Monday, July 19, 2010

Trip part 3 - the USA - Peacock on a hot tin roof

Judging the States on brief visits to New York and Miami is like judging an extended family by having one night stands with two of the prettiest members. You have got a feel for it (so to speak) but you’re still missing out on all the normal day-to-day issues.

And it doesn’t help that New York and Miami are a typical of American culture in many ways. New York because it is so very diverse, a city that has inspired enough purple prose and invective over the years. A city that is all things to all men - a business metropolis, a city of slums, 5th Avenue and Harlem, the New Yorker and Sex in the City, Friends and Sopranos.

If you want to recreate the New York in the summer experience, take twenty strippers, thirty assorted religious ministers, forty crazy people, a goat for aroma, fifty feral pigeons and one coked-up DJ. Put them all in an tiny art gallery. Turn the music to loud and make the booze and drugs free. Crank up the heat and you have it; frenetic, diverse, bizarre and oddly intimate - ladies and gentlemen, this is New York.

We visit for July 4th, when the city is driven crazy by summer humidity and lit by fireworks and the streets are full of people. We have about as much fun as you can have in 24 hours - viewing the best of European history rebuilt in Cloisters, getting lost in art at the Met, relaxing in Central Park, fireworks and beers and the subway and buckets of iced coffees and food portions the size of my head - and leave exhausted, broke and over-stimulated the next day. Ladies and gentlemen, this is New York.

The next stop is Miami. Pretty much everything you need to know about Miami Beach can be summed up in one sentence. Instead of pigeons, they have peacocks and the mannequins have breast implants.

No really. Implants. Miami beach is lined by glorious art deco Mi-Mo buildings (that’s Miami Modern) filled with designer goods and massively mammaried mannequins. Flashy is something to be aspired to. The men are pinheads on pecs and glutes, the women lean with huge boobs and every tendon visible in their arms. There's less fat on them than on stick insect. I think it’s meant to be attractive, but they all look like rotisserie chickens to me, all skinny limbs, tight tendons and unnaturally plump breasts coated in a tanned and oiled skin. Looking good in Miami Beach is clearly expensive if you are not poultry.

Miami as a city is a little more diverse but retains that firey and flashy feel. Houses of the rich and famous back on to the water at Star Island (Vanilla Ice owns a mansion next to the guy who helped invent Viagra, Carmen Electra lives next to Ricki Martin and Jackie Chan’s back deck is covered in jetskis). As the first and final point of call for many Cubans it means that Spanish feels more like the official language than English, and Little Havana contains the world’s only Cuban Macdonalds, which is far more expensive than the surrounding - and much nicer - local Cuban-style places.

In the city, clubs blare hot Latino beats and R’n’B from midnight, with costly cocktails and chilled champagne being the drinks on the dancefloor. Want to sit in the VIP area? That will cost you. Mangos grow wild and peacocks crow from the roofs of houses in Coconut Grove. Pigeons are, possibly, just not flash enough for the rotisserie chicken people. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Miami, if you can afford it.

We’re can’t. So we are off to Guatemala and who knows what we will find on the roof at night?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Big Trip - next stop Ireland

After luxe-ing it up in Bangkok, my next stop is Ireland, which is lacking in outdoor Jacuzzis and infinity pools but utterly teeming with booze (which is normal) and sunshine (which certainly isn’t). The beach wedding that I have flown over is surprised by unseasonably pleasant summer weather. All the guests have brought umbrellas. None of us have brought sunscreen. P, my travelling companion and an Australian of the “Slip, Slop, Slap” school*, stares in horror at the guests, all turning steadily pinker and visibly dehydrating, who are making no attempts to cover up.

He pokes me and whispers. “The Irish don’t know how to deal with sunlight!”

True, but we know how to enjoy it, and everyone is maximising their chance of getting a bit of vitamin D to last us through the winter. There is a joke in Ireland about the odds of a sunny day coming up. “Did you have a nice summer in Ireland this year?” “We did, it was on a Wednesday”.

In 2010, the summer was on my friends’ wedding day. We stand there, on a beach so white and blue and sunny it could be in the Caribbean, blinking in the unfamiliar sunshine. Baking gently as the bride and groom swear their vows. I bury my toes in the warm sand as they swap rings and the waves lap behind them. Afterwards, all the guests go for a paddle. It’s simply a perfect day.

And it sets the tone for the Irish trip in general. It’s hard to get perspective on the country that I grew up in. Things that seem amazing to others (summer sunsets at 11pm, two thousand year old hill forts randomly sprinkled in farmer’s fields, pubs where the craic is always mighty) are old hat to me, but returning after five years living abroad it’s easier to see the great aspects of the Ireland and the Irish.

The landscape, swinging from verdant green to bare limestone hills and the wild blue of the Atlantic. The people, the chats, the wry sense of humour and the inventive and imaginative turns of phrase used. The castles, the cathedrals, the beer gardens and snugs of real Irish pubs.

The endless, endless quantities of booze. Oh wow, the booze. I had forgotten that Guinness is not meant to be slightly warm and greasy with a faint acidic taste, but a smooth and creamy cool on the palate draught.

It’s only when I find myself finding the distinctive sing-song accent of Cork cute, when I know logically that it sounds like the high pitched whining of a rusted hinge in a particularly temperamental gale, that I realise that it’s probably time to move on. Next stop, where luxury and Guinness will both be completely off the cards, New York.

That’s Slip on a teeshirt, Slop on a hat and Slap on the sunscreen. Basically it advocates total coverage on sunny days when you go outdoors and P, as a sensible Australian, follows it far more religiously that I do. He has been known to chase me around the house desperately trying to place a hat on me but has so far resisted the urge to place me in a hermetically sealed lightproof bunker on sunny days.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Big Trip, Country 1 - A Party in Thailand’s Pants

There is a saying. “There is a party in my pants and everyone is invited.”

If someone were to actually try to fit a few million party people into their pair of pants, that hot, humid and thoroughly frenetic gusset would be Bangkok. The city assaults the senses with it‘s sheer vibrancy, teeming and steaming in humidity so intense that to step out of the air conditioning for the briefest moment is to look like a marathon runner in their last mile. The city’s buildings and temples sparkle in the sun by day and are festooned with neon and fairy lights by night. The river throngs with boats, the dragon boat dangling flowers from their pointed and multi-coloured prows as they skim over the sullen and silt-filled water. Bangkok never sleeps. It might miss something.

On our first day and fighting lack of sleep, we are dazzled by the noise, the smells. Street vendors hawk dried fish heads and fruit next to the stench of an open sewer; tuk-tuk drivers chase tourists offering a ride; taxi drivers call out to us and wave us over. They want take us on a trip see temples and palaces. All free if we just stop to look at some shops, some hand-made suit stores, some gems, some jewellery. It’s stupidly cheap - 10 baht for a trip to the Reclining Buddha, but they raise the offer price to 200 baht home from the markets when they find we are staying in the Bangkok Hilton. At what should be 50, it’s a blatant rip-off.

As we walk off to find a cheaper option, a Thai man appears from nowhere and offers to take us out to show us a good time. Well, show P, my partner in travel and occasionally crime, a good time. There’s a party, and no pants are involved. “Girls. I show you pretty girls. Ping pong show?” he wheedles, unwilling to accept the fact that P is currently so tired he would probably only be interested if the girls offered him a pillow and perhaps a cup of cocoa.

I am tempted. A story where my partner was woken from his dreams by a damp ping pong ball to the head is tempting, but P just wants some sleep. If only we can find someone who’s not trying to rip us off to take us home.

You can’t blame them for trying. Our hotel is not a cheap option and they briefly think they have big spenders on their hands when we tell them where we want to go. But we‘re just splashing out on our accommodation. We’re staying in the Bangkok Hilton - the real one, not the prison. It couldn’t be less gaol-like. The pillows are the size of surf boards, the bathroom is bigger than several of the apartments I have rented while back-packing. The enormous breakfast buffet includes the usual suspects - fried pig for the unhealthy, fruit and nuts for the health conscious (both for me) - but also has a chef whose job is to cook waffles and serve them with melted chocolate or honey or fresh berries. I could get used to this. Why do we not have a waffle chef at home?

On the fourth floor, the infinity pool stretches into the sky. Sitting out in an outdoor Jacuzzi overlooking the river below with smiling Thai bringing me fluffy towels and watermelon on a stick, I keep feeling that I have stolen someone else’s holiday. I’m a backpacker. I don’t normally travel like this. But a room at the four and a half star Millennium Hilton costs around130AUD a night and we have a long arduous trip planed, most of which will be low-budget. May as well enjoy the party while it lasts.