Devils and angels

 

June 19, 2002

KRAKOW, Poland: The airport empties quickly after my flight’s arrival—it seems to be the last of the day—and I am the last person standing. I have neither cash nor transportation, nor do I have Polish, not that that matters: I walk up and down the length of the terminal for an hour or so and see not a soul. Continue reading

A beer with Ronnie Biggs

In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.

 In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.

I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said. 

The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry. Continue reading

Confessions of a lovesick schoolboy

My teenage years, the 1950s, were spent at the all-boys Wellingborough Grammar School, in Northamptonshire, England. More than half a century later, in the spring of 2016, I was asked to contribute some reminiscences for presentation to the 50th anniversary reunion of the nearby County High School for Girls. Here is what I sent.

You girls! I look at your school photos now, and they conjure a different age: you were sweet, wonderful, mysterious beings, in those pastel-coloured summer dresses and those little white socks. In the spring, London Road and the Broadway bus stops after school looked like clusters of butterflies … Continue reading

St. Mark’s, Venice, Good Friday, 2014

Heeding a friend’s advice that we probably wouldn’t get a chance to light a candle at St. Mark’s, given the way that tourists are herded through the cathedral at a gallop, we chose not to join the long, long lines attempting to get in.

However, a visit was by no means out of our sights. We had picked up a leaflet in Italian of the services planned for St. Mark’s for the Easter weekend, and spotted that they were doing a 9 p.m. veneration of the church’s seven sacred relics from Christ’s Passion that evening (Good Friday)—no tourists allowed. Continue reading

A small town in Ontario

For all its situation at the nexus of political power in Canada, Ottawa is a small town. This is no Rome or Paris or London. Helsinki might be nearer the mark, though without the history. The grand look that political edifices and their surroundings bestow on their capitals peters out in short order here. Continue reading

Namibia, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

 

The many faces of Africa: Namibia is yet again an entirely different country. We dock at Walvis (whale fish) Bay, a neat, clean, orderly-looking town–a legacy of the Dutch and Germans–and head out to Walvis Bay lagoon, a protected ocean wetland that is spectacularly rife with flamingoes, and then into the Namib desert, which stretches in a broad strip right up the centre of the country until it joins the Kalahari. Continue reading

Luanda, Angola, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

 

In Togo our bus came with two armed guards in the back seats. In Luanda we get a police outrider and an unmarked two-man police car for the three buses on our “highlights of Luanda” day out. This is a two-faced city: a glitzy business district of office towers and apartment blocks that looks like a prosperous downtown in any tropical capital (though lots of crumbling tenements totter cheek by jowl with the shiny and the new); and slum areas like anything you’d see in Rio or Nairobi–sprawling Potemkin villages hidden by ten-foot fences that allow only fleeting glimpses inside through occasional narrow entryways.

A wide and splendid boulevard with parks and squares runs for several kilometres along the beaches, then gives out abruptly at the shanty towns, where you can see evidence of ongoing slum clearance. Apparently there’s a brouhaha over the lavish spending on the boulevard while social programs remain short-changed. A city and a country in transition? Luanda has the highest cost of living in the world, despite 40 per cent unemployment (at least) and rampant corruption, latest evidence of which is a case involving the misappropriation of billions from the Bank of Angola resulting in 50 convictions and counting. Independence for Angola was 41 years ago but the history has been, to say the least, unhappy. Our tour guide, Andre, says he was forced to become a child soldier at 14 and served for three years in the civil war–though he worked in Army logistics so “I never had to fight my brothers.” He eventually smuggled himself into the UK and got himself a solid education in media studies at Goldsmiths.

We visit a pretty Catholic church and tour the military museum that’s housed in the old Portuguese fortress that overlooks the city (statues of Vasco da Gama and other colonizers, and displays of military might ranging from ancient cannons to a heap of smashed-up US helicopters). A vast park in the centre of town houses the mausoleum of Agostino Neto, who led the guerrilla war against colonialism and was Angola’s first president. The scale is bigger than Lenin’s tomb in Moscow and the security is fierce–no photography allowed anywhere on pain of camera confiscation, and a police mirror search under the bus for any hidden bombs we might be bringing in.

The catafalque at the heart of the building is ringed with lavish wreaths from appreciative nations and organizations, with pride of place going to the one from Russia. The obsession with security continues with a ban on any photography during our drive through the city’s up-market residential area where all the Angolan elite live. Heaven forbid that evidence of the inequities here would ever make it onto Facebook or YouTube.

São Tomé, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

São Tomé, capital of the island state of São Tomé and Príncipe, is a calmer side of Africa- a  town of parks and avenues and stately buildings left over from Portuguese colonial times. Yes, the usual atrocities occurred and the islands were largely populated by slaves brought in to work the sugar plantations, but there’s more of a sense of order and contentment than we saw in Togo and Benin. Continue reading

Togo and Benin, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

They called Lome, Togo, the pearl of Africa when the French were here, but what elegance there might have been has long since eroded. The haze over the city is dusty, spicy and sharp: a mix of traffic pollution, the sand dust that blows in from the Sahara and smoke from the smouldering garbage dumps at the edge of the city. Everything’s coated in fine sand; drifts of it collect in corners.

The people have an accusing look. No one smiles. They live in grit and filth. A woman with a bucket of orange packages on her head gives me the finger when I smile at her. We are clearly not welcome, and we should hardly expect to be, flaunting our cosseted little lives along the chaotic streets where people are eking out an existence hawking (often from the top of their heads) anything that might conceivably have a market: urns of tea by the cup, cosmetics, fruit, cigarettes, school supplies … A taxi driver wants $50 US to drive us a couple of miles to the fetish market (oh, curb your enthusiasm – this is where they sell monkey skulls and porcupine skins for the voodoo ceremonies).

Stencilled signs on walls and buildings everywhere declare that “it is forbidden to urinate here,” not that it matters – it seems half the male population is competing to pee for Togo. The US embassy, a great concrete and glass building in a fortified compound, looks as if it has been plunked down in this desolate urban landscape like something from another planet. This must be the foreign service’s very definition of a hardship posting. (continue reading below)

 

One of the attractions of this itinerary was the promise of encounters with voodoo, and in Lome we are taken to a “genuine, non-tourist” voodoo ceremony. Hmm. The village is authentic enough, but the event seems disappointingly sanitized – a few people give the impression of being put into a trance by the pounding drumming and singing, and a couple of young men pretend to stab themselves with sharp sticks under the influence, but nothing more than that. No chickens or goats are harmed in this production (though someone on the ship said they witnessed an adult male circumcision at a similar event a month or so ago).

We actually came closer to the real voodoo in Benin the following day, when we went to Ouidah, where voodoo is said to have begun. We visited the Sacred Forest where all the voodoo gods live (and are represented by giant effigies in an astonishing array of styles, from classical Egyptian to 1960s junk sculpture). Here behind a little hut deep in the forest we came across the colourfully clad king (wearing a pork pie hat decorated with sequin elephants and a dangling all-around fringe so you couldn’t see his face) and his court preparing to welcome visitors, though Susan and I were for a while the only ones around. We all stared at each other as if we were in an interplanetary encounter, the two of us taking photos, one of the courtiers fishing his cellphone out of his robes to check they had the time right.

Benin was otherwise not much of a step up from Togo – both pretty much failed states, former French colonies stripped of their assets and long neglected – but affecting in a different way. This was the place where 10 million slaves were sent to Brazil, the West Indies and the US. We drove along the four miles of sandy path that they were forced to walk to get to the ships (passing hordes of local school kids on foot, scribbling the experience in their notebooks) and walked under the Gate of No Return, a wide arch covered with ochre bas reliefs of the departing slaves, on the big, wide beach where they were mustered and taken to the black hulks that carried them away. Many of them thought they were going to be eaten, and killed themselves on the beach by drowning or swallowing their tongues or suffocating themselves with sand and soil. The nearby resort where we stopped for local beer and fried plantain is called the Hotel of the Diaspora. The memory hasn’t died, and those kids will make sure it doesn’t.

 

Brazil, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town.

Our first taste of the Amazon: by boat past the long Belem waterfront – a working port, barges, abandoned hulks, little darting pirogues, floating gas stations with convenience stores, occasional little shanty slums, up-river tourist boats with rows of hammocks slung in their dark interiors, occasional inlets that photograph like gritty Canalettos, then we cross the wide estuary and head up-river ourselves, through channels past waterside houses built on stilts and often brightly decorated.

The air is humid, the heat oppressive. We disembark onto a narrow boardwalk over swampy marshland and file into the jungle. There’s a bit of a community here, a few simple buildings where we sample some of the local fruits, then it’s a 90-minute trek (a lot too much for some of our number) through the brush and jungle in search of flora and fauna. I hang back, taking photos, and encounter a solemn girl of maybe nine who’s sitting on a porch holding out toward me a shining black and gold beetle the size of a golf ball. We catch up with the others and she stays with the group throughout the tour, sometimes running ahead to climb into the canopy with a couple of teen boys, sometimes disappearing, always popping up with something new to show us, a real child of the jungle. “This is probably going to be the happiest time of her life,” says Susan. (continued below)

 

 

By the time we have to catch the tender (the ship’s lifeboats do double duty) for the long ride across the harbour back to the ship the wind and tides are brisk, and the water is tossing and bumping the tender against the dock – it’s a challenge for many to actually get on, and once they’re on it’s a challenge to keep their lunch down. We hear that the tender behind us took three hours to make the crossing and a passenger was hurt. Not exactly what you think you’re signing up for. “Don’t push me! Don’t push me!” cried one elderly lady, looking so frail she might crumble, as we stumbled off the tour boat when it returned to the dock.

The rest of our visit to Brazil – Fortaleza, Natal and Recife – was, well, Brazil, of which we have never been particularly enamoured. Highlight was walking the back streets of old Natal, where we had been told not to go – just the two of us on a stroll. It’s a rundown industrial area, decaying facades, all kinds of graffiti, discarded condoms, a dead rat squished in the centre of the cobbles, and as we walk past a seafood wholesale storefront, give our usual smiling “bom dia” and are gestured in by one of the guys sitting out on the sidewalk. He takes us deep into the building, hauls open a vast reinforced door, and there’s the walk-in freezer, filled with fish, some hanging from the ceiling, some in boxes, some in untidy piles. He gestures in the direction of the fish. Are we supposed to walk in? Is this a tourist abduction? Will the ship sail on without us, leaving us to freeze with the dorado? But no. He just wants us to photograph his fish, and we part the best of friends, his warning to beware of “many ladrones in these streets” ringing in our ears.