Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009

livingstone-plaque1

“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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Grave Discoveries

30 03 2009

 cristobal-colon-mw2

                               Cementerio Cristobal Colon,  Havana                                   

 

Geography question: How do you find the dead centre of a city?

 

Answer: Follow the signs to the cemetery.

 

Okay, I’ll admit that jokes like that could be the death of me, but cemeteries are often some of the most interesting places in any city and yet overlooked by many visitors – even though people are just dying to get in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist it). Although often filled with architectural masterpieces in the forms of monuments and mausoleums and tributes to some of that city’s most famous sons and daughters, their locations are often buried in most guidebooks (I promise, that was the last one…maybe!).

 

There are some famous cemeteries around the world that do feature on the tourist trail, however. Moscow’s Novodivechy is that city’s third most popular tourist attraction and is ‘home’ to Chekhov, Prokofiev, Schostakovich, Gogol and Eisenstein as well as cosmonauts and former presidents. London’s Highgate attracts so many visitors keen to see its beautiful monuments – not to mention the grave of famous Marx brother Karl – that they charge admission, even if you’re not in a wooden box!

 

Paris’s Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise has a steady line of visitors coming through its Doors to see Jim Morrison’s grave, while hundreds of thousands of people pay their respect to former teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa by visiting Giants Stadium each year.

 

Even if a cemetery doesn’t boast the rich and famous or its head stones are in an unintelligible script, they are still culturally and historically significant and well worth a visit. Cairo’s “Cities of the Dead” are home not only to the dead but also to the living who have moved into many of the vaults and turned the cemeteries into overcrowded neighbourhoods. Havana’s Cristobal Colon cemetery encapsulates the city’s history where cardinals rub shoulders with communists and even the country’s love of baseball is acknowledged.

 

If you want to visit a cemetery, first enquire if it is permitted to do so as different cultures have different traditions when it comes to their dead. Also check if there is a dress code, if it is allowed to take photographs, if you need a guide or even if it’s safe to go alone: some cemeteries are in less than desirable neighbourhoods where visitors and even mourners are known to fall victim to thieves. Most importantly, if you do visit a cemetery, always be respectful. 

 

And finally, if there’s a particular grave you’re looking for, make sure you obtain a map so that you don’t lose the plot (that’s the last one, I promise!).

 

The end.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





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





I Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me…

25 08 2008

Victim number one, come on down…                       (Maroon village, Suriname)

At age 10 I was evicted from the school choir because my voice was breaking. In fact, my spoken voice was still an exquisite falsetto that would have been the envy of the most successful of boy sopranos, but my singing voice was then, as it remains now, an instrument of abject aural torture. My choirmaster, in a gallant effort to save my feelings from the inexorable truth, simply stated that vocal manhood was coming early to my diminutive frame and showed me to the door to save her professional reputation and the eardrums of my colleagues.

 

Sadly, my dancing skills are similarly blighted. My abilities tend to be limited to subtle head-nodding and, when excited, foot-tapping. Any greater participation risks serious public embarrassment for me and possible injury for those nearby as could be witnessed at a Gipsy Kings’ amphitheatre concert some years ago. As the fiery music got the better of my commonsense, my legs became entangled with each other causing me to fall flat on the grass and roll downhill towards the stage. Fortunately, no one was killed and as it was dark I wasn’t asked to leave.

 

My rhythmic shortcomings haven’t prevented me from enjoying those more musically blessed, especially when travelling – although whenever there’s a hint of audience participation I usually seek safety in the furthest reaches of darkness.

 

In a roof-top nightclub in an Istanbul back street, a talented belly-dancer was wiggling her wares with time-honoured skill. I was captivated by her riveting rotations and tinkling jewellery…until she grabbed the first innocent victim from the watching masses. I immediately began to retreat to the corner, the familiar cold sweat beading on my forehead. One by one she drew participants forward with relentless enthusiasm and I edged closer to the edge of the roof. I stared skyward at the stars, out over the city to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and hid my face behind my beer glass all in the quest for invisibility…but still she came closer. Just as I was about to plunge onto the street below, she twirled away and returned to the dance floor leaving me and my pounding heart to order another, stiffer drink.

 

In Madrid, I was contentedly pinned behind a table in a tiny tapas bar and able to enjoy a hypnotic display of flamenco free from fear. In Buenos Aires, I was equally comfortable watching a tango show, correctly confident that the establishment was too refined and the Argentine clientele too discerning to tolerate audience participation. Less secure in Cuba however, I hid behind a shadowy pillar to avoid participating in a sensuous spectacle of rumba.

 

Occasionally though, participation can’t be avoided and the terror is justified. One such occasion came deep in the Amazonian jungles of Suriname.

 

One evening we were invited to travel downstream to a small village. The jungle was pitch-black and our able pilot navigated the rapids and shallows by memory rather than flashlight. Eventually, over the din of our outboard motor drifted the sounds of singing and music and we arrived at a small sandy beach, dragged our motorised canoes ashore and walked up to the village clearing.

 

Once greeted by the chief, we were directed to a hut and asked to change into more traditional attire which consisted of loose cotton tops, neckerchiefs and loin cloths and self-consciously returned to the village’s main hut to the hoots and giggles of the villagers.

 

After a feast of cassava and fish, the entertainment began. Our small group sat on benches around the inside perimeter and watched impressive traditional dancing that re-enacted the village’s age-old legends and tales of hunts, gods and jungle beasts all to pounding drum beats and singing. Then, my worst nightmare came true. As if sitting cross-legged all night to protect my modesty wasn’t enough, I was dragged onto centre-stage to shake my booty with the best.

 

My sunburned skin hid my blushes and the intense jungle heat disguised my cold sweat, but there was no hiding my two left-feet before the assembled masses. As self-conscious as a lobster in the tank of a seafood restaurant, I earnestly tried to follow the lead of my partner and instructor, moving in time to the music and attempting to control my flailing limbs so as not to hurt anyone and cause an international incident. I secretly longed for an overhead beam to fall on me or for a jaguar to leap through the open door and drag me into the darkness, but sadly there was no escape. My time as the centre of attention seemed to last forever before my companions came forth and the entire village and guests boogied the evening away to a cacophony of laughs and shouts.

 

After all-around hugs, we changed back into our own clothes, waved good-bye to our new friends and headed off back upstream to our camp. A million stars illuminated the swathe cut through the jungle by the viscous river, and moonlight reflected in the eyes of lurking caimans and unidentified beasties.

 

Thankfully, no one commented on my spectacle. Perhaps they’d all been entranced by the magical surroundings and the unforgettable hospitality of the isolated village and hadn’t noticed…or perhaps they’d been scared into silence by the erratic uncoordinated nocturnal spasms of the campmate with whom they were now spending the night alone!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 10

14 08 2008


‘Excuse me, but do you have John Jay Osborn’s “The Paper Che’s”?’  (Havana, Cuba)

 

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Saint Augustine

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Postcards from the Edge

19 05 2008

Havana books

Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your postcards.

As a child, I ate a veritable forest’s worth of rice paper-wrapped chocolate cigarettes. I would saunter about with the imitation vice between my fingers, before downing it with one bite. It was initially an effort to emulate my favourite TV and movie smokers, but there was also something very cool about being able to eat paper without risking parental punishment. I was easily a one-pack-a-day guy and ate so many I actually assumed that the old adage that we all have one book in us was in fact a literal reference to my fibre intake, and not a literary one.

 

With age, I gave up the filthy habit and moved on to far more mature confectionary addictions, like snorting red licorice. Thanks to travel, however, I do now feel as though I have at least one book in me. This time, indeed of the literary variety.

 

Ever since my very first exotic wanderings, I have maintained a travel diary. They’re useful in identifying photographs when you get home, and are also a great way to unwind in the evening while sitting by the campfire, the pool or in the bar. You can make point-form notes in order to jog your memory when you get home, or be more detailed and write great long tracts. I have a whole slew of tattered and moth-eared notebooks that served as diaries during my various travels. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at them more than once – if at all, but they are nice to have. And, if ever Steven Spielberg decides to make a movie adaptation of my life and cast some precocious 8 year old to play me as an adult, I can assist with the specifics.

 

Postcards are another great way to record your travels. You obviously have to be far more concise on a postcard than in a diary, but combined with the image on the other side, you can paint a pretty good picture of your feelings and mood at the time. Instead of merely bringing home a couple of nice postcards as souvenirs, I started to actually mail one to myself when I travel. This is only partly to con the mailman into thinking that I have well-travelled friends…or friends at all, really. I try and be creative and humourous in my message aware that I’ll likely be depressed to be home again when I next see it, but invariably get no more original than “Wish I was still here”.

 

In all my travels, I have only had the postcards from one place completely fail to arrive at their destination. I have mailed them from small towns in the African bush and tiny villages in the Amazonian jungle; from the Australian outback, the Sahara and the extreme north of Iceland and Finland. Even from a Ukrainian research station in the Antarctic. But the only ones that failed to reach friends and family completely were mailed in Cuba.

 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have added the little stick drawing of Fidel munching on chocolate cigars?

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





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