Tuesday, January 29, 2008

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'Kingdom by the Sea', by Paul Theroux

Map: http://www.itraveluk.co.uk/maps/england.html

Mr Theroux has that way of describing bits of Britain that make you think : Gosh, that's just how it is .

MARGATE - "Skinheads and chip-shops and rain...."

Theroux walks round Britain's coast (just occasionally taking a train) and describes the places he visits and the people he meets.

The year was 1982, the summer of the Falklands War.

DEAL - "a girl and a boy stopped me...

"The girl said, 'Give me forty-five pence, will you?'"

"... I said no ...

"'He's a poof,'" the girl said, and they both laughed."

HASTINGS - "The town was too poor to be vulgar and it had enough friendly artists to avoid being philistine." Theroux liked Hastings.

BEXHILL - "tea shops; semi-detached houses; pebbledash facades; no fun-fair visible; a largely elderly population of shuffling Tories."

THE EAST SUSSEX COAST - "The English aristocracy had nearly always been recruited from the ranks of flatterers, cut-throats, boyfriends... So it was not so strange that this blue valley on the coast of East Sussex was populated by wine-bibbing lords who had formerly been Marxist union men..."

HOVE - "Hove was low spirits and lawns."

LITTLEHAMPTON - "The sort of place where people did little but water their plants..."

LYME REGIS - "a continuous line of traffic being squeezed between tea shops and coaching
inns..."

CORNWALL - "The loathing for tourists and outsiders was undisguised."

WALES - " ... seemed like an earlier version of England - upright and antique and dusty and church-going, with all the colour schemes wrong."

Theroux likes the Welsh. "Welsh politeness was soft-hearted and smiling. Even LLANELLI's Skinheads were well-behaved, and the youths with swastikas on their leather jackets, and bleached hair and earrings, or green hair and T-shirts saying Anarchy - even they seemed sweet-natured."

BELFAST - "I knew at once that Belfast was an awful city. It had a bad face - mouldering buildings, tough-looking people, a visible smell, too many fences..."



EDINBURGH- "a city of black crags and old solemn tenements... It was the most beautiful city in Britain and one of the most beautiful in Europe."

GLASGOW - Theroux finds Glasgow peaceful, even pretty.

"The city looked dignified."

But, Theroux does notice one less dignified aspect of people and trains in the Glasgow area:

"the men who sat six to a table with a bottle of vodka and twenty cans of Tartan Ale; the families sitting in a nest of newspapers and sandwich wrappers and plastic bags... the children screaming, 'How much farva!' and 'I can hear funda!'...an atmosphere of sour mayonnaise and stale cigarette smoke...."

Theroux likes the Scots!

"I was reluctant to leave Scotland; I had liked nearly everyone I had met."

#############################################

Theroux is at his best when describing the people he meets.

"'We do bed and breakfast,' Margaret Skeat said.

Vesta Skeat was thirteen and sneaked lipstick when her mother was not looking...

"'Is that all the clobber you have?" she said, standing in the doorway of my room...

"Her mother screamed her name. Vesta said softly, 'Shut up, you silly cow,' and then winked at me..."

Theroux stayed mainly in Bed and Breakfasts.

"I was often warmed by a small thrill in following the younger landladies up four flights to the tiny room at the top of the house."

Theroux stayed in a B&B in Southport.

"Trish likes getting down on all fours. A lot. To shampoo the carpet, or sweep the carpet, or pick up toys from the floor...

"Trish was frequently on her hands and knees when I was sitting in the room...It was as if, in ape terms, she was 'presenting' to me - the bum-show that matters so much in baboon society..."

#############################################

Theroux visits Butlins, in MINEHEAD -

"The more I saw of Butlin's the more it resembled English life; it was very close to reality in its narrowness, its privacies and its pleasures....

"electronic games were easier than sports and eating junk food had become another recreation. No one seemed to notice how plain the buildings were....

"I went to the talent show auditions in the Gaiety Revue Theatre. A girl of eight did a suggestive dance to a lewd pop song... Most of the parents were elsewhere- playing one-armed bandits and drinking beer."


#############################################

And what does Theroux (an American) really think about the English?

"Person to person, I had found them truthful and efficient and humane..."

"But anonymity made them lazy, dishonest and aggressive.... over the phone they were unhelpful and frequently rude..."

"If I had only one word to describe the expression of England's face I would have said: insulted."

#############################################

On occasions, Theroux was forced to stay in large hotels.

"It was hard to distinguish hotels in England from prisons or hospitals. Most of them were run with the same indifference or cruelty and were equally uncomfortable."

Actually, Theroux did like some of the small hotels he stayed in. "The English do small things well and big things badly."

########################################

In Bristol he visits the St Pauls district, where race riots had left streets of gutted buildings.

"In the course of a generation or two the parents' authority had been weakened and the children had stopped submitting. In fact the children had become British," writes Theroux.

#############################################

British children?

"one mother (English), looking at the tormented face of her wet baby, grew very cold and sarcastic.

" 'Someone's going to have a warm bottom in a minute!' she said.

"The baby groaned like a starving monkey and tensed its fingers, indicating fear and frustration.
"The Welsh people on the train stared at this behaviour and thought: The English!"

~~~

In Southport, Theroux meets Jason.

"Even Jason, who was 12, was lacking in hope. he was a bright boy but he said he was in the 'B' class. 'All the posh woons are in the 'A' class. Teacher's pets and that. He said he was planning to leave school when he was 16.

" 'What would your mother say about that?'

" 'Me moom don't care.'

~~~

Theroux feels sorry for some of the children of Anglesey. "Anglesey...was all council flats and uncut grass, barking dogs and broken stone walls. I felt sorry for the children, kicking tin cans, their hands in their pockets and their hair blowing, dreaming of being plasterers."

############################################

Theroux worries about the poor. He considers that in Britain "directors were treated absurdly well, and workers badly."

(How true. Not so long ago, The Sunday Times pointed out that the bosses of Britain's top 100 companies earn on average £1,700,000 per year. And are they doing a good job? In recent times BT shareholders saw their shares drop about 60%)

At one point in the book, Theroux makes a prediction about the future of Britain. He believes Britain would become a "a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princes."

#############################################

Theroux worries about violence. "I no longer felt that place-names like Taunton or Exeter or Bristol were evocative of anything but graffiti-covered walls....

"The graffiti suggested that England was changing into a ....more violent place."

#############################################

'Who the heck does Theroux think he is?' you may ask, as your blood pressure rises. Well, he's American, and he admits that all is not well in America! He lived for five years in Africa, working, I think, for the peace Corps. He taught English in Singapore. He did a lot of travelling: China, South America..... He lived for some years in London. And he admits that when he's critical, the problem may be with him!

He writes: "Morcambe was wrapped around the edge of a dirty sea, scowling, its blackened terraces and hotels reminiscent of certain fierce churches - all spikes and shadows...

"I imagined day-trippers getting off the train and taking one look and bursting into tears. But of course most people at Morcambe were enjoying themselves in the drizzle, and the fault was mine, not theirs."

Well, normal people like drizzle, don't they?

#############################################

Theroux LOVED some parts of coastal Britain.

THE NORTH WEST COAST OF SCOTLAND - "This was the most spectacular coastline I had seen so far in Britain - huger than Cornwall, darker than Wales, wilder than Antrim...

"It was a splendid ride to Mallaig - one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world....

"That night I stared out of the window at the freakish mountains of Skye. They were sharp pointed , fantastic and high like peaks in dragon stories...

"Skye...it was a surprise and a pleasure to find a place I wished to return to....I wanted to come here again with someone I loved and say 'Look.'"

ST ANDREWS - "There was not a town its size in Britain to compare with St Andrews...the white stone ruins and the brown stone buildings perched on the rocky cliffs of a wide bay....like a lively cloister with the roof off..."

~~

Sunday, January 13, 2008

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RIO DE JANEIRO



Sunday 8 October 1979.

I had walked out of my job and was looking for work. I had flown to Brazil.

An almost empty bus sped me from Rio airport to the centre of the city. The sky was full of black tropical clouds, but the air was warm and getting warmer. There were shanty towns, or favelas, built out over the waters of the bay, and beside the docks there were very seedy bars. The smiling Negro bus driver, speaking in Brazilian Portuguese, said something about Pele. I tried to explain that I was looking for a hotel. He dropped me off near the end of Avenida Rio Branco in the dictrict called Centro.

It being early on a Sunday morning, there were few people about. As I walked, I was very much aware that Rio is a city of steep little mountains and hills. I climbed a hill covered in crumbling villas. A yellow tram clanked by.

Coming to a hill topped by a favela I wandered up to a ridge near the top. I sat down in front of a row of blue, yellow and white home-made shacks, took out my writing pad, and began to sketch the scene before me. The sun broke through and below me I could see Sugar Loaf Mountain and a sea of brilliant blue.

Some ragged children materialised. They introduced themselves as Edison, Flavio, Ricardo and Fatima; and one had the surname of Anderson. Edison sat beside me and taught me how to count in Portuguese. Ricardo grabbed my pen, pretended to run off with it, and then returned it with a grin. I held out a plastic cup to indicate that I was thirsty. Edison took it to his shack and returned with it full of water. A Black youth, dressed in Sunday-best shirt, explained in a mixture of sign language and Portuguese, that this was an area of machine gun battles and murder. The black youth led me down the hill, pointed to a hotel, the Hotel Globo, and then climbed back up his hill.

My room in the Globo had no windows, but it was cheap.

I walked along Copacabana Beach, where sky-scraping wave s break on white sands, where bronzed bodies play under the palm trees, and where sparkling yachts sail beneath steep jungly mountains. My shoulders began to ache as I walked across railway tracks, over and under hills, and across motorways with killer traffic. I was getting near to the cemetary. On the grass verge, at the side of the motorway which runs along the shore, I came across four plates. On two of these there was some food. On the other two were dead black crows. The sun disappeared rather suddenly and I retreated to my windowless room in the Hotel Globo.


Monday 9th October

A bus took me past green and gold luxury flats with uniformed doormen, and past lively black slums, to Copacabana Beach. My map told me the beach was near the English Church, where I hoped to find information about jobs.

At the far end of the beach I found a bar. That was where I met Hilton, a retired Brazilian airforce warrant officer. Over beer and sandwiches, Hilton explained that he had worked for two years in Manchester, in connection with the purchase of aircraft for the Brazilian airforce. Hilton was rich. He took me to his luxury flat, one street from the beach, to introduce me to his wife, and to show off his English furniture, English wallpaper, and English beer mats. Hilton's wife wanted to live in England as it was her ideal country. Her daughter, now married to a Hollywood film producer, had had her photo in the Daily Mirror and the Sun, and was Brazil's 'most famous' model. She looked fantastic! We ate roast beef, drank some beers, and I postponed my visit to the church.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tuesday 10th October

On Tuesday morning, at the British Consulate on Praia Flamengo, the lady at the desk told me she could not help me to find work. She said that even if I found a job, I might not get an identity card from the Brazilian government.

I walked to the English Church. It was very English. Soon I was chatting to Walter Girdwood who runs the office at the church. Walter had come to Brazil just after World war I, at a time when influenza was killing millions of people. Walter suggested I get a job on a Brazilian oil rig. Alternatively, there was a school in the mountains that wanted a teacher. But, they would probably want someone fluent in Portuguese. The chaplain was not at home, so it was suggested I return the next day. Where was the school-orphanage that might want a teacher? Walter pointed vaguely in the direction of the nearest hill. He said the place was called 'Cidade de Meninos'.

I set off uphill. It was a steep climb up steep steps cut into the rock, on either side of which were piles of rubbish and the shacks of the slum dwellers. The favela houses looked surprisingly solid, considering that they were made out of old scraps of wood. There were healthy-looking children, mainly brown and black in colour, and some of them had school satchels. The people seemed friendly in an amused sort of way. Dogs barked and birds flew about and there were some enormously large beetles scurrying about among the refuse. As I climbed higher up the mountain the view of the sea and all the sugar-loaf-shaped mountains became more annd more amazing. A black lady seemed to take pity on me. Perhaps she thought this was no place for tourists. I asked her where the 'Cidade de Meninos' was, and she in turn asked three small schoolboys to guide me. Had the lady understood what I was saying? The boys led me down through steeply wooded slopes to the more civilised part of town, and left me at a bus stop!

I took the first bus that came along and ended up at the Pedro II station in Centro. This bright, clean station contained shops, live music, and cafes selling sorbets, sundaes and hamburgers. I bought a hamburger and watched the silvery cooking surfaces being polished. A fair-haired, bare-footed child was swooshing water around the floor with a mop.

Back at the Hotel Globo, I examined the bites from the bed bugs and mosquitoes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wednesday 11th October.

During the night there had been a lot of shouting in the hotel. When I went down to breakfast I noted that at the hotel's front door there was a smartly dressed marine on guard. Breakfast was bread and jam and coffee at a large shared table. My fellow guests included pulchritudinous young girls with overly tight blouses and pleasantly short skirts.

Out at Christ Church, the Rev. Roger Blankley was holding a communion service. When that had finished, Roger gave me a list of people I should try to see at the British Council.

Near the beach, and under Sugar Loaf Mountain, I found the British Council's pleasant villa. As I waited in the reception room, I studied a BBC World service pamphlet and noted two programmes: 'Rescued in Time - four people tell of their rejection of a former way of life...', and, 'Mr Kettle and Mrs Moon: George Kettle decides one day that he has had enough...'

Mr Hughes of the British Council explained that the Council only recruited from London. He claimed that the Brazilian authorities were tightening up on teachers from England who had no visas.

At the 'English Culture Centre', I was told that there was a whole industry involved in arranging visas for foreigners. You could pay around £100 to a 'fixer.' But first, you had to find a job. The Brazilian lady who was telling me all this said, "I'd love to live in England. I feel I've been there in a previous life."




Thursday 12th October

I walked along Rio Branco avenue with its skyscrapers, its joggers, its doll-like school girls, and its street musicians. I passed several airline offices, but decided it was not yet time to give up and buy a return ticket. Copacabana beach was bathed in sunlight and the beach umbrellas were dazzlingly bright. But more interesting than the surf and sand were the steep green mountains with their multi-coloured shacks. I walked towards the shanty towns just behind the beach. Municipal lorries were collecting some of the refuse from the concrete chute running down the mountain between the slum houses.

I entered the favela on the Morro de Cantagalo. The houses were of brick and the feeling that this was one of the more civilised favelas was increased by the presence of kids in school uniforms.

Sitting down at the side of a path I began to sketch the view before me. Far to the right was a sugar loaf shaped mountain and in the far distance were islands rising steeply from the sea. Immediately below me were telephone wires, a red tiled roof, a black woman in white plimsoles hanging up washing in her yard, and a duck and a sleepy cat.

Three boys, one carrying a happily chirping bird in a cage, came wandering along the sunny path and then sat down to watch me drawing. An older youth appeared. He had an unsmiling gorilla face and gorilla shoulders and he was smoking hashish. He wanted to know if I smoked. No. He seemed to be telling me to go and gave me a shove to help me on my way.

I followed one of the small boys, aged about eight, back down the hill in the direction of the beach. We came to a fork in the path and the small boy seemed to want me to take the right fork. Seconds later there were muscular arms around my neck and I was being held down on the ground by the youths. There was strong pressure on my Adam's apple. I didn't make any resistance. Hands stretched out to take my wallet, my money belt, my wrist watch, my pen, my glasses, my small change and my passport. There was about one thousand dollars in cash in the money belt. Then they were off round the corner.

I remained on the ground, somewhat bemused. An old man with a stick, who had earlier watched me drawing, walked slowly past. A middle aged lady with sunglasses and an unsmiling face came round the corner carrying my empty wallet and my passport. She handed them to me. A little schoolgirl picked up my sketches and handed them too me gravely. The lady with the sunglasses wanted me to leave the favela immediately. Taking my arm, she almost dragged me along the path. We were now being watched by several funereal faces. At the bottom of the hill, the lady with the sunglasses departed.

As I sat at the edge of the road thinking what to do next, a woman from the nearest block of flats came across and spoke a few words. It appeared that in her block there was a young Englishman from Winchester called Roger. Roger duly arrived and took me into his comfortable flat for a drink. All I wanted was water.

Roger explained that having come to Rio on holiday, he had decided to stay, and had found himself a teaching job.

He considered I was crazy to go into the favela. "The last person who went in there, an American, got killed," he said. "You know the police only go in with helicopters and machine guns."

Photo by Cafezinho
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Rio_de_Janeiro_from_Corcovado_2005.jpg

I was not sure whether or not I wanted to meet the Rio police, but Roger, having no love of the criminals in the favelas, insisted on driving me in his Volkswagen to the local police station.

"How many people attacked you," asked one of the officers behind the high desk at the entrance to the police station.

I could not be sure.

"What was the oldest one dressed like?" I could not remember. Perhaps he was wearing a red shirt.

What make of watch? I couldn't remember.

"Did you go into t he favela to buy drugs?"

"I went to draw some sketches."

The police officers grinned. They wondered why I too was grinning.

"Let your Queen Elizabeth get your money back," joked one officer.

Then I was sent to to another building, in another street, to see the military police, giants with helmets and boots. I briefly repeated my story.

Eventually, at a third police station, I was taken down stairs to view the inmates of the cells, large cages below street level. One cell was filled with tiny street urchins. The other was crowded with tough, desperate looking, black youths. I did not recognise any faces. At this point the police seemed to lose interest and I was shown the door.

Without my glasses it took me a little while to find the British Consulate, but, when I arrived there I found the lady behind the desk was sympathetic.

"It happens all the time," she said. And she went on to explain that she could not wait to leave Rio in order to start a new life in Australia.

A young New Zealander and his Brazilian girlfriend were also visiting the consulate. They hoped to get married. But the lady behind the desk was suspicious and whispered something to me about the girl probably being a whore.

The consul was a wonderfully friendly young man in a suit. He advised me about how to have money sent out from Britain.

"Where are you staying?" he asked.

"Hotel Globo."

The consul looked surprised that I should be staying in such a low-life hotel. He gave me a few, very few, cruzeiros. And took away my passport, which he assured me would be returned when I repaid him. Then the consul and his tall young side-kick took me down the street to the local bar. The consul seemed to stagger a bit both before and after our entrance to the bar.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Friday 13th October

On the beach on Praia de Flamengo, I sat watching the Cariocas: mafia types with showy clothes, police in Volkswagens, black women in green trousers sweeping the pavements, men in straw hats selling drinks from drums under their arms, and fair haired kids doing Kung Fu.

In the Consulate there was still no word of my money arriving from England. The New Zealander had obtained his documents by paying money to a 'fixer'.

In the evening I walked to the Anglican Church where I knew they were having a Curry Supper. From the courtyard of the church I stared up at the lights of the shanty town on the mountainside. Women and children were climbing up and down carrying water containers and food. The chaplain was thin, probably in his forties, and had the sort of warm, kindly face and voice you associate with people who have lived among the poor. The chaplain had worked with Indians in the jungle. In his comfortable sitting room I was introduced to the chaplain's smiling wife and to two new Zealanders, Ian and his sister Marylyn, both in their twenties, both on holiday. Ian ran a Christian bookshop in Chile and believed that Pinochet was popular, at least among the rich.

There was a large attendance at the curry supper, mainly business people. And among the throng was Mike, from Guardbridge in Scotland, and his wife Katie. The saintly Mike and Katie offered me a bed in their luxury flat off Copacabana beach. Wonderful people the Scots!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Saturday 14th

After breakfast with Mike and Katie I strolled along Copacabana beach. And that was where I met a Lieutenant Colonel in the Brazilian airforce who had once been military attache in Tokyo. He told me all about Geisha girls while we enjoyed beers in a bar.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunday 15th

Lunch at Mike and Kate's flat was shared with a Brazilian businessman and his fiance and their small daughter. The Brazilian, who looked like Mussolini, had views on race similar to those of Hitler. He did not like Blacks.

After lunch Mussolini drove us in his Volkswagen up into the forested hills at the back of Rio in the direction of Corcovado, the famous statue of Christ. Through the fog we could make out the dark favelas and beside them the luxurious houses of the rich. The fog thickened and Mussolini's search for Christ became increasingly difficult. The jungle seemed to close in around us and the petrol tank was almost empty. Mussolini gave up and headed back to the centre of town. Here, Mussolini showed us, from the safety of the car, the attractions of the red light district.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Monday 16th

My money arrived at the Bank of London and South America. Having collected it I guarded it carefully as I set off for the office of Air France. And so, back to London, and, after a few weeks, a new job! That was 1979.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My memories of Rio: the most supernatural, sensuous, and spellbinding place in this or any parallel universe. Think of the tall dark Tijuca mountains, tall dark tropical trees, tall skyscrapers, the peak of Corcovado surmounted by the statue of Christ, Sugar Loaf mountain, sparkling Guanabara Bay, Copacabana, yellow trams, long-legged girls with dental floss bikini bottoms, seductive carnival music, sambas, street children hoping not to be murdered by the police ..... oil drums, bright blue walls, spiritist statues, corrugated iron, banana trees, washing lines, kids flying kites... You will be haunted by Rio's strange sounding church bells, its mists rolling in from the sea and its beautiful people.


~~
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VENICE

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Venezia_burano.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Venezia_mappa.png
~

It was a cold end of December night; I was hungry, and the sun had set by the time the train brought me to Venice.

As usual I had no accomodation reserved and all the hotels between the station and the Rialto seemed to be 'completo' full up. The streets were crowded with noisy tourists dressed in gold and fur and all no doubt safely booked into warm hotels. I struggled on from hotel to hotel and began to wonder if the churches would stay open at night.

Then, just past the Rialto, I found a room still vacant. Having unpacked my toothbrush, I hurried off to guzzle down a pizza thick with steaming mozarrela, tomatoes and anchovies.

There was a lady in Rio who thought that in a previous life she had lived in England. That evening I felt some special friendship with Venice. The moon was full as I sauntered across the piazza; lovers were warming themselves under dusky arcades; in a tiny piazzetta, grinning choirboys were juggling with balls; Riva degli Sciavoni had the flashing lights and the music of the carnival. Campo Ruga was silent. I had fond memories of Campo Ruga, but that night no one seemed to be about.

In the light of a sunny winter morning, Campo Ruga revealed itself as a place of quiet activity. Sparrows, pigeons and muzzled dogs moved about among the swirling paper. A rubbish cart was pushed by hand through the throng. Green doors opened to reveal bambini in warm coats and hats. And from a balcony a pretty woman hung out her families pretty washing. Over three years before I had been here, standing on the bridge.

As I approached the tobacconist's shop a cute looking fair-haired girl smiled at me in recognition. My heart took a little leap.This girl was one of Andrina's friends.

She led me down a narrow lane to the house of Andrina. It was a simple working class house with discarded toys and a broken window in the dark narrow hall.

Andrina greeted me warmly. She had Slav good looks; mouth wateringly lovely.

I was given a tour of Venice, and this included St Mark's Square where I was introduced to Andrina's uncle Franco who sells books and postcards at a stall. I was introduced to Andrino's uncle Renato who works as a furniture restorer. Then there was the friend who worked at the carnival and a whole host of others, in various ways inter-related.

Of all the meals I had at Andrina's, the best was on the 31st December. Andrina's father, Carlo, was perhaps a little embarrased about the small size of the house, but he was proud of the family. Andrina acted as my translator, and her translations often began with the words, 'Excuse me sir, I am asking you....' In the kitchen we feasted on chicken soup, pasta with mushrooms, tender roast beef, the best Ruffino wine from Florence, cheese, coffee with brandy, and finally, more brandy. Carlo and Marisa his wife began to sing in accompaniment to a record of gondolier music, and Marisa confided that she came from a gondolier family. We looked at family photographs taken during holidays in Rome and in the Dolomites, and we chatted about Venice and Iran. The family all believed that Venice was the most beautiful of all cities. Marisa, a devout Roman Catholic, liked Iran and Khomeini. Older son, Massimo, pointed out that the Iranian regime executed people for having 'lax' sexual morals. Marisa thought this was good. At midnight we opened a bottle of Spumante wine and ate some cake. Marisa threw her arms around Carlo, and Massimo, and Andrina, and all the others. The evening finished with dancing to the music of Glen Miller.

Andrina? Her mother was not a typical Venetian. Or was she?

~~~

I revisited the islands of Burano, Murano, Torcello, the ever colourful Pellestrina, and Chioggia, but it was to the area around Castello and Campo Ruga that I most liked to return.

Right next to Venice you will find Torcello, an island of nostalgia, green fields , muddy canals, a decayed piazza, small farmhouses, skinny dogs, and a cathedral half Byzantine half Gothic. You can lunch at the expensive, but good,trattoria. Burano - WOW! Don't miss this fabulous island. Gorgeous blazing blue and white and pink and yellow and red and orange fishermen's houses. Orange as blue as the sky. Flaking paint. Subtle effects; with light blues wearing away to show darker blues; in turn wearing away to reveal bottle greens... have some more wine and tell me if you think the campanile is about to fall over. Talk about a leaning tower! It's like a well-lit operetta. Gardens of bougainvillea, women sewing lace, children in boats... Kids used to bathe in the canals here. But now the water is almost solid with muck.

Murano - great, if you like factories.

Pellestrina - a narrow strip of land, fishermen's houses faded by the sun, bathing shacks, and a haunting atmosphere. Stop for some fish and wine.

Chioggia - rougher, uglier, and simpler than Venice, but worth a visit. This is the biggest fishing port in Italy and is full of raucous activity and fish. Here children still swim in the canals, even though the waters are black.


~~
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ZIMBABWE

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Nyanga_rural.jpg


Simple huts, like haystacks, little kids with innocent faces and swollen stomachs, a few chickens, some maize, lots of uncultivated land and distant mountains: Zimbabwe, somewhere between Mutare and Harare.

I tried speaking to the bare-foot little kids. They were super polite and super serious looking. Conversation was difficult. Had it been Brazil or Malaysia I could have talked about Princess Diana or Manchester United and they would have smiled. But these Zimbabwean kids, lucky souls, had no TV.

The way of life of these people has no doubt been carefully worked out over thousands of years. They know what to grow and how to grow it. They do not necessarily want the IMF or the World Bank or some multinational company telling them they should be growing tobacco on huge estates. They do not necessarily want the political boundaries and political systems that the Europeans wanted or want.

I felt there was a huge gap between my culture and their culture. And my culture, with its drugs and sleaze and office work from 9 till 5, is not necessarily superior.

Their culture appears simple on the surface, but is not.

Of course the White Man may have brought some good things to Zimbabwe: clinics, schools, fine roads... But some of the White Men treated the Black Zimbabweans with cruelty and contempt.

"They are like little children," said one former White resident (on holiday in Mutare). "The politicians only want to enrich themselves and their families. They'll never be any different." It turned out that I had misunderstood. He was talking about our Westminster politicians, back in London.

With a friend I went to see a witch doctor. They say that witch doctors have much greater success than western doctors, partly because a lot of illness is mental or spiritual. But when I looked at the strange furry/scaly/feathery things tied to the witch doctor I felt out of my depth and retreated.



Beyond Mutare the highland scenery was Scottish: burns, pine trees, steep slopes, and freezing cold nights. Was Africa once joined to Scotland? Does President Mugabe own a castle in Scotland?

Back in Harare I discovered that the capital is not a place to explore on foot. Violent crime has become a serious problem.

There is not the same 'depth of culture' as in Cairo or Marrakech or Cape Town.

The flame trees were gorgeous; and we had a scenic picnic, shared with monkeys, on a smooth round red granite hill.

On the sreets of Harare you will find hungry orphans (AIDS orphans) and even hungry, elderly Whites whose pensions have become worthless. (AIDS? "In many African countries men do not expect to be faithful and often take several wives...sex at truckstops costs less than breakfast.... In Southern Africa...half of all 15-year-olds can expect to die of AIDS... Four out of ten young men in Zimbabwe are HIV positive..." according to Christina Lamb, writing in the Sunday Telegraph.)



The wild life in Zimbabwe was interesting: strange to think that these wildebeest and lions are in a savage battle for survival... Victoria Falls was interesting, although I've seen too many waterfalls on tours. I tried to imagine I was a famous explorer.

SAFETY:

Early in 2001, a group of ex-combatants "descended on the resort town of Victoria Falls...and harassed tourists."

I was harassed once, by an angry young man. I was minding my own business outside a cheap roadside cafe painted white and blue. I don't know what he was shouting at me, but he looked more than angry.

There have been riots around Harare, partly as a result of steep price rises and job losses. Locals find it nearly impossible to get paraffin for heating and lighting. Unemployment stands at 50%. Real incomes have gone down 75% in 10 years. Inflation is 60%. At least 30 opposition supporters and 8 white farmers have been murdered

COMFORT:

Fuel and foreign currency shortages have hurt tourism. There is little foreign exchange left to pay for fuel imports. Zimbabwe allegedly spent $30 million per month on its 'war' in the Congo (DRC). On the other hand, Zimbabwe still has some first class infrastructure and most of the people are very loveable indeed.

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A drink in a Harare hotel with a middle-aged Black called Emmanuel:

"You know," said Emmanuel, "Our country is standing up to the West. Standing up to the New World Order."

"How is that?" I asked.

"You know, 7 million poor Zimbabweans struggle to survive in our rural areas. But 20,000 whites control most of the best land. The people of the New World Order want Africa's land and wealth."

"You mean," I said, "that the Americans want the 20,000 white farmers to keep their land?"

"No, the New World Order people want the White Zimbabwean farmers out."

"To help the rural Black poor?" I asked naively.

"No," said Emmanuel, "so the really big guys can eventually move in and take over African land. The multi-nationals. The really big guys in America."

"Some people have told me the real problem here is the involvement of Zimbabwe in Zaire, the Congo ."

"You know," said Emmanuel, "The Americans want the mineral wealth of Africa and Asia. That's why they topple leaders. If a Third World president won't deal with an American mining company, then he's going to be undermined and toppled."

"But isn't the West trying to help Zimbabwe. What about the IMF?"

"You know," said Emmanuel, "the IMF has made us poor. You take Kenya. The IMF has ruined some of Kenya's industry by insisting on free trade. Mozambique: the IMF ruined the cashew processing by insisting on free trade."

"You think the problem is the New World Order rather than problems within Zimbabwe?"

"Listen," said Emmanuel, "You get corruption everywhere. So why is the new World Order trying to topple our leaders? Not because of corruption here. But because these people want to control us."

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A final drink in a bar; and chat with Nicholas, a wide-bodied middle aged gentleman wearing shorts and a large hat.

"Nice airport," I said.

"Leo Mugabe's company helped build it," said Nicholas, puffing a cigar.

"Leo Mugabe?"

"Part of the President's family. Nephew. Part of the Gushongo clan."

"Did Leo put in the best bid?"

"What do you think? Leo Mugabe runs Joy TV and Zimbabwe's first privately owned mobile phone system. He's chairman of the Zimbabwe football Association. He got the tender for the Harare sewage works and lots of other government projects. Some people say he's a front for his uncle."

"Any other Mugabes?"

"Innocent Mugabe used to run the Central Intelligence Organisation. He died. Oh, there's lots of the family running things. Uncles and cousins. Some become ministers. Some go into business. Some run newspapers."

"What about the government ministers. I saw some headlines in New African."

"There was a scandal when ministers were accused of robbing funds meant to help civil servants. The biggest scandal was when top ministers were accused of looting the war victims compensation fund."

"Did the war victims get any money back?"

"Mugabe put up prices to help pay for that. But the price rises led to riots. ten people got shot dead."

"What about Mugabe's new house?"

"Which one? He has two houses in Borrowdale and properties all over the place. The big one with the Italian marble has been given to Libya's Ghadaffi. Ghadaffi has lots of farms here."

"What about the diamonds in the Congo?"

"Rumour has it that certain top generals have been looting diamonds."

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Google

ISCHIA, CAPRI and the BAY OF NAPLES



Beautiful boys and girls, la dolce vita and some of the world's top tourist sites, such as Capri's Villa San Michele, haunting Pompeii, ravishing Ravello, William Walton's tropical garden and the dramatic Aragonese castle: that's your trip to Ischia and the Bay of Naples.

Think of erect volcanoes, grand old hotels, topless beaches, swaying palms, mysterious villas, palatial yachts, and the Mafia.

WHO COMES TO THIS AREA?

Ulysses, Aphrodite, Tiberius, Michelangelo, Elizabeth Taylor, Henrik Ibsen, Garibaldi, Graham Greene, Krupp, Visconti, Gore Vidal....

Tourists these days tend to be well-heeled, retired Germans who like to do a lot of walking. Young folks who love the night life of Ibiza or Benidorm might find this place not to their taste.

LA DOLCE VITA?

In the good old days, Italians may not have had much money, but they knew how to smile and flirt and make friends.

According to a recent survey Italians are now the grumpiest people in Europe.

( The international social survey programme collated results from 37 countries. The happiest are the Swiss, of whom only 3.6% are disgruntled. Britain's dissatisfaction figure was 8.5%. Some 27% of Italians are not happy with life and it shows!)

The Mafia?

Today, 60% of businesses in the Naples area are alleged to pay protection money to the local mafia, the Camorra.

The good old days?

Norman Lewis's book "Naples '44" tells what happened towards the end of World War II. Cholera and malaria were widespread; up to one third of the female population was forced into prostitution to survive.

On my third day in Ischia, the morning newspapers had a story about an explosion in Piazza Garibaldi in Naples, and about alleged corruption by Berlusconi, Andreotti and other politicians. Witnesses against Andreotti say that within the Mafia he is known as Uncle Guilio and that he is linked to certain murders. European Commission president Romano Prodi is alleged to have had links to the KGB, Milosevic and the murder of Aldo Moro.

FLIGHT

I flew with a well known package holiday company in a crowded and rather scruffy plane with little leg room.

Naples airport had a Third World feel about it. It took a little while to find the holiday reps at the airport.

HOTEL

A ferry journey of about 45 minutes brought us from Naples to the Island of Ischia where I was staying at the four star Hotel X, located in Ischia's main town.

The hotel is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Guest rooms are set in a collection of villas within the exotic gardens.

The public rooms feature polished marble, terra-cotta floors and the sort of furniture you'd expect to find in an expensive Italian town house.

The basic holiday price for 2 weeks half board was just over £700.

Why so cheap?

1. This was May rather than July.
2. I booked over the internet.
3. The hotel is well inland from the beach and it's a long walk along a busy road to get to the centre of things. Buses can be crowded.
4. My room was relatively small.
5. There was sometimes a package-holiday feel about the hotel - some rude staff at reception, a wine bill that contained many items I had not ordered, breakfast orange juice that seemed to be out of a packet, unhelpful and unfriendly staff at the hotel's health spa.
6. Some local people seem hostile to tourists, especially the British (thanks to the up to 250,000 civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion).
7. Traditionally most tourists to Ischia are Germans and the German economy has reportedly been in some trouble.
8. Italy can be expensive for the British tourist.
9. The Bush/Blair war on Tourism.

Opposite my hotel was a school with a fair amount of graffiti on its walls. The children seemed better behaved than many in Sheffield or London or Manchester, but they did push off and on the buses.

Don't take travel cheques to Italy. My hotel said that they no longer deal with travel cheques. It cost me 11 Euros to change 200 Euros at a bank. Take a plastic card instead.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Ischia is a small hilly island with about half a dozen small towns/villages.

It reminds me of some Caribbean islands because of the lush vegetation and steep pointy volcanic hills; but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Caribbean.

Ischia can be seen within a week, but, during a second week, ferry boats can take you to Capri, Procida, Sorrento and Naples.

From Naples you can visit places like Pompeii.



Ischia Town is the best transport centre and is the most suitable place to stay unless you want a very quiet holiday.

ISCHIA TOWN

Ischia Town has an old-fashioned beach area with fishermen's cottages, washing hanging out, and views of the Aragonese castle.

If you're lucky you may hear the excellent town band.



The visually stunning castle is on a small, steep island reached by a causeway. The castle and its surrounding buildings and gardens provide fabulous views of mountains, bays and boats.

Ischia Town has sections of beach which are free and sections which you pay to enter.

Ischia Town's small, colourful port is usually crammed full of ferry boats and expensive yachts. You could imagine you were on St Lucia.

The main shopping streets of Ischia Town have smart boutiques and smart cafes, including a useful internet cafe (123 Corso Colonna).

The hinterland of Ischia Town has some narrow roads and quiet tracks, villas and wild flowers, a small Roman viaduct, some relatively poor houses and the usual graffiti on houses and schools.

MARONTI BEACH

A number 5 bus will whisk you swiftly from Ischia Town through the middle of the island to its destination which is called Maronti. Maronti is possibly the best BEACH on the island, and is within walking distance of the little town called St Angelo.

The number 5 bus leaves from the small bus station at Ischia port and bus tickets can be bought there or at any tobacconist. A ticket which covers 7 days use of local buses costs 15 Euros. Maronti beach is long and backed by low crumbling cliffs. Pallone is a pleasant beach restaurant, built mainly of wood, which overlooks the action on the beach. For 13 Euros I had sardines, fried potatoes, water and wine. A gentleman in a funny hat, a young woman in a short skirt and a young boy wheeling a baby in a pram, provided my entertainment within the restaurant.

WALTON'S GARDEN

What is Victoria Amazonica? She opens near nightfall. Next day she has changed sex and become male.

Victoria Amazonica is a water lily and can be viewed at LA MORTELLA, the huge gardens built on the site of a hillside quarry by composer Sir William Walton and his wife, who both came to live on Ischia in 1949.

The world famous gardens contain many hundreds of rare plants and trees and have views of mountains and of the coastal resort of Forio. There is a tearoom where not-very-happy staff serve weak tea. I recommend the wine.

In the Walton-museum section there are regular concerts.

The gardens are open from April to November on Tuesdays, Thursdays and at weekends, from 9am until 7 pm.

To reach La Mortella, I took an expensive 'rip-off' tour arranged by Thomson holidays, using a local tour company. Their bus arrived late and was driven too fast. The much cheaper alternative is to take a local bus - buses number 1 or 2 or CS which depart from Ischia port. Get off the bus just before it reaches the town of Forio.

FORIO

I took a CD bus to the Ischian town of Forio. Why not walk to Forio? The steep narrow S-shaped roads are not always suited to walking.

Forio had deep litter on the beach and some graffiti on walls. The harbour is undistinguished.

I walked inland from Forio on little country roads but soon came up against signs saying 'private'. The best feature of Forio is the view of the pink-orange mountain with the white-walled villas and the flowers at its base.

Lunch was excellent lentil soup and pasta with tomato sauce in an empty and rather dull restaurant.

CASAMICCIOLA & LACCO AMENO

I walked from Ischia town to the next-door seaside town of Casamicciola which struck me as being a place of road repairs, building works and boring buildings.

I walked on to nearby Lacco Ameno and found this had more character: a pleasant church, boutiques, flowers and a friendly street cafe serving bruschetta with tomatoes, wine and Italian ice-cream.

ST ANGELO

Bus 1 or CD or CS take you to St Angelo, which has become a bit un-natural and boutique-ish. It's superficially pretty, with its little harbour and painted houses. But it has a Disney-feel about it.

MOUNT EPOMEO (789 meters)

Take a CD bus to the village of Serraro Fontana. From the main square, follow the signs for the track leading up the mountain.

PROCIDA

At Ischia Port I bought a ticket for the Caremar ferry to the nearby island of Procida. The carabinieri police at Ischia port look menacing in the extreme - mafia dark glasses, tall leather boots. On the ferry I had a drink in the bar and then looked through the pollution haze towards Vesuvius and various islands.

If Capri seems very wealthy, and Ischia seems well-off, then PROCIDA could be said to be relatively poor and scruffy. It is not the interesting scruffiness of some Italian settlements. The main port has bleak tenements and the usual graffiti and road works.

The main interest is Marina Corricella, a small harbour within walking distance of Procida's port. A seat in a cafe in Marina Corricella can give you a view of the prison and colourful tenements, while you sup vinegary wine.

NAPLES TO POMPEII

The fast aliscafi hydrofoil from Ischia to Naples (Molo Beverello) costs 22 Euros return and is not recommended because of the fixed return time. Much better to get a single on an ordinary Caremar ferry and then your time of return is more flexible.

Once in Naples I walked towards the railway station. Take care and avoid disreputable types hanging around quiet stretches of street near the docks.

Piazza Garibaldi, next the railway station, was deep in stinking garbage and the populace seemed made up of beggar women and evil-looking pimps.

Naples has some of the loveliest and some of the most venal-looking faces in the world.

From the station I took the Circumvesuviana train that heads to Pompeii and Sorrento.

Naples and its surrounds have deteriorated dramatically.

The Circumvesuviana trains and most of the stations are completely covered in graffiti.

My train contained at least one madman and a horde of intimidating young men.

Pompeii was full of sometimes impolite parties of Italian school kids. But Pompeii is still fabulous: acres and acres of Roman streets and buildings.

I did not travel on to Sorrento. I had heard that, like Naples, it also has deteriorated.



CAPRI

Capri was the highlight of my trip. It is a spectacular little island, almost traffic free.

I took the Caremar aliscafi hydrofoil to Capri, a boat journey of 40 minutes, costing about £15 return.

I walked from the port, Marina Grande, up the very steep twisting road to Capri town: wonderful views of villas and flowers and yachts, but a long walk.

I would recommend taking the funicular, instead of walking! Tickets for the funicular are bought at a hut next to the pier (turn right as you exit the pier). You can buy a ticket that will include buses and last all day. The entrance to the funicular is opposite the pier.

This was May, but, unlike in Ischia, Capri Town was crowded with tourists, mainly large tour groups of the portly and elderly, but also a few people with film-star good looks.



From Capri Town I took a bus up to the town of Anacapri. This narrow, steep, z-bend road has been known to suffer from rock falls.

I got off at the first stop in Anacapri, crossed the road, and followed the sign for Villa San Michele.

It's a short walk along a path to one of the world's great sights.

At the age of 18, Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe visited Capri and decided that some day he would build a house on the island. Its loggias would be full of light, and there would be a small chapel, a vineyard, and old statues in the garden. After practising in Paris and Italy, Munthe became in 1903 physician to the Swedish Royal family.

THE STORY OF SAN MICHELE (1929) is an account of Munthe's experience as a doctor in Paris and Rome, and in semi-retirement at the villa of San Michele on the island of Capri. Both realistic and mystical, the book became a world-wide best seller, one of the most famous books ever written.

Munthe built his villa on the site of a villa of the emperor Tiberius, high up on the rocky ledges just northeast of Anacapri, at the foot of Mount Barbarossa.

Villa san Michele: a villa and garden decorated with beautiful pillars and statues; a curving terrace with views down to Marina Grande.

At the other end of Capri is Villa Jovis to which Roman emperor Tiberius retired in 27 AD, allegedly to live a life of vice and debauchery.

To get there, start at the main square in Capri Town. The route is free of motor traffic. Follow Via Botteghe out of the square. There are signposts.

It's about a half hour walk up gentle slopes.

You pass wonderful villas with beautiful gardens and have views of distant islands.

Villa Jovis is a bit of a ruin but it only costs 2 Euros to get in.

The gardens next to the vill have some of the world's most amazing views - of cliffs and stacks and distant domes and distant mountains.

Close to Villa Jovis is a gorgeous little open-air restaurant where you can enjoy wine and mozarrelo with tomatoes.

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