Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Oaxaca is a wonderful colonial Mexican city that smells of chocolate and burnt meat. On New Year‘s Eve the zocalo (central plaza) was decked out in fairy lights and beds of poinsettias and was abuzz with families sipping soft drinks (drinking alcohol in the street is prohibido) and buying balloons. The city’s many elaborate Catholic churches were packed full of incense and people reflecting on the year past and present.
Pants are just part of the Oaxacan New Year’s Eve celebrations. You also need to drink cider - not a problem - and eat a grape for each of the chimes at midnight, making a wish with each. Sadly we left ours in the fridge. However, as there was no Big Ben there were no chimes to welcome in 2009, so we wouldn’t have known when to eat them anyway. Instead we waited until the amateur pyrotechnics reached a peak and then surreptitiously chinked and slugged our warm lagers. We know how to celebrate in style!
The rest of the midnight hour was spent trying to dodge the mini-rockets and jumbo sparklers that ricocheted around the zocalo, and keep out of the way of the foam spray and eggs that were being lavishly spread over party goers. It seems to be a tradition to break eggs full of flour and/or hole-punch clippings on people’s heads.
It’s been quite a year for World In Slow Motion. We’ve travelled over 30,000 miles across three continents and sixteen countries. We’ve slept in the wilds of Siberia, worked amongst bears in Japan, eaten our body weight in rice, drunk ‘proper’ tequila, travelled on some of the best and worst trains in the world and got engaged on a cargo ship. With only three more countries to go, we’ll see what adventures 2009 brings…Happy New Year!
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
Two sets of flying things have amazed us this past week.
‘Los voladores’, aka the flying men, who pole dance with a difference,
and the migratory monarch butterflies of Piedra Herrada.
Both incredible feats of strength, nature and travel in slow motion.
Tom’s birthday treat was a trip to the Piedra Herrada butterfly sanctuary outside of Mexico City. I was expecting something similar to the Wye Valley Butterfly Zoo, but was instead blown away by the little known natural phenomenon we beheld.
After breathlessly scaling a deeply dusty uphill trail through a pine forest we came upon millions and millions of monarch butterflies. So called because their chrysalis is shaped like a crown, apparently named after William III. The air was thick with the sound and sight of gently fluttering butterflies and the floor littered with the dead confetti of their relatives. These butterflies are not native to Mexico, but had travelled for two months over two thousand miles from their home in the United States and Canada to winter in Mexico’s warmer climes. They started arriving from mid-November and will stay until the beginning of March when the mating period is over and the weather warm enough to return home.
The monarch is an enigmatic butterfly. Scientists are still debating why it is only every fifth generation of butterflies that makes this trek to Mexico and how they know to return to the same spot each time. A pre-historic Sat Nav perhaps? The monarchs have a taste for high altitude (2,800m) oyamel fir trees, but not any old tree will do, they apparently return to the exact same trees over a sixty square mile area year after year.
The voladores don’t travel quite so far, but their job is also death-defying. Their pole dancing performance originates from Papantla, Mexico, but is now performed at tourist attractions including Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology and Teohuatican pyramids. Dressed in traditional Totonac costume five brave men ascend a thirty metre pole without rope or safety harness. Four then descend headfirst on ropes gracefully and slowly revolving around the pole exactly thirteen times. A sort of bungee jump in slow motion. The fifth member remains at the top of the pole playing a bewitching tune on a pipe. [See video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoIBD2y-g9k]
This spectacle is also steeped in mystery and myth. Some believe it to be a fertility rite calling to the four corners of the earth to bring rain and sun; others link it to the pre-Hispanic calendar.
Two groups of flyers travelling in slow motion. Both gracefully practicing mysterious rituals. I do not understand why either man or butterfly does what they do, but their courage and might make for very good tourist attractions. So when visiting Mexico, make sure you look up.
Friday, 26 December 2008
¡ Feliz Navidad!
Christmas. Whilst I love the festive season I loathe spending it away from home.
I can’t help missing everything about a good ol’ traditional British Christmas - friends and family, presents, rotten weather, Bond repeats on telly and the stuffing. Especially the stuffing.
So if we were to have to spend this Christmas away then we would have to find a nice place to spend. And where better than Mexico.
A country full of devout Catholics, Christmas is huge in Mexico. The whole country is swathed in festive bling; as we travelled down from the north every village, town and city we passed through seemed to be indulging in festive celebrations which would put little old Blighty in the shade.
It was therefore with considerable anticipation that we approached the great megalopolis of Mexico City.
And not a little trepidation either. Mexico City is a massive place - with 18 million inhabitants it’s the second biggest city in the world (by population), a huge, sprawling, urban mass devouring all in its path as it expands in its seemingly inexorable quest to meet the needs of its residents.
This doesn’t make it an instantly lovable place for visitors, nor the most liveable for its residents, suffering as it does from high levels of pollution.
The city is also afflicted with more than its fair share of pollution and crime. We had been warned that it was a bit ‘edgy‘, not to venture into certain parts after dark, to leave our credit cards behind, and to take taxis everywhere, making sure you lock the doors once inside.
If what the locals did were anything to go by this was prudent advice: most residents seem to hide themselves away behind heavy metal gates, set into high walls lined with barbed wire.
No wonder the British felt that there was only one man up to the job of British ambassador here. Who else but a Paxman (in this case Jeremy’s brother Giles) could fearlessly represent his country’s interests in such a foreboding place?
With Paxo at the helm, surely we were safe and could focus fully on the festivities instead, spending the Christmas period with an old university chum, Monica, and her family .
It was to be a wonderful and very memorable occasion.
Unlike in Britain, the big day for Mexicans is the 24th, Christmas Eve. We arrived the day before and despite Christmas being a family occasion we were welcomed into their home with open arms.
The whole family had gathered for the festivities, four generations represented, from a delightful grandmother to a wide-eyed two year old, all arms and legs, the goo flowing permanently out of his mouth.
Mother was there, smiling benignly on proceedings and patiently attending to the many pans bubbling away on the stove, along with five of her eight brothers and sisters and their attendant husbands and wives.
Then there were their various children, shy teenagers and a mob of younger kids with a worrying predilection for running through the crowded rooms, high on sugar and the promise of presents.
And the family pets, a menagerie of a dog, a cat, a vociferous parrot and 4 tiny caged birds, housed in the outhouse toilet.
Together we all squeezed into the rambling house, part of traditional old Mexican courtyard,
bequeathed to the family by the grandfather, along with a large collection of dusty old lathes and stand drills which lined the entrance.
Ancient old motors lined the street outside, coated in dust, their tyres long flat. Inside the festive decorations lined every available surface and hung from every hook. Even the toilet seats had suitably seasonal covers.
It wouldn’t be Christmas of course without a tipple and our wonderful hosts soon introduced us to bountiful stock of booze at their disposal. The fridge groaned with a whole host of Mexican beers, many of them new to our palates.
Uncle Beto and Aunt Elizabeth went one further than this and introduced us to the pleasure of their sizeable mini-bar, a Bacchanalian banquet to rival the food. Rum, whisky, vodka, advocaat (a uniquely festive drink) and of course tequila.
They seemed to have them all, every fearsome variant of the local firewater, each distilled from a modest little cactus and guaranteed to send one’s head spinning.
“This is my favourite”, Uncle Beto told us, fondling a particularly weighty dark bottle, Tres Generaciones.
I politely supped the fearsome liquor I was passed, the memories of too many messy nights out still too strong to indulge uninhibited. Lara, on the other hand, eagerly swigged away, mixing it with a rather briny red liquid called Sangrita (‘little blood’). They colour it bright red for a reason.
Suitably tanked up we were then invited across the road to Uncle and Auntie’s house where we all sang a posada (hostel) song, a traditional song which, as I understood it, represents the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph.
Everyone merrily sang back and forth, one group the ‘pilgrims‘, the other the ‘hostel keepers’ whilst I mumbled embarrassingly along, wondering what on earth I was singing about.
This merry ritual over, we were then invited to participate in another Mexican Christmas tradition: the piñata game, or smashing the hell out of a papier mache figure dangling from a rope, with a great big stick in a bid to get at the sweets inside.
It’s not as simple as it sounds of course: alongside the alcohol coursing through one’s veins one has to contend with wearing a blindfold, being spun around until nicely disoriented and thence having to jump up thrashing wildly into the air as one of the Uncle‘s teasingly tugs the rope up and down.
As we made complete fools of ourselves, our fellow revellers sang another song, which loosely translates as: “Hit it, hit it hit it, don’t you lose your aim.”
Of course I did and hit the piñata - this one fiendishly based around a heavy ceramic pot - with my hand.
Dizzy, nauseous and numb with pain I happily passed the heavy wooden stick onto the next person who proceeded to smash the piñata into smithereens. The pieces shattered over a nearby car, setting off the alarms; the sweets inside exploded out all over the lawn, prompting an excitable feeding frenzy amongst children and adults alike.
The danger wasn’t over however, as someone then produced some fireworks and a laidback cousin in a leather jacket proceeded to light them in a rather lacksidasical manner.
Lethal lights and gunpowder fizzed all over the cardboard box they were placed upon, showering everyone in sparks and ricocheting off the walls of the confined space in which we were all gathered.
I cowered with granny behind the safety of a patio door. The kids loved it and eagerly grabbed the sparklers for an encore, great enormous sticks almost three foot long. A particularly young member of the family seemed to delight in the danger, carving great spaces out of the air, hair sizzling, eyeballs searing.
No wonder fireworks are banned in this city.
I was relieved to retreat back inside, as we approached the great present-giving ceremony.
Somehow, everyone squeezed into the small living room, crammed on and around two sofas, lounging in doorways, perched on stairwells.
A massive stack of presents awaited us, a mound big enough to rival the city’s great pyramid of Teotihuacan. Surely we’d be going all the way through into the New Year if we were to tackle all this lot.
Wrong. The family had a cunning answer to this problem: speed present-giving. A present is picked, the receiver gets ten seconds (counted down by everyone else) to unwrap it before they must select a new present and give it to that receiver, and so on, and so on.
It’s genius. No long, meandering hours of lingering over new socks and unwanted oven gloves. Just a frantic ripping of paper, a quick nod of thanks and on to the next.
And it’s great fun. Everyone gleefully gave and received. Everyone got something they wanted, something they didn’t want and something they never expected. I think my present of some chilli-flavoured crickets must surely fall into the third category.
Finally, the mountain was levelled. Midnight struck and it was time to eat.
This being Mexico there were huge amounts of food. Industrial quantities. It was as if they were expecting the entire city to turn up.
There was a mountain of mashed cod, a steaming heap of potatoes, a great forest of salad, a groaning basket of bread, a huge school of prawns, great lakes of mole and several large dishes of spaghetti.
There was a turkey of course, one that looked as if it had been pumped up on steroids and primed to take on Rocky Balbao and, just in case you were left feeling a bit peckish after all this, a choice of three different delicious puddings.
I dug in with the rest of the family, blissfully gorging myself on this medieval feast. After six months on the road my instincts seem to have reprogrammed themselves to resemble those of a wild animal, prompting me to feed frantically whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It was a good job I did too: with several charming Mexican mothers surrounding this scrawny Englishman - hardly a carbon copy of the typically tubby Mexican male - found it hard to refuse their kind, concerned insistence to try just one more spoonful…
But the best was yet to come. A familiar smell wafted in to the room: stuffing!
Shipped in fresh from a little Leicester delicatessen called Tesco. It had been lovingly prepared, gently cooked with thin slices of ham around it, and was devoured in an instant. An big hit with the Mexicans.
No wonder they put Paxo in charge in this town.
* Many thanks to the wonderful Rodriguez family for kindly hosting us over Christmas and giving us such a marvellous time
Thursday, 18 December 2008
The train leaves at 7am, so the first part of the journey, leaving town, is the best time to catch a little extra kip. When we opened our eyes an hour later, dry, rocky mountains scattered with yucca, cacti and scrub surrounded us. A cowboy in white laminated stetson (the local hatwear) lazily sauntered along a dirt track. In front of him lay the skull and bones of a cow lying in the charred remains of a summer scrubland fire. On the other side of the line more fortunate cattle grazed on yellow grass. Large black birds with red beaks sat on fence posts either with wings akimbo to soak up the morning sun or a beady eye on the passing train. This was cowboy country.
Hanging out of the vestibule windows we drank in the cold, fresh mountain air while the sun beat down on our faces. There were no child locks or health and safety on this vehicle. Apart from the rushing of the wind, the outside world was eerily quiet. Inside it was as noisy as a pig in a tin box. The wheels on the train screeched and clanked as we meandered uphill, dragging the four carriages from an altitude of 1,600m to 2,400m.
A man with a large automatic weapon strapped across his shoulder patrolled the carriages, accompanied by a handful of private security guards. It certainly looks like bandit country outside, so maybe they really were expecting a hold-up. A vendor with a sports bandage across his large nose took pictures of passengers on an ancient Polaroid then niftily turned them into souvenir keyrings. Food and drink was available in the standing only buffet car where you can surf the ride as you slurp a coffee. At the stations burritos, tamales and drinks were on sale through the train windows.
There are two trains in each direction each day. The first class express train takes in ten stations, the second class economy train considerably more. The latter is notorious for being slow and late. We gained first hand experience of this second class malady.
We broke the sixteen hour journey with a night in Creel, a small dusty railway town nestled in canyon country. With its tin roofed houses, crisp cold air and mix of cave dwelling loin-cloth wearing Tarahumara (the indigenous population) and cowboy locals, it is worth at least an overnight stay. After a short tour to see the best views of the Copper Canyon itself - views that rival the Grand Canyon - and that the train journey doesn’t allow for, we waited at the next station down the line, Divisidero. The train turned up two hours late due to pranksters having parked an upturned car on the track further up the line. Divisidero is a congenial place to spend some time with wonderful canyon views, colourful Tarahumara weaving and selling baskets and rows of ‘gordita’ stalls. These wonderful little maize pockets stuffed with beans, cheese and a stew of your choice are cooked fresh on hot plates on top of oil-can wood fires.
We were overjoyed to hear the toot of our train echo through the hills and finally pull into the station, only for our bubble to be quickly burst when the carriage attendant told us the train was full. We were allowed on, but had to sit on the floor of the buffet car amongst piles of locals, gringos, luggage and gordita remains. It must be coming up to Christmas or something.
The train plodded onwards through rocky forested canyons and creeks, stopping at length to let the eastbound trains pass (for this is a single track railway) and juddering to regular halts. The views should have been amazing as we traversed wild canyon terrain, but due to the delays the sun set all too soon and plunged us into darkness. The popping of our water bottles was now the only indication of the long descent down to sea-level. Finally ensconced in a comfy reclining seat with plenty of leg room we slept. We woke at 2am in Los Mochis. The train was four and a half hours late.
In spite of the delays and occasional lack of seating, if I had the time I would do the whole journey again from west to east. This lesser known series of canyons is every bit as awesome as its neighbour to the north, only there are more canyons and fewer tourists. The Copper Canyon Railway remains one of the most spectacular and memorable train journeys on our trip so far.
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
One week in to our trip and we haven’t been mugged or kidnapped, robbed at gunpoint or fallen foul of the drug gangs.
Nor have we been smashed to smithereens in a bus crash, stranded at the bottom of a remote ravine or abandoned in the desert, left to the jackals.
We haven’t even been stricken by food poisoning, overcome by urban smog or ripped off by one of the millions of the mythical, duplicitous Mexicans who supposedly live here and prey on unsuspecting gringos.
Nothing. Nada. None of the terrible fates of which many of the folk back in the United States predicted for us once we‘d left the protective mantle of Uncle Sam‘s realm.
On the the contrary, it’s all gone quite well. Mexico, this land of supposed barbarous savages, is - whisper it - actually rather a nice place.
I’m almost disappointed. I’d half expected to be shooting it out with bandoliered bandits besieging our train or at least making an appearance on the news, a grainy image of the two of us entering some shadowy pickup, the last known whereabouts of the most recent gringos to go missing in this dangerous nation.
I’d anticipated perhaps even a reunion with my old mucker Michael Buerk on 999. I could imagine him relating our mishap, his voice full of tension, “It was a decision which proved near fatal…”
So what on earth were all those Americans we met talking about?
(I should stop and correct myself here: by ‘American’ I mean of course US citizens; Mexicans are rightly sensitive about this, as the graffiti on a wall in Mazatlan pointed out “From Canada to Argentina we are all Americans”).
It’s early days into our visit here but this country seems wonderful. It’s warm and sunny, colourful and lively, the locals are fun and friendly, the food new and tasty and a welcome change to the predictable, plastic fare north of the border.
There’s fantastic colonial architecture, squat men in cream plastic cowboy hats, strange-looking Tarahumara Indians and more bushy moustaches than a Handlebar Club convention.
Despite the worries which were stoked up in us by our American friends, this country seems far more relaxed and enjoyable. We have encountered few of the up-tight neuroses which we did in the US, the buttoned-up paranoia which seemed to pervade our week there.
Like a conversation with the folks back home much of the talk in the US seemed full of financial worries, forecasts laden with doom, people fearing for the future.
The golden grins and confident swagger I experienced during my previous visit there seven years ago have been replaced by furrowed brows and TV channels full of adverts and advice on how to cope with the credit ‘crisis’.
The unimpeachable confidence of the CEOs has been punctured, the car companies crawling to the Capitol with their begging bowls in their hands.
Some even now openly fret that the tides are changing and the US supertanker is sinking as other vessels hove into sight over the horizon.
Can a change of captain set them back on course? We’ll find out when we return in February.
By contrast the people of Mexico, not a country which has by any means escaped the ravages of the ‘global financial crisis’ seem happier than their neighbours to the north.
Is this due to the different social makeup, where life is more family-oriented and less atomistic? Is it something to do with the differences in the ethnic makeup, cold-blooded Anglo-Saxons as opposed to warm-blooded latinos? Or is it because they’ve got less (in terms of material possessions) to lose?
Whatever it is, it’s been fascinating to witness these contrasts as they emerge and watch the atmosphere change as we’ve headed south, approaching and finally hopping, over the Mexican border.
Back in Los Angeles, from the minute we stepped off the boat, we saw strong hints about what was to come, from the food and the language, to the buildings and the people.
We passed through former Mexican territories in the South-West of the US, from California, through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas, areas which were often so hispanic in character one could be forgiven for thinking one had already crossed the border.
Combined with the powerful US political and economic influence in Mexico itself, this makes for an interesting cultural mix.
Dodge Rams and decaying old buses, Madonna and Mariachi, burgers and burritos, desperate poverty and opulent affluence.
This is born from a fascinating history between the two countries, full of friction and fury, exploitation and expropriation, revulsion and revolution.
Mexico is the only country which has fought on US soil; the US-baiting exploits of legendary revolutionary Pancho Villa is lovingly documented in his old stomping ground of Chihuahua.
This tension continues to this day, the US irate at Mexico’s seeming inability to police its borders, powerless to prevent the drug barons and people smugglers slipping over into US territory, Mexico fuming at US ‘imperialism’ and bullying tactics.
Yet both countries need each other: the US provides jobs, Mexico the workforce.
Without Mexico states such as California and Arizona would struggle to operate, few of their citizens wishing to carry out the menial work undertaken by many impoverished Mexicans.
Without the US, the income of millions of Mexicans would take a massive dive.
We travelled with thousands of Mexicans heading home from the US for Christmas. Passing through the state of Michoacà n we learnt that half of the population had emigrated north, the emigrants sending home some $2bn every year.
Despite this awkward relationship, one in which we found citizens of both countries needed little encouragement to condemn the other, both countries are inextricably bound to each other, condemned to dance an uncomfortable tango towards greater equality.
And like many awkward relationships there is a third party here, one from a very different part of the world - Spain.
Though the colonists left a long time ago their legacy remains. I was surprised at how quite how strong this legacy is, the visible reminders of the old colonial ruler far greater than those in other former European colonies we’ve visited such as Hong Kong (formerly British) or Vietnam (formerly French).
This was apparent from our very first port of call in Mexico, Chihuahua, a dusty city up in the dry mountains of the far North.
We found it a stark contrast to the US: grand colonial edifices, carefully laid-out plazas, streets designed for walking, not driving.
Though the architecture is impressive it is perhaps something else that the Spanish introduced that sets our new location apart from our previous - religion.
As a deeply Catholic country Mexico is crazy for Jesus and Mary. Their images and icons are everywhere: in shops and restaurants, in homes and hostels, on buses and trains, placed in tiny roadside shrines and daubed on huge mountains.
At this time of the year these are accompanied by Christmas bling. Lots of it.
Massive Christmas trees dominate town centres, their boughs laden down with garish decorations and garish lights twinkle from every building; parents stagger along pavements, weaving past elaborate nativity scenes, their arms laden with mountains of presents.
The beautiful ornate churches we visit seem to be permanently in the middle of one service or another, the masses drawn to prayer in the build up to the big day.
Jesus’s birthday is clearly A VERY BIG THING. I’m looking forward to it and seeing how Mexicans celebrate Christmas.
That’s if we aren’t blown up by a cracker, or knocked out by a falling piñata, or poisoned by an undercooked turkey, or crushed by a falling Christmas tree or….
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Border towns - a WISM speciality. We have crossed many borders in the previous six months but none seemed as ominous as that between the United States and Mexico.
The border is a byword for many of the more unpleasant things which occur when two countries with such a vast disparity in power and wealth share a boundary: illegal immigration; drugs smuggling and its associated violence; prostitution, gambling and other low level crime.
It draws the more unseemly types towards it and leaves the ordinary, decent folk nervous, anxious to scurry through as quickly as possible.
At least it wouldn’t come as too much of a culture shock to us. After having only been back in it for a week, once more we were leaving the Western world. I can’t say I was sorry to leave many of the aspects of the US behind, but what would lie ahead?
Many Americans we spoke to were alarmed, if not horrified. “Mexico!”, they said “You be careful over there! They’d reel off a list of dangers we’d confront if we were stupid enough to venture there, their faces a picture of anxiousness.
We steeled ourselves then, as we approached El Paso and its Mexican counterpart on the other side, to which we’d cross, Ciudad Juarez. One border, two cities.
We’d just crossed the state boundary, leaving the empty deserts of New Mexico behind and entering Texas. There was no missing this border - a huge sign read ‘Welcome to Texas. Proud home of President George W.Bush’.
Now, entering the town we could tell we were entering new ground. El Paso has a real frontier town feel about it, raffish, faded and ever-so-slightly edgy.
Americans told us that El Paso is ‘the poorest large city in the US’, Mexicans that it is ‘the safest city in the US’. In truth, it didn’t seem like either.
Instead I found it a rather interesting blend of US, Texan and Mexican. The latter’s influence felt stronger, with visible signs all around, from the food and the people to the language spoken.
Like many a frontier , the visitor is reminded at every opportunity where they are. The Star and Stripes and the Texan Lone Star hung in concert around the town, whilst banners hung down from lampposts to greet returning American servicemen.
We rolled into town after dark. The streets were empty, the shops closed. We shivered in the cool night air (the city stands at an elevation of over 3000 feet) admiring fine, square, old buildings.
We heaved our colossal packs into our decaying hostel, an endearingly grubby shadow of its grand former self.
Another local, working in the hostel, proved equally friendly.
Antonio was an energetic sixty-something. He sported a baseball cap and sweater, with the sleeves rolled up to reveal darkly tanned, muscley forearms, and the kind of facial hair that seems customary for this part of the world - a bushy moustache.
Though he hails from Wichita, Kansas (it’s ‘a shithole’, full of ‘American assholes’, apparently) this delightful chap was bubbling over with enthusiasm about his adopted city.
“A twenny minute driiiiive from heeyeer and yawl fiiinnd a raaanch of tweenny thousaarnd acres witha fawlty heeeyeerd of cattawl!”, he exclaimed.
“It ain’t no doood raayaanch either” he continued, referring to our previous destination, Tombstone, “Eeeeyit’s reeeall cowbaaaawzs!”, he exclaimed, thumping the antique telephone exchange.
I liked Antonio, he was fun. Plus he had a big white van in which he insisted we took a ride, heading to a viewpoint halfway up one of the mountains surrounding the town.
We drove past spacious front gardens, many littered with bright Christmas light displays: palm tree, miniature reindeers and, in a unique American twist on this tradition, a Cadillac. “That’ll be a ‘63 or ‘64 I’d say”, said Antonio, admiringly.
He was right: the view from the top was worth it. Beneath spread a blanket of lights, glowing golden grid patterns denoting the streets, Wells Fargo dominating the centre.
The border was clear, a dark line running alongside the Rio Grande. The river itself, Antonio explained, hardly lived up to its name these days, emptied of 85% of its contents by the thirsty folk upstream, much of the rest sucked up by the Mexicans before it’s had a chance to enter the Gulf of Mexico.
We got our chance to see this for ourselves the next morning, as we crossed the border into Mexico.
With some trepidation we yomped through the seedy streets in the bright sunlight, passing groups of itinerant Mexicans standing around in groups and wannabe cowboys (drugstore cowboys, Antonio would call them) leaning in shop doorways.
As we passed through US immigration in order to reach the Mexican side and get our tourist card we were warned (once again) by a policemen about the dangers that lurked on the other side.
Dubya and Dick grinned down from the walls, their mugs framed and hung on the wall at US immigration, Leaders of the Free World.
We walked out onto the bridge. The locals didn’t look unfriendly, rather they seemed sad and tired as they queued in a long line that stretched over the bridge back into Ciudad Juarez, a daily activity for the many who cross, looking for work.
The workers were herded down long metal cages, surrounded by barbed wire, ‘no loitering’ signs, CCTV and grim faced armed guards. It looked like a scene from Children of Men, the machinery of a paranoid, overbearing state holding back the flood.
We crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, a dismal trickle surrounded by barbed wire and railway lines, its concrete banks daubed with anti-US slogans. A buzzing helicopter hovered low overhead, making us wince, as we passed a nondescript line in the middle of the bridge, marking the official boundary.
On the other side we passed squeegy merchants, touting for trade amongst the traffic, soldiers in balaclavas toting huge rifles and nervously scanning the traffic and tubby little moustachioed men wearing vague uniforms who waved us through.
Music blasted, people smiled and joked, delicious smells wafted over to us from little foodstalls. I felt a spring in my step and some of the weight of American paranoia lift from my shoulders.
This was going to be different all right.
Monday, 15 December 2008
The two adjoining cities straddle the border and immigration controls are confusing. Upon entry to the U.S. we were told that Mexico is considered a contiguous region with the U.S. so that for stays under 30 days we would not need a visa or tourist card to visit. It would also appear that U.S. citizens and World in Slow Motion backpackers with a U.S. visa can visit certain parts of Mexico within a certain distance of the border (e.g. to Ciudad Juarez) without a visa/tourist card.
Not wanting to chance it, we took the advice of the Foreign Office who state that British citizens need a tourist card to visit Mexico, which allows for a 180 day visit.
Given the lack of available information the following tips may help anyone taking the same route (El Paso to Mexico) by public transport. We cannot state the following as fact, but based on our experience so far we hope the following helps:
1) To get your Mexico tourist card go over the Avenue Juarez bridge from El Paso (U.S.) into Ciudad Juarez (Mexico). There is a covered pedestrian gangway and no questions were asked when leaving the U.S.
2) When over the bridge (across the border into Mexico) walk two blocks to the east to the Mexican Immigration Office on Avenida Lerdo.
3) Here you fill in a form, get a copy (this is the tourist card) and get a Mexico entry stamp in your passport.
4) Now you can choose whether to get a taxi to the bus station in Ciudad Juarez for onwards travel or get a bus from El Paso. We opted for the latter (it seemed simpler) so had to go back over the Avenue Juarez bridge (it costs $0.30 for pedestrians) through U.S. immigration back into El Paso, Texas.
5) Our bus then crossed the border to Chihuahua without a single piece of paperwork being checked, either on the U.S. or Mexican side of the border. There was nowhere to surrender our U.S. departure card, which we need to do as we will be out of the country for more than 30 days, so we will have to visit the American Embassy when we reach Mexico City. Apparently you can skip the queue and go around to the window at the back of the building.
6) When in Mexico, you need to go to the bank (any bank) to give them your tourist card and pay around $30 USD in exchange for a receipt. You need this receipt to leave Mexico.
As we’re not 100 per cent sure that the information we have is correct, we’ll be updating this page as our adventure continues, when we leave Mexico for Guatemala/Belize and then re-enter, before entering the U.S. one more time. In the meantime, if anyone knows more than us, do let us know…
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. If this is the case then I truly should have fallen in love with Los Angeles. Or at least one part of it - Big Irv’s.
A few stools line the counter, a few plastic chairs and tables sit under a low-slung roof. That’s it. No bright lights, no plush comfy chairs and definitely no wifi.
As we waited for our food I took in some of the many articles lining the walls, fading newspaper cuttings outlining Irv’s illustrious history.
Jim Morrison has eaten here, Hendrix chowed down, even Janis Joplin. It’s featured on album covers and hosted West Side Stories warring gangs the Jets and the Sharks (during breaks in filming).
And besides those that made it in Hollywood, it’s hosted thousands that are trying to, many of them finding a special place in their heart for this old place.
In an ocean of full of big sharks in the shape of the big chains, Irv’s is like a brave little penguin clinging tenaciously to a flimsy little iceberg, proud of its history and determined to remain.
Irv's is a real piece of Americana, that celebrated in film and fiction, a culture fast being lost to the monotonising march of modernity and the supremacy of the corporates.
It’s stood since 1946, knocking out tasty burgers and fries at affordable prices, scruffy, loveable and personal, one of the few remaining old stand-alone burger joints that used to serve the hard-pressed locals of LA.
As the times changed most of these have been swept up, bulldozed down to make way for another chain store.
Irv’s didn’t escape the developer’s attention and its owner decided to sell up, the site earmarked for a coffee shop chain.
The campaign caught attention across the city and the entire country, the walls bearing testament to this with newspaper cuttings from far and wide. Even the Washington Post.
The campaign paid off and, eventually Irv’s was saved. The owners beam proudly when they told me of this success, of a community rallying together and saving a piece of their history, a continuing part of their culture.
It was time to sample this myself and I I buried my British sensibilities and dived on in: cheeseburger, chilli cheese fries (“you just HAVE to try these, maaaan”), drowned in sauce, seething with grease.
Every customer gets one of these, an enormous smile and maybe even a hug. The burgers aren’t bad, either.
Imagine a world without that.
Today a sign stands outside, put up by the city authorities: “Historic Building, 1946”. A burger joint, officially acknowledged and protected.
Only in America.
Friday, 12 December 2008
The Blank household is abuzz with Hollywood energy. Five guys, all busying around film studios, helping out enigmatic ‘bosses’, watching movies, partying and sharing the latest Hollywood gossip (would you believe, there is a shortage of fresh pinups). All working in menial to medium jobs in “the Industry” to pay their way and make the contacts they need to thrust their scripts/film/music ideas into the hands of the right person when their big moment arises. And it will. I’m sure at least one of these chaps will make it, and see the dreams of his personal project realised.
For us, it was a perfect insight into Los Angeles, for outside the Industry there is little else there. Aside from the famous streets and locations (Beverly Hills cop station, Rodeo Drive, Sunset Boulevard) LA is remarkably unattractive - one massive sprawl of bungalow. But the Industry is here, so people flock. Neither Austin nor his housemates particularly wants to live in LA, but the work is here and so are they, prepared for the eight year (on average) graft before they get their break.
Between the bungalows there are some exciting places: Irv's burger shack with the best chilli fries in town; Village Pizza with its chrome and neon and giant pizzas; Wang’s sports bar where well-endowed women serve pitchers of beer and bbq chicken wings while the clientele jump, whoop and high-five; and Jumbo’s Clown Bar, where it is hard to decide who the clowns are - the women in their underwear spinning around a pole or the punters throwing dollar bills at them.
We had our own taste of stardom and made our break as the studio audience of the Jimmy Kimmel Show. We were on national television on 10th December. When the camera turns from Adele to Jimmy you will see your World In Slow Motion hosts grinning inanely in the front row. The audience was not disappointing. They whooped, clapped and laughed much more enthusiastically than any British mob, so that the sign to prompt applause was rarely needed.
It seems that everyone in LA is involved in the Industry. Chatting to someone in Wang’s I enquired “So, what do you do?”. “I’m a business consultant,” she replied. I drew breathe in surprise. “For actors,” she continued. There is just no escaping it in LA and even during our short visit we got a taste of the pie. But it didn’t taste good enough to stick around.
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
Tuesday, 25th November, Day One, Yantian
Hong Kong’s International Container Terminal. It was into this strange, automated new world that we were introduced a few hours ago, smoothly whisked through the passport check (when did Heathrow ever take a mere five minutes from entrance to boarding?) and, before we know it, face-to-face with our transport for America: the CMA CGM Hugo - our home for the next 15 days.
Before we knew it we had climbed up the long, vertiginous gangplank, gasping for breath under our large packs, and established ourselves in our new quarters.
‘Cabin’ is rather a modest term for the palatial surroundings in which we find ourselves. Since we are the only passengers these two budget travellers have surely hit the accommodation jackpot:
a large living room, with sofa and all mod cons (TV, DVD and hifi), comfortable bedroom and en-suite bathroom. It’s fresh, light, airy, oh and did I mention that we have our own balcony outside? With commanding views of the starboard side of the vessel?
Please excuse the bragging but, after five months living out of a backpack in cheap and grotty hotel rooms this place is maritime heaven.
A young German officer, Sebastien, shows us the various facilities in the main living area of the vessel before his older colleague, a pale-faced Pole called ‘Chief’ shows us the business end of the boat - the cargo holds.
It ‘s a big tub, taking a good time to walk from end to end.
Passengers on board, the officers could go back to the main part of their work - loading the 6000 or so containers that this ship will be carrying across the Pacific. At two a minute this will take some time.
We stretch out on sundowners and behold the impressive scene in front of us - a massive port at full tilt. We marvel at the awesome scale of the machines, the logistical excellence of the companies , the industry of the workers…and the marksmanship of a crane operator as he nips out of his vertiginous cabin to take a leak over the side.
The sun starts to set and two tug boats run up alongside us; mooring ropes are cast off and the little vessels begin to pull and push us, ebullient little bulldogs, set to their task. With great dexterity (and a little technological help) the crew and harbour pilot swing our ship around in one massive U-turn within the confined waters of the harbour.
We point out to sea and glide out under an unfinished suspension bridge, the two ends hanging like lovers split apart by the gulf on which we sail. They won’t have to wait long to be finally united, judging by the frenetic activity echoing down to us in the dark below.
To port we wave farewell to the bright lights of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, flashing in the distance, where the ‘Symphony of Lights’ is underway. Beyond traffic and tower blocks, glistening in the water, and into the dark embrace of the night.
As we leave the orange glow of the city behind the stars begin to come out, and Asia starts to fade away.
Wednesday 26th November, Day Two, just off Shantou
A troubled night’s sleep. I felt as if I were in a pitch-dark cage, secured on four pivots which a malicious machine manipulated in term all night long.
Turning out for breakfast at eight sharp, we guzzled caffeine and pondered how on earth we were meant to sleep on this bucking beast of a boat.
Thankfully we had stopped once more - Yantian port - a chance to cop a few z’s.
Another massive cargo operation, during which we acquainted ourselves with the ship’s DVDs. Made in China and all knocked off of course, together they form a library that would have Barry Norman drooling. We are not going to be bored on this tub…
We finally set sail and headed up through the Straits of Taiwan, leaving the tropics behind. A large warship hove into view to starboard, a Chinese vessel patrolling troubled waters between China and what she regards as a ‘renegade’ province.
The crew busy themselves checking for stowaways, a real concern as Chinese still regularly attempt to stow aboard vessels, desperately seeking a better life in the USA. The Captain, deadly serious about this task, gives instances from they past where other ships have been surreptitiously boarded and stowaways hidden inside containers.
With luck they have enough food and drink to last two weeks, perhaps even a rudimentary toilet. Either way, it’s a perilous …
It’s gets me thinking about what is inside all those massive containers. They are sealed and then shipped, long before they reach the Hugo, clothes, food, cars, guns, bananas, whatever we don’t know.
Neither do the crew, nor the officers. Only the Captain and Chief Mate have some idea of what might be in some of them - those that are deemed ‘hazardous’, or perishables, requiring power to cool them during the voyage.
I gaze out to sea from the landing outside. Blue, blue, blue. As far as the eye can see. Get used to it, shipmate.
Thursday 27th November, Day Three, north of Taipei
Morning rises are painfully early, particularly on the many days when the clocks are changed.
This morning was the first of no less than eight of these during the course of our 15 day voyage. That’s the equivalent of a good night’s sleep!
We’ll then gain 24 hours - a whole day - when we cross the International Date Line, though when I tried to work out what happens after that I got confused and gave up.
The Hugo is passing south of Japan now, heading due East. The sea has turned the same blue as we saw back in the Land of the Rising Sun, a deep, brilliant blue which makes you want to dive in. I’m calling it ‘Japanese indigo’.
To the north is the Okinawa, a favourite holiday destination for the Japanese, particularly for honeymooners. It sounds wonderful - lush tropical beaches, more relaxed than the mainland.
We learn now that this is as close to Japan that we’ll now get, for our route has been changed, the usual route abandoned due to a storm raging across the waters further north.
This original route headed north, through places we’d been in back in August, crossing the Sea of Japan and threading between Honshu and Hokkaido. The route heads up past the Kamchatka peninsula, beyond the Aleutians into the Bering Sea before finally looping back south, shadowing the West coast of the US all the way to LA.
It looks barmy on the map but if you cut up a globe and flattened it out you’d find it was a thousand miles shorter than our present course. But it’s not for us, concerns about the extra fuel and time it will take are well outweighed by the need to avoid bad weather.
This has its advantages for us of us: we came prepared for a chilly journey; instead we’ll be lingering in the tropics that bit longer. Pass the Nivea, darling…
Fried Chicken Liver for dinner - this was too much, particularly in these conditions. Enough of this German stodge! Give us some Filopino! We had discovered that the crew wisely eschewed such teutonic culinary delights and enjoyed some of Joyson, the chef’s good ol’ home cooking.
So a delicious chicken casserole and rice it was, fragrantly and subtley flavoured with ginger, lemon and chilli.
I don’t think the Captain appreciated this treachery from his European compatriots.
Friday 28th November, Day Four, well past Okinawa
Another hour forward, another dazed breakfast where I am woken from my slumbers only by the sound of the Captain upbraiding the Steward.
He’d committed the heinous crime of straying a couple of inches from his post at the door of the pantry. “Stand where I can zee yooo!”, the Steward caught a full Baltic blast from the severe skipper.
Humiliated and shocked, poor Roy stood rooted to his spot for the rest of the day, a wan smile on his face like a dog which had just been thrashed.
We pass south of Osaka - several hundred miles south - city of Octopus balls and the only grime to be found in Japan.
The swell has picked up. No ships on the radar screen now. We’re venturing into the unknown.
The quiet afternoon is punctured by a screeching alarm - fire alarm practice.
Lara and I squeeze along the gangways, in bulky lifevests, lugging bags containing heavy plastic immersion suits (surely they can come up with a less doom-laden name than this?). We finally find the right deck, where the crew, laughing at us, huddles round a compact little orange lifeboat.
We’re the last to arrive - they were about to send a search party.
At dinner the steward seems to have received somewhat from his earlier bollocking: when pudding arrives he offers dietary advice to Lara - “Yes it’s best you don’t eat the ice cream - you need to stay sexy.” Her face was a picture.
Saturday 29th November, Day Five, South of the Bonin Islands
To the bridge for my morning visit, just to check we are heading the right way of course.
I’ve become fascinated with this living, breathing seamonster upon which we have hitched a ride. I could almost be one of the German officers, visiting the bridge at exactly the same time each day to note our bearing, find our position and add another inch to the long black line snaking across my map.
I badger whoever’s on watch with questions and requests, aching to play with the impressive array of machines. I eye up the radar, the bow thruster, the sonar, the radio, and most of all that funny little lever that you see in all boat movies that says ’Full steam ahead'.
Casting my eye over the charts I notice we passed some islands called the Bonin Islands. I’ve never heard of them but they fascinate me nonetheless. Any rock, any deep, seems to have a significance on the great light blue void taking up my map. The last scraps of land for quite some time.
Back amongst the living, we’re struggling to adopt to one aspect of our new surroundings: the food. After the varied and subtle culinary delights of Asia we now face European fare of a decidedly different nature. Germano-centric food which is heavy on protein and light on …. Stodgy grub to sustain the hard-pressed sailor. .
It’s beef for all three meals today, served up ‘raw’ for breakfast, in the form of soup, delicately set off with a fried egg on top. “A traditional Jarman meeeeel”, the Chief Engineer proudly explains to us “Our Filopino cook has to learn haw to coooook ittt’. There follows stroganoff for lunch, and something called ‘Texas Flintoff’ for dinner.
Local specialities aside, accustomed as we are to a diet of noodles and fresh fruit, chillis and lemongrass it plays havoc with our digestive tracts.
The Chief kindly takes us on another tour - a chance to forget our own innards and explore those of the ship.
We descend below decks, into a maze of cream-painted metal corridors and black and yellow painted hazard chevrons. In large, echoing metal chambers we take in impressive machinery, whirring, grinding and perforating our eardrums. Each connected room has its own specific purpose: rudder steering, firefighting, equipment storage and (my favourite) bow-thrusting.
Chief leaves us at the bow, for a ‘Titanic’ moment. It’s his favourite place on the boat - the only place where peace reigns and your at one with the natural world.
We lean against the rails and stare into the water. The ocean’s a deep blue, the spray the colour of duck-eggs. I shout with delight: “Look, flying fish!”. The small creatures pop up out of nowhere and fly - yes they really do - up into the air, skimming above the waves.
Battered by the breeze, we retreat to our deck and watch the sun sink into the sea. As it descends through a small cloud, shafts of light spill out round the side and down onto the water, blazing a path through the waves. Our own private sunset.
Sunday 30th November, Day Six, A long way from anywhere
Being at the mercy of the elements our voyage is dominated by talk of the weather. It’s the first thing we do in the morning, shaking the sleep from our heads and drawing back the curtains.
Today it’s raining outside, visibility is low. The sea is much darker, the waves seem longer, stronger, more threatening. There’s a mist in the air, and the temperature has increased, muggy and close.
The latest faxed weather forecast does not make for good reading. The North Pacific does not look pretty - a whole jigsaw of isobars crowded, great swirls tearing round.
The report brings news of swells of seven metre. Yes, seven metres. Captain wisely decides to avoid this and make a new bearing south, 96 degrees. Our new course will soon head along Lat 21 degrees East, rather than 26 degrees - back south over the Tropic of Cancer.
We will no longer pass Midway, but instead thread our way through the islands of Hawaii. Much excitement amongst passengers and crew until we realise that we wont be dropping anchor there. Can we spot grass-skirted dancing girls through our binoculours?
Basketball in the pm at the stern of the boat, a basket set up and court marked out, rope nets rigged up to stop the ball going overboard. This gangly Englishman makes a right fool of myself - hammered by a gang of tubby 5ft filopinos
Sliver of a moon out tonight, the stars all in attendance. Venus is the largest I have ever seen her.
Finally movement down below - attention all shipping.
Monday 1st December, Day Seven, Still a long way from anywhere
A beautiful sunny morning. The temperature has crept up as the latitude has dropped. It’s now humid on board and so hot in the sun that even Lara had to retreat from her sunlounger.
It’s hard to grasp that today is actually the first of December. Lara’s made us our very own WISM advent calendar to get us more into the Christmas mood.
We are now covering roughly 550 miles a day - that’s 25 miles an hour to us landlubbers. A full 24 hour’s voyage renders another inch and a half of blue on the map. There’s an awful lot of blue ahead of us.
Late in the afternoon as I lay on the sunlounger, buried in my notebook I heard a cry which made me jump so high I almost fell overboard. Looking above me I saw Sebastien, the 4th mate, and Chief, waving excitedly at me and pointing to starboard.
I turned my head in that direction and immediately saw a fin and a plume of white spray: a whale! I rushed excitedly into our room, scattering books all over the floor and dragging Lara out of the shower.
Up on the bridge we were treated to the sight of no less than a school (or pod? a herd?) of whales, making their way past us, heading West.
I counted five separate creatures, clearly identifiable by the plumes of spray their blowholes sent above the sea, along with the odd glint from the setting sun as their great bodies broke the surface.
Our first ever sighting of whales. Magical.
The crew didn’t share our excitement - not a new experience for them, though were a little surprised at seeing whales so far from their usual surroundings in these parts, the great migratory routes along the Western coasts of the US and Mexico, Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands.
So strange to see any creature in so remote a place, thousands of miles from land.
The sun seemed to sense our excitement and put on a magnificent display of its own, competing for our attention and wonder. Sinking fast into the sea it burned the crests of the waves a fiery yellow and lit up the little clouds shuddering low across the sky; dark blue changed to purple, violent then orange, before crimson and gold.
The natural wonders didn’t stop there: later up on the bridge we were treated to clear night skies and the most spectacular collection of stars I have ever seen.
Whole constellations came out to play; distant solar systems visited us, piercingly bright. Like a black lampshade, light seeping through a thousand pinpricks. The Navigator, Cesar, spotted Venus and even Jupiter, clear to the naked eye.
He asked me that question such sights provoke in a million minds: “Do you think there’s life out there?”
Tuesday 2nd December, Day Eight, somewhere along the Tropic of Cancer
Another bright sky, the sea a deep blue, the swell a gentle 1½ foot. The warm wind embraced me like a glove, the sun called us out to play. Lara sweated the morning out on deck whilst I paid my morning visit to the bridge, just to check they were heading in the right direction.
We’re now 2864 miles from Hong Kong, and a long way from dry land. I cast my eyes once more over the well-worn maps lying around, covered in pencilled notes and buried under weather reports.
We passed a rock called Minami Tori-Shima, a hundred miles or so to starboard. The map shows it’s Japanese territory, the last piece of Asia. We head now into a no man’s land, before entering the US sphere and the archipelago of Hawaii.
I find myself consulting these charts at least twice a day, they somehow give me comfort and reassurance. Perhaps it’s because they printed in Taunton and brought to us courtesy of a fellow Englishman, the grandly-titled ‘Rear Admiral R.O. Morris, Hydrographer of the Navy‘.
I’m hooked on these charts and my visits to the bridge, craving information in this empty new world.
They’re covered in strange patterns, code for the navigator. Strange names, full of foreboding and mystery: ’Mapmakers seamounts’; ’Ortelius fracture zone’; ’Ptolemy Basin’.
I’ve never really been aware of what my exact latitude and longitude is before but ask me know and I could reel it off to you to the second. Then again, it’s not really been necessary for a trip to Waitrose.
A rainstorm forces the sunbather back inside, bursting through the …door as the bruised clouds catch up with us astern. The Captain is amazed - travelling up at 50 kph the rains caught up with us from behind before hosing down our decks and stairways. The crew are delighted - no more washing for a while.
A fax came through from the weather folks in San Francisco; we’re riding the edge of one almighty storm. Their map shows isobars bound tight together in the North Pacific, stretching out in concentric circles from almost coast to coast. So glad we changed course…
I’ve just realised we’ve been at sea a week now yet my fears about getting bored are still to materialise; time is not dragging.
On top of this we’ve had no access to news from the outside world for a week. For a Radio Four junkie this could be intolerable yet I’ve barely considered it.
Am I becoming a troglodyte?
Wednesday 3rd December, Day Nine, Middle of nowhere
3400 miles from Yantian. We’re crossing something called the mid-Pacific Seamounts, huge mountains under the water rising up to 5000 metres above the seabed. On land they would rival some serious peaks, drawing visitors from far and wide. Under water they’re anonymous, awaiting names from some intrepid aquatic explorer.
The Hugo is experiencing some of the effects of the huge storm raging to the north, something I was aware of before rising as I rolled around in bed during the night, waking up pressed up tight against the bulwark.
The day brought large swells, some rising up to 4 metres in height. I descend to the deck and gaze in awe at meaty graet monsters, barrelling in and plunging under the Hugo, lifting the leviathan and throwing him up like a leaf. Great fine clouds of spray fly off the crests, covering the deck and coating the handrails in salt.
The constant rolling motion takes a toll on the tub, the bow sustaining some damage, albeit it fairly low-level, from the constant pummelling from the port side. The crew laugh blithely continue as before, hardly noticing their … world and laughing at the landlubbers, staggering along the gangways, grabbing handrails, tables, anything to hold on to.
This tossing and turning takes more of a toll on us - my brain seems to slosh around in my head, making reading difficult, and typing this a challenge; Lara feels downright queasy and lies groaning on the sofa.
Our world is in perpetual motion, constantly changing - one minute the corridor rises up in front of us into a steep incline, the next we’re barrelling down it like kids on toboggans.
It presented a whole new challenge when working out in the gym, the exercise bike rising and falling as if I were touring the Grampians, my view out the porthole one big blue world, restless and …
The Captain takes action, abandoning our straight course and resort to tacking, just like in a sailing boat, only this time done to avoid the worst excesses of the waves and wind rather than harness it.
We sail on two bearings, interchanging between the two, taking our intended course, 96 degrees, almost due East, where the waves hit our port side, sending the boat into a constant and strong rolling motion, before seeking some blessed relief and bearing further south, 110 degrees.
The crew would have us believe that this is for the comfort of their guests but clearly they have a more precious cargo to worry about; the thousands of containers creaking and groaning at their lashings on deck.
Walking along the gangway directly under them can be quite unnerving - it sounds like a Victorian graveyard out there, each container crying out under the intense pressure they bear.
After dark excitement in the Owner’s Cabin mounted as we neared the International Date Line. 180 degrees East - exactly half-way round the world from Greenwich, and from home.
In one rotation of the propeller we would no longer be locating ourselves by how many degrees we were East of the Meridian, but West.
Not only this but all of a sudden we would be 12 hours behind the UK, rather than 12 hours ahead. And we’d gain a day, making us both one whole day older in an instant! From now on our lives will be one day out. Christmas Day on the 24th. New Year’s Eve on the 30th.
Confusing - so much so that Lara has turned a tin of evaporated milk into ‘the sun‘ and a tub of peanuts into ‘the earth‘ upon which she shines her wind-up torch. They sit on the sofa and the table, the map spread out between them.
I struggle to explain the dateline to her - we need her nautically-steeped, mathematically-minded father her. Instead she goes to seek an explanation amongst the maritime tomes on the bridge.
The moment was of course an anticlimax; the bridge didn’t call us as promised - the Captain being in the midst of one of his unhumourous moments - and we unconsciously crossed the Line during a film.
Never mind: from 22.35, from now on every minute we travel we are no longer heading further away from home; we are getting closer.
Wednesday 3rd December, Day Ten, South of Midway Island
No it’s not a typo - it’s Wednesday again, for now that we have crossed the International Date Line, from East to West, have get to relive a whole day of our life again. That makes us a day older than we would be otherwise, and knocks out all dates from now on by one day.
Soon after the Date Line came the island of Midway; though hidden hundreds of miles over the horizon (not that far on the Pacific Ocean scale of things), a large rock which would have remained anonymous if it weren’t for its location and the pivotal battle that took place there in the Second World War, when the US held firm against Japanese assaults. A line in the sea between East and West.
At this point it begins to feel like we have now crossed between these worlds, leaving the East and entering the West. We are creeping slowly into a new sphere of influence, where the US, not Japan holds sway over the seas and remote islands they hide.
It’s not every day you get to cross the International Date Line, nor to relieve a full day. Nor is it every day that you get down on one knee and propose to your girlfriend. It took planning, guile and plenty of courage but I managed it and - somehow - she said yes!
I’ll spare you the soppy guff but suffice it to say the evening was memorable, if only for the reaction of the officers and crew. The former seemed unmoved, perhaps disinterested; the latter were far more enthusiastic.
There followed an enjoyable celebration Fillopino-style, where Joyson, the Cook, cracked open a bottle of brandy and sang us soppy (and unrecognisable) love songs on his beloved karaoke machine. The entertainment when he stopped, for an Oiler, Villar, proudly produced his guitar and got stuck into a few of his favourite numbers.
Over the excited hubbab of a boisterous game of mahjong and through the clouds of Chinese cigarette smoke, an acoustic ‘Careless Whisper’ went down a storm, followed by Robbie Williams and a rousing Beatles number.
They may be on the same boat but there is an ocean of difference between the Germans and Filipinos.
Thursday 4th December, Day Eleven, West of Hawaii
The first solid assurance that we are now very much back in the West: up over the horizon the charts show a long, strung-out chain of atolls, stretching almost from the island of Midway down towards the South West.
Swelling undersea mountains, they barely poke their rocky heads out above the ocean, home only to rare species of birdlife, protected from human encroachment by US law. American land - and a remote part of one of the most desirable group of holiday islands in the world - Hawaii.
The excitement has been building amongst passengers and crew since we learnt about our unanticipated detour via these islands. Though we realised we wouldn’t stop we at least hoped for a sighting of Honolulu, death-defying surfers and hula hula girls.
No chance - we’ll be passing near them during the night, through the Kauai Channel, the other side of Oahu island from the capital.
It’s hard to bear this: Hawaii! We never thought we’d come here, particularly by ship. Yet all we’ll see, if we’re lucky are a few lights.
The US is touchy about ships entering its territory, so this route is best. Straight on through and then set a course for the mainland.
We’re back in a populated area. The radar shows up the odd vessel and occasionally we spot one with the naked eye. American accents have started to pop up on the ship’s radio. We‘re no longer alone, at least for tonight.
Friday 5th December, Day Twelve, East of Hawaii
I awoke in the night, courtesy of a particularly large roll from the boat and checked the clock: 2.45am. We should be passing close to Oahu, one of the main Hawaiian islands, and home to the capital, Honolulu.
It was enough to spur us out of boat and peer through the windows: a revolving beam of light - a lighthouse - and a smudge of lights through the mist, but no dancing girls. That was our only view of Hawaii.
Still, it was exciting. The first real land since China.
When we arose again, for breakfast, the islands were far behind and we were ploughing through long, spread-out waves of the North sub-tropical current.
Back into the immensity.
There’s still another good eight inches of it on my map to cross before we reach the North American continent, with absolutely no land in between. Not a scrap.
The charts just show current and depths and features of the seabed. We will skirt around something called the Molokai Fracture Zone, before passing over the Moonless Mountains.
Sounds like something out of a Joseph Conrad novel.
Mid-morning Lara burst into the cabin, he face aghast. She jibbered incoherently and blushed profusely. My imagination whirled; what had she done? Raided the Captain’s sweetie cupboard? Broken into a cargo container and drank its contents?
Finally she calmed down and confessed: she’d been descending the outside decks, on her way from the bridge when she came across the captain, outside his cabin, sunbathing. Naked. A most delicate situation from which she had to extract herself. Yet another embarrassed casualty of the Teutonic fondness of bathing in the altogether, she now has to face him at lunch…
Later, another fire drill. Despite our preparedness and the two reminder phonecalls, we were still last. The crew again are most amused - the blighters must have been just standing there, waiting for the bell to go.
They are put through their paces whilst we test some different waters - those of the indoor swimming pool, more the scale of an overgrown goldfish pond than a pool.
It’s almost a miniature of the great pond outside, replete with salty seawater sloshing about, producing a good 5 foot swell within its modest confines. I splash about in its bracing waters; they’re too cool for Lara, barely topping 20 degrees. Dipping her toe in she emits a scream which shatters the windows and rushes for her towel. What would the Finns say?
No sea journey is complete of course without a game of ping pong and Cesar, the navigator obliges me, kindly whipping this naïve Englishman 9-0. He casually mentions the tournaments he’s entered back in his native Philippines.
Ping pong, swimming, larking about in lifejackets: who said being at sea is a hard life?
Saturday 6th December, Day 13, a long way off the Californian coast
The boat has begun to move in a new fashion, pitching up and down, ever so gently, as the current comes from the bow. A welcome change from the constantly rolling, and a chance for some uninterrupted sleep.
Have started to frantically read our Mexico guidebook and learn a few words of Spanish, preparation for our next destination soon after LA.
The self-improvement continues when Cesar (the navigator) gives me a elementary lesson on celestial navigation, that’s the way sailors used to find their way around using the stars to land lubbers like you and me. I am soon introduced to the Nautical Almanac and submerged in a world of computation tables and logarithms, haversines and natural secants.
All I wanted was a nice photo of a salty old sea dog with a big white beard and a sextant.
I drown my disappointment in a lunchtime bowl of soup, with frankfurters floating in it. Am seriously starting to consider whether Jamie Oliver is actually all that bad.
The Captain cheered me up with an insight into the world of contemporary piracy. It’s prominent in world news at the moment, giving recent events off the Somali coast.
His eyes narrowed, his cheeks flushed “They vill never board zis vessel! NEVER! We have rockets! High pressure hoses!” For their sake, I hope any chancers with ideas of storming this boat never give it a go.
A bird paid us a visit this afternoon - the first since Okinawa, ten days ago. We’re keeping an eye out for whales too - where the Californian coast offers the best chance of spotting them.
The temperature has become distinctly cooler. We’re out of the tropics now, our bearing of 70 degrees - straight to the Californian coast - leading us further and further north. The humidity has dropped, the sun is less strong.
Lara’s getting the last few hours of sunbathing.
Sunday 7th December, Day 14, still many miles from California
Another clock change - another return to bed after breakfast.
When I finally rise I notice the air temperature has dropped once more. The air conditioning in our room has now turned from a help to a hindrance. Outside it’s not much warmer, the stiff breeze bringing a new crispness to the air.
The sea is even calmer, from the bridge it appears almost flat, undulating very slowly towards the stern, hardly lifting the vessel at all.
As we head steadily towards the Californian coast both officers and crew all talk of their plans which, coincidentally, seem remarkably similar - a visit to Long Beach’s WalMart, to buy snacks for the weeks ahead. That’s all the time they get before they then must report back. Hardly seeing the world.
The Chief Engineer produces a candle at lunchtime and solemnly lights it; when I enquire whether he and the Captain would like to be left alone for a tender moment he reminds me it’s Advent, still marked in Germany.
By dinner, the Christmas lights have been hung up in the Officer’s mess, neither they nor the crew will be home for Christmas. Instead they’ll hold a rather modest-sounding celebration on board, with Joyson cooking a large pig.
We catch another glorious sunset, this time at the stern, the oranges and purples mixing in the palette of the waters, churned up by the ship’s huge propeller. I tell myself for the hundredth time what a fantastic way to travel this is then suddenly realise that’s it’s all soon to end.
Tomorrow is our last full day on board before Long Beach. We’ve been so comfortable here, in our luxurious surroundings, that we’re become accustomed to this way of life.
By far the longest amount of time we’ve stayed in one place (if you can call it that) we’ve unconsciously slipped into a routine, our first really since leaving London.
It’s comfortable and familiar; the outside world seems suddenly too difficult, requiring too much effort, living out of backpacks and carefully counting the pennies.
It's going to be strange returning to land when all you’ve looked at for the last 15 days is a big, blue watery world, an endless moving horizon. Back to solid ground, no more constant movement.
Suddenly life’s no going to be simple anymore. I anticipate a huge sensory assault as we step off the boat and venture into LA. It’s going to be like the boat into Shanghai all over again.
I almost want to stay on board, stowaway in one of our capacious cupboards and continue the adventure.
Monday 8th December, Day 15, the Californian coast
Our last day - California beckons. Outside it doesn’t look very Californian, more like a dull day on the north sea, the waters a slate grey, the sea air bracing.
But it’s there on the charts now, a huge landmass, big and bold. Seagulls have started to join us - it can’t be far.
We’re headed for Point Conception, the gateway to the shipping lanes right into Long Beach port. It’s best to stick to this - the charts show all manner of nasties to the south - dumping grounds for chemicals and explosives and a large hatched off-area in pencil, the warning reads ‘Missile Firing Exercise Area’.
It’s funny, the Americans seem perfectly content to dump toxic waste on their coastlines and wreck their local environment but they are paranoid about what potentially dangerous diseases we might be carrying.
Everyone has been warned several times to eat up any fruit they may have and empty their bins, to be caught with an apple or banana may well incur a $1000 fine. Even orange peel is classed as a contraband, potentially carrying some deadly disease ready to wipe out US agriculture.
Entering US waters seems complicated and awkward, like negotiating your way into an aquatic Fort Knox.
The Captain looks stressed out, stalking about with piles of papers in his hand, barking at the crew, ignoring his passengers.
Once he leaves the mess, the 2nd Officer can finally speak. Like most of the officers he’s no spring chicken, instead he’s two years left until retirement. There’s few young people coming through to replace him, he tells us, at least in Europe.
The few that do nowadays come from Germany or Scandinavia - Britain, with its proud maritime heritage, seems to send few men to sea anymore.
Like the crew, the future seems to lie in the East, India, the Philipines and, like with everything else, China.
We are witnesses to the last of the European officers.
Tuesday 9th December, Day 16, Long Beach
The dawn brings the coastline of California and the port of Long Beach. Time to finally get off this tub and leave our salty friends behind.
Fully loaded up (our bags feel heavier than ever) we bid the crew a fond farewell and step gingerly down the long, metal gangplank.
Land. Solid. Still.
Dodging the enormous trucks and swinging heavy metal containers we make for a small yellow bus, like a school bus out of an eighties movie, our transport out of the port.
"Hello America!" I yell enthusiastically as we climb aboard, snapping shots of the mighty Hugo behind us.
Bus driver is distinctly unimpressed: "Just to give you a heads-up, buddy, this is a high-security area, we're a terrorist target, you need to put that camera away".
“Woo-oooo, there’s trouble in America…”
I’m very excited - we‘re heading for America! (Hence the all-too-predictable title).
The United States of America provokes in me a reaction like no other country on earth. It’s a mixture of amazement, excitement and envy with distain, disgust and just downright pity.
I last visited this incredible country in 2001, returning to Blighty a jumble of mixed feelings.
I was wowed by its cities (the buzz of New York; the buildings of Chicago; the harbour of San Francisco), enthralled by its natural beauty (the Great Plains of South Dakota, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the forests of the Pacific North West).
But while I was impressed at what the States had to offer I was also appalled at what people had to give. It seemed as if the whole country had been sacrificed to the pursuit of making money, that anything and everything was knocked down, the soul sucked out of it and given over to the corporations.
The result was an unthinking standardisation of everything, a mundane uniformity so that life was reduced to the lowest common denominator. Whether Washington or Milwaukee, Denver or Seattle it was likely you’d have a similar experience - the same shops, the same burger, the same same.
How could it be that this huge nation, with so much potential, such ability, so many aspirations - the ‘land of the free’ - had willingly surrendered its soul, all in the pursuit of a quick buck?
Did this help to explain all that made me recoil in America? The dominance of huge ugly shopping malls and junk food outlets, the fat lardy people, the crap public transport and the dominance of the car, the apathy and the helplessness of common folk versus the naked greed of the suits and the cynical venality of the Republican administration.
Perhaps, but it seemed to me a place which was had gone simply too far. It was tragic to witness the gross and obvious extremities screaming out across the land.
Flags festooned every front lawn yet many people I spoke to had little idea about the world outside their own state, let alone country; the rich pratted about in flashy gas guzzlers and barricaded themselves in palatial fortresses whilst the poor pushed all their worldly goods through the streets in shopping trolleys.
I’ll never forget the ghettoes, where you seemed to be left to rot with little help from the state.
America is a paradox. One of the richest countries on earth, where anyone can supposedly ‘make it‘, yet you can also lose it. Like nowhere else in the developed world.
Seven years on, after another seven years of Bush and Cheney, I fear what I might find.
But I also hold out hope. This is America, after all, the country towards whom the rest of the world still often turns.
Will Barrack make it better? I hope so, though I’m not naïve enough to expect it (I recall similar feelings of jubilation and relief back in 1997, with the ascendancy of a certain T. Blair).
But the past can be a deadweight: I’ll leave my memories at the border and enter with a clear mind. The good, the bad and the downright bizarre: bring them all on.
I expect to find them all, cheek-by-jowl in the first of our destinations, Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is our first starting point - home to Hollywood, Ram It and the worst of American excesses.
As LA marks the start of our trip, I’ve been inspired to follow in the best traditions of this city and set myself some good ol’ ‘attainment goals’ for my time in the USA.
My list so far reads:
Meet someone called Chuck or Randy (particularly if their name also includes the suffix ‘Jr’ )
Eat a Corndog
Visit a High School and look inside the students’ lockers
Go to a live recording of a chat show
Watch an Ice Hockey match
Visit a space centre
Get admired for my accent and asked if I'm from 'Scotsland' / Denmark etc
Persuade someone I am Prince William’s cousin
Collect bizarre questions about my home country, e.g: ’Do you still drive a horse and carriage?’
Hear some Mississippi blues, preferably on a rickety old porch, in the rain
Hear something referred to as ‘aloadabaloney’
Eat pizza in ‘Noo York Cidy’
Buy a ten gallon hat
Meet a stressed-out, coffee-guzzling cop like the fat one off ‘NYPD Blues’
Go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans
High-brow stuff indeed.
And I’m, like, totally looking forward to it.