Sunday, April 29, 2012

Latin America: League Tables


"Why then, and this is not only my particular case - does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain... But it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination." 

Nowhere Man
Infinite Ice
Bienvenidos a Chile
Towering in the Imagination
Tierra del Fuego


We knew practically nothing about Uruguay before getting to Buenos Aires and starting to plan our itinerary in detail. Punta del Este sounded like a suitably hedonistic place to spend a week on the beach early in the trip, to decompress and disguise the gringo pallor we brought with us from London. 

This charming, friendly, neat little country had the most beautiful beaches, prairie reminiscent of wilder stretches of Patagonia, cobblestone streets like you might encounter in Lisbon, and one of the top five meals of the trip.

Off Grid in Uruguay
Jose Ignacio
909km in Uruguay


We saw many startling and memorable things on our trip. There are colours, images and tastes that will stay with us. But one of the dearest recollections for me will be home schooling, away from home. Lessons required a degree of preparation and inventiveness. Rigorousness and regularity perhaps waned as the weeks went by, but goodness we had rich materials to draw on. 

My favourite of all were the installations at Tierra Patagonia, which were the perfect counterpoint to the finds in the surrounding landscape, and anticipated the museum and aquarium visits we made later on the trip. The best lessons were the ones where we were all deepening our knowledge together: the voyages of Darwin's Beagle, the straits of Magellan, the bus routes around Buenos Aires, glacial landscapes, the ritual and political significance of gold. Teaching has got to be the noblest profession. Respect. 

Rio, School
Mens Sana in Corpore Sano
Escuela Viesulas
Darwin in Patagonia
Happy Valentines Days
Salta: Soldiers, Saints & Sacrifice
School at Dume Point
School of Arts & Sciences


Before we embarked on travels, I was fixated on the idea that over three months of downtime, I would want to spend a week each on three of my favourite sporting pursuits - snowboarding, rock climbing, and surfing. I have a lot of work to do on my technique with all three. Three weeks proved an ambitious target with three ladies in the retinue. Not to mention the constant tug of fine food, fine wine and idle sun worship. But I was thrilled to dive into the deepest Alpine powder I've experienced to date, to climb Chilean rock and to surf both Atlantic and Pacific waves. And what a thrill to have friends and family for company along the way. 

Easy Like Sunday Morning
Jose Ignacio Surf
Lima, Surf City
Hospenthal Hospitality


A completely different perspective to travelling overland by foot, bike, car, train. What a marvellous creature the horse is. I'm still to read that account of mankind's intertwined history with this remarkable animal. 

Estancia at the End of the Road
Little Gauchos


Patagonia was empty. Ravishingly empty, windswept and changeable. Crossing the Andes from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile over into Salta Argentina was also ravishingly empty. Although whereas Patagonia the landscape seemed to move and shift around you with the elements, all crashing glaciers and supernatural winds, the Andes looked eternally still. And the register of colours was altogether something else. Patagonia has the biggest mass of ice outside the poles. We encountered thunderstorms, but the stretch of Andes we traversed borders the driest deserts on the planet. 

Crossing the Andes, Again


It was a revelation to learn about the civilization of the Incas, to visit their university in the sky, Macchu Picchu, and to marvel at the golden treasures that for them had such symbolic and ritual power. 

Time is On My Side
Museo Larco: Golden Years
Stairway to Heaven


Rio is such a city of superlatives that there's little to say that hasn't been said. It was hallucinatory to hop into a helicopter with Iris to circle Christ at eye-level and see the little paradise on Earth at his feet from way on high. A heady experience which will remain vividly remembered. 

Vertical Rio
Ipanema Sunset
Mens Sana in Corpore Sano
Riot in Rio


The food stands out like a landmark, a very real feature of the landscape of experiences from our trip. I can barely remember a bad meal. In all of South America. That goes for street food as much as the culinary beacons in Lima and elsewhere. Most memorable South American meals? For me it has to be Garzon, Uruguay; Estancia Nibepo Aike, Argentina; Cebicheria El Boliche, Cartagena, Colombia; La Gloria, Lima, Peru; Finca Valentina, Salta, Argentina. Oh, and the seaweed fritters on the beach in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

Dining, Driving & Decompressing in Lima
Perfect Day in the Pampas


This will seem like cheating. But you realize what a blessed place this bankrupt state is, and in travelling there as the coda to our South American trip I was able to appreciate for the first time the geological continuity all along the Pacific coast, the way the Andes and the Rockies are all part of the same spine that links these two continents, so different, so alike, to form the Americas. 

Landscapes far South of the Equator reminded me of previous trips around the American West - Arizona, Utah, Nevada. Is California the realized promise of the Mediterranean richness of these coastal stretches? 

Goin' to California
LA on Two Wheels
Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair

Often on our trip I confronted the LatAm conundrum: how could the Southern continent in this pair of  blessed lands have gone so often so astray in the modern world? To coincide with our return to London, Argentina announces the expropriation of Repsol in YPF. We're back in the pages of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Our return also coincides with the publication of a book that puts it down to the Spanish-American War, which led a group of intellectuals and charismatic politicians to anti-Americanism. The resulting deep antipathy to free markets led to a century of relative economic decline. Perhaps. But we saw enough on our trip to be wholeheartedly optimistic about the dynamism, warmth and natural wealth of places like Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Colombia. 

In two months, it was barely possible to do justice to any single one of them, much less the seven South American countries that we visited. 

So consider this journey a reconnaissance trip. We now know where we would like to return, to learn more and to linger.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

New York: Last Stop

I'm left savouring my Porchetta sandwich and fennel chorizo bake, as well as the fine Zinfandel from Vino Volo as we board the flight bound for JFK. Time enough for a Peet's espresso, but not enough to avail ourselves of the Yoga room. San Francisco's Terminal 2 has to be one of the most civilized airports in the country, if not the hemisphere, and honestly one of the best meals of the trip. It's like a showcase for Silicon Valley wealth. 

The American Airlines terminal at JFK is not bad for a bankrupt airline, but can't possibly compete. And the road into town is more uneven than many we've driven well South of the border, but the Empire State is a blue beacon as we round the bend in Queens and majestic Manhattan comes into view against the night sky. 

We're lucky for Pierre and Arielle's hospitality on the Upper East Side - back in the old 'hood! Their apartment is a real oasis in this frantic town (the City that Never Sleeps? Isn't there a Circle in Dante's hell where people are consigned to perpetual wakefulness?). I'll lie down in the sun for a siesta with Beethoven and the delicious smells of Arielle's kitchen wafting up. Or park myself like Tabby, their cat, on a wondowsill to read or daydream about the trip, the past, the future.

Pierre and Arielle are also famed for their dinner parties, for the excellent cooking as much as the eclectic and fascinating company. It's good to catch up with Joseph and Jenny over Malbec from Colome', to begin my re-education on markets ("Brazil beats UK to become world's 6th largest economy"), the French election ("Sarko the comeback kid? No way...") and red meat vs veganism (you can imagine which side of the argument the French around the table took).  

Cruising along the FDR at twilight reminds me of the three years of dawn's early light I witnessed commuting from Manhattan to our offices in Stamford. I still shiver at the thought of the 4am wake-up call, but there were magical moments seeing the sun rise over the river. In many ways it was often my favorite part of the day. 

Martine's neighbourhood is where we rolled last summer in the Dodge Challenger RT, taking the straightaways by the river like something out of Streets of Fire. Thanks to everyone who came to the Bronx to hear highlights of our little tale, and especially Mom and Vytas for hiking over all the way from DC and Applebachsville. 

The slideshow was curtailed and chaotic but fun, the champagne cocktail euphoric, and the local liquor store run a fascinating detour, with all the merchandise behind bullet-proof glass (do I go for the Colt 45 or the Moet?). Especially thanks to Martine for hosting the party, and taking delivery of all those postcards over the previous eight weeks. 

Resolutions from running the ramparts I Cartagena dissolve in so many toasts with friends and family. But I do manage a run around the Central Park Reservoir, my old circuit. It's always fascinated me the culture or running in the Park, so many shapes and sizes, and so many people that just shouldn't be putting themselves through such suffering, but do. Then of course there's the fit girls in athletic kit. I am a big fan of fit girls in athletic kit. 

On another afternoon I retrace my usual route from UES to the office, this time to meet new colleagues in our NYC office. Nostalgia? Not quite. I wouldn't move back to Manhattan. Not in a hurry, anyway. To call it a great town is an understatement, but for me an "Escape to New York" would feel like a step backward. And the world is so vast and diverse, there is so much to experience. And I don't think Flo would jump at it the way she might have in prior years. Something to so with the oppressive heating in winter, exaggerated A/C in summer and the tyrrany of "controlled environments". 

Double Vampire Hill Slayer
Flo hits the Armory and Playtime, the Kid's Fashion trade fair, while Jasmine and Iris are whisked of to Uncle Vytas' and Jessica's place in Applebachsville PA. "It's like the crazy cat carnival" says Vytas, and indeed these two really know how to get the party started, and keep it going. There's gardening, kayaking, and of course skateboarding. The first custom skateboard to come from Vytas' shop is the Vampire Slayer special, artwork by the Pixies.  

For me, time to acclimatize to lower altitudes. I'm the advance party heading back to London, as I was when we first decided to move there. Seeing so many friends and family on the way back - and I wish we'd been able to see more of you! - has been a wonderful glide path to landing back in London soon. 

The Empire State is white on departure, a visual duet with the Chrysler spire, elegant and inspiring. And there's a full moon in the sky, like the day I handed in my resignation and embarked on this little journey, and the longer professional journey ahead. The story comes full circle over a single quarter, thank you for reading along. Now once again I've got a blank slate as I head back to London, though so much richer than when we left it. 

Nostalgia for early days in Manhattan

Sunday, March 25, 2012

SFO: the Luck of the Few

Life could have been quite different. Before heading out to live and work in Moscow, I had a place at Berkeley to study Political Economy. In a parallel universe perhaps I am an academic and a published author on the process of democratization and macroeconomic stabilization in the former Soviet republics. Or maybe just a surfer. No regrets, though, however much I love the Mediterranean lifestyle out here. It's worked out to be a rich and rewarding ride so far. I have a lot that I'm grateful for. 

The Mamas & The Papas will tell you that "If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair... You're Gonna Meet Some Gentle People There". You will also meet some people seriously down on their luck. 

Many American cities I imagine have their socio-economic contrasts, given the extremes of income inequality that this fine nation has managed to achieve. In San Francisco, though, a lot of unlucky people seem to be still tripping on the afterburner of the Summer of Love. 

There are a lot of things that are free in SF, and I suspect that and the (mostly) mild weather make this town a lot more tolerable for the marginalized than many other US cities. Striking though to see the black buses of Silicon valley, with their battalions of young Zinga and Google techies, weaving around the homeless in the Mission. Even on Market Street, you have to dodge the Jesus freaks and hobos with shopping trolleys like something from Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  

We hop on a tram there, a Philadelphia special. There was still an operational tramway in Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia, when I was a kid. And they've been reinstated in parts of Milan, though they have to compete with sleek bullet train designs now. Here in San Francisco you have them salvaged from defunct tramways all over the country, and imported from all over the world. You can spot the orange Milan carriages a mile off, looking buttoned up and uptight alongside the art deco numbers from Chicago and Baltimore. Nice way to ride through town. 


On our last evening, we're woken at about 4am by the swaying of the bed. At first I think the neighbours upstairs must be practicing nocturnal acrobatics, but then realize we are on the top floor. It's an earthquake, 4.0 on the Richter scale we later learn. What did Fabrice tell us about earthquake drill in Lima? It's all evaporated from my mind... 

Time for us to move to solid ground. Manhattan, built on rock, and able to withstand even the shock of Lehman Brothers, next stop. 

Goodbye Pacific, Goodbye San Francisco

Marin by Day and Night

We catch up with Flo's cousin Alain and his family on the beach in Marin. These occasional encounters are a great reminder of parallel lives in a family, branches of a Swiss tree that now span from Lausanne to Los Angeles. Suddenly, Paul and his cousin Lucien are at university toying with careers in tech, while Marie contemplates film school at USC. 

We catch up on the intervening years as the girls make sandy cocktails and we dive into the delicious turkey sandwiches and home-made beignet of our windy picnic. Thank you Haruyo! Watching the riptide is like seeing water flowing uphill, waves that double back on each other and break heading out to the ocean. Surfers dodge the rocks that have tumbled off the cliffs into the Ocean. This is not the gentle swell of Pacifica. 

In the evening, we dine on the other side of Marin (great to be able to cross the Golden Gate by night and day...), at Celine and Massimo's. Celine is one of Florence's oldest friends (here in CA she'll have seen three of them in a single week), but it's the first time the girls or I have a chance to meet her or their daughter Gabriella, who we've heard so much about. 

Celine and Massimo's determination has helped Gabriella enjoy a normal life among children in the local school, in spite of Gabriella's condition. Her alert and nimble mind is out of synch with her motor reflexes and muscles. Joyful, playful Gabriella has accomplished astounding feats of self-expression and coordination in spite of the entrapment of her unruly body. She's a charmer, has her circle of friends at school and continues to confound the doctors with her progress. 

Massimo took over a local kitchen when the chef broke his arm, a fateful turn away from the publishing industry that he's worked in for years. And now he and Celine are opening a restaurant in Larkspur. What a treat, then, to eat in his kitchen! Look out for Laboratorio Organico, opening soon.  

Thank you for the kind invitation Famiglia Covello, another illustration and reminder to the girls and to us alike that there are so many routes to family prosperity and happiness.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Easy Like Sunday Morning

"Is this the Rockaway Beach of The Ramones? I thought it was in Queens...". We're not sure, but anyway the shoreline is tricky, so Auste and I carry on cruising to Pacifica. Normally, this place would be shrouded in fog. And not just in these winter months, but pretty much year round. But this morning it's clear as a bell. 

And by 8am on a Sunday, the beach is full of surfers. There are neat sets of friendly rollers coming in. This isn't the "Locals Only" terrain I've seen on the shores of the Atlantic, in the Basque Country and parts of France. You'd almost think they're all part of the same fraternity for the friendly vibe. 

Fuelled with a big tankard of Caboose coffee and in my wetsuit, I'm toasty in the cold Pacific, though not really awake until the first dunking. Winter water is like a high voltage electric shock when your head goes under. 

Without booties, soon my feet are numb, so we park ourselves on the beach to watch and enjoy the warming sun. Then go back for a few more rides. 

I'm reassured to see so many longboarders, and so many of them even older than me. And I love these beaches in California, that make me feel almost like I know what I'm doing in the water. How cool would it be to live in a place where you could go surfing before work? 

Coffee on the rocks, Rockaway Beach