Blogs I Follow
- Abandoned Kansai
- Greenland Expeditions by Land and Sea
- Common Sense and Whiskey
- Salt & Coconuts
- Mexi Movie the Third
- The people we met on the way
- l'atelier tagnoue
- Notes to Self
- The Bindlestiff
- Shoot from the Trip
- unexpected occurrence
- Etcetera Etcetera Etcetera
- Inkleined To Travel
- Latitude Adjustment
- heart & sole
- The land of dreaming
- 22,760 hits
Shopping for food in the UK is often not, for yours truly, a joyous experience, and this is due to the utter lack of variety. Honest, there’s more individuality in a pool of cloned cells than in UK’s supermarkets. Even the poshest Waitrose or M&S will peddle the same cuts of meat, same vegetables, same fruit juice flavours as the rest of the nation’s supermarkets. And nowhere is this fact more dishearteningly true than in the cheese and fish sections. Every week, without fail, I’d be staring at the usual display of six varieties of Cheddar. Or at sad circles of tuna meat, as wide as a tea plate, submerged in non-recyclable plastic and somewhat optimistically called steak. Every week I’d be staring at them, clutching the handle of my shopping trolley, and sighing. If only.
The cheese issue has its workarounds – mainly under the form of smuggling from abroad – but I’d long been struggling to find a workable solution to the fish problem. Every shop, supermarket and fishmonger sold the same produce, so much so that I’d become half-convinced that fish swam in the big blue sea either in breaded rectangles or already turned into kippers.
After a few fruitless attempts at turning the tide, my cogitations had reached a low point. It seemed that, in the capital of this island nation, no fish was to be found but the one that was served in batter with a side of mushy peas. But, as it so often happens, one casual Friday chat changed everything. It happened, obviously in hindsight, where all the best ideas germinate: the office kitchenette.
Kev isn’t his real name, but his dear mother made a mistake when he didn’t call him so. If there was a prototype for the ideal Kev – professional tea drinker, wheeler and dealer, knew everybody, wouldn’t pronounce the “r” at the end of a word not even under duress – he was it. Anyway, Kev was close to retirement, crossing out the days before he could ship himself down to Spain, so he was always game for a chat and killing time. I don’t quite remember how we got there, but on one quiet Friday afternoon, the floorplate barely half full, echoing only of keys being pressed, we got talking about how much of a tosser his old man was, and actually how much of a tosser was everyone who lived in his old man’s neighbourhood. To make his point, Kev mentioned the time when the Luftwaffe bombed the chip shop.
I’ll never, no matter how hard I’ll try, be able to give justice to Kev’s accent, posture, infectious humour and incredible sense of theatre, so I’ll just summarise the story. It’s the Blitz, and Kev’s old man – still a few decades away from being such, I guess – makes a dash for the bomb shelter together with the rest of the community. There they sit, a community of tossers all huddled together, whilst outside Göring is busy renovating their cobbled stone streets and mews, one bomb at the time. There they sit, eyes bulging out of their sockets, until a quiet moment in the fracas. The siren for the all clear hasn’t been heard yet, but being they tossers, they ignore it. One of them, the gutsiest of them all, goes up and steps into a scene worthy of Godzilla, if only it’d already existed. The streets are flattened. Buildings are on fire. The glow of the torched gasworks paints the night sky crimson. Faced by this Dantesque scene of disaster, our gutsy tosser has only one message to relay to the rest of the gang still sitting in the shelter. And there could be only one message, in fact.
“They bombed the chip shop”.
They all erupted out at once, sod the bombs, sod the Luftwaffe, sod the Blitz and the raid still ongoing. They all popped out of the shelter like corks out of champers bottle and, Kev recounted as we both chuckled, stood like the bunch of muppets they were, in a street reduced to smithereens, watching the big black hole where their beloved chippy used to be.
As the story ended and we both reluctantly returned to the inevitability of our desks, I asked Kev “Whereabouts was the chippy then?” to which he replied, somehow to my surprise since I knew he was a Brentford fan, that it was in Shadwell. “It was a good chippy, you see, because it was so close to Billingsgate fish market, which at the time was still near Monument. But it could’ve been fish from the Thames for all they knew”.
A fish market.
Fast forward a couple of months, precisely in the midst of the coldest March on record, I wake up at 3AM on Saturday morning. The irony of it doesn’t escape me – a few years back this was the time for me to go to bed – but if I want to escape yet another sad moment at the shops, this is it. Billingsgate opens at 4 and, you see, effectively runs out of the good stuff by 6. Yeah, the early bird catches the worm and all that. This isn’t the kind of farmers’ market that soccer moms would comfortably drive to after a good workout at the Bikram Yoga.
Night Tube is a blessing and, at this time, is also eerily quiet. Green Park station could feature in a Dario Argento film but only a small mouse, and not some vampire or bloodthirsty serial killer, crosses my path.
Canary Wharf is, surprisingly, a lot livelier. Two dapper men argue, in Italian with thick Roman accents, about whether a flat on sale for six hundred grands could go for three-and-three-quarter paid on the spot. The discussion escalates and, as I leave Canada Square, I can still hear their voices booming on the silent glass façades, one wondering if the other had spent too much on whores and the other replying not to worry, for his mother was giving discounts.
I walk briskly towards the river, passing the softly lit lobbies of many of finance’s big names. Fitch, Barclays, KPMG, Citi, Ernst & Young all parade beside me, deserted but for the security men, silent sentinels behind their desks, and the odd cleaning team. Almost without fail, they all are black.
After a roundabout the road swerves to the left, dancing on tiptoe over a canal and then precipitating towards another roundabout – decorated with a rather useless sculpture of a multi-branched traffic light – and an overpass. Floodlights illuminate a parking lot covered in white vans, whilst a squat building, styled in a way that could’ve been defined modern in 1982, welcomes a steady stream of men in overcoats and fork-lifts. Billingsgate Market.
Photography is allowed only if communicated in advance, and I hadn’t, so I stow my camera away, nod to the three officers of the City Constabulary standing outside and, gingerly, step into the place that I didn’t think existed in London.
Billingsgate Market is a rectangle of red bricks with a lime-green floor that glitters under the powerful white lights shining from the tubular structure of the roof. A cacophony, a white noise of sloshing water, voices and mechanical noises buzzes in the background. Details of faded yellow dash in front of my eyes. Stores line the walls, and three double rows of stalls run for the entire length of the building. Rows of Styrofoam boxes stretch to the end of perspective, bulging with ice and fish.
A man moves a case containing lobsters, the crustaceans still waving antennae and pincers whilst he chats animatedly with another. A worker sprays water on the floor. Another slaps some more ice on a box of sea bass labelled Cyprus. Voices echo across the hall, finalising purchases, discussing fish or simply chatting over cups of builder’s tea. The market is a fascinating mixture of ethnicities, so much so that I found myself as interested by the humanity populating Billingsgate as I am by the wares they were selling.
The stalls are decorated with names and simple slogans – If it swims, we sell it – and across them East London meets the Subcontinent, by way of the Caribbean. Rapid bursts of Indian languages mingle with that cockney parlance that I thought no longer existed in the Docklands, but evidently still does. Sure, those men had to relocate to those Kent satellite cities outside the M25, but here they are, dressed in white overalls and wellies, Stone Island beanie hats and gloves, cutting off every last syllable, skipping some middle completely, turning a’s into ai and calling me guv. “Tha’ll be a tennah guv” says one of them as he hands me a bag containing a kilo of yellowfin tuna.
The key ingredients of old English fish dishes – eels, cod, sole, turbot, whitebait – are out in force, joined in by mammoth salmons and trout so large that they’d need their own numberplates. Yet Billingsgate doesn’t just cater for the needs of Del Boy on a Lent Friday. There are tilapias; large, multi-coloured carps; snappers of all shapes, sizes and colours; brown groupers; entire dogfishes; and dozens of fillets of catfish, ordered in neat rows by a stall sitting under a series of flags – Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados – being inspected by two ladies in Ugg boots and pyjamas. A bucket of severed salmon heads was on sale for £1. “Good for ya stock mate” comments a young apprentice as he sees me eyeing quizzically. That, or if you are the Simpson’s mad cat lady.
As I order a few snappers and bass it dawns on me that, with the exception of a maniple of Central European men doing the rounds for restaurants and delis, I’m the only white punter. Everyone else was either East Asian or of African-Caribbean descent. The bearded man who hands me the purchase nods “Yes, this isn’t a place for the English. I ‘spose having to gut ‘em fishes isn’t wha’ them do on a Saturday, know wa’ mean?” I do. Not for nothing Sainsbury’s only has fish fingers.
Once home, I unload my gooey, fishy bounty and begin the gutting, cleaning and filleting business. Another cloudy, snowy day starts over London and, by the time I finish, I’m pretty knackered by all in all happy. Later in the day, having managed to wash off the smell of fish from my hands, I try to convey my sense of satisfaction to some friends, over beer, but fail. Still, all I had to do was to try a slice of the tuna, cooked briefly in coconut oil and lemon, to know that it’d been well worth it.
Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana: raise your hands if you can recite, by heart – and no Googling, I can see you – their capitals.
Not a clue? Well, I honestly doubt there’ll be many, amongst the few who’ll stumble across this, to know them. Because, frankly, how many of us have ever pored over maps depicting the coastline that sort of prevents the Caribbean from spilling into the Amazon, and thought Mmmh, I wonder what’s happening over there? Not many, I guess. Ah, by the way, it’s Georgetown – Paramaribo – Cayenne. The capitals, I mean.
Anyhow, a fine chap called John Gimlette had. Wondered, I mean. And not only he has, but he also decided to get down there and have a look around to see what’s what. The result is a gem of a book, flamboyant in his cover (the UK edition I have features a delightfully naïf street scene on the front and a lush forest one on the back). In it Gimlette – who, it must be said, has a flair for obscure destinations and irresistible titles (Theatre of Fish, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig) manages not only to introduce these three rather unknown countries (well, two-and-a-half, French Guiana is still very much French) but also does it in such a way that it’s impossible, once you put Wild Coast down, not to feel a bit miffed that these countries never crossed your radar, because quite a lot had happened there.
In facts, the more I ventured into the book, the more it felt as if this forgotten corner of the world had scooped up whatever weird, tragicomic and outright scandalous happened in the rest of the globe, sprinkled it with LSD and then doused it on itself with gay abandon. Faced with such a cornucopia of oddities, the average writer’s legs would shiver, the hands would turn as wobbly as raspberry gelatine and his otherwise orderly prose would get as tangled and babbling as Donald Trump’s delivery any time he needs to put two sentences together.
Not Gimlette, though. His true gift, something I’d give a leg to possess, is the capability of mixing the past – with its history packed with incompetent adventurers, homicidal planters, doomsday cults, rioting slaves, imported communities of Vietnamese montagnards and much more – with his own adventures, jumping effortlessly from the history of maroon communities in Suriname to his own visit of these elusive villages. All without sounding like a boring git.
For months, intrigued by the tale of a distant relative who set off from Western Canada to basically rot alive in an unknown river in Guyana, Gimlette hoofs and hops along roads, mud tracks, rivers and turbulent air, following Welsh immigrants in the Guyanese outback, stalking warring tribes along the mysterious Surinamese rivers and poking even into the heart of darkness of the French republic, a system of prisons so dire that even Lavrentiy Beria would’ve said “Well, that’s a bit rich”. Interspersed are interludes in cities that could be as joyful as postal cards from the Dutch Antilles, or as rough as a tropical version of a Western frontier outpost, but always, regardless, interesting.
The result is a book as colourful as its cover, as entertaining as it is instructive, effortlessly erudite, ironic but also supported by a decidedly strong moral compass. The little biography on the author says he lives in London and practices as a barrister; well, this might be a first for me, but John Gimlette is the only lawyer I’d like to be sitting next to on a train or flight and hope he’s in a chatty mood.
I blame it on the Piccadilly Line. You see, living in London makes you think that every other city’s public transportation system will move at the same speed as the unwieldy web of train lines that huffs and puffs beneath the ground of the UK’s capital. It was then a surprise when, by the time I raised my eyes from the newspaper I’d brought from the airport, I found out I’d overshot Sol, where I was meant to have an appointment, and was indeed getting near to Embajadores, two stations down. Things were indeed quicker than on the Metropolitan line, I thought with a smirk as I alighted.
The most practical-minded of travellers would’ve simply changed platform and hopped on a train going the opposite direction, but I chose otherwise. Studying a map I decided that Sol and Embajadores lied at a close distance between one another – barely a thumb separated them, I measured – and considered to go overland. It was something I frequently attempted in London, mostly to be met with utter failure. Up I went.
Between me and Sol was an old acquaintance, Lavapiés. The streets were more vivacious than I remembered and there weren’t riot vans disgorging marauding police officers like last time; still, a few things remained the same. The same varied humanity, the same jumble of shops of all kinds and, finally, the same vibrant street art.
I walked up a cobbled street, aiming loosely for Tirso de Molina, singing between half-closed lips a cumbia that I’d heard for the first time on a colectivo between Cuzco and Ollantaytambo, in Peru. Deprived of a phone capable of having Shazam it’d taken me months to track it, but eventually I succeeded. Surprisingly enough, Chicha Libre were all gringos, but still, their Primavera en la selva sounded like the real deal, and locals were evidently digging it. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera it repeated, mantra-like, and so did I, thinking of the Amazon rainforest I’d seen from high up, from a plane. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera. There’s no spring the Amazon forest.
It’s at that point that I saw the little indio, plastered on a wall in company of a pill making the tu es loco gesture, an All-Seeing-Eye with wings and tiny legs, the silhouettes of two boys playing hide-and-seek and, obviously, a sort of Pinocchio surmounted by the word seven. Still, the reflection of the morning sun didn’t quite allow me to read what it said. On I walked. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera.
Another junction provided shade and a better view of the young indigenous girl. Serious, adorned with amulets and tribal face paintings, she looked at me from the other side of the road, the writing below her stern gaze proclaiming La Amazonia No Se Vende. The Amazon’s not for sale.
The phrase reminded me of something of my university years. The faculty of Modern Letters had a La Amazonia no se vende: se defiende exhortation spray-painted on its walls for a while, a brief international interlude amongst the usual invective against cops and the G7; a slogan that I tried, without success, to marry up to the Inti Illimani’s El pueblo unido. But it didn’t say anything else to me besides that.
Later, meeting done, I was back at the airport. Barajas had recently, reluctantly, joined the 21st century and begrudgingly started offering free Wi-Fi. Ignoring the steadily climbing tally of emails in Outlook, I took it to Google and searched for my little Amerindian face. I found her on walls all across the Hispanic world, from Mexico to Madrid, a web of visual connections originating far away, in the Peruvian Amazon.
Her life as an unnamed symbol started in 2008, with the first Amazonian strike. Huelga amazónica. Amerindians from the Peruvian region of Loreto, in August of that year, took it to the streets to protest against their government. The reason? The articles did delve into that, but just seeing the region’s seal, featuring an oil derrick, offered a hint.
Oil and gold were the new scourges of a region whose indigenous population that had been already subject to ostracism, forced relocation and murder campaigns by settlers. The government, they lamented, had given carte blanche to companies to build highways, oil fields, mines, hydroelectric dams, with little if any regard to the safeguard of the environment. Pollution ran down the rivers and into the bloodstream of the indigenous tribes; in one of them, the Achuar, 90% of the populace was found to be suffering from heavy metal poisoning.
Again in 2009, the people of the jungle went on strike. Two months of occupation erupted in clashes when the army broke the picket lines in Bagua region, resulting in 30 deaths amongst police officers and civilians.
How did it end? Alas, I don’t know. With my embarrassingly bad Spanish it took almost one hour to read half a page and, by the time boarding started, I’d only arrived to 2013, when one of the Amerindians organisations, named Aidesep, signed a contract with Petrobras – yes, the same company behind the corruption tsunami that had swallowed two presidents in Brazil – to ensure cooperation between communities and developers. The article ended wondering if this deal was for the greater good, or whether it’d end up with a few lining their pockets with plentiful baksheesh, leaving the destitute firmly at square one. I didn’t know the answer as I boarded the plane home, and I don’t know today, but if I was a betting man I know where I’d put my cash.
…No, not me. But a plucky mannequin, inevitably called Spaceman, has just left the Cape aboard a red, electric Tesla roadster car, bound for an orbit around the Sun and a close encounter with Mars. I’m talking about the payload of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy maiden mission, whose launch I’ve followed with the same giddy excitement of a child on Christmas Eve, or myself a few weeks ago when I visited the Johnson Space Center.
Want to see what I mean? Click the video below and marvel at the beauty of what 6,000 geeks have accomplished. If the image of the two boosters landing in perfect synchrony is an omen of our future, I can’t wait to get there.