Porto Montenegro and the fall of Tivat

August 27, 2014

Montenegro is still up-and-coming as a tourist destination: we are staying very near to Tivat airport and I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly busy airport. But it shouldn’t be, yet: Tivat is not ready.

From the Tourist Centre, if you walk to the beach you find a concrete coast, half-tiled, half dirt-path. There are many cafés and shops but not enough people to warrent them really: a few leather-skinned families waltz past; young people hang about in packs by the henna-tattoo hippy; and the even-younger jump into the water from a two-foot concrete diving board while their parents bake on the beach. To the left is a huge construction site – three skeletons of buildings sit beneath their corresponding crane – and you can see these will be luxury hotels or even more luxurious apartments.

You can follow a small stream of people to these half-completed complexes and around to the other side, through a small alley past a metal fence, where large numbers of taxis sit in a line waiting for prey.

And the prey are here. Coming out of the half-constructed alley, suddenly you’re in a well-lit, palm-tree lined, white-walled, miniature-fountain-laden marina complete with smart restaurants, organic food store and row upon row of pristine super-yachts. At this point, you could be anywhere – in this playground for the filthy rich all character is edited out – any unkempt nook destroyed or replaced. It is not the real world.

Walking along one of the piers with the many yachts tethered to it, it’s difficult not to want to stand in the centre of it all and scream “You all have too much money!”. This is a town surrounded by beautiful wooded mountains with perfectly clear water in the bay coming in from the Adriatic and seriously hot summers and yet it is being turned into a faceless nowhere-land where people with yachts throw money around before going to the next faceless nowhere-land (Puerto Banus or the like). You can see that this whole coastline will eventually be encroached upon by this concrete imaginary-land. All the surrounding big roads signs in Russian and English proclaim ‘Quality Real-Estate Available’ so you know this is not somewhere aimed at locals. As the prices continue to be hiked up, they will eventually be pushed out. No, this new faceless nowhere-land is a party for the super-rich and I, for one, am glad not to be invited.


An Average Summer Weeknight in Dresden

August 9, 2014

It’s 10.30pm on a Wednesday and the Dresdenites are out in force: €1.20 half litres of beer in their hands and the company of all the locals sitting in rows alongside them on the curb and all over the pavement.

The people I’m with are hesitant of this anarchic way of drinking at first, but very soon we’re all dirtying up our jeans and toasting passing cars. What a cheap night out – sitting outside the bars without paying their rates.

And it’s not just the underage and alcholics sat here (as you’d imagine it being in the UK), it’s everyone from cool young professionals to hipsters to ageing punks to people who work in IT and everyone in between. At one point I see a woman walking alone who just sits down in the middle of the pavement and has a rest for a bit – so it’s not even just a drinking thing! They just don’t worry about it.

Police cars drive past as you take a swig and one almost revels in their ability to do nothing. This street drinking is a tradition in Dresden that’s “decades old” the hostel’s night receptionist tells me – and it shows.

“We don’t have much sun and a lot of rain, so when it’s hot here everyone likes to celebrate no matter what day it is” she continues, and I think to myself that the same is true of the British. However, we tend to stick to the pub gardens or head to a park – these guys just sit where they stand – and it’s wonderful.


10 things the guidebook don’t* tell you about… German Switzerland!

August 8, 2014

*For the record, as my brother seemed to think I was under the impression “don’t” is the correct word to use hear rather than the actual correct “doesn’t” – I am using “don’t” on purpose as I think it has a ring to it… All right?! 

1. Generosity: the Swiss have been amazing hosts to me, I can’t thank them enough for making my time here incredibly comfortable. For example, when staying at my friend’s dad’s house on the outskirts of Zurich we came back from a festival covered in mud so left our dirty shoes and clothes on the porch before falling into bed. When we awoke he had hosed down our shoes and washed all our clothes and hung them out to dry for us. And there were four of us staying there – most parents would surely expect things to be the other way round but he wouldn’t let us help out – we were his guests and that was that. My friend Rowan in Bern joked that it’s easy to be generous when you’re Swiss because you just have so much money! Ahem…

2. Nearly everyone has a balcony. Standardly. 

3. There is no such thing as a “seedy area”. I went to stay one night at my uncle’s flat in a place called Trimbach which he said was “cheap and a little seedy”. This place was set into the foothills of the mountains, next to a river; everything was super-clean and the gardens incredibly well maintained; and there was a lindt chocolate factory nearby. I’m surprised there is a translation for seedy in Swiss-German at all! 

4. There are playful (maybe not completely playful) tensions not only between the people who speak different languages in Switzerland but also between dialects! People in St Gallen get taken the piss out of for not pronouncing their ‘R’s properly, and generally German German is frowned upon!

5. And despite being part of a different country the French-Swiss are still looked upon as snobby! The English will be pleased to hear that!

6. They think they are running out of space. Quite a few people said to me that there was so much construction of properties going on that there would be nothing left to build on soon. As a Londoner, looking around at Switzerland’s wide open spaces and even average garden-size and house-size this seemed absurd. It is possible to fit a lot more in I assure you. The thing is, with “foreign” often a dirty word in Switzerland (and I don’t think I’m being unfair here – just look at some of the political advertising from the last election), I felt that maybe it was political canvassing that might have caused this concern. A lot of tensions in England to do with immigrants are exacerbated by this myth that “there’s not enough room for them: we are full”. Which, of course, we’re not.

7. Fondue is only a winter thing. We managed to convince our hosts on a rainy summer evening to get the fondue pot out (every Swiss has one!) and, my God, that stuff is rich! I needed to stay seated for quite a while afterward to let the cheese settle!

8. Education can go on forever. The fees for degrees are relatively low, so you can stay in education for as long as you want, pretty much. My friend is just finishing his bachelors in Linguistics and thinks he will now do another bachelors in Law. Not even a Law conversion – a full bachelors followed by a masters. Why do we put such a high price on education in the UK? It makes no sense.

9. They make really good chocolate ice-cream. Go on, have some. And the ice-cream shop in Bern was open later than the supermarket. You can tell where their priorities lie!

10. Train stations are city hubs. They are the meeting place, the eating place, the shopping centre. There is a rule that allows train station shops to be open every day and later than normal shops – so they have become the place to be, it seems!

I am currently in Dresden, Germany and my post about here (a new favourite city!) will be coming up shortly! Tschüss!


In Between Belgrade and Budapest

July 31, 2014

As I am about to embark on another month-long European journey, I have been looking back at some of the things I wrote and picked up along the way when I last did this. That was back in 2007, when I was on the verge of turning 19. That time, I spent all year saving up, and had my interrail pass ready and so many plans that ended up ignored. This time I’ve been far less prepared, pretty much doing the whole thing on a whim.

Back then, I had had a difficult few years leading up to that point, and this was my first true taste of freedom, and my first solo travelling trip. I suppose you could say it changed my life – in that I realised that travelling was going to be a big part of me and my life. But then again, I was still me: I didn’t feel different and I didn’t find any inner strength that meant I could escape the troubles I returned to afterward. That came a lot later, after a lot more poetry.

Anyway here is a poem that I wrote on a night train from Belgrade to Budapest. I was in a cabin with these cackling old hags (for want of a better word) – in my mind they are almost pantomime versions of the witches from Macbeth, the floor between us their cauldron. Across the horizon lightning cracked through the sky over and over again in intensely close dry storms, and all I could hear was the lightning, thunder and their laughter, non-stop, all night. LJ

In Between Belgrade and Budapest (2007)

Jumping along rickety track
Window held open
With a ball-point pen.

Sharp shrieks scatter
Across the silhouetted landscape.
Straining to escape the confines

Of the carriage and open myself up
To the cracking sky,
I push down rounded-plastic
And tap a roll-up into the breeze.

Flashes of exposure engulf my
Awaiting skin. Impulses of awakening
As lights dim

From towns propped up on the edge
Of the horizon.

Momentarily, I glare into the cabin:
Smiles from women with broken teeth;
Cigarettes hanging from broken mouths;
Destitute little dots returning
Or leaving, ricocheting through the static.

They are
Deep in foreign conversation so
I return to the opening chasm above

Ignoring the decaying butts and composted dust
Wiped into the fraying green rug
Beneath my feet.


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!


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