manages not to be too tart, and almost tastes like blackcurrant cordial. The honey flavour is pretty strong in the latter, and for me, it’s too strong. You can get a much lighter taste of honey from the non-alchoholic beer they make. The best of the Kunstmann beers has to be the Torobayo, an ale that tastes similar to a black beer, with slight barbeque flavors.

The other commercial brewery just down the road from Kuntsmann is Salzburg, which I also visited. It is much less touristic, and the area for visitors is mainly a restaurant. There is no organised tour, but you’re welcome to pop in and try their beers. The black beer for me was disappointing. Although it was the strongest beer they brew, it had the most watered down taste. The Altes Ale was actually closer to the taste of an enjoyable dark beer, and tasted by far the strongest even though it is only 4.5 percent.

Following the road to Niebla further along, I was recommended to drop in at the El Duende Artisenal brewery. Here, the beer is hand-made in much smaller quantities with all natural ingredients. They all have reasonably high alcohol content, even the Rubia is six percent.

Sadly, I couldn’t try the black beer as they had sold out, and none were ready to be bottled yet, but the owner, Juan Luis, joined me for a Rubia which was smooth and soft on the palate. It had absolutely none of the bitterness you can come to expect from the commercial lager we normally drink, and instead was almost sweet and, as Juan Luis put it, well-balanced.

He also teaches people how to make beer, in day sessions, possibly helping the brewer of the future continue the tradition of beer in the area.

There are many other small artisanal breweries in the area, including Cuello Negro whose black beer goes the opposite direction and ups the bitterness, to the point where you feel as though you’re drinking very bitter coffee. It’s just on the cusp of enjoyable. The Bundor Black beer is far less bitter, and much easier to drink (whether or not that’s a good thing is questionable!). It’s thicker and creamier than the Cuello Negro, but ultimately less interesting.

Travelling back that day, I stocked up with El Duendes with the taste of good beer on my lips. The lakes, evergreen trees and wooden chalets passing the bus transported me back to Germany, and it almost felt strange stepping off the bus to say gracias!


The Valparaíso Walking Tour

December 4, 2012

‘Tours for Tips’ is a three-hour walking tour around Valparaíso, beginning in Plaza Sotomayor and ending at Cerro Bellavista. It runs twice a day, every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and begins with a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ with the guide wearing Waldo’s famous red and white stripes.

Our guide, Chris (a North American with a huge, teethy smile), first of all took us in a circle around Plaza Sotomayor, each side of which is positively seeped in history. This included a house on Calle Serrano which, during the gold rush, would have been home to one of the wealthiest families in the world. This road is now home to small gambling dens and run down buildings. When we entered, there were men hanging around in the hallway who shouted and cheered at us as we went past.

The stairs of this house are made of onyx, and now chunks have been taken out to make jewellery. Chris told us this was a representation of Valparaíso – a place of lost wealth, where the mansions that used to be the preserve of the rich now crumble and rot. Chris, grin shining white in the dusty light, tells us that this is what makes Valparaíso such a fascinating place to walk around.

Considering the tour is based only on tips, Chris paid for many experiences out of his own pocket. We got to take an funicular (one of the only ones working in the city at the moment) and he also took us for alfadores (traditional biscuits with dulce de leche in the middle and chocolate around the outside) from a house that sells them on Cerro Concepción. We also got to take one of the old-fashioned buses that run like trams but without tracks.

He aimed to give us an idea of what it was like to live in Valpo, and the juxtaposition inherent in everything. He showed us the CSAV building in Sotomayor Square and explained to us why, among so many beautiful old colonial buildings, there lies this big ugly square of reflective blue glass. When CSAV had first brought the plans to the city of Valparaíso, they rejected them on the grounds that it would not fit with the square.

So CSAV threatened to leave the city and move all their custom and all their jobs to another city – they are one of the biggest and oldest shipbuilding companies in the world – and so, sadly, the city agreed. Very soon after this, the city became a UNESCO world heritage site and now, this sort of thing will not happen again.

Once we had all sighed a sigh of relief, Chris took us further up the hill to a house that was completely gutted by fire – a ‘For Sale’ sign blew in the breeze. He explained that for the locals here, being a world heritage site makes their city look a lot better, but when something happens like this, it is so expensive to only use original materials and building techniques (this is insisted upon by UNESCO) that houses just lay dormant, no-one willing to climb this hill with all the materials and re-build.

This duality was something that by the end of the tour we could feel in every step. From the beautiful old style houses covered in modern graffiti to the antique funiculars lying dormant. Many of the stairways are painted beautifully from ones painted like piano keys to ones delicately depicting the Mapuche way of life. Although Chris showed us these to take pictures, he also stressed that the stairs at night are dangerous for tourists and people travelling alone. It was so hard to place that a town so obsessive about its own beauty might also tear it apart.

At the end of the tour we all shared pisco sours and Chris gave us all maps, marking the places we were interested in visiting on them for us. He also gave us bus information and pointed out the best restaurants depending on our budget. Sure, tipping is voluntary, but after all the effort they make on this tour, you’d be cruel not to.


Ten Things the Guidebook Don’t Tell You About…. Moscow

November 15, 2012

1. Crossing the Road is like an episode of Crystal Maze. Finding that underpass that leads to that bridge where you can find the traffic lights which lead to the next underpass can get pretty ridiculous at times! At one point when trying to get from Red Square to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour I had to just stand there and laugh – there seemed to be no realistic way of getting across the 10 or so lanes that converged at this point.

2. Opening Hours are not set in stone. If you read in a tourist guide that something is open on Wednesdays, according to my research – it will be closed for cleaning. After an hour getting lost wandering around in ice rain, our trip to the Chekhov Museum came to an early end. Our Lonely Planet said you can do the Kremlin in an afternoon – but according to other signs it closes at 1. I wouldn’t know for sure, however, as when we visited – on a Thursday – it was closed. No reason given.

3. Lenin closes for the winter! Who’d have thought that a man kept in ice would need to be closed because it’s cold?!

4. All right, positives: The food ain’t that bad. The one thing people who had been to Russia said to me was ‘the food is terrible’ and ‘I ate everyday at McDonalds’ so I was expecting gruel every day especially as a vegetarian. But actually – it was fine. We went to two vegetarian restaurants – something I doubt you’d find in Moscow ten years ago! Jaggernath is a vegetarian canteen where you can get a salad, curry, rice and drink for about £10. The curry was good; the flavour was authentic despite a serious lack of chilli kick.

5. They understand their coffee. It might be expensive (generally around £4 for a cup!) but man does it taste good. They also have loads of variations so you can have a Halva Latte or Mocha with real melted chocolate at the bottom that you mix in yourself. Mmm.

6. A Hot Chocolate is just that: A hot cup of chocolate – like a warm chocolate mousse. If you want a (what we call) Hot Chocolate you have to request cocoa. The hot chocolate option is obviously quite novel though, if you like that sort of thing.

7. Nothing is signposted. Seriously. Not even the supermarkets. The bakery near our hostel was just a black door. If you need to get the Express train to the airport, get someone who knows to give you exact directions before you leave – including which exit out of the metro and the exit you take after that. There are no signs. Not even in Russian.

8. You can barter. Although Customer Service certainly isn’t something the Russians are completely sold on, at markets you’d be advised to barter. Everything is expensive, sure, but I managed to get a matryoshka doll and some soviet shot glasses knocked down to reasonable prices without too much difficulty. I did have Olya – who lives in Moscow – translating for me at the time though.

9. They love smoking. I mean seriously – it’s a tobacco company’s dream world. On the side of the road people are paid to give out free cigarettes, to swap people’s boxes of cigarettes (even if there are only a few left) for a brand new box of their brand. It’s brand advertising in a big way – ‘here, try this cigarette for free and get used to them and then always pick our brand!’ – Crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.

10. The Soviet Era is a tourist attraction. I can’t think of many places where a political era has become an actual attraction – with Soviet posters on postcards and pictures of Stalin on mugs. When I was in Chile in July and August, there were museums on Allende and Pinochet – and Allende in some ways was glorified but Pinochet? The one who murdered many of their people? No, you would not want his face on a mug. I guess communism has more of a tourist pull… apparently.


Eyewitness

October 21, 2012

It was there in your eyes.

It flickered between the fractured

Backdrop of the fairground

and the faint reflection of rain

 

falling from the rim of your woollen hat and

Landing on your cheeks

Shining red

0000000000and blue

0000000000000000000and yellow

Under the Ferris wheel.

 

No, you couldn’t have seen it,

And yes, I guess that means it’s possible you forgot it

And no, I can’t place it exactly – that erratic moment of stillness

In the static, the pinpointed spectacle in your pupils

 

But it was there.

 

For a second, I wasn’t simply a spectator

of your face, your lips, your tongue,

I was there, steady, in the lens

As tidal rainbows rolled like waves through your eyes.


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