Song(s) for the Road 5 – Waylaid by the War on Drugs

It was meant to be a busy afternoon. I’ve spent the day delivering a course, the first time in my life being a trainer rather than a trainee (if only my mother could’ve seen me!) and I’ve returned to 60 emails that have piled up in my inbox, house chores and, if ever I get the chance, the mammoth task of making a review of Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil that I can find worth of such a masterpiece.
But then I went on YouTube and I stumbled upon a new song by The War on Drugs, and everything got waylaid. Because it’s The War on Drugs, because it’s 11 minutes long and because it’s the third time I’ve heard it, just listening to the melody. Since I’d like you to join my sudden decline in productivity, here’s the song itself.

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Rummaging through Sir David’s bin: Outtakes from “Planet Earth II”.

In the year of our Lord 2016, BBC’s Natural History Unit decided to embark on a mammoth project, filming what would’ve become the four, splendid episodes of “Planet Earth II”. Under the watchful eye of Sir David Attenborough crews were dispatched to the four corners of the globe, to bring back the best, most beautiful and striking photos and film of Earth’s biosphere in action.
After countless adventures all crews returned, laden under an impressive amount of stills and videos captured on hundreds of SD cards, external hard drives and even cloud computing. In darkened rooms scattered all around the BBC’s White City studios, producers marvelled at the quality of what had been brought back by all crews.
All but one.
They were sent to Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park, with the precise brief of photograph everything that moved, and also anyone who’d stayed still. Which they did. Unfortunately the results were, well, leaving much to be desired. In a tense meeting held in the bowels of White City studios Sir David looked at the best of what the Udawalawe crew had come up with and declared “Frankly, it’s all a bit rubbish”. The crew was demoted from wildlife to photographing Boris Johnson, and the Udawalawe films unceremoniously dumped in a skip parked in a loading bay in Dorando Close, destined for the great dustbin of history.
If only a scrupulous passer-by didn’t rescue them and brought them to light on the virtual pages of this blog, for the benefit of all those who wish to see what the Udawalawe crew saw in their journey*.
*This reconstruction has been reviewed and dramatised by Are We There Yet? in cooperation with the Sean Spicer Institute for Alternative Facts and Truth Embellishment (SSIAFTE). All rights reserved.
A group of Asian elephants doing what they do best, i.e. eating. All 250-odd elephants in Udawalawe are wild.
Tusks are rare for Asian elephant and even when they appear they are of such small dimensions to make the bearer virtually safe from the poaching that is decimating their African cousins.
The Sri Lankan bush at the end of the dry season.
 A painted stork, evidently disturbed by the Udawalawe team, takes off. “Attenborough will hear from me” she said as she flapped away. 
This serpent eagle was a lot less concerned, though.
Ah, the Udawalawe crew thought. Mugger crocs and water buffalos, this is going to be interesting! Alas, no. The mugger crocodile cruised past and the buffalos remained placidly unconcerned. 
Even the fisherman remained unperturbed. 
Even the pied kingfisher seems to be saying “No drama today”.
Having failed to stir the waterborne creatures into life, the Udawalawe team goes deeper into the bush.
But monkeys give them the cold shoulder…
…and peacocks and deers don’t seem that impressed too. 
The weather seems to be turning for the worse…
… quite for the worse. Who brought brollies and tarpaulins, guys?
What do you mean “no one”?

Shall we leg it like the parakeet, then?
Or perhaps we could lie down, have a nap like the elephant and, by the time we wake up, it’ll all be OK.
What do you think, mr White-Bellied-Sea-Eagle?

Whatever we do it’s better to do like the Serpent Eagle: walk in it with open eyes. 
That’s it. From the Udawalawe team, thank you.
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After the daytrippers have gone.

It never ceases to amaze me how much a place can change depending on the weather.
Take, for instance, Nuwara Eliya: I arrive under a glorious sunshine and an air so gleaming with light that you’d be excused for trying to bottle it. It’s such a pleasant morning that the tuk-tuk drive loses its air of precariousness – aren’t tuk-tuk rides always perched between success and catastrophe? – and assumes the tone of a triumph. Manicured lawns roll by the cab of the spluttering Piaggio, whilst from the windscreen, framed by a benevolent Buddha and a placid Ganesh, I can see a panorama of fluffy tea-bushes.
Later, in the guesthouse huddled on the slope of mount Pidurutalagala, a sunset like I’d never seen before sets the valley’s sky on fire with crimson, red and violet hues, whilst gigantic stratocumuli glow pink and blue on the opposite horizon, discharging torrential downpours on the lowlands, beyond the line of wind turbines. A Buddhist monastery, unseen behind a ridge, begins the evening prayers, millenary mantras culminating in a joyous clash of cymbals. At that precise moment I also remembered that can of Lion beer I’d stashed in my backpack the day before. Things don’t get any better than that, I thought.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
A day later everything changed. I return to town after a day spent through deserted tea plantations, under a sky that’d gone progressively worse, to find a Nuwara Eliya completely different from the village that greeted me only the day before.
The people I meet on the pavements are different from the Sinhalese of the tropical lowlands of the south. Gone are the smiling, soft lineaments that greeted me in Galle or in the countryside. Faces, here, are sharper. Cheekbones more pronounced. Features more angular. Gone are the colourful robes of the coast dwellers; men don’t wear sarongs and women have seemingly given up on flower-printed blouses. Hoodies, fleeces, hats and trousers have taken their place, undoubtedly by virtue of the chillier climate. In this gloomy day Nuwara Eliya seems an encampment of impoverished mountaineers, wearing cast-offs from wealthier shoppers – for I don’t believe that there is a thriving community of Wapakoneta Redskins fans, or that many had been holidaying in Jackson Hole and returned with a track-top to prove it.
Walking towards the market I bump in the first beggars since I left Colombo. Hindu women lie in abandonment on the sidewalk, their mutilations and wounds testaments of a hidden side of the tea industry that doesn’t go on display on the plantation tours.
I visit a liquor store for another Lion can. The clerk’s eyes widen at my request for a single tinny, but yet he obliges. I have barely the time to collect the cold aluminium cylinder, perspiring condense, that my place is hurriedly taken by another punter, a man trading an empty glass bottle of whiskey – some sort of Johnnie Walker imitation – for a fresh one. Behind us a queue has built up, everyone clutching empty scotch bottles. Elsewhere in town, small lines of men in dusty coats and flip-flops line up to do exactly the same. Up until that moment, in my daily beer purchase I’d either been the only customer or been in company of other fellow foreigners.
It takes a while to be aware of it, but at last I’m conscious of how indigent Nuwara Eliya appears. I’ve witnessed poverty before, in the island, but never before it’d struck me as much as it was doing there, insofar that half of the town, seemingly, had a hollow, thousand-mile-stare.
What happened to the city of yesterday? I found myself wondering. What happened to the lawns, the golf course, the horse-racing track that made it look like a tropical Ascot, the rose gardens, the cottages? They, obviously, hadn’t moved overnight (nor I had dreamt them). They still were where I’d left them, including the football ground where, often, matches were interrupted by peaceful invasions of grazing horses.
So what was it, then? It hung there on the tip of my mind’s tongue, like a difficult word. Then, as I was walking past the Catholic church, it struck me. A veil of sadness hung above the town like an impalpable mosquito net, weighting unseen on the cottages and bungalows. Was it the nostalgia for those long-gone times, the feeling that Charlton Heston must’ve felt upon discovering that the Planet of the Apes was indeed future Earth?
No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be a longing for a distant past I reasoned, because everything here – cottages, post office, the damned hotel where they still insist on doing high tea, the monument to the glorious (white) dead – was an imposture or, to say it like an American, a fraud.
All these legacies of an Anglo-Saxon past, this flotsam of little England washed up in the Sinhalese highlands, shouldn’t be here. Nuwara Eliya didn’t exist prior to the arrival of one Samuel Baker who turned this valley in an amusement park built to cure the colonialists’ homesickness. To buoy the British’s spirits, sapped by the tropical heat of the plains, this whole valley was razed, buildings erected and whole communities moved from southern India, to work in the plantations and in the stately mansions of landowners. What remains now, after the colonialists’ departure, are hollow traditions, communities uprooted from their ancestral lands, a Euro Disney whose planeloads of daytrippers have ceased to arrive and where stray dogs sleep on the putting green.
Then the sky cleared in time for the setting sun to set the valley on fire again, as the Buddhist choirs resumed again. As if they were having the last laugh.

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Going into the country.

One Greg Anderson, whose biographical info I could find identified him as being “American” and an “author”, apparently is the father of the quote, dear to all those who use and abuse of the word “wanderlust”, “Concentrate on the journey, not the destination”.
On a balmy day of March, some five kilometers north of the small town of Ahangama, I decided to take heed to Mr Anderson’s advice and to concentrate on the journey.
There is a small tea plantation in this side of Sri Lanka that gently declines towards the sea, far away from the more orthodox tea environment of the Hill Country. It is a quaint little affair that offers tours and cakes for free, and is eagerly assaulted by throngs of Buryats, Kazakhs and other Central Asian peoples, looking exotic in their white robes and headscarves against the tropical vegetation. Most visitors, myself included, reach it by means of vans, or tuk-tuks, speeding past a scene of pure tropical idyll. On the way back, I chose not to do the same.
It was a sweaty hour to Ahangama, an excursion that ended with the inevitable sunburnt neck and perspired shirt, but the rewards for following Mr Anderson’s advice were amongst the most precious of my journey in Sri Lanka.
A dirt road unwinds through the gardens. The red earth reminds of Africa and of Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Tombs crop up unexpectedly. An overgrown clearing in the forest holds a handful of sepulchres, forgotten by the locals.

It’s easy to feel like a visiting politician, on the road to Ahangama. Everyone – man, woman, youth, toddler – will wave and say hello to you. Since I was too busy waving back, I’ve always got the moment before or the one after the wave.

I’d always wondered why Asian tourists, on hot days, strolled under open umbrellas. As I felt my neck starting to glow red I suddenly got why.

Lacking a brolly, water buffalos hang all day in mud pools, with a spotless egret for company.

At a roadside workshop, a game awaits whilst punters have taken a break to do some work – namely, turning some fish left to dry.

Reaching the perfect balance between speed, cooling breeze and effort. Nirvana can be found on the road to Ahangama.

Talking about Nirvana…

The only tuk-tuk that didn’t offer us a ride. Probably because they were too busy enjoying the day themselves.

Rice paddies appear and vanish in the bush, on the road to Ahangama.

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Where kites fly above the fort.

I often think that I’d have been a Portuguese explorer.
This isn’t because of an unquenchable thirst for boot, a penchant for ending up chewed by unfriendly natives, or an interest in being consumed by hideous tropical diseases; rather, it’s because a fair share of those places that I find most aesthetically pleasing, or well placed in the wider landscape, turn out to have been either established, discovered or colonised by those enterprising seafarers. Think Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, Muscat, Zanzibar, Goa.
Galle.
It’s a mere klick from the train station to the guesthouse, past the isthmus that leads into the Fort and through the gate, but by the time I get to the coveted entrance I’ve turned into a fountain of sweat. Rivulets flow happily down my back, hard-pressed against the rucksack, and many more are flowing happily down my forehead, above the brows and straight into my eyes. It’s murderously hot in Galle and I’ve chosen to do my walk smack in the middle of the day. Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Italians with backpacks, said Noël Coward.
Heat notwithstanding, Galle welcomes us with its best clothes. The earthworks of Rampart street, built by the Dutch once they’d chased the Portuguese away, are hemming with life. Local families gather on the grassy hills to raise multitude of kites in the warm air, driving the hand-made rhomboids of wood and plastic to vertiginous heights, sustained by the trade winds. Youths in their school uniforms – the girls’ Buddhist school, the boys’, the Methodists, the Madrasah – run around holding the rolls of twine, or mingle on the watchtowers where, for centuries, the VOC men stood watch. A large water monitor strolls in the grass, prehistoric in his aplomb.
Walking the streets of Galle feels like drifting slowly into the warm pool of history. There’s almost nothing – a Buddhist school and shrine, the habit of collecting frangipani flowers in water bowls – to rekindle the Asian past of this city. The Chinese eunuch general Zeng He dropped anchor here, leading in 1409 a fleet whose ships were longer than Columbus’ three caravels combined, but of his passage nothing remains, its commemorative stele now resting behind a glass in a Colombo museum.
click on the photos to start the slideshow.
The next visitors were more persistent, and left a legacy made of flesh and bone as well as of faith. Arab traders lived for long in the city that Ibn Battuta called Qali, making good business shifting India’s riches and Africa’s slaves. Their permanence left behind a community of Sri Lankan Moors, ascetic in their white dishdashs, of mosques and madrasahs standing next to statues of the Buddha and reformed churches.
Those who built Protestant temples were the flag-bearers of modernity. They didn’t represent a king, a religion or an ethnicity. The drape they unfurled above the city and that they chiselled over the Fort’s entrance wasn’t a nation’s, it was a company’s. The Dutch men of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie didn’t make landfall in 1640 to claim Galle for king and country, but for their shareholders in Amsterdam.
The VOC men built a massive fort to ensure that no one did to them what they did to the Portuguese and, within the safety of these ramparts, begun laying down a neat grid of streets, harmonious mansions, churches and stocky warehouses that stand to this day with their porticoes, verandas and wide windows.
They were, however, catastrophically ill suited for the tropical climate of the island. Unlike Calcutta, there’s no neoclassical cemetery where to read their names and stories, but the very fact that their largest building is a hospital speaks volumes. It’s hard to say how effective this place, where now I sit before a plate of shrimp and a beer, must’ve been in an age that predated antibiotics, sterilization or the mere understanding of bacterial infections.
Fort or no fort, eventually the VOC were driven out, here as elsewhere. In true Darwinist fashion they were given the boot by something bigger and, ultimately, more successful than them: the British Empire.
A building, empty but for a chair left in the doorway for a long-gone guardian, is a window on that past, with a brass Lloyd’s plaque and a blackboard used to track the comings and goings of merchant vessels in this old outpost of the age of commerce. I fantasize about that time, a time of clippers and steamboats, a time of lonely Company reps, the time when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of enterprising youths seeking free deck passage to the tropics in exchange for labour on board. It feels long gone and the empty board confirms it; the present, with the KPMG office open and active well after sunset, doesn’t seem as enticing at all.
Sun falls behind the ramparts. The kites have gone, minus a handful that must’ve escaped their owners. The sky is turning the sort of crimson that I’d only seen on glossy magazines, expertly enhanced with some post-production software. Here, instead, it is real and everything – the sea, the ramparts, the whitewashed villas, frangipani flowers – is bathed in an unreal purple light, as if somebody had sprayed potassium permanganate on every surface.
Tourists and locals sit on the earthworks, witnesses of the spectacular end of yet another day in Galle. Amongst those posing for selfies or indulging in a last dip, and between contemplative dogs a group of men stands still, towering in their caftans and skullcaps. The horizon is a violet of almost painful beauty now, whilst – higher up – the vault of the sky is already a succession of indigo and blue. Standing against this backdrop the men are eerily strange and mysterious, all facing towards the sunset as if they were waiting for someone, or something, to come out of the horizon. In the quiet of the evening I can only hear one of them speaking – leading some sort of ancestral prayer, perhaps – but it’s only when I get closer that I notice the telescopes, and I understand that he’s teaching astronomy.
Enraptured, his students follow his lead, raising their left hands to their eyes, fingers arranged as if they wished to show a dog in a spectacle of Chinese shadows, but in reality gauging the elevation of some celestial object – Venus, I think – that has just risen into the night sky. Not unlike, I realise as the sun finally disappears behind the Earth’s curvature and a warm night descends on Galle, their ancestors and Ibn Battuta did seven centuries ago.

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Sri Lankan trains.

To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life 
Agatha Christie
There’s something special about the very act of boarding a train. For starters, it’s a lot easier than doing the same with an airplane. With a few notable exceptions, train travelling is mercifully free from the shackles of security checks, those Caudine Forks of metal detectors, body scanners, pat-downs and X-ray machines. Stations don’t require the same amount of loitering and walking that airports do, and once you’re onboard it’s a lot more civilised.
There are ample windows, comfortable seats and space to move about as you pull out of the station, cruising through an inevitably uninviting panorama of unkempt buildings, peeling warehouses and industrial estates, because which council would spend money to beautify corners of the city that can only be seen from the tracks? Then you’re out of the city, into the countryside, and the beauty of train travelling is immediate: the whole world is there, starting outside your window. There aren’t multiple lanes of tarmac, guard-rails and concrete; fields, woods and mountains start where your tracks end.
It’s because of this proximity to the world that you are excited to be standing by the entrance of Colombo Fort station, a small pink cardboard token in your hand – your second-class ticket to Galle.
Under the corrugated iron roof old trains come and go with their cargo of commuters, long distance travellers and tourists. A man in a djellaba walks fast behind a Buddhist monk wrapped in his orange robes; a nun trails in the crowd.
An old man approaches you; he’s trying to sell you a bed in his guest-house, but you’ve already got accommodation for the night. Still, he’s a pleasant interlocutor, happy to do some small talk about his experience as a gastarbeiter in Switzerland. He lists cities, towns and hamlets he visited in Italy, before confessing his love for Catanzaro, a place in Calabria that isn’t exactly amongst Italy’s finest. Yet, Catanzaro must be holding a place in his heart, for he returns to it times and again. His village, his guest-house: both are beautiful, “belle come Catanzaro”.
Your train is a far cry from those sleek, modern concoctions that run at breakneck speed in Europe, Japan or China, but it doesn’t matter; you’re not here to go places quickly, you’re here for the journey.
The windows are open to let in torrents of light, scents and noise. Travellers sit in the vestibule, their legs dangling out of the doorways as we roll out of the Fort, past the port, Buddhist temples, skyscrapers and a plethora of driftwood huts. Quarters of the recently urbanised, these slums seem to converge around the railway tracks, a long streak of detritus left in the big city’s wake.
Even here, however, there’s beauty to be found. In spite of the dust and of the fumes of waste set ablaze, frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom; then, the further we go away from the city the less visible civilisation’s side effects are.
The train runs parallel to the sea, sometimes a mere handful of meters away from the shore line, swerving to the side to dive into woods of banana trees, cypresses and bulbous, vine-covered tropical trees. Villages appear and then rush back into hiding, fleeting impressions of thatched roofs, catch of the day left to dry in the sun and corner shops advertising crackers and brews. Youths play cricket next to the stations before an audience sat in their tuk-tuks.

You pass Ambalangoda and suddenly you remember something you’d read on Wikipedia, one night prior to leaving for here. This is where train No. 50, the same Matara Express you’re riding on, could’ve been stopped on December 26th 2004, but couldn’t. The convoy continued his journey south, hitting the Boxing day tsunami soon afterwards. 1,700 died. You seem the only one thinking about this in the carriage; the rest of your fellow travellers are dozing or watching the world going by. A man sits by himself, a copy of the “Private Eye” open in front of him. It’s strange to be seeing satire on Theresa May in the tropics.

Hawkers descend on the train at every station, patrolling the aisles with baskets of fried skewers, fresh apples, pineapples and colouring books. Beggars also come aboard, hobbling through the cars with their wounds exposed: stumps, crushed arms and hands. Suddenly, amongst all this, there’s a bend and the lines of trees recede to the margins of your field of view; a clearing replaces them, with a bundle of tracks leading to derelict warehouses. You’ve reached Galle.
You rejoin the train in Ella, and it feels like finding a long-lost friend. After days spent in noisy, dusty bus stations or on wobbly coaches, squeezed into tiny seats, hammered by relentless Indian pop blasted out of Pioneer speakers, Ella station – with its blackboard, hand-written signs, manicured rose gardens and attendants in white uniforms – is a welcome return to a more civilised way of travelling.
It’s the journey of a lifetime. This railway took the best part of 70 years to be laid down, and it’s easy to see why. It either kisses the rock walls of a cliff, or tiptoes on the edge of a precipice. There are bends so narrow that you can see the first and last cars at once, and tunnels so tight that you got to keep an eye on snoozing girls to ensure that they don’t stick their heads too far out of the windows.

Outside, the Hill Country rolls by. Tea plantations introduced by the British colonialists dominate the landscape, interspersed with Hindu shrines. Buddhist domes emerge out of the woods, where the gradient was too steep even for the hard-headed thirst for economic gain of the planters.
It’s a long journey, the one from Hill Country to the capital and it doesn’t take long before you start to get to know your fellow travellers, even without speaking to them. There’s the tourist contingent, dispersed on a normal distribution of sunburns and selfishness; on one end there’s the Japanese lady who offers to cradle the howling toddler of a stressed young couple, on the other the hipster who brings a surfboard to the mountains and blocks the overhead compartments with it.
There are kids, and the Sinhalese mum and daughter duo; the older snoozes, the younger smiles at the TV show on her tablet, only to reprimand her mother when, once awake, she casually litters from the window. There’s the man travelling alone by the window, a sad look on his face. You might be wrong, but you’ve seen those eyes before, in your own image reflexed in a mirror. It’s the look you have when you leave home, the one you’ve dubbed “the émigré’s stare”.
It’s late by the time you return to Colombo. Dusk falls whilst you’re still far from Fort, somewhere along the suburban lines that rattle past you, laden with commuters. A downpour has just ended and everything glows with the crimson light that, you’ve learned by now, is the trademark of Sri Lankan sunsets. Your train’s been stuck there for some time, so you stick your head out of the window in the hope of understanding what the hold-up is. All in vain.
A man with an umbrella walks on the tracks in your opposite direction. You look at him and then you see another head, another pair of eyes, sticking outside the window of the next car. Your eyes meet, and you smile at each other.

It’s true: to travel by train is to see life.
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A thief in broad daylight.

With travelling momentarily on hold I’m sort of resigned to spending my weekends at home in London. Whilst it isn’t exactly my favourite activity, I’m not asking you to reach for your magnum box of Kleenex just yet; at the end of the day it’s not so bad to be waking in my own bed for a full week straight, savour a bit of boredom and enjoy the simple fact of living in a flat that, after years of mould-damp-mice-cold, is actually nice and comfortable. And I have to say that even my oh-so-middle-class West London borough can offer something unexpected.
Take, for instance, this morning. I was walking on High Road, whistling Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man” to myself, when a black SUV – one of those Chelsea tractors, you know the kind – stopped at the crossing immediately before me. The front window was rolled down, and the driver – the kind of guy a couple of years older and a lot wealthier than me – looked at yours truly as if he wanted to ask something and, before I could proffer a word, he shouted “That man is a thief!”.
After the briefest moment of puzzlement (I didn’t, and don’t, remember liberating anything bigger than a bag of laminating pouches in the last 10 years, and even that wasn’t really theft, I’d just simplified the supply chain of the company’s supply of stationary materials) when I realised that SUV man was pointing with his thumb towards the back of the SUV, where the Barclays bank and a man with a Sainsbury’s shopping bag stood.
In fairness to Bag man, his only visible sin was the fact of wearing Lycra leggings. SUV man stuck his head out of the window, shouted “Thief, thief, THIEF!” then screeched away, turning left at the junction. Lycra man grinned like Pennywise the clown and then disappeared in a side alley, leaving me standing by the side of the road, puzzled and suddenly aware of a handful of facts.
Firstly, it wasn’t yet nine and I’d seen enough oddity to last West London a weekend. Secondly that, despite the hour and the clouds and the snow the good West London burghers were already out en masse. Thirdly that all the good West London burghers had seen was SUV man shouting thief! at me, not at Lycra man – who was hidden from view, being as he was in the process of disappearing in a side alley – and that I was less than 100 meters away from the local Met police station. But, this being London, no one made eye contact and I could be spared the ignominy of a tour of the nick and a cavity search.
And that’s it. I’ll leave you in company of this troop of birds who were perched on the tree outside my window, undoubtedly bickering about the few timid snow flakes now falling over the city. “I told you, Archibald, that we had to migrate south when the Robinsons did, haven’t I? Now look at us, my arse is frozen!”

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Chicago people watching.

I have one camera – an old Olympus PEN – and two lenses. One long, and the other one a pancake. Yes, that’s as far as my technical knowledge will go and yes, two lenses is one set too many I feel like bringing with me, especially as they share a cap between them two. Every trip, every foray entails a choice. Long or short?
Being shy I’ve always preferred the long ones when attempting at street photography, since long lenses allow me to stay further away from my subjects and I’m always afraid that people might not want me taking pictures of them. This time, though, I chose to bring the pancake, because at the end of the day I’ve got to learn and improve. Here’s what I saw.
– § –
The North Side is undoubtedly a dapper part of the city. Regardless of your ethnicity, if you’re hanging out there you’ll need to look the part. That probably explains the sideway glances I seemed to get every time I stepped out of our hotel.

– § –
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud gate is probably the most photographed thing in town. There I found inspiration in photographing others taking photos of themselves. Makes sense, right?

– § –
The lakefront parade is delightfully shabby. A concrete walkway, trees, a boarded-up ice-cream kiosk and a few ducks looking quizzically at the ice slabs floating in the chrome waters of the Lake Michigan. I instantly liked it. It was almost deserted on Christmas day morning, apart from these three tourists. Five people had the whole waterfront at their disposal.

– § –
There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln waving his top hat at another sculpture of rare ugliness, a George Bush-lookalike dressed in a white jumper and corduroy. I spend a little while trying to figure out the discussion that must’ve taken place at City Hall (“Mayor! I got an idea: how about we make a 20-feet tall Lincoln out of papier-mâché, we stick it on Michigan avenue and we make another one of my uncle Francis, the one who looks a bit like W. Waddayathink?” “Jones, you are an absolute genius! Have a cigar and help yourself to the drinks cabinet!”), then realise the young Asian guy braving the cold and the views, alone with his pianola.
– § –
High up in the John Hancock centre, as the city slowly drifts into the night and the Christmas lights flicker into life one after the other, there’s love and tenderness to be found. Or perhaps this is the only way for both of them to watch that Big Bang Theory episode on the iPhone.

– § –
That’s it. Time to go, now.

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E.R., towers and life on the streets. Notes from Chicago.

When I was a teenager, activists from both ends of the political spectrum – the far left and the neo-Fascists – used to hand out leaflets outside my school. There was only one refrain that could have been copied from the fliers printed by one and pasted on the others’: a profound, organic, deep-rooted malaise for the “American cultural imperialism” which took shape, to quote freely, under the form of boy bands, individualistic literature, films and TV series.
You could rubbish 99.9% of their claims on anything, but couldn’t fault them on the TV series front. With the exception of Japanese cartoons, everyone had his or her own favourite American TV series and yet those were the days before The O.C., when you either surfed the Internet or called someone and when the inventor of Netflix hadn’t downloaded his first video yet.
My show of choice was, without a shadow of a doubt, E.R. It shaped my understanding of the medical profession so deeply that, on my first visit to my hospital’s A&E, I was mildly disappointed to see that its doors didn’t open with a theatrical slam and that paramedics wouldn’t be rushing in yelling some poor sod’s blood pressure.

Through E.R. I came to learn a new cliché for America, a vision far different from other TV shows I’d so far seen, such as Baywatch or Miami Vice. Actors had interesting personalities and weren’t just pneumatically-enhanced lumps of muscle. Snow and blizzard dominated the landscape, together with a phenomenon called black ice that conjured Tolkenian images in my mind. But the most lasting legacy of all those E.R. series was, oddly enough, the elevated rail. Every now and then one character would step off a silver train, descending on to street level towards the hospital, a cup of coffee and the first emergency of the shift. The notion of riding trains above ground rather than underneath was as surprising as discovering that the neighbours were Russian dormant spies (they weren’t, but you get the idea).
Years have passed since the last episode of E.R., yet the elevated train, or L for short, is my first stop in town. Feeling giddy with the excitement that only trainspotters know I arrive to the Loop, the noose of steel that has been latched around the business district. Built in the XIX century by a magnate who, in classic robber baron style, made sure to lay the tracks especially by the properties of those who tried to obstruct him, for me it is a sight to behold. I can see the E.R. doctors here, but I can also see Blade Runner. Just add rain and an extra bit of neon.
The silvery train, gliding like a snake through a man-made canyon made of steel, stone and glass, cliffs whose edges lie hidden in the clouds, is a souvenir from a distant future imagined in a distant past. “Future memory”. This description of Ray Bradbury’s books, attributed to Bradbury himself, all of a sudden seems to me to describe perfectly the L train in Chicago. Granted, some aspects – the austere wood planks, the salt and grit, the incongruous LED panels, the billboards in English and Spanish and Polish – are matter-of-fact, even low-key, mundane. But the view of a convoy advancing perched on metal poles, meters above the traffic, striding confidently besides sleek cliffs of the buildings, is as modern and avant-gardist as it gets. It’s “Metropolis” in Technicolor.
– § –
A synthetic voice announces that Clinton – Clin’n – is next. No it’s not we think. How many more must’ve played this joke?
A woman walks on Michigan Avenue, face sunk to the nose in the collar of her coat. Several metal pins are gleaming from above the breast pocket, the largest reading Love trumps hate. I stare at her in surprise, for I’d so far thought that this slogan had only been used by Lady Gaga. Her eyes flash back at me, thinking of me what I can only image, and then she walks away.
There’s a modern light-blue monolith closing the perspective of Wabash Avenue if you look to the north. It’s sleek and strikingly contemporary, so different from the other buildings huddled in small clumps around it. It’s got no stone, no boxy features, no flourishing, no gargoyles, no gold inserts; rather, it’s smooth and sinuous, elegant with its alternation of greys and shades of light blue, growing thinner and thinner as it gets higher, culminating with a silver pole. It’s as sleek as Apple’s latest product at a Cupertino showcase.
At a pedestrian crossing I can finally look at it better, but a sign above distracts me. Church of Christ, scientist. A splendid oxymoron, because how can the religious entity who forced Galileo – the inventor of the scientific method – to recant his beliefs to be scientific?
The traffic sign is still clicking, the light is still red. On the other side a throng of people is waiting to cross in my opposite direction, going to where I’m moving away from. It’s as if they want to put distance between themselves and my destination, walking away from the blue-and-grey tower with its large T R U M P sign on the side.
– § –
One of the advantages of being a visitor in an unfamiliar place, I found, is that it is easy to cross the social boundaries that separate one community from another, seeing strata of the society that wouldn’t be seen in one’s hometown. It can be awkward and dangerous at times – it may happen to step, inadvertently, in some no-go areas – but it’s also a way to see a place come alive before one’s eyes. In Chicago, all it takes to jump from the milieu of the haves to the one of the have-nots is to walk its streets.
We walk by a palisade of hotels in the North Side. Live jazz oozes from the lobbies whilst patrons sit comfortably in armchairs and on stools, drinks in hand. A couple of punters slip out of the revolving door of one establishment, headed for the one just before us. They both wear tweed blazers, chinos and Lumberjack loafers, wool scarves knotted around the neck. “So he moved out of Chicago because their piano instructor also worked for the Obama family” one says. They pop into another bar, the laughter generated by this inside joke still hanging in mid-air.
“Merry Christmas” says a voice. She’s the driver of the Red Line train we’ve just got off from, peeking out of the side window of her cab to greet us as we are about to take the steps of Lake station. “To you as well”. Her smile is the only display of happiness in this drab station.
Homeless men and women patrol every street corner. Asleep beneath bundles of rags and plastic bags, waving rhythmically the loose change in their paper cups, the flotsam of the city hangs on in the cold. They have placards made of torn cardboard and the stories they convey – PTSD, mental health issues, disability, joblessness – suggest that either they all went to the same marketing agency or that something’s amiss in this society.
I can’t get my head around this city. The buildings ooze opulence, prestige, even swagger. There’s polished marble, crystal, gold and stainless steel. Rococo details, brass statues, shiny chrome flagpoles. Grand entrances with doormen waiting outside, under the warmth of electric fires. Shiny cars, restaurants and cafes with comfortable booths, polished wood, ample portions and free coffee refills.
Yet the majority of pedestrians I encounter – on the sidewalks, or on the L – seem to belong from somewhere else. Someplace dustier, poorer, gloomier. Men and women wrapped up in bulky clothes, defeated expressions on their faces. Perhaps it’s an impression, perhaps that’s how commuters on Christmas day look everywhere in the world – family’s home with the turkey and here I am beginning the shift – but I suspect that for most of the Chicagoans I meet the advert Bankruptcy help is a lot more relevant than the Macy’s sales it shares space with on the rolling billboards scattered all around the Loop.

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Wine, London and fireworks.

A few years ago I tried, together with some friends, to head downtown to see the fireworks. In a word, it was awful. Pissing with rain, the centre was a mess of angry people, mounted police who’d clearly lost their Christmas mood and, more importantly, not a single shop where to buy booze. Long story short we retreated in somebody’s house and watched them on the Beeb.
Fast forward to yesterday, I am now older, wiser and in possess – well, in rent – of a balcony which, if you stand exactly at one edge and ignore the uppermost branches of the tree, has a direct view of the London Eye, the Shard and even Canary Wharf, all neatly lined up. Here’s what we saw.
8PM and, in true Italian style, some are already throwing fireworks.

At midnight the Mayor hit the anti-aircraft guns, or at least so it seemed. Here’s what we saw as we stood sipping wine next to the clicking camera.

Then, after some ten minutes, it all ended. Happy New Year everyone, let’s hope it’s going to be better than 2016 even though it seems unlikely.
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