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…

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.

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.

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.

Asia: The Beginning

A city that can be described as Inbetween. Capitalist behemoths – shopping malls and spending plazas – presented so clearly, so sharply, so impressively that the disintegrating pavements, lingering stenches and crumbled alleys seem the inexplicable remnants of another time. Yet they represent the still beating heart of a town yet to succumb irreversibly to the pulse of western edifices. Describes many a city, it is true, but as it nestles in the green and plush exotica of jungle, KUALA LUMPUR is such as disarmingly eclectic array of everything that its scope for overwhelming is unavoidable. Quite the place for embarking on the 21st Century’s Grand Tour – not quite a Gap Year, but a trip designed to surprise, shock and confuse. Towering Bank Blocks, it can feel like an endless Canary Wharf, the old and seemingly derelict period building that turns out to serve chilled fruit juices and all the varieties of rice one could possibly imagine. As with any urban rush, it is tempting to imagine peoples’ lives as they idle, run, honk and barge around. The suited and booted, just come from his Americana bachelor’s pad and heading to the Malay Kopitam which, weekly, brings him back to the world of his birth. The Hawker, who spends every daylight hour flipping, frying and boiling, whose dream it is to feature in Lonely Planet – not just to attract the white ‘n’ wealthy but to rub in his best friend’s face, manager of an Irish pub, whose insidious snobbery towards street sellers is a gripe only tolerable for the most forgiving souls. The owner of a successful and sought after hostel, whose father lectures the Imman on his son’s poor life choices. He could have been a doctor, apparently. The Saturday mall-girl, whose perfect skin and deeply beautiful hair only serve to foreground two dead eyes. Living in a dark apartment, miles away, this job has gone from useful to dead-end and each spray of perfume into a customer’s face is a quotidian yet fleeting distraction from incresingly distant dreams.

HANOI is an outstandingly beautiful and atmospheric city. It is still developing in the truest sense – modernising in action but the streets still crammed with the poverty that looks quite romantic in the vintage ‘Instagram-Filter’ sense but ultimately demands a hardship that can be seen in the lines on faces and the strains of body. People everywhere, doing everything. Huge clumps of chaotic cabling creates a jungle of ceiling as they snake through trees and up the ramshackle housing. It feels medieval yet the mayhem is a mask. A calmness can be found within madness – sitting with Bia Hoi in hand, on the street side, a tranquility that is bound to the religious temperances of locals and uncomplicated life they lead, of trade and family, looking after the innumerable shophouses of the Old Quarter. Offices and complexity do exist, but not by the lakes, or in the temples, or the street vendor stalls lining every single road and lane.