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.

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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.

Waiting for the Godot Train: Beaches are nice.

Starting this entry at 19:25. Cafe. Waiting for a train due 01:26. Delayed by 80 minutes so 02.50. Worst part of travelling is the travel. The waiting to travel. Just a void of nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. At least we’re not the couple delayed 5 hours. Thailand has nicer trains but Vietnam had a working clock. Communism can do what Mussolini could, but definitely not the Thais.

Before starting this entry: bus, boat, bus to get to the train station from Koh Phangan. The islands – an education in Mother Nature’s untouchable and unwavering authority in the sublime. A storm will remind you of her power to destroy, but the serenity of such spotless water lapping onto the sand, a fundamental interface, washes away the blind complacency of banal existences to reinforce the grandiose. The calm giant,  the still beast.

Before the islands: A day in Phuket town. Mum was right – seedy. Retreated into a cinema (only Transcendence was showing in English – much disappointment in missing out on Watson in Noah) owing to Nic dying of Dengue Fever or Japanese Encephalitis. Couldn’t decide which but it definitely wasn’t the travel bug that it obviously was. Important update: he’s not dead, and perfectly fine but for an ever increasing hatred of cockcroaches.

Koh Phangan and burning my midriff after 10 minutes by the pool. Mortifying. Not much else to describe in many ways. Not the architectural wonder of Angkor, unbelievable for its age, or the grandeur of Halong Bay, or the visceral history of Vietnam and the vibrancy of its today, Agent Orange still alive in the cells of a generation’s children. This is an island, small, stunning, heaven on earth. And that is the attraction. The ease. No expectation to learn, mourn or pay attention. Just lie down, have a coconut and listen to Don McLean’s Greatest Hits with which I have formed an oddly strong connection. Also, an opportunity for Nic to discover Thailand’s third gender, the Ladyboy, outside Koh Samui’s very own Moulin Rouge.

“You can not be telling me she’s anything but just a woman.”

“I dare you.”

He didn’t.

Finishing this blog entry in Georgetown, Penang. 18:19 and all the more gloriously sunny for us having arrived after the 24 hour journey from the proverbial in the knowledge we have 4 days here sans any travelling at all.

Georgetown deserves a blog entry of its own, to come. Just a note to stress the mightily confusing phenomenon that is Malaysian society. A literal melting pot (38’C). Walking through the middle of Jaipur, you can cross the road into Bejing or turn left onto Armenian street within the space of a town much smaller than Oxford (although they definitely cram in more people). Watched Liverpool vs. Chelsea (Nic almost had a heart attack) in the street with locals blowing on horns louder than a cruise liner. Discovered the delights of a beer tower. Fascinating to watch the local waitresses sprinting up and down the street, athleticism matched by the mental ability to remember the orders of increasingly drunk holler-ers. And they can speak English, are shrewd and beautiful. I often feel outdone by waiters/resses. University was a doddle.

I Miss Kevin Spacey: Temples at Dawn.

(Or, Wat’ya saying!)

It is hard to describe Angkor Wat. Correction – the Angkor Wat complex, hundreds of the things once housing a 1 million strong capital of the Angkor empire, now inhabited by steadfast locals, their dogs and tourists with oversized cameras (myself inc.). Superlatives abound and this blog post could become the immediate copy of a 100 other Wat enthusiasts. Google Angkor Wat and you can see it. There it is.

Yet the scale is worth comment. Hours on a tuk tuk chasing temples and carvings through the jungle. Piles of rubbled ruin and skeletal arrangements of pillar, arch, pillar. A mind twisting complex of fallen stone to explore and goggle at. Praise be to whoever that it is not in England. No Entry. Follow this route only. Queue here. VIP tickets only. Safety Notice. The perks of corrupt Cambodian officialdom: freedom to climb and bound into any crevice that takes the fancy, save for the truly ridiculously large trees such as those growing out of the Tomb Raider Temple, Ta Prohm. They can not still be alive, they have no roots. Or the roots just go into stone. Natural wonder indeed. Shaky ladder thing up a pyramid temple. Nearly died.

Three day pass allows time to ration the temples, all of which are enchanting and magical but can quickly start to blur. *Pause in writing due to annoyance at Robin Thicke being the immediate association there.* Masterpieces of ancient architecture, hot and sweaty. It is a mission, but a mission worthy of a world wonder. It makes you work for it, work for the views, strive for the surprises and clamber for the miraculous. If you’re willing, it will deliver.

Bangkok for 4 days but couldn’t see the Kok for the Bang. Or Splash. Songkran, NY, massive water fight.

So it’s fun. You get a water pistol, put your phone into a water proof wallet and take to the streets, get soaking wet, have a beer, repeat. A spectacle, a party, a very unique event which Thai people take to with an almost unbelievable enthusiasm. But it is unrelenting and the rejection of normal etiquette regarding tourists becomes hard for such stick in ass,  upright Brits. After sun down, dry clothes for dinner — ice cold bucket down the back as soon as you leave the guesthouse. They say you have to engage to enjoy it. True. We did. We tried. But waking up in Chiang Mai after the last day of festival, to walk the streets without fear, the absence of water based anarchy – guerilla armies of youths on the back of trucks with guns and bucket grenades looking almost as threatening and screwed up as in a true break down of society – the most intense relief since having to double check I hadn’t bound the wrong draft of my thesis.

But most importantly it’s becoming more intensely difficult to live without Kevin Spacey. House of Cards. I think I love him. Even watching the Last Action Hero (yep, room with a TV again), which is one of the true greats and ‘an incredibly textured use of the postmodern meta’ (I give no prizes for guessing which of us said that) can not fill the void in my heart. Youtubing videos of his impressions the nearest I can get.

Chiang Mai is very cool. Chilled. Old School. Almost Oxford, city wall and all. Beat a guy called Rudy at pool. More temples.

The search for Frank Underwood continues.

A is for ATM, B is for Bus, C is for CNN

(K is for Khmer Rouge)

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon to almost everyone there, would have been a frantic whirlwind of chaos were it not for us now being old hats. Streets wider, buildings taller, hawkers far more insistent. Winding downtown alleys, the smell of street noodles more intense. Grand boulevards below the sky tower, more open, more parisian than anything yet seen. Yet relaxing, calm and balmy – beers still downed on a curb side, museums still refuges for the air con addict and traffic still a blitz of noise. But not so much that nerves unwind or hearts forget to beat. Aclimatising to the heat and relaxing into the backpack Saigon feels safe and cosmopolitan. A new city, desperate to cast aside the shadow of its destruction, of the hellish cesspit it became for war. Now, Apocalypse Now is a hip nightclub (‘Aypo’), lurking beneath high rise Sofitels and Marriotts, but close enough to the Old Quarter to still feel seedy, uncouth – like anything could be happening in the alleyways around. But I sit, trying to tighten my heart to the groups of children, so small, who tap you on the arm with chewing gum to sell, not allowed a bed time until the basket’s empty. A reminder that cities all too often mask the harsh reality, the hard knock life.

ATMs have caused a dichotomy of laughter and stress. Absolutely everywhere. Driving through the back and beyond, a medieval world of horse and plough, hut and hurt. Then you see it, the windows shining, a modern, giant and branded-to-the-nines cash machine, loaded with dollar. They’re everywhere, like those Doctor Who boxes – what are they really and what do they want from us? …. Our cash! The transition to penny-pinching transaction fee maniac is complete. Walking past 20 of them to find the cheapest one. Insane.

Cu Chi Tunnels. Sombre and fascinating. Nic discovered his athletic twin and lept underground to crawl through the holes of VC and guerilla. Has been suffering from sore legs since, but the heat and inhuman smallness of where these people lay their heads is almost unbelievable. Another reminder of the living history that seems a 1000 years old.

Saigon – Phnom Penh. PP – Siem Reap. Then Bangkok. Buses, albeit the finest/pricest two nervous British types can find have proven to be the adventure one imagines. You rock, bump and grind forward. Cambodian roads are terrible. One understands, but still. Bump, grind, forward. Crunch, jolt, sideways. 7 hours to do 300km. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Phnom Penh. The Genocide museum. The country that imploded and brutally destroyed a a quarter (or more) of its population. A museum of torture and the story of a ideological dream utterly corrupted by the human temper in power and command. Not very nice. But fascinating – Khmer Rouge seniors are still here, under trial. Not very long ago at all and yet, despite kodak stills of decaying corpses found in the abandoned prison, ex high school, the only way of coping is to place it much further back in history.

CNN. The greatest news channel on the planet. Since we arrived in Kuala Lumpur the days’ highlight has been to return back to our room’s TV and discover that absolutely no developments have been made in the search for MH370, the only story that the 24 hour channel has been discussing since, it feels, the birth of Christ became old news, yet to witness their ability to talk about nothing for so many continuous hours is truly a marvel.

Breaking news – planes are still searching the ocean 900 miles from Perth. No luck just yet, but stay tuned for our panel of experts who will spend the next 5 hours dissecting and speculating when the real story is why mainstream media insists on fuelling our fearful obsession with catastrophic death.

Angor Wat tomorrow.

End of the Begininng: We need to talk about Bob.

Halong Bay is simply magical. Outstandingly lucky with weather – a clarity that led even the junkboat’s crew to take a snap or two. Clumpy islands, endless, rising out of calm waters in green and textured sublimity. It is immense, yet so quiet to pass through. Distant hum of fishing boat, gentle rock of the engine – 400 other tourist cruises are out there, somewhere, but gliding through the canals before a backdrop of such a mystically still sunset just breathing can feel like you’re disturbing a thing eternal. The formations most covered in vegetation seem Amazonian and untouched – shrouded in a slight mist but gorgeous for their quiet, rugged grace.

Rocking overnight train to Hue. Terrifying to start, shaking about the sleeping cabin, local guy snoring above me. But lying down you accept the motion, it becomes soothing and but for a few knocks sleep can be had, before alighting in central Vietnam – entirely different climate to Hanoi, sweltering. Almost resembles a Spanish tourist town, the roads are quieter and wider and western food is much more the order of the day. Yes I will have the New York Club Sandwich.

Then Danang. Or Da Nang. Vietnam’s 5th largest city, population 1 million, claims the train speaker. (Still cannot believe there are 90 million population here. Where are they all, all in rice paddies, seem so few in the rice paddies). Da Nang , Vietnam’s answer to Las Vegas. Just a stop over before 14 hour train to Saigon but the light up bridges, waterfront cafes serving hipster lager in cans and complete void of any cultural attraction ensures temple fatigue doesn’t set in just yet, and brings us to miss 15p Bia Hoi all the more. 25000 doing (80p). High end. Mind blowing restaurant discovered just off the ‘Strip’ – Claypot rice, caramelised pork and beef in leaves (should have paid more attention to which)  = Nic’s cloud 9 (post-vegetarian meatiest still in full swing). £4. Novelty of rice in claypots c. Leicester Square – £25. Good job we’ve Oz and USA before the South East once more. ‘Made in Da Nang’ but ‘The ONLY way is Hanoi.’

We need to talk about Bob. New Englander raised in DC, encountered in Halong Bay. Interesting wife, beautiful and intelligent daughter finishes Lolita and starts Great Gatsby. Bob. Bob who starts talking to anyone he encounters, literally every one person to cross his path. (To/At being operative). Wealthy salesman, holiday home in the woods. Trekked Nepal, Grand Canyon, Thailand but has no interest in China. Remember what Bob said about peanut butter? I wonder what sort of house Bob has. Bob was talking to that local for 3 hours! Do you think Bob’s a Democrat? Pleasant, liberal, white, middle class – can never tell. Seem nice then bam! GOP. Grand Ol’ Bob.

Bob is still in our hearts a week on. 24 hours on a boat, 19 of them with Bob as background music. “Oxford? I know that one, good college. Our son’s at Cornell. Did you know that at Cornell you have to do Sports. Have to swim to graduate. I once swam in this completely undiscovered bay just outside….The way you British say bespoke always makes me laugh.”

DMZ zone – Demilitarised Zone. Watched Oz: The Great and Powerful, Spiderman 2 and Willy Wonka on HBO instead owing to a mildly dicky tummy (so British) but Nic upped and went, met an American academic who loves David Foster Wallace and my absence, and I daresay the point of visit was quickly forgotten. Reunited in time for Dark Knight Rises. TV in every room so far #flashpacker. Not for much longer. On train to Ho Chi Minh, still Saigon on the ticket.