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Los Galapagos

What can I say, everyday was more fascinating than the next.  Each island completely different and interestingly so, with red sand beaches from the iron in the lava, black sand beaches from the volcanic ash, and the finest white sand beaches.  And that’s before you get past the beach.  And what’s more I was able to do it in comfort and style on board the Millenium.

Added to this was the underwater experience, and for someone with a long history of being terrified of water, I was most impressed with myself snorkelling each day in waters teaming with thousands of fish, playing with sea lions, and penguins, swimming with giant turtles.  There was just too much to look at to waste time on being scared.

Was very hard to leave today…

The Insiders, a quick book review

I’ve just finished Brett Easton Ellis’ “The Informers” and although I enjoyed reading it, I am wondering about his future as a novelist.

It is basically a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of a morally bankrupt modern life and the setting of LA in the 80’s. There is some hinted at interconnection of characters between the stories, but that’s it. Disorientating the reader by writing in the first person and changing genders in each of the stories, he savages the 80’s and it’s consumption culture. A suitable reference for our recent times, I think, and made me reflect upon myself getting off the ride of the Internet boom before it crashed and again in recent times at Coles. On both occasions feeling like I needed something more substantial than the money.  Although the changing shape of my bank balance may change this point of view…

I always find Easton Ellis to be a seductive read with his bleak, cold, and ferocious observations of people living “cool” but superficial and meaningless lives. In this book, the self-reflexive burying of any empathy with the characters on the part of the author is stark and lends it some humour at times. And it revealed something more of the author to me.

I wondered after the disappointment of the ending to “Glamorama” where it appeared he had lacked the will or even care to finish it off, whether he’d lost his way. After reading the autobiographical “Lunar Park” where he described how much he was haunted by “American Psycho” and his lifestyle of booze and drugs, I had a little more insight of an author scarred from the effort of writing a book about a monster and unable to go “all the way” with a novel for fear of where it will take him.

A now this collection of stories although very well observed and written, is another “not-novel”. Satisfying his need to be clever and witty, his publishers needs for a money spinner, but not I think his potential.

Miami Vice, anyone?

Wake up early in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal and walk across the road to the pier where the ferry for Santa Cruz leaves from.  After a “customs” check of two guys having a half hearted root around in my bags and a long wait I get on to the second boat, but find myslef one of the last to get on and am sitting right at the back of the boat.  The boat has three 200 bhp outboards on the back and as we head out to see they lower the middle one in so we have the full 600 bhp ready.

I get more than a little soggy on the way but the sun is out most of the time and I don’t mind.  As we crash through the swell, a scene from Miami Vice comes to mind at the start of an ep in one of the later series where Don Johnston is driving a speed boat, a scarab I think, from Miami to somewhere in the Carribean with a sound track of Voices by Russ Ballard and different camera angles for 5 minutes of him and cruising in a striaght line across the sea.  Indulgent but I loved it at the time for that.  Perhaps reading The Informers by Brett Easton Ellis helps the memory given its 80’s subject matter.  I chose Jarvis Cocker as my soundtrack – Further Complications.  And then smile at the memories of past fashion mistakes and wonder when I will buy that scarab…

A fist full of dollars can fix some things…

¿Muchos dineros problemas vamos?Michael Hoffman, February 2007, Somewhere in South America.

Had a little issue today when I got off the bus to Banos.  I was in a cab, getting out my little notebook out of my day bag to let the taxi know where to go and realised that my money wallet was missing. It had one of my passports and my spare credit cards and some argentinian pesos in it (and lucky I keep my other passport elsewhere).

So we hightail it back to the bus and I ask if the guys on the bus had seen it. No they say. I get a US$20 out and say if I get it back I’m very happy to pay for this problema to go away. Meanwhile the taxi driver is saying to everyone that will listen (I think) in spanish this is very bad and that they need the tourist to feel safe hear so they don’t stop coming.

The taxi driver then tells me we are going to the police and off we go. By the time we get there, the driver’s off-sider has run to the police station out of breath and said he “found” something on the bus.  The police chief says this is good news and takes a photo of the three of us for the local paper, with the guy from the bus not so keen on this.

We go back and there it is, everything except the argentinian pesos. I look around and then make a big show of giving the taxi driver the $20.

Thanks, Hof!

Cock Fighting in Otovalo

What to do on a quiet Saturday night in Otovalo?  Cock Fighting anyone?  Well I know it’s not really a PC sort of “sport”, but I really want to see it.

I go with a guy I’d met that night called Kevin from Syracuse in the US.  We get there and we are told not until 9pm, so we go and have a drink. Then not until 10.30pm so we have another drink.  Very much latino time all round.  I joked that it is going to be us and 5 old guys. We come back and there is a handful of guys and one very bored looking girl sitting near the door. There is only one cock and everyone is drinking.

We wait and then after a bit of banter between the guy with the cock and the others, he leaves and there are no cocks now.

I get some beers by speakng to the guy who will be the ref for the fights. He takes me into a kind of office and opens a filing cabinet, pulling out a bottle of rum which he offers to me (I decline) and then two beers. Silly of me not to realise this was a refridgerator.

Eventually people start to roll up with the cocks in special carrier bags. There is a single cock version and a multi-cock version (for your more professional type). Not that this means there is going to be a fight soon, it is a very long drawn out affair. You don’t just roll up with your cock, get it out, and the fighting commences.

The guys hold them and stroke them, waving them at the other cocks to get them in the mood. And then the guys drink some more rum and laugh at each other. Next comes the weigh in, cock in a sling suspended from some weigh scales, everyone comes in close to see for themsleves correct weight. It seems to be that they are all much the same weight, but there is much debate over the small differences. Now time for more drinks and laughs, and to wave the cocks at other cocks (mood thing again).

They attach a little spur to one of the cock’s leg before the fight. Two guys have been sitting ring side sharpening these things since we arrived, only stopping to drink and laugh. They take one of the cocks off to a separate room to have his attached. The owner/trainer of this cock is testing the spurs by pricking it against his cheek, he turns to his friend and tries to put a big hole in his cheek too, asking him if he thinks it’s a good one. He says no so they start the process all over again. After several goes they settle on a spur. It is attached to the cock with some tape that is wrapped around it’s leg much as a boxers hands are taped before a fight.

And now it looks like we are for a fight. There are about 20 people here now in a ring which I reckon holds 300 at a squeeze. I chat to the local bookie, Ronaldo, and put a fiver on the one with some white feathers. Most of the people clear out of the ring and the ref calls the owner/trainers in for a quick word. I turn to the bookie and say in english “May the best cock get it up”. I smile. He smiles. I go a take a seat.

The ref starts the fight and the two cocks circle each other with their neck feathers up in a show of defiance. They start jumping at each other pecking and clawing. To be honest it is pretty brutal and goes on way too long with both cocks covered in blood. As neither can land a knock out blow, the ref calls of the fight.

I wander over to the bookie and ask if there is a payout for this. He says something in spanish a bit too quickly for me, so I don’t understand and aks him to say it again a little slower. He says in spanish, simply this time, “No kill, no win” and gave me my money back. And with the novel expereince of a bookie refunding my money I think it is time to go to home.

An afternoon with god

This afternoon I decided to check out some of the many churches in Quito.

First off I visit basilica del voto nacional and climb the clock tower and the spire at the back of the church.  Ladders up are pretty scary – not usually afraid of heights but found my self saying don’t look down as I climbed up.  After that I went to La compania de jesus, the jesuit church, which has been restored to it’s old grandeur. A baroque over the top 23 carrot gilded temple (they didn’t know how to spare the gilting here – a much in demand profession).  And a particularly  grotesque painting at the back depicting hell.  A 57 piece orchestra is preparing for a concert later, and the sound is amazing.  I decide to hang around and listen to the rehearsal of what will be a very impressive performance for the city’s bicentenary celebrations.

Next was the Monasterio de San Francisco next.  The church is closed for large scale renovations but the museum, courtyard and choir balcony in the church is still open.  Don’t know if it was the franciscan priestes of newton parish when I grew up that I found to be a a little vulgar about getting money for a new church, or whether the jesuit views from when I went to school (I think they look down their nose at the franciscans) influenced me, but I found la campania to be a classier version of gilded gaudiness.  Even the security staff seemed a little higher class…

Life in Quito

I’m staying with a local family here in Quito in a 4 level house in a little quadro of 7 houses on Rio de janiero and panama in the bario of america. All the streets are named after the countries of north and south america with the cross roads named after cities.  The Zurita’s are my hosts and have three sons, well four now including me.

My bedroom is on the top floor with a single bed, a couch, a tv hidden away inside a wardrobe (there are at least 6 tvs here in the house I think), and my own bathroom.  On the couch there is a white rabbit stuffed toy with a knitted little white hat, in case I’m lonely.  Outside the door of the bedroom is a sun room with a children’s table (my desk for the next two weeks) and a collection of model cars on glass shelves filling two walls ranging from formula one to old buick pick up (with four men here and the senora it is bloke grand central).  There is also a crome lamp (a little neo-classical?) of a naked lady holding the lamp shade aloft – quite pretty, something I would like in my study (should I ever have one).

Grace La Senora of the house makes sure I’m well looked after.  Each morning I have a different fresh juice straight from the blender and eggs cooked whatever way I like.  After saying that I usually have fruit each morning that gets included too.  After four hours of spanish classes, it’s back home for lunch which is the main meal of the day here.  Each day it’s soup, followed by a meat or fish dish with rice (always!), vegetables, and salad.  And always very tasty – I think I’m having the best food I will have in South America. The don’t go much for dinner here, I usually get invited down for a cup of tea and there are some bread rolls with cheese if I want them.  Took me a little while to adjust to eating my main meal at lunch but I’m beginning to like it.

Though I have to say the thing that I really smiled at was when I had my first lot of washing done and found that Grace had even de-fluffed my socks.

How to blag an upgrade. A beginners guide.

After dragging myself out of bed at the hostel in Madrid I head to the airport with my backpack is on my back and my day bag with the lap top and many books is on my front in reverse.  I trudge down to the metro walking much slower than my usual quick march, my modern day budget traveler armour slowing me down.

After arriving at the airport and wistfully thinking why I didn’t take the swiss army bag with wheels and what happened to my gold frequent flyer status while I queue, I get to the check counter where an attractive girl with pretty eyes and a smart dark brown bob checks begins to check me in.

After practicing the night before, it’s time to pull out my practical Spanish 101.

¨Como esta usted hoy”, I ask.

¨Estoy bien”, she smiles.  Good start.

“El avion es muy competa hoy?”


“Es mas de la reserva?”

“Si, hay algunos pasajeros de pìe por”.  Bingo.  I’m in.  And very glad I had a shave.

“Tal vez peudo tener una actualizacion si que ayudar”, trying hard as I can for the cheeky school boy grin.

A little hestitaion and then “Por Supuesto”. Yes! Watch and learn – that’s the way it’s done!

This approach over the years has definitely been my most successful having worked on three occasions.

There are two other approaches but could be seen as a little risky for some.

The first is what I like to call the “full frontal”. While checking into an Air France flight from Paris to Osaka, I threw my fake Bangkok journalist ID on the counter and demanded an upgrade from the guy behind the counter in what I thought was quite good French, at the time.  After getting a mouthful of French spat back at me, of which I understood little except something about calling the airline first, I decided to stay on the front foot.  “Por quai pas?”, I threw back. A minute later with some sullen looks swapped, I had a boarding card thrown at me.  Thinking I’d be checked into the toilet at the back of the plane, I glanced at the card.  First Class.  Victory tastes very sweet indeed when you are sipping on a Bordeaux Premiere Cru at the pointy end of the plane – Chateau La Tour is a very tough way to travel.

The second and very unconventional approach is to appeal to the better nature of the person behind the desk.  I’ve always found slightly older ladies will be very helpful if you remind them of their own children (in a culturally sensitive way).  On this occasion I was in Rome and about to get into economy on an Alitalia flight to Bangkok and spied a somewhat older Italian lady on the customer service desk.  I asked her if an upgrade is possible.  She said no. I asked her again saying how awful it would be in economy and how it was very important I arrive fresh for a very important meeting.  She said no.  Having nothing to loose I got down on my hands and knees and begged for an upgrade. “Please don’t do this to me.  For the love of god don’t send me there.”  Minutes later with a business class boarding card in my hand, I am profusely grateful for both the upgrade and not getting kicked out of the airport for making such a scene.  If you think this is a little extreme, then you clearly haven’t travelled economy with Alitalia.  A constant reminder in my life that the very cheapest can never be good.  In fairness though they did do very good coffee for economy…

So back to my most recent upgrade experience. A couple of movies, a nice meal full of fresh salads, a couple of nice riojas, and a Spanish desert wine, a snooze for five hours, yes this is all going very well.  Another movie after I wake up, Frost/Nixon and why I haven’t seen this yet when I wanted to see the play and liked the look of the movie I don’t know.  The characters are fantastic and the tension builds beautifully.  Then an announcement that we aren’t going to Quito due to the weather there and diverting to Guayaquil.  And it was all going so beautifully.

I must admit I had been having morbid thoughts at the start of the flight about an odd feeling of saying goodbye to each person I met or left behind in Australia and thinking that the upgrade was just smoothing the way before the end.  After arriving in Guayaquil, I discovered that the plane wasn’t going to Quito for mechanical reasons which explained why the hostesses were looking a little nervous every time an unusual noise took their attention.  Perhaps I wasn’t too far off on my view of my impending demise.

Transit in Guayaquil airport was the hell you would expect.  The local staff unsure of how they would get us to Quito, telling us two planes would arrive to take us with the announced time of departure coming and going and the local staff showing clear signs of fear that a full 747 load of passengers were going to lynch them.

After some harrowing moments arguing with the mob, the planes arrive and I manage to get a seat on one.  The planes that arrive are severely beaten up 717’s that have seen way to much action and it occurs to me that you can’t be too picky when trying to find two planes and crews at the last minute in this part of the world.  I’m sure I saw the first officer lead the crew in prayer as we took off and after being the first one off the plane I have to say I fought hard not to get down on my hands and knees and kiss the ground when we landed.

Things weren’t entirely back on the rails though.  Small matter of an hour long wait to get through customs.  After some pulling a bit of a sour looking face and pushing through the crowd (with the armour weighing me down), I made it into a taxi driven by a very nice man called Rodriguez who ignored my “muy cansado” pleas and chatted to me in Spanish while giving me a guided tour of the city, including pointing out how close parliament was to where the “chicas malas” plied their trade.  A sense of irony too, who would have thought?

CaixaForum and some Islamic exploration…

I have just been to an exhibition ForumCaixa in Madrid on The Worlds Of Islam, which reminded me to my shame that I am still yet to see the great Moorish cities in Spain (Cordoba, Seville, Toledo, Granada, etc).  I’ve always been fascinated by Spain heritage as both a Muslim and Christian country and been very interested in seeing the contrasts in these cities.  Yet still I haven’t gone.

A succession of Islamic dynasties ruled Spain from 711 to 1492, at a time where Islam was the face of civilisation in the world.  After the collapse of the Roman Empire and with Europe in the Dark Ages, it was the Islamic world that preserved and grew the great body of knowledge assembled by the Romans and Greeks.  Without these efforts much of the world’s collective knowledge of mathematics physics, medicine, philosophy and history would have been lost.  Great Islamic scholars and philosphers such as Avicenna (who wrote “the Book of Healing“) and Averroes )who wrote “The Incoherence of The Incoherence”) made massive contributions to the world’s scholarly efforts and both demonstrate the tolerance of the Muslim world, particularly when compared to the barbarism of the christian world of the time.

Enough of the history lesson, methinks.  The point is I think learning about Islamic Spain would be a good place to start to gain a respect for Islamic history, a history of which they are deservedly proud.  In the same vein as the Italians are very proud of Rome’s great age or Da Vinci’s work, Islamic peoples of the world have a right to be proud of theirs.  And I won’t even begin to start on extremism be it Christian, Islamic, or whatever!

Oldest Challenge

There was a really interesting article in The Guardian today on how the number of people in the world aged over 65 is going to pass the number of children under 5 for the first time.  This is a topic that I really interests me, not just because of the implications for governments in how they respond this (higher taxes to pay for more services to the aging population), but also to society and how many attitudes will be challenged which our societies will find difficult.

The challenges Japan is facing with one of the oldest populations in the world demonstrates what a challenge this is with the older generation leading a pensioner crime wave (see another Guardian article) as they struggle to live on their savings and the state pension.  It’s an interesting (and tragic) but unforeseen consequence of an ageing population.  Couple this with the mental health issues (depression, suicide, etc)and public health issues (delivering primary care in the home, eating healthy food after a lifetime of catering for a family, etc) of living alone after one partner leaves or dies and it makes for a very difficult problem given the sheer number of older people.  Have a look at Nutrition Australia for what they are doing in this space for more (A plug for you Luci!).

The other side of the debate is the share of resources between the generations with more of the tax take being spent on aged services versus services for the younger working population.  There is a clear need for compromise, but the baby boomer generation is yet to show much appetite for sacrificing their comforts and have been collectively the most selfish generation to date (controversial but I do think this!). Have a look I found the graphic below a little while ago on the Australian Bureau of Statistics site which is a nice illustration of generations and the names they have been given.  It’s hard to see Gen Y and iGeneration being keen to make sacrifices either given they’ve only known good times, plus Gen X’s lingering resentment of the baby boomers and the endless use of their demographic muscle to hog the public debate on issues of the time.

blah generation timeline 1 generation timeline 2

So where to from here for this issue?  I’d be very interested in what others think…

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