Dec 012014
 
 Posted by on December 1, 2014 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  1 Response »
Fitzroy, Melbourne

Fitzroy, Melbourne

Starting in January 2015 I will be taking a one-year break to travel slowly and write (slowly) about traveling. I will travel from Fitzroy in Melbourne, Australia to Fitz Roy in Patagonia, Argentina (and yes, they are both named after the same illegitimate  Fitz Royals!).  It is something that I have wanted to do for quite a long time, but the common aspirations kept trumping the uncommon ones. During my time away I will be traveling independently from place-to-place, starting in Fitzroy, Melbourne, and ending in Fitz Roy, Argentina (a big-arse mountain in Argentina).

I have done a lot of traveling before, but never for quite so long and never for quite so far. In my mind, much contemporary travel has become far too banal and ‘instrumental’ in terms of traveling to a specific place for a specific purpose for a specific amount of time. But not much fun in that!

The first part of my journey will be on familiar territory in South and East Asia and Europe, however the majority of the journey will be in unfamiliar territory in South America. I suppose I could have gone directly to South America and skipped the other places, but I needed to re-trace a few previous paths. Travel is a bit like re-reading a complicated book; if you don’t re-read it you will end up reading the same book over and over again.

Below is the very rough itinerary. It is both old paths and new. The first part is re-visiting places whist ‘leaving behind’. The next bit is ‘death’ (after you leave behind but not literally) and the final bit is ‘re-birth’ (Fitz Roy here I come!). I will develop this Camino de Santiago-style theme some more whilst I travel as like all good research, insights will arise along the way in which I will share with you (and sorry if you subscribed to this blog expecting something else).

  • January 7-April 1, South East Asia and East Asia (Thailand, India, Nepal and walking the Annapurna Circuit)
  • April 1-30, Western Europe (London, Porto, walking the Camino de Santiago. Barcelona, Berlin)
  • May 1- December 31, South America (Bogota, Columbia  to Fitz Roy, Argentina)

I will write a blog post here about once per week, so I hope you will join me!

Fitz Roy Argentina

Fitz Roy Argentina

May 302015
 
 Posted by on May 30, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

After spending 3 weeks in Bogota in a sprawling colonial – style house in the Chapinero district, I decided that my Spanish was workable enough to tackle this monumental continent (well, I can communicate the important things, like ordering food and beer, but then it gets a tad complicated). And I must say, having cafés around the corner from my pad in Bogota, a large television set, a soft couch and a buddy from Australia to hang out with was a welcome reprieve from the day-to-day slog of solo traveling. Traveling is not really about grand narratives, they are always a few towns in the past and they take a little while to weave their way into the coherent present. The day-to-day stuff, like ATMs designed by Kafka, matresses stuffed with dead porkipines, sketchy dim-lit streets that stand between you and the next bar and slipping on the floor and cutting your head open in unfamiliar bathrooms are the potatoes and beans of travelling (yes I did that and I thought my biggest danger in Colombia would be leftist paramilitaries, but perhaps it is banality that is always the most dangerous).

For instance, the other day I caught a flight to Cartegena on the Caribbean Coast. Cartagena is a 16th Century Spanish colonial town fortified by a menacing wall to keep out pirates (old school pirates,  not Kim Dotcom). I arrive at the airport and search for a cab to take me into the centre of Cartegena to my ‘travellers hotel’ (with a rating of 23 on Hostelworld). I find a cab, a zippy yellow number that looked a bit like a Costco shopping trolley. I take a deep breath and squish in (lucky I am travelling alone) and tell the driver the name of the street, which is Las Tortugus.

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Dog days

We drive into the town, past the fortressed walls and into Getsemani, the backpackers district of Cartegena. The cab drives along a busy road that is hot and polluted, one of those cancerous veins that drain most modern cities. The cab stops on the side of the apocalypse and I look out the window but it definitely isn’t ‘Las Tortugus’. I was about to ask him WTF are we, but I don’t know how to say WTF in Spanish and I have only just learnt the word for turtle.

I decide to get out of the trolly/cab and make my own way as my legs will carry me better than my language skills. I open the door, on the apocalypse side of cab, and of course, given the nature of this journey so far, it collects the side of the Colombian middle class, mirrors go flying, metal on metal and then Spanish on Spanish.  The car, a late model Lexus, favoured by many respectable gangsters, is scratched end to end. Then a large Colombian gentleman with some interesting agrarian features gets out and stands next to me holding his rear vision mirror in his hand.

A crowd gathers, backpackers, hawkers, cab drivers, and hotdog sellers. And they are all speaking loudly in Spanish in a unfamiliar tone. A man that looks alot like Francis Drake, complete with eye path, walks up to me and says in a matter-of-fact way, are you going to pay? I hadn’t thought I actually had an option and if this was India, I would have already been locked up as ransom. I thought about the pirates question for a moment and then I said, “I don’t really want to”. And then he says “then leg it then before the cops come” (and I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I didn’t want to find out).

I didn’t actually leg-it, it was more a gentlemanly bow, a few friendly smiles, a greeting here and there, then I’m on my way, briskly walking up a sketchy dim-lit steet called ‘Las Tortugus’ to where I found my hotel along with some ethical reflections.

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Beach near Santa Marta, Caribbean Coast, Colombia

May 172015
 
 Posted by on May 17, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a large modern metropolis of about 8 million people that sits atop a mountain range of 2500 metres. Because of this it has a cool, temperate climate, that is in stark contrast to the other, tropical parts of the country. I have been here for 2 weeks now, taking a rest after 4 months of hard traveling, getting my itinerary together, waiting for my soul to catch up, and learning some basic Spanish. In Asia the travel advice is always, “learn a bit of the local lingo, the locals will appreciate it”, but as my friend David says, in South America you must learn to speak Spanish otherwise the locals will think your an idiot (and they do think I am an idiot).

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National Museum of Colombia

Bogota is very similar to large “new world” Western cities, as it’s overly industrialised and excessively modern; a bit shabby, dehumanising and robotic like elements of LA, Sydney, and Melbourne. When I first got here I was expecting to find many of the dignified rhythms of the best of Spain, but instead found many of the hum-drum rhythms of the worst of the United States. Bogota is a down-beat work-a-day city with a 9-5 culture of large office buildings, peak hour traffic from hell, and big pissy, desperate weekends. The majority of the food here makes the diet of the English working class look healthy and I never knew there were so many ways to deep fry food (ie. and this is a component of the worst of the United States). But then again, like all big cities, Bogota is full of contradictions and if one can manage to cross the roads, there are some of the best museums I have seen anywhere full of Inca gold, exuberant contemporary art, and smug portraits of Spanish conquistadors. Plus they are curated in a sensitive and contextually informed manner, especially the National Museum and Gold Museum (and the museums are usually free or close to it).

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Graffiti in Bogota

Bogota isn’t really an international city (unless this is defiend by down-town Los Angeles), as it is a very, very long way from Asia and the Middle East. And perhaps there isn’t really such a thing as “the International” anyhow, only ways to see the international as the international, as we all engage with the forces of the world differently (and every wondered why the only people you will find in elevators of the London Shard are shiney, well meaning hillbillies from Perth or Dubai perhaps imagining that they inhabit the peak of civilisation?) The iron cage of Modernity is everywhere and inhabits no where, so read those history books peeps because they may just give you access to many more richer worlds.

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Entrance to the Salt Cathedral near Bogota

And in terms of the elephant in the room, the drug question, well I am glad you asked. Here is my blog-post version. In the 1960s, the United States was at the peak of its economic power, perhaps controlling half of the World’s economy. And the large, brattish generation that grew up in that period started smoking marajuana and snorting cocain in the truck loads. And ironically, whilst this generation was saving Vietnam, they were also f**king up Colombia as someone had to supply them with all the trucks and boats and planes stuffed full of high-grade coke and marajuana.

In Colombia, a well organised criminal class emerged, led by people such as Pablo Escobar and members of Maoist rebel groups to supply lubricants for emergent American lifestyles (and not just the US of course). This led to bucket loads of cash, deadly weapons, years of internal conflict, murders and kidnappings and loss of State control over large parts of the country. Although, I am told, the conflict between the rebels and the drug lords and the State is not as bad as it once was, Colombia is still the World’s second largest producer of cocain after Peru and some parts of the country are still even out of bounds to bloggers!.

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Modern Bogota

May 062015
 
 Posted by on May 6, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

After I left Spain, I went to Berlin for 3 days. I have been to Berlin on numerous occasions and indeed, my first trip to Berlin was only a couple of months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching the wall being pushed over by the Berlin crowds on the television from the comfort of my run-down hostel in Notting Hill in London. I couldn’t wait to get to that city!

After that first trip, it was many years before I returned and by that time, Berlin had changed beyond recognition. The capital had been rebuilt and great sums of money had been invested into rebuilding public buildings and integrating the east of the city with the Capitalist west. And an energised libertarian punk scene emerged, and perhaps not surprisingly, positioned itself somewhere between the libertine left and the libertarian right (or some type of political spectrum). And the punks (for lack of a better description) utilised all the free space that an integrated Berlin had left over for parties, bars, squats, and galleries.

I wish I had have spent more time in 1990s Berlin; the 1990s and the 1930s were perhaps Berlins most decadant periods.

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Jaan, post USSR generation sitting on the Holocaust memorial, Berlin

When I was in Berlin this time, I met my friend Emu for dinner at his apartment in Neukolln. I am still getting used to the idea of meeting Emu in an apartment because all the other times I have come to Berlin I have stayed in his decked-out fire truck in Kreutzburg. The fire truck was in a wagon community on free land, right next to where the Berlin Wall used to divide east from west. I stayed there many times, a wonderful community with a enviable lifestyle.

On this trip, I also met a young friend of mine from Tallinn in Estonia who had flown especially to Berlin so we could hang out. It is strange that when I was in that hostel in Notting Hill watching the fall of the Berlin Wall that I never imagined I would have a close friend from the USSR and from a region within it I didn’t know existed (which is now a vigerously independent country). The great events of world history play out in the everyday, in more ways than we imagine, they collide in welcome ways and sometimes tragic ways and no where is this more the case, than in Berlin.

May 042015
 
 Posted by on May 4, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

After walking the Camino Portugués, I flew from Santiago de Compostella to Barcelona where I spent a fantastic few days with a good friend, Xavi, that I met in Hampi in India a few years back. And after walking for such a long time, it was good to be in a city where walking is one of the best ways to get around (and never stop walking!)

Barcelona is an extrodinary cultured and sopisticated city which makes it feel a lot bigger than it actually is. It is a city that values design and architecture and also good food and a lifestyle that centres upon eating tapas with friends, long lunches, and dinners late in the evening (sometimes at around midnight).

Barcelona is a tastefully modern city but also has a large Medieval gothic quarter centred around the long street La Rambles. And I wonder why many Asian cities have ditched so much of their enormous cultural heritage in the name of suffocating and dehumanising, try-hard Modernist applications of what some call progress (like how many 100 story buildings full of administrators does the world need, like where is the cheese?) Civilisation is based on what is kept as much as what is thrown away and many cities are built on one huge pile of consumerist rubble that grows bigger by the day.

I had a conversation aroud this topic (or something like it) sitting on the roof of Xavi’s apartment eating Argentinan beef at a midnight barbque. Whilst many Europeans worry about keeping too much, many other cities have nothing to keep except a grand history of consumerism (but geeze, Barcelona does have some shite high street fashion labels, like Desigual).

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Spank the architect

Apr 212015
 
 Posted by on April 21, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  2 Responses »

The Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) is a pilgrimage in Southern Europe that begins in a number of European countries like France, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal and ends in Santiago de Compostella in Spain. There are many different routes that pilgrims can take to walk the Camino and some of these routes are over a thousand kilometres long and may take many weeks to walk. It’s one of the oldest and most important pilgrimages in Christianity, dating to about 813 AD, and it meanders through some of the most cultutally rich parts of Southern Europe. Apart from all the churches, there are lots of pastries and cakes, expresso, beer and wine along the way (and the Portugués have a beer called Superbock that I have a spiritual relationship with that is growing day by day)

I had just two weeks to do the Camino, so decided on the Camino Portugués from Porto in Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain (a distance of about 240 KMS over 14 days). Anyone can do the Camino for whatever reason, you don’t have to be Christian, you can be a tourist, a health conscious person, or just curious like me (but do remember, this is a Christian pilgrimage). And if you are wondering what a pilgrimage is, I found this great definition in a book of maps of Camino Portugués by John Brierley.

All of us travel two paths simultaneously; the outer path along which we haul our body and the inner pathway of soul. We need to be mindful of both and take time to prepare ourselves accordingly. The traditional way of the pilgrim is to travel alone, by foot, carrying all the material possessions we might need for the journey ahead. This provides the first lesson form the pilgrim – to leave behind all that is superfluous and to travel with only the barest necessities. Preparation for the inner path is similar – we start by letting go of psychic waste accumulated over the years such as resentments, prejudices, and outmoded belief systems. With an open mind and open heart we will more readily assimilate the lessons to be found along the ancient Path of Enquiry.

Day one: Porto

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The main train station in Porto

I started the Camino Portugués in Porto, which is the most popular place to start this particular route, but some pilgrims also start in Lisbon (but I am told that there is a lot of walking on roads from Lisbon to Porto). Porto is one of my favourite cities in Europe, built in a river valley with a old town centre of cobblestone alleyways and beautiful mosaic-decorated houses and public buildings, including the main train station (and I have a long, black Porto cape, similar to what the students wear, that I don on special occasions).

The first day of the Camino from Porto is pretty dull as it takes almost the entire day to get out of the city through the endless suburbs. It is best to get the Metro to Vilarinho and start the walking from there (but I didn’t know this at the time and I wish that I had have spent one more night in Porto at the Tattva Hostel instead as it is one of the best hostel I have ever stayed at. Hostels have come a very long way and Portugal has some of the best ones).

Day two: Mosterio de Vairao
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After the endless walk out of Porto, and feeling a bit grim, I came across this big spooky monestery where I spent the first night. Pilgrims stay in places like this that are called Albegues and they are very affordable at only 5-6 Euros a night. There was only one other person staying at the monestery, an older Spanish man who spoke no English (and I have no Spanish nor Portugués language skills). And almost no one speaks English in this part of the world, so I reluctantly prepared for the inner journey of the Camino!

Day three: Barcelos

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Following the little yellow arrows...

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Barcelos

The Camino got alot more interesting after Mosterio de Vairao as the path wasn’t all ashfelt, suburban streets. The Camino trail is clearly marked with cool little yellow arrows that are painted on rocks, fences, houses, signs, and almost any inanimate object. In Spain yellow shells are used as well; the symbol of the Camino.

Day four: Lugar de Corgo (Casa de Fernanda)

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Roman roads

The Camino today followed some original Roman roads that wound through many old school villages and wineries (and notably, the population is likewise, pretty old in this part of the world). I stayed in a private Alberque for the night which was basically a home stay run by a friendly lady called Fernanda who cooked fish and potatoes for dinner and provided some great Portugués port and conversion. This was excellent for my “inner Camino” because I hadn’t talked to anyone in four days, only pointed at pastries and bottles of Superbock in cafés.

Day five: Ponte de Lima
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This is an idealic Portuguese town, built aroud a town square and a stone bridge. I got into Ponte de Lima in the early afternoon so had plenty of time for cakes and beer. All the town squares in Portugal have free Wi Fi so it is possible to check the dating apps to see what all the Christians are up too.

Day six: Pedreira
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I stayed in a wonderful private Alberque this night called Quinta Estrada Romano, which was new and only had one other guest. In the private Alberque ‘s, dinner and breakfast is usually supplied and they are much better than the Association Alberque ‘s which tend to be a bit stern (and have 10PM curfews and no Superbock). Still, the Camino is all about walking and this day I walked 33 KMS. The physical walking isn’t that difficult, but geeze, I am doing some hard, lonely soul work).

Day seven: Valenca (Portugal) Tui (Spain)

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Tui, the first town in Spain

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Valenca old town

Today I only walked about 10 KMS because I stumbled across two of the most beautiful towns so far on the journey, Valanca in Portugal and Tui in Spain (that are close to each other, separated by a river and a national border). Valenca’s old town is within a fabulous fort, entered through long tunells in the fort’s wall. And Tui is built on a hill around a cathedral and square.

Tui was having a festival this day, so I sat in the town square and drank some Superbock, watched a paramilitary/religious parade, and saw a lot of Spanish dancing (the Spanish seem as though they want to break out and dance at any moment). I ate a hamburger because it was the only thing on the menu I could recognise and it turned out to be a foot in diameter. I will be the only person in the entire history of the Camino to put on weight!

Day eight: Mos

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The path to Mos

Today I woke at 5 AM because for what ever reason, the psychopathic Alberque in Tui turns the lights on at this ungodly time. Thus, I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but at 5 Euros a night, who am I to complain. I stared to walk at 8 AM and forgot to go to a cafe for breakfast and couldn’t find one for a grumpy two hours. I had croissants and expresso, then continued on my journey. Spain is a lot different to Portugal, there are a lot more people and it has industrialised in an uglier way (I suppose we call this richer in the Modern world). At least this is the bit I saw today as there were a lot of industrial and commercial estates to walk through. After walking a respectable 20 KMS, I arrived at the Alberque in Mos at 2 PM and thankfully, there were no other annoying pilgrims there, which was good as it gave me the space to read and write, some of the best aspects of traveling (and I am just beginning to like my own company).

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Apr 072015
 
 Posted by on April 7, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

London is a city of contradictions, from a copious amount of public transport, to royal chariots for the Queen , from numerous homeless people, to lavish townhouses for Russian oligarchs, from one of the World’s most open and multicultural populations, to European -scepticism and a distaste for the mono-brow and excessively Modern (watch out Perth). London is a very unique and special city; it’s cultural fabric is rich and dense, it is a mature, humanistic, and ‘global city’ (without being crudely aspirational enough, like Melbourne, to need the term). And like all cities, it has a history and can’t be anything other than its history (and only a fool rebels against the past, especially those that believe they don’t have one). And London is within a country that never had a revolution, thus isn’t shackled to it like the Americans, that always must chase the ghost of Queen Victoria muttering “victory, victory, victory”, thus can never be free.

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Queen Elizabeth, National Portrait Gallery, photo of waxwork dummy

Millions of people visit London each year so I am not sure what I can add. I have lived in London for more than 4 years altogether, and at key junctures of my life, thus it is my second city after Melbourne and I always return every opportunity I get (like now). I have squatted in the West End in the 1990s, lived in the East End and Bermondsey, worked in Covent Garden and Elephant and Castle, and admittedly had some of the lonliest and dismal times of my life in this city, but also some of the most fulfilling, challenging, and personal growth times.

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Indian sculpture from Khajuraho (where I just visited)

During this very short trip (6 days) I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to see an architectural exhibition curated by my friend Rory Hyde. I also went to the National Portrait Museum, the National Gallery, and the British Museum.

And another contradiction of London is that although it was a great imperial power for a good deal of its history, thus alot of the stuff in the museums and galleries is plundered, it is absolutely free to see (and the museums are always packed full of tourists from everywhere).

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Chinese Buddha, British Museum

I also went out in Vauxhall and Dalston, went to Oxford for dinner in one of the Colleges with my mate Luke , and did too much drinking and walking aroud Russell Square where I was staying (and drinking and walking are my favorite activities, not always at the same time).

London is a tough city to understand, and there are some pretty shitty lifestyles there, but then again, life is better than lifestyle and living is better than livability. London is an opt – in City not an opt – out one as the city isn’t very kind to dreamers.

Mar 302015
 
 Posted by on March 30, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  No Responses »

A good way to make the transition from South Asia back into the (over) developed countries of Europe and the New World is via a stopover in Thailand. This is because Thailand is an easy country to travel within and serves as a segue for other more challenging journeys (well, in reality, Thailand gets 14 Million tourists a year and I doubt most of them will ever get beyond the Singha Beer and cheap massages let alone undertake more challenging journeys).

After leaving Kolkata I flew inro Bangkok and like all the other times I have bèen to this exceedingly hot Asian city, I found myself, like a tired Bob Marley record, walking up Khoa San Road. Eating pineapple pieces and chicken, I ran into my old friend Sebastian who I met on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (2 weeks before). We sat down, had a Singha, and of course, discussed travel.  He was going to Ayutthaya the next day and asked if I wanted to come. I said I would think about it and that I would meet him at the bus stop.

I decided that I didn’t want to go to Ayutthaya, but saw Sebastian off anyhow. At the bus stop, a man with a strong Dickensian, English accent asked us if we were going to Pattaya. He wasn’t exactly a pleasant looking man, he had some sort of skin condition and problems with what remained of his hair. I said no we weren’t going to Pattaya, bid Sebastian farewell, and then I went to walk Khoa San and.get some more pinapple and chicken.

The next day I am on the bus to Pattaya. Its not far from Bangkok, a couple of hours via mini – mini – bus. I was curious, I had to see this place, and discover why people go there.  I check into my hotel (nice accomodation in Pattaya btw), and start walking around the city to get a feel of the place.

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Russia in Thailand

The first thing I notice are all the bodies. Pattaya is a city of bodies, where bodies come to meet. There are old bodies and young bodies, overweight bodies and skinny bodies, white bodies and dark bodies, gay bodies and straight bodies (and some in between), hairey bodies and waxed bodies, short bodies and tall bodies, badly tattooed bodies, pieced bodies, pre-operation bodies, and post-op bodies. There are bodies from Russia and the Ukraine, from Germany and Poland, from China and India, and from North East Thailand and Cambodia. There are some huge industrial bodies from America and small village bodies from Laos and Bangladesh.

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Restaurant in Pattaya

Pattaya is a city of bodies, it does not descriminate based on where your body comes from or even what condition it is in. So stop worrying about your body, grow old, drink and smoke and eat as much as you like, but do remember to keep topping up your pension scheme because there is one place in the world where you will always be welcome. Pattaya!