Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
There was a guy at the next breakfast table. He had an iPad. Now I wonder: does everyone with an iPad look like a self-satisfied cunt when they are using one?*
The hotel staff have put a bird table hanging from a tree near the dining area, and chucked a few papayas on there. It was lovely to watch toucans eating their breakfast while I had mine.
To the Saturday market in San Ignacio. I know it’s some kind of heresy, but I really can’t get excited about markets. People seem to love them, but for me it just seems like a place where one can walk at a snail’s pace, weaving your way past people stood around fondling fruit, merchants yelling, and filled with a constant awareness that pickpockets could be around. And, if you have no intention of buying food to cook, then all you are left with is the option to spend money on skanky-looking sneakers, bootleg Miley Cyrus t-shirts, and Dallas Cowboys backpacks. There was, though, some joy to be had at this market. The Christians preaching in Spanish through a guitar practise amp, for example. And Mennonites selling vegetables. I find Mennonites endlessly fascinating. The chinstrap beards, plain clothing, and the occasional pretty lass who I can’t help but fantasize is a raging slut waiting to be set free and given a Brazilian and a vibrator. There were also puppies for sale, Michael Jackson stickers (showing him at all ages), and “American daipers!”
We had a coffee in a place that was above a Chinese restaurant, spent some time watching people go by, then headed off to find an art park in a town called Benque Viejo del Carmen near the border with Guatemala. As tourist attractions go, it was pretty shy. Two and a half km along a gravel track outside the town; a dirty, mossy sign that was barely readable. Inside, the woman seemed hesistant about the price of entry. “Ten dollars…….. U.S.” (American money is acceptable currency here and prices are often listed as Belizean or American dollars. Two local dollars equals one U.S. dollar. But one gets the feeling that tourists are quoted a U.S. dollar price regardless of the Belizean price if there’s no explicit signage.) But, whatevs, we were there, at the Poustinia Land Art Park. And, well, the art wasn’t my cup of tea on the whole. Lots of reclaimed stuff assembled to mean something, usually something about the environment in some way or other. Don’t wanna be too cruel, but it was kinda sixth form art. But the walk through the jungle was great. Jungle, as I may have written before, seems to me to be, on the whole, a sweaty forest, but I do enjoy the density of it. Jungle feels like high speed film of nature happening around you, even though you don’t see the high speedness. You do, though, know that if you return in a week and no-one has gone through the paths with a machete, it will have changed.
Back at the hotel, having a beer in the bar near the pool. A table of six teenage girls all chatting and giggling. Conversations go along and they will, without any signal, just pause the conversation to all join in with the choruses of Rhianna, Lady Gaga, or Black Eyed Peas songs on the radio. Just as I’d grabbed a towel to go to the pool, the teenagers relocated there. I felt paranoid about the sleaziness of going in the pool at the same time, so read my book until they’d gone. By that time, though, the sun was behind clouds and it was a wee bit cold in the pool. So I just got drunk instead.
* I am an owner of an iPad, and I guess I’m the same.
Every now and again you get a reminder of how the memory is not a factual document. We drove past the softball field that mentioned yesterday. I said it was poorly maintained. That was what I thought, that is what my mind saw. But driving past it again, it wasn’t poorly maintained at all. The grass was short just there was no dirt infield. Does make me wonder how much of stories about my past include bullshit. And when you see talking heads interviewed on documentaries, too. How much of that is shite? Anyway…
After discovering a battalion of insect bites on my legs this morning, I lacquered up in bug spray before we hit the road, going not too far away to see some of Kraig and Barbara’s Oregonian pals. They moved down here last year, driving down in an old school bus. It took them twelve days. They’ve built a wee house on seven acres, right next to a river. Most of the land is still jungle. They warned of snakes and widowmakers. Which was obviously thrilling to learn.
We had a drive around, through a bit of Mennonite country where farmland is a lot neater, and there are sexy ladies in headscarves and full length skirts that really get the blood racin’.
Stopping off at a store, I asked the checkout woman which of the five newspapers she would recommend. Slightly ignoring the question she told me that the Bible was the best thing I could read. In the end she indicated two were less politically biased than the others. I bought one of those, The Reporter, (“Independently Serving Belize Since 1967″). The lead story included an exclamation mark in the second paragraph. Not a good sign. And this is that paragraph, exactly as it appears:
Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer said she had no choice but to acquitted them because she found the evidence given by police officer Lincoln Hemsley no credible!
Spent the afternoon in the pool. Reading, drinking strawberry daiquiris. And staring at the tiny square tiles on the floor of the pool. Three shades of blue. Watching my feet swirl the water; my left leg clockwise, my right leg anti-clockwise. Until the blues all swishes together and I could no longer see the individual tiles. It took six seconds—six Mississippis anyway—for the water to get back to its normal state of rippling squished back-and-forth tiles. Aaaah, holidays…
Later, we took a trip all of a hundred metres to Cahal Pech, the nearby Mayan ruins. The Mayan empire would probably still be around if they made proper buildings instead of crappy “ruins.” Who would wanna live there? Did those fuckers not think to install elevators? Idiots.
It was nice to wake up early. After 15 hours sleep, though, hardly a surprise. Downstairs to the dining room for a coffee an the landlady got to talking bad about other Central Americans. I just sat there and smiled as she banged on about Guatemalans being dirty and treating their women bad, and she advised any woman with a husband not to employ a Salvadorian woman because, well, y’know… Breakfast was some potato-y green vegetable that I didn’t recognise, some spicy sausage and toast, all to the background sound of some religious TV stuff going on in the next room. Some bloke banging on about tabernacles and keeping tracts in his shirt pocket to give to people.
Got a ride back out to the airport with the landlady’s husband. We chatted about Mexico. He asked if I were a Chivas or Pumas fan. Neither, Cruz Azul. Got dropped off and waited a cigarette’s length for Kraig and Barbara, my friends from Oregon, to arrive.
That happened, we sorted out the rental car, and headed west towards the Guatemalan border. Stopped to eat at a nice enough place called, imaginatively, Cheers. Carried onwards, passing an ambulance coming the other way, then ten minutes later, a trashed motorbike lying on the road. Passed a field which caused me to urgently shout that we should stop the car. I jumped out to take photos of a poorly maintained softball field.
We drove through San Ignacio which, on first drive-through impression seemed nice, and on up a steep hill to a hotel near some Mayan ruins called Cahal Pech, which means “potato salad” in Mayan*.
The hotel is one of those that has had all the money spent on the ground floor. A fountain near the entrance, thatched roofs over things, two pools near a bar. The room barely has a lock. Kraig demonstrated something I’ve often thought was just a Hollywood thing: you can actually open a door with a credit card. Call me picky, but somewhere to put the soap in the shower is kind of essential. It’s a bit annoying to hold it the whole time. And kids are starving in Africa, ya bastard. Still, one of the two pools wasn’t being used, so while the others had a nap after their long journey from Portland, I took my book and cigarettes down to the bar, got a beer, and jumped in the pool. Obviously, I put all of my stuff next to the pool before jumping in. And it was enjoyable to cool off, read some Paul Auster, smoke and drink in the sunshine.
In the evening, we went into town and ate at a Sri Lankan place called Serendib. Not bad. A saunter around town, back to the hotel, sat around for a while chuckling at “Extreme Movie” on the telly. It was okay, although every single punchline wears a high visibility vest, so obvious were the gags, and in his brief appearance Michael Cera displays an amazing break from his usual role as Character Exactly The Same As George Michael Bluth to play Character Exactly The Same As George Michael Bluth In A Balaclava.
Bed. Decent sleep until I woke up itching an insect bite on my ankle at 6.15.
As I type this over a fairly average breakfast, there’s a bunch of other people eating their breakfasts. The chatter of humans is so inane. I’m not discounting myself from this, but when it’s all around you, it becomes very noticable what a miserable excuse for species we can be at times. Welcome to the Diary of a Misanthrope in The Former Colonies.
* Not true.
Cab to the airport at 2am. I’d been told by three people that for international flights, you have to be there three hours early. That’s horse shit, especially when there’s more or less nothing open, and the Taca airline desk doesn’t open until two hours before the flight. Once that was done, the departure lounge was an abandoned mall with a handful of workers and a bunch of tired travellers.
On the plane, strapped in, notice my book isn’t in my bag. Talk to a stewardess and she let’s me go and get it from the lounge. Back on the plane, taxiing, sitting there with a Paul Auster book on my lap, I instead read an interview with Ricky Martin in the airline magazine. I do not care one bit about Ricky Martin.
One of the greatest things you will ever see in life is being in a plane over Mexico City when it’s dark. It’s amazing, like a fishing net of lights has been thrown over the land, with a few black mountains poking through.
Behind me on the flight were two Mennonites couples. It took me half the flight to work out what language they were speaking. I think it was Dutch.
“Grown Ups” was the movie. I dozed off towards the end. Not sleeping, just dozing until me head dropped then sparking awake again. It didn’t seem like a movie; it was just a collection of snappy remarks, like you’d get in a bar with friends.
By the time the plane came close to San Salvador, the sun was up and reflecting on the flat Pacific like Bob Ross brush strokes.
San Salvador airport looks like a secondary school, just with aeroplanes on the Tarmac rather than Peugeots.
Central American heat and the smell of jet fuel.
The announcer in the airport had a wonderful whispery voice, like a Latina Björk, escorting me all the way down the corridor, as I looked for what I knew was here three years ago: a cafe that had a smoking section. And yes! It’s still there. This was the place that I met Brendan and Mel three years ago. We’d got off the same plane and separately, we were looking for a smoking place. And it was still there. I had a black coffee, chugged down a fag, then went to the gate for my second flight.
All the coffee I’d drunk, though, was gurgling around in my belly, making me feel a bit grim. Combine that with the aeroplane air that seems to distend things. And I could’ve, y’know, done with an extra ten minutes in this airport which is an airport that I already associate with a dodgy belly.
Onto the plane, and a surly looking young Belizean was in my window seat. The plane didn’t seem overly busy, so I was a pussy and sat in the aisle seat, quietly scoffing to myself at his shit trainers, and listening to the Wu-Tang Clan to remind myself that I am from the tough streets of North Hykeham.
I think the stewardess was giving me the eye, which I guess is the sign of a good stewardess/actress.
Arriving at the airport, it’s one of those where you walk across the Tarmac to the terminal. I like that kind of airport, it makes me feel like a returning sporting hero. Or one of the Beatles.
There’s the heat again. Immigration and customs; out for a smoke and to take in the new temperature. The heat curling up the trouser leg like a villian’s snake. And the undershirt of sweat forming on my torso.
Into a cab with Jose, a very friendly man who pointed out landmarks along the way (“there’s the supermarket!”, “the boys play football there at four o’clock if you want a game”), and soon enough I’m at the guest house I’m spending the night at. It’s a little outside of the town but I knew my needs were essentially somewhere to bathe and sleep and get back to the airport to meet my friends.
My room wasn’t ready when I arrived, so, having been told to make myself at home, I took a coffee and a cigarette on the patio by the creek that runs alongside the house. The lady, rather than getting the room ready, came out with me and pointed out various types of fish in the river. Not content with the amount of visible fish, she went to get a loaf of bread and coaxed fish to the surface. There were catfish, needlefish, bigbrownfish, notquiteasbigbrownfish. Lots of birdlife, too.
Once the room was ready, shower, clean clothes, a quick look at a map of the city, and I’m out. Almost immediately my choice of jeans not shorts was apparently a mistake. Hot.
The lady told me buses pass by, or to get a cab. I started walking. Bought a Coke. Glass bottle. Half the price of the same sized plastic bottle of Coke. How the aesthetic ponces of the world like me rejoice at that.
I saw a bus parked up, the driver staring out of the window. I shouted and asked if he was going into the city. I hear my voice at moments like that, when accents are Caribbean or simply not British, and all I hear coming out of my gob is Hugh Grant. It was a crappy old Blue Bird bus. Like a US school bus.
The lady at the guest house had told me to stay on this side of the river; the other side, and I paraphrase, sucks. After spending a couple of hours on this side of the river, I came to realise that it was like being told your shit sandwich doesn’t come with fries on the other side. Belize City, in my limited experience, is horrible.
The word potholes doesn’t do the roads justice. They look like roads that have been dug up from another town and dropped into empty streets and steam rollered into place. Shacks and busted cars everywhere. The type of macho male youth hanging around that makes pasty English chaps nervous.
I made my way to the museum. Were I being charitable, I’d say I was too hot and tired to fully appreciate the history on display. But I’m not gonna be charitable: if a museum had coins and bottles, you know it’s a craphole.
Sidenote: I saw 14 people wearing New Era fitted caps. Everyone of them was a Yankees cap.
I decided to walk back to the guest house. It took about 40 minutes. I could feel my skin cooking. I was hungry so I stopped along the way at a place called Friendship Chinese. They weren’t friendly of course. Chicken fried rice and Leeds vs. Arsenal on the telly. Halfway through my meal, a child at the next table jumped out of her seat and screamed. The rest of her party all vacated, too, while the owner stood on their table to remove a massive spider from the wall. A couple of Mennonites were dining, too. They had a cell phone. And drank Coca Cola. The modern world.
I bought some McVitie’s Digestives from a store, (the joys of colonialism!), and trudged back to my room around 3pm. I sat down on the edge of the bed. And woke up at 6.20am.
After a few days out of the city at the weekend home of the family of friends, after those few days of sunshine and doing nothing much, getting back to Distrito Federal, it’s noticeable how loud the city is. Every regular big city has noise, but what makes Mexico City different to London, Berlin, Toronto is how much of that noise is specifically designed to disturb you. One could be charitable and say it’s noise that is there to alert your attention to certain things, but on the whole, the noises are there to be loud enough to make sure people in apartment buildings can here those noises through closed windows. And if, like me, you don’t really want to traipse down four flights of stairs to buy bananas or get your knives sharpened, they’re just added noise to an already noisy city. Still, I could leave with the trash men ringing their bells, the knife-sharpener’s whistle, the tamales guy’s looped announcement coming from the speakers on his bicycle, the steam whistle of the guys selling sweet potatoes, the shouts of “agua!” or “gas!”… I could live with all of those if the cilindreros, the organ grinder who plays on the street outside my bedroom/workspace would be swallowed up by the earth for crimes to the ears of human beings.
So, yes, as you can tell, I came back from a weekend away fully relaxed. I went to this place called San Gil. It’s a strange (to me, at least) little private estate, spread out around a big artificial lake and 18 hole golf course. It’s near a town called San Juan del Río, in the state of Querétero, about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Mexico City; a pleasant ride on a motorway through yellow-ish countryside with dusty hills on the horizon. And, since leaving Bellingham in the middle of 2009, I’ve hardly spent five minutes outside of one city or another. I spent the majority of the journey staring out of the window at the lack of buildings. Every now and again, there’d be cattle or sheepses in the fields, farmhouses, or by the roadside, cafes, restaurants, Pemex gas stations, auto shops, and places that sold concrete crap for the garden.
Nearing San Juan del Río, we found out that the people who’s house we were heading to were behind us on the road from the city, so we stopped for food at a barbacoa restaurant. Barbacoa is lamb cooked slowly in a hole dug in the earth, and covered with leaves. And it’s fucking delicious. It’s so very, very tender. I had some soup with the lamb, and, duh, some tacos de barbacoa. Also of interest at the restaurant were the pictograms used to indicate the toilets. Because all men smoke pipes, and women use fans.
At the house, it was one of those weekends where, afterwards, you wrack your brain to try and remember the order of events, but it’s impossible. The relaxation all blends into one mush of doing lots of nice stuff. Playing basketball and chess with teenagers, drinking tequila, eating all kinds of awesome food, sitting in the sunshine, riding a bicycle around the resort, playing with the dogs, and watching the freshly bathed and brushed male dogs suddenly get all fruity and spend an afternoon humping each other.
Noticing how quiet life is, noting the lack of policemen, enjoying the guilt-free drinking of beer before lunch, drunkenly not caring about making a tit of yourself playing the Xbox Dance Central game, trying to take poker seriously but just enjoying bluffing with a ridiculously stupid hand, developing intricate handshakes with a 12 year old, standing around chatting in the ever-busy kitchen, watching some gorgeous sunsets. It was a lovely long weekend.
(I will, at some point, stop using Spanish words for blog post titles, but for now, you’re gonna have to put up with it. Sorry.)
Well, after Wednesday’s celebrations, I had a sturdy hangover. Actually, that’s a lie: I leapt out of bed at 8 a.m., brushed my teeth, deodorant, and went for breakfast downstairs. I think the guy down there in the restaurant doesn’t like me. He looked at me like I’d stiffed him when tipping the other morning, yet when I was at reception later, I saw a few restaurant receipts and none of them tipped as much as me, cos, clearly, I’m King Tippy McTipper (translation: scared of being that stereotypical shitty British tipper). Yesterday morning, he asked if I wanted eggs, I told him, thank you, no. I think that offended him, too. Perhaps he simply hates me for no reason. That sort of stuff does happen in life, though, right?
I had a business phone call to take care of mid morning, so I didn’t get out to see the military parade as soon as I’d've liked. I did see and hear some massive Mexican Air Force planes flying very low, though, while I was listening to a client telling me stuff. Once that was over, I dashed down to Reforma where the military parade was going on, but in the reverse direction from yesterday’s independence parade. It was a public holiday. Even the ever-open stores in this neighbourhood were closed. And seemingly everyone was down at the parade. It was at least three or four times busier. People had come prepared, too: plastic buckets, plastic patio chairs, plastic stools, step ladders, so they could see. People sat on top of portaloos, walls, in trees, balanced precariously on bollards. Enterprising people sold periscopes made from cardboard cigarette cartoons, candy boxes, and the boxes that expensive liquor comes in.
With no chance of getting a good view, I decided to just wander along, get a glimpse here and there. The amount of people, and the fact that there were plenty of horses in the parade made for a whole street that had quite a funky smell of horse poo and parmesan-y body odour.
It was weird seeing such a show of military force. My brain flitted between a frowning lefty pacifism, through an admiration for how aesthetically pleasing it is to see lots of people in the same uniform marching in time to drummers, to a rather wrong feeling that, no matter how different I know from experience Latin American countries are, somewhere in my brain, there still exists the stereotype of military juntas putting on parades like this to remind the people who’s in charge.
The army, navy, air force were all in attendance. Trucks with cannons, and a bunch of soldiers from different countries in the Americas. I caught glimpses of the Colombian, Argentine, and American military. I may have been projecting, but the Americans appeared as though they would much rather not be there. The straight faces of all the other soldiers had a tint of boredom and what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-here? about it with the U.S. bunch.
Following on from all the military were people in lovely costumes on horseback. Not sure which branch of the military they belonged to, but they were certainly a joy to behold, as men whipped lassoes over their heads and women in lovely skirts turned their horses around 360 degrees in unison.
And as if to prove to me that the previous day’s applause for the workers in the parade wasn’t in my head, when the street cleaners brought up the rear, they again raised the biggest cheers. It would seem on the evidence of the last two days, Mexicans really do appreciate those who work shitty jobs to keep the city clean. I don’t think it’s overly pompous to suggest we Westerners could learn a thing or two from that.
Again, I was really tired by the end of the day. Went to bed at 11 p.m. But after an odd dream about me having to arrange a photo shoot for the cover of Elle featuring Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, a different type of Mexican air force woke me up. A fucking mosquito. I’d only been asleep for a couple of hours, woke up scratching my hand which had three red bumps on it. I tried to hide under the plentiful bed sheets every time I heard the buzz close to my ear, but it was hot as hell under the sheets, and I couldn’t really sleep properly because of the danger of further attacks. A fitful sleep followed. I woke up with my arms and chest and back now featuring around 20 mosquito bites. As if to make a proper comedy out of it, the maid must’ve knocked the switch on the clock radio. I’ve returned to the room while she’s been in here before, and noticed she listened to the radio when she works. Fine with me, but she must’ve switched it to “alarm” not “off.” And the previous user of the alarm had it set for 6.30 a.m. so when Mexican pop music kicked in, I called it quits, got up, admired my mosquito bites, and went down for breakfast where, seemingly, I arrived before the kitchen staff, so sat there reading a book chugging down three cups of coffee before I could eat anything. And the guy there still looked at me like he wanted to slit my throat with a hacksaw.
The first thing I noticed about Mexico’s celebrations – it’s the bicentennial of independence and the centennial of the revolution – was “Sultans of Swing.” Around noon, I walked up to Reforma, the big avenue where the parade would take place, and a few streets away, I could hear Dire Straits*. As I got closer, police and security people were using metal-detecting wands, and patting people down. Contents of pockets removed: camera, cigs, lighter, some pesos. And I was in, and, well, it was still really early. The big speakers that were now playing “Romeo and Juliet” as walkie-talkie people walked hurriedly around, policemen stood looking bored and ready to kick ass with their riot shields, or alternatively completely relaxed and laughing with people.
* Dire Straits really are due their, err, due, I think. I mean, they’ve never been fashionable; red headbands can do that for ya. But some of their stuff is utterly fantastic and still sounds fresh.
Some people had arrived early to snag a a good spot. I had no idea what time the events were kicking off, but the sparseness of the crowd hinted that it wasn’t for a while. I had a mooch around, enjoying walking down the middle of a street that is normally heaving with traffic. And it was lovely to see people looking so happy, ready for a good celebration. Even with the sparseness of the crowd so early in the day, one could see a pattern forming: lots of people wearing green, white, and red, and lots of people in traditional clothes (the women look so beautiful in the white dress with multi-coloured* hand-embroidered patterns, and the men look great is nice fancy bow-ties.) I also noticed how dominant Adidas is here. I’ve hardly seen any Nike clothing at all, even aside from the Adidas-made Mexican soccer jerseys. I was wearing an old 90s-style blue and teal Seattle Mariners cap, and felt a bit weird wearing something so American, so decided to go back to the hotel to change into my Diablos Rojos del México cap. (A Mexican League baseball team.) It was, at least, red, and has an M on the front. While I didn’t want to go as far as some other European tourists I saw later in the day (sombreros, face paint…), I did want to fit in a little bit. Plus, y’know, a green, white, and red, strap-on mohican really wouldn’t suit me.
* Ever since I started the Flip Flop Fly Ball website, and particularly since working on the book – a book specifically for a mostly American audience – I’ve had to remember that things are spelled differently in the States. It has got to the point now, though, where I forget to spell worlds like colour “properly.”
Cap changed, time for lunch at a local restaurant. Fish tacos and a couple of Tacates, watching Real Madrid vs. Ajax on the telly. It was one of those nice, relaxed moments where for half an hour or so, it feels like life is good.
Back down to Reforma. The metal detectors were gone. The sniffer dogs gone, too. Still more policemen than I’ve ever seen in my life on duty. Ranks of them on every corner. Many more people this time. Lots of stick-on Zapata-style moustaches. Families jostling to get their kids to the front. A guy in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey, plenty of Yankees caps, and even, somewhat ironically considering the recent political anti-illegal immigration stuff down there, a guy in an Arizona Diamondbacks cap. I was reminded that Mexico City has recently legalised gay marriage by seeing a fair amount of gay and lesbian couples around. Lots of people hawking face paint, banners, flags, bandanas, Mexican coloured stick on eyelashes, and all kinds of noise-making devices. (No vuvuzelas, thankfully.)
It was still early, though, so I wandered off the avenue to a pedestrianised side street where a man dressed up in costume Jim Carrey wore in “The Mask” having his photo taken with people. Time for a few more cervezas. Corona is a third of the price that it was in Toronto. So it would’ve been rude to drink less than three, right? Very loud folk music on a flat screen TV, young lovers spending minutes at a time kissing over a pitcher of sangria, and a guy who looked so ridiculously uncomfortable sat on a bar stool, like all he wanted was to be back in bed where he wouldn’t be nervous about all the people around. Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid jerseyed men walk by. (I did later see a guy in a Liverpool shirt, but he looked English, so that doesn’t count, sadly.) All around, though, you could really feel the joy in the air.
I’d spend my first couple of days in Mexico City wondering if this would be the sort of place I could end up living. I swung between polar opposites: it’s exciting to be in a great city that is new and full of potential adventures, and oh, Craig, what are you doing? why not just give up on this silly dream of living somewhere like this and move back to England, let that bungee that you’ve resisted for so long drag you back. Thankfully, the former was the over-riding feeling I had all day. Why give up? I only need to do that when all other possibilities are exhausted. Stop being a pussy, Craig.
So, the parade. After a while more wander around, soaking up the atmosphere, I settled on a place where a few shorter people had congregated and waited. I was there for about an hour before the big screens showed that farther back, the parade was coming along. Slowly the sound got louder, and then I could see them: a marching band in white shoes, black trousers, orange capes and sombreros playing “Jarabe Tapatío” (the Mexican Hat Dance). It was so exciting! And it made me smile that a song that I normally associate with being a cartoon-y shorthand for Mexican-ness must be incredible popular and important to Mexico if it’s the very first thing in the parade.
The parade was organised so very well. Each section of the non-stop entertainment (literally no gaps where you were looking at only tarmac) was introduced by people holding banners announcing the next section. The first section was Indepencia, tens of people in black jumpsuits with cacti on their heads, holding hands and dancing down the street. A float in the shape of a folded up newspaper dated 16 septiembro de 1810. Fantastic revolutionary dummies operated by people strapped behind them walking along; the dummies had big eyebrows, moustaches, sack clothes and bullets. Behind them, similarly structured horses. Then some huge stone feet. And huge stone legs. then a huge stone torso, and finally a huge stone head. All of which would later be assembled in Zocalo Square as “The Colossus,” a 20 metre high sculpture of a revolutionary fighter by Juan Carlos Canfield Zapata.
The parade went on, my mouth locked open in amazement at everything, my eyes welling up at the beauty of it all. It was so utterly fantastic to be there to see how overjoyed people were at seeing all these elements of Mexican history and culture presented in such a wonderful fashion. I had a melancholy moment wishing that British people could celebrate like this, but, I guess when you have been colonial masters, you forfeit the right to celebrate anything resembling independence.
On and on it went. Women in terracotta-coloured ponchos with long sausage-shaped balloons on their heads; huge feather head-dresses; lots of fantastical masks; parades from all over the country in traditional local dress with local variations of music; a whole section dedicated to workers, which was the favourite part of many people around me. It was beautiful to see the biggest cheers saved for people dressed as street cleaners, cooks, maids, nurses all dancing down the street.
Plenty of drummers. A float that looked like a printing press with kids skateboarding on the “paper” between two rollers. Hats, dresses, colours, music: my head felt like it had been injected with sherbet. People dressed as chickens. Huge wooden coyotes and leopards. Pre-Mexican themes, pre-historic themes, an enormous Day of the Dead-style skeleton flat on a float with dancer atop it in lucha libre costumes. Flowers, horses, twirly skirts. It was very literally two of the best hours of my life. The parade came to an end with real street cleaners sweeping up the parade route, but still in a vaguely organised way that looked like part of the show.
I was tired, my feet ached, but my head was fizzing with joy. The party went on longer, with a couple of stages of music (mariachi type stuff on one stage that I saw, and a symphony on another). Many people headed towards further celebration at Zocalo Square, but my head was already full, I couldn’t really take in any more and fully appreciate it. And I was hungry. I wandered back towards the hotel through a street market selling all kinds of wonderful smelling food. I had two unspecified-meat-but-I-think-it-might’ve-been-pork tacos. The guy was shouting “Tacos! Tacos!” so I went up to him and said “No hablo espanol pero tengo hambre!” He said “taco?” and pointed at the meat. I asked if it was chicken, he said, “no” and then the name of something or other. It looked good, though, so I shrugged and said okay. I was served my tacos on a small red plastic plate wrapped in thing transparent polythene. Guacamole, lime, a good dollop of very hot chili sauce. Utterly fantastic. By the time I got back to the hotel, the fireworks had begun, I watched them through the window. Mexico continued to celebrate, and as late as I can remember before falling asleep, people still walked on the street below shouting “¡Viva Mexico!”
More photos on my Flickr.
Today is the Mexico’s bicentennial and centennial. It’s 200 years since independence; 100 years since the revolution. There are many, many, many, many, many, many flags all around. I saw an elderly lady this morning in a green waistcoat over a white shirt with a long red skirt. And I saw these three lads. I was following them for several minutes before the guy in the white t-shirt moved to the middle. I like to think their clothing choices were a happy accident this morning. I’m most likely wrong, though.
I went to Toronto to write the book, and the book is more-or-less done. (I still use the word “write” when really, it’s a bunch of information graphics; but I kind of feel like write is the correct word, as there are six essays in the book, and like a proper non-fiction writer, a crap load of research was involved. It is odd, though, when people ask what it is about, and I just shrink and mutter stuff about charts and graphs.) Now it’s time to move on. Not back to Europe just yet. Not sure exactly when that will happen. I figure I’ve spent enough of my life in Europe. Time for something new. Just after I’d turned 30, I moved to Berlin. Now, as I hurtle towards 40, I find myself a bit listless, out of sorts. Toronto has been very nice. I’ve met some nice people. The city, the atmosphere is… nice. It’s a little bit of an emotionally cold city, though. I’m glad that a couple of Canadians (that is, Canadians not raised in Toronto) confirmed this, and it wasn’t just me. I can be emotionally cold, too, so these two things colliding probably means that Toronto will not be my home again. But I realised I’d miss it on Saturday. I’d been at the Blue Jays game and as I left the Skydome, I took one last walk around the Douglas Coupland-designed Toronto Park. (I wrote about it earlier in the year.) It hit me there, that I would miss Toronto. It hit me three more times, too. I went into my local bar Squirly’s, a place where I’ve spent so much time that I’ve developed genuine friendships with a couple of people who work there (ie. meeting up at other bars to go drinking, going to ballgames, etc.). So I went there for one last drink on Sunday night, and after goodbye hugs, I walked out with a lump in my throat, widening my eyes to make sure I didn’t weep.
Hit number two was at the airport early on Monday morning. The plane was boarding, and along the walls of the skywalk, there were the usual smug-ass HSBC ads that seem to be in every bloody airport in the world, but there were also a few Toronto tourism-y pictures. The very last one before I stepped onto the plane was of the SkyDome. I stared at the ground, shuffled into the plane, and thankfully, got engaged in a baseball conversation with one of the stewards who saw my Yankees cap and asked, “Do you just like the cap or are you a fan?” So while a guy who was seemingly oblivious that standing in the aisle and taking off his jacket and getting stuff out of his carry-on was holding everyone up, we had a chat about the games the Yankees are currently playing against the Tampa Bay Rays.
I had a middle seat. Always a joy. The guy with the aisle seat was probably in his late fifties, looked like Humpty Dumpty with liver spots and a sparse head of pomade-laced hair. He also took up about 10% of my seat, too. Thankfully, the window seat guy was a stick insect, so I could kinda dominate the arm rest there. Hit number three came when I flicked through the channels on the telly system, and found a few episodes of the Ken Burns documentary series, “Baseball.” Watching black and white images of Babe Ruth drilled home that I was leaving baseball behind, except for watching games on my laptop.
But, it did distract me from the middle seat-ness; time flew by, and soon enough, the plane was on the ground and my passport had been stamped, and I picked up my luggage. They have x-ray machines at Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México. You hand in your form, put all your luggage on the conveyor belt, pick it up, and head out to get a cab. Except they had some questions. They wanted me to open my suitcase and look at something. I had a jar of Marmite in there, so I wondered if having a jar of that gorgeous, dark, yeasty gloop was considered importing food that you’re not supposed to import. But no, they wanted to know about my baseball caps. Now, I realise it is utterly ridiculous to have over forty baseball caps with me, but, y’know, I only own two pairs of shoes, and three pairs of trousers, so my clothing priorities may be a bit askew, but this is the United States* and I can do what I want.
* Okay, technically, it’s not the United States we all know and love, but I am in the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.
The lady was under the impression I was importing goods to be sold. She asked how much they were worth. I low-balled her. She asked why I had them. I told her that I really liked baseball and gestured towards the baseball books, the baseball glove, and the Dave Stieb bobblehead in the suitcase. Clearly at this point, any normal person would think I was just a mental person who liked an American game way too much. But she was insistant that I had to prove they were mine. She wanted to see receipts, she started counting them. One by one, I got them out, pointed out sweaty stains on the inside, the faded colours on the older caps, and the ungodly stench coming from my Montreal Expos cap. It must’ve been the smell that convinced her than no-one in their right mind would be trying to sell something as disgusting as that Expos hat.
So, yes, I’m in Mexico City y tengo aprender español.
I like Douglas Coupland. I like most of his books, he seems like an incredibly interesting fellow, and I think he comes across as a nice guy. So when I arrived in Toronto, one of things I wanted to see the most was Toronto Park, a park that he recently designed that opened in September last year. Before I got there, though, and just a five minute walk away, there’s a Coupland sculpture, “Monument to the War of 1812.” I know nothing about the War of 1812, but apparently the Brits won. So, y’know, yay! Here’s the Wikipedia article about that war, should you give a monkeys.
The first thing I noticed about Toronto Park was the canoe. You can see the canoe on top of a raised bit of land from the big road that runs along one side of the park.
These things are pretty, too. I assume they are fishing floats. Or maybe I’m wrong. I dunno…
But the best and most interesting thing about the park is the route around the edge with big pictures and plaques all about
So, Toronto. Getting here began by dragging a rucksack, backpack, and big-ass suitcase from Barnet (at the northern edge of London), to Gatwick airport (south of London). A fairly harmless journey apart from the bit where I had to change from the Northern Line to the Victoria Line on the Tube. Trains came and went and were uniformly packed full of people. People who were waiting to get on the trains avoided my gaze; the gaze that was trying to say, “C’mon chaps, gimme a break, I know I’m gonna take up the space of three people but I kinda do need to get somewhere just like you do.” Eventually, I just did what the other people did: thought about myself. Positioned myself right in front of where a door would be and launched myself on there.
Here’s a piece of advice, which I wish I’d looked into before choosing to fly with Air Transat: check the baggage allowance before booking what seems like a reasonably-priced flight. My excess baggage more-or-less doubled the price of the flight. But it left on time, arrived on time, and I had an aisle seat to stretch out in.
Getting into Canada, though, was a piece of piss compared to the nation to its south. Just a couple of questions about why I was visiting and if I had any meat or vegetables with me, and I was in. A cab ride later and I’m opening the door to my friend Scott’s place, my home for the next three months. And within two hours of that, I was doing what I’d been looking forward to for quite some time: sitting, drinking a beer at a baseball game.
The Toronto Blue Jays beat the Texas Rangers 16-10, Scott, his (and my) house mate Kevin, and I went for a couple of beers in a local bar, then ate the food that has made my saliva glands overproduce ever since Scott described it to me. I’d not heard of poutine before, but it’s essentially chips and gravy with cheese curds in it. Mag. Nif. I. Cent. I’m glad I went for the small, though. It’s very, very filling.
Saturday, I was up early, out to get coffee, and for a walk. About ten minutes away is a wonderful area called Kensington Market. Good fruit and veg, grocery stores, some clothes shops, plenty of cafes and bars of many nationalities. I’ve been back there most days so far, partly because there’s a pleasant bar with a not-unattractive waitress working there and I’ve been enjoying an afternoon pint now and then, but mostly because there’s all these enticing looking places to eat that need to be tried out.
Another baseball game on Saturday afternoon (this time a 6-0 win for the Jays), followed in the evening by going to hang out with a bunch of Scott’s pals who get together now and then to draw. Essentially, it’s friends hanging out, having a beer, but with everyone doodling away at the same time. Naturally, after forgetting everyone’s name within moments of shaking their hands, I sat down and stared at a blank page for a good half hour. I’m not used to this public drawing. And even if I do draw in public, like in a cafe or something, I tend to hunch over my notebook so nobody can see what I’m doing. Mostly because I spend my time drawing giant flaming swastikas.
Sunday – oh yes, we’re going day by day – and I tag along with Kevin when he goes out to do a bit of shopping. A “quick pint” at lunch time turns into a good eight hour long crawl, which I justified quite easily: I’m getting to know Toronto. Something I repeated, mostly alone, on Tuesday. I’d been at another Blue Jays game (an 11-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins). I’d intended not to drink at all. It was a 12.30pm start, so I imagined it’d be easy to stay away from the booze. When I arrived at the Skydome (it’s current name is Rogers Centre, but that’s a horrible corporate name compared to the lovely futuristic Skydome), there was that unmistakable sound of thousands of children. Understandable, really, that on a midweek afternoon game, the Blue Jays should do some sort of deal with schools to get a ton of kids to come out and buy fizzy drinks and popcorn, but for the adult customer, well, it very literally drove me to drink. I went to the same beer stand each time I bought one, and the first time, had a little chat with the two ladies serving. They asked about my accent, I told them I’d lived in Germany, one of them told me her best friend was studying in Mönchengladbach. Very pleasant interaction. Next time I went back, they said hello in that way that acknowledges we’ve spoken before, and one of the women asks for my ID again. Each of the four times I went to buy a beer she asked to see my ID. I began to think she was stood underneath a security camera, a bit like a casino worker, constantly being watched by the Blue Jays’ Beer Police. Those four afternoon pints ended up being a good, solid twelve hours of drinking. I need to slow down a bit, really.
The last couple of days, I’ve been trying to do a bit of work on the book, but it’s not really been that easy. There’s a big, wonderful-seeming city out there to be explored. Today, though, I’m determined not to explore; to sit in front of my computer and try and have a normal day. Even typing those words, I can feel my willpower draining away.
Finally, in Tic Tac news, not only do Canadian fresh mint flavour (menthe fraîcheur, if you must) have “More Enjoyable Freshness”; they also have an interesting lid flap that I’ve not seen in Tic Tacs elsewhere. It’s got a kinda plug thing. I’m guessing that helps keep the Tic Tacs’ freshness intact.
Title of this blog post translates as “toasted flakes of corn.” It’s what’s written on the pack of Corn Flakes on the table.
I’m not sure it should feel like this. I’ve felt differently at other exhibitions. There were a couple that I didn’t go to, but there was one in Amsterdam in 2003 where I felt great on the opening night. I was way more nervous, but after a few drinks I felt good, chatty, and enjoyed it. And the exhibition of my work at the Rock en Seine festival in 2007 was fun because I could be totally anonymous and I could watch people looking at my work, which was incredibly enjoyable. Plus, the stuff that was on show there, I was already fond of and confident about. This time it was different.
As I’ve said recently, I was nervous leading up to the show. I wasn’t confident about the worth of my work. All day Saturday I felt oddly blank. The nerves weren’t manifesting themselves in my belly like they ordinarily should. I felt… nothing. Empty.
In the afternoon, I went for a walk along the Rhine. It was a nice day. The sun was out and it was warm, so I abandoned my plan to go to a couple of museums and just enjoyed the sunshine by the river with my headphones on. Before the opening, Nina and I went to a fantastic sushi restaurant called Na Ni Wa, picked up the DJ, and headed to the gallery. That would be the perfect time for a beer to loosen up a bit, but my cluster headaches mean no alcohol at the moment.
Shortly after 8pm, the first people arrived, and I couldn’t make eye contact with them. I couldn’t watch them looking at the paintings. The gallery has two adjoining rooms, and when they were in one of them, I was in the other. More people arrive and there were no longer places to hide. I could go outside and smoke, though. And I could stand in the kitchen talking to Nina’s mum.
After a while, I was annoying myself with my behaviour. I still stood in an uncrowded corner of the gallery, talking to Nina’s sister Julia, and their father mostly, but as the night wore on, I ended up talking to a few people. I’m sure some people thrive on being told their work is good, but it just makes me feel awkward. I try and be gracious, I try to be chatty, but it doesn’t come naturally. It not that it’s fake, but it does feel forced. And when a couple of the paintings sold, well, how am I to cope with that? I know it sounds stupid, but it blows my mind, it’s overwhelming to think that these pictures I did whilst sat in my apartment in my slippers, drinking tea, listening to ESPN podcasts, that they will be in someone’s home.
And that’s the stupid dichotomy: if one is – for want of a better word – an artist, you want people to look at your work, and you want people to like your work. I crave it a lot of the time. If I put something online and it doesn’t get many comments or emails, it gets me down, especially if I’m particularly fond of the work in question. So there is obviously some sort of need for that validation. But I guess it says something about my personality that I’m more comfortable receiving that validation electronically.
You’d think it would get easier, (well, I feel it should be getting easier) but as time goes on, it seems to get more difficult. Part of the joy of the baseball-related infographics stuff I’ve been doing is that what I’m doing is essentially filtering information that is already there. With drawing, stories, paintings, it’s more exposed. Putting them online or in a gallery is saying, I have these ideas and I think you should look at them. And by extension, you should look at them, consider them, then tell me I’m great.
And there we are, back at the beginning: I want to be told I’m great but can’t handle it if someone tells me I’m great. It’s a big fucking mess in my head. Times like this, it’s very easy to understand the Henry Dargers of the world, who do things to only please themselves. It’s tempting. But I know my ego ultimately won’t allow it. And, yep, I know what you are thinking: I should shut up, stop being a moany dick, and enjoy it while I can. Stupid brain.
And the stupid dilated blood vessels near my stupid brain caused pressure on the stupid trigeminal nerve and gave me a stupid cluster headache. Of course, after recently feeling that I’d started to figure out ways of dampening their effects, this time it came out and gave me a five hour headache, despite chugging down Red Bull and oxygen. Five hours has never felt so long. So it was nice to have a leisurely breakfast with Nina and Julia after just four hours of sleep. And I took advantage of the bath tub in Nina’s apartment (I only have a shower in mine) before packing my bag and heading out into the windy Düsseldorf afternoon to get the train.
For the train journey back, I’d not reserved a seat. I need not have bothered on the outbound journey, and not making another reservation saved me 4.50 euros (that’s a packet of fags). Not really a problem at the start of the journey, but as we intermittently shot through the windy and rainy countryside, the weather creating several long periods of the train sitting inactive waiting for something. Each station stop filled the train up a little more until the inevitable happened and some guy told me I was sitting in his reserved seat. Fine. Not particularly stressed out to have to spend the rest of the journey standing up. I’ve got my headphones on, listening to some Black Mountain, and reading all about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds in Joe Posnanski’s thoroughly enjoyable book, The Machine. I was stood next to the door of a carriage, but there was enough room for people to get by without having to move. Not perfect, but okay.
Then – and there had to be a “then,” right? – this guy walks towards me. He’s probably in his mid-forties, kinda longish grey hair. (Note to Brits: he looked a lot like Brookside and Grange Hill creator Phil Redmond.) He walked towards the doorway and kinda came to a stop next to me and started talking. I didn’t hear his words because of my headphones, but I did recognise the slight sway, and the fumes coming from his mouth. Without removing my headphones I told him, in English, that I don’t speak German, which is a handy tactic more often than you’d imagine, especially with people wanting to sign you up for charity stuff on the street. He leant in this time, breathing that warm boozy breath all over me, and started talking again, semi-leaning on my shoulder. I pushed him off my shoulder. He leant in again and started singing along to the tune of the Black Mountain song – Druganaut – that was on my headphones, which was a bit odd. Again leaning on me, but a bit more in my face. I pushed him away again; nothing over the top, nothing aggressive, just a leave-me-alone push. He did it again and asked in English if I was American. That’s when I gave up with the charade of pretending to continue reading, and raised my voice, telling him to fuck off.
He leant in again, this time, though, I gave him a proper angry push. Considering he was drunk, he was amazingly surefooted. He called me an arschloch. And then I pulled out a German swear word that I wish I’d never learnt; once you learn the German word for cunt, its only a matter of time before you use it. I used it. Fotze. In my experience, Germans don’t use their word for cunt as willy nilly as some British people (me) do. I noticed the face of an elderly lady sat nearby. She looked as shocked as she would’ve been if I’d just done a poo on her sudoku book.
By this time, a youngish guy sat nearby had turned around to see if he could help with the situation, and another studious, friendly-faced guy had walked up the aisle. He asked if I needed help. I told him it was okay. The drunk guy was never threatening, just persistant and foul-breathed. He kept on talking, I kept doing my best to ignore him. I repeated several times that I wanted him to leave me alone. Each time he told me, “I want to tell you-” and each time I shushed him. Then friendly-faced man came back with a conductor, and drunk man was preparing himself to be taken away by offerin
g to shake my hand. I refused cos his hand with filthy and had a big open cut and dried blood on one of the fingers. I got some sympathetic looks from people around me and five minutes later the conductor returned to apologise. I smiled, told him it was no problem, and caught the gaze of the elderly woman who still looked at me like I’d soiled her puzzles.
It was good to get the paintings on the wall. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve panicked that I’d not done enough, but seeing them on the walls of the gallery, with space around them, it’s almost a perfect amount. Kinda looking forward to the tomorrow night’s opening now. And it was fun to put them up, too. Headphones on, listening to Band of Horses, Miniature Tigers, and Michael Jackson, banging nails in the wall… And any time I get to use a spirit level, I feel more of a man. It only took a couple of hours, so I had an afternoon free to explore the town. I could see a big tower, and I’d been told the river was that way, so I walked towards it. It’s a very cool tower.
It’s called the Rheinturm (Rhine Tower), it is (in my head) where Kraftwerk live. It’s where they sleep, where they have breakfast, where they play with their robots, and where they make their music. It stands on the bank of the Rhine which is fucking massive. A really wide river, and at the moment, the water is quite high. And it flows quick, too.
I stood on the thin walkway underneath a bridge, took a couple of photos, and then walked towards the town. As I left the walkway, I found myself right in front of an old man who was pissing against the bridge. I apologised, but, y’know, really, he should’ve apologised for public urination, and exposing his old man cock to me. It was stinky. Either he’d been drinking sewage smoothies, or it was a popular place to piss.
The centre of the town is kinda pretty, but kinda generically West German. Some nice buildings, but a lot of that post-war town planning, with pedestrianised areas full of McDonald’s and H&M-type; stores. I went into Starbucks to get a coffee, and found myself behind that worst possible collection of people in a Starbucks queue: four teenage girls spending their pocket money on venti-iced-tiramisu-accinos-with-three-pumps-of-cherry-syrup.
(I like how on this stone carving of Jesus on the cross, he looks more like a member of a 1970s German rock band than our Lord and Saviour.)
In hindsight, I’m kinda surprised that anyone was working today in Düsseldorf because – flappy hands – Depeche Mode are playing LIVE! HERE! TONITE! OMG! It’s a vast generalisation, but EVERY PERSON IN GERMANY LOVES DEPECHE MODE MORE THAN THEIR OWN MOTHER. If Rapunzel was set in modern day Germany, the wicked enchantress would be staying at home tonight, and you’d be going to the show and giving up your blond-haired daughter in a few months. Lots of black-haired folks milling around the centre of town, and a few Brits in Depeche Mode sweatshirts – sweatshirts! – getting their beer on. The Depeche Mode sweatshirt: for those times when you wanna show you love for the Peche, but it’s a bit nippy out. I say all this, of course, in the knowledge that I spent my whole time wandering around Düsseldorf listening to Kraftwerk. And I do kinda like Depeche Mode, and if I had a ticket for the show, I’d like to go.
Düsseldorf smells weird. Like wet dogs.
Even though I’ve been here before, and made the pilgrimage last time, I couldn’t come here without walking down Mintropstrasse to see the place where Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang studio is (was).
Last time, the big metal shutters were closed, but this time not, so I walked into the courtyard and, well, I don’t know where exactly their studio was, but I like to think it was next to the awesome grey Mercedes. Of course, I spent the whole time imagining people in the building looking out, thinking, Oh Jeez, another nerdy bloke taking bloody photos of nothing in particular because “Autobahn” was made here.
As I left the courtyard, I bumped into this older guy. “Hey!,” I said, “you’re Ralf Hütter, leader of Kraftwerk and keen cyclist!”
“Ja, I am,” said Ralf.
“Awesome! Listen to this!” I took off my headphones and thrust them onto his head. He pulled away like I was invading his personal space, but I was tenacious and managed to get them on his ears.
“Das ist Daft Punk,” said Ralf.
“Oh,” I said, “Well, I was listening to Kraftwerk a moment ago.”
“Yes, very good. Thank you. I must go now.”
“No, no, no, hold on a second.” I said, my knuckles whitening as I gripped his arms. “Listen, do you know who I am? I’m Craig Robinson.”
“Oh yes, I am looking very much forward to seeing Hot Tub Time Machine. And I like you in The Office. You use a lot of make-up in the movies, right?”
“No, I’m not that Craig Robinson. I’m the one who does Minipops and I did an animated thing about a duck called Ralf named after you.”
“Oh, I see. You are him. Well, I don’t like you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ralf. I like you very much. I think your music is fantastic, and quite frankly, I was disappointed when I saw that “The Catalogue” box set had pixiliated artwork and you never asked me to do it. It, and I’m not over-exaggerating here, would’ve been my dream job.”
“Well, as I said, Other Craig Robinson, I think your work is shit, so I could not give a – how you say – toss what you think. Good day to you, please let go of my ankles.”