Around the World in 100 Words

worldThe real world is a big place, far bigger – and sometimes a lot less accessible – than its virtual equivalent. Even so, there are places, moments and encounters that can be captured in the momentary flicker of the camera’s shutter, or a few, brief words jotted down for posterity.

Gathered here, you’ll find just such glimpses of a world that cannot possibly be perceived in its entirety – a world that – through globalisation and changing times – is losing all sense of culture, individuality and uniqueness. i hope that, in some small way, i can capture some of those precious moments and places, before they are gone forever.

s. x

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Murcia

As dusk gathers and the sun dips slowly to the horizon, I gaze in silent awe at the stone giant looming before me.

The great arms, stretched wide, seem to say ‘Come no closer, little one!’ and, only for a moment, I’m in awe of their strength and power.

Surrounded by the soothing sound of cicadas, I imagine myself clad in sun-burnished armour, sat proudly astride my charger, lance in hand, eyes set in steadfast defiance of the challenge laid before me!

But this is nonsense: Nothing but the foolish thoughts of a latter day Don Quixote…

Tilting at windmills.

murcia

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Cardiff Station

cardiff

Dolphins and dragons, Jacob’s ladder and the warm smell of hops and brewer’s yeast greet your arrival as you step from the train.

The messages crowd in, as you walk along the platform…

‘Don’t trespass on the line’; ‘mind the gap’; ‘walk on the left’ and ‘please have your ticket ready at the barriers’.

‘Read this book’; ‘visit the beach’; ‘why not take a holiday?’; ‘London is just down the line’; ‘work while you ride’…

The railway: The universal panacea for all of life’s needs and all our desires.

Wonderful.

Amazing.

Superb.

Shame about the human excrement on the tracks.

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Fflint

fflintYes, two ‘F’s – Lord knows why. There’s absolutely nothing here deserving of a double anything; nothing worth shouting about.

Sod all to do, and sod all to see. The pubs don’t even serve food so I’m left with no option – it’s bacon, egg and chips in an empty cafe that’s never even seen better days, under the watchful gaze of two old women who eye me suspiciously the whole time I’m there

Sustenance obtained, I’ve just the thankless task of killing another two hours in this God forsaken back end of nowhere.

Two ‘F’s indeed… It doesn’t effing deserve one!

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ระพุทธมหามณีรัตนปฏิมากร

emeraldFor years I’d waited to see this… An object so precious and revered it was almost legendary. A priceless artefact, encompassing the faith and beliefs of a nation, honoured through the ages by commoner and kings alike.

In the bright sunlight and baking heat, I shuffled through the throng gathered to pay their respects, or simply gaze in awe.

Soon, my moment would come: The crowd parted, I made my move, and suddenly I was face to face with The Emerald Buddha…

At least, I think I was.

In the dark, dingy temple, it was hard to make out anything!

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Om shanti shanti shanti om

Grandfather was an artisan. ‘Carpenter’ too base a word for the remarkable creations that took form and shape in his workshop.

From rich and intricately carved temple doors – testimony to months of care and passion – to simple, everyday objects… every carved and worked piece spoke of his culture, his character, and a heart that brimmed with warmth.

shantiGrandfather’s spirit was old Balinese, steeped in the traditions and ways of the past; it showed in his eyes and his gentle manner, it defined him.

I grasped his strong, calloused hands, and spoke the ancient greeting:

“Om swastiastu”

And he smiled joyfully.

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Málaga

The clear tones of the lament rang out across the city streets – a voice so sweet, those passing felt compelled to stop and listen.

Yet this was no young girl in her prime, but a black-garbed and ragged pensioner; face careworn and lined from the trials of a long and hard life.

Her voice belied her age, stripping away the ravages of time and the passage of the years.

The tinkle of a few coins, thrown carelessly at her feet, and now her song was stilled.

She gathered her few belongings together and huddled in the doorway.

Now silent.malaga

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Laos

snakeSnake whisky – improves virility, boosts confidence and makes you fearless as the cobra.

Potent promises, although I have a sneaky suspicion the brandy isn’t quite so potent.

The brave shuffle forward, eager to try a snifter of the elixir, hand dispensed from an old plastic bowl on the counter; my suspicions were confirmed. Cheap spirit of dubious authenticity, barely alcoholic and with no discernible taste – hardly worth calling whisky at all.

The snake however is a different matter – there’s no doubt it’s authentic – genuine pickled hooded cobra.

The whisky didn’t do the snake much good either!

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KL Snapshots: Street theatre

ganeshThe street is adorned with cast-off shoes beneath pastel coloured effigies of Ganesh and Shiva; the air piquant with the unmistakable odours of durian, diesel fumes and incense.

Chicken pot soup arrives at my rickety plastic table: brimming with meaty mushrooms and a scrawny chicken’s foot.

Orange sellers pass by, their carts piled high with ripe fruits, battling with motor scooters and tuktuks in the crazy melee of traffic.

And in its midst – trapped in a bubble of jetlag and culture shock – I sit, senses assaulted from all sides, with a stupid, happy grin adorning my face.

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KL Snapshots: Chow Kit

Eels, meals, fish, fruit; stalls piled high with food to suit, discerning palates – meat and greens, chilies, frogs and soya beans. Swimming live or hung on strings: heads of beef and meaty things. Frying food smells fill the air, with cries of hawkers everywhere. Underfoot, the floor is rank, with slime and gore mixed with the damp, and though you watch the path you tread, best not look too closely – keep your gaze ahead. Noodles, rice and steaming food, puts you in a hungry mood; then bright coloured cakes – my favourite bit! At the market called Chow Kit.

chowkit

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KL Snapshots: KLCC

petronasThe twin towers rise majestically above me.

Determined to frame the killer shot, I wander down the fountain-lined avenue, seeking the perfect view.

A monk, clad in saffron, approaches me smiling with broken teeth – pressing a prayer card and a cheap wooden bead bracelet into my hand. He carefully writes my name in a small notebook, struggling with the unfamiliar words, as I fish out a few ringgit as a goodwill offering.

His smile vanishes. Waving the notebook at me, his finger stabs at the names, each annotated with ridiculous amounts.

Just my luck: a bent Buddhist monk!

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Innsbruck

innsbruckAll very ‘Sound of Music’ and quaint – a bit too chocolate box and touristy for me, even so, the opulence of the town hall and conviviality of the evening make up for the kitsch, to a degree.

Then comes ‘the entertainment’, and we’re firmly back in the territory of thigh-slapping, warbled folk-tunes and lederhosen – wonderful!

I settled back, and suffered.

So difficult to repress a groan when the portly chap in traditional garb takes a seat to play us a tune on his saw.

But, I was wrong…

Never before, or since, has Edelweiss been quite so moving.

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Agistri

agistriThat distinctive smell will always endure, more evocative than any photograph – a vivid reminder of a time long gone.

Pine resin: a tale of retsina, long walks along dusty forest paths, Mediterranean sea spray, conviviality and a broken alarm clock!

More tangible reminders sit on my dresser, vases and an earthenware plate, yet none evoke that feeling of morning sunshine, cold marble tiles under bare feet, the chug of scooters; warm croissants and strong coffee.

A simple fragrance, yet redolent with the richness of the past; one that speaks of a place, virtually unknown, I shall never see again.

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Loggia dei Lanzi

IMG_2404Here, of all places, you come for the art.

Yet, sat amongst the Renaissance statuary, it is not Michaelangelo’s David that stirs my soul, and the Medici Lions go unnoticed… for it is a sound, almost lost in the hubbub of the crowd, that captures – for me – the very essence of perfection: a solitary guitar, almost unnoticed by the masses as they flock, like sheep, to gape at the Uffizi’s treasures.

I am captivated: still as the statues surrounding me; lost in the music and my thoughts.

A moment that passed all too briefly; a memory that will endure forever.

(Tadeusz Machalski – Con Te Partiro)

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Even monks…

He sits there, shaven-headed, saffron-robed and oblivious to the milling crowd.

A venerable Buddhist supplicant, committed to poverty and the higher way absorbed entirely with his innermost thoughts.

IMG_1878The faintest of smiles crease his lips, then – once more – he is concentrating, at one with himself.

Does he see me watching him? Is he concerned with the crowds and scabby kittens that hunt and play in the shrubbery? Not at all.

His mind is set on the task at hand: that, and nothing else.

Is he meditating?

His thoughts this morning are committed only to reading his paper!

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Bruges

Night has fallen and I am alone in the darkened streets. The bustling activity of day is forgotten and I have the ancient walled town seemingly to myself.

The passages and alleys that rang with horses’ hooves and the chatter of tourists now stand silent, not sombre, but serene – all is calm, the harshness of day, now softened by a fall of evening rain.

Alone, and at peace, I wander the empty streets, without cause or concern, enjoying this simple moment of solitude, feeling at one with the sleeping town.

Just me, the rain, and the smell of wet cobblestones.

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travel_suitcase_11Joutia Souk

joutia1i paused, momentarily – my foot hovering in mid step. Someone had called my name.

But not here, so far from home. Here, i am a stranger in the crowd, an unknown face lost in the clamour of the marketplace.

Unnerved, i listen and hear only the babble of foreign tongues.

There it was again – clear over the tumult. A moment of indecision. A choice – turn around or move on…

i choose. My foot finds the pavement below and i walk on – no glance over shoulder, no recognition, no going back.

i blend into the crowd, and disappear: A stranger, forever

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Paris

paris1I took a long weekend in Paris, expecting…

…expecting all those things that Paris should be: the romance, the culture and sophistication; the elegant decadence… you know, that certain je ne sais quois?

My expectations were a little high.

The hotel was tawdry and frequented by prostitutes, the croissants were dry, the coffee bland, and the tourist-mobbed streets were hard on the feet and scattered with pickpockets and bag-snatchers.

The steps of the Sacre Coeur were strewn with broken bottles and teenage yobs, whilst the dawn light was suffused with the heady scent of sewage.

Reality sucks. 

Mon Dieu!

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Pacung

It’s festival day – Kuningan – early evening and everywhere is closed; warungs, shops and restaurants, all shuttered and dark, as owners and patrons alike fly kites and enjoy the temple dances.

pacungHungry and in need of food, I walk the empty roads, until a welcoming pool of light in an empty market catches my attention.

Bakso boys from Java, alone with their bicycle cart and surrounded with the fragrance of cooking, smile a greeting.

Simplicity itself: Mie ayam, garnished with kecap manis and torn, Thai basil… maybe the cheapest, yet one of the tastiest, and most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten.

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Border Crossing

A place of which few have heard,  surrounded by barbed wire fencing and a single border crossing.

mellilaIt feels as if all of humanity is here, men and women laden-down with goods and packages; queues that never grow short, from dawn till dusk; the jabber and shouts of foreign tongues.

He gestures me across from another queue, staring at my passport – Where am I from? Where am I going? Why?  What is my occupation?

Then, incredibly, I’m through.

I walk slowly past the burned out cars and broken windows of no-man’s land: Then, I am in another country.

I do not look back.

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The Pass

We braved mountain storms and lightning, sheer drops and hairpin bends – in an ageing Fiat: bald tyres and no brakes.

Knuckles white, nerves shattered and a few more grey hairs now added to the collection, we finally rounded a turn, to see before us: the mountain pass – a cleft in the island’s bedrock that promised sanctuary, respite and – with any luck – copious amounts of ouzo!

We tore down the road: all rattles and rumbling, willing the tyres to stay on the road, then suddenly, we’re through!

Overhead, a lone eagle circles.

It seems, one does not simply drive into Poros!

 

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 Vaporetto

Funny how a single word can be so misleading.

Vaporetto… it coIMG_2660njured up images of skimming across water in a haze of spray and rainbows; a romanticised ideal that made even the fabled gondolas seem crass and unremarkable.

The reality – as always – was somewhat different. The water taxis were sluggish, utilitarian and shabby; no more romantic than the buses that fought the traffic in any city, anywhere in the world you might choose to mention.

So often, it seems, a simple word can paint a picture that ultimately leads to disappointment when faced with the grim reality.

Unlike Venice itself.

travel_suitcase_11Taourirt

Two tracks, three platforms, no trains.

TaourirtHalfway through my journey, four hours remain; but first, a long, seemingly-endless wait under baking midday sun.

The shoe-shine boy tries his luck; others play football on the tracks. I have no Arabic – no-one speaks English: there are no signs, no directions, no help.

How hard can it be? Just wait for the train at its appointed time, and I’ll be on my way. Simple.

The allotted hour arrives. A murmur passes through the crowd, a surge towards the platform’s edge.

As two trains, heading in opposite directions, both arrive at once!

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Incense

The fragrance drifting through the doorway as I passed by unlocked a forgotten wealth of fond memories.

klKuala Lumpur… bartering for breakfast in the street markets – the babble and hubbub, the sweaty, prickly heat of summer and the press of the excited crowd as they jostled at the market stalls, all came flooding back.

Then, an unexpected respite.

The temple, quiet and serene – a welcome escape from the tumult outside. The somnolent monotone of a Buddhist chant, drawing me in. And everywhere, the smouldering tapers of rising incense.

Wonderful memories, rekindled by the simple fragrance of that blesséd, holy smoke.

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