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.



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.


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 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.


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.