An Order of LARGE with a Side of SEX.

The greatest contrast of the trip so far: saying farewell to the Canyon, this great chasm, silently dominating, unfathomable and waking up in the Big Easy. Big Swell of sweat, swill and swing.

The feeling of having been kidnapped, drugged, dumped in a bottom place of excess. Small city girl taken to be tested. Hard.

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New Orleans is special. Obvious to any visitor. Smoking at the bar, drinking on the streets, jazzy tunes floating down every street, into houses that are astonishingly handsome. Toulouse. The real and gritty France and Spain and England and America – manners bewitched and sparked, a cauldron of vice in the way of old school croonin’ jiving tap dancing blues. Muffaletta (look it up).

Our guide book has a downer on Bourbon St. Agreed, inasmuch as it’s over invested, working too hard and, unfortunately, lacking in the soul it once wore on its sleeve. Frenchman St is heralded as maintaining what N’Awlins is all about.

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– R Bar
– The Spotted Cat
– Apple Barrel
– Coops Place
– And More.

(Don’t forget the English pub on Algiers Point with a Tardis entrance. Or its local bar, cheapest Pabst Blue Ribbon yet).

It is cool. Small streets, Louisinia houses, rocking chair n all, with bars and dives that only care about the music and Wells. Alas, Kermit Ruffins’ famed Thursday night is retired, but jazz and funk remains when 3 for 1 Daiquiris have conquered elsewhere. Sophie Lee and Jumbo Shrimp – never has music lifted me up and spun me around into such a foggy whirlwind. A conversion for all who enter.

The humidity is just as heavy as in Asia. Building across the day into an ever predictable thunderstorm. At least air con is everywhere, although my wearing of the denim indicates a certain acclimatisation of which I am oddly proud.

A southern drawl that makes me miss House of Cards the more. Must watch Tremé. 

A drinking town. Beer and Jamesons.  But a sit down, talk and swing drinking town. Not a down it and snog. A savour and indulge, stick around, let the passions rise up, wrap around and sink in.

Hiking into the Canyon, dead heat on red skin and dust in throat. A different grittiness. Both the GC and NO are an evidence of how much wow can be found in the earth, with the dirt and the melting hue a fundamental part of its oomph. Depressing to discover how cheap the rent would be on a flat in the heart of it all down South. Hanoi seems to be second fiddle, except for Bia Hoi.

Bia Hoi, O how I miss thee.

Landed in Washington. Netflix is on and House of Cards is a go go. Must remember to leave the flat in the next two days…

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A Quixotic Land

It’s awkward. Singlehandedly I must be reinforcing more images of the uptight, reserved, absent and stiff lipped Englander than Downton. I may have become conversational at bars, on trains, in queues and met a range of people with a story to tell in a culture much more amenable to hearing it than my own, but cafe boys still get the better of me with a ‘hey there, how’s it going with you today?’ An automatic and cursory ‘fine thanks,’ of many a Bulldog Starbucks, is all I can muster. Not the immediate and interesting conversation starter of the guy behind me, in front of me, next to me.

But, I can see a light at the end of my shell. With all the leisure time of a traveller, to listen and loiter, the tales of a West Coaster born in New York, her mother’s trips to England and the canal ways to which she returned again and again, the well groomed Spainard with more places to see and San Francisco City Hall’s security guard’s love of Vegas are all memories of fleeting encounters one will miss back on the grindstone. Impending grind.

                                              

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Hollywood. Single storey and sprawled, along boulevards and before a backdrop of shrubbed mountain, hilltop villas and – that sign. Two days was not enough but it felt right – Beverley, Sunset, Santa Monica – a stroll along such iconic strips is sweltering, long and daunting. The former, for all the faux classical shop fronts housing the world’s most exclusive brands, browsed by the tanned, the pampered, the low fat, felt the more enduring. These people are still as rich and famous as they ever were, whereas on Hollywood Boulevard, in front of all the theatres and hotels, Capitol Records and the stayed bars are tour operators, waxed Monroes, terribly unlookalike lookalikeys and photo booths for photo shopping a fan into a snap with their favourite celeb. It is another world, but to see the stars of Astaire, Brando and Bergman overshadowed by plastic Oscars and $5 key rings is a little disheartening. But the heart remains, the famed sleaze persists and unabashed glitz, glamour, eye popping character, continues to infect everyone – dancing, singing, always performing on the off chance. Kareoke night at a bar and every singer blew me away. All the hopes and dreams, broken, in limbo, over realised, can be felt with a hair tingle. A layered history of personality upon personality, crushed together with such force a distinct essence has filtered into the air and ether of the place. Placing one’s hand into the imprint of Nicolson’s before stepping into the Eygptian Theatre to watch Chinatown, on location, is a thrill and a joy.

                                             

We may not drive but our train, the Southwest Chief, has whizzed us alongside 66 all night. Neon truck wash signs a plenty.

                                            

Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime.

Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime, the power of a fear-inducing, imperfect, vast and brutal sensation that pangs with a beauty more visceral than aesthetic.

The grand Canyon simply mind boggles. We are small. We are nothing. A speck on the rim of a monstrous chasm, on the edge of a void so completely infinite to the eye that everything else is forgotten, instantly. Sandstone against red over grey, dried up tributaries of ancient waters feeding into the Colorado river a mile down, cutting up the hole and churning up a city of rock within. Stone formations rest next to each other endlessly, each unique and colossal.

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Being able to walk right along the edge of the Canyon, with few safety rails, is quite a rush. Up early and out onto the further reaches of the trail, we had it to ourselves for hours. Every step is a new view, a different perspective. One becomes used to it being there, by your side and ever ready to provide an experience. Like the B.F.G. Dormant. Almost calming, unless you were to fall into its belly. One can feel a looming sense of the end that lies deep down, the unforgiving sublimity of an irrevocable and deadly fall.

Off to bed, ready to face its wonder once more tomorrow. To be continued.

A Pizza Slice and Buds for the Road.

We were warned. When Amtrak goes wrong, boy. Surat Thani was a bit scary, stranded in the deadbeat corner of nowhere in an entirely foreign,  unfamiliar place. Emeryville train station (San Francisco’s feeder stop) – for all the foreign it’s all too familiar and simply irksome. Early start, backpack hike from hotel up and down SF’s giddily infamous hills onto a bus transfer to a stop not on our ticket (apparently Emeryville is as good as Oakland – heart stopping *we’re going to miss our train, wrong bus* panic over) and all the while Coast Starlight has had a ‘train/trespasser collision’ = 5+ hour delay in a station with no wifi. Horror. As we were due back in LA at 9pm this most likely means a nerve wracking wait in Downtown LA before the Metro starts again at 4 am. We’ll see about that one.

The same Downtown was a pit stop before we went up to San Francisco. Considered a ‘dodgy’ area, seedy, don’t be walking around after dark kinda place. Undoubtedly true, yet the novelty for a States virgin allows a distinctly rose coloured tint to creep. That homeless guy muttering to himself looks like Bubs, harmless. Samuel L Jackson over there, working out some situation. Fire escapes for the RENT-esque to croon over and all sorts of intersections ready for a chase. It’s a film set, a novel, such is the familiarity with America as described and imagined. 6 days in and it’s becoming more real, like it could be really be touched and traversed and taken in on the immediate. It’s wonderful.

The advantage of train travel: a sense of scale. Crawling along California’s spine with coast on one side and straw coloured all American scenery on the other. Slopes and bumps that fall somewhere between rugged and rolling depending on their proximity to a town. A taste of our next train to Grand Canyon, of Mice and Men and O Brother Where Art Thou. Big Sur there, Silicon here, Fraiser’s apartment somewhere far up there. Sheldon likes trains, there’s a Modern Family – Arrested Development up ahead.

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Making friends with Cathy, one of many friendly locals to have already made our acquaintance, was also uplifting given a Brit’s usual disdain for any conversation on public transport. I mention her here simply for future recollection.

Actually, Nic’s turning into Bob. Having been rewarded with a chat about philosophy and Melvyn Bragg on the bus into LA, he’s turned quite the socialite. I bide my time and break in when required (navigating the testosterone fuelled banter of ridiculously brash young men during England’s first World Cup match – unwittingly we chose a bar in SF’s Italian Quarter – one such example).

North Beach and City Lights. Height Ashbury. Berkeley. Golden Gate. Each met expectations so perfectly there is almost no need to record much at all. Intelli-Hipsters,  Marijuana Grunge, coffee swilling Cals and well paid joggers respectively. A heady mix.

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San Francisco is a stream of interesting upon fascinating on quirky. Swish 20’s apartment blocks fading into back street mural art and the still beating pulse of that swinging decade many moons ago. From on high, white houses twinkle in the sun with a near Spanish glow and the art deco features on even the most run down of quarters are so striking it’s hard to keep calm, impossible to not walk into the many comically vintage cable cars given all the delights above streetview (Google car passed us by, felt exposed). Tips and taxes not included remain infuriating but I’m sure it’ll click at some point.

                                             

Cliffhanger Averted: Arrived in LA at 2 am. Taxi to Hollywood. Lying in Marilyn Monroe’s old boarding bed.

Damned in Paradise: Ode to the Snapper.

An In Our Time on Descartes, or Cogito Ergo Sum, can only lead to an afternoon of alarming consciousness, an awakening rendered the more intense for body’s isolation in the Pacific on an island with only 48 acres to its name. Acute awareness at the least. Not clawing or of the void, not Existential, for a ‘point’ can be spied on the horizon, yet it remains undistinguished and far.

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The distraction of a mighty ocean, a sky so vast it falls low until clouds seem to dip into the water and rises high, then higher and higher, still higher, stretching into every crevice of the eye’s beholding. No structure, man made or no, can block any blue or bird or trail. Sublimity in the immense. Suffice to say that the stars of a Fiji night are so plentiful the sky can be nearer silver than black.

Rested week on hammock. Volcanic sand and ancient coral just metres from our Bure, private shack. So far from suburban Manly, so very far from the intoxicating restlessness of Asian city. Guitars as we alighted and only cooled calm thereafter. As the sun sets, one can follow its motion, see it moving downwards with far quicker pace than such an uninitiated could expect, clouds set to default pink with orange hue. A perfect circle of burning light, enormous, drifting into slumber.

Strikingly blue fish, rainbow fish, see through fish, tiny yellow dotty fish. Hardened rocks painted in soft pastel shades; a wet watercolour meets the goggled snorkeller with every turn of the head. It is all a sensory delight washed down with beer and Johnny W. 

                                        

One figure to emerge from this trip, into my line of sight for the first time so explicitly is the freelance photographer, the roving snapper of life and all that wished to remain ephemeral. More precisely, the photographer we imagine. In Vietnam he was the photojournalist, in plural, chiselled leathery jaws lining the walls of today’s galleries. The crazed and daring, he would capture the war, wander the jungle, drink and smoke and stare and fear and see. See too much, too quickly. Immortalised by Apocalypse Now. On the plane he reappears, no less distant, in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  A man of mystery whose eccentric heroism not only offers the world a glimpse of the otherwise unseen but is mystery enough for Stiller to track and idolise and envy. Roberto Bolano’s novel, Savage Detectives. A figure emerges from the interior of Liberia, savaged African nation, lucky to be sweating and breathing for reasons aplenty. Tragic, disillusioned, genius (perhaps), tortured (certainly). Risking all for photos sold to armchair parties of the West. To Reuters and CNN.

All of them dashing, young, brilliant. Some academic, testing mettle. Others all mettle, seeking a truth. All of them scarred and beaten by the vocation. Romantically damned.

                                        

A winding blog for a thoughtful week off the grid. The Blue Mountains’ treacherously steep stairway (read: shaky ladder clinging to the side of a cliff) into the valley,  bushwalking and waterfall hugging crowned our stay in Oz only a fortnight ago and yet such memories already begin floating from the front of mind. Instills the importance of recording one’s trip in all the ways possible. Room now for the next leg to forefront, touch down in LA with Twain and Kerouac in hand, off to find where their inspirations lay.

Damned in Paradise: Ode to the Snapper.

An In Our Time on Descartes, or Cogito Ergo Sum, can only lead to an afternoon of alarming consciousness, an awakening rendered the more intense for body’s isolation in the Pacific on an island with only 48 acres to its name. Acute awareness at the least. Not clawing or of the void, not Existential, for a ‘point’ can be spied on the horizon, yet it remains undistinguished and far.

image

The distraction of a mighty ocean, a sky so vast it falls low until clouds seem to dip into the water and rises high, then higher and higher, still higher, stretching into every crevice of the eye’s beholding. No structure, man made or no, can block any blue or bird or trail. Sublimity in the immense. Suffice to say that the stars of a Fiji night are so plentiful the sky can be nearer silver than black.

Rested week on hammock. Volcanic sand and ancient coral just metres from our Bure, private shack. So far from suburban Manly, so very far from the intoxicating restlessness of Asian city. Guitars as we alighted and only cooled calm thereafter. As the sun sets, one can follow its motion, see it moving downwards with far quicker pace than such an uninitiated could expect, clouds set to default pink with orange hue. A perfect circle of burning light, enormous, drifting into slumber.

Strikingly blue fish, rainbow fish, see through fish, tiny yellow dotty fish. Hardened rocks painted in soft pastel shades; a wet watercolour meets the goggled snorkeller with every turn of the head. It is all a sensory delight washed down with beer and Johnny W. 

                                        

One figure to emerge from this trip, into my line of sight for the first time so explicitly is the freelance photographer, the roving snapper of life and all that wished to remain ephemeral. More precisely, the photographer we imagine. In Vietnam he was the photojournalist, in plural, chiselled leathery jaws lining the walls of today’s galleries. The crazed and daring, he would capture the war, wander the jungle, drink and smoke and stare and fear and see. See too much, too quickly. Immortalised by Apocalypse Now. On the plane he reappears, no less distant, in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  A man of mystery whose eccentric heroism not only offers the world a glimpse of the otherwise unseen but is mystery enough for Stiller to track and idolise and envy. Roberto Bolano’s novel, Savage Detectives. A figure emerges from the interior of Liberia, savaged African nation, lucky to be sweating and breathing for reasons aplenty. Tragic, disillusioned, genius (perhaps), tortured (certainly). Risking all for photos sold to armchair parties of the West. To Reuters and CNN.

All of them dashing, young, brilliant. Some academic, testing mettle. Others all mettle, seeking a truth. All of them scarred and beaten by the vocation. Romantically damned.

                                        

A winding blog for a thoughtful week off the grid. The Blue Mountains’ treacherously steep stairway (read: shaky ladder clinging to the side of a cliff) into the valley,  bushwalking and waterfall hugging crowned our stay in Oz only a fortnight ago and yet such memories already begin floating from the front of mind. Instills the importance of recording one’s trip in all the ways possible. Room now for the next leg to forefront, touch down in LA with Twain and Kerouac in hand, off to find where their inspirations lay.

At the Bottom of the World.

Staying in Australia as the down under Winter begins its creep has proven fascinating. A cloudless 22C, bristling eucalyptus and the surfer’s ocean, all the shades of sunlit blue. A new sky, unique to the southern hemisphere, blue on blue. Admittedly, a jumper may be required for al fresco happy hours but repeated conversations with the innumerable friendly locals would have one believe it was positively freezing this time of year. A depressing moment, when night time equates to a rather mild English day of grey (a grey that one can miss intensely at the most unlikely of moments).

We are staying near Manly Beach, just north of Sydney. A western utopia. Weather aside, double-decker super-duper tube-trains to take you around the city, cheerful bus drivers, craft beers in every pub and cheaply exquisite wine. Automatics on the left, American sized homes and very beautiful people running along the beaches with their surfboards and half-on wetsuits. Everyone’s fit, stunning coastal walks rising up to sweeping panoramas and down into cute coves of soft sand and seagulls. The apples are bigger. And every retired couple seems to be an absolute whizz at the Waltz. Instead of freezing grannies at christmas, the winter softens temperatures just enough for dears to tip their toes and bathe in rays.

It is almost too much. The infuriating, enraging, mindblowingly annoying swell of antsy flies that attack your eyes, nose and ears all around Ayers Rock proving to be a welcome downside. Until they get into your mouth. Ayers Rock, or Uluru, and the National Park within which it sits, and has done for so many thousands of years, a neighbour to the Olgas. A colossus of sandstone, rusted to a deep red. The remains of an ancient mountain range, worn away into the sea before being compacted, crushed and then thrust back through the land’s crust. What can be seen is the tip of an iceberg. Or rather, an inselberg. The Aboriginal creation story, the history of the Anangu, an intriguing lesson in totems and shapeshifters and survival in the outback of central Australia. A long way from Sydney, a long way from anything.

Steep prices in the resort – the monopoly of a one and only. But sunrise at the rock was money well spent. Light seeping slowing across the landscape, deathly quiet, hues of orange and browned yellow. Just as Nic feels quite odd when anything reminds him of, making him acutely aware of, his tongue, that it’s there, wriggling around in his mouth with a mind of its own, it is really rather odd to remember that one is on the other side of the world to home, upsidedown or, as John Oliver’s new adverts for his Last Week Tonight keep reminding us, the bottom of the earth.

The familiarity is acute. Aside from ‘pint of…’ requiring a ‘we only do schooners’ retort, there are the Salvation Army stands, tourist-maintained historiana of Sydney Rocks and the flurry of worker bees on the fast ferry into financial hubs. The motivation to set up shop, understandable, very understandable. Alas, the lack of a spontaneous weekend on the continent would gripe. An unsettling feel to be so far away from everything, and in quite so big a place (US yet to come). Fiji only marginally further away than Ayers Rock.

The home comforts of staying with a family, the beaches, the wharf-side bars and seedy Kings Cross pubs (Soho) have made for a degree of relaxation that is somewhat tiring. The mayhem of Bangkok, madness of Hanoi, buzz of Chiang Mai seem so distant amid the suburban sprawl. An episode of Top Gear in Burma feels like the memory of another lifetime. Existential fury gives way to Lana del Ray on the sand with an underscore of lingering unemployment, beer before wine and you’ll feel like watching another episode of Seinfield, wine before beer and…

The episode of Friends when they go to London. Nic’s gone wild.

A Lesson in British History

Owing to the unanticipated nature of KTM’s booking system (Malaysian trains selling out weeks in advance of departure) six nights have been spent, languished, in Georgetown, a colonial relic drenched in decaying grandeur. Crumbled eighteenth century townhouses, British-wrought but European in style. Worn and empty shells that have been converted into guesthouses, bars and 7/11s. Our B&B proved cavernous, beautiful tiles and cracking floorboards as originally set and laid. Fans rumble around overhead, the warm air just the same as would have struck Francis Light in 1786 when he struck forth with his almighty flag.

Naturally, high rises, roads and a Wire-esque Dockland now surrounds the UNESCO protected Old Town but distinction only adds to the charm of idling through a warren of streets, each signposted in the Malay of telling originals.

Jln Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah – The Esplanade

Lebuh Gereja – Church Street

Dickens, Buckingham and King streets connect Chinatown to Little India to the Old Colonial District, home to a very complacently insignificant Fort Cornwallis.

A charming place. Sightseeing abounds, including Kek Lok Si Temple, but a genteel stroll between Parisian coffeehouse, gutter bar and Western restaurant, dodging hawkers, admiring the local Banksy and watching the lighthouse flash and flush is, as in any characterful town, rewarding enough. Instead of feeling like the parasitic tourist of old, queuing and sweating and snapping and orienteering, Georgetown allows one to become an honorary local. Small enough that a map is memorised by hour 23 and considerate enough that the barman comes to have the ‘large Skoll, two glasses’ ready before one’s sat down. The enjoyment of a jam-jar served OJ to the tune of jazz so mellow one’s hair stands on end in a slick cafe, ye olde maps lining the walls, followed by a beer in Ali Baba’s den of mish mash, the roadside an arcade of which San Marco would be proud.

It is the life of leisure, of the traveller, but a leisure that’s more basic, simple and less pumped than elsewhere. Amidst motorbike fumes and boiling rice, gutted pigs and thunderstorm puddles, a Nirvana lies still.

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Back to Kuala Lumpur. Replacing the Chinatown of bygone blog posts is Bukit Bitang,  home of malls malls and more malls. Having seen the surrounding Asia it is easy to understand Malaysian insistence on comparison with UK/US rather than Vietnam or Thailand. Here are fat cats with salaries on par with Wall St, city slickers who look at you, a white trash backpacker scraping 80 sen for the monorail aware, so aware, that their world and mine, elite-salaried-boheme, are orbiting nose to nose and both too close to the sun. This is rich KL. Ralph Lauren’s lounge, Hugo’s the Boss and Victoria’s Secrets are all too well known across town.

It’s aggressive, subtle Savile would say crass. Logos seem bigger, bolder, more aware of the social statuses they confer and size most definitely matters. Bank balance. Wallet. Credit card limit. Georgetown and KL are polar opposites but we (Kate Brittain and Great Britain) have left our mark on both.

Nic’s uncle will be picking us up in Sydney at some God awful hour in just a few days. Asia: The Retrospective. I feel it coming on.