Bullet points

Day 181 - Sydney

13 days into this unexpected tangent in the trip and some notable achievements could be listed. We were now regulars at the Coogee Bay Hotel (henceforth CBH), a bar known (to locals at least) as 'the animal pen'. We had taken in the famed Bondi Beach. I had swum on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. I had a job. Once more I had plunged into the masked ball of interviews where every interviewer pretends that they are offering the world's greatest job and every interviewee maintains the fantasy and professes to have dreamed of one day having such a position. I could now add 'Senior Administrator' to my garlanded résumé. The company? Accenture Plc., a multinational management consultancy firm with 250,000 employees worldwide. Well to be accurate 250,001. Not bad in less than a week. with a view from my desk of Sydney CBD 'fallen on my feet' would be an apt phrase to use. Before I started though myself and Mike found the time to catch up with our Irish partners in (petty) crime from Bolivia and Chile. Little had we expected to meet Dee and Darren again so soon when we bid them farewell at the bus station in Santiago and what a pleasure it was to see familiar faces. Another old face (30 to be precise) was Jon, a friend of mine from back home. A full ten years had passed since we went our separate ways after college. He had settled into life on the other side of the planet with a girlfriend, baby on the way and the hint of an Australian accent to complete the look. Me and Mike attended his 30th birthday party in the King's Cross area of Sydney. There is also an area called Paddington though I failed to find Fenchurch or Marylebone (yeah, yeah Paddington isn't on the Monopoly board, creative license innit). I also temporarily suspended my contempt for rugby league as a silly, bastardised form of the game in order to watch State of Origin, an annual competition between New South Wales and Queensland. The three match series resulted in a heartbreaking last game loss for NSW but myself, Mike, the girls and their posse of Irish friends drowned our 'sorrows' at CBH regardless. We had (we thought) ensconced ourselves back into normal life rather well. Australian bank account, phone number, a necktie or two and a local - all the trappings of civilised existence were obtained and all my earnings squandered at the aforementioned public house. Plus ça change...

Continental drift

Day 168 - Sydney

Surprising fact about Australia #1: It has seasons.
Surprising fact about Australia #2: Some of those seasons are cold.
Surprising fact about Australia #3: I was in it. And cold.

Everybody likes surprises don't they? Unexpectedly finding two men in your flat when you return from work qualifies as a surprise right? The alarmed screams seemed to indicate so. Scaring Amy and Jayne has proved to be one of life's simple pleasures but traveling nearly 5000 miles to do it could be deemed excessive. Myself and Michael would have to find something else to do in the land of Oz. That something else was the perpetuation of travel by way of the accumulation of capital. Gainful employment in short. Like a bombshell we had exploded back into the girl's ordered existence and with the shrapnel flung wide we settled into catching up over a couple of boxes of goon. Bangkok's sweltering temperatures and dollar beers lay far behind us though we were as culturally, economically and meteorologically as close to home as we had been so far been on this trip. And yet despite the cold (have I mentioned that it's cold?), the cost and the (temporary) abandonment of a life of perpetual leisure there was a strange thrill in me. A thrill of a new life to be created and all the possibilities that lay therein. Do we ever give up on reinvention of ourselves? Or if not reinvention then refinement, the smoothing of rough edges, the banishment of undesirable traits? Do we all hold dear the promise that a better us lies inside and if only the conditions were just right that person could be realised? People rarely change fundamentally so why do we strive for an unreachable goal? But we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (Fitzgerald, 1925). It seems driven by a difficulty in accepting ourselves as we are, as we ever were, as we ever will be. Travel is the perfect foil to this frustrated vision. Another place, another person. Throw off your rusted shackles, climb from the indenture of your rut, feel the warm sunlight of possibility upon your face. We all seek our own particular brand of reinvention. Mine is best described as wanting to look into a mirror and see myself and not a vampiric transparency. But the only mirrors I look into are those in friend's and foreigner's faces and the reflections define the person I see. It is a self-worth dependent on others, it is an unhealthy stare. It is rabid insecurity alleviated by adulation. I once suggested that praise fell on me as lightly as snowflakes but I was wrong. It nourishes a ravenous beast, a dead-eyed monster with poisonous fangs. I don't know if that is a harsh assessment composed of words better suited to hyperbole than honest analysis. I don't know if this is catharsis or needy evisceration. I don't know if it is harder to forgive oneself or others for character flaws and failings. I often find myself trapped in the foolish notion that every feeling ostensibly manifested must be the opposite inside, that every weakness we perceive in other peeple must be present tenfold within ourselves. We care so inextricably deeply about what other people think of us but to successfully reinvent yourself it is only necessary to change the opinion of one person. And that person is you.

Sparks

Year - 0

We all, no matter the person, find ourselves at a point. The moment I started writing this - a point. The moment I finish - a point. The moment you start reading this - a point. The moment you finish - you get the idea. And a myriad of events but moreso decisions lead us to these variad points. Our decisions but, again, moreso other people's decisions brought us to this crossroads. A crossroads unlike any we've seen before and, with apologies for being obtuse, unlike any we'll see again. And this laboured point springs to my mind as I walk outside everyday, as I walk out onto the streets of Bangkok and look across to the Khao San Road. It forces me to question my own imagination, I read 'The Beach', I dreamed of the viscerality of this place, I dreamed of the real world no matter how fake it actually was. In a previous life I dreamed of another thing, a world that lay beyond my own that I promised myself I would see, that I would drown in, in the utter bliss of something else. And so I suppose that explains the mild lance of electricity that passes through me everyday as I walk barefoot into the chaotic vivance that greets me. How the tamest inclination shapes our weaving path, malleable beings are we not? If I have learned anything, it is one thing. There is no freedom in location. Our prisons follow in persistent troop behind us. We can choose to look only forwards and that may work but more likely a fool's paradise is sought, a white beach with blue seas and coconut heaved palms absent of any ill but, more pertinently, absent of ourselves. For we are a troubled generation, corrupted by ease and blighted by want. There exists a wonderfully pertinent line that has America being the only country that went from barbarity to decadence without civilisation in between. What a microcosm this generation is. And so we spread across the globe in search of something the homeland couldn't provide, of a future our parents granted us but for innumerate reasons chose not themselves. But nonetheless I have outdone myself, I think a little of my delight in standing each day in Bangkok's stifling heat is the realisation that somehow through poor velocity and great fortune I am in the place that I desired to be. Damn my incapacity to roll around on the floor kicking my heels and whoop! Though we must return to freedom. What freedom I have now, a terrifying freedom, a license to ill, an absence of reason not to make myself happy. Who else can we blame now? If I may speak for the general population I'd say the blanket of discontent is a reasonably warm and comfortable one. It is a patchwork of obligation and imperative. How does this lost generation find itself? In the anarchy of Khao San or in the peace of a Buddhist temple? I fear we know too much and know too little. We have the world at our feet and we trample it in selfish search for fulfillment. The noblest of aims drives our parents to give us this gift and yet it is simplest of evolution's gifts that we have it. We all play this zero sum game, the environment varies but the rules endure. You can't help but laugh at life's unblinking stare.

Never mind the bollocks

Day 155 - Bangkok

If there is 1 place synonymous or perhaps infamous with the backpacker circuit then surely this is it. If there is 1 place whose reality so precisely matched my expectation of it, whose sights, sounds and smells mirrored those of an imagination fed by popular media then surely it was here. I woke after the first proper sleep in days and walked out onto the balcony of the Romruen Resort. Beyond the sliding glass door was a wall of heat, thick air enveloped me and mocked sweat glands sprung desperately into action. We had arrived in the world's hottest city or its outskirts at least. Eschewing originality the bags were repacked and the two of us headed for the traveller's rite of passage that is the Khao San Road. It isn't Thailand, it isn't really Bangkok, it is something else. A road constructed from dreams of escape and the unquenchable thirst for the exotic. You could write it off as a parody of travel, a hollow shell of culture that ceased long ago to represent anything other than the human desire for hedonism. But hate this place and you must hate your own hypocrisy because you created it, you, me and our kind. Personally I was torn. Sipping a Chang outside one of the road's numerous bars my eyes roved for vomiting revellers to disdain while I hoped for a divine wind to lift me above the plastic chairs and the predictable. But I also savoured the unbridled, unabashed vigour of the place. From the tattoo parlours (was 30 a little late to be getting inked? I decided not) and bootleg DVD stalls to the on-street massages and fried insects it is a rough symphony of experiences.
Tania hooked us up with a friend of hers called Prim who took us to what was reputedly the best place for Pad Thai in the city of 50,000 places to eat. After months in South America's culinary monoculture spices and fire filled my mouth and dormant areas of my tongue awakened. Perhaps though the novelty was over-exploited a few days later when I loaded a dish so heavily with chilli that it scalded my tongue. The Taling Chan Floating Market was another haven of fine cuisine. Fish pulled fresh from the water were grilled by wizened women on small boats moored to the bobbing pontoon on which we ate at tables so low Borrowers would stoop to them. A motorised launch took us around the back canals among wooden houses teetering on the edge and past local children frolicking in the murky waters. Huge shoals of catfish tussled over the pieces of bread thrown from our boat, the scene was a writhing silver mass of contorted scale.
The dawning reality of diminishing funds had made it clear that our plans for a grand tour of South America and South East Asia were unrealistic. At least consecutively unrealistic. The galling spectre of work was rearing its ugly head. The two of us would have to sweat and strive for money, not something we had had to do for yea....months. Discovering the average wage in Thailand to be around $6 a day it didn't seem the likeliest of countries in which to fill the travel coffers. Neither myself nor Michael, despite having checked, found ourselves qualified English teachers either (the Thais are getting awfully bureaucratic these days) so that avenue of employment was uncompromising also. We had no choice but to go to a distant outpost of the Western world. A country, nay, continent that lay essentially unclaimed by colonising Europe well into the 18th century. It hadn't featured prominently on any 'must-see' lists of mine but travel is an unruly beast and try to control it as you may it never ceases to surprise. So we were off to see the wizard in the land to the south, to seek our fortune and renew old acquaintances. Speaking of which we'd met by this time a couple of expats from way back. Ali and Jo had been living and working in Bangkok for some years and furnished us with friendly company, extensive recommendations and, kindest of all, accommodation for our final few days there. A great night out in the Patpong area (the 2nd syllable of that name will give you a clue as to its fame) granted a slightly scary glimpse at what this city has to offer, but only a glimpse. I eagerly await the day I can return here but for now we go south.

The best bits of the Americas

In no particular order other than chronologically.

McSorley's Irish Bar

“...36 beers stagger us but not as much as the $90 bill...”
Our first night on our first day in our first country of many to come found us in this Irish bar whose history dates back well over a hundred years. Presidents, poets and paupers drank here and now so had we two peripatetic Englishmen. Conversation was struck up with locals on the timeless and ever novel subject of differing nationalities and backgrounds, a scene to be repeated again and again on this trip. We staggered home happy, drunk and with empty wallets, a scene to be repeated again and again on this trip.

Snorkeling in Belize

“...I felt as if part of the ocean.”
I must confess to an apprehension of the water borne of watching a particular film as a child, I believe the medical condition is known as 'Spielbergian scarring'. I didn't realise though that Mike's watery inhibitions put mine to shame. But he did it and he loved it and little did he know that it was to be the tip of the (defrosted) iceberg.

Scuba in Utila

“The best left turn I ever made.”
Though I hesitate to rank these experiences, if someone put a gun to my head (which surprisingly hasn't happened on this trip yet) I would say Utila is primus inter pares. The bubble of our brief existence there reflected in the bubbles floating up from our breathing apparatus. The joy of the unexpected, the unplanned, suffused the two weeks and we took away great friendships, description-defying sights and fond memories of the time we became divers.

White water rafting

“The raft bounced, yawed, pitched and....flipped.”
I generally make a basic, and flawed, assumption of instant aptitude at any activity (sporting or otherwise) that I am about to try for the first time. I also exhibit a reliable irritation when it turns out I am no good at said activity. On the downside I was no good at white water testing. On the upside I was so bad it didn't leave a spare second to indulge in annoyance, I was too busy trying not to drown.

Quad biking in Nicaragua

“...roads whose condition could only only have been worsened by the addition of landmines.”
It's not that I can't drive, it's simply that no country in the world legally recognises my ability to do so. Thankfully quad bikes come with no such restrictive licensing conditions putting one at liberty to climb on with minimal instruction and be endangering pedestrian lives within minutes. If only it were so easy with cars...

Horse riding in Colombia

“We were disappointed not to be supplied with Stetsons...”
Sweeping vistas at a canter and a bit of Inca shit thrown in for good measure, this was a delightful morning spent in the hills of western Colombia. If there is any theme about the best bits I have listed so far it's that most of them could, fortune being cruel, have resulted in serious injury or death. I'd have to say though that any part of this trip that didn't result in serious injury or death was a best bit for me!

The Journey to Macchu Picchu

“...it was scenery you could not tear your eyes away from.”
Alright it didn't have the physical endeavor of the Inca Trail but the bus journey over the Andes providing awe-inspiring scenery and a reverence for Mother Nature in her rugged glory.

Jungle trekking

“...an inner bellow to the jungle at the sheer bloody masculinity of it all.”
It was hard but it was real...ish. Alright we would have probably died if Pedro wasn't with us but we did our own walking, caught our own fish and sweated our own sweat. I loved every torturous minute of it. In retrospect.

Santiago

“...fueled by Heineken and Clos we rolled back the years...”
It wasn't big, it wasn't clever, our parents wouldn't have been vastly impressed but we had the craic in Santiago alright! We also did nothing for the reputation of the English and Irish abroad, of that I can be sure.


And what was lacking...

Cider
This drink seems to have entirely failed to penetrate beyond England, Ireland and Northern France. A minor tragedy.

Rugby
Okay the Argies have it but no other countries seem to appreciate the glory of this sport. As for trying to watch the Six Nations...

Curry
South America, it's better if you just stop trying in all honesty, my tastebuds may never forgive you.

Quilts
17 blankets vs 1 quilt. Embrace the duck-down will you?

Good sandwiches
See: Curry.

Beer with gas
Chile, Argentina, I'm looking at you.

Adios/Sawatdee

Day 153 - Beijing

Our next journey was longer than average. 14,000 miles separated its beginning and end, or rather its end and its beginning for we were leaving this new world and returning to the old. From Rio to São Paulo and a couple of days in Bogota of table-tennis (82-0 Michael, eighty two - nil) and quinoa education before another flight north to Los Angeles via Miami. 24 hours in the city of angels gave enough time for a stroll along Santa Monica Boulevard with its parade of entertainers, freaks and pot peddlers. Tanned, athletic bodies pumped volleyballs back and forth on Venice Beach. Clean streets, straight lines, faintly familiar conventions. Even my fingernails, usually blackened with transit, were a pristine white through no doing of my own. Skateboarders looped and leapt along the promenade, sharks fought over morsels at the aquarium and the Hollywood sign remained elusive. After a wholesome dawdle there were two happy travellers when a pub was found stocking both cider and Newcastle Brown Ale. The novelty pushed us slightly toward overindulgence considering the next flight was mere hours away. In fact a couple of audacious queue jumps were required at the airport to ensure we made our flight and the third we did just for fun. I hadn't seen a place like this since my first visit to India in 2009. Viscous noise, a language in an unfathomable script and people...everywhere. Beijing wrestled with my senses in a way that perhaps nowhere else has in 3 years. I felt again like the green traveller I was back then, taking childish delight in things like Coke cans in hanzi (Chinese script). I recalled the feelings I had on first stepping into India's hot, smogged sun. The wonderous foreigness of it all, the world upside down that lay before me. It was heady and headaching (the car horns anyway) but intoxicatingly moreish. I hope I never run out of places like that to visit as I hope I will lever run out of adjectives to draw them. There was only a waking day to pass in China's heaving capital so we beelined for the people-lined Tiananmen Square. Indeed a long line of people jagged back and forth across the square like a game of snake got out of hand. Officials desperately laid more rope barriers at the rear to contain its rapid growth. Other party workers barked through megaphones at anyone who strayed from the state-sanctioned path. Out of the naivety created by Lonely Planet's cruel abandonment or maybe just because we're English we joined the queue in ignorance of its destination. And we shall ever wonder for we were ejected from it 5 minutes later, Michael for wearing flip-flops (a thing of no little wonder in Beijing) and me, well I guess the official just didn't like me. Dismayed but unbowed (probably a cultural faux-pas) we set off in search of the Forbidden City that alledgedly sat somewhere on the square's perimeter. A tourist information centre that spoke no English, a helpful but similarly linguistically limited tour guide and several maps failed to aid in its locating. We did eventually find the city under a giant portrait of Mao, a great leap forward after an hour of searching. Walking among its cypress trees was a pleasant respite from the press of people outside. We discovered the little red flags on sale from street vendors outside the walls were due to the fact it was National Day and wasn't just regular patriotic fervour. In contrast to the square the Forbidden City was relatively quiet, perhaps on this of all days reconciling the Communist (ish) present with the imperial past is more difficult? Maybe it also explains the rather shoddy presentation of artifacts within the old palace and general lackadasical maintenance. Better that though, I suppose, that the over-enthusiatic restoration that has blighted other Chinese sights like the Great Wall. The vast National Museum provided more hours diversion that we had remaining (and covered more miles than Michael had left in his feet) but a brisk pace took in the hundreds of thousands of years of history contained in the basement. The Cultural Revolution received its own treatment on a separate level, its coverage, at times, almost amusingly incomplete. China, from the briefest of glimpes that I had seen is an entralling country. A country in which high idealism battles human desire and the old certainty of control cedes to new, neon-tinged freedoms. But I wax lyrical, I know not enough, necesito regresar. That, I say with a note of sadness, is the last Spanish I will use for sometime. Back to loud, hopeful English and creative gesture for as we make the short hop from Beijing to Bangkok the Americas are truly, distantly behind us. And what of these 5 months? Those 150 days? How does one summarise 16 countries and so many miles of travel? What pathetic fallacy can do it justice? Am I the wiser for it? Heavens if not! But still, everyday life finds new ways to test your wisdom, to throw all certainty into doubt and confusion. And sometimes the more you see the less you understand and I have surely seen a lot. But see you must. Sweat and shiver, laugh and cry. Walk until your feet burn, swim until your hands shrivel. Listen until your eardrums ache and stare into the sun until your eyes scorch. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience, and if it hurts, you know what? It was probably worth it (The Beach, 2000). So the only wisdom or advice I could offer you is to see the world for yourself. Because it is there, because it is beauty.