About Jessica Sinclair
Jessica Sinclair is a freelance writer, travel nut, international affairs specialist, and enthusiast for all things global. Having grown up in New Zealand, England, Borneo and Australia, and with family scattered across the globe, Jessica developed from her youngest years an in-built sense of wanderlust and a desire to see more of the world.
During and on completion of her Master of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, Jessica has continued to wander the globe for inspiration and edification, in amongst working on project development for non-profit organisations in developing countries. Her stories and articles attempt to bring cultural understanding and unique ‘insider’ angles to the places she visits, and to broader musings for the seasoned voyager, burrowing to the core of what it really means to travel.
Latest Posts by Jessica Sinclair
I am not sure where to begin when it comes to writing about Laos, a place that was at one time my home of nearly two years, which chipped off a huge piece of my heart that still beats for that mellow Mekong lifestyle. Laos lacks Thailand’s seedy side, is more humble than Cambodia, friendlier and quieter than Vietnam, and is less well known than Myanmar. It is geographically and figuratively the heart of Southeast Asia, landlocked between bigger, more powerful and better-known neighbours, trapped in a time warp borne from 40 years of communist, single-party rule and a buddhist-animist penchant for the slow and considered life.
Laos epitomises the best features of its regional neighbours without the dross; retaining a stoic, almost stubborn, sense of integrity helped along by its ‘off the beaten track’ status that has staved off the nastier strains of tourism found in the likes of Thailand and Cambodia. In fact, Laos is by and large tourist-free, its most amazing sights paradoxically free of charge or dirt cheap, yet devoid of visitors.
It’s hard to put into words why Laos grabs so many people, sucking them into an alluring time warp where the hours slow down and, before you know it, what was meant to be a two-week stopover meanders on and on like the proverbially snaking Mekong. And there is plenty to snare would-be itinerants, holding them still for longer than might have been intended. There’s the French colonial influence that sees giant boulevards and curly wrought iron architecture interspersed amongst the chaotic laneways, buddhist temples and stark, lime green communist-style buildings, offering up the best croissant, bread, patisserie and coffee in all of Asia.
Kungs Cafe, Vientiane
There’s the infectious sense of dolce far niente (or, the Lao equivalent, sabai sabai), more often associated with so-laid-back-they’re-horizontal southern European cultures (it’s jokingly said that the ‘P.D.R’ in ‘Lao PDR’ stands for ‘please don’t rush’). There’s the unswervingly welcoming nature of the Lao people, who greet foreigners (endearingly referred to by locals as falang; literally “French” in Lao language) with open arms, without the over-trained, saccharine, faux hospitality of other southeast Asian countries.
Lao people’s genuine hospitality and warmth comes with a healthy dose of party mania; Beer Lao is one of the best in the region and is consumed in abundance on every possible occasion, alongside back-to-back Johnny Walker…particularly if it’s a Lao wedding where they might break out the blue label!
Laos also offers artisanal culture producing some of the most extravagant and stunning woven textiles on the planet. Women tend to own hundreds of traditional Lao sinh for all manner of occasions from the office to a wedding or formal function; the most expensive sinh on which I splurged was a few hundred dollars.
Then there’s Laos’ fascinating history and culture, equal parts fact and intrigue, which pervades every facet of modern life in one of the world’s most resilient forms of old school one-party state communism. Despite the political landscape, Lao culture manifests in brilliant colour through the cultural and religious life found in buddhist temples (wats) and religious ceremonies and blessings (bacis), blended with animist superstition and mysticism dictating which lotto numbers one should choose, and investing a lot of authority in the word of local fortune tellers.
And of course there’s the extravagant natural beauty – the real backdrop to Laos – which varies across the four corners of the country and produces some of the most stunning landscapes and most abundant (albeit, sadly, rapidly depleting) cornocopias of flora and fauna on earth.
Despite being relatively ‘off the beaten track’, Laos has no shortage of world class tourist attractions. There’s the mysterious plain of jars, which rival the likes of Stonehenge and Easter Island for its mystic monoliths. Nature lovers will fall for the waterfalls and coffee fields are dotted throughout Pakse and surrounds, where one can also explore Khmer temple Wat Phou, with the serenity that’s absent in the tourist-riddled complex of Angkor Wat.
There’s the world class historical site of the Vieng Xay caves, impossible to get to and nearly deserted, but worth the effort to see the network of caves where the Pathet Lao – the founding fathers of modern Laos – hid out and lived, trained and organised for 9 years during America’s secret war before coming to power in the Communist victory. There’s the drunken parties and tubing in Vang Vieng, which despite having mellowed since a spate of drug-related tourist deaths gives Thailand’s full moon parties a less vulgar run for their money. And of course one can’t go past world heritage site Luang Prabang, whose French colonial charm mixed with enchanting temples and nature render it deservedly the number one attraction in Laos, although sadly often the only stop on many-a-tourist’s itinerary.
The beautiful backdrop to Vang Vieng
But the real charm from Laos comes not from a check list of sights and spectacles; box-ticking tourists will only be disappointed if comparing little Laos to the grandeur of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the heaving popularity of Thailand’s beaches and parties, and the more well-known historical record of Vietnam’s war-riddled past. Laos’ real charm comes from the magic of the quotidian. It’s in the mighty Mekong, a backdrop for daily life in Laos that provides a setting for festivals, romantic walks, beer stops on rickety riverside shacks, boat races, evening runs, and 80s style aerobics-en-masse.
It is in the calendar of festivals throughout the year, from Dragon Boat racing, to the nationwide water fight at Pi Mai (Lao New Year), to the Rocket Festivals celebrating the coming of the rainy season, where rockets are fired into the sky and Lao people wear symbols of fertility for the harvest (including giant wooden phalluses!). It’s in the legendary parties, with the constant stream of beer Lao, strange beer snacks (chicken feet, anyone?), conversation and smiles. It’s, in the absence of malls, fast food or cinemas – albeit that these are gradually creeping in – forcing one to find fun in a game of cards or petanque (a Lao favourite), a DVD night with friends, or an all nighter of Lebowski-esque old school bowling. My only advice to tourists would be to ditch the itinerary and take their time to discover Laos. It really deserves to be explored in a meandering, curious and unplanned fashion, with open eyes and a Laotian-style laid back attitude, whether you have a week or a myear to do so.
Whatever your itinerary, I can guarantee that Laos will get under your skin and draw you back again, and again, and again. It’s a country that deserves to be known, to be on the map, and yet – paradoxically – derives its charm from the very sense of being unknown; from its mysticism and intrigue. The word is slowly but surely getting out, and Laos’ cities in particular are rapidly changing as they cave to the incessant push of modernity and investment; malls and cinemas are opening where previously there were corner shops and DVD peddlers, and year-on-year the landscape changes. But, despite the steady pace of change, Laos keeps on keeping on in its own humble, unassuming way, unphased by the falang that pass through on their way to somewhere else.
Of course there’s a piano in the toilet – it’s New Orleans!
It’s hard to convey New Orleans in a nutshell or in a blog post, for that matter. Before my recent soujourn in the Big Easy, I scoured travel guides and picked the brains of friends who know the city well. I knew a smattering of facts about NOLA’s food, music, and its people, but in all honesty the bulk of my experience was, like many, sound bytes and news clips of the devastation wrought by and deep-seated inequalities unearthed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Still, in the wake of a whirlwind week-long trip to the misty, swelteringly hot, melting pot of a city along the banks of the Mississippi River, I found it hard to describe that special something that sets New Orleans apart from the rest of the United States.
Many months later, I’ve finally brought myself to penning some thoughts about the southern centre of all things jazz. I thought I’d do something a little different, and, in lieu of telling you what to think of this mysterious and magnificent corner of the world, let you discover it for yourself, with the aid of my top 5 tips to ensure that you make the most out of your New Orleans trip:
1. Look no further than Frenchman Street for your fix of hoppin’ New Orleans jazz
One could spend an entire trip to New Orleans on Frenchman Street. Bar hopping from jazz club to jazz club through the early hours of the morning, drinking like a New Orleanean (read: knockin’ them back like there’s no tomorrow), and dancing up a storm to everything from old-fashioned New Orleans style big band jazz, or more modern interpretations of popular music, ‘jazzified’. Sure, there are more underground and (arguably) more ‘authentic’ jazz venues further afield – notably, in Treme (see below) – but for those with only one or two days in the city, Frenchman Street provides more than enough variety of ‘flavours’ for those wanting to dip their toes into the infamous NOLA jazz scene.
2. Eat Fresh Seafood…and plenty of it
Whether or not you are a seafood person, you cannot visit New Orleans without trying some of the world class fruits de mer they have on offer. I would even venture to say it might turn a new leaf in the seafood-averse. From crawfish etoufée, to fresh oysters at the famous Acme Oyster Bar, shrimp gumbo, fried oyster po’ boys (the traditional submarine sandwich of New Orleans), or even a fancy dinner at one of New Orleans’ top end seafood restaurants (try GW Fins off Bourbon Street), New Orleans is known for its seafood for a reason, and it’s not to be missed.
3. Venture into Treme
I cannot say enough how much I loved Treme. Nestled just above the tourist-riddled French Quarter, and slightly off-the-beaten-track for its reputation as being somewhat dangerous (at least after dark), historic Treme is the centre of black culture in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, the historic home of voodoo, and simply brimming with cultural and historical heritage.
If you’re sick of the Creole and Cajun-spiced food of the French Quarter, look no further than Treme for a hearty dose of deep Southern Soul Food. For a self-confessed Fried Chicken Addict in need of some finger-lickin’ rehab, Willie Mae’s offered the real deal in terms of golden-encrusted, succulent poultry goodness, as well as other Soul Food staples like okra, mac n’ cheese, fried catfish, black eyed peas and collard greens. For a more up-market Soul Food (wear your Sunday best!), head to the world-famous Dooky Chase for a kickin’ buffet (including more fabulous fried chicken!) that even President Obama has sampled at one point!
Treme is also brimming with the history of slavery in the Deep South, with an interesting Cajun/Creole twist. strong French cultural influence in New Orleans permeates its architecture, food, and laid back nature (where the strong puritan ethic of northern states has never quite taken hold – at least as concerns partying and kicking back), but also its history, where for the longest time French civil law dominated and affected all forms of social life including the lives of slaves.
The more economic versus puritanical motives behind French versus Anglo-American slave systems meant that slaves were given Sunday’s off to congregate in Congo Square, the birthplace of jazz. This slightly more lax attitude towards slaves under the French legal system in New Orleans birthed a vibrant jazz culture which might not have happened under the more work-driven, church-focused and puritanical Anglo south.
Beyond the history of slavery and jazz, New Orleans black culture is unique for its intriguing collision with native American culture, manifested notably in the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians. There are around 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes comprised of various standard ranks from spyboy up to Big Chief, and the members of these tribes ‘Mask Injun’ for annual parades – meaning they don their native-American inspired costumes to march in a parade, followed by second line jazz details .
The ostentatious costumes, adorned with all manner of bling, and which take a year to hand-sew bead-by-bead (it’s only the African-American men who sew the costumes!), are on display in the Backstreet Cultural Museum. The affable owner/patron/curator of the Backstreet museum, Sylvester Francis, will happily take the time to walk you through the collection and share his intimate knowledge of these traditions, in which he has played a long-standing part.
4. Wander every street in the French Quarter
Opinion on New Orleans tourism generally divides over one issue: Bourbon Street. The infamous street is on the top of many-a-tourist’s list and yet most are surprised to find a Las Vegas style level of garishness when they happen upon the strip joints and neon of Bourbon Street, with more Sean Paul than Miles Davis pouring from its seedy façades.
That said, Bourbon Street has its share of hidden gems, too. Afore-mentioned up-market seafood restaurant G W Fins can be found on an alleyway just off Bourbon Street. Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street makes a decent version of the famous cinnamon donut-style traditional New Orleans Beignet, and a decent coffee to boot.
There is something to be said for sauntering down Bourbon Street late at night to poke fun at the drunken tourists partaking in debaucherous acts, or trying to spot the most ridiculous outfit. If you have a few days to spend, why not swallow your cynicism vis-a-vis the less picturesque, more garish side of the city and throw it in with the locals for a glass of Wild Turkey on Bourbon Street?
5. Indulge in a little supernatural activity
One of the most striking things I found about New Orleans was the incredible sense of spirituality and the supernatural permeating the air. From the ghosts of the jazz legends felt in the sometimes speakeasy-like jazz bars, to the history of the slaves and free people of color found wandering the streets of Treme, to the old-worldly streetcars which make you want to channel Tennessee Williams and scream “STELLA” at the top of your lungs, to the infamous voodoo queen Marie Levau and her legacy documented in the voodoo museum in the French Quarter, there is no shortage of spooky stories and harrowing history in New Orleans.
The boarded up and torn down houses still dotting some of the Katrina-affected streets are even more a reminder of the history – and the ghosts – that haunt the southern city. Whether you are superstitious, spiritual or a hardened cynic, it is worth visiting the voodoo museum to write down your wish and deliver it to the voodoo statue, to take the streetcar past the cemetery to contemplate the personalities and historic figures who have come before in the city, and to generally be brave enough to wander the streets of the French Quarter on a quintessentially foggy New Orleans evening.
That, or there’s many-a-ghost-tour-operator who’d love to accompany the less brave amongst us for a spooky walking tour of the city’s creepy past.
So there you have it: my top 5 tips for making the most out of your trip to this most fascinating and exhilerating of American cities. I will one day (god-willing) go back for Mardi Gras to experience the sweltering Southern melting pot in all its glory, but in the meantime look forward to hearing your tips, too, so I can collect these for what I hope will be many more visits in future!
Talk of Orlando as a holiday destination tends to evoke a singular entity in the public imaginary: Disney. And while it’s true that much tourism is geared towards Walt and his mini empire built on top of acres and acres of swampland south of Orlando, this was all the more reason for me to try to seek out the real Orlando – or what I thought might be the real Orlando – on a recent trip to the Sunshine State.
The trouble is, Orlando and its surrounds don’t appear to have much of an identity beyond Disney. Like the teenage child of a well-off family trying to carve out his or her own niche in this world, the greater Orlando area, it seems, continues in vain to attempt to make a name for itself in other fields – universities, community development, space exploration – all the while falling back into Daddy Walt’s mould of bizarro and hyper-real theme-park-esque fairytales.
One example of this is the infamous lovebugs seen infesting southern parts of the U.S.A twice a year. These strange insects – so-called because they fly around attached in couples, permanently mating, for days on end – migrated to Florida in the 1920s from other Southern States. However, Floridians in Orlando were quick to explain to me, based on popular yet erroneous folklore, that these bugs were actually the result of a ‘science experiment gone bad’: the misguided cock-eyed optimism of a University of Florida DNA manipulation experiment for mosquito control, that inadvertently created an army of nuisance insects with a mutant-level reproduction rate. Sounds like an overblown Disney cartoon, right?
Another example is the Disney-spawned town of Celebration, Florida, nestled downstream from Walt Disney World at the end of World Drive. While the town is now largely independent from Disney control, there is an eery quality about the place, almost like a deserted film set with façades where homes should be. The lawns and public spaces are impeccably mowed, the churches, stores, and other public spaces seem picture perfect in their design and layout, and white picket fences, American flags, curbside mailboxes, and rocking chairs on porches abound on every quaintly-named street. But there is no apparent life to the community that Celebration’s Disney creators had so dearly hoped to foster (Celebration’s official website says that it “is not a town, but a community in every positive sense of the word”). One could just as well be a few miles north – on Mainstreet USA in the Magic Kingdom – as in a living, breathing, functioning town. Except without the crowds: I think I sighted a total of two people in a half-hour drive around Celebration’s streets.
Even the Space Coast just outside of Orlando, home of the Kennedy Space Center, with its real and genuine claim to fame and historical value, has a bizarre theme-park quality about it. At the Space Center, one can ride a simulator of a space launch, watch IMAX films of deep space narrated by Hollywood Stars, take an antiquated tour bus around the complex with sluggish narration provided by geriatric tour guides, have a photograph with an astronaut, and engage in conspiracy theorising about whether Americans ever really did land that man on the moon — why haven’t they been back, yet?
The ‘real’ Orlando, if you ask me, is just this: a little kitsch (we kept tally of the many themed highway motels, one of which was Fawlty Towers themed), a little bit loud and over-the-top (one cannot escape the barrage of highway-side advertising: gift shops, steak houses, supermarkets, ribs joints, lawyers, fried chicken, tattoos, electronic goods, and drive through everything, all screaming at you in flashing neon for your business) and, yes, somewhat brash (where else can one see roadside HOOTERS joints alongside churches, and billboards alternately pushing plaintiff lawyers for all manner of sue-able offences and anti-abortion campaigns for single pregnant women to carry out god’s will). Beneath the plastic Disney patina, it appears, there is a local culture of still more tackiness and kitsch!
Of course it’s not all cotton-candy, lights, music, branding and capitalism-on-speed. There is also a rough-and-tough and down-and-out feel about Downtown Orlando, several miles north of Disney, where the global financial crisis ostensibly has hit fairly hard, and in much of which you will want to stay in your car and drive through rather than hop out for a wide-eyed wander round the deserted streets and empty houses. Downtown Orlando ain’t no Celebration, FL, that’s for sure! But, for the most part, visitors to Orlando will give Downtown a miss – and most likely also ignore Celebration, the Space Coast, the local wildlife reserves, and possibly even the local (if also kitchy) eateries – instead spending an all-inclusive holiday park-hopping between Disney, Universal, and the other theme parks on offer, even eating, sleeping and after-hours-partying on theme park turf.
If kitsch and branding isn’t your thing, I would suggest skipping all the ‘attractions’ that Orlando has to offer and instead cash in on its natural beauty: swamps, lakes, muggy tropical heat, (nearby) beaches, picture-perfect sunsets and wildlife reserves replete with birds, manatees and gators. In this, I believe, lies the root of the ‘magic’ that Walt distilled into his manufactured Disney Empire, plonked in the middle of nowhere, somewhere off Florida’s turnpike.
There is nothing quite so frustrating to a seasoned traveller as the experience of not quite ‘getting’ a place as one passes through. Of course, not every corner of the world into which we wander can make the ‘Top 10′ list, but the skilled traveller (and even more, the skilled travel writer) should be able to find little gems in every city, irrespective of whether s/he falls head over heels for its charms.
And yet, on another weekend-travel-whim to Madrid, I found myself, for the first time in a long time, feeling utterly disconnected from the place I had been so looking forward to venturing out into. Here, before continuing, I should list a few disclaimers: I was a sickly girl for my trip, with a bad case of the flu; I only had two full days in the city; my abhorrent Spanish gets me slightly past ‘how are you?’ but not yet up to ‘how about a drink tonight?’; and, as a solo traveller, I found myself more than once without dining companions. For a food fiend like myself, this last point is supremely important, as I found myself stealthily ducking in and out for a quick meal while others labored over multiple courses. In a gastronomically-oriented city like Madrid, where life revolves around eating and drinking, to the point of dictating working hours and even linguistic cues (When does “buenas dias” turn into “buenas tardes“? Once you’re done eating lunch, of course!), such does not a happy traveller make. And I guess when I stack up disclaimers back-to-back like this, it almost seems like Madrid was destined to fail from my own careless planning, poor linguistic skills, stubborn lone-ranger complex, and bad timing.
But there was something else, something more, about the Spanish capital which made it seem, to me, a tougher nut than most to crack. I felt in Madrid like many have told me they feel in Paris: sure it’s beautiful, and the lifestyle appears great, but where is the soul? Almost every other Mediterranean country has the same laid back lifestyle, encompassing long meals, late nights, and (dare I say it) lax work ethic. Many cosmopolitan urban hubs throughout the world offer the same range of nightlife, cuisine, and alternative arts and culture, on rotation 24/7 for the picking. And in many – if not all – other bustling cities I’ve visited, it’s been much easier to meet friendly locals who are willing to take you under their wing, induct you into the fold, and usher you behind the velvet ropes of the off-limits, ‘locals-only’ parts of their city, even just for a weekend. It’s telling, after all, that most ‘locals’ I eventually did meet in Madrid were either Spaniards from other parts, or internationals-cum-locals living and working in the city for a year or two.
Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I did not fall under one of my frequent ‘love this city’ spells while in the Spanish capital does not mean that there weren’t a host of distinct aspects that I adored about it. For instance, near-30 degree, sparklingly sunny days in mid-October! And the tradition of sobremesa - sitting over one’s food and wine for hours upon end in the middle of the day – is nothing short of an ingenious custom. The art in the Reina Sofia museum is breathtaking: in particular, I found the historicity of the works, like the grotesque depictions of Spain under Franco, dumbfounding for their visceral impact. The technically illegal yet widely practiced botillon - literally, drinking bottles (of alcohol) in the streets and on street corners before heading out on the town – is a charming archetype of Spanish sociability. The sprawling grounds of Parque del Buen Retiro rival Central Park as one of the most tranquil, yet ‘lived-in’ and vibrant, urban spaces I have come across in my travels. And joining in with the “15 de octubre” manifestacion – the local incarnation of the “occupy wall street” global movement (initiated, as Spanish folk will tell you, by the 15-M protests in Madrid earlier in the year) – brought home to me the Spanish ‘personality’ if one can speak of such a thing: people of all stripes – hippies and executives, families pushing prams, young lovers, and old timers – singing, chanting, dancing, and banding together in the least violent and apparently most atmospheric of all the global demonstrations.
On my last couple of days, when I met a bevvy of young folks who showed me around and told me stories about why they loved the city, my eyes were slowly peeled open, offering a glimpse behind the smokescreen of the “generic-European-city” vibe that Madrid was bouncing back at my solo attempts to uncover its essence and burrow to its core. In particular, once I had managed to crack Madrid’s surface just a little – like the first teaspoon-tap on a crème brulée’s crust – I began to understand exactly just why it is so hard to make that first breakthrough.
More than one of my new acquaintances explained to me that many (though by no means all) madrileños have one, seldom-evolving group of close friends who they have grown up with and with whom they will likely be friends forever – a so-called pandilla (loosely translated as a ‘gang’). This makes it tough for even other locals to penetrate into already-established cliques, not for a lack of friendliness or affability on the part of madrileños, but rather because they simply do not feel a need to broaden their horizons and go beyond their existing social circles.
Not only this, but Madrid, as the centre of the historical region of Castille, has a history of being berated, chastised and literally and figuratively beaten down by its neighbours in Pays Vasco, Gallicia, and Cataluña. This, I believe, has made madrileños (and, I can only guess, other castellaño-speaking Spaniards) self-conscious of their own cultural identity, and much less prone to proudly brandish it than those – either within their own country or across the Atlantic – who castellaños have historically oppressed. The only ‘real-deal’ madrileña girl I met told me – almost assured me – that, in this 21st century of ours, a large part of her younger generation has become empathetic and even supportive of the Catalonians, Basques and Gallicians, in their loud-and-proud flexing of their “independence” muscle. She seemed to go so far as to say that she respects the beef that these cultural-linguistic minorities have with majority Spain, recognising it as their prerogative. One could by no means call it self-loathing or even historical guilt, but I feel that there is an element of Madrid adopting the guise of shrinking violet to the boastful nationalism and cultural pride of the other major urban centres in Pays Vasco, Gallicia, and Cataluña.
I guess Madrid, in its impenetrability and ‘where’s wally?’-like game of spotting locals amidst a sea of allsorts, is like many other sprawling, cosmopolitan, multicultural, hip-and-happening cities I’ve been to throughout the world. Perhaps this is why I found it hard to swallow: like my home town of Geneva, where 40% of the population is foreign and at first it’s hard to find your way, you really need to take the time – and have the energy – to crack the city’s surface before you can access all the hidden gems it has to offer. Perhaps this is also why, ironically, I left Madrid thinking that, with some work on my Spanish, I could see myself living in this city. It is not just – in fact, barely even – a tourist hub, but an ebbing, breathing, constantly moving, and ‘lived-in’ city which, I’m sure, makes it all-the-more-rewarding of an experience once you perforate its tough exterior. So, while Madrid may not sport the big-ticket tourist eyesores of a Paris, the blown-wide-open hipster ‘underbelly’ of a Berlin, or the gaudiness (pun intended!) of a Barcelona, its liveability and its ‘flavour’ seem to be what attracts throngs upon throngs of foreigners every year – that is, precisely those elusive qualities that are hard to capture on a whirlwind weekend fly-by.
Anyway, who likes a city that gives it all away on the first date? I like a challenge, and I have a feeling that Madrid and I have many more liaisons to come, tending these little seeds of “there’s-something-about-Madrid” until they blossom into a full-blown love affair. That is, if the city will have me back.
Arriving into Australia’s Northern Territory was like stepping into another world. I am not sure how much it was me having been away from Australia for two years, or the fact that this was really a different Australia than what I’ve always known, but immediately I felt that the experience of travelling in one’s country is not always – perhaps even never – as close-to-home as one might think.
Stepping off the plane, my partner and I were immediately struck not only by the sweltering tropical heat but also by the joint amazement at seeing Aboriginal people in numbers, going about their quotidian routines, whether paying off airport parking tickets or waiting for relatives to arrive off a plane. Melbournians, if they have ever even seen an Aboriginal person in their midst, only know him or her as the drug addict who demands a buck on the way to work each day, or the old fella who throws beer bottles at their local publican in a drunken expression of rage at the injustice of it all. Having only been in “the Territory” for a matter of minutes, I already saw how different ‘cross-cultural’ life up there must be for white and black Australians alike and in particular in their interactions with each other. Impressions of myself as an inner-city cosmopolite from the melting pot of Melbourne were instantly undermined, and I realised how easy it is to become smug with a sense of inter-cultural exchange without in fact ever fully engaging in it.
Hitting the red dirt road from Darwin to Kakadu National Park gave us more surprises still. Looking for a healthy lunch option – some gourmet sandwich-on-rye with a café latté on the side – revealed to me the true extent of my yuppiedom and city girl upbringing, as we drove by several ‘cafés’ serving pre-cooked fish n’ chips from bain-maries before settling on a sausage roll from a roadside petrol station. Taking a croc-spotting boat cruise shamed me into realising that haboring prejudices against ‘country folk’ or ‘backwater hicks’ from your own country is equal to untested prejudices against people from far-off lands: our croc guides, whom I’d pre-emptively pegged as being Steve Irwin redneck caricatures, in fact were helpful, incredibly knowledgeable, professional and sensitive guys, respectful of the crocs and the local habitat. And checking into our remote digs in the middle of Kakadu (that were, of course, still civilised enough for a city slicker), the little geckos on the walls alerted me to how much more similar this tropical top-end of my country was to Brunei – the tropical, oil-rich Asian island country where I grew up (and where we called the little geckos ‘chit chats’) – than the southern parts surrounding Melbourne’s metropolis.
Driving deeper and deeper into Australia’s red centre, moving from tropical climates into the dry and wintry desert, the sense of culture shock and eye opening continued. At Katherine Gorge, I questioned what the relationship was between the well-spoken (and well-paid) traditional owners of the land, who provided tours that showed off their cultural heritage, and those bedraggled, drunk Aborigines with eyes full of despair who were being shunted out of the local Woolworths bottleshop or were meandering along the sides of the highways at all hours of the night. The chasm between the pride of the local people presiding over the spectacular site at Uluru – having ‘reclaimed’ their cultural heritage and some of their respect and dignity with it – and the desperate old Aboriginal woman who in a dark alleyway threatened, in broken English mixed with local dialect, to ‘fucking punch’ my partner if he didn’t give her $2.80, struck me like a slap in the face.
While the beauty of our Northern parts is undeniable – simply breathtaking – and the long history of the Aboriginal people and their intimate relationship with the land inspires wonder in even the most city-slicking tourist, there is a dark underbelly lurking behind the beauty of the ‘other half’ of Australia, one that left a bitter taste in my mouth, and prevented me from sleeping soundly under the desert night sky. Travelling through Australia’s Top End opened my eyes to the fact that there are at least ‘two Australias’ and two types of Australian out there – something I always knew, implicitly, but which I never really understood before seeing it with my own eyes. There is the “lucky country” and the forgotten country; those who have the right to buy alcohol and those for whom the state acts as a paternalistic intervener; those Aborigines who are palatable and celebration-worthy in our national imaginary and those who we cross the street to avoid or deride for their inability to simply ‘pick themselves up and live straight like the rest of us’. And, much as I hate to become part of the anti-intellectual city-bashing chorus that I have long fought against in my academic dalliance with questions of reconciliation and settler-Indigenous relations, there are indeed those non-Indigenous Australians – despite their subtle prejudices or oftentimes overt racism – who really understand what it is like to live at the frontier of settler-Indigenous relations, and those who simply pass through and deign to muse over it for a fleeting moment in a blog or a university essay.
I believe that all Australians should head up north at some point or another, armed with an open mind, an iron gut, and a lot of compassion for the people who we have historically trampled on and then blamed for their own disadvantage and stripped them of further rights with which to manage the fallout. The wonders of nature in the tropical north and red desert are not to be missed. But neither is the social reality of Aboriginal disadvantage which, if confronted head on, might just wake us up to ourselves or at least put a question mark over assertions that Australia, as a whole, is really a “lucky country”.
Porto is not like any other city I’ve traveled. Having experienced Lisbon’s imperial beauty and flashy personality, and regaled with stories of Port wine tasting and cellar tours, I’d imagined a city with oodles of pristine monuments and grapevine-entangled terraces overlooking a sparkling, cerulean ocean. And indeed, one could venture into Porto and spend a holiday ducking from wine cellar to wine cellar, learning about the different fermentation methods and variations on oak barrels, sipping varietals on terracotta terraces, and taking in picturesque vistas of the River Douro from the Solar do Vinho do Porto, set amidst the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal.
But while there is an element of ‘old folks wine touring’ about holidaying in Porto, the city’s rich history as an historical centre of viticulture forms only part of a broader story about Porto as a veritable ‘port’ in every sense of the word. And it’s this history as a port which gives the city its working town vibe and sets Porto apart from any preconceived ideal of a tranquil, vinho-enthusiast’s paradise.
Walking around Porto’s cluttered, cobbled streets ascending haphazardly from the banks of the river Douro – particularly in the grey November mist and rain – feels like jumping right onto the page of a Dickens novel or witnessing a scene from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Some – particularly those expecting Lisbon’s twin city in terms of imperial grandeur and ostentatious façades – might call it ‘dirty’, ‘dilapidated’ or ‘dishevelled’. But I would venture to say, without euphemism, that Porto has rustic charm, the kind of ‘something-around-every-corner’ charisma only found in the frenetic bump-and-grind of an unpretentious city secure in its own identity, and frankly too busy to care if you dig it or not.
Indeed, ‘unpretentious’ is a word that neatly encapsulates the vibe of urban Porto. Portugal’s north-south divide is well known and well demonstrated, and it’s often said that “Lisbon shows off while Porto works”. This reputation for an unassuming, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is reflected in the modest, almost low-brow, cuisine that Portugal’s northern city is known for. Porto’s specialties include tripe, variations on bacalhau – codfish salty enough to burst a kidney – and, my favourite, francesinhas (literally ‘Little Frenchies’), a local interpretation of a French croque: layers of different meats, encased in bread, topped with cheese and (on occasion) a fried egg, and drizzled in the special whiskey-and-beer-based piquant sauce that either makes or breaks this local speciality. It is an eyesore, a heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, and as far from haute cuisine as one could get. But it’s Porto on a plate, and it’s delicious.
It was Porto’s rustic, almost derelict, feel which charmed me and cast a spell over me as I wandered its cluttered, dark streets, amidst wafts of fish and salty air. And it’s not just I who has been captivated by the magical, other-worldly aura that emanates from Porto’s gritty streets: the afore-mentioned Dickensian, down-and-out, almost Olde England feeling about the city apparently also beguiled a younger J.K. Rowling as she spent time living and working in Porto as an English teacher. One can see how the nascent seeds of what would become the Harry Potter phenomenon might have been inspired by the “Hogwartsian” ambience of old Porto. The historic São Bento train station – known for its intricately tiled entrance hall – looks like it might have a clandestine Platform 9¾ tucked somewhere in its interior. The Libreria Lello & Irmão – despite its grumpy owner attempting to put a stop to happy-snapping tourists – resembles a magic bookshop off Diagon Alley, with its winding wooden staircase and trolley-tracked floor. And the Portuguese university tradition of praxe – a once revered custom steeped in tradition, but nowadays approximating American fraternities in terms of its exclusivity, circles of power and hazing rites – sees Portuguese university students wandering the streets (and even drinking late into a Saturday night) in black capes that denote their status. That’s right: capes.
So while Porto might not have the imperial grandeur and ritzy dining and nightlife scene of Lisbon, its charm lies precisely in its unassuming exterior. Those wanting a little class and glamour can of course spend a Porto holiday strolling the riverbanks, drinking cocktails in chic bars, meandering the beaches a little further afield, and sipping vinho in the elegant settings of Porto’s wine cellars, overlooking the UNESCO-heritage old Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia (although in this travel writer’s humble opinion, once you have seen one or two Port cellars, you’ve seen them all…). But, for me, it’s the slightly grim and gritty streetscapes, the hardworking and unassuming Porto folk, the adventure of stumbling upon crumbling saints and statues in convoluted back alleys, and the sense of tradition – whether it be in winemaking, in students’ praxe rituals, in the city’s famous festivals, or in the hearty food unique to Porto - that coalesce to give Porto a kind of cosy familiarity which, like an old friend, beckons the traveler to one day return, and share another francesinha over a pint of SuperBock.
Miami is like a drug. Addictive, seductive, and all-consuming; being there is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, and it becomes almost impossible not to be sucked in, moving in time to Miami’s internal heartbeat, at least for a minute. I went to Miami an opinionated idealist with a strong head on my shoulders and definite ideas about the world and the people in it. When I came up for air three days later, I had held a gun and was considering trying a shooting range – “just for kicks” – I was questioning the knee-jerk nature of some of my left-wing political views, I was starting to believe in the hedonistic incarnation of capitalism and the ‘pull yourself up from the bootstraps’ explanation of disadvantage (in which the well-off tend to indulge), and was driving like a maniac, tailgating people down Ocean Drive with house music pumping from my slightly underwhelming pale-blue Hyundai Accent rental car. All I knew of Miami previously was Tony Montana’s infamous outburst in Scarface, as he goes nuts with his ‘little friend’ (and it was starting to seem not all that far off…):
Now, I am almost back to normal, after coming down from the high of the drug that is Miami, and am beginning to question what the heck happened to me in this enigmatic, swelteringly hot, tropical melting pot of a city.
Granted, my experience in Miami was heavily coloured by an extremely charismatic and philosophical Nicaraguan-American I met, who showed me around the city and introduced me to his world view and certain dogmatic ‘truths’ which he, being enlightened, was privy to and which it was ‘unfortunate’ that I could not accept. And granted, not everyone in Miami possesses fast cars, guns, mortgages, or a uniquely American sense of entitlement – South Beach, for example, appears bursting with earth-loving, pot-smoking, world-hugging, surfing-and-boating types who compete in looking and acting more-bohemian-than-thou. But there is something about this city which, to me, embodies the American myth of capitalism as the route to salvation; as the universal truth by which one’s dogged pursuit of one’s own economic self-interest is the best and only way to ensure a prosperous and happy society. Home to Cuban exiles who lost everything to Fidel’s “crackpot” socialist experiment, Nicaraguan former elites who were stripped of their assets by the Sandinistas, and Haitians who were disenfranchised, disempowered or demonised during Papa and Baby Doc’s sequential dictatorships, Miami, with its pristine beaches, gleaming skyscrapers, enviable weather, and sexy nightlife, epitomises the American capitalist promise of a ‘better life’, with only a little application, innovation and ruthlessness. Try to argue with a Miami resident about America’s inequality, lack of social services for the less-well-off, rampant gun ownership/use, and questionable foreign policy, and be prepared to answer the question: “Have you ever lost everything to a socialist dictator because of redistributive social policies, lack of civilian protection against their own governments, and the evils of the global socialist compact which America works hard to destroy?”. No? Didn’t think so. The irony of the fact that residents in America’s fifth least equal city in terms of the spread of wealth (25% of aggregate income goes to the top 5% of households) champion capitalism as the answer to all evils appears to be lost on those who are struggling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even the bums and beggars in Miami are happier than the schmucks in Havana, Managua or Port-au-Prince, so I’m told.
Of course, not everyone’s visit to Miami will be as political or philosophical as mine, particularly if one does not mingle with the locals a little. In equal measure to sidling up to domino-playing, cigar-smoking old fellas on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, or getting your voudou on in a botanico in Little Haiti, your visit to the city could comprise of sipping mojitos on South Beach, manatee-spotting at the Miami Seaquarium, ogling the aesthetically-pleasing Art Deco buildings littered throughout Miami Beach, taking a drinking tour of Miami’s world class art galleries, mall-strip shopping for Victoria’s Secret bargains, and dancing to the latest progressive house beats at one of Miami’s world-famous and exclusive clubs (if your short is skirt enough to catch the bouncer’s attention…). But faced with a city so brimming with Latin culture, and with economic and political exiles from various hubs just across the Gulf of Mexico, a visit, in my opinion, is not really a visit without at least scratching the surface of Miami’s intoxicating political heartbeat, or at least dancing to a little salsa and reggaeton to approximate an authentic encounter with its Latin residents! My advice: just remember to come up for air before the Magic City sucks you in completely.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a new breed of tourist pop up in various urban epicenters. Aside from those ‘regular’ tourists of sightseeing and pit-stops and happy snaps, there exists a parallel brand of tourist – preferring to think of themselves instead as ‘travellers’ inspired by the likes of Kerouac and the beat generation – who, instead of experiencing new cultures and ogling wondrous sights, seek out reincarnations of their own hipster subculture in successive cities around the world. These are what I like to call ‘Hipster Tourists’ and you can find them in East London, in Williamsburg and the East Village in New York, in Buenos Aires in Argentina, in Kreuzburg and Neuköln in Berlin, and so on and so forth.
Hipsters in Buenos Aires
Hipsters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Flea Market
What is interesting about being a Hipster Tourist is that it is not a permanent badge of identity; not often will you find one who exclusively seeks out hip and trendy cafés, underground squat bars, pop-up shows and shops, and the like, but instead this will be part of their ‘travel repertoire’, one of many ‘traveller’ masks donned at opportune times and places or when duty calls.
This is certainly the case of yours truly, as I have a long and chequered history of hipster travel. I have been spotted sunning myself at Brooklyn Flea Market in Williamsburg, at Badeschiff urban beach in Kreuzberg, in cobbled courtyards in San Telmo, and in London Fields in Hackney, the hipster hangout ridiculed ad infinitum in pop culture manifestations like the “Being a Dickhead’s Cool” song and the “Hackney Hipster Hate” blog, among others. I have been to pop-up tea parties, nudist masked balls, and disco dens. Even in my home cities of Melbourne and Geneva, I can be found at hipster hangouts, trendy new restaurants, pop-up outdoor cinemas and little known squat bars. Content to go with the flow and follow the hot word on the street, I figure that pretentious-bordering-on-theatrical word of mouth is better than no word at all, and so I buy in to the hype surrounding “ah-ma-zing” new hipster hangouts, withering as fast as they sprouted up, just like the flowers of daisy chains found perched on many-a nubile, park-dwelling hipsterette’s temple.
By this token – because I am open to Hipster Travel despite not being entirely cool enough to blend in and opt for the ‘immersion’ experience as I am wont to do with other cultural travel experiences – on my most recent weekend stint in London, I found myself hanging around the East London scene; eating at Broadway market, shimmying up a disco boogie at Dalston Superstore, looking through records at Rough Trade East off Brick Lane. And it wasn’t as ‘low brow’ as it might sound to some. In fact, depending on the occasion, Hipster Travel hands down beats jostling with whale-skinned men in socks and sandals, decked out with bumbags and coteries of offspring, for a quick glimpse of 10 Downing Street or a ride on the London Eye.
Pop Up Tea Shop, Hackney
Hipster Antics at the Toff, Melbourne
Despite this personal indifference to Hipster Travel, my recent experiences have got me thinking about what I make of travel where the purpose is essentially a reification, reexperience or reenactment of one’s home culture or of the globalised ‘hipster’ brand. What I personally find most offensive, or at least problematic, about Hipster Travel is its lack of originality, and the feeling that travel – what should be a path into the unknown – becomes a carbon copy or celluloid from a catalog of experiences already hashed out in one’s own backyard. Hipsters have been given a hard time in the news media and in general coffee house banter of late, and I don’t want to add to the fray, but I feel that there is something inherently wrong with Hipster Travel if indeed your purpose is to travel, rather than just to teleport or copy/paste your home existence to successive cities throughout the world (the monolingual anglophone hipsters in Berlin, Buenos Aires or other non-english speaking hipster hubs are the worst).
As a small and insignificant part of a travel portfolio, or as a means to explore how bona fide local hipsters interact and behave, getting in amongst and blending in with the local fixy-ridin’ and spectacle-totin’ crowds is not necessarily a bad thing. But as a pasttime in and of itself, particularly one modeled entirely on the experiences of others – whether your hipster friends, alternative travel writers, or the likes of Kerouac and his posse – Hipster Travel tends to pull the wool over one’s eyes and blind us to the not-so-white-bred-cookie-cutter inhabitants of the cities we visit.