The Waters

Water flows everywhere, and brings forth the connections.


I can see silhouettes outside, of trees and hedges, against a not-yet dark, the black on the electric blue.

That sky is a horizon that overlooks the not-too-distant shore, the waters.


If you perceive the place you are in to be prosaic, a backwater if you will, I invite you to think about where its waters have flown. In the guts of millions, the quagmire in the corner of a winter field. The tropical shoreline.


It is the original wealth, necessary for life and best when in constant circulation. You may hoard it but it is folly to dam up a lake for yourself.


And it will save itself on our behalf, in recognition that profligacy and recklessness are the other side of the miser’s coin.


But if we are abusive of its bounties, it will melt away-in every sense of the word.

Melt to saline, an overbearing shore to wash away our follies.


I nonetheless hope that doesn’t happen.

This is what I think of, when I think of water.



Sleepless in Lima.

I wrote this poem in 2015 (I think, maybe it was ’14), during our three-year stay in Miraflores, in turn 3/4 of the time we lived in Peru. I sometimes suffer from mild insomnia (although having a small baby has changed that picture somewhat!) and this poem was composed one such night when I thought putting my brain to good use would be a productive use of this bonus awake time and might actually help me get some kip in the end!

I have posted a couple of rhyming poems so far this week, with rhyme I feel you’re definitely on safer ground for critical self-reflection-it’s definitely easier to look at a rhyming couplet and say ‘yeah, that works’. With free verse, you are always running the risk of sounding like you’re spouting rubbish. But then, no-one’s having to pay for these poems, other than their time-I hope it’s worth it.

This poem was originally untitled, I have given it here the title ‘Sleepless in Lima’ for both accuracy and want of a better idea.

Here’s to the great reservoir of words

A critical mass of palabras,

waiting to flow free.

I pace this midnight room,

She sleeps on in the bedroom

As I perform this sentinel’s watch

Up on the ninth floor of this tower block.

No sleep ’til trash truck

It arrives, later than usual.

Soon it will depart,

Street silence restored in it’s wake.

But not quite yet.

Not-quite ant-like figures gather the day’s payload.

Now silence. Miraflores, you could be

Manhattan in this night-time.

Such uncommon silence. Even a city

needs its beauty sleep, as someone said

in a book I read.

But back to Manhattan, for a moment anyway.

Is it true (I think it possibly is) that

places are at their most romantic when

we project onto and into them.

‘Preston is my Paris’ as an ad I once read once said.

Here I am in the heart of Latin America, the heart and yet the fringe.

With these uncommonly quiet towerblocks

and the black void of the Pacific

backdropping these very words.



Walking on a Spring Twilight.

You might call this a counterfeit dawn

The shades of blue across walls and lawn.

The tangible sweetness of the spring air.

The birdsong, from their be-twigged lairs.


Deepening dark (but by the week it grows slower,

the sun is strengthening, no longer getting lower).

A tear in the benevolent cloud-gloom reveals a shaft of sunset light.

A final chorus before the onset of night.


State of the Nations (De-stress).

I’ve written a short poem/rap/blog post in rhyming couplets. It starts off on a local, home-town tip, before quickly veering into the territory of current affairs, both home and abroad. I’ve entitled it ‘State of the Nations (De-stress)’.

From a town with an F.C in crisis

With owners less popular than Isis

I come to talk about the state of the nation

Distorted pictures, aggravation.

When I look at Venezuela, what do I see?

But the Battle of Chile in ’73.

Elections-’16 in Peru, ’17 in France.

You’ve got different dancers, but the same dance.

And if the centre, it cannot really hold?

Is now the time for something bold?

Podemos, Syriza, they thought it was time,

Even Labour took a similar line.

But reaction’s got muscle, too.

Trump and Erdogan, just for two.

Yes, and Brexit’s the elephant in the room.

One wo/man’s euphoria, another wo/man’s doom.

And now there’s a gathering of duds around May.

It’s going to be a landslide, some people say.

My glass is half-empty, but also half-full.

Can things be dismal, but life not dull?





TV Time.

I’ve returned to this blog after a long layoff. Partly this has been because life has been quite busy in recent times and partly because I inadvertently deleted the photos from this blog when I thought I was freeing up more storage space for uploading pics for future posts (so if you are wondering where the pictures went from previous posts-there you go!). Lesson learned the hard way. Anyway, hope you enjoy the following. I’ll be writing a couple of shorter pieces in the near future.


I don’t as a rule watch a great deal of television-not out of snobbery (how could I, when we’re living in a televisual golden age?) but more so because I just fell out of the habit a long time ago. Nonetheless, largely due to welcoming home this week a baby daughter who likes to sleep on us for extended periods of time and the fact that it’s the time of year where the cold, inclement, weather drives one indoors, I’ve watched the most T.V I’ve seen in years this week. And rather decent it has been, too.

First up, I’m going to talk about Cartel Land. I’ve had this on my (criminally underused) Netflix account for a while, but I finally got round to it the other day. It was nice to hear Latin American Spanish being spoken aloud once more. I also found the parallel narrative structure quite interesting-the leader of the ARF militia must undoubtedly be quite a pro-Trump figure with his lamentations about the porous nature of the US-Mexico border, whilst the leader of the Autodefensas, Dr Mireles, reminded me greatly of a guy I used to work with in Peru (who wasn’t even Latino), but there was also something tragic hero-esque in his rise and fall.

If truth be told, the two areas of history I probably find most interesting are contemporary Latin America and dark ages Britain, so as well as the show(s) mentioned above, I’ve also been indulging in the BBC’s, The Last Kingdom, an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series of the same name. I actually read one of the books in this series, The Pagan Lord, when it was bought for me by uncle and aunt for Christmas in 2013 and I remember enjoying it, regardless of the prejudicial stench that often hangs over the historical fiction genre. I think I also enjoyed the first few episodes because-although inevitably the protagonist Uhtred is a bit of a killing machine a la Cornwell’s other famous literary creation, Major Richard Sharpe-neither he, nor anyone else in the series, appears to be undefeatable. Last year, I tried to get into the series The Vikings and, despite the gorgeous production values and attention to detail, its overall tenor of ‘behold the invincible norsemen’ stuck in my craw so much that I stopped watching it a few episodes in. Being from the north of England, I’m deeply interested in/proud of the Scandinavian influence and like the idea that most of us are half-norsemen and it’s still littered throughout our place names and what dialect still survives-I’ve more than once comforted my crying daughter and told her she has no reason to ‘skrike’ (from the norse word to cry) this week, but as anyone who’s lived a bit knows, no one is truly invincible and I think The Last Kingdom does a better job of acknowledging this fact and getting to grips with historical veracity a little bit more.

Another aspect of northern identity I’m proud of is our radical political lineage and the evergreen BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? Has provided a couple of good episodes tending in this direction recently. The last two episodes shown on BBC One (separated by a gulf of some weeks due to the festive period) have focused on two figures who hail from within the (pre 1974 butchery/border realignment) borders of Lancashire, Ricky Tomlinson and Ian McKellen. The episode on the former figure was interesting in its own right, but for me personally there was a couple of added dimensions of interest due to some of my own reading and research over the past year. The episode focused upon Tomlinson’s family background stemming from the once-numerous carters of Liverpool and also the apparent involvement of some of his kinsmen in the great strike of 1911-a pivotal event in the city as it was the first time that the otherwise antagonistic protestant and catholic working-class communities formed common cause in order to challenge for their labour rights. This in itself for me is a very interesting historical event, but it is also a centre-piece scene in a novel I read last year, James Hanley’s The Furies, a story of an Irish immigrant family (loosely based on Hanley’s own) living in Liverpool in those times.I’d first got the book out from the local library 20 years ago (and had never quite finished it) but in this wondrous age of e-books, I’d managed to track it down again. Hanley himself was born in 1897 in Kirkdale-then as now a working-class area closer to Liverpool’s docklands-the same year and place in fact as one of my great grandfathers, as I recently discovered (my father’s mother’s father). My great-grandfather was in fact the product of (certainly on ethnic grounds) a mixed marriage-his mother, despite being born in Birkenhead, was the child of Irish immigrants and firmly identified with that culture (I know as much as my grandmother used to say her gran was Irish) whereas his father had at some point in his youth come down to Liverpool from the very area of Lancaster we by pure coincidence are looking at moving to when my job starts. Who’d have thunk it?

In The Furies, Denis Fury the father of the family takes great delight in visiting the music halls and this provides a link with the Ian McKellen episode as he learns of his ancestor Frank Lowes, a respected actor in his day who was eventually reduced to penury and the degradation of appearing as an opening act in the music halls. Like the other episode mentioned, there’s radical political history here, too, with another ancestor being the man who successfully coordinated the warehousemen and clerks of Manchester in the mid-19th century to agitate for a half-day off on Saturdays-which was subsequently granted and became the first successful holiday of its kind anywhere in the world-essentially making him the father of the modern weekend. Going further back, his father was a Lakeland artist at the time of Wordsworth and shared many of the same romantic sensibilities. The episode ends with McKellen travelling up to Bassenthwaite lake (that Norse heritage creeping in there again) following a passage where he talks about trips up here in childhood being part of Lancastrian culture as part of a dichotomy with the grim satanic mills. I couldn’t agree more.

Caribbean-ish: A Tale of Two Nations.

Reflections on recent travels to Cuba and Suriname.

Before these two recent excursions disappear over the horizon of recent memory, I thought I would get a few thoughts down. Apart from a day trip to the Gulf of Mexico coast, during a family holiday to Florida when I was about fourteen, I’d never visited this part of the Americas before. However, this year, as part of our overall plan to see as much of this part of the world as we can before our time here is up, we made two visits in just over two months, first heading over to the fascinating island of Cuba in May and then capping off a super-eventful July with a trip to the more obscure Suriname, en route home to Lima, after going back to the U.K to get wed.

Now, Cuba in many ways is both unique, whilst being a quintessential Caribbean island, whereas Suriname, in spite of its position on the north-east Atlantic coast of South America is, along with its sibling Guyanas either side of it, considered a kind of honorary Caribbean land (more of which below), hence the title of this blog post. Both of these islands are not typical ‘luxury’ destinations (although they both pleasantly surprised us in this respect) and their relative mystery was a big part of the draw.

I’ve tried to organise my observations on both nations below using a few sub-headings that categorise some of the most distinctive and/or interesting things about these two nations, or at least what could be gleaned from a week’s trip to either and then a bunch of secondary reading before and after staying there.

  1. Government

Pretty much the first thing people think about when they hear the word Cuba is its revolutionary history. Much of modern-day Cuba’s identity is bound up in the events of the Castro revolution and the military fatigues, cigars, beards, ‘that’ Che Guevara picture etc still enjoy pride of place. This was even pretty evident in our hotel, where a large, rather expressionistic portrait of Fidel was hung up to one side in the lobby. Curiously enough, there was a small statute of what appeared to be one of the ‘rough riders’ from the late-nineteenth century U.S intervention in the Cuban-Spanish war of independence, I would even speculate it was Teddy Roosevelt himself, but the old retired University of Havana professor running the guided tour of our hotel claimed (or feigned) not to know who it was (I didn’t believe her).

Whilst a final thaw in the long-winter of US-Cuban relations appeared to be on the horizon even as we were there, it was still obviously a somewhat touchy subject. To reinforce the sense of the cold-war era siege mentality that once prevailed on the island, we were taken to see as part of the same guided tour the pill box bunkers that were kept as a reminder/tourist attraction in the grounds of our hotel (the famous Nacional), facing out on to the malecon and beyond that the mere 90 km separating Havana from the Florida Keys. As for my own personal opinion, I think its important for neighbours to get on-especially when there is so much shared blood and history. If the U.S can trade happily enough with China and Vietnam, I’m pretty certain a mutual rapprochement with Cuba can’t be a bad thing.

       Political poster at the rum distillery we visited.

As for Suriname, their own recent history runs a little like the following: fought over as part of a three-way struggle between the British, French and Dutch which saw them each end up with a piece of the Guyanas, eventually traded with the British in exchange for what became New York (there’s even a fort, Nieuw Amsterdam which carries the name of the old Dutch colony around Manhattan Island). Attained independence 1975, over a third of the nation’s population decided that it wasn’t going to work and upped sticks for the Netherlands (leading to the much more multi-cultural blend of races living in the present-day NL), whilst the remainder who elected to stay were treated to, after a brief post-independence interlude of democracy, the establishment of a military coup led by a group of NCOs headed by Sergeant Desi Boutere.

Herein lies Suriname’s own darker chapter of recent history (not the darkest hour of all Surinamese history of course-that dubious honour belongs to the slightly earlier horrors of the transatlantic slave trade). We were taken to see one such historical site that was linked to this period of Suriname’s history when we visited Fort Zeelandia, the old colonial fortress guarding the approach to Paramaribo from the river, now a charming museum but for a brief period during the dictatorship the HQ of the new regime and the spot where, in 1981, a group of dissident-ranging from academics and school teachers through to students, business leaders and union leaders-were taken out on the most westerly facing rampart and shot dead. there was a monument to those who were killed (as well as bullet holes in the battlements) on the spot, but in a bizarre twist, after the eventual restoration of democracy, a few presidents later and we now have the restoration of Boutere as president, albeit with an amnesty which grants him freedom from prosecution. At any rate, Suriname is now a very peaceful country on the surface, although not without its underlying issues.

2. Transport and Infrastructure

Havana airport is, inevitably, the first thing you encounter when you arrive in the country (unless you’ve rolled in on a cruise ship) and it’s not the best introduction-more of a test of how much you’re willing to take the rough with the smooth (that should be Cuba’s motto-take the rough with the smooth, it pretty much epitomises the place). If you pass the test, you’ll have a great time, if you’re finicky, it’s not for you. We were grilled as three gringos (we shared a flight with a work colleague on her own trip to the island) coming in from Peru-were we from an NGO? Thanks to some ace on-the-spot improvisational Spanish from my wife Ellie we seemed to pass the ‘safe’ test and were allowed on our way, to be treated with general friendliness thereon in.

On the roads into and around Havana, we saw a whole plethora of different vehicles-the classic 50s chevys and cadillacs were very much in evidence, but were so were a lot of the dorkier, square john-type cars of that era, the Ford Edsels and so on. Add on to that decades worth of Eastern-European cars from behind the iron curtain and some brand-new motors which presumably have come from some friendly nation that can circumnavigate the blockade (China? Venezuela?) and you have a real mish-mash of vehicles on the road-with a decided slant towards the old and the classic. I would imagine that this will start to change-especially as American classic car and hot rod enthusiasts are already looking forward to the easing of trade restrictions to start buying up a lot of the old cars on the island and ship them back stateside (I have my Dad, who’s well into that scene to thank for the intel). However, for the time being, Cuban mechanics still pride themselves on being the self-proclaimed ‘best in the world’-able to keep anything running and improvise solutions to keep the famous antiquated cars of the island on the road.

Typical mix of cars in Havana: the classic and the not-so.

Paramaribo airport is a similarly humid fortress of tropical heat to its Cuban counterpart. Another similarity with the one in Havana is that your dining options are severely limited. We arrived so early for our return flight back to Peru…imagine the very worst of the four-in-the-morning dregs of U.K town and city centre kebab shops. However, once the airport-proper opened, we (or at any rate, I) could avail ourselves of a cheese sandwich and a brew (can’t remember if it was tea or coffee) and if you really want to, you can have a wander around the tat stalls in the airport.

The roads in both countries are in pretty good repair from what we saw-Suriname does not have the same embargo issues as Cuba so the vehicles on the road were pretty modern. Another interesting thing to note for us, flying in from a trip home to the U.K as we were, was the fact that the cars all drove on the left-hand side of the road. Apparently, in the early days of motoring, this was pretty common and the shift to right-hand lane driving has come about due to U.S hegemony and their eventual domination of the car-making industry. At any rate, it made us feel a bit more at home!
One thing our guide apologised for when we took a day-trip around Paramaribo was the ‘traffic jams-a new phenomenon in our country’. These were no worse than what you might expect from your average U.K town centre at teatime on a working day, but if the place was traditionally quiet and humdrum on the roads, probably do seem like an unwelcome addition to your daily rounds. One can only hope it doesn’t get to Lima levels of traffic-highly unlikely-although one thing I did spot that was akin to our adopted home city was the use of ‘combi’ buses-small vehicles packed with people plying self-created routes around the capital. Apparently this is a relatively new development-not necessarily a welcome one either, hard to say whether this is just a way-station to something more developed or if it is here to stay, hopefully the former, although only time will tell.

3. Food and Drink

Prior to travelling to Cuba, I’d not heard much in the way of good things about the state of cuisine in the island primarily as the impact of food shortages due to the on-going U.S trade blockade/embargo. However, I have to say, although not a culinary riot, there was nonetheless enough to tickle our tastebuds in both the hotel and on our trips to old Havana. Essentially, the complaint one could make about the food is not so much the taste (which I’d been led to believe), but the perhaps lack of distinctiveness which the more foodie-minded traveller might be looking out for. Cuba however,is rightly famous for its rum-we were lucky enough to visit the actual Havana Club on a trip round the old city in a landau. Here we were treated to a blast of fine live salsa music whilst sipping on one of the umpteen mojitos I must have had over the course of the holiday. We also visited a rum distillery in the town of Piña del Rio en route to Viñales. Whilst the trip was a thinly-disguised ploy to get us to buy the local brand (we’d already stocked up on some fine Legendario back in Havana), it was nonetheless really interesting to see the inner workings of the factory, the vats, machinery etc, not to mention trying the beans that eventually turn into the beverage. There was also a fine line in propaganda posters, too (see the pics in the politics section!).

Barrels of grog lined up at the rum distillery.

In Suriname, the diverse array of cultures has led to a rather tasty mix, with a primarily Javanese influence. We stopped off at the town of Tamanredjo, famous for its Indonesian flavours and enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nasi, washed down with a glass of dawet. Surinamese food is not just renowned in its own backyard the diaspora have taken the flavours of Suriname to Europe with them. In David Winner’s excellent book on Dutch football and culture, Brilliant Orange, he chronicles the near strike Holland’s black players undertook in Euro ’96, and how the issue of access to decent Surinamese food was one of the factors in play.

     Javanese-derived food: big in Suriname.

As for drinking, much as with Cuba, the climate lends itself very much to the production of rum and we were treated to some fine local grog whilst sailing downriver back to Paramaribo. There is also a popular local beer, Parbo, so-called after the local nickname for the capital, a typically Dutch-style lager which sails down the hatch without much of a problem in the warm climate.

4. Music and Culture

Cuba, the homeland of salsa (although New York and Columbia might argue over that distinction, too). We certainly got our fill during our time over there. For the tourists, at any rate, two styles are played predominantly by the buskers and bands that frequent the hotels and bars: salsa and canciones tradicionales (traditional folk songs). However, I am led to believe that Cuba is awash with myriad musical stylings-hip-hop, jazz etc. I’m not entirely sure what the deal is with Buena Vista Social Club-but on three separate occasions now I’ve seen artists associated with/drawn from their ranks. The first such occasion was at an Afrocubism gig at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2012 (a memorable-and sleepless-night, as it flowed straight into a stag do to Poland the following day via a pub lock-in and a curry). However, whilst actually in Cuba we were taken to the famous Havana Club as part of a trip around the town in a landau. Here we were serenaded by a pretty great house band that featured one of the veterans of the BVSC-who, perhaps forgivably, seemed the band member least bothered to be there. cracking tunes though-we bought two of their albums. Even more impressively, we then got to see a whole host of the stars of Buena Vista (with the obligatory fresh blood in their ranks, as well) when we bought tickets for a concert ’n’ meal combo being offered by our hotel. Great music and dancing-a real spectacle to behold!

           Music is everywhere in Havana.
                  Buena Vista brass section.

Surinamese music is, once again, like so many other factors within the country primarily influenced by two things: the diverse ethnic groups who have found a home there and the strong links that exist between the country’s population and their kinsmen who have found a new home in the Netherlands over the last 30-40 years or so. I wish I could give a more in-depth run-down of the music of the nation-however, we heard little (the band playing in the hotel aside), but I did read a fascinating article on the flight out of Paramaribo to our stop-off of Aruba, talking about how clued-up Dutch music fans are working their way back to and discovering compilations of Surinamese music. Unhelpfully, I’ve forgotten a lot of the names of artists, local genres etc but apparently many of the big name artists from the 60s emigrated to the NL and found themselves having to start from the beginning all over again, some attaining a decent level of success. One to delve into in more detail, I think.

5. Geography and Landscape

As mentioned above, when I was growing up we visited Florida (several times in fact, they were my first foreign holidays from about the age of ten onwards) and I remember us driving through the everglades in Florida en route to the space station in Cape Canaveral (or Cape Kennedy, no such tributes to him in Cuba, though!). I also recall driving through the forested, swampy landscape and thinking this must just peter out into the sea at the Florida keys, with nothing but islands of tropical bog lands further south. I can now here gladly report that this is in fact not the case, not entirely anyway.

                       Viñales valley, Cuba.

Cuba is a fascinating country to fly in over and then travel around-we were lucky enough to get out of Havana one day to visit the quite beautiful Viñales valley, home of many tobacco plantations and a good few hours from the capital. The valle is famous for its distinctive ‘sugarloaf’-type mountains, which rise, sometimes in clumps but often on their lonesome, from the flat, plantation-strewn valley floor. The Cuban interior is deeply rural in appearance and quite lovely and green-if we had had more time I think we would have almost certainly tried to get around the whole island, certainly the mountains where the revolution was launched in the 50s and cities such as Santiago over in the east side of the island would have been fascinating.

Suriname’s geography and landscape both needs putting into context and then describing. Prior to going out there, I had no idea about the existence of the so-called ‘Guyana shield’ a land mass that occupies all three of the historical Guyanas (British, French and Dutch), but also neighbouring tracts of Venezuela and Brazil, too. This area forms a plateau of tropical jungle which, in the case of Suriname, equates to a mountainous south-eastern border country (glimpsed from the plane when we were flying out, but otherwise a country largely made up of vast miles of flat, tropical rainforests-a dense and tangled landscape of supreme beauty, glimpsed from the afore-mentioned plane, the vast arching bridge over the river Suriname at Paramaribo or when sailing down the river or one of its other counterparts, all racing from the mountains to the ocean.

Two faces of Suriname’s riverine culture: the modern…
             …and the more traditional!

Suriname in some ways resembles a tropical, more heavily-forested equivalent of its old colonial ruler, the Netherlands, another culture and society that fascinates me in some respects. There is the preponderance of vast flat terrain, the same look outward towards the ocean and the dependence upon it for succour and inspiration coming in from the outside. Whilst I’m no fan of imperialism, the romantic in me likes to think of another life, a century or two back, where I could have been a Dutch sailor, plying my way from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or one of the other Low Countries ports to Paramaribo and back again, feeling equally at home in either quayside, spending weeks on the ocean only for the familiar shoreline and docks, the sights, smells and sounds to heave into view.

6. Colonial Legacy/identity

In reality, Cuba has had two colonial masters-one, the Spanish, formed the culture as we know it today through a mixture of invasion, immigration and slavery and the other, the United States aided the Cubans in getting rid of the Spanish in the late nineteenth century in return for the role of the power behind the throne. The Cubans appear to be very proud of the fact that they are in the thrall to no other nation-at least this is the image that is presented through murals etc. If there is a lingering influence from these afore-mentioned two nations, then it is the Spanish language and the music of the island (although this is just as heavily influenced, if not more so, by the Afro-Cuban community), and the legacy cars and the games of well-organised baseball (with uniforms, stands etc) that we saw as we were driven about on the island’s roads. Interestingly, in terms of sheer mass participation, football seems to be hugely popular on the island-we saw a lot of street footy taking place in plazas and playing fields and possibly is the game of the people. In terms of prestige, however, I would say baseball appears to still be king.

Suriname looks and feels like a Caribbean nation, but the Dutch element runs throughout-through to the language, the accent and the sense of laid-back efficiency which evokes a best-of-both-worlds feeling in the foreign observer (or at any rate, this one). According to our Javanese-Surinamese guide around Paramaribo, most people have at least some family in the Netherlands due to mass emigration, and in the country itself there is a seemingly harmonious melting-pot of different cultures-particularly the Afro-Surinamese and the Javanese, which appear to be the most visible.

7. People

A few observations to add to the section above. In both nations, people were quite friendly and welcoming-Cuba is a bit rawer, there was a general friendliness and the fact that everyone seemed to have a decent working knowledge of English (both on the street, as well as in the hotels), coupled with our own basic levels of Spanish ensured that situations which might not have gone as smoothly didn’t cause us any real grief.

Suriname appeared a very friendly place-relaxed and with a live-and-let-live attitude towards things like race and religion perhaps best exemplified by the co-existence of a synagogue and a mosque next door to each other in Paramaribo’s old town. Where else would you see that!

Mosque and synagogue (with graveyard) peacefully co-existing side-by-side, Paramaribo.

Reverse Writer’s Block: Too Many Things to Say, Not Enough Time to Say It.

This entry is long overdue. Since the last time I posted on Not In My User Name, over half a year has passed. it’s not like I’ve been short of inspiration, either. The following material has been circling round in my head in a kind of aerial holding pattern for many moons, I just need to get it down on the page: What’s Cuba actually like? Why Wigan might be one of the most culturally underrated places in the world (certainly the U.K), the General Election result (and its aftermath-I would liken it to to waiting for a bus for five years, only for it to finally appear on the horizon, and then explode spectacularly right in front of your eyes), experimenting with vegetarianism, what I’ve been reading in recent times (as an ex-pat I find it a total lifeline, definitely one of the most productive reading periods of my life), getting to grips with the Spanish language, the usual observations of Peruvian culture, and so on.

It’s not like I haven’t actually made a move to write any of it, either. To combine a mention of two of the afore-mentioned ideas, en route back to Lima from our trip to Havana in May, and still reeling from the General Election result we had witnessed on BBC World Service the previous evening-I wrote fourteen sides in my notepad (count ‘em!) with my reflections on the whole affair-the only reason I stopped was because the plane came into land at Jorge Chavez Airport! I never did resume writing it, partly because I sensed I had so much more I wanted to say and partly because, by the time I had got back to our flat and the world of WI-fi, I had read so many articles and editorials that said what I wanted to in a much more succinct way.

To paraphrase a favourite quote of mine, from the eminent twentieth-century thinker Bertrand Russell, the fool is certain, whilst the wise man is full of doubt. I often go to write something, then think better of it. In an era of digital accessibility, it feels like discretion is the better part of valour sometimes, when you work in a profession like teaching you have to sometimes cultivate a semi-bland persona at times, at least in an online sense as if you open up on the personal or political, it could get used against you at some future point by whatever or whoever. I don’t know, maybe I need another, more anonymous blog where I can delve into my old war stories and political discourse etc. Or maybe I’ll just keep them jotted down in a notepad.

The other major inhibitor of writing material is time, the old work-life balance. Teachers have decent holiday time, let there be no doubt about it, but the flip side is that you are flat-out during term time. Consequently, you spend the free time you might set aside to type something after a working day umming and arring between the blog you would like to type and the work you know you must do, until there is only time for one of them and, of course, your professional obligation wins out every time.

Anyhow, here’s enough about me procrastinating and all the things that sit in my head, waiting to be written down. here’s a list of people (in no particular order) whose blogs you definitely should check out, with an accompanying blurb saying why for each one. Enjoy:

The Adventures of Stitch Bandita-this is a newly-created blog written by my soon-to-be wife and all-round extremely talented individual, Eleanor Bull. Not everyone knows this, but El is a keen cross-stitcher and has created her own creative/commercial sideline in order to indulge this passion. The blog itself is of primary interest for those of you out there with a similar interest in the world of crafts, but for those of us who are less up on that side of things, there is plenty in the way of historical background/research and pithy writing to get your teeth into. This might be a blatant plug for my partner’s blog, but it’s also a totally deserved one, too. Also, as usual, she puts me to shame by actually finding the time in a working day to get all this done on top of her heavy workload!

The Bull Blogs-not the only Bull family member with a way with words. El’s sister Charlotte is currently on a university placement year in Russia. This blog is her collected observations of not only Russian life, but also the surrounding former Soviet republics she happens to get the chance to visit as well. High-quality, comic writing and astute observations, with some decent photography thrown in, too. Family trademarks, I think. Continue reading “Reverse Writer’s Block: Too Many Things to Say, Not Enough Time to Say It.”

Talking about Chile, Part 3

Next stop, Pablo Neruda’s house:

Now Neruda, for those of you who don’t know of him (and I have to confess to only the vaguest knowledge before getting here) was a mid-twentieth century Chilean poet who won the nobel prize for literature. As Chile fancies itself as a land of poets and scholars, this is obviously quite a big source of national pride.

Neruda’s house, which he had built for his wife, is called La Chascona (Quechua for something like ‘wild hair’). Nestled, at the bottom of Cerro San Cristobal, it’s an intriguing complex of buildings full of all kinds of cultural artefacts and knik knaks that belonged to the great man (having read some of his poetry subsequent to visiting, I think I can call him that).

neruda's house
Part of the complex at La Chascona.

Pablo Neruda was a big supporter of the left-wing Popular Unity government that was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces in 1973 (told you we’d get to that, more coming up a bit further down) and died only a few days after the coup itself (some, maybe with a degree of poetic licence, say of a broken heart) and the house was partially trashed by supporters of the military regime. His widow and friends restored the place, and it is as much a testament to them as to him in that respect.

After taking leave of Pablo’s gaff, we wandered through the uber-trendy Bella Vista area, which I guess is a comparable sort of place to Lima’s own Barranco district-lots of bars and eateries for the young metropolitan to sit outside. And boy, were they-we wandered past bar after bar teaming with people sat outside taking a post work/study drink. We eventually settled on a bit of food from a cracking Italian restuarant, and I scored this anthology of writing on the coup from a great little radical bookshop next door to it-one of a couple of such bookshops I spotted round that way:

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A great 90 page anthology of stuff from Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Joan and Victor Jara and others relating to the events leading up to, during and immediately after 11/9/73-a day of infamy in Chilean history.

As we made our way back across the river to Lastarria, the riverside parks were also thronging with people taking in the sunset and early evening air, a most mellow time indeed. I spent the evening reading the above anthology in its entirity, I already knew a bit about the coup, but it filled out a few gaps for me. Felt like good preparation for our scheduled mission to the Museum of Human Rights the following day.

The Museum itself was about a ten block walk from our hotel, en route we passed through the plaza de armas, but it was the site of some major redevelopment work, so sorry comrades no shots of that. There was also a fair bit of graffiti in the side streets from the riots over access to education a couple of years ago, we had our march on so didn’t get any pictures of this either, but it was a reminder that no matter how great the country is, all is not rosy in the garden-every nation has its problems to deal with.

We finally made it to the museum, after a couple of minutes of ‘do you think we’ve passed it without realising?’ setting in:

museum of human rights 1museum of human rights 2

The museum is well worth a visit-we were in there a good two or three hours, cameras are not allowed so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that there is a huge amount of material in there devoted to what is still a contentious subject in Chilean society. Broadly speaking, there are those people who still maintain that the coup was a case of ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs’ and those who are still massively outraged about it, particularly the mass disappearances, executions, tortures etc. I could go really into depth about this, but it is probably best off for you to have a read for yourself, or watch this or this. To cut a long story short, after 17 years of military government, there was a transition back to democratic rule and an uneasy compromise between former foes that has lasted to this day, with most Chileans happy to put the past behind them and look to the future, although that’s sometimes easier said than done.

On a somewhat lighter note, after our tour of the museum we made our way to the nearest subway station on the edge of a neighbouring park to get back to our own ‘hood. This marked the occassion when I could boast that I have been on the tube system of four different cities in four different continents (the others being Montreal, Beijing and of course Blighty’s very own London underground). For the life of me, I don’t know why every decent-sized city doesn’t have one, they make such a difference to city traffic and are a cool way to get around, to boot. Lima has just announced they’re building one, I probably won’t be around to see the benefits, but it’s a definite step in the right direction.

We’d made plans to hit a jazz club one evening, but alas this was not to be. The rules of siesta taking should be that either side of about 7 and 9 p.m, you are perfectly within your rights to nod off-beforehand and you stand a chance of waking up and having a productive evening, any time afterwards and you can count it as getting an early night in. Fall asleep in the danger zone, however, and you’ve pretty much guaranteed waking up at an odd time late on and destroying your subsequent’s night’s sleep in the process. This is exactly what happened to us on the appointed evening after an exhausting day exploring the city. Consequently, I can’t really give you much info on the live music scene, but I should imagine it’s great like everything else culture-wise in the city.

On the subject of time, just a quick aside-Chile is actually two hours closer to U.K standard time than Peru, which means it’s only three hours at this time of year. Closer than you thought, eh?

A final honourable mention probably deserves to go to the quality of places to eat we came across. A bit like the U.K, Chile seems to have its own staple foods but take great pleasure in doing other people’s cuisines well, as well. A case in point was a belting French restuarant called Les Assassins near our hotel-if you’re ever in town look it up, French cooking and Chilean wine-a match made in heaven!

We caught the plane back at the end of the week, swearing to return and explore both the city and the country further in the future. As we took off on a bright and glorious Friday afternoon, looking out of the windows on one side of the plane one could see the Andes in their towering splendour, on the other side the shining blue of the Pacific and directly below the ordered sprawl of the city. A glorious sight indeed, and one I hope that we get to see again in the not too-distant-future.

Talkin’ about Chile, Part Two.

Right, where were we?  Oh yeah. In the previous post I gave a bit of background on the history and geography of Chile, as well as our reasons for heading there. This time I’ll try and summarise what makes Santiago such a great city to pay a visit to.

My recollection of exactly what order we did everything in is starting to get a little mixed up, so I’ll just go with describing things as they come to me. First up, here is a map of the area the area we were staying/operating in. Give it a click for a closer look:

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If you spotted Parque Forestal, the glass-walled frontage of our hotel was across the road from it and made for a most welcome sight every time you set foot on the street:

parque forestal

You may be thinking ‘yeah, it’s a shot of a park’, but 1) it was quite an expansive park, running alongside the rio and 2) we have some pretty decent parks in Lima (particularly around Surco where you seemingly walk around a corner on every second block to be confronted with a new one), but they are wrested from the desert, and kept alive only by copious daily waterings from the local authorities. When you happen upon a park on your holidays which is at least semi-naturally watered, it’s quite an event (or it is for me, I dig a bit of nature). It’s one of the things that makes a neighbourhood worth living in, no?

So, the local area. Lastarria, where we were is a pretty hip neck of the woods, full of interesting eateries, book and record shops etc. The whole place felt bang up-to-date and there was a high (and visible presence) of alternative/hipster people going about their business and living their lives, as well as your more everyday folk. A good, peaceful mix of characters with a high degree of what you might call ‘cultural capital’-a not inaccurate comparison with places I know from back home might be with Manchester’s northern quarter.

The Colmado sandwich bar, where we ate breakfast on what El reliably informs me was our second full day in the city, was a case in point. Located just off a courtyard in turn just off La Merced, we stumbled in there for breakfast where the whole staff seemed to be in the same late twenties/early thirties age bracket as us, all the blokes sported some sort of decent facial hair growth (I’d trimmed my own beard just before coming out-and felt like a bit of a sell-out) and the girls all had some kind of tied-up rockabilly do, everyone in black t-shirts and maybe a flat cap as they efficiently and unostentatiously went about making you a great, unpretentious yet carefully considered and presented breakfast whilst playing 80s British alternative music to themselves/their clientele. I opted for a butifarra sandwich (another great culinary creation which Chile and Peru appear to share, but seem to do quite different versions of) which was incredible, along with a brew (that’s a tea to non-Brits, not a beer). A recommended spot for anyone in need of a morning pick-me-up before hitting the sights.

Two decent vantage points in our temporary little corner of Santiago were/are Cerro (that’s Spanish for ‘hill’) Santa Lucia and San Cristobal. Santa Lucia was a couple of blocks from us, and we accordingly hit it more than once. It’s probably got to the point in the blog where I should show another picture or two, so here is a couple from there:

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The view from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia
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The quite beautful parks clinging to the hillside on the way to the top.

Now, if Lastarria is hip then the area directly across the river, Bella Vista is even more so. We spent a day wandering around, taking in what it had to offer. Our first port of call was the other cerro, San Cristobal, even bigger, and with its own Christ-the-Redeemer statue looking out from the city’s highest point. Every Latin American city seems to have one of these, a symbol of catholic supremacy over the new world the Spanish had conquered, and being on the highest point, it almost becomes obligatory to visit them.

san cristobal 1

The views were worth writing home about, as well:

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We’d taken the funicular (sort of very vertical-tracked, open-sided train) to the summit, but decided to take the winding route downhill back to Bella Vista on foot. The place was extremely verdant and forested, with a real European vibe about it-you could almost have been outside the city itself. About halfway down we happened upon a cafe next to the zoo and decided to rest a while. Here’s a picture of Ellie, very much in her element, from that stop-off:

san cristobal 4

Once we finally reached the bottom of the hill, we went looking for the home of Pablo Neruda. In the interests of keeping this blog nice and readable, I’ve saved that for the third (and I promise final) instalment of this particular adventure!

Talkin’ about Chile, Part One.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight:

picture004And now I going to tell you why.

Recently, for our October holiday, we decided it was about time we made our first Latin American jaunt outside of Peru itself. In the 20 months or so I’d been living here up until that point, we’d made a pretty good fist of travelling around the country-from Lima to Tarapoto, Paracas, Huaraz, Nazca (and the Lines), Trujillo, Mancora, Iquitos and the (amazing) Amazon, Cuzco and of course the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu-the usual host of names that are familiar to anyone who’s either spent a bit of time in Peru, or is planning to. There’s still (probably more than) a few spots to hit (Lake Titicaca, anyone?) in this adopted country of ours, but it was reaching the point where we were feeling sufficiently emboldened to tackle another, neighbouring country.

So why Chile? Here’s what I knew about the place beforehand:

1. Like everyone else, I knew it was an incredibly thin country, caught between the Andes and the sea (like Peru without the jungle, you might say) stretching over an immense area-from the glacial sub-antartic fjords of the south all the way up to the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, in the north. To borrow a quote from the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in an otherwise favourable description of the landscape: “The least apocalyptic of geologists think of Chile not as a country of the mainland but as a cornice of the Andes in a misty sea and believe that the whole of its national territory is condemned to disappear in some future cataclysm.” Crikey, we’d better get there and see it!

2. The country has had its ups and downs over the years, including a 17 year period of military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, but these days is a thriving democratic nation (more about that presently).

3. It’s relationship with its northern neighbour Peru (and Bolivia) can be a bit strained-largely due to the War of the Pacific in the 1880s, but reflected in things like both sides of the border claiming that they were the ones who originated drinking pisco sours (don’t underestimate the strength of feeling on this one). The first taste I got of the rivalry, however, was when Peru defeated Chile in a World Cup qualifier last year. The number of people out on the streets here in Miraflores beeping their car horns until late into the night (not to mention the people going mental on the T.V cameras outside the stadium) attested to this fact. In other words, I’d been led to believe from some quarters that the Chileans were, if not the bad guys, then the not-so-good-guys.

I’d also heard that in actual fact, it was a pretty cool country as well. There was only one way to find out…

First impressions of Santiago.

I think for both El and me it really hit home that we were no longer in Peru when we got our night taxi from the airport in Santiago to the hotel we were booked into. Lima is a swirling desert metropolis of ten million people, a wrestling match between order and chaos which is no better reflected than on the roads of the Peruvian capital. Here, on the other hand, although it was late night and quiet, we were travelling quickly and quietly along spotless, near-deserted highways that resembled German autobahns or British motorways. We arrived at our hotel, a very modern place called Hotel Ismael 312, staffed with cool bilingual staff and stuffed full of decent books and magazines in both languages and both of us had a real sense of ‘this isn’t going to be crap’.

The following morning, we pulled back the curtains and took to our little balcony to be greeted with a view of streets that could almost have been New York:

street view ismael (left) street view ismael (right)

Feeling the inspiration from our new surroundings, we started to plan our week’s adventures. With almost a week in the city at our disposal, it was time to put Santiago to the test…