Sunday, 8 March 2015

Singapore - 50 Years of Change

Aromatic Old Singapore - City Of My Birth
I was born in Singapore's Changi Hospital in 1958. My father was an RAF aircraft engineer who was posted there soon after marrying my mother in the UK. We returned home to England a year later but were soon back (firstly in Malaysia) 5 years later, around 1963. Back in those days it was a dusty, hot Asian country placed right on the equator. With little air-con and high humidity, foreigners struggled to move about let alone work. Open drains ran along the side of the roads. As a small boy I regularly marvelled at the dead dogs and other aromatic detritus that floated by as I walked with my mother to the local market. The dried fish aroma of that market in Serangoon Gardens (where we lived) kept me waiting outside, poking fearsome looking crabs in cages with pieces of straw. In the evenings after an afternoon at the swimming pool (we only went to school in the mornings due to the heat), I would wander off and play with local children in ramshackle kampongs. They taught me snippets of Chinese and how to play noughts & crosses. At Christmas, Santa Claus arrived in an Army helicopter. Snow was a mystery to me and I had little idea what it was to feel cold. It was a life of playing and eating at the swimming pool, Sundays playing sport at 'The Boys' Club', fishing at a local carp pond, or going to Cub Scouts. I remember the good aromas too - the smell of shops, of wet ground after monsoon rain, of starfruit, rambutans and durian, of the Indian man's mini-shop on wheels at the end of our road (which he slept under) and of varnished paper umbrellas. In most ways it was an idyllic life. So idyllic in fact that I have for many years after coming back to the UK (in 1969) been afraid to return there for fear that those memories would be shattered. I have heard many times since how much it has changed.

Singapore Waterfront back then had a rather pungent aroma

 My Parents and I - Ex-pats in Singapore 1958

A youthful Lee Kuan Yew of the same era

23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens Circa 1964

Modern Singapore
Apart from a brief visit while working on a cruise ship in 1982, this year is my first proper reencounter with the country (now barely larger than the enlarged city itself). I was prepared for it to be unrecognisable. As I said, I had been warned. There was no Changi airport when lived here, only the small airport of Paya Lebar. As airports go, Changi airport is a marvellous place to arrive. Clean, efficient and relaxed it is very much a preparation for the city itself. The MRT train into the centre is cool and gets you into the city with so much less stress than almost any other airport link I know. And what a city! The waterfront of Singapore, especially at night, has few equals in my opinion and I've visited most. Long gone is the smell of raw sewage and floating garbage that used to cause my younger brother and I to cover our noses as we drove past the old harbour back in the 1960's. It is now a truly fragrant place. Everything is clean and modern in fact. One could be in San Francisco or Sydney. Everything the modern consumer or visitor could desire is efficiently on hand. The architecture is spectacular. People smile and are happy to be helpful to strangers. All manner of food and pleasant entertainment are available, not only Singaporean. Modern Singapore is a truly international place - and this is without doubt the secret of its success. I am of course sad for the loss of old Singapore, as I suspect anyone is about the places where they were happy as a child. But when I look at Singapore now I can't help being impressed by what has been achieved. I even feel proud to have been born here.

 23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens in 2015
One of only a few 1960's houses remaining

 Marina Bay Sands Hotel - Incredible!


 Waterfront views from No1 Raffles (Altitude) building at night.
Nightly light-show from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

The Gardens by the Bay are simply breathtaking - day or night

Singapore - International City
It would be an exaggeration to say that Singapore has not retained any of its Asian culture, but compromises have had to be made. It is undoubtedly a culture more easily acceptable to foreigners - mainly westerners and to global businesses. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's iconic former president of a generation, is now in poor health. Despite handing over the reins to others long ago, he has remained Singapore's guiding light. What he has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. A is a massive economic achievement and perhaps a social one too.
After independence from Malaysia 50 years ago this year (celebrations throughout summer 2015) he laid out a vision of a country where foreign companies could trade with confidence in contrast to the notorious inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption of other Asian rivals. Singapore's citizens embraced this vision and threw their hard-working enthusiasm behind it. It is the almost unanimous support of this vision by its citizens over the years that has produced what is widely now seen as an economic and social miracle.

A weekend walk at Macritchie Reservoir & Nature Reserve
Proactive Social Welfare in action - and no litter anywhere

World Series cricket on TV
The 'Little India' quarter retains an atmosphere of Singapore past

Paragon of Social Responsibility
Tolerance and a decent standard of living for all is a somewhat surprising principal to find at the heart of a strongly capitalist society. Cultural differences are recognised and accommodated. Racism though seems noticeably absent.
In many ways Singapore's pragmatic system seems to me to blur the boundaries between communism and capitalism. Pragmatism though, is what it is all about. Back in the newly independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was faced with a small island with only minor scope for expansion. As it quickly became a popular place to live, his government realised that decent housing for all was a key element of a civilised modern society. It was a major challenge which many at the time thought unrealistic. Modern tower blocks were built to provide municipal social housing for workers. These blocks have done their best to retain a social heart, with integral shops, food courts, sports facilities, hairdressers, nurseries and playgrounds etc provided at ground level. Despite air-con and modern facilities, older residents of these tower-blocks bemoan the loss of the communal life they enjoyed in the old kampongs (collections of typically wooden village houses on stilts etc), but most recognise the un-sustainability of that kind of low-density housing. There is no gain without some pain. Singapore's value system often strains at the seams. Many these days quietly feel that the government goes too far in its efforts to ensure racial and gender equality for example. Personally I have often felt moved during my recent time here, by how selfless Singaporeans can be. The desire to help others seems to me a rare example of what communism tried and largely failed to achieve with citizens understanding that to help others is to enhance the whole society and therefore indirectly to benefit themselves. I admire it, yet I don't always feel comfortable with it. There is a 1984 Orwellian paranoia in me, as I suspect there is in many other westerners. And yet I can see that if the human race is to survive in an evermore populated world, then Singapore may be the best model we could follow.
Lee Kuan Yew, I salute you!

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Friday, 20 February 2015

AFRICAR - By Anthony Howarth


Last October I rode my motorcycle down to Mortagne Sur Gironde to help car designer, photographer, film-maker & author Anthony Howarth saw his 30ft sailing boat in half and extend it by 5 metres. I wrote a blog about it: http://markswain-author.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/two-authors-in-boat.html
Friends I told about it said Tony was crazy, but this project is nothing in comparison with his designing of a revolutionary off-road car with a plan to have it built all over the developing world. The following guest blog is a fascinating excerpt about the proving of the concept on a journey between the Arctic in Lapland and the equator in Africa. Anyone thinking of travelling overland through a developing country would do well to read this first!  Over to you Tony.

Mark,
Thank you for the invitation to post something on your blog.

The Long Boat is proceeding, nothing special, just as planned. I expect it to be fit to go in the water toward the end of next summer. A return visit in the spring by Mark Swain will help it along, that is if you need the exercise? Somehow it is too early to write an interesting story about stretching a boat by five metres. You already wrote a good blog. Don’t want to compete. Anyway I am frail, although less frail than I was...

However! I noticed that you published a picture or two including the Africar station wagon, “The Wagon”, used on the 1984 Arctic to Equator trip while filming the TV series A Car for Africa. In my spare time, when not working on the Long Boat or writing Boat, People and Me Book 3,  I am slowly but steadily writing the three book series The Africar Affair. As you are one of the few people in the world privileged enough to have been driven in an Africar proof of concept vehicle, I thought perhaps, if you agree, an excerpt from The Africar Affair might be suitable?  


The Africar Affair – Excerpt from opening of Book 1

1. Desert Change.

Banging and swishing? Wheels through muddy potholes?

 “Will it never stop?” Asks People.
 “It’s a big continent.” I reply.  “It is the rainy season. We’re lucky the road is open at all!”

The walkie-talkie crackles.

 “I’m shtuck.”  Poor reception on the narrow track between huge jungle trees doesn’t mask Jan’s Dutch accent. 
“Again?” Exclaims People. “How come?”
 “It’s what happens driving a stylist’s idea of a four-by-four on real roads. Okay for discovering the route to a country supermarket in Dorset; in Africa it’s a joke. That Land Rover of his is a piece of shit. We’d better go get him. He’s been jacking himself up and digging himself out for six months, all the way from Egypt, through the Sudan and Central African Republic, poor bastard.”

I pick up the hand-set but don’t much like using it. Apart from the radios being illegal locally, it was here, in Eastern Zaire, in the 1960s that the walkie-talkie became the symbol of the mercenary. I rein in the other Africar. We turn round on the muddy narrow potholed jungle track. Not a manoeuvre I would choose to do with a Land Rover. We drive back a few kilometres to find John thoroughly stuck on an uneven water logged stretch of road which we had passed without noticing half an hour before.

It is all a question of ground clearance and axle articulation. That is the ability of the axles and suspension system to allow the wheels to conform to the road surface and so maintain drive. John has one front and one rear wheel rotating free of the road and the rear differential is resting in the Laterite.

All five of us try pushing to no effect. We try pulling with the Africar Wagon. Nothing happens apart from a lot of wheel spin. John jacks up the rear axle and puts a tall thin block of wood under it. Removing the jack leaves the axle free of the Laterite and precariously balanced.

We try pulling again with the Africar. This time the Land Rover lurches forwards, the axle falls off the piece of wood and finds grip. The Africar keeps pulling, maintaining a taught tow rope. The Land Rover, wheels spinning and griping and spinning, edges forwards until it is off the deformed section and all four wheels are back on the ground.

These conditions, unpaved roads in the equatorial and tropical rainy seasons, are precisely the conditions the Africar test vehicles were designed to cope with. Even in 2-wheel drive and fully loaded they were proving the concept every day and every hour of every day. Now that we are thousands of miles away from the prejudices and silliness of European 4x4 enthusiasts the Africars are truly proving their concept. It's what proof of concept vehicles are for!




We are late arriving at the mission station where we hope to make our camp. With the rain and the mud, a mission compound is preferable to camping under the dripping roadside jungle trees. They are Protestants; Norwegian, Belgian and British. They invite us to share their dinner. During the meal I reminisce about travelling these roads in the 1960s. The mission director puts a finger to his lips.

“You were here in the troubles?” He whispers.
 “Yes,” I say, not getting the message. “As a photographer, I worked a lot in Africa.  Wind of Change and all that. I was here in 1960 after the first elections and briefly in ‘64.  Mercenaries, Lumumba and Thsombe.” 
 “Shsh! You’d do well not to mention that here, in public, or at all.”  Assuming the worst, he is shocked. He looks around cautiously at the long-robed “house-boys” coming and going with our meal and standing about waiting for orders or tasks. 

I, in my turn, am shocked anew at the facility with which even Protestant missionaries take to a life with servants, almost the moment they set foot in Africa. There are several households within the mission compound. All have cooks, cleaners and “house boys” who wait on table. There are drivers and gardeners, doormen, guards and water carriers, nannies and washerwomen.

Academics speak of the Sea Change - The way in which European emigrants of varying backgrounds
and professions changed, perhaps regressed, in their outlook and habits, their very culture, as they progressed across the Atlantic to start a new life in the Americas.

I think one can equally talk of the Sahara Change or the Desert Change. For the most part completely reasonable people, missionaries, doctors, teachers, peace corps, and especially modern NGO staffers in the aid business, change, once south of the Sahara and regardless of  their colour, into people who resemble colonialists or white settlers more than modest church workers from Leeds or Haarlem, bent on good deeds. 

The missionaries graciously give us rooms, challenging my ungracious thoughts. The mosquitoes are fierce. I sleep under the net as I had done then. A net supported on a box of thin rods fixed to the legs of a canvas camp bed. Exhausted, sleeping deeply beside the river, the Congo, right in the centre of Stanleyville...


2. Fear Is In The Anticipation

They came for us at the mission station in the early morning. Two soldiers with AK 47s and a motor Chef of our group, that was me. They demanded our papers and our walkie-talkies.
bike. It was clear what they wanted. They demanded our papers, and our walkie-talkies.

“Oh, dear.” I said to People.
“Let’s hand them over.” She said. “I don’t think that gun’s got the safety on?” 

Embarrassed, I had to extract the radios from plastic bags hidden behind the head lamps of each vehicle. But that was not enough. They wanted all of us up, out of our beds and dressed. Waving their guns around, they demanded we get into our vehicles and follow them.

This was bad. They set off down the hill from the mission, one steering the motorbike the other sitting side-saddle on the pillion seat while erratically pointing both automatic rifles at our windscreen.

“We could run them off the road.” I mused aloud. “I doubt he can hit us with either of those guns.” 
“You serious?” asked People.
“You don’t mess about in Eastern Zaire,” I replied. “You don’t tangle with the Zaire army. These are Mobutu’s boys. I have no idea what they want but I know they’re dangerous.”
 “No way!” Said People, “We would never get away on these roads. Probably just want to check our radio licences.”
 “That’s the problem, we haven’t got any.”
 “Yes, but they don’t issue them either, so we couldn’t have any.”
“That logic’s a bit circular, People!”
 “Anyway the rest of our papers are good.”
 “Except Charles. Don’t forget Charley, his passport was stolen and that bit of paper from the Greek at the consulate in Niger is getting out of date.”
 “What do you mean, ‘getting out of date’?” People asked.
“Okay, it is out of date, it got out of date and it will never be in date again!” 

Irritable and gloomy and very nervous, I follow the motorcycle and the two gun toting pillion passenger out of town. At first we travel along the narrow and broken main road and then we turn off, to the left, onto a tiny jungle track. I, once again, get that ‘mass-grave lost in the jungle’ feeling. I begin to anticipate every possibility.

We arrive at a small clearing and a long low brick building. There are more soldiers, hanging about, smoking, listless. Dead eyes glance our way. We park the vehicles and stay in our seats. 

There is a conference on the steps of the building. Soldiers turn out their pockets. Various keys are tried in the large rusty padlock securing the chain through the slide bolt on the steel doors.

“They’ve locked themselves out of prison.” I say.

People doesn’t reply. She is concentrating on the situation. People tries to always be ready, prepared for anything one might call a situation. I, too, watch. I study the demeanour of the soldiers. You can tell a lot from how someone puts out a cigarette. And a fair amount from how they open a door!

They find a steel bar to break off the padlock. The doors swing open. There is no light inside. I am certain we are to be incarcerated in that building. To what end, I have no idea.

I have little hope. There are six of us including two women, there are now about ten of them, a ‘section’, all armed with automatic rifles. Whatever chance we had, was behind us, back there on the road. But People said, “No” and I trusted People’s sixth sense more than my own.

The highest rank present is the corporal who had ridden pillion. He walks languidly over to my window, props the barrel of his gun on the window frame, 


Si vous voulez, descendre?. Nous attendons un officier.”


So that’s the next move. We are waiting for an officer. My mind goes into overdrive as, with this new fragment of information I re-assess our position. In general, I know it’s better to be in the hands of an officer than a group of soldiers of uncertain discipline, without a command. 

There are three likely possibilities. The worst is an Idi Amin type, a bully holding his position by terrorising those around him. There are plenty of those in this army and this region. Come to think of it there are plenty in the British or American armies.

The best would be a trained officer, perhaps educated in Brussels, to whom I could explain that we are just passing through and are in no way involved with local disputes or rebels. He might believe me, he might even want to believe.

In between would be a career soldier who would probably not want to make any decision without higher authority. He would detain us until a ruling could be obtained from Kinshasa. That could take days, weeks or, more probably, months.

The last time something like that had happened to me, I had been imprisoned on the Tanzania – Zambia border. It had taken seven long days to get a clearance to enter Zambia by radio and those are relatively friendly, organised and disciplined countries when compared to the later out of control status of eastern Zaire.

We waited in the heat and the humidity. We had little to say to each other. Everyone knew the
danger. The body language of the soldiers who so casually surrounded us said it all.

I try to divert my thoughts to Africar. To my ideas of local manufacture of appropriate vehicles throughout the euphemistically called developing countries. Mostly the fourth world, I think, as I look around me. Our proof of concept vehicles which have brought us safely from Lapland in northern Sweden to the jungles of the Congo basin, are indicators of what makes an appropriate car. But local manufacture? Here?

I jump as I wake myself from my reverie. Of course here, why not. They bottle Coca Cola. Building cars may be a much larger enterprise but hardly more complicated. Just needs a well designed factory, training and corporate discipline. The last had been hard to establish at our development workshop in Coalville in England. My earlier experiences travelling south of the Sahara had suggested that it might be easier in Africa than in Leicestershire.

After four long nervous hours the officer arrived. He strode briskly into the building.

Bingo! I would put my money on Brussels. A few minutes later People and I are escorted inside.


3. Recklessness

The Major sat behind a large desk in an inner room at the back of the building. There was electric light and the faint hum of a generator nearby. The interior was not a prison, it was a sophisticated command centre in miniature.

He had our four walkie-talkies lying on the desk in front of him. Beside them were our passports and car papers. He held my passport and glancing at it, said,

Bonjour, monsieur...’Owarth. C’est vrai, ‘Owarth?
Non, pas exact. Howarth.” I replied as firmly as I could. He nodded.
Qu’est-ce que vous faites ici en Zaïre?
Nous sommes, we are passing through from Centre-Afrique to Uganda. That is all.  Our carnets will confirm that.”

“Yes?” He looked at me, a long practised look. Then, putting down my passport, he took a cigarette
from a polished hardwood cigarette box on the desk. He tapped it firm on the nail of his left thumb and leaning back in the leather executive armchair he took a gold lighter from a top pocket, just above his medals. Before he lit the cigarette he said,
“And what are these?” Pointing at the radios.

I was ready, at least I hoped I was ready. “Ils sont rien important - they are nothing important, just toys. They help us keep in touch between our vehicles on the road but they have no range. Seulement un kilometre, one kilometre, not far.”
“Is that so?” He said, smiling. He lit his cigarette and then leaning towards the door he called,
Jean Claude.”

The pillion corporal came into the room. The officer gave him one of the radios and picked up another for himself. They were familiar with the on/off buttons, the frequency selector and the squelch. Pressing the transmit button, the officer said,

Jean Claude, I want you to get Philippe and his moto.  You ride on the back and you talk to me every few seconds. The bridge is just a kilometre away, I want you to go that way continuing on until we lose contact. Then return. Understand, Over”
Oui? Mon commandant. Over.” Jean Claude, curious, looked questioningly at the major who nodded, indicating the door. The Corporal left. The Officer put his radio on the desk and turned up the volume.

“‘Ello, ‘ello, ici c’est Jean Claude, we are starting.”
“‘Ello we are climbing the first ‘ill.”
“‘Ello, we are passing the stream.”

Each time the officer responded by clicking the transmit button twice, rapidly.

“‘Ello ‘ello, I can see the bridge, a hundred metres...”

That was the last we heard. 

I waited, nervous. The officer watched me closely, then looked at the radios,
 “It seems you are honest Mr. ‘Owarth. You can go. Take your toys with you. But, I suggest you don’t use them anymore, in Zaire.”
“Thank you,” I said and smiled. Then I added, “Sir.”

He smiled back. 

The whole incident, which in anticipation threatened mortal danger and which had seriously scared me, had lasted almost a day. Everything had been propre.  Our treatment had been lenient. After all, we had broken the law of the land. It was a lesson. I wondered if he wanted a job managing a car factory when peace came to Zaire.



We are back on the disintegrating main road, heading south towards Kisangani, banging through pot holes and swishing through the deep mud and standing water, when People asks,
“How did you do that?”
“What?”
“Those things are quite powerful, the range is easily three to five kilometres and in the desert sometimes a lot more.”
“Really?” I leave it hanging a while in the steamy Congo basin air. “It was what you might call an
un-calculated risk. In these trees and hills the range can be much reduced.”

People frowned for a moment.
“Hell of a way to make a movie!” She said.

I smiled and after a few minutes asked,
People, are we not supposed to be testing cars? Making a movie is peripheral, just an inconvenient side issue.”
 “As I said,” she said, “hell of a way to make a movie or cars, or the universe or everything. Thank you Douglas Adams, you are always there to rescue me when I need you. Was it 42?”


People says things like that.

Thanks Tony.
Books by Anthony Howarth are available on Amazon:

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Tokyo - Blade-runner City

BLADE-RUNNER CITY
I once lived in Tokyo (30 years ago) for a couple of years. I have been back fairly regularly since then, so I know it pretty well by now. It is probably still my favourite city and the place I first saw the epic film Blade-Runner on the big screen. Like the city, the film has had a lasting effect upon me.


West Shinjuku. High-rise defines the Tokyo Skyline.

Sumo is still a big part of Japanese life

The Culture 
Tokyo has of course changed vastly since I first lived there, but mostly for the better. The people are more accessible -they actually express opinions now and travel far more than they did back then. The Americanisation of the culture is still apparent, but it seems to be tailing off. Young Japanese now realise that their own traditional culture has much to offer and to be proud of without assimilating someone else's. 

Greater Tokyo is the world's largest city. Unless you take one of the legendary 'bullet trains' or fly, it seems to take forever to get out of the city. The concrete and shopping-mall street-scapes seem to go on forever before you get to anything remotely rural. There are parks, but they are few and the visitors to those parks are many. Watch them politely competing for a place to picnic in. 

Tokyo city is made up of many distinct historic areas. There are few really old buildings that are not reproductions. This is due to the tendency for earthquakes which may be the catalyst for the Japanese liking for all things new. It is perhaps contradictory in a culture with such deep reverence for their ancestors. 

Japan could not be said to be a religious country but the people certainly value a strong spiritual centre to their lives. Temples and rituals tend to be either Shinto or Buddhist. This lends itself to a liking of minimalism in visual arts and to the commissioning of some superb and courageous examples of modern architecture that so many visitors are impressed by. 

For me, probably the biggest attraction to Japan, and especially to Tokyo, is the cuisine. It is simply exceptional. Their own cuisine is generally subtle, sophisticated and meticulously prepared. Few leave Japan without falling in love with Japanese food. The vast variety of international food one finds in Tokyo can be overwhelming at times and the Japanese tendency to try do everything really well (if you are going to be bothered to do it at all) provides great rewards in the way of foreign dishes. I dream about Japanese food all the time I am away from Japan. 

Where To Hang Out 
Tokyo centre is generally accepted to be around Nihon-Bashi (Japan Bridge) /Tokyo Station area. In fact, like many larger cities, there are many centres depending on what you are looking for. Tokyo Station area is a business area but is also full of bars, restaurants (the still ubiquitous 'salarymen' have to go somewhere after work) and is close to some key museums as well as the historic and surprisingly tranquil Royal Palace.

The young flock to Harajuku for teenage fashion shops, fast food etc and to nearby and slightly more mature Shibuya, where the big fashion houses intermix on Omotesando Dori with the usual Irish Bars, Sushi Restaurants, Chic Coffee Shops and Ferrari dealers. Just east of here is Hiro-o and then Roppongi, both well known for trendy night clubs and Karaoke bars. Try 'Smash Hits' in Hiro-o for a great Karaoke bar with an incredible menu of western music and a seedy atmosphere possibly aimed at somewhere like Liverpool's original Cavern Club. It stays open until around 03.30am and has a proper stage with banked seating. 

Not far to the North West of Shibuya lies the truly Blade-runneresque Shinjuku (it is said to be Ridley Scott's inspiration for the movie setting). This is a busy shopping, bar and cafe area with great street food. Unfortunately the older area behind the station where the best street-food could be found has been redeveloped. Shinjuku has a young hi-tech feel like Shibuya. It is busy 24hrs a day, but then so is much of central Tokyo. The more traditional area of Shinjuku is Kabukicho, which is one of my favourite areas of Tokyo with small cafes, bars, cinemas etc. This area has changed relatively little in the last few decades, which is fairly rare in this city of constant change. 



I am particularly fond of the area around Tsujiji wholesale fish market. This is a very traditional area bordering onto Ginza and not too far from Tokyo station etc. They have been threatening to move it to a new modern location since 30yrs ago when I lived there but something keeps it where it is. Superstition is common in Japanese culture. In the fish market itself one will be astounded by the quantity and size of fish. You need to be there in the early hours to see it although you will make yourself unpopular if you get in the way of the frenetic trading and logistics of shifting such enormous quantities of fish in so little time. Nearby, however, you will find plenty to interest you in the street markets selling (unsurprisingly) fish, seafood and cooking equipment. There are some excellent restaurants around here and all reasonably priced. Needless to say the big selling point is the freshness of the ingredients.


Within easy reach of Shinjuku lies Ikebukero to the North and Nakano to the West. Both are vibrant areas to hang out, shop, eat, drink etc. In between lie smaller characterful areas such as Okubo and Takadanobaba (another of my particular favourites). 

These are just a taste of some of the more vibrant central areas that I know best. There is as much to be found in most of the other Tokyo areas like Ebisu, Kanda, Akasaka, Ueno, Otemachi, chic and somewhat traditional Ginza, Meguro, the latest electrical gadgets shops and the "Maid Cafes" of Akihabara, before you venture any further out. City life extends a long long way and you can experience it even without going to a single one of the places I have mentioned above. 

Food and Drink 
As I have said above, Japan has great traditional food, but Tokyo caters for international tastes and you can find the best quality in most of the world's cuisine here. There are many guides to help you. Time Out Guide to Tokyo is particularly good and generally kept up to date. There are also many websites and magazines but best to just ask as things change quickly in Tokyo. 

I adore sushi and sashimi (raw fish). I have never met a westerner (apart from dedicated veggies) who did not adore raw
fish once they had tried it. Don't be shy. You will be missing one of life's great treats. The fishmarket in downtown Tokyo, as I have mentioned, is a great tourist sight in the early morning but also an opportunity to eat really fresh (the best sashimi obviously). However the fish is quickly and efficiently transported far and wide, so sashimi everywhere should be super fresh in Tokyo. Prices vary,sometimes only due to the kudos of the establishment in which it is served. Take your pick. It depends upon whether the affluence of the location outweighs the consideration of price vs quality. Personally I like the experience of eating in a market straight from the boats. 

Sushi is similar in terms of the price versus quality equation. You needn't pay a lot but you can if you want to eat at the most chic places. 
At the bottom end of the sushi establishments (apart from what you get in plastic boxes in convenience stores) is the ubiquitous Kai-Ten Sushi Ya. These are the places with sushi on plates revolving on a conveyor belt. You sit at the counter (or sometimes at a connected table) and pick plates off as they go by. They have spread to other countries now so you may well be familiar with the system. There may be some subtle differences in Japan, however. Here you call out for the sushi of your choice, once you know what to ask for. But the big benefit for beginners is that it is good to be able to 'try with your eyes' before you pick things. Dishes are almost always delicious. In some places all plates cost the same (as low as 95Yen for two pieces). In others, more often there are different coloured plates signifying differences in price. Some plates can be up to 500Yen, so be careful. These places are relatively cheap but you can find good quality and they are almost never bad.You can often order miso soup and many of them these days have veggie sushi as well as cooked meat and stuff with mayonnaise etc. These, I have noticed, are popular with kids. 


Traditional Japanese Breakfast (no buttered toast)

Coffee Shops are a whole speciality culture in Japan. They vary from high-tech classy places in Shibuya where they
prepare the coffee like a religious ritual, to 1960's style cafes with formica tables. At the extremes you will find things like one place I know that is an ageing wooden tree-house serving home-made cakes and pasta also. The old woman who runs it encourages squirrels to come in from the trees and eat her delicious cakes. Many coffee shops serve breakfast food and snacks. 'Morning Set' usually consists of thick buttered toast, a small salad, eggs of some sort (often in a sandwich) along with tea or coffee and iced water. Starbucks has made inroads over the last 15 years but thankfully many of the traditional places survive. 

A Japanese beer is going to cost you around 500 yen for a large bottle in a street bar and 650 in a restaurant. A draught Guinness or Bass (yuk) will cost you around 1000 yen a pint in an Irish / English Bar. In an Issakaya type street bar you will be expected to eat as well (small dishes such as barb'qued chicken - Yakitori, salad, tofu steak, fish etc). In recent years a number of micro-pub style bars serving craft beers from around the world have sprung up. These are popular with locals as much as with homesick ex-pats.



What To See 
This is a hard one for me because I am not a great fan of the museum and gallery type of tourism (huge understatement). However, I would say that the best exhibitions of paintings I have ever seen (Van Gough, Modigliani, Monet, Vermeer, 20th Century Pop artists to name but a few) have been in Tokyo. They do it so well. As I said previously, if they bother to do something here, they do it well. 
On that basis there are numerous museums, historic buildings, some of the best modern architecture, galleries and botanical gardens etc here and they are all done well, so it is a great opportunity. I would just say though, save plenty of time for hanging out in bars, cafes, restaurants etc. because that's where you will find the people at their most alive and natural. 

Living On Tokyo Time 
For the sake of observance, or for those planning to stay and maybe work for a while in Tokyo (and many do) it is probably
worth my giving you an idea of how people tend to live their days and nights here.   
When I come to Tokyo I switch to a totally opposite time clock. My English friend (who I usually stay with) and I get up at around midday and go out for brunch (often sushi, sometimes soba or quality ramen noodles, or 'morning seto' if we are up earlier). After this we tend to go and visit somewhere, or meet someone in the afternoon to hang out in coffee shops or bars, and then pop home to check our e-mails, change clothes, watch a movie etc before heading out at around 10pm to an Issakaya (traditional bar with good food consumed slowly plate by plate over the evening, like tapas). We may go to more than one but generally we hangout there until around 3am, during which time various friends may or may not turn up - it is generally left open as a week to week thing on certain days, although sometimes specific arrangements are made to meet on a specific day / time. We go home at 3am (this is usually walking distance home). On other nights where we go further afield we tend to stay until 5.30am when the tubes start running again. We make toast, check e-mails, maybe watch another movie or UK Premiership Football live on cable TV then we fall asleep. 

Believe me this is a good and healthy life and a common one amongst young (or not so young) ex-pats in Tokyo. One can still find time to work on certain days or at selected times of day or night. Many still teach English, while others work as technical re-writers or as models. But even the locals work at odd times in Tokyo. This is a truly 24hr city. 

Getting Around 
Tokyo has an excellent transport network. It is not cheap but is reasonable given the cost of living here. 
The Metro maps are written in English (Roman script names) as well as Japanese. Announcements on the trains are also generally in English as well as Japanese. People are helpful and it is hard to go very wrong. There is a circle line known as the Yamanote Line (green) then many bisecting lines, many of which head way out of Tokyo, giving tourists ample opportunities for discovering less well-known places as well as visiting the known attractions. 

Taxis are pretty expensive but the only option after around 1am at night when the metro closes for a while. Buses are a fairly cheap option but harder to understand if you don't speak / read Japanese. Try though, it can be fun if you're not in a hurry. There are weekly tickets etc but this is more for convenience than cost since they don't often work out so much cheaper. 

A bicycle is a great way to get around Tokyo of course. The roads are congested and can be frightening on a bike, but most Japanese cyclists use the pavements. Call me a traditionalist but personally I prefer to take my chances on the road. 

Useful Lingo 
It is worth learning some Japanese. Like the English in particular, Japanese people are somewhat obsessed with politeness and formality (even young people). 
Many words (nouns mainly) are adopted from English (some from other languages also) so it is easy to guess - Hotel = Hoteru, Cake = Caykie, Beer = Biru, Airport = Airporto etc (no really!). 

Learning the 'Katakana' written script is useful for longer-term visitors since it is used for all foreign words and is a pretty easy phonetic alphabet to learn. 

Many people in Tokyo speak some English but as always, an ability to show you are trying to speak their language will take you a long way. In fact, being one of the world's most hospitable races, they will bend over backwards to help you. 

BASICS: 
Excuse me - Sumimasen 
I'm sorry - Gomenasai 
Thank you - Arigatto Gozaimas 
Do you speak English - Eygo wah, hanashimaska? 
Do you understand? - Wakarimaska? 
I understand - Hai wakarimas 
I don't understand - Wakarimasen 
Hello - Konichi wah 
Good morning - Ohio Gozaimas 
Good evening - Konban wah 
Yes - Hai! 
No - (rarely used alone) Iyeh (or verb / noun plus nai
Good - Ee des  (Good eh? - Ee des nih?
Bad - Warui des 
How much / many - Ikura deska? 
What time is it? - Nanji deska? 
Where is the station - Eki wah, doko deska? 
Goodbye - Sayonara 
Delicious - Oshi des!
Cute - Kawaii


If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Magical Marrakech

Marrakech

I first went to Marrakech in the late seventies. I knew then that it was a special place for me. Back then it seemed I had stepped back to medieval times. It was the atmosphere of the place as much as the look of it. Yes, there are quite a few ancient walled cities in the world where the walls and the old city within have remained over centuries – my home town of Canterbury in the South-east of England, with it's ancient cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey and the first christian church in Britain (St Martin's) is one. But nowhere had I found the ancient culture of a walled city so intact as I did in Marrakech.

Storyteller - Djemma El Fna 1980's

Morocco has modernised a great deal since the late seventies. Most Moroccan's would say it was for the best. In some respects I feel that is true but not in others. When I first visited Marrakech all those years ago as a young man of twenty, it was a mystical place. Dark eyes peeped out from under cloaks and made many foreign visitors very nervous. Beggars pestered you wherever you went. I quickly found that there was little to fear, hence I miss that mysterious element when I go there now. Locals have changed. They have become more friendly and no longer look upon foreigners with suspicion. Neither do the hawkers in the bazaars chase you along the street, trying to push you into their shops. They are more relaxed and they've learned that they will do better business if they are less pushy. It makes for a more relaxed atmosphere but I miss the old ways. In the old days the locals seemed telepathic. They knew all about you, even at a distance - where you were from, what you were interested in buying, whether you were hungry or not. They had never set eyes on you before but they would astound me with their intuition. They could also tell easily how well you knew Morocco, even though you'd just arrived in town. Somehow after you'd been there for a few weeks they knew you were not the best prospect for spending money. After a month or two you'd arrive in a new town and they would hardly notice you beyond a friendly nod and a 'S'bah al hair' (good morning). I liked it that way.

The Djemma El Fna these days (on a quiet day)


The Djemma El Fna buzzes at night

The Djemma El Fna is still the centre of it all. This medieval Moroccan market square still feels like you are in a time warp with its bustling food stalls, snake charmers and spinning-top makers. At night the place is packed with locals racing around on mopeds. They wind in and out of pedestrians, donkeys, terrifying tourists. When I first came here it had traditional storytellers with crowds of old women roaring with laughter at the teller's risqué tales. There were skinny young boys with boxing gloves who took on all-comers for a dirham a time and nearly always won. Visitors stayed away for fear of getting their pockets picked. Dark young men constantly whispered 'hashish' in your ear. People laughed uproariously when a well-dressed foreigner failed to get out of the way before an over-burdened donkey let loose a shower of urine over them as they pushed past in a crowded street. You needed more experience to survive back then. Now it is an altogether more pleasant experience, where shopkeepers invite you into the workshop behind their shop to see them making leather goods with ancient tools, then invite you to take a mint tea with them and barely hint at the idea of you buying anything at all.

 Streets are so narrow in the Medina 
often a mule or donkey is the best delivery vehicle

The Khutubia is said to be the world's most perfect mosque (architecturally)

It would be a mistake for me to give you a 'What to See in Marrakech' list. The whole raison d'être of this city is one of search and mystery. There are so many little back streets in the Medina (old city) and a visitor rarely finds their way home by the same route twice. This can be a little unsettling at first, but many people resist the temptation to accept a taxi or a guide and are rewarded highly for it. Most places of interest are within walking distance and locals will happily send you in roughly the right direction. This is how you will discover the things I regard as most worth seeing. What one might dangerously call 'the real Morocco'. Mysterious lives you can hardly imagine. Be reassured that everything in Marrakech radiates from the Djemma El Fna (the square of the dead) so if you get lost, then failing all else you will more than likely end up back there.

A few places worth knowing about if you tire of wandering around lost are:

  Hotels & Riyadhs


THE MAMOUNIA HOTEL (old center of city - Medina) for tea / drink and a walk around the huge inner-city gardens (orange groves). Churchill’s favourite hotel. Five-star plus opulence.
There are now lots of beautiful Riyadhs to stay in for a traditional Moroccan experience. Parking is always difficult and it’s easy to get lost in the warrens of narrow old streets. Many have small swimming pools. Dinner in private dining rooms – sometimes open to non-residents also. They are a little inconsistent from year to year. Plenty on the net with recent reviews on Trip Advisor etc.
Interesting Places to Eat
 A MA BRETAGNE – This is in Ain Diab (by the beach) – Fabulous food. Modern French  restaurant. Michelin star.
DJEMMA EL FNA STREET STALL CAFES – Can be great. Look around first. Don’t be persuaded into the first one (staff are persistent but pleasant). Fresh food. Clean, so safer than you’d think. Spectacular – especially at night. Cheap but not as cheap as in the past.
There are hundreds of good restaurants so check at the time. In my opinion the most luxurious are often not as good as what you will eat with the locals on the street. Ask to look at what they have on the stove. I recommend simple Harrira - a delicious split pea soup and you cant go wrong with Chicken Tagine or Couscous with merguez sausages. The round flat-bread is incredible. Don't be palmed off with French-style bread which they believe tourists prefer.
Places to See
DJEMMA EL FNA SQUARE – This remains a traditional medieval type market square with snake charmers, storytellers and numerous other attractions. Affected by tourism but it’s still incredible. The old city (Medina) centres around it. You could spend every day and night around this square for a week and not get bored. If it’s your first time in Marrakech then you could do worse than plan to spend most of your time around this square and surrounding souks. Very crowded and enclosed so can make new visitors quite nervous at first. Remain calm and you will be fine. Horse and carriage rides are in plentiful supply. Over-priced unless you bargain hard, but a nice way to return to your hotel. There are still snake charmers here! Plenty of cafes here to sit and watch the world go by. And what a magical world it is.
YVES SAINT LARAUNT’S HOUSE – Pleasant, tranquil place to visit not far from the center of the city, but realistically best reached by taxi.
THE LEATHER TANNERY  (main souk off Djemma El Fna square) is interesting, ancient and very smelly. Boys will pester to take you. Unofficial, so take care.
THE DYE WORKSHOPS (same area as above). Fascinating, historic and less smelly. Same unofficial arrangement as above.
BEN YUSEF MADRASSA – An ancient Islamic place of study.A stunning ancient building in the old city centre, not far from the Djemma El Fna.
LA KOUTOUBIA – This is said to be the world's most perfectly formed mosque. It is just outside the Djemma El Fna square. A beautiful sight while eating the excellent ice-cream at the famous cafe on the corner as you approach the Djemma El Fna.
PALACES etc. There are plenty of spectacular palaces around the outskirts as well as some small historic mosques (some with traditional Hamam public baths attached). The can be a little lacking in atmosphere. I find it preferable to explore the back streets in the old city (The Medina) where you can find many smaller places of interest that are not on the tourist trail. It is a gigantic maze, so take a map (from your hotel). A compass on your phone can be helpful and usually locals will direct you honestly. It is safe but can feel intimidating to many foreigners.
Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Guide is my particular favourite. The Rough Guide has more detail on history but is a bit heavy (in content and weight) for a holiday.
Trips
ESAUIRA – Around 2hrs by taxi. Beautiful old port town by sea. Can be done as a day trip but overnight is better.
OUALIDIA – Spectacular views. Traditional little holiday town (mostly Moroccans) on a huge lagoon with stunning scenery, beaches and big waves outside the lagoon. Oyster park with the best oysters in N.Africa. 3hrs away from Marrakech by taxi so best for a night or two away.
IMLIL – Nearest place in the High Atlas Mountains. About an hour plus by taxi. Spectacular and uncommercial. Nice walk for an hour or two then return. People say it’s like Switzerland. They do proper guided treks from here if you have more time.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.