Steve McKenna

Freelance travel writer and photographer

Blog: Peripatetic musings...


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My horriblest border entry? It was in North America - but it wasn't the USA...

Posted on October 16, 2013 at 9:45 AM Comments comments (0)




After seeing this disturbing article (about a Dutch traveller being refused entry into the USA), I scrolled through the readers' comments, and discovered that, on the whole, American border officials are a humour-less nightmare compared to their 'polite and friendly' Canadian counterparts. It reminded me of my short-and-not-entirely-sweet trip to Canada a few years ago.......


The man's abruptness is startling. It's as if I've banged on his front door at 3am and woken him from an alcohol-induced slumber.


All I'm trying to do is get into his country.


But the brawny Torontonian customs and immigration officer seems to have taken an immediate dislike to me.


"What's your business here?" he barks.


"Oh, I'm here for a quick holiday. I've just flown in from Las Vegas and wanted to pop in and see the CN Tower and Niagara Falls."


He glares at me then demands my passport and entry form. I place them on the left side of his desk.


"Wrong side. Put them there."


"Sorry." I move the documents 30 centimetres across - to the right side. He picks them up, looks at them, stamps something, then tells me to go down that corridor.


I'm greeted by another official who doesn't bother with 'hellos'.


"What have you come to Canada for?" he snaps, hostility oozing from his big, stern face.


"I'm on a round-the-world trip and I'm flying from New York to London in five days' time, so I wanted to see a few things in Canada beforehand."


He isn't impressed and spends the next 30 minutes interrogating me on my plans for Canada, my travelling history, my accommodation details, my finances (he makes me empty my wallet) and whether I know anyone in Toronto.


"Not really, but I did meet a girl in San Francisco whose boyfriend lives here. He's offered to show me around, but I'm not that bothered really."


"But you've contacted him?"


"Just by email."


"Oh, so it's an internet thing?"


"Well, I suppose so," I admit, concerned that he's intimating I'm part of a menage a trois.


"Wait here."


Oh dear. What's going to happen? Are they going to fly me off to Guantanamo Bay (even though that's part of the USA)? My heart is beating alarmingly; my hands are shaking.


I don't understand the problem; I've got a valid passport, which entitles me to a visa-free visit, plenty of money and an onward plane ticket, so ... Ah. An onward plane ticket. He hadn't asked about that.


I delve into my bag, find the ticket from New York to London and cautiously make my way back to the counter.


"Excuse me. Does this help?"


He snatches the ticket and scans it - back to front - as if to make sure I hadn't suddenly typed it out myself.


"Yes," he snaps, taking my passport and stamping it, before looking over my shoulder at the next person in the queue.


"Next."


The relief is tangible. It was hardly the ideal start to my Canadian adventure but, by the time I was on a bus leaving Toronto 36 hours later, bound for New York - via a surprisingly incident-free border crossing - I had been up (what was, at the time) the world's largest building, the CN Tower, and had witnessed the beautiful ferocity of Niagara Falls.


So as far as I was concerned, that unpleasant - and mildly inconvenient - brush with officialdom was worth it. Just.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Sydney Sun-Herald

 

Food, glorious food - a dinner date in steak heaven

Posted on October 15, 2013 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)



In one of my last blogs, several months ago (sorry, I've been busy), I wrote about how travel wasn't all about seeing spectacular sights. It was about people and how some of the characters you meet will long stay in the memory. But travel, to me - and probably most of you - also means food.


The other day, as I sheltered from the cold and tucked into steak and chips at a pub in the English countryside, I thought back to my trip to Kobe, Japan. It was a warm, spring evening. I was wandering through the city's vibrant, neon-slathered Sannomiya district. And I was about to have one of the best meals of my life....


Iron spatula in hand, the young chef slapped a chunk of butter and a few slices of garlic on the long, open, curving teppan (iron griddle) that separates the punters and chefs of Steakland Kobe, a cosy, wood-panelled restaurant close to the Sannomiya train station.


Then came the beef. Compared to some incredible hunks of meat I'd devoured in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and, especially, Argentina, the portion looked quite measly (it would more or less fit in the palm of an average man's hand).


It wasn't cheap either. In beef-loving Buenos Aires, for example, you can feast on sublime 500 gram sirloins from around 50 Pesos (US$8.60 or £5.40).


At Steakland Kobe, a 200 gram serving of Kobe-reared sirloin was setting me back 5480 yen (which, at the time, converted to $68/£42). In a city strewn with steak joints, however, this was one of the more reasonably-priced ones. And in any case, concerns about the cost went out the window as the steak began to sizzle and a sumptuous beefy aroma, melded with the smell of butter-smeared garlic, wafted up my nose.


Hailed for its rich flavour and tenderness, Kobe beef comes from Tajima cattle, whose well-bred genes naturally yield fatty, well-marbled meat. Farmers feed them a varied diet of barley, corn, alfalfa and wheat, and some swear by additional extras. It's claimed that in the build-up to their inevitable demise, the pampered cows in this region spend their days guzzling beer and receiving massages.


Although scientists are wary of giving these centuries-old methods credence, plying the cows with alcohol, for instance, is meant to induce hunger, while massages are supposed to work under-used muscles and to aid digestion.


As my head filled with surreal images of drunken cows being fondled, the chef moved like a flamboyant artist painting a canvas.




After shearing off the excess fat, he carved the beef into little Turkish-delight sized cubes, which were now medium brown on the outside and a delicious looking pink on the inside (ordering Kobe beef well-done is akin to asking for a de-caff espresso in Rome).


The chef presented the beef with an array of side dishes: thin garlic-tinged fries, mushrooms, Konnyaku jelly and cucumber, a green salad in a Miso vinaigrette dressing, a bowl of beef broth, Konomono (Japanese pickles), boiled rice and a garlic dipping sauce.


The first cube didn't seem to taste of much, or maybe I'd just got over-excited and chewed it too quickly. I didn't make the same mistake with the second one; slowly, but surely, it almost melted in my mouth. By the time I'd savoured the third cube - succulent beyond belief - I felt like I was in steak heaven.


When I was growing up - and even when I pop back home these days - my mum would chastise me for scoffing my food too quickly (“It took me all day to cook that, and you've eaten it in five minutes!”


I adapted my dining techniques in Kobe, and it was a bitter-sweet moment when, an hour later, I finally swallowed my last cube.


Until I went to Japan, Argentina was my dream steak destination.


Now I'm not so sure - though I know which one is more in my price range.

Cali, Colombia - it all turned out 'muy bien' in the world salsa capital

Posted on May 1, 2012 at 2:10 PM Comments comments (1)



The bubbly Colombian looks familiar. As she welcomes us into her salon, one of my friends whispers: “Queen Latifah”.


We nod our heads in agreement as this larger-than-life figure - a spitting image of the American actress - whisks us past the reception. It's staffed by an eye-catchingly busty young woman, who is twiddling locks of her shiny brunette hair, while chatting away on the phone in Spanish studded with Colombian slang.


We walk past a door that leads to a tanning room, from which two more gorgeous girls in uniform appear. They smile, say 'hola', stare and smile some more.


Although, in a way, it feels as if we've walked into the lair of a Bond villain, judging by our grins and mischievous glances, my friends and I are thinking the same thing. This seems too good to be true.


It gets better. Queen Latifah shows us to our perspective rooms. We'd heard that there was a kind of boutique hotel hidden behind the salon. It was a decent tip. The three rooms are four-star standard (or at least 3.5), with neat ensuites, large, comfy double beds and window views over the city of Cali. She quotes us about US$25 a night each. We knock her down to $20. She agrees, reluctantly, but we say we're on a budget and can't afford much. We tell her we'll stay four nights.


“Maybe more,” says my Irish friend,  Des, with a twinkle in his eye. He keeps muttering about the ludicrously attractive women working here and how he'll get practicing his Spanish on them.


It transpires that we don't have a hope. Well not much anyway. The only male hairdresser in the place (an incredibly camp bloke with painted fingernails) says they're all attached and considering Cali is renowned for its hot-blooded young men - and in the 80s and 90s was one of the most dangerous cities on earth - we decide it's probably not worth stepping on the wrong toes, just in case.


We spend most of our time in Cali marvelling – slightly bewildered, in fact – by the locals' obsession with salsa. Calenos reckon they live in the world's salsa capital, and dancing is all they seem to do here – at night anyway (by day, many love hanging out in American-style malls and, by the looks of some extremely firm breasts and backsides, getting silicone implants).


Needless to say, we're pretty useless at salsa - I have a remarkable talent for stepping on girls' toes. Our Irish friend, however, thinks he's a dab hand, especially after motoring through the beer-bong pitchers that they serve in the bars here.


Our stay in Cali is made even more enjoyable by Francisco, the hotel's affable night porter, the one person in the property who can speak English, but who has a knack of using the phrase 'muy bien' (meaning 'very good' or 'very well' in Spanish) at the end of almost every sentence.


Even when we say we're not impressed with the high laundry prices at the hotel - Queen Latifah's wily hubby Freddie tells us there are no laundrettes nearby (there are) and tries to charge us $5 to wash each pair of socks - Francisco says 'muy bien, muy bien'.


And, of course, as we leave, the last words he says are 'gracias, adios, muy bien, muy bien'.


Our time in Cali reminds us, once again, that one of the great things about travel is often not the spectacular sights you see, but the characters you meet, and the way their actions and idiosyncrasies can leave an unforgettable mark.


NB. If you're heading to Cali, and want to stay with Queen Latifah, Freddie and Senor Muy Bien, let me know and I'll dig out the address.

In slight defence of Luis Suarez - by an Everton fan. A blog about fry-ups, footy, racist slurs and cultural differences...

Posted on April 27, 2012 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)



It almost pains me to say this as an Everton fan. But I really quite like Luis Suarez. As a player, anyway.


I was hoping Norwich would thrash Liverpool this weekend, because a win for the Canaries would've kept Everton five points ahead of their Merseyside rivals in the English Premier League. After beating us in the FA Cup semi-final – helped, of course, by a goal from Suarez – finishing above the Reds in the table would be a small, but tidy, consolation for the Toffees.


However, Suarez produced a brilliant hat-trick to inspire Liverpool to a 3-0 win. Watching the match from an English pub in Bogota, the seriously under-rated, and rather British-influenced, capital of Colombia (pictured above), I reckoned that only a ludicrously biased Evertonian (and today, a Canary) would fail to appreciate the talents of this waspish Uruguayan.


Then, as I chomped on my fried eggs, sausages and crispy bacon, and sipped a cup of tea (with milk), it struck me - a lot of people, who aren't Everton fans, actually hate Luis Suarez. And it doesn't matter how well he performs on the field, this isn't going to change.


“Good goals – but he's a c%$£,” said one scribe on YouTube after the game.


Many of the Suarez haters are Manchester United supporters. They haven't forgiven Suarez for his much-publicised spat with Patrice Evra earlier this season. Their antipathy towards Liverpool's number seven grew when he appeared to refuse to shake Evra's hand during the two teams' next meeting a few months later.


But a lot of other people – who don't support Everton or Man U – dislike Suarez with a passion. For some, it's because he has a tendency to dive (cheat). But many loathe him because, basically, they think he's a racist bastard.






Unsurprisingly, despite having visited Uruguay, I don't know the bloke, so I won't even attempt to say if he is or not. His team-mates at Liverpool and in the Uruguayan national team certainly don't think so – not least because Suarez's own background is one of mixed race. Then again, how do they know for sure?


During the inquiries into the Suarez-Evra incident, it emerged that Suarez had called the United left-back 'negro' and 'negrito'.


At the very least, it was a stupid thing to say – especially in England, where referring to someone's skin colour, in even a potentially derogatory way, puts you on a slippery slope to trouble.


Suarez also said the words repeatedly. It was as if he was trying to wind up, or insult, Evra, based on the colour of his skin. It doesn't look – or sound - good.


But – and this is a big but. Luis Suarez is from South America. Citing the 'cultural differences' defence, Suarez's backers have been roundly slated. Maybe quite rightly. Yet the truth is - and you won't appreciate this until you've been here - this is a continent where people casually call one another things that would have people in Europe punching each other's faces in, or at least reporting them to the authorities.


In the last month alone, travelling through Colombia, Venezuela and Colombia again, I've heard people referred to as 'gordo' and 'gordito' (fatty and little fatty), 'flaca' (skinny), 'blanco' (whitey) and, yes, 'negro' (black/negro) and 'negrito' (little black/negro).


Not once have I seen anyone react badly - even if they're called these names over and again. It's normal - just a quirk of conversation. It's a bit like in Britain or Australia, where people call each other 'mate' - even if they're not actually friends. In South America, calling someone 'gordito' or 'negrito' isn't, necessarily, an insult. They yell 'gordo' if someone's fat, 'blanco' if they're pale and 'negro' if they're black. Suarez spent the first 19 years of his life ingrained in this culture. I know myself that, just because you leave your country of birth, you don't suddenly lose touch with its customs and traditions. Some things come naturally. Like my urge for English breakfasts, whereever I am in the world. Or my tendency to use the word 'mate'.


That said, I'm not sticking up for Suarez. After several years in Europe – including five seasons in the Dutch league - he should have known better. He should've been aware – or made aware – that, over here, you can't say what he said to Evra. He should have dealt with the aftermath of the incident better. He should have apologised, shook Evra's hand and drawn a line under things. The fact that he didn't suggests he's a bit of a tool. Or maybe he's just immature – he's still only 25. Or maybe he's just misunderstood. Or maybe he just wasn't very sorry for what he said. Only he knows why he behaved as he did.


Outside Anfield (the hallowed home of Liverpool FC), Suarez isn't very popular. Although he's paid handsomely and plays for one of the most famous clubs in the world, the boos and abuse from the opposition fans, and the stick he gets in the media, are bound to grate a little, and it wouldn't surprise me if Suarez waves goodbye to Liverpool, and England, at the end of the season.


On one hand, as an Evertonian, the Reds losing, arguably, their most gifted player would be lovely, especially as it'd put even more pressure on the still-excellent, but ageing, Steven Gerrard. But, on the other, it would be a shame, because, on his day, Suarez is clearly one of the best footballers in the league - a joy to watch. The hat-trick he scored against Norwich is one of the classiest I've seen in years. Almost as good as Denis Bergkamp's famous one against Leicester City in 1997.


My gut tells me that it won't matter what he does now, the Suarez brand is tainted – probably for good. I could be wrong, though. He may yet re-invent himself and become one of the most popular sportsmen in England. What do you think?

Hong Kong feeding frenzy - part two. Result = toilet humour aplenty

Posted on April 23, 2012 at 3:50 PM Comments comments (1)



The maitre d' is nowhere to be seen when we arrive at the lobby. Instead, we're greeted by the sight of a mother taking a photograph of her daughter, who is proudly sporting a giant brown curled-up spongy object on her head.


When they see us, they look faintly embarrassed, drop the spongy object and shuffle off, with big, guilty grins on their faces. The maitre d' finally appears, picks the spongy thing up off the floor, deposits it back on the shelf, and beckons us warmly inside.


I was sceptical as to whether the Modern Toilet Restaurant would be the best place to take my friend, but German is smiling. Like me, it seems she has a weakness for toilet humour.


There are two branches of this Taiwanese franchise in Hong Kong. We're in the Causeway Bay one, which, to reach, you have to scale two sets of escalators and navigate a way through the floor of a busy pharmacy store. But if the build-up was unusual, the restaurant is even weirder.


It's almost as if someone opened a bathroom showroom, then upped and left, only for a restaurateur to move in and decide not to bother changing the décor.


Diners – a mix of young Hong Kong families and Filipino workers on their day off - are seated on actual toilets, which fringe see-through glass tables that rest atop shiny white sinks.


The walls are decorated with mirrors and hanging bathrobes, plus sparkling new toilet seats, bearing the flags of various countries (I note there's a shiny Union Jack). Next door to the kitchen is a cabinet stacked with toilet paraphernalia, including a plastic brown lump with a fly enmeshed in it.


Although we both have a strange craving to photograph each and every angle of this ridiculous place, we have some eating to do – something queasy people would find hard to stomach in such surroundings.


As we drink green tea from urinal-shaped glasses, we ponder the menu, a blend of Asian and Italian cuisine.


German plays it safe and opts for a chicken pasta dish. I go for the Modern Toilet Combination Hot Pot. When it arrives, in a mini plastic toilet, full to the brim with steaming meat, noodles, coconut and sweetcorn, we get the giggles.


In truth, the food's not all that. It would be harsh to say it's crap, because it isn't. But it's fair to say that Modern Toilet Restaurant would win more prizes for its conceptual creativity than its cuisine.


We consider dessert, but decide to skip it when we see a couple of children at the table next to us licking a chocolate ice-cream cone.


After paying the bill (around $25 overall) we head to the exit and German persuades me to wear the giant brown curled-up spongy object on my head. As I pose for a picture, an Australian couple enter the restaurant. “Suits ya mate,” says the bloke, winking.


Feeling my face reddening, I chuckle awkwardly, remove it from my head and make for a sharp exit.

 

Hong Kong feeding frenzy - part one. Result = toilet trips aplenty

Posted on April 23, 2012 at 3:20 PM Comments comments (0)



From the doorway, Lin Heung Tea House looks like complete and utter chaos - a sparsely decorated den of buzzing conversation and cluttering pots, pans and dishes, a place where old fans swing and hum from the ceilings and where metal trolleys clunk noisily through the aisles.


In Hong Kong, there are more refined places to enjoy yum cha (tea-drinking) and dim sum (a Chinese tapas-style nibble fest). But Lin Heung, at 160 Wellington Street (Central), has a charmingly shabby allure.


My Hong Konger friend German and I soon discover that you have to be willing to fight not just for your food, but for a table as well. Only people with no real desire to eat would stand and wait to be shown to their seats – especially during 'rush hour' (Sunday brunch time).


After ten minutes of stalking around, looking – and failing – to find somewhere to sit, a kindly middle-aged man waves us over to a pair of vacant spaces.


“Try not to rush around too much – that way you won't get scolded,” he says. Right on cue, a waiter arrives with a teapot loaded with jasmine leaves and a steel kettle of boiling water – plus a piece of paper with a grid of numbers and elaborate Chinese characters that I have no hope of deciphering.


Handing it to me, German suggests that I, being the male, go hunting for food. Scouring round, it dawns on me that I'm the only foreigner in a restaurant full of locals (many of whom seem to be smiling or sniggering at my presence).


I gravitate towards a poker-faced old lady, who's at the helm of a trolley laden with teensy-weensy steaming bamboo baskets.






I can't see what's in them, but, like the throng of people whose arms are doing a mad dance in front of my face, I want some.


After serving three people in our tangle, the old lady grabs my paper, scribbles something on it, lifts the lids off the baskets – pork dumplings and beef balls are the hidden treats - and hands them over.


Shoulders squeezed in, I hunker back to my table, where German has struck up a conversation with five strangers. They're sipping tea and munching on an assortment of dishes, including lotus paste buns, rice dumplings and cow's lungs.


We agree that this is one of the coolest places we've ever had yum cha/dim sum. Lin Heung is loud, atmospheric and very old-school (it's been around since the 1920s, apparently), while the food is varied, filling, tasty and unbelievably cheap, too.


We head off two hours later, stuffed, having paid just HK$88 (about $11, or £7) for a stack-load of dishes (including fried wontons and steamed pork buns) and enough tea to ensure I'll be spending the rest of the day in and out of Hong Kong's public toilets....


 

Why I quite enjoyed Laos' party town/backpacker hellhole

Posted on April 8, 2012 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (0)


Being over 30, and struck by a growing intolerance of late nights, loud music and people who use the word 'party' as a verb, I was pretty sure I'd hate Vang Vieng.


Young backpackers head to this tiny town in central Laos for day-time high-jinks on the Nam Song river and after-dark fun in spit-and-sawdust bars selling ludicrously cheap buckets of whisky and Coke.


But I'd also heard there was more to it than boozy hedonism, so much so that several laid-back (idle) thirty, forty and fifty-somethings were on a permanent vacation there.


I was in Luang Prabang, a charming city sprinkled with faded French colonial buildings and shiny Buddhist temples. Vang Vieng was a six-hour bus ride away - a relatively short over-land journey by south-east Asian standards. Perhaps inevitably, I gave in to temptation.


My guidebook had described Vang Vieng as a 'sullied paradise'. It was a canny observation. The town is bi-sected by the gently flowing Nam Song, and on one side of the emerald stream, a row of lofty vegetation-cloaked limestone lumps rose magnificently into the clouds. I half-imagined Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Lost World' laying beyond them. Below, hugging the banks and stretching back to a handful of dusty paths were a spread of bamboo bungalows. Symptomatic of the vibe of rustic relaxation that swept through this area, everybody was sunbathing on the grass.


By contrast, the other side of the river (and a little island in between the two banks) was choked with guest-houses, tour agencies, massage parlours, neon-lit bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants – half of which seemed to be playing episodes of Friends and The Simpsons on a loop.


Tuk-tuks zipped through the streets, vendors cooed the phrases 'pancake' and 'sandwich'  to anyone who passed and touts offered kayaking, caving and rock climbing trips. The general topic of conversation among travellers appeared to concern a phenomenon called 'tubing', which, a young Canadian told me, was basically a pub crawl on water. It involved renting a giant inflatable round tube and floating down the river, from ramshackle bar to ramshackle bar, pushing your luck on zip lines and slides, while gradually getting more and more intoxicated. There was no talk that it might be dangerous.


"It's awesome, man," said the Canadian, with boyish enthusiasm. "I've been five days in a row. Are you coming?"


I made my excuses and rode out of town on a mountain bike I'd hired for 2,000 Kip (a quid and a bit, or a few dollars).




The scenery soon became less cluttered. Vang Vieng was, until a little over a decade ago, an anonymous village in the middle of pristine countryside and its surrounds are still largely unravaged by tourism.


As I cycled on the main (uneven) road heading north, I saw Lao eating in cafes that, strikingly, appeared to have no English signs or menus. Teenage boys huddled round a snooker table that rested under a makeshift shed. Women cycled along, holding the handle-bars with one hand and an umbrella – to shield the tropical sun – with the other. Little children, with tiny backpacks strapped to them, strolled, by themselves, along the side of the road.


The further I pedalled, the more nature began to dominate. A patch-work of fields, the winding Nam Song and those eye-catching, cloud-coated limestone shards created several gorgeous vistas. The occasional motor-bike and bus roared past, but most of the time I was completely alone, pondering my fortune at hogging this beauty to myself. I'd spent most of my childhood in that 'green and pleasant land', England, but this was as lush and verdant as anything I'd seen.


Every so often, the bucolic environment was broken up by a little village, comprising bamboo huts, simple brick cottages and, usually, a little school. I chanced across an old woman who was showering, topless, in her front garden. I averted my eyes. Really, it was for the best.


I found the locals were even keener to mingle here than in Vang Vieng. "Sabaa-dii!" (the Lao word for 'hello') was a frequent greeting, always accompanied by an endearing, genuine smile. Most memorable were the four children who, upon seeing me on the side of the road taking a photograph, raced over, arms stretched out, seeking a hand-shake.


Despite attracting a few obnoxious fools (where doesn't?), Vang Vieng is, by and large, a friendly and unassuming place. Cosmopolitan too. As well as the Lao, I met some decent people from Chile, Israel, France, Holland, Germany, Canada, USA, the UK, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia (Melburnians heavily outnumbered the Sydneysiders). Most badgered me to at least give 'tubing' a try and, eventually, I gave in. Despite my doubts, I had fun – helped by embracing the alcoholic revelry, admittedly, although the enjoyment waned after the sun had set beneath those limestone lumps, bringing a chilly sting to the air.




Afterwards, back in town, semi-clothed, I 'partied' with fellow 'tubers' and listened to cheesy 80s and 90s tunes in the open-air bars – at least until midnight, when the music was surprisingly switched off. The Laos government are strict on noise pollution, apparently. They're also against drug use and foreigners fraternising with Lao nationals in a sexual manner. A poster in my bedroom in Luang Prabang had urged me to 'Respect the Law! Respect the Lao! and warned: 'do not any drugs, crambling or bring both women and men which is not your own husband and wife into the room for making love'.


On my last day in Vang Vieng, having had my fill of cycling, sight-seeing and 'tubing', I lazed in a cafe, sipping treacle-thick local coffee and watching at least ten episodes of Friends.


Was I glad that I'd come? Yes. Would I come again? No - probably not.

 

PS...I wrote this after my visit in 2009. I'm sure it's changed a little, but not too much

Chilling in the eye of a storm....

Posted on January 18, 2012 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (0)

 


It's a little unsettling when the country you're travelling through becomes the focus of rabid, doom-mongering media coverage.


Halfway through a trip across Central America, I arrived in Honduras after its president, Jose Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a military coup, sparking mass protests and riots on the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa. As chaotic scenes appeared on TV screens across the world, my email inbox swelled with worried messages. “Where are you? Are you still alive?”


I was quick to point out to family and friends that I was alive and very, very well. Which they had trouble believing, of course. My good mood was induced by a lovely little town called Gracias a Dios. Hidden away in the mountainous, eastern Honduran countryside, it was just 250 kilometres from the trouble in Tegucigalpa, but seemingly another world - another era, even - away.


The word 'sleepy' is over-used when it comes to describing laid-back places, but Gracias fully merited it. Here, people weren't just having afternoon siestas; they were having them in mid-morning, too; on street corners, park benches, in fields, anywhere in fact. It was hard to believe that, back in the 16th century, this was a bustling town full of Spanish Conquistadors. It's said that when they first arrived, they were so happy to see flat land after toiling through the hills that they looked up to the heavens and said: 'Gracias a Dios' (Thanks be to God). The name stuck - and, for a while, it became the capital of Spain's Central American empire.


Remnants of the colonial era remain - a pretty whitewashed church and town hall edged the tree-shaded central plaza - but the most striking thing about Gracias were the spitting images of Jose Manuel Zelaya strolling the dusty streets. With his wiry build, neatly trimmed dark moustache, cotton slacks and shirts (sleeves rolled up to the elbows), and white cowboy hat, Zelaya looked like the archetypal Honduran male, a real man of the people. Now he had gone into hiding, and I wondered if he was lurking somewhere in Gracias.




Seeing me ambling aimlessly with camera in hand – I appeared to be the only foreign tourist in town this day - one of the lookalikes told me that I could snap some nice pictures if I walked up a trail, a moderately steep one, but one well worth the effort. Twenty minutes later, I'd reached the old fortress of San Cristobal. Close by, I spotted a moustachioed old man sitting under a tree. He said something in Spanish, which I couldn't understand, then he began pointing towards the fortress.


I went through a gate, and half-feared that I was going to be lynched by his amigos. But there was no-one there. I stood on the ramparts for a while and took in the views, the tiny town below, dwarfed by the forested mountains. If only I could paint, I thought.


As I retreated from Gracias’ fortress, feeling a siesta coming on, I motioned to wave goodbye to the old man who had pointed me in the right direction.


But it was no use. His cowboy hat perched over his face, he was sleeping like a baby, without, it seemed, a care in the world.

Was it the caffeine talking?

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 8:25 AM Comments comments (1)

I just spent an hour sheltering from the drizzly air of a nondescript suburb of Greater Manchester, making the most of the free wi-fi access you get when you buy a drink in a Costa Coffee. My flat white was pretty decent – though not a patch on the ones I used to get from the independent cafe joints in Sydney and Melbourne when I lived Down Under. Ah, good times....


Anyway, I did the usual online – browsed the newspapers, Youtubed a few things, pondered work options, checked how many people had been on my website in the past week (15) and rounded it off with some Facebooking. All this time, however, I couldn't help eavesdropping on a conversation that was taking place on the table next to me, involving two men, probably ten years my senior (if not a little more), discussing the peaks and troughs of being struggling freelancers (writers and photographers, they were).


Naturally, being in the same sort of business, I was intrigued by what they had to say. I put on my best poker-face impression and wagged my big right ear, while tapping the keyboard, twiddling with the mouse and pretending that I wasn't in the least bit interested in what these two middle-aged slackers had to say. The more sheepish, less confident of the two told his friend how he used to be so depressed with his job that he would cry when he got up in the mornings. I remember feeling slightly down when my alarm sounded at 5am on a Monday - mainly because I was still hungover from a heavy Saturday night and would've happily slept til midday - but despite the horror and pain of rising at this despicable hour, especially in winter, I can't remember ever shedding a tear about it. When things became too much, when another winter was looming and I really couldn't be doing with it anymore, I jacked it in and went travelling.


That was in 2005. I've not had a 'proper' job since – although I have been getting plenty of experience in the topsy-turvy world of self-employment. Anyway, the man sitting next to me quit, too. By the looks of his ghostly white skin, however, I somehow doubted that he'd jetted off to Thailand to mingle on the Khao San Road or beached it on Ko Phi Phi. No, he knuckled down straight into his new life-career. His friend gave him a verbal pat on the back for his decisive action, then the pair discussed their progress in the fickle freelancing world.


So how were they doing? Not exactly brilliantly, by the sound of things, but they were upbeat nonetheless. Or at least they were doing their best impression of sounding upbeat. The pair bemoaned the modern world of salaried work – the set hours, lunch breaks and holidays, the pressures, the hassles, the bastards you have to work with/and for, day-in, day-out. They slated the prospect of doing a job they hated until they were told they could retire, and they slaughtered the idea of being a corporate clone/drone all their lives. Of course, they wouldn't mind the lucre you get for being one of these so-called clone/drones, but....


It seemed they were happy to eke out their days, doing what they called 'creative things', and struggling along, enjoying what they were doing, getting stuff published here and there, getting paid here and there, and seeing how things go, and trying not to worry about it all. And of course, being able to have a chat and a coffee when they saw fit. Like at 3pm on a Tuesday.


The more confident of the two blokes said: “I guess we just make it up as we go along. Then again, so do most people in life. Haha.” The other guy laughed. This throwaway comment struck a chord with me. The wrong side of my 20s, my life isn't mapped out in the way I thought it would be, say, ten years ago. If anything, it's more fluid than ever. I have lots of goals and ambitions, but they've changed as time has worn on, and I'm not sure where I'll be this time, next year, let alone in 2032....


As the clock on my internet access ticked down to zero, and as I packed my things up and got ready to face the drizzle outside, I wondered: did these two guys really believe what they were saying? Were they really happy just struggling along, living from week to week, creating their own 'existence' on a whim? Did they never lieawake at night, thinking 'what the hell am I doing? Shouldn't I have a plan?' Shouldn't I be doing better, earning/doing/achieving more than I am?'. Had the caffeine given them a dose of over-confidence and persuaded them they were happier than they really were?


I couldn't help noticing how the more confident, and talkative, of the two had ordered a second coffee, while the quieter, more pensive, one was happier to nurse the same one and was distinctly less chirpy. And I went through the exit, thinking: do people talk as much crap when they're on the caffeine as they do when they're on the booze?


PS. I think they might, you know....


So you're a travel writer, eh?

Posted on December 16, 2010 at 6:05 AM Comments comments (4)


NB: I initially wrote this Q&A session at the end of 2010 (and have amended it sporadically since). I'd become a little jaded of answering the same questions on my travels and had half-considered printing this out and handing it to anyone wishing to know more about my work. But, of course, I never did. I'm not that rude.... :)

 


Q: So you're a travel writer? That sounds like a cool/interesting/dream job (delete as applicable)....


A: Yeah, I guess it is – most of the time. As with all jobs, it has its ups and downs, especially when you're a freelancer, but overall I really enjoy it. It means I don't always have to work in the same place all the time, I get to see the world, and what it's really like instead of through a newspaper or the TV. I meet lots of different people and discover new likes (and dislikes) that I'd never have experienced without this job. It can be easy to become blase about visiting new places, but I know I'm very lucky compared to 90% of the world's population - who don't have the freedom or money to do what I do. I don't want to travel round forever, but for now this is good for me (I've been saying this for the last three, four, five years, by the way).


Q: So do you write for Lonely Planet or something?


A: No – mostly newspapers and magazines; travel supplements for weekend newspapers, mainly in Australia and England; or travel and airline magazines and a few websites. I used to live in Australia for a while so I have quite a few contacts there. But I'm freelance/self-employed so I'm always on the lookout for new work.


Q: How did you get into it? Did you study journalism or something?


A: Well I went to university and studied journalism for three years (at Bournemouth, south coast of England). Then I worked in two regional newspapers in England for six years – doing news and sports reporting and sub-editing. Then I got bored and wanted a change in direction so I quit my job and ended up travelling to south east Asia and then on to Australia. I started working at a British backpacker magazine in Sydney - just a part-time job to fund my travels round Oz - and the editor there was a travel writer in his spare time. He then quit and became a full-time freelance travel writer and I more or less ended up doing the same. He helped me out with a few initial editorial contacts, and I've just built them up since 2007.




Q: Do you take photos too?


A: Yes – quite a few of them get printed along with my articles. I use an SLR camera and it often helps if you can supply photos with your writing. Sometimes it makes the difference between getting your story accepted or not.


Q: So you get paid to go to places and write about them? Pretty cool.....


A: Not exactly. Sometimes I'm asked by certain newspapers or magazines to go somewhere and write about a place. So I'll get a fee for the article, plus complimentary hotels, flights and tours from the tourist boards – so that's nice; a bit of luxury and I've stayed in some amazing places, like the Lapa Palace in Lisbon and the Empire Hotel in Brunei, where celebs and royalty have stayed. But other times I'll just decide to go somewhere, pay for myself and/or negotiate deals with hotels/tour companies, then recoup my costs - and make a profit - by writing about my experiences. So when I'm paying for myself I tend to stay in cheaper spots. I don't really mind, though, as you get to meet more people in these types of places. In the nice hotels, you don't meet anyone, as the people staying there are usually just honeymooning couples or stressed-out businessmen. I like to remain fairly free and in charge of my own, if not destiny, then path of work.


Q: So what do you write about?


A: Anything – scenery, history, culture, people, food, sport, tours. Holidays basically; what people can do on holiday. The papers and magazines that I write for have different audiences – from backpackers to people with quite a lot of money – so I have to be pretty flexible.

 




 

Q: What's your favourite country?


A: It's really hard to say and I never know how to answer this properly. I like different countries for different reasons; for example I love Argentina for steak and red wine; Bolivia for its quirkiness and value for money; Laos for its natural beauty and friendly people, Portugal for its Latin vibes and beautiful tile mosaics, Brazil and Colombia for their tropical fruit juices, gorgeous colonial architecture and sensual people. I have lots of great memories from places like Mexico, Thailand, Peru, Hungary, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the former Yugoslavia. But I don't think I've ever been anywhere I've not liked. There's usually always something to like about a country.


Q: You must have been everywhere....


A: No - nowhere near. I've been to a little over 90 countries and there are around 200 countries in the world (depending on what criteria you use to count them). I've visited every country in Europe (except for Belarus). I've travelled widely in Asia, covered virtually the whole of Latin America and a little bit of the Middle East, the Caribbean and Africa. I've been to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, USA and Canada. But there are still lots of places on my to-see list. Places like Mozambique, Antigua, Jamaica and Guyana, for example.


Q. Do you always travel alone? Don't you get lonely?


A: Mostly, yes; and mostly, no. I occasionally travel with friends and/or siblings – but on the whole, I do most things solo. As it's my job, and most of my close friends are settled down, married, with kids, or with serious careers, they can't do - or don't want to do - what I do. It's a shame in a way, but being alone means you can do what you want, when you want. And it's pretty easy not to be alone if you don't want to be. Travelling by yourself means you tend to be more open and willing to meet new people than if you were just in a big cliquey group of old mates. I've met some really good people over the past six years, often travelled months at a time with them, and we're still in touch, thanks to things like Facebook and WhatsApp. It's nice to know people in different parts of the world instead of just the same town or city. The old travel cliche of broadening horizons applies. Of course, there are times when I wish I had my old friends with me – especially if you're in a lively new city and want a night out – but mostly I'm OK with my own company. I don't really get bored; I read a lot, I'm always thinking, or daydreaming, about something, and being in a new place means there's so much to explore; so loneliness and homesickness isn't really something that affects me very much.


NB II: I'm not looking for an assistant right now; but feel free to email me your CV :)


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