Posts Tagged ‘Travel Writing’

Koh Phi Phi

August 31, 2016

Stepping off the boat

the waves of sales

men crash over us

following the scent

of our currency.

The current flows

 

Into the land of lads and ladettes –

To large linoleum dance floors,

And listless signs proclaiming

“You know what goes well with beer?

 

Sex.”

And everyone has it dripping in the sweat

That circulates through the square;

The throbbing beat of nineties classics

And the traffic of hungover teens

 

Living the Thailand dream.

And I feel like Philip Larkin

Watching them

on the long slide.

To happiness. Endlessly.

 

He accepts his own impending mortality, however.

 

I’m 28.

And this is torture.

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Ohrid – Sofia through the Macedonian countryside

July 25, 2016

The paper land is ripped to reveal the sky –

A hand-torn collage of crete-paper trees,

Orange sugar paper rock faces and

Harsh lines drawn through the green.

Houses cut from old travel brochures

Dot fuzzy felt valleys or peep out

From behind make-shift leaves.

 

Later, as mum cleared the mess and put away the glue,

She could have sworn she saw my little rickety bus

Travelling through.

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.

Lost in Lima

July 28, 2013

The bustling streets of Lima 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.

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.

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

August 24, 2012

Here are some of those odd things you only realise when you get to Chile… in list form!

1. Some supermarkets don’t sell fresh garlic or tins of beans. However, they all have their own supermarket-brand basic tinned mussels – phew.

2. There are dogs EVERYWHERE. The ones on the street are generally pretty calm whereas the ones sat behind gates have anger management issues. They ALL hate cars – so much so that they will chase them down the street barking. This is pretty scary in Santiago as it looks like you’ll run them over but in smaller towns it’s pretty funny. Today, I saw a car completely brought to a standstill by a couple of dogs who had surrounded it barking and refusing to move. More and more dogs just kept coming to join in the fun. Evenually the people had to just park where they were and sit it out. Made for excellent viewing.

3. If you want some cheese and you go and ask “¿Tienes queso?” (Do you have cheese), the reply will nearly always be “Yes, how many?” which is pretty confusing at first. But basically, apart from Jumbo and farms that make their own cheese, when you want cheese you get Gouda. There is no choice in the matter – you want cheese? Well, it’s Gouda. In slices.

4. Every single computer keyboard is set to a different setting from what you can see on the keys. Even in people’s houses that I’ve been to. What. The. Hell?

5. Chileans do not like spicy food. If you want fresh chili you will have to buy really weak ones and add a lot. They just don’t sell other types. Apart from Merken – a Chilean spice – which you can have with bread and salsa. Love it.

6. Despite my guidebook saying that Chilean men don’t really bother you, this is just not the case. The men here are the most persistent I have met (although according to them the Argentinians and Brazillians are far worse). If you tell them to go away, there is absolutely no way they are going anywhere. Once they have set their eyes on you, they will not stop until they have you. Last night I physically pushed this guy away from me, all of his friends were laughing at him, and so was I. They were all leaving and I kept telling him to go with them but he wouldn’t. Eventually they pulled him away. 15mins later he walked back into the bar, alone, pulled up a chair, and joined me and my friends at our table. No question. No ‘can I join you?’. Incredible. And just to clear it up, he went home alone.

7. If you are a guest in their home, you are not allowed to do anything. At all. If they cook for you, you cannot do the washing up. If you need anything at all, they will get it for you. The generosity is staggering. It doesn’t matter who you are… and in the case of the Antofagastian family I stayed with, whether you can speak the same language. They will drop everything for you. Amazing.

8. In Chile, being a vegetarian is very difficult. In Antofagasta I visited a restaurant where the vege option was ‘pollo’ (chicken). Considering you get offered a lot of eggs and cheese as a vege, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be vegan. I met a girl who was lactose intollerant who was having a little bit of a nightmare finding food.

9. They make beer as well as wine! And it’s actually quite good! And pisco – ahhh, pisco, my new best friend. They know about alcohol in this country, that’s for sure.

10. My guidebook said Santiago is avoidable. It is not. Santiago is amazing. The people are fantastic, the bars are great and it is incredibly beautiful despite the smog. One moment you’re walking down an ugly highway and then you look to your left and the snow capped Andes peer at you through the mist. It’s a great presence in the city. Don’t visit South America or Chile and avoid the capital, you’ll miss a lot.

Wintering in La Serena

August 22, 2012

The couple to the right of me had passed out mid-empanada. Since the sun had begun to set, many of the passengers around me had gradually succumbed to the rhythms of the coach. We were travelling to La Serena – a small coastal city almost 400km north of Santiago – and I had stayed awake waiting for that first peek at the Pacific.  Most tourists visit in summer for the beach and the sun and yet here I was in winter, sunglasses in one hand, and scarf in the other. I wasn’t here to improve the tan.

It was 6pm. By this point, the pre-cordillera Andes (foothills) had begun to flatten out, and I could feel that we were getting close. And then, just before sunset, the teeth of the rocks opened up and the ocean flooded out.  First, a cove – a small white sandy beach painted turquoise by the water and then, there it was. An expanse of water stretching far into the pastel blue of the horizon – My eyes drank it all in.

Arriving in La Serena, one of the first things I wanted to do was to see it. I had met many Chileans in Santiago who holidayed and even owned second homes here so I had high expectations. Although visiting in low-season, the weather was good – My first morning, I headed into town to look around and to get supplies in preparation for a late lunch on the beach.

The city itself feels more like a town – the calm Plaza de Armas (main square) glimmers with cleanliness beneath palm trees while market traders sell the famous Chilean papaya based goods and artisanal souvenirs on the side of the street. But as you walk further into town, you’re suddenly surrounded by people – heaps of them, filling the streets with their awkward shopping bags, prams and suitcases. A shopping marathon seemed to be taking place, and I’d accidently walked in on it.

I passed shoe shop after shoe shop, eventually coming to La Recova – a spacious artisanal mall with restaurants on the top floor and below, a selection of craft and souvenir shops. It might be authentic but it doesn’t feel it. Every shop sells the same woollen jumpers and mini bottles of pisco, none of them for a reasonable price. It reminded me of a much smaller Camden Lock in London – started as a place for artisans and now a place almost solely for tourists. I still bought myself a poncho – I couldn’t help myself.

Afterward, I wandered into the Archaeological Museum, which houses lots of impressive artefacts – mainly from the Antofagasta and Tarapaca indigenous people (a map shows how many there were before the Spanish arrived). There are two mummies perfectly preserved and also a Maoi – Easter Island statue – which, if you haven’t been to Easter Island, is a sight to behold. You can get round the museum in about half an hour and your ticket (CLP600) gets you in to the other museum by the Plaza too. But I had other plans.

Heading finally to the beach, hunger in my stomach and expectation in my mind; I began to gallop along Avda. Francisco de Aguirre – the long stretch of road before the water. The basic tourist map ends at the Japanese Gardens which sit about 20-25 minutes away from the ocean, so I had to ask. I was told to just keep heading straight. The road became a mish-mash of pre-construction wasteland, mud-hut mini-markets, mechanic outlets and brand new hotels. The construction of other hotels along the road had already begun and there were many white balconied edifices at different points of creation. Advertising billboards declared ‘The best views in La Serena’.

However, from the street, blue fencing hid the mountains from view in front of plush villas and private university buildings. In clouds of dust and rolls of orange mesh, builders ran around in navy overalls, shouting, drilling and digging. Although palm trees lined the middle of the road, much of that area was still being paved and there were diggers sitting dormant in the path. A lighthouse eventually came into view and the pavement on my side ended so I began to trample over dust, plastic peligroso signs flapping from lampposts to my side.

Finally, I crossed to the ‘lighthouse’. It’s not really a lighthouse, but more, a pillar to signify your arrival at the La Serena beach. The weather had changed since I’d been walking and now grey clouds skirted around the horizon, the hills on the edge of the panorama purple under various layers of mist. The water was wild, large waves thudding against the land. But I couldn’t hear it. I could smell it, I could see it, but all I could hear was the drilling.

Around the walls at the lighthouse, teenagers on a coach trip were playing out various roles – a couple kissed, an overweight boy posed for a photo – and that serenity that I imagined from the coach returned to my dreams. The reality was this noisy, litter-strewn beach which in the summer may be worth sunbathing at, but in the winter screams of the destruction of human intervention.

To my left at this point, I heard a big screech and one boy, almost silhouetted at this time in the evening, held aloft a dead gull by its beak. Other boys gathered around him to throw sand at it, giggling, falling over themselves. The black shadow of the bird seemed to drip toward the sand. And all I could hear was drilling.

You can see an edited version of this piece at I Love Chile.

Estoy en La Serena, Buenos Tardes.

August 1, 2012

I got the coach yesterday from Santiago to La Serena. This was after quite an escapade involving me leaving my hostel in a cab, realising I’d forgotten one of my bags, returning to the hostel, getting back in the cab, being dropped at the wrong bus station, and then being ripped off by the next driver to take me the rest of the way. Ugh. Then when I got there, I was walking around trying to find my bus and when I did it left without any people on board. 20 minutes later, another one turned up and we were on our way. My bad Spanish helped me find someone else who needed my bus meaning I could just follow him as the confusion continued. Once on the bus, I was amazed. Megabus and National Express should be ashamed! In Chile for about £20 you go 6 hours on what is basically a bed (like flying business class) and they play films and have food served on board! My legs didn’t know what to do with all that leg room!

When I arrived here last night, my hostel was full of British people. The first ones I’ve met (other than a posh twat working in the mining industry who had all the makings of a Bullingdon club member – he doesn’t count). I went with them to the supermarket and made a failed pasta sauce and we chatted away. They all left this morning though, so I spent the day alone walking the town. La Serena is pretty small. I saw the Archaeological Museum which was good. It was all in Spanish but I’m getting used to things being all in Spanish – my reading has improved tenfold. In the museum they have on display one of the statues from Easter Island so it was nice to get a chance to see one of them. They also have loads of mummies perfectly preserved by the desert.

I then went to the supermarket which continues to be a difficult experience. Why does every other country in the world complicate the shopping experience?! It is so much easier to just have things in a particular order (ie. the order that you might need things) and to not have to weigh some things and not weigh others. This whole weighing thing is throwing me off kilter. What should have taken me 15mins took me more like an hour.

I decided once I had some food to go eat lunch on the beach. By this time it was about 3pm so I was already pretty hungry. I believed the hostel to be near the sea. It’s not. You walk down this long dusty road, with construction sites, shack-like cafes and brand new hotels for about three miles. Everything is in a different state of ‘made-ness’. Eventually, to the sound of drilling, you arrive at the Pacific. There is a false-looking lighthouse plonked on the sand, like it should be a helter skelter. A tour bus sat behind it, while it’s passengers ran around on the beach. They were teenagers, maybe 16 or 17 years old. One found a dead gull, and lifted it off the sand by it’s beak. Boys gathered around each wanting a go to hold it, throw sand at it or try to bury it. Behind, across a section of the Ocean, what the locals call hills and what I’d call mountains rise and fall through the rain clouds, each one a different shade of grey layered atop the other. The sound of drilling echoes between the buildings and the water while the waves pull themselves off the sand and thud back into it, crisp white crests crawling over the shore.

It looks like rain.