Archive | February 2016

Feeling weird in Alice Springs

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“They belt the women for the grog” the guy said. Nearby was a group of aboriginal women. I had pointed out one of them who looked roughed up. His explanation right away tempered my feelings about being in Alice Springs.

We were in that remote town en-route to Uluru, sacred rock in the dead centre of Australia’s Red Heart. In Alice Springs, aborigines and Aussies live side by side but separately so. It seemed a bi-cultural kinda place to me, not multicultural in the sense I understand the word, of integration. The local tourist economy heavily leans upon wares made by the most authentic Australians of all; every second shop is an art gallery. Not even the creative neighbourhoods of London have so much art on sale. Today, Alice Springs might even owe its continuing viability to the big red rock being so popular. Everyone was rubbing along agreeably during our stay, but I wonder how enmeshed with one another other the Aboriginal and Aussie cultures are. Both are so distinctive.

I also wonder about the white guy’s explanation for the distressed-looking woman’s state. What it really means. He was making an assumption. His matter-of-factness was startling. Was he unwittingly revealing he’s okay with domestic violence? Or that he has prejudiced views about Aboriginal standards of behaviour? Is thumping your other half in fact how to get a drink in Alice Springs? I felt a funny atmosphere in that town in late 2015.

Aborigines hang about in groups or alone in public spaces, sitting on the grass, by the entrances of arcades. Meanwhile, tourists poke about inside shops or hang out at restaurants and bars. I never saw an aborigine and a foreigner in one at the same time. Maybe that’s because lagers and beers don’t agree with the Aboriginal palate – so an Aussie guide told me. They prefer a moonshine of some sort (which unfortunately I didn’t get to sample. Apparently it’s tough on western taste buds). I also didn’t see a single Aborigine queuing at the cinema for the latest Star Wars film, in the long line which snaked all the way out of the theatre on to the street. Things like this felt awkward to me. Wherefore art thou, integration.

I feel sympathy with the Aborigines. Putting myself in their shoes, I would be extremely narked at having my holy ancestral lands gathered up and enclosed by new arrivals, who also turned loose herds of marauding camels in to the natural habitat. All things considered, I believe Aboriginal society deserves credit for being so reasonable about what happened way back then (although not so long ago, really). I’m unaware of any armed insurgency to boot settlers off the land. Magnanimity like this is admirable. Aborigines are the guardians of the land, keepers of a sacred pact with the ancestors which they take seriously today. In this context, maybe western entertainments simply mean nothing. Respect is due, if so. Star Wars movies and pop culture also mean nothing to me. Except I have no important responsibilities with which to adorn my indifference; I’m just a contrary guy who enjoys doing the opposite of whatever the done thing is.

It’s a regret that I didn’t take the chance to chat with any Aborigines. Truth is, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. (I sure speak zero Aboriginal). I never felt such a gap between myself and indigenes, as I did in Alice Springs. Whatever’s happening below the surface there is a mystery to me. But a successful accommodation seems to have been struck between all the locals, so that they do okay milking the stream of tourists passing through. Mutual interests triumphant!

The photo of the straight road I took during the world’s longest day trip to Uluru from Alice Springs. The ride is hundreds of kilometres and they say the expedition really is the most lengthy on earth. We arrived home after midnight, so technically not a day trip. I let it go.

Most travel advice you read is wrong

imageOkay, if I have one piece of advice for anybody on a long trip in a strange, faraway place, it’s this. Take with a pinch of salt (in fact take with the whole cellar of salt) anything you hear about the place from foreigners who have been there.

This is a position with consequences for the credibility of big websites such as TripAdvisor, Wikitravel, Agoda et al. And travel blogs too. Being this sceptical is a big commitment! But my experience makes me believe it’s right. I heard so many times during my trip in SE Asia information which turned out to be totally inaccurate. That I shouldn’t go Timor Leste (East Timor) because it’s an unstable  basket case of a place with a violent rebel insurgency. That Manilla in the Philippines is a wild place where literally anything dodgy goes. That I should stay away from general election events in Myanmar for my own safety.

All this and more turned out to be very bad advice indeed and I enjoyed my time enormously in these places without once feeling like I was in danger. In East Timor a cop and his wife let me sleep for free at their house and I stayed up all night with him drinking palm whiskey under the stars. Wonderful hospitality it was; (I wonder, would I be so welcoming?) In Manilla I unwittingly booked in to a hostel located in a ‘lively’ district where bars carry signs telling you to hand in your guns at the counter. But I experienced only friendliness and openheartedness from the locals. In Myanmar, the dangerous general election events at night were nothing of the sort. It was one of the most thrilling things I did on my trip; putting me in touch with something vital in Burmese society that’s not in any guide book.

So, my advice is to not take advice. …Hang on, that doesn’t work. Okay, don’t take advice on faith, except for this bit of advice. We all love giving good advice while on the road, we like to feel we have rare insight and to show off a bit how well travelled we are (or is that just me). But ultimately, what we say about a place is influenced by what we feel about it and what we feel about it is shaped on a deep personal level, which means it’s entirely subjective and so probably of little use for anybody except ourselves.

Also, some advice us westerners in developing countries dish out to each other is pretty insulting to the locals, in my opinion. Take for example hostel / hotel review sites. How many times have I read a bad or snotty review of a place?  I could not count. Some reviewers even publicly accused staff of theft, con-artistry and other smears. No doubt a few stories were true, but I have the strong impression most bad experiences are misunderstandings and nothing more. Other lousy reviews seem like simple cases of reviewers having distorted expectations of a place and failing to recognise it. I rarely found a bad review matched my own experience.

If I took the advice I was given about East Timor and Myanmar and Manilla, then I would not have had such rich experiences as I did in those places, which today are some of my fondest memories. Being on the road, you think you are free and independent, but really there are influences working upon you all the time, such as the chatter in hostels and on websites. My advice is to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.  I reckon the best advice of all is just to go.

The photo of the rocky road in this post, I took in Da Nang, Vietnam. I was motorbiking round the mountain which looks out on to the sparkling emerald waters of Da Nang Bay, in the background. Rubble from the mountain was scattered all along the track. In the end I turned back and went home: the passage became too steep and being crushed by a falling boulder is no way to go.

Myanmar jokers violated my safe space

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When I stayed in Mandalay, I spent an evening being entertained by the Mustachio Brothers, the most dangerous comedians in Myanmar – formerly Burma.
But this evening developed unexpectedly in to a culture clash which revealed to me how some of the gaps between societies may simply be unbridgeable. Goodbye, my One World dream!
I’ll start off by acknowledging these brothers as the incredibly brave artists they are. This trio of hirsute guys have truly suffered for their art down the years, at the hands of government goons and the local judiciary.

There used to be 3 bros, but one died following a stint in jail for making politically incorrect jokes about the high and mighty. What they have done is a high water-mark for all comedy which wants to be subversive.But it seems like the Mustachio Brothers are being over taken by history.
When I saw the remaining 2 bros perform, it was November 2015 and a historic general election was taking place: for the first time in decades the poll was fair and free by international standards. Gags about corrupt cops were no longer so dangerous in a Myanmar where the Generals had loosened their grip on society and the beloved Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady) was days away from a landslide election win.

Then there are the jokes. What stuck out that night was not necessarily the big events taking place outside the theatre (which is also the family home). No, it was the comedy itself and how us the audience took it. The jokes were bawdy and on topics such as ‘the wife’, ‘marriage’ and ‘who does the cleaning’. There were some about domestic violence too. It sounded dated and outmoded to me – and to others too: there were a few intakes of breath amid the indulgent laughter, perhaps a signal that some sacred safe spaces had been violated. So the comedy was challenging stuff, but not in a conventional way: this pensioner on stage was telling us jokes so tired even Jim Davidson might turn them down (maybe).
So how to respond? Laugh along at his politically incorrect gags in order to be respectful of this slice of local culture? Invade the stage in the name of women’s liberation? Tut-tut the dated gags? The sense of dissonance and confusion were palpable to me, sat at the front on the floor. My laughs were polite, not genuine. I didn’t want to disrespect this radical comic veteran who’s been through so much, by sitting stony faced through his routine. But if he did this material at a students’ union in Britain, there’d be a riot and then a public shaming on Twitter.
So it seems to me the Mustachio Brothers today face a bit of a crisis of comedy: jokes which used to be subversive no longer are in a changed political climate and bawdy cracks about ‘her indoors’ just aren’t very funny to the type of audience who come to the show (travelling westerners). Will the Mustachio Brothers mock and ridicule Aung Sang Suu Kyi now she’s in power? That might be awkward: posters of her are plastered all around the venue and she’s a national icon of freedom. Myanmar looks like it is moving in to a new epoch and the Mustachio Brothers can legitimately say they have helped bring about this monumental change, by refusing to be cowed by despotic authority, or to stop laughing at it. But what next for Burma’s most dangerous comedians?
At the end of the night, I loyally paid for a t-shirt and got a photo with Mr Mustachio. He’s a cool guy and I admire his bravery and endurance greatly. Above us in the photo is a picture of The Lady at a show back in 2002.

iPhone Autocorrect fails so hard it wins

Autocorrect on my iPhone just took to a whole new level a very dull email I was typing about a contract. As my fat fingers punched away at the screen, typing the phrase ‘Can you please send…’, Autocorrect delivered big time.
It decided the next words in my email should be ‘U.S troops’ and inserted this phrase in to the sentence.
‘Can you please send U.S troops’ I was about to ask the letting agent sitting at her desk. I bet that’s a request she doesn’t get every day.
It was a shame to delete this accident, but renting in London is no laughing matter. So I did.

‘The Soul of Corporate greed’ – Ready Player One fan fiction

Ready Player One is a great modern sci-fi novel which I loved reading in just a couple of days. I’ve written this piece of fan fiction about the story’s arch villain, Nolan Sorrento. Ready Player One is a classic tale of good vs bad and as usual, it’s the baddies who get all the best lines. The set-up is a search for an ‘Easter egg’ of ultimate power (not a chocolate egg) which is hidden somewhere inside a fully immersive virtual world called the OASIS. Much of humanity spends all day inside this OASIS simulator cos real life sucks so bad (I do enjoy dystopias, though I wouldn’t like to live in one). SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this unless you don’t mind discovering how Ready Player One ends. My story is Sorrento close up, in the first person. And he ain’t happy.
Hope you like.

‘I am Nolan Sorrento. I’d say call me IOI-655321, but that would be inappropriate at present, for a number of reasons.
You may know me as the chief operating officer of Innovative Online Industries. More likely, you know of me from the hunt for Halliday’s egg in the OASIS. If so, then you will definitely know of me from what happened as a result of the search for the damn thing. But actually you don’t know much at all, so allow me to fill some gaps.
You saw the news feeds. I have. It is not pleasant viewing. It cannot be denied that the egg hunt did not progress to the advantage of my employer, or myself. I haven’t plugged in to the OASIS since I was abruptly escorted from the haptic chair in to a police car by two officers, at the exact moment of our defeat. Since then, I’ve not had the desire to plug in and anyway I could not do so, as my movements are somewhat restricted at present by my detainment at a police station. Yes, fate is a strange mistress.
My own status is currently, shall we say, unresolved. It is true I am no longer in possession of the senior ranking you know me to hold. My employer has suspended me – on full pay – pending the outcome of a criminal investigation in to three ludicrous allegations: that I masterminded a large explosion which resulted in a large number of deaths, also that I ordered the murder of an individual who tragically plummeted to his death while on a balcony and also that I planned to kill at least two others. It will be a miracle if I am convicted of these preposterous allegations. I look forward to resuming my work at IOI soon.
Now then, I know what is the common view of me among you bovine masses who today plug in to that online utopia, the OASIS, to hide from reality and escape the inanity of your lives. I know about your hatred and disdain. I do not cower before it, nor from you insects. You hold no power over me because you mean nothing. Never did and never will. You think I am a devil at the controls of a demonic company that nearly succeeded in kicking over the virtual sand castles you’ve all made inside the OASIS? We wanted to – heaven forbid – make some money from the thing. Money which could pay for your jobs, pay wages, increase prosperity in the real world. If you have a problem with that, well then you’re the dangerous one, not me. Yet somehow it is a fact that today the mob is happy with the state of things.
Today the OASIS is in the hands of a bunch of sanctimonious young worthies – Parzavil, Artemis, that lot. They all have more money than sense and think that throwing cash at problems is the solution. Everyone outside their magic circle is reduced to the status of their client, merely quarry for these uber privileged kids to feel good about themselves by donating to ’causes’ and ‘charity’. And you all are expected to be grateful! Let me tell you these elite-level busybodies really turn my stomach. Well you are welcome to it, I hope you like it. You can’t say you didn’t ask for it. It certainly is a PR victory by them on a massive scale and the IOI communications team could learn from it, for future reference.
We at IOI know we face a challenging public relations environment, but I don’t believe we deceive anyone; we are simply an ambitious company willing to do what it takes. Let me reveal what society has missed out on, with the result of the egg hunt. Had IOI been victorious – and everyone knows I tried my hardest – then the OASIS would have become a type of upmarket resort; somewhere you go to recharge and refresh, ready to return to the real world with renewed vigour for the challenges at hand. There are enough of those, aren’t there. Jobs at the Grand OASIS Luxury Resort would have been created for all levels of player. Your online earnings would have been convertible in to real world money; increasing real-world wealth and your personal prosperity, let me remind you again. Sounds good? That’s because it was.
Open your eyes. Humankind has not benefited one iota from the result of the egg hunt. This is obvious to anyone with eyes who lifts up their OASIS visor and looks around. Parzival has not liberated you all from the clutches of some dastardly ‘Sixers’. What he has done – along with his accomplices – is condemn millions of people in the real world to continued dependence upon a part time paradise. What of all the players who supported him by showing up at the crystal castle for the final battle? I’m talking to you. Are you wealthy now? No, you are where you always were; hooked up in your silly suit pushing around thin air in your basic home, while the counterfeit reality of OASIS thickens like concrete around your soft minds. In what kind of world is this outcome a common victory? Serfs.
I can’t finish without pointing out the role an influential and responsible individual had in this whole mess, someone who’s shown himself to be a real low quality person. Yes, I will name names: Ogdon Morrow, OASIS co-founder. He should know better. Morrow should have known better than to aid and abet the lunatics in seizing control of the asylum. He should have seen clearly that success for IOI was synergistic with his own publicly stated position on the OASIS. He was a critic of what it had become. My victory – my employer’s victory – would have unleashed change upon that place. But this person opted for the easy route – to be popular. It’s crystal clear now that to Morrow nothing matters more than rolling back the (several) decades by spinning tracks at a virtual nightclub. Truly desperate stuff. In the final reckoning, this pensioner has shown himself to be nothing but what he always was; an approval-seeking PR man.
But now I really must stop. The lawyers are waiting, another meeting beckons and I’m back in my element.’

 A Soviet snack bar for modern workers of today

Back in the USSR, they ate this snack. Sojove Rezy (meaning Soya slice, I’m told) has made it unchanged through glasnost, perestroika and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Even the wrapping is the same today as during the Cold War, apparently. Orange coloured, grainy textured and very filling, is this hearty little bar. I enjoyed it at Bratislava airport. Admittedly Sojove Rezy is not as elaborate or delicious as other confectionary which Slovakia does so very well (yes, I’m thinking cream cakes). But this contrast between it and something like a decadent, bourgeois punch torte cake, makes Sojove Rezy an authentic slice of culinary history from the age of Soviets. Workers, Forward! to the sweet shop.

There’s something about hotel rooms…

…Or there’s something about some hotel rooms. I wrote this to try capture the feeling I had in one hotel room in particular. It may have been in Bratislava near the airport, around the turn of 2015. I wonder if the room’s creeped out more guests since then. This piece is called Hotel Cadaver.

Hotel rooms are the worst places in the world. They can swallow up a person and make them disappear, even though every straight, tidy line of them is visible and covered by light. There is something eerie about entering a room where you know somebody has been only very recently, but of whom there is now no sign whatsoever. The human element is purged in hotel rooms. A predatory plant closes around an insect which has stopped to rest upon its plump red petals, and then consumes it silently, leaving not a trace behind. And we like it this way. What does that say? It says I like a room which looks clean as a cadaver. Maybe this is why I dislike the surgicaly bright and sharp lighting of the room. It belongs to the operating table and later in the morgue and yet here it is lighting a bed containing warm, living bodies. This frosty white light is fit only for post-mortem, not in a place for dreaming and making babies. But a hotel room in which the human presence remains is just as bad, in a different way. It is a newly discovered crime scene of dishevelled sheets, discarded detritus and DNA evidence shed by somebody who was in a hurry to leave. Unmistakable odours belonging to a perfect stranger linger and become an invisible presence of decay. It’s always shocking to discover a room like this; to stumble in to a most private sphere. Later, Housekeeping arrives wearing gloves and with detergents and large bags for disposal. Knocks respectfully at the door and enters. Later is seen leaving, carrying bags: contents unknown.

Inside the cave (overstimulated in Laos) 

I went Laos in September 2015 and in Vang Vieng, I took a trip in to a cave one afternoon. I was the only one there. It was an odd experience for me. Hope you enjoy.

I walked alone in to the underworld through a low hole in the mountainside. In to the darkness I shone my torch and its light threw up staggeringly high, dark shadows on the walls. It was mountains within mountains in here; folds and creases of antediluvian rock making jagged new peaks and plunging ravines in the spotlight; all moving and dematerialising, then reappearing as the beam swung round. I made a noise, the echo came calling back, faint and from somewhere much deeper in the darkness, out of sight of my eyes. It was raining outside and I was the only person here; no locals or foreigners were to be found. I was alone inside this timeless place of dark and shadow. Or I was alone? Pressing on through the gloom, there were rustling noises above my head and when I snapped my torch in their direction, I caught small, fleeting shapes fleeing the light. ‘Bats’ I said aloud. ‘Bloody bats.’ This was an alien landscape; pressing in all around me were unusual formations of rock, probably moulded over millennia by water which began dripping when Eden was still open and was still dripping now, long after hell has been shut down by society. This accidental space, moulded by tectonic forces and invisible to the outside world, existed outside of my experience, out of any experience in the open air. It was like time had been driven out of this place so as to let the cave endure by itself the weight of mountain permanently upon its back. What can live in a place like this? Presently, I became aware of being in a large space and I felt suddenly small and vulnerable here, what else could be in this underground ocean of dusty, stagnant air, hiding from society. I felt like the swimmer who goes under the waves and senses at once the darkening blue limits of vision all around  him, who knows that somewhere close to him but out of sight – is an big bad whale. I pictured a scaly green hand laying itself on my shoulder, or something horrible coming out of a wall and scuttling fast down the sides toward me, its bristles on end with malign intent. I quickly made my escape and was happy to step outside in to the drizzle, to put behind me this mountain which was now covered by mist at its summit, and towered high in to the sky.

Hello, welcome to my corner of the web

I’m writing this first post in Slovakia, in a town called Trencin. Slovakia is a gem of a country, a hidden gem perhaps, since it seems to be in the Czech Republic’s shadow in terms of fame. Well, that’s a good enough reason for me to pay a visit!. There’s plenty of delicious schnapps to sample (at all times of day) and the food is hearty and delicious. It’s where Central Europe meets Eastern Europe and the traveller can enjoy  classy buildings from the age of Austro-Hungarian Empire and also some relics from the Berlin Wall era: no prizes for guessing which wins in the beauty stakes. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Slovakia if you wanna get off the well-beaten track, it’s a wholehearted, picturesque place. Nostrave! (Cheers)