Tag Archive: travel


The Sartorial Conman


A jaunt around some of New York’s most exclusive member’s clubs.

If you can escape the clutches of Manhattan’s commercial district- a tangled orgy of concrete, glass and steel, tempered by unfettered human ambition -then lower mid-town offers a brief moment of respite before flinging you back into the depths of the city. Here the sun’s rays, having no longer to contend with the invasive reach of New York’s sky scrapers, flood through the sky-line and bathe among the broad avenues.

Jutting out from it’s perch off Park Avenue and in the heart of Murray Hill, the Union League Club is a prestigious social club that boasts a gilded list of alumni including J.P. Morgan, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt. Robed in the candid American décor of early-twentieth century New York, the building’s earthen red façade is a timely reminder to the world that, “they make take our AAA credit rating, but they will never our Americanism!”

The Union League Club

Having being buffeted by such flag-waving machismo, presumably plucked straight from the timbers of the Bush family ranch, I made a subsequent discovery. The prestigious club stocked Johnson’s baby shampoo (which sincerely promised ‘no tears’) in its showers.

I am in possession of such an intimate knowledge of the Union League Club and other similar establishments because I have furnished my past month in New York conducting a social experiment. Drawing encouragement from the success of the world’s banking elite in evading significant retribution for the financial crisis, I concluded that we are bound by human nature rarely to question someone wearing a suit. After all, with some exceptions, they are usually correct with colour combinations.

Therefore armed with a dark blue pin-striped suit (and occasionally a briefcase, depending on my confidence levels), I have successfully strolled into some of New York’s most elite member’s clubs. The main perk being that the majority of these clubs have state-of-the-art facilities, including steam rooms, billiards tables and, in the case of the Union League Club, a golf simulator.

Breaching the clubs’ reception area, though, is a mere skirmish. From then on, your every movement and interaction must be governed by the chief priority of convincing members and staff that you are a fully-fledged member of the elitist establishment. The gleaming facilities at your fingertips are merely a third home, alongside that Upper-East penthouse and manor in the Hamptons.

Said Manor

Being among a herd of sliver Republican moustaches, I tended to stand out. As a result I took to painting myself as a flamboyant British aristocrat, in the mould of Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, to vault into the upper echelons of New York society.  My personal tale was one of shackled potential in rural Buckinghamshire that had driven me to cross the pond in a bid to unleash my creative beast (and wallet) upon the unsuspecting city.

I soon discovered that interactions with staff aided in smoothing the occasionally rough edges of the character. For example, to overcome the potentially awkward situation of being approached quizzically after making lavish use of the fitness equipment I merely brought the attack to the club’s employees; “Ahh “insert name on card here”, just hammered out 75 on the quadrilater, now that’s a p.b if I ever saw one. Am I right!” Accompany that with a pat on the shoulder and the club house is yours.

Conversations with members must be approached more cautiously. When the live stream of Fox News, radiating through the locker room, churned out a story of Tea Party member Christine O’Donnell allegedly practising witchcraft in her rebellious younger years (I guess it’s conservative Americans equivalent of listening to rap music), I had to suppress any laughter for fear that the Tea party had infiltrated the Union League. Perhaps by putting something in the drinks?

The Propaganda machine takes aim at Christine O' Donnell

When thrust into more intimate scenarios, such as the flabby depths of the steam room, it is advisable to preserve silence and escape, if the situation requires it, to your happy place. I once intruded on an elderly member who was going through what appeared to be some form of tantric workout on the marble benches. Through the coils of steam, I could make out his legs jutting at mathematically-implausible angles, and gyrating stubbornly. “Good amount of steam” offered the ghostly apparition in an eager New England accent. “Yep,” I replied “you can hardly see a thing”.

The beating heart of the club, and arguably American Republicanism, is to be found on the fourth floor and is aptly-named, ‘The President’s Room’. It houses a poker table, elegant leather couches and hums with exclusivity. My first and only visit to the room was greeted with the sight and smell of four stout middle-aged men with matching comb-overs. In a dense haze of cigar smoke, they were discussing voter turnout for the upcoming Presidential election beneath a portrait of Ronald Reagan, looking on approvingly. Upon my entrance, the group offered me a collective look as if I had just poured liquid shit into their whiskey glasses and a timely reminder that fictitious English aristocracy will only get you so far.

This clearly shook my hastily constructed pseudonym and, as I was leaving the club later, I heard a desperate shout snake after me, “Excuse me sir?” Needless to say, I have not been back since. After all, the Princeton Club is a leisurely stroll uptown.

DNA- The Empire State of Mind


Ten pointers to get you started on your quest to tame the concrete jungle and become a New Yorker

Concrete Jungle

 Being a New Yorker is a full-time profession. It requires an extensive knowledge of every alleyway and shortcut nestled in the city, an insatiable appetite for culture, and the uncanny ability to draw upon huge reserves of energy like a metropolitan Hercules. Every profession, though, has its perks and being a local in New York grants membership to an evolving, vibrant and colourful city with an urban life force surging through its streets to the top of the skyscrapers.

So without further delay, here are the club rules for being a New Yorker:

–          The only time you go to Times Square is to laugh at the tourists as they gawp like badly-dressed moths at the flashing lights.

Times Square

–          You nurture a burning and irrational hatred for people from the neighbouring state, New Jersey. In fact, any mention of a New Jerseyite at a bar is more effective than a fire alarm for clearing people out.

–          You have worn spandex at least once while cycling/running in Central Park. A true New Yorker knows that appearances count for nothing when planning an efficient work out.

Spandex patrol, Central Park

–          You have mastered the ability to drink coffee, text on your Blackberry, scan the daily newspaper and update your diary. All while being crushed to near-death on the Subway.

–          The oven and washing machine in your flat are as unused as media baron Rupert Murdoch’s voicemail service. Take-aways and tailors thank you very much.

–          You are willing to pay more than $4 for a bottle of vitamin water because its label boasts more for your well-being than the Garden of Eden.

–          Your watering hole of choice is located in the most avant-garde stretches of Brooklyn, anything without a live band and/or a converted roof simply won’t do.

Radegast Biergarten, Brooklyn

–          You have eaten more raw fish than a grizzly bear. In the city’s many sushi bars, that is.

–          You go for massages in Chinatown. They may be in the living room of a basement apartment that smells of tuna salad but who can argue with the $20 discount?

–          You’ve never travelled up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, after all your friend’s rooftop garden a few blocks down doesn’t have a thirty minute queue.


London is a honey-pot for the unsuspecting tourist, make a wrong turn and you could find yourself entangled in a mass of camera-wielding sightseers,    fighting for air. Take it from a local, knowing the city’s best-kept secrets is half the battle.

Green Park

Acquaint yourself with the English summer in the woody expanse of Green Park. Situated five minutes from the heartbeat of London, Picadilly Circus, it’s a welcome escape from the crowds. If lounging around isn’t your idea of a sight-seeing holiday then worry not, this Royal park is steeped in history. Besides showcasing duels in Victorian times, it was used as a hunting ground by notorious British monarch Henry VIII. There’s also the small matter of the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace, a few minutes away.

Camden Town

A stomping ground for London’s avant-garde music folk, Camden Town is a sprawling mass of body-piercings, leather and bleached Mohicans. Its watering holes, and namely The Hawley Arms, have long been the haunt of supermodel Kate Moss and Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher. The vintage shops in Camden Market are home to biker jackets, flares and any of fashion history’s other forgotten garments while Cyberdog, which can be best described as a futuristic S&M shop, is a must-see.

La Fromagerie

Visiting a French-named cafe is hardly a way to crown an English holiday but this rustic cheese and wine shop is a stylish dining experience that personifies metropolitan London. Tucked away in London’s trendy Marylebone area, visitors are seated at earthy wooden tables before being given an impressive menu with offering taken from across Europe. The English Stinking Bishop is a soft cheese that lives up to its name and goes beautifully with the French wine, Chignin La Marechale.

Hoxton Hotel

Located in up-and-coming Shoreditch, this stylish offering is widely considered the best-valued hotel in London at 4,250 rupees a night. Owned by Pret A Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham, it follows a no-nonsense mantra. The exposed brickwork and sizeable fireplace residing in the lobby are indicative of the hotel’s subtle and unpretentious decoration. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’re staying at a budget hotel, there are plenty of luxuries nestled around, including a free daily Pret A Manger breakfast.


Costa Rica’s picturesque coast

 

Holding off the cowboy capitalists of the USA to the North, and the untamed South American wilds to the South, Costa Rica has blossomed as a holidaying spot ideal for rekindling your passion with earth’s natural beauty. Whether it’s a weekend fling or a strung-out affair, its expansive beaches and smouldering volcanoes are the perfect setting for a romp with Mother Nature.

Mixed Signals

  

"The city has swelled doggedly across the Costa Rican plains..."

 

Arriving into the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, you could be forgiven for querying the country’s much flaunted role in preserving natural beauty and promoting eco-tourism. The city has swelled doggedly across the Costa Rican plains, accompanied by pollution, poverty and a generous sprinkling of crime. The chain-link fences and grubby sidewalks reveal nothing of Costa Rica’s open and friendly soul, treat the city as a fortified gateway into the Garden of Eden.

If you’re in the market for a side entrance, the multinational Marriot Hotel beckons. A 5km ride from San Jose’s international airport, the hotel was built on a coffee plantation. The bulk and splendour of its architecture are a nostalgic nod to a grand colonial villa, with nightly rates starting from $189.

Marriot Hotel, Costa Rica

 

Nevertheless, don’t regard a stay in the city as a prison sentence. For all its intimidating chaos San Jose is not uninteresting; its furnace burns with a fiery passion, stoked by the vivaciousness of its inhabitants. To dip your toe into these untamed rapids head to Centro Commercial El Pueblo, a lively sanctuary for San Jose’s creative body and a chance to get your hips swaying to the rampant beats of Central American music.

Baptism of Fire 

 

 

 

Arenal Volcano

150km North-West from San Jose, navigating over Costa Rica’s notoriously jerky and treacherous roads, lies the charming town of La Fortuna. Like a reserved younger sibling it has passed its days in the overbearing shadow of its raucous elder brother, Arenal Volcano. The conical colossus brushes aside swathes of greenery to rise majestically into the skyline, rumbling sullenly like the deep slumber of a mythological beast. Such a spectacle, though, is not marred by inaction. Being amongst the world’s ten most active volcanoes, Arenal spews regular pillars of ash which surge upwards like heavenly columns and its eerily luminous lava flows enchant the night sky.

Nestled in a bed of tropical flora and boasting sweeping views of the volcano, the Springs Resort and Spa is a luxurious perch from which to marvel Arenal. For the ultimate spa experience visit nearby Tabacon Hot Springs, this resides amongst the world’s top spas thanks to its extensive accommodation of nature into treatments. For example its thermal springs are nourished by underwater currents of water, which are heated by magma and flow through the spa’s network of cascading waterfalls and serene pools.

Tabacon Hot Springs

 

If the idea of relaxation is about as appealing as a bed of nails, Arenal’s surrounding national park is a treasure trove for hikes. Some of which flirt with danger as they traverse the jagged remains of Arenal’s previous lava flows, www.arenal.net is a hub of information and allows for easy planning. 

In Cloud Nine

The Cloud Forests

  

To lay further toils upon the undoubtedly remorseful suspension system of your transportation, the short trip to Monteverde town is crowned by a viciously winding and unpaved road that lurches erratically through throngs of jungle. Suspended 3,000ft above sea level, Monteverde has retained a sense of humbleness in the wake of invading tourist armies. The most pleasant accommodation can be found in the Hotel El Establo, a three star affair with spacious and well-furnished suites. As a tip of the hat to Costa Rica’s eco-friendly contingent, the hotel employs a body of solar panels and integrates locally-grown produce into its menu.

Having established base camp, you can then venture into the mysterious grasp of the cloud forests which envelop Monteverde. Named for the lingering presence of clouds in their canopy due to high altitude, Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserves are some of Costa Rica’s most diverse habitats and a nature enthusiast’s paradise. Alongside a resident population of 120 mammal species and perched amongst the aesthetic tangle of vines, mosses and branches are small gems of colour constituting the lively and diverse bird population. With any luck, you might have the pleasure of spotting the Resplendent Quetzal, which earns its name with a sizeable tail feather encased in emerald green.

Thanks to a heady abundance of moisture, paths through the forest can be treacherous and branches scrape against you like the gnarled limbs of the undead. Tour guides are a sensible option, with www.monteverdetours.com providing bilingual and experienced guides starting from $55 per person. To add some spice to your adventure, horseback tours can be organised from the hotel and, like the Ewoks from Star Wars, Monteverde Sky Trek have erected a labyrinth of walkways and zip lines in the jungle canopy to clamber and howl your way through. Undoubtedly such strenuous exertions require a caffeine boost and centrally-located Café Monteverde is at hand, serving organic coffee grown in nearby plantations.

Surf’s Up

Nicoya’s peninsula

 

For those yearning the path less trodden and would bring brushes to ‘paint the town red’, the North-Western peninsular of Nicoya has survived relatively unscathed from the legions of freaks, surfer-dudes and hippies who have descended upon Costa Rica’s beach scene over the last two decades. To swap a Cuba Libre for a quite beach day, you could do worse than arriving on the doorstep of cosy Nosara.

Governed by a Triumvirate of beaches Nosara is a haven for relaxation, offering serene fishing spots and a unique setting for its popular yoga culture. The area’s natural beauty has been protected devoutly by locals and the beaches’ bordering forests are a picturesque backdrop, as well as being home to a diverse animal population. For elegantly designed rooms that draw you into the ease of Nosara life, The Harmony Hotel pledges alluringly to get you “in tune with your natural rhythm”. With seven kilometres of Playa Guiones’ ivory sand languishing nearby, which also boasts waves that are folklore amongst surfers, the hotel would appear to have the tools to get tuning.

Paridisus found

 

  

  

If your pursuit of luxury is an activity untainted by half-measures then you won’t find much better than the Paridisus Playa Conchal. The vast shrine to lavishness and refined indulgence is an idyllic ride up the Gold Coast from Nosara. The luxury resort has an array of beautifully designed accommodation options, an 18-hole golf course and a pool large enough to fit Tendulkar’s fan mail. Plus, at 2,400 acres, it’s easy to get Lost in Paridisus. You may want to ration your wanderings though, as some room rates clamber over the $1,000 a night mark.

A stone’s throw from the resort stretches the Mecca of Costa Rican beaches, Playa Conchal. With sands as white as a Californian’s teeth and waters with the clarity of their camera phones, Playa Conchal has become the go-to destination for snorkelling. It would be a mortal sin not to slap on the ol’ mask and snorkel for a foray into its glassy tropical waters.

Jungle Fever

A gigantic leap southwards from Nicoya peninsula, over a stretch of Pacific Ocean, another fragment of Costa Rica juts out distinctively. The Osa peninsula may not offer an album of screensaver beaches but it has some of the most striking and diverse natural habitats, personified by the Parque Nacional Corcovado. The park is an eclectic jumble of jungles, rainforests and swamps splayed across 42,000 humid hectares of natural splendour. The range of eco-systems attracts enough furry, feathered and scaly inhabitants to keep the most devoted of wildlife fanatics busy. Whether it’s providing nesting spots for the Harpy Eagle or maintaining the endangered Central American Jaguar, the park has a crucial role in preserving some of Costa Rica’s finest natural assets.

Parque Nacional Corcovado

Going Caribbean

The previously neglected East coast of Costa Rica removes the peel of high-end hotelery to reveal simple lodgings and a marvellously laid back way of life. Hugging the Caribbean sea the coastland yields some breath-taking beaches, crowned by clusters of coconut trees. To surrender yourself to the chillaxed vibes of Afro-Caribbean culture head to Manzanillo, you won’t be getting Swiss chocolates on your hotel bed sheets but the living is authentic and a homage to the charms of a simple life.

East Coast Life

One such hotel, Almonds and Corals, offers palm-roofed tents connected by wooden walkway and is a true exponent of eco-culture. Some of its tours on offer include dolphin-spotting, bicycle tours but the most unique is a trip to visit the Indian villages of the Amubri, Bribari and Cachabri tribes. A fulfilling and culturally-enlightening activity. Staying on the East Coast is a less-refined experience, but what’s an eco-holiday without the dirty fingernails?

 

 

 


Into the fray

Our plan was to hone our biking skills in the Mekong Delta before embarking on the 1150 km ride up to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. The delta is a vast stretch of sparsely populated grassland south of Ho Chi Minh, flayed by rivers surging to the Eastern Vietnamese coast. Its most prestigious inhabitant, the Mekong river, is the largest in South-East Asia and is responsible for the livelihood of millions through industries such as agriculture and fishing.

The Minsk can be best described as an enigmatic bike. I had put the difficulties we had faced in Ho Chi Minh down to teething problems but, as we stuttered into the innocuous town of Tan An on our last vapour of patience, I realised our bikes’ mechanical problems were more deep-rooted. We had only managed 30km and the journey had been disrupted by a host of engine problems, over the next week we would visit repair shops as frequently as we would restaurants.

We commenced this tradition of repair shop visits with a grand opening ceremony, involving the rousing of a portly mechanic from his hammock in a flourish of hand gestures, directed at the motorised underbelly of our bikes. That evening, in the musky sanctitude of a local shack, we deliberated over a steaming bowl of the local cuisine Pho noodle soup, a bubbling broth which can contain anything from lemongrass to chicken’s feet, before deciding on the riverside town of Ben Tre as our next port of call.

Looks familiar?

As we set off with renewed optimism and the strained directions of a local fruit seller behind us, the scenery morphed into a mosaic of rice fields. The presence of farmers was betrayed by conical straw hats that bobbed rhythmically from the depths of the reeds. The government had clearly been busy, and at regular intervals communist flags billowed defiantly, even on the most rural of roads.

Under intense physiological pressure from our group, willing them onwards, our bikes survived all the pebbles and dips the rustic roads had to throw at them and we rolled into the next town like crusaders entering Jerusalem. During the triumphal entrance into the centre our cries of ecstasy soon turned to anguish as we began to recognise the buildings we had become acquainted with the day before. The paper lanterns that had greeted us so gracefully now sneered from their lofty perch.

Besides the cardinal error of not carrying a map, we had failed to account for the sizeable river blocking our path to Ben Tre. The road we had taken had skirted along the river nonchalantly before looping round and depositing us at our origin, all without a hint of rancour. When providing directions, the imperial sweep of the hand that locals would offer failed to account for small frivolities on the proposed route, such as crossing a 100-foot wide river. They saw their role more as compasses and pointed us in the general direction of our destination rather than consider the various obstacles we would inevitably encounter or the curvaceous nature of roads.

The Ferryman

The next day we found a gutsy villager who was willing to pit the rotting timbers of her fishing boat against our iron-hided Minsks and take us across the river. Using a small wooden plank we herded our bikes onto the creaking vessel and crossed our fingers as, sensing the magnitude of the situation, she yanked the starter chord with the ferocity of a leopard. Local ferries are the more popular option in these circumstances, but we didn’t trust our directional prowess to go on the search just yet.

Having negotiated our bikes onto the other side, we soon found ourselves in the tourist outpost of Ben Tre.  Besides a smattering of restaurants, it is a popular place to arrange homestays in local villages, where tourists stay in a villager’s house to experience the unique culture of rural life. Whilst slurping our celebratory noodle soup, we met a Vietnamese war veteran who filled our evening with tales of jungle warfare with the Vietcong before departing to sing karaoke with his wife.

The curse of Ben Tre

Our cruise from Ben Tre was cut short when we encountered a giant pond which had flooded the dirt road, its murky waters had been supplied by the decadence of nearby construction work. Spurred by the enthusiasm of local drivers, and a sizeable run up, the most audacious member of our group flew into this artificial marshland with the careless abandon of a toddler learning to ride a bike. Despite making good progress, the wheels soon became engulfed by the sand and by the halfway point he began sinking at an agonisingly slow rate. With the aid of every able bicep within a kilometre, we were able to hoist him out, but not before the sand had sabotaged the bike’s engine. From now on, in order to start that particular motorcycle, we would all have to push it along for ten metres for a running start, in the chaotic manner of a bobsleigh team.

This was the final crack that opened a floodgate of problems and, for the next five days, a series of seemingly implausible break downs to each motorcycle left our group stranded in one of Ben Tre’s spangled high rise hotels, wallowing in self-pity and the senility of our bikes. I took the opportunity to repaint my bike; it was now decked in bright red and bore the archaic hammer and sickle of communism. The steed of an officer, I told myself as we drove through wafts of innocent Vietnamese laughter, pressing onwards to Tra Vinh.

Tearing the chains

In order to escape the supernatural clutches of Ben Tre we knew it would require a Herculean effort, we roared our way towards the coast but knowing at some point that we would face the tempestuous waters of another river. As night descended our bikes started to concede to the constant strain of the journey and one broke down. With no mechanic in miles, one of our group elected to push the bike along with his foot, whilst still driving himself. By supporting his foot on the incapacitated bike’s exhaust pipe, and trusting its riders’ steering capabilities, he was able to push it tentatively along the motorway. With no working headlamps between us, I drove behind the duo to illuminate this eerie procession with a torch strapped around my helmet like a coal miner. Meanwhile the final member gallivanted ahead, searching for comprehensible, and frustratingly elusive, directions.

Our convoy crept through the mystical silence of the South Vietnamese night, and it was into the miniscule hours of the morning when we found a farmer showering naked besides his crop but, more importantly, in knowledge of a ferry crossing down the road. Because of the obvious language barrier we didn’t know if the crossing was still in operation or, for that matter, an actual crossing and not just his favourite fishing spot. Nevertheless, we were hardly in a position of strength and welcomed the rest, even if it was interrupted by the maniacal yapping of a posse of village dogs.

An hour into the wait, I began eyeing up the surrounding scenery for potential camping spots. I may have even hallucinated, seeing the flickering mirage of a Holiday Inn in the shadowy depths of a forest. Mercifully, an eternally optimistic member, who had been perched expectantly on the landing since we arrived, spotted the hulking leviathan of a ferry boat skulking through the blackened waters and we boarded it with the relief of soldiers who were being evacuated from the fiery recesses of hell.

Reassessing the journey

Whilst in the safety of Tra Vinh, and with our battered Minsks collapsed guiltily besides us, we were forced to re-evaluate the itinerary. In one week we had barely travelled 100km and what was meant to be a training exercise had turned into an epic journey comparable to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Despite the obvious disappointment we wanted to go out in one last flourish, our Asian testament to the charge of the light brigade- practically suicidal but a necessity as far as preserving honour was concerned. So it was then, in the smoky backroom of a local cafe that we decided upon the beach resort of Ba Dong as our final destination. This was to the crowning moment of our Mekong foray, the holy grail.

One last hurrah

And so we embarked on our symbolic dash for the coast. The rustic air somehow tasted sweeter and the rumble of our Minsks’ had an almost melodious tone. The guidebook had been sparing in its compliments for Ba Dong but I ignored this, believing there were far greater forces at work here. Unfortunately, my divine assumptions proved incorrect. The Swedish volleyball team we had imagined playing on the beach was replaced by an old man staggering through the shallows, whilst the wafts of freshly barbequed prawns was instead the stench of faeces, radiating from the cage of a dejected-looking monkey.

Without doubt, Ba Dong was the most depressing beach I had ever been to. The so-called resort was a cluster of wooden shacks facing the sea and the only attraction was a primate who had been cruelly displayed in a cage twice its size. As the only tourists ever to have been so wholly lost, it was almost like another dimension, we were regarded by the iota of other visitors with intense curiosity. However, as soon as their engines were loud enough to convince us they could tackle the journey back to Ho Chi Minh we readied our bikes for departure. We had a 150km slug ahead of us and the thankless task of selling the bikes to someone with enough patience to even attempt to drive them. Jesus perhaps.

Clouds gathered ominously in the sky and the now serpentine road wound through paddy fields and into the horizon. I had no idea if there were enough mechanics in the world to facilitate our return journey, but this had been our salvation. The glinting hands of our Minsks had plucked our band from the tediousness of a typical holiday and placed us amongst the wispy mirages of celebrated journey makers such as Che Guevarra and Jack Kerouac.  At least that is what I would tell my parents when they asked me why I wasted $400 on a lumbering death trap which would have more chance of killing me than delivering me to a destination.


Buying a motorcycle in Vietnam’s industrial capital 

On the road

  Every day hordes of motorcycles migrate across the concrete plains of Ho Chi Minh city, writhing in a demonic waltz with regal plumes of exhaust  and carrying anything from extended families to scores of live geese.       

The glittering legions

  Thanks, in part, to its  simplistic design cues, Honda enjoys a decisive monopoly over the motorcycle  industry, if such a term as industry can be gifted to the underground warren of wheeler-dealing that constitutes  buying a motorcycle. In the midst of such unadulterated chaos, our group would have some difficulty tracking down a band of suitably iconic bikes to serve on our proposed motorcycle trip around Vietnam, let alone ones whose exhaust pipes were not attached with blu-tack.       

The fallout from the Vietnamese war had birthed a litter of seedy bars which had been reared in grubby clumps across the city, the most prestigious of which is the aptly named Apocalypse Now, the seemingly ideal starting ground for the search.       

Between the practiced gaze of the resident working staff, I spotted a wizened veteran occupying a corner table with the pseudo-magnitude of a failed sea-captain. Having heard our predicament, he took a dramatic sip of his umbrella-enamoured cocktail before uttering a name whose very mention sent local motorcycle dealers scurrying to the road-side noodle bars from whence they came. Kevin, something of a spectre in the city’s motorcycle industry but undoubtedly the Mcdaddy and someone who would resurface later in our travels .      

With no direct access into the bowels of Kevin’s operation, we instead met a sprightly American duo who were willing to sell and had returned from leading a group of seven Minsk motorcycles up the fabled Ho Chi Minh Highway, a popular war-time route running up the spine of the country and one made famous in an episode of Top Gear. One of the duo’s carefully sculpted pony tail and ample girth were a nostalgic nod to his home country’s iconic cartoon character, the Comic Book Guy. 

A king amongst men

However, whilst such apparel would have condemned him to a nomadic life of certain ridicule back in the states, his exodus to Vietnam had bore fresh pastures. Now, rather than been viewed as an accessory for an unemployed addict of Warcraft, his hair was the garb of Greek mythology and he posed confidently on the street before us, a champion, a king amongst men.   

We assembled in a small cafe to do business and, as the duo’s Vietnamese attaché paced outside like an attack dog, I considered our options. Fortunately mandatory insurance for vehicles was a concept as unfamiliar to the Vietnamese as multi-party elections, but what we were doing was undoubtedly illegal and the fact none of our group had ever set foot on a motorcycle’s gear lever rendered our inevitable task of evading policemen an arduous one. What’s more, a recent visit to Vietnamese A&E and some painful stitches from a scooter accident had taught me that Vietnamese drivers are a ruthless bunch, Vietnam clocks four motorcycle fatalities a day, and riding through a city is not as easy as the video game Grand Theft Auto would have you believe.  

But none of this mattered now, there were four Minsks slumbering in the cavernous dark of a subterranean parking lot, waiting for us. 

Sleeping beauties

For those not acquainted with such testosterone-fuelled biking jargon as ‘Minsk,’ (essentially our position five minutes before purchasing the aforementioned vehicles) the Minsk is a bulky throwback to the glory days of communist Russia, when commissars roamed the countryside on them, herding peasants.  Years later, a wall collapsed, a Macdonald’s opened in Moscow and the Minsks found themselves exiled to the sculpted hills of Northern Vietnam where they were adopted by the communist-resilient North Vietnamese as a sentimental reminder of the ideology they had fought so bitterly for… and to carry grain. 

The sculpted hills of Sapa, North Vietnam

 When we were introduced, I noticed our bikes had been stripped to near skeletal remains, no doubt by the frugal innovation of some of Ho Chi Minh’s most dedicated mechanics, and crucial parts like wing mirrors and headlamps had been whored out to Honda Wave motorcycles across the city. My bike had been further castrated by a smothering of sickly pink paint and now lay shivering next to the phallic shrines of motorcycles that crowned the garage. 

It took a further four days and endless crusades across the city in search of mechanics before our bikes all started at the same time. Without functioning mufflers the occasion was a sonic recreation of the eruption of Krakota, the engines’ roars spewed across the road, easily drowning out the insectile drone of passing traffic. With our worldly possessions strapped hastily to the back like refugees, we fastened our $5, and undoubtedly polystyrene, helmets and readjusted our goggles. 

 

  The open road stretched before us. Well, that and the glittering legions of Vietnamese motorcyclists, polishing their headlights in anticipation having scented fresh meat on the early morning haze.


 

Christian Seiersen takes us on a sail around the Aeolian Islands, an archipelago of small volcanic islands north of Sicily.

 

Before I arrived at the Sicilian coastal town of Milazzo, my previous experience with boats had been at the age of 16. On a holiday in Canada, my cousin and I had chartered our aunt’s senile rowing boat into the far reaches of the family’s lake. It had led us to a menacing-looking island which my cousin immediately diagnosed as a perfect spot to camp. A decision, thanks to the overprotective bird population and rocky ground, we would live to regret.  

Although it had left me with a long-standing back problem and a fear of cranes, I also began to see sailing as a way to appreciating the raw beauty of nature. So when I was introduced to the Aeolian Islands –a cluster of Volcanic islands that lie off the North coast of Sicily– I saw a chance to re-establish these ties.  

The island of Salina

Laying the plans 

With my father’s friend Andy at the helm, we planned to take his 22ft sailboat on a tour of the islands from our base in Milazzo. However, we soon reached a geographical snag after the map revealed that, beyond the island of Lipari, the archipelago parted ways into the two separate strands of its crescent shape. Therefore, for the purposes of the trip we temporarily erased the islands of Salina, Filicudi and Alicudi and settled for their eastern counterpart, Stromboli, as the furthest island of the voyage.  

Mapped out

Setting off into the blue expanse of the Tyrrhenian Sea, I began to wish that the Greek deity Aeolus –the god of wind whom the islands are named after– would give our boat a hand in making the 22 mile slog to Lipari. On the way, we passed by the island of Vulcano, which lived up to its name by providing a source of geothermal energy and would be the last island we visited. 

Eventually we arrived at the Lipari’s self-named town as the sun was beginning to disappear and its light was replaced by the twinkling of the harbour. 

The port of Lipari

Dropping anchor in Lipari 

Our decision to sleep aboard during the trip left us no reason to venture onshore, but I was intrigued enough by the ominous walls that crowned Lipari’s hill to chance a quick exploration. It was a network of lively streets that greeted our walk through the town’s cobbled streets and the architecture was interspersed between the medieval grandeur of its churches and the simple designs of the houses. Lipari seemed to revel in its role as the archipelago’s largest island and the area around the marina was a hub for restaurants and bars.  

The next morning, after passing on the opportunity to explore the rest of the island by scooter, we sailed along its jagged walls of rock to an isolated cove where we could make full use of the water’s crystal transparency. Using a hunting tool I had fashioned out of a stick, I then began to chase the cove’s colourful, and no doubt endangered, aquatic inhabitants, but my home-made javelin was no match for their speed.  

Lipari's coastline

Millionaire’s playground 

As we had previously agreed, the nearby island of Salina was bypassed and we set a course for Panarea, which had earned a reputation of being a trendy destination for the well-heeled Europeans. The day-time sail revealed to me the true ruthlessness of the Italian sun and I often had to clamber below deck to seek refuge. Our simplistic meals onboard paid homage to the local cuisine and usually consisted of Italian ham and cheese sandwiches.  

As we approached, I was surprised at how small the island appeared and later discovered that it was only 3.5 km2. Stuffed onto this small space was a sea of whitewashed houses lining the slope and, with the promise of a breath-taking view at the summit, we began to ascend one of its mountains, Punta del Corvo. At the top, the rugged landscape panned out before us and small rocky islands rose from the waves. On the horizon we spotted plumes of smoke rising from a cone-shaped island that signalled the presence of Stromboli. 

The slumbering dragon, Stromboli

A sea of jellyfish 

The next day, having rubbed shoulders with the affluent beach-goers, we decided to take the dinghy around the island. Closer-up the masses of rock seemed to defy gravity in their formations and we came across a vast cave lined with ledges jutting out invitingly as diving platforms. Without a moment’s hesitation I took up this invite and, scrabbling up the moss-laden walls, I reached a ledge about five metres (16ft) off the water. From my new perspective the water’s alluring blue shimmer had turned more malicious and my haste during the climb was replaced by a sense of foreboding, but it was too late now.  

My entrance into the water left me relatively unscathed but as I opened my eyes instinctively whilst returning to the surface, I saw hundreds of jellyfish floating eerily around me. The boat was still some meters away and I thought that if I splashed excessively in my desperate swim to safety, I could dislodge the jellyfish from my path and avoid their stinging tentacles. With my heart in my mouth I scrambled, pumping every limb before I was hauled back onto the dinghy and into the wall of laughter that marked the end of my near-death experience. When they regained sufficient breath, I was told that the jellyfish were completely harmless and a nearby boat had complimented me on my progress in learning how to swim.  

We often slept on the deck to make use of the soft evening breeze and as I sat contemplating the stars and surrounded by the gentle din of other boats, I was reminded of the tranquil moments that sailing can bring. 

Into Volcano territory 

Our farthest stop of the sail was the island of Stromboli and when we ground ashore, it was on a beach of midnight black sand. The volcano loomed before us and we walked up its dark slopes to a restaurant where I fulfilled the cliché of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ by ordering a Stromboli pizza. The simmering volcano was in constant activity and we resolved to endure a night-time sail to the northern face, where we would be able to see its famous lava flows under the luminous gaze of the moon. 

When night descended, sailing was tough work. With only the mischievous lights of other boats to prevent any crashes, it was time for all hands on deck and I perched at the fore of the deck to call out any approaching danger. The risk was justified when we dropped anchor and watched the spectacle of its frequent, and thankfully mild, eruptions. A cloud of smoke would be shot out of the crater and drift lazily into the night sky. Every so often these eruptions would be accompanied by a stream of fire pouring down the slope and glowing fiercely against the shadowy backdrop of the volcano. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight and a gentle reminder of what nature was still capable of. 

A ritual cleansing 

Before long, the time to return had approached and we tackled the long sail to Vulcano in good time. After we had docked and walked onto the island, the over-powering smell of sulphur hung resolutely in the air and it was only Andy’s inclusion of anchovies in our sandwiches which seemed to neutralise it. The island’s mud baths represented the main attraction and we agreed on taking a dip in them to mark the metaphorical end of our trip. The baths did serve practical purposes as well and the cooling mud was a welcome refreshment to our sun-weary skin. After this, the trip held one more incident up its sleeve when we departed the Vulcano docks. 

As we motored out, whilst I was untying the rope from the dock, my arm got pinned against the boat’s railings by the rope. Unaware of this, and assuming we were free of the dock, Andy had continued to reverse away and my arm was seconds away from being snapped by the force of the boat when he heard my strained calls and automatically put the boat into forward. Fortunately Andy had displayed the presence of mind of an experienced skipper but I felt that the episode had served in fulfilling the trip’s excitement quota and returned to Milazzo with a strong sense of satisfaction. 

Crawford Market


Mumbai has always struck me as having two personas. The older of the two can be found quietly surveying the city from its vantage point on the imposing state buildings which rise, detached, from the grubby roads. Characterizing the streets is the younger and more spontaneous Bombay who hustle and squat below, balancing their lives in the wicker baskets on their heads as they meander through the crowds. Crawford market is an arranged marriage of the two.


On the outside, the building’s colonial design plays to the tune of the fanny-pack brigade and the sleek Norman arches and sun burnt bricks wink sleazily at passing tourists, inviting them in. But not even the addition of a charming clock tower can hide its dirty secrets and the interior gives way to a more unruly underbelly where all manner of stalls are sprawled around the narrow passageways.

Brimming with confidence after I had successfully fought off the advances of a pony-tailed tailor, I saw the market’s enclosed space as the ideal grounds to give my newly acquired skills of evasion a fresh challenge. I was immediately put the test when, moments after I had read a sign which stated that visitor’s must be accompanied by a porter, an ancient figure apparated from the shadows right on cue.

Dressed head to toe in a white tunic, his attire was crowned by a small sailor’s hat that looked as if it might have been made out of origami. Neglecting any verbal introduction, he instead presented me his porter I.D card with the ill-disguised apprehension of a sixteen-year old handing his fake Belgian driving license to a nightclub bouncer.

Nevertheless, I was undeterred and I saw in him the qualities of a seasoned campaigner. He bore his marks proudly in the form of a glazed eye, and a reduced set of teeth which enabled him to open his sales pitch with the line, “I can show you shpishes, animalshs or shilk, what’sh it going to be?” After that I was taken over by curiosity, both in seeing what these categories would offer and hearing how my guide would tackle more complex sentences.

Upon my request, we headed for the animals and he led with the care and attentiveness of a loyal butler showing a visitor around his deceased master’s house, pausing to show me the firmness of the beetroots or thrust lemongrass under my nostrils. However, his monopoly power over the solitary tourist was short-lived and I was soon embroiled in an attempted coup d’etat from a predatory associate. Steering me in the direction of his potatoes, the relative youngster deposed my current guide unceremoniously saying, ‘that’s my father, he’s crazy.’ Looking at his crooked smile, I doubted any form of relation. My suspicions were confirmed when, after we were reunited, my host disowned his temporary son and ushered me onwards.

Although I knew little of what to expect, the courtyard which housed the animals certainly wasn’t on my list. Sawdust had been scattered across the ground and the smell had a pungent quality to it that far surpassed anything that had been offered by the outside streets. In modestly sized cages that were as crude as they were small, a Cruft’s catalogue worth of puppies lay around lethargically, almost resigned to their fate.

The message, however, had not gotten through to the hordes of rats, which clawed continuously at their glass walls in an effort that would have inspired communists worldwide. Lurking near the back of the courtyard was the largest cat I had ever seen and, borrowing a popular technique from Mother Nature, had further magnified its size by equipping itself with a rug of white fur. It was also one of the only animals to have the luxury of a personal cage, either because it had eaten the previous inhabitants or there was a subtle challenge from the owners to see if it could grow to fill the remaining inches of space.

In small shops, and with the benefit of shade, huge choruses of birds provided the soundtrack to this lively scene and their range of colors rivaled those of the saris that brushed past them. I was also surprised to see the addition of pigeons, who were seemingly aware of their role in making up the numbers and paced guiltily around the cage. In a bid to bring in some diversification, the walls had been lined with fish tanks in which, through the murky water, I could make out their aquatic inhabitants drifting around aimlessly. I couldn’t think why anyone would choose such a place of singular depression for the traditionally joyous activity of buying a pet, but the throng of people proved me wrong.


Back inside, I bypassed the spices in favour of the fruit and vegetable section. This was tended to by hawkers who had decided that the labyrinth of stalls was a picturesque setting for their early retirement. Having amassed a pile of supplies that towered over seven feet, they employed these sacks of carrots and lettuce as mattresses and surveyed my presence with the detachment of a Roman Emperor.


My guide seemed unable to comprehend that my visit was motivated by curiosity and chose instead to characterise me as some kind of underground fruit dealer. He savored in telling me the origins of each of the goods and looked expectantly for my approval when he described some melons as the “besht in whole of France.” It all got a bit much when, in a desperate effort to appeal to my fruit expertise, he jammed a banana in my face, squeezing it gently with an almost pedophilic glare while saying “you like that, eh. Shoft.”

After that, I started to have second doubts over my guide’s sanity and this was only made worse when he took me across the road to the silks, taking on the role of traffic-tamer in the process. As he slapped car bonnets and the backs of dawdling pedestrians, I began to reassess my assumption that he had lost his teeth through age, and not brawling. Whether it was through a general lack of knowledge about cars or sheer bravery, he seemed undeterred by their hulking mass and the horns only served to instill in him new degrees of fervor.

When we finally reached the other side, it was after he had re-enacted his individual take on Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea, where he had waded out into the traffic and held his arms aloft whilst irate drivers swerved to avoid him. His credentials as a subjective guide were then put under scrutiny, as he led me down a back alley to, what I can only assume, was his real son’s shop.

The tour, much like the hot water in my shower, was good while it lasted, but I soon had to leave and realised I would have to cross the exact road that he had just terrorised to return to the station.  As I left him arguing with a cab driver I regretted not catching his name, but I had a feeling I would see him again somewhere, probably on the news.


During the afternoon, at low tide, the sea retreats across the Mumbai shore line, leaving in its wake a jagged wilderness of rocks and stranded fishing boats. Although the terrain is particularly muddy, I had made a business investment of two hundred rupees to buy a box of equipment for a persistent shoe-shiner which, he reliably informed me, would propel him into a new league of shoe-cleaning. This also meant that, thanks to some fine print I had added in the deal, my shoes would enjoy his services free of charge and I thus had a blank cheque with regards to where I walked. He had originally tried to escape his charge by hiding out in Burger King and dimly-lit alleyways, but I had contacts in the shoe business and was determined to get all of the one hundred cleans which would constitute breaking even on my investment.

I was thus able to trudge confidently across the rocky beaches, a band of some of Mumbai’s numerous wild dogs momentarily joined me and I passed a policeman pissing nonchalantly across a boat’s hull. A sight, I thought, that might interest the graffiti-artist Banksy for his next work of art. This relative calmness was broken by the shouts of a few locals, who scampered towards me waving their arms. At first, I saw this as a warning sign that I had inadvertently strayed into gangland dog territory, and indeed the dried coils of shit placed tactically across rocks supported this theory.

(At this point, I would like to deter those who, thanks to the title, thought the story was heading in a different direction. You may depart, and shame on you…)

As the crowd drew closer, I noticed the plastic bags that were dangling threateningly by their sides and reassessed my original feeling of gratitude to them. But when the bags were opened, rather than the novelty junk I had expected, I was confronted by a seething mass of crabs. As appetizing as it was, seeing them silently fighting for their lives, I trusted neither my culinary ability nor my flat’s medieval pot to cook them, and turned down the opportunity of a purchase. I was more interested in the group that roamed the shores to find them.

Their ringleader, who also held the title of eldest, sported an authoritative moustache to show for his seniority. Whilst he preferred to operate as a lone wolf, the other three kept together and so I followed their lead as they crouched next to a large rock. The most obvious mark of their profession was a thin metal pole with a jagged hook on the end, which they brandished with the pride of a toddler holding a toy sword. As I soon discovered, this tool was thrust and jammed around the gaps between the rocks and beach, like someone picking a lock.

This activity went on for some time and, just as I had begun to lose interest, the pole was swiftly withdrawn to show a medium-sized crab flailing helplessly, its shell caught on the hook. From other viewings, and with the benefit of some theatrical hand movements, I worked out that the technique was to use the hook to taunt the crab as it lay in hiding and, once it had clamped the pole with its claw, to pull it out into the open. For more passive crabs, the claws were bypassed and the hook went straight for their hard exterior to latch onto an edge or gap. Once the crab was exposed in the open, another member ripped off the right claw impassively and jammed it between the crab’s shell and its left claw to nullify any risk to the fingers.

Thanks to a translational error, I had been given the name of Ocross, and I unconsciously fulfilled its prehistoric connotations as I scrabbled across the rocky landscape to keep up. One thing that interested me was the disparity in techniques. One member, who was known as the beggar due to his lack of success, was very tender with the movements of his pole and whispered gently to the rock as if reciting an ancient incantation. On the other end of the scale, the youngest hopped from nook to cranny with lightning speed and was so prolific that he had become a veritable danger to the beach’s crab population.

During a more prolonged hunt, the team had become so desperate that they had turned to my relative inexperience to remove a particularly stubborn crab. It was then, as I was forced onto my hands and knees to rummage into the far reaches of the rock’s underbelly, that another tourist appeared on the scene. Vulture-like, he had circled the group, but I was glad to see the loyalty displayed by my compatriots and his infiltration efforts were in vain. As he began to retreat to the path, I felt a tug from inside the rocks and pulled out the pole to reveal this brute of a crab clinging desperately to the hook.

As ‘the beggar’ tore off its right claw impassively, I saw a small wave of hesitancy flash across the outsider’s face. Sensing an opening, I pressed home the advantage and, wild-eyed with my hunting success, I gave him a look to say, “yes my friend, this is how we roll.”


Mumbai may be a city of diversity but there is no doubt that it is united under the language, and in some cases religion, of cricket; it is everywhere and it is huge. Cricket is a sport that knows no boundaries and the innovation of its disciples means that no open space is safe from their nomadic reach. Groups of players can be seen wandering from street to car park, bat in hand, searching for the next fix.

Whilst most surfaces are tolerated, there is a preference for would-be cricketers to flock to the many city parks, or maidans as they‘re known locally. As a result, daily attendance can easily breach the hundreds, and the relatively small grounds become so packed that games often overlap. One of the most popular venues is the southern-located Oval Maidan, where the matches are presided over by a horizon of prestigious buildings.

Although an attempted flying dismount from the train had left me with a reluctant ankle, I had been enticed by the ‘gateway drug’ of street cricket and, soon enough, found myself staggering across the Oval on the lookout for a game. My enthusiasm was there, but I had failed to observe the unofficial dress code of all-white kit, and my yellow shorts did me no favors amongst the traditionalists.

Fortunately, I spotted a group of ‘plainclothes’ who had been exiled from the good pitches and had settled instead on a cordoned-off section by the fence. The players’ liberal attire was also reflected in their attitude, and my approach was greeted as if I were an old friend. Soon enough, I was thrown the ball expectantly and, with the pride of a nation at stake, I bowled a shapely full-toss which was punished to the far-reaches of the park. My second ball suffered the same fate and I had to wait some time before I was given an opportunity to make amends.

Following in the same trend as my last deliveries, my next ball drifted lazily through the air. But at this point, the balaclava-clad batsman had let his confidence get the better of him and, having dodged past his wild swing, the ball thudded into the garbage bin which represented the wicket. Riding this wave of form, I seized the bat from him and eyed up his cock-eyed companion whom I assumed would be doing the bowling.

What I had failed to acknowledge was the monster that they had been preparing out of my line of sight and was now being summoned by his keepers to exact revenge on my British heritage. There was a fire in him which I knew, all too well, would only be extinguished by my tears of submission. He now held in his hand a prototype ball which lethally combined the bounce of a tennis ball with the hardness of a cricket ball.

With my protection comprising what was effectively a small stick, I desperately searched for any kind of natural armor in the bushes, but he was already galloping in. A black crow flew ominously across the pitch and, as the first ball whistled an inch past my hip, I finally understood that he was targeting my family tree and planned to erase any chances I had of having children. He was toying with me before he went in for the kill. His second delivery sailed over my head and it was only the fourth time lucky that he struck gold in the form of my ribcage.

Leaving me precious few minutes to recover, I was then drafted into the match that, apparently, being hit in the ribs constituted training for. The captain placed me in an innovative fielding position which saw my head stationed four inches away from the temperamental bat of a neighboring  match. I was further inspired when, later on, I noticed that the opposition had placed their oldest and most rotund player in the same position.

The standard of cricket was surprisingly high and every mistake was taken collectively to heart by the whole team. There was no room for baggage and, when I dropped a catch, I was viewed by an older player as if I had just emptied a bag of shit at his feet. I began to recognize that the manifesto for batting was ‘hit out or get out,’ and the path that wound through the park was consistently peppered by monstrous shots. I pitied the fielder who was placed in that particular firing zone, but his commitment was such that, when one ball was struck in his direction, he was so intent on catching it that he backed into a book stall by the path, scattering fake copies of War and Peace as he fell.

As it grew darker I kept expecting the game to be called off, but it was only after every movement became a gamble as to where the ball would land that we finally trooped back. As was tradition, we headed to the maidan’s pavilion. Or rather behind it, where there was a small crowd gathered round a simmering vat of tea. The cauldron belonged to a permanently cheerful local, who was introduced as something of a legend. As proof, he was surrounded by an assortment of newspaper clippings which pictured him with identical smiles and different Indian celebrities, including members of the national cricket team.

Before I left, one of the players put his fatherly hand around my shoulder and, unknowingly dismissing my ten years of experience, asked, “so Christian, how did you enjoy your first game of cricket.”

Westside Connections



After seeing off the first assault of jet lag, bereft of any basic supplies and with ‘first-day explorer syndrome’ pulsing through my veins, I decided to extend my knowledge of Bandra beyond the cramped window of a taxi. A prestigious member of the ‘burbs, it had grown northward from the historic centre of Mumbai and was to be my haunting spot for the next month.

It took only a few chaotic minutes and a barrage from the local fruit-selling, Armani-wielding populous to convince me that, despite my best efforts, I could not go it alone and would need to recruit the aid of a local. Not only to help with general navigation, but also to sift through the hundreds of street vendors to find the most reputable source of food in an area where KFC was the landmark culinary establishment pointed out to me by my landlord.

Such a bill-fitter came in the unlikely form of Ravi, a novelty map seller who, still ruing the day he had given the finger to his waiter friends in favour of the alternative market for illustrated maps, was more than happy to throw off their laminated shackles. If nothing else then to placate the voice in his head, on a continuous loop saying “you should’ve slept on it mate…”

As a guide he was one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve met, despite that fact that he had the misfortune to look like an Indian version of Gareth from The Office. His voice filled with unadulterated regret when he spoke of the squalor which many of the locals lived in. Pointing out small patches by the road with only a dusty sheet to qualify them as houses.

Having never been to any form of school, Ravi had picked up Englishfrom his time in Delhi. Something which had proved an invaluable asset in the face of a merciless job market that did not look fondly on his lack of educational credentials. It also had its use in luring foreign dickheads to their demise at the hands of an over-friendly tailor. Dickheads like me.

But today was not such a day and, having escorted me to one of the few restaurants with roofs in the area and refusing any financial embellishment, he pledged to return in an hour to take me to his house. Although I didn’t know what to expect, I had an inkling that I could put my call to MTV cribs on hold.

As promised, he returned with minutes to spare and we set off on the long walk to the West side of Bandra. An area, I would later discover, that had a formidable slum population and was separated from its Eastern equivalent by a long railway bridge that was a hub of activity for beggars, hawkers and commuters alike. Crossing onto the other side I could detect no noticeable difference from the roads I had walked down before and it was only when we parted company with the main road into terra incognita that the stakes were raised.


Furnished by an alleyway that would be stretched to fit a well-sized American, the houses were intimately spaced to say the least. As particularly graphic scenes from City of God raced through my head, I reached into my pocket to fashion a home-made knuckle duster out of my flat keys, should the need arise. I also inched slightly closer to my guide, but without partaking in the exercise of ‘bromance’ that saw a number of Indian men holding pinkies through the streets, oblivious to any homosexual connotations.

My fears were, of course, unfounded and the only threats came in the form of passive women washing their clothes outside and the walls of smiles from the children who rushed to shake my hand and wish me a happy new year.

After a few minutes of walking we arrived at his pad, which distinguished itself from its neighbours only by the crackling din of a device that barely scraped the definition of a television. Apart from the fan, this was the only electrical device in the single-roomed house, and the only other furnishing was a tottering shelf with piles of metal pots balanced on top.

In one corner, the concrete wall bore the mark of a younger member of the family, who had tacked up any stickers he could find. Unfortunately for him, this meant that the corner was covered by a horde of lesser-successful Disney characters, and, for some reason, Tom Jones. If I returned, I resolved to bring a true ambassador of the Westside to the dilapidated walls, Tupac Shakur.

Eclipsing all of these features, and on the wall opposite the entrance, a plaster shrine to the Hindu God Ganesh revelled in its modest surroundings. Besides it, and sitting comfortable on a thin rug that also seemed to double as the bed, was the older brother who was intently watching a fuzzy screen which occasionally resembled a game of cricket.

Finally, as I removed my shoes, I was also greeted by the mother, who paused from washing the family’s clothes in one of the pots to offer the traditional Hindu greeting of pressed hands and a bowed head. Other than that, she was seemingly oblivious and treated the situation as if it were a daily occurrence.

Drawn in by the black and white cricket, I took my seat on the rug and watched as the two brothers had a quiet conversation which ended abruptly in the older one getting up to leave. As he did so I immediately regretted my decision to accept the offer of the communal cushion from behind his back, thinking that this was the cause of his departure. But, waving away any apologies, he left with a knowing smile.

During his departure, the hospitality of the family was made evident to me by the increasing array of offers poured on me, from drinks to full-on meals. I politely declined, conscious of the how little the family had. A crowd of young children had also gathered around the window and door and, despite the best efforts of my host to get rid of them, persevered, desperate to know what I thought of MS Dhoni or if I liked their trainers.

I answered the crowd as best I could and it was only the return of the older brother that ceased the question time, he had brought a coke with him from the local convenience store. Relatively, it was quite a small token, but the fact that Ravi told me, with a hint of regret in his usually passive voice, that his mother was going out begging soon made it seem like one of the most generous offering I’ve had, Any of my protests were resolutely dismissed and, reminding me that I was a guest in his house, he passed it over.

I spent another couple of hours in the room, in which I was also persuaded to have some of the bread, but eventually the time came to leave. Promising to come for a game of cricket later in the week, I started off on the long walk home, humbled by the kindness and good will of a slum-dweller.


Travelling through Mumbai is like nothing you could ever have imagined.

My steed was a black and yellow FIAT which looked as if it had driven straight out of 1970s Havana and boasted, amongst other gadgets, a solitary light bulb. However, by far the one accessory which interested the driver the most was the high pitched horn which acted as an outlet for his frustration and was thus used generously. In fact
most drivers shared this partiality and the overall effect was that of an urban rainforest with the mating calls of Honda Civics piercing through the dry air in a never-ending chorus.

The roadside scenery was littered with piles of rubble which, in places, were being tenderly transferred into dusty sacks. A job, I feared, that was cursed never to end, but the presence of this rubble also portrayed a symptom of the absence of much government activity on the street level.

You also couldn’t help but notice the array of slums which had evolved by the road. Some of the houses were comprised of large billboards with ‘Coca Cola’ draped next to the entrance in faded letters. Sitting on top of these DIY foundations at a fashionable slant, a corrugated iron roof provided the primary means of protection against the ominous monsoon rains.

Each of these houses were then balanced precariously on top of one another to give the impression of an unfinished jig-saw against the horizon. Whilst this organised chaos suggested the haphazard nature of the houses’ construction, it also lent an artistic flair to the surroundings which is barren to most Westernised cities.

Against this backdrop were the Mumbaikars themselves, the life force of the city who flowed and ebbed through the streets each with their own purpose and unique knowledge of the city.

Whilst activity was never far away, many locals contented themselves with perching besides stalls and watching the stream of bikes, cars and rickshaws- which resembles a cross between a scooter and a squeezed VW campervan- beep and whine their way through the streets. In fact, so little were these particular locals’ actions that they had ceased to become human and simply blended in with their surroundings as an another decoration for the stalls.


Inevitable to such a place of extreme poverty, beggars also walked the streets. Exercising their broken English phrases to any tourists strolling past and, when that failed, they pulled and tugged at clothes as if trying to will money out of the pockets. Even though such an activity was nothing new to me, it was a shock to see that none of them were older than seven. No doubt sent out by their parents to earn their keep, even at so young an age. Although the weight of the responsibility is distressing for such small shoulders, some comfort can be derived from the fact that, even in such dire circumstances, the children rallied together and still found the energy and will to play by the road.

Standing out amongst this bustle of life was the elegance of the women, who glided authoritatively through the crowds like a swan negotiating its way through a pond of lilies. In contrast to the dusty décor, which had been cast lavishly across the buildings and streets, vibrant colours, plucked from every crevice of the spectrum, lit up their saris. Plumes of emerald green collided with splashes and swirls of dark blue, whilst delicate patterns lined the edges, all to create small vortexes of colour in every direction you looked.

As if this elaborate attire was not sufficient, many women also sported patterns across their hands and upper arms in such a delicate shade of brown that it served to compliment the skin on which it rested. Though it was observed that plants and flowers served as the primary artistic inspiration, there seemed to be no limits to this extravagant ‘mehndi.’


The diversity of such characteristics gave the impression that you were revisiting a patchwork of old dreams. Being unable to remember one specific storyline, you have taken the highlights and put them together in a blend that defies any logic but somehow makes sense.

Mind the Gap Year


What would we do without Gap Years; a whole year of so much to do or, in the twisted logic of a colleague, so little to do. A group of wide eyed teenagers, blindly following their golden moral compass, being lead by Fayed into a small clearing where they are to build that local hospital the disease-ridden villagers have been praying for from their apartments nearby. Then finally, at the end of it all when the cash has been counted and enough stories have been forged to fill later pub sessions, the hospital is torn down for the next group.
Hang on, so what your saying is these 18 year olds with no skills or medical knowledge do not have the ability to alleviate famine in Africa and the only actual use they have is determined by the amount of dollar their parents grudgingly coughed up for the trip? Surely not. What of those model students you always hear crowing in the background; ‘Ya, I’ve always wanted to help Romanian orphans.’ Well captain fucking fantastic Gandhi you can join the queue of all the other students desperately trying to score as many moral points as possible before they crawl, hands and knees, into their morally bankrupt university halls. The harsh truth is that in some places these aren’t Romanian orphans. They’re midgets dressed in rags who used to clean shoes but got a call from a mate in Nepal saying how much money he’s made from gap year students wanting to ‘do their bit’ for the world, and his bank account.
Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t, in any way, deny that there is suffering in places like Romania and there is definitely a lot to be done about it but there are some companies out there who have commercialized and exploited this idea of global suffering and that has to be wrong.
What’s left for the rest of us proletariat then; you could take the ‘no plans approach’ and see what happens. This involves casting aside carefully laid plans in favor of following nothing but your instinct in a far off country; which does sound a bit like the plot for Brokeback Mountain 2 but I’m told it’s a great adventure. This is all very Indiana Jones until you are kidnapped whilst backpacking in the Sudan by an Islamic fundamentalist Neo-Nazi group who hang you from your feet in a remote shed where you are forced to listen to their ringleader mock and humiliate you. ‘You Western dogs with your Samsung phones and Lynx deodorant forced to hear the radio waves of capitalist oppression in your miserable lives!’ Not for me.
It seems we have reached a conundrum on how to approach a gap year. How can we find our purpose on this great earth where the main skill we offer is how effectively we can bargain with our parents to determine our funds.
My, sound, advice is to work at a pub in Manchester; you will meet different cultures every time you walk into a Nando’s, you will get the genuine ‘sleeping rough’ experience in the local B&Bs and for those aspiring doctors out there I hear things kick off around 2 a.m. Some would say the experience of a lifetime. All I’m saying is; it ticks the right boxes for most students and a train journey will set you back a mere £35. Why not?