Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009

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“That’s nothing that flossing and a good dental hygienist can’t remove.” (Stone Town, Zanzibar)

 

On buildings all over the world there are plaques and signs commemorating famous people who were born, died, lived or sometimes just fell over therein. Some are quite fascinating, others utterly bemusing. If it’s a house in which Michelangelo sculpted, Machiavelli schemed, Casanova seduced, Beethoven composed or Hemingway wrote, they are well worth a detour and a photograph, but if it’s somewhere that Paris Hilton once lost her chihuahua, not so much. Sometimes the buildings don’t have signs and it’s only local knowledge that identifies them – like the building in the backstreets of Zanzibar where Farrokh Bulsara – later better know as Freddie Mercury – grew-up.

 

Few people plan their travels solely around these spots, but if in the neighbourhood many of us swing by for a glimpse or possibly even a visit if the building now houses a museum, no matter how modest.  However, there are some people who do follow the trails of their heroes and tour companies who make it easy to do so.

 

Of course, it would be possible to read Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, pick up a detailed Michelin map of South America, hire a motorbike, pack a sleeping bag and tent, a wad of pesos and follow the route yourself, but that’s a lot of work for the average person with two weeks annual vacation. Instead, there are companies who are more than happy to lead you on at least part of his route and show you a few iconic spots along the way. An air-conditioned minibus doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Guevara and Granado’s adventures aboard La Poderosa, but for those with a keen interest in the Argentine revolutionary, it at least gives them a taste of what he saw several decades ago.

 

There are trips that take you to spots that were inspirational for artists or poets, or that follow in the footsteps of adventurers or explorers…but not that many for famous tax collectors or politicians, possibly because tax and politics are two of the last things people like to think of when on vacation. However, there is one new one that is an exception.

 

Earlier this year the “Roots of Obama” tour was introduced in Kenya. In addition to visiting the usual sites like Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara, the trip heads to western Kenya and its towns and markets before landing in ‘Obama land’. There are visits to Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Senior. A member of the family leads visitors through the village to discover the family’s roots and to visit the household. There’s a walk to Nyangoma to visit Senator Obama High School and all along there are tastes of the local warmth and hospitality and plenty of traditional food!

 

Even without the connection to the 44th president, this trip provides a glimpse of real Kenyan life that passes completely unnoticed for almost all visitors – even if you don’t get to see where Gerald Ford fell down.

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: H is for Havana

6 03 2009

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Many people think of Cuba as nothing more than a land of beaches, all-you-can-eat buffets and swim-up bars…however, Cuba is also one of the most interesting and rewarding destinations in the Americas and Havana one of the greatest cities in the world.

 

Established more than 400 years ago by King Philip II of Spain and officially dubbed the “Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies,” Havana is every bit as important today culturally as it was then politically. Whether spending just a day as part of a beach holiday or longer while exploring the entire country, the Cuban capital is guaranteed to captivate and ensure that you wish you’d devoted more time. Havana is a city of diverse ideologies and eras.

 

The colonial core is grand and ornate with fortresses, cathedrals, parks and balconied buildings often tantalising with faded glory. Along the Malecón seawall, glorious old houses face the ocean across a wide avenue buzzing with couples on evening strolls, teenagers diving dangerously into the heaving surf or fishermen hauling in their catches. The houses are a patchwork of restoration and dilapidation as the government use tourist money to attempt to return them to their former beauty. While some hearken pristinely to the days of gas lamps and ball gowns, their neighbours are open to the elements and laundry can be spied hanging from bare ceiling beams beneath hurricane-damaged roofs.

 

In the Plaza de la Revolucion, the iconic outline of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara stares down from the Ministry of the Interior building onto the famous square in which millions of Cubans have gathered to hear the speeches of Fidel Castro or to greet the nation’s heroes. The image is one of the most recognisable in the world and one of the most photographed spots in the country, but visitors are warned not to cross the road for a closer look as the Ministry guards outside the antenna-bristling edifice are reputedly fond of shooting first and stamping postcards afterwards!havana-4mw1

 

For those with a literary interest, there’s El Floridita: a cozy bar which was amongst Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts. Propping up the bar in the corner is a life-size statue of the scribe so real that you can imagine tourists who’ve indulged in too many of the establishment’s legendary daiquiris spending hours in one-way conversations with Papa.

 

Although Hemingway may be long gone, Havana’s traffic has changed little since he was its most famous resident even if the city’s famously photogenic cars are more likely to be powered by Lada engines than the original power-plants that rolled off the production lines of Detroit 50 years ago.

 

For all the tourist attractions in Havana however, perhaps the most attractive and addictive pastime for a traveller is to simply wander away from the hubbub of tour groups and motor-coaches and explore the city’s narrow side streets. Grab a bite to eat in a small café or from a street vendor, sit and people watch, or drink in the varied architecture, mismatched colours and historic freezes. Stroll through the markets either for souvenirs or memories or relax in one of the parks and enjoy the weather.

 

Eventually, the Havana of today will disappear and a living time capsule will be lost. The spray-painted revolutionary slogans and party graffiti will likely disappear. Neglected buildings will either fall down, or be restored to opulent splendour. The antique cars will be replaced with new imports and the quirky stores will be replaced by international outlets.  This may not happen this year or this decade, but Havana needs to be visited today while its character remains as strong as its culture and its history as alive as the Malecón on a Saturday night.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Novel Ideas

17 11 2008

“This Hemingway guy writes so well, I feel like I’m actually in Africa!”  (Kicheche Camp, Kenya)

There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book whether on a rainy night at home or to help kill time during a 5-hour layover in a distant antiseptic and impersonal airport terminal. But picking the right reading material for your travels can be an art almost as intricate as writing the masterpiece in the first place.

I’m a book-junkie and spend a lot of time and effort selecting just the right books for my travel. I long ago learned that size does matter and always try to travel as light as possible. Whenever I can I try to choose thick pocketbook paperbacks that will last me many hours yet fit comfortably in my pocket or carry-on. I always try to avoid mammoth telephone-directory hardbacks that I know I will quickly come to resent no matter how good they are and vindictively want to abandon after the first few hours of lugging. It’s also better to carry books that I don’t mind leaving behind or trading along the way – rather than carrying a family heirloom first edition.

 

Light not only refers to size and weight, but also means something that can easily be put down and picked up amid the chaos and distractions of airports and train stations without losing the thread. Just because you’ve always wanted to read Stephen Hawkings’ “A Brief History of Time” and valiantly failed a dozen times at home doesn’t mean you’ll have more success on a train racing through the Swiss Alps or on a Central American beach. If it was a struggle at home, it will probably still be a struggle on vacation…so pack that new Stephen King instead!

 

Apart from airports and flights, you may actually have less time to read than you expected. After a long day of sightseeing and exploring, you may well fall into a deep sleep the moment your head hits the pillow. During train or bus trips in strange lands, you may will be so intent on drinking in every last drop of passing scenery that your face will be glued to the window throughout instead of glued to your book, so one or two titles will probably be enough.

 

However, if you are a voracious reader that eats books even while doing the grocery shopping, don`t assume you can find decent reading material along the way even when in an English speaking country. Although easy enough to find appealing titles in North America or Britain, books are often quite expensive throughout the developing world and the selection may be limited. Take a spare book in your luggage just in case you do manage to finish the first one.

 

Try to be a bit culturally sensitive. Brazenly reading the “Biography of Borat” while on public transport in Kazhakstan or a colouring book entitled “The Genius of Sarah Palin” in Wasilla, Alaska may not make you the most popular person in town so either leave them at home…or hide the covers!

 

Plan ahead and try to anticipate what might appeal to you along the way. If you`re interested in history you might just find that while travelling through Australia the constant references to Captain Cook may whet your appetite for more information and leave you searching for a decent biography. In South America it could be Simon de Bolivar, Che Guevara, Evita Peron or a famous local author. Try to think ahead to what might be piquing your interest while on your travels and pack accordingly.

 

Reading is one of the great pleasures of life and a good book can make a great trip even better.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Revolutionary Designs

2 04 2008

 

 

Che

“The House of Che”

 

“Why is the t-shirt guy on your money?” she asked, while closely scrutinising a 3-peso note.

“That’s Che Guevara,” the guide patiently explained. “He’s one of our revolutionary heroes, and was also the president of our bank.”

“Oh, I thought he was a fashion designer or something.” she answered before casually strolling past me to take another photograph of Havana.

In a perfect world all meadows would be emerald green and filled with fluffy bunnies, weekends would be 5-days long, restaurants would distribute free glasses of classic single malt scotch instead of water, and everyone who travels would be forced to take a little written examination before they head overseas. Just simple questions like: Do you know where you’re going?

You can always get so much more from any trip if you’ve taken a bit of an interest beforehand. You don’t have to memorise an encyclopedia or attend evening classes on “The History of Terracing and Rice Cultivation in Bali” before you travel, but having a very basic knowledge of any destination, its culture or even just its most current events can heighten any experience and certainly make local interactions much richer.

In 1994 P.M. (ie: pre-Madonna), I was travelling through Malawi just a few weeks after their first-ever democratic election. Their independence leader and long-time dictator – Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda – had overstayed his welcome and been asked to leave office earlier that year. During his three decades of rule he had utilised his powers by banning such things as travel books that said nasty things about him, female visitors wearing pant suits and male travellers with long hair. He had been a rather discerning despot.

The election had gone well and the people were still celebrating their new rights. Everywhere we went, they would whistle and hold up two fingers to signify their recent introduction to two-party democracy. Whenever we stopped or walked down the street, they would come and share their happiness with visitors from fellow democratic countries, bubbling with enthusiasm and elation.

It was only luck that had me in Malawi at such a momentous time in their history, but I will always regard it amongst my greatest travel highlights…even if I couldn’t buy a commemorative t-shirt!

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008