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Old bricks of York – a Green Man and a Roman Emperor too

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Four days off for Easter was an opportunity to go see that part of England said to exist outside the London Orbital, aka the M25, aka Europe’s Greatest Car Park.

We picked Yorkshire and drove to Leeds and York. This post is just a few pics taken in York of a tiny portion of the extremely historical piles of bricks there, which give the city its image and draw so many tourists there; like us.

The top photo is of a statue of Emperor Constantine, located outside York Minister. His pose recalls Commodus from the film, Gladiator; haughty, decadent-looking and even a bit camp. Maybe this is what fabulous wealth and opulent living does, even to a warrior of the ancient world. But you just know ‘haughtiness with a strong sense of entitlement,’ was in the ‘Essential’ category of the Person Spec, for the job of Emperor of Rome.

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St Mary’s Abbey in York © author

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‘Nothing else remains:’ St Mary’s Abbey at York © author

These crumbling walls used to be attached to the rest of St Mary’s Abbey, of which little remains. It was smashed up by religious hooligans during the Reformation; a rampage so big it makes similar efforts by the crazy punks of ISIS in the Middle East today, look half-arsed redecoration work by comparison. Ruins like St Mary’s are also a lesson for the Church; that when a King who’s used to getting his way wants to wed his latest big crush, the sensible thing is probably just to agree and let the salvation of his soul take care of itself.

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York Minster sure does have high windows © author

This image is of a stained glass window inside York Minster. Half the entire amount of stained glass in England is in this building, apparently. Smashing!

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A Green Man at York Minster © author

This photo is of a boss of the Green Man, also located inside York Minster. You can tell it’s him by the decoration of leaves. For some reason, this Green Man has two birds sticking their beaks up his nose. Maybe it’s punishment for being a pagan.

An (in)famous son of York is Guy Fawkes, which I found out from a blue plaque declaring this point in the window of a pub, named after him. The plaque also states he was hung, drawn and quartered for the Gunpowder Plot (this I did know). Well, that’s what you get for trying to blow up the entire Parliament with the King of England in it; people don’t like it. The sign for the eponymous pub pinches the design of the Guido Fawkes mask made famous by the film ‘V for Vendetta.’ I wonder if the film studio gets a fee, like it allegedly does from sales of that mask to anti-corporate protesters and the spotty teenagers of hacking group, Anonymous.

I’m reminded of a conversation overheard in a pub, back down in London; a wealthy-looking young European snorted incredulously at the concept of Bonfire Fire; of Guy Fawkes being celebrated. I could have high-fived his mate for pointing out to him it is Fawkes’ capture and his plot’s failure which is marked on November 5.

Who knows what Guy Fawkes night signifies today; maybe that we’re creatures of habit who enjoy loud explosions. That’s me, at least. It’s all history now and the city of York is a very fine living museum.


Riding mikrolets in Timor Leste (East Timor)


Taking a trip by mikrolet in Timor Leste, aka East Timor, may be the best 20 pence I ever spent on public transport.

This small bus-van is everywhere in the capital city of Dili and the chances are you will hear one long before you see it. That’s because local pop music music is normally blaring from the speakers.

Meanwhile, the exterior bodywork of these vans is covered in stickers and garish paint jobs. My favourite design of all was a triptych on a rear window of Christiano Ronaldo between two images of Christ the Redeemer. (Guess who looked most God-like. That’s right: CR7).

This combo of loud design and pumping music mean there’s no chance of missing your mikrolet when it hoves in to view.

Sticking out a hand is how to hail the driver to the road side and then the passenger clambers aboard through a sliding side door, (in my case, ducking so low that my chin nearly touched my knees). The seating is two wooden benches with passengers facing each other, which encourages familiarity and means foreigners are in no doubt that they’re the subject of conversation among the locals sharing this ride. Up to 10 people squeeze in to the small space and it is cramped. It’s knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder, with no seat belts. The convexly arched roof of a mikrolet means that lofty passengers must lean in, so many oversized foreigners will end up practically cheek to cheek with whoever’s sat opposite.

Chucking out time at the schools causes chaotic scenes, as mikrolets park up kerbside and are swamped by crowds of uniformed kids in colourful scarves, all packing out the vehicles and hanging from doors. The mikrolets then join the traffic and you can almost hear the things groaning under the weight of their excitable cargo.

Tall passengers (that’s me) may want to pay double (40p) to sit in the front next to the driver. This is an experience in itself. In the mikrolets I took, the dashboards were often a mess of sticky-out wires and hollow spaces in panelling where instruments presumably used to be. I found this pretty charming, though you might wonder whether some important functions are no longer available which are useful for, y’know, things like safe driving to preserve the health of all aboard. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that a mikrolet rarely gets much above 35mph. Fewer instruments than the vehicle strictly should have may not be such a big deal, so long as the driver has a good clear view of the road ahead, right? Don’t bet on that. In a couple of the mikrolets I rode in, the field of vision was nothing but a thin strip across the front windscreen; the rest of it being smothered by a decorative array of colourful stickers, hanging baubles and other bits and bobs. It seems like the mikrolet drivers of Timor Leste all mysteriously share a passion for a single style of interior design. Maybe it comes with a sixth sense for anticipating what’s happening on the larger portion of the road ahead, which is hidden from view behind a FC Barcelona scarf hanging right in front of the driver’s eyeballs. Certainly, nobody came a cropper during my several journeys by mikrolet.

Mikrolets certainly won’t be winning awards for safety any time soon. But this economical, highly personal and personalised little van is my most favourite public transport. Hitching a ride in one is essential to do when in East Timor and it’s a great way to get close up (literally) with the local culture.

The photo above is of a modestly decorated  mikrolet, which I took in Dili on the way to catch a lift with a travel buddy to the city of Laquica, which is a couple of hours away along the north coast of Timor Leste.

Check out a mikrolet ride I took in Dili. I loooove the music, but have no clue what the song is called.


Feeling weird in Alice Springs


“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


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.