Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good (2008)

I recall an exchange between Simon Mayo and Jason Isaacs during an episode of 'Wittertainment' in which the latter argued passionately against the presenter's suggestion that the notion that a black uniform with silver skull badges could somehow creep up on you before you knew what was going on, was a premise with fundamental weaknesses.

Isaacs declared himself a labour voter, but added that this government had done so many things in his name that he would strongly object to, but these things remained beneath the surface of mainstream political debate to an extent that prevented them from delegitimising the overall programme of the party.

This seemed reasonable, even though it surely must have been harder to hide the raving loon of National Socialism in the confined space of a smart new VW Beetle.

But I'd just read The Berlin Diaries of Marie Vasiltchikov and there did appear to be a case to be made that decent, educated folk in Nazi Germany had no idea just how evil this regime was, perhaps even up to 1939.

But now I've seen the movie I can see what Simon Mayo was getting at. There may be an underlying political truth in Viggo Mortensen's highly mannered portrayal of the inept literary professor John Halder, but it's not a truth that sheds a great deal of light on the central fact that many 'good' Germans were taken in by the Nazis.

They can't all have been like John Halder, a man whose extreme ingenuousness loops back on itself and becomes an uncomfortable kind of disingenuousness.

The script seems dimly aware of this and so, has an indirect bash at blaming the whole lamentable situation on perfidious, all-too-easily led womanhood....before hinting that the men in jackboots were all struggling with issues of sexual adequacy.

Isaacs appears to want to be in a more heartfelt, edgier film but his performance is overwhelmed by the passivity of Mortensen's.

Grade: B (-)

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author's ideas that they were "concatenated without abruption".

Notes from abroad: another aside

When I was a green, twenty-year-old first timer in this part of the world I remember constantly badgering my travelling companion with questions like "Is this rainforest?....where's the jungle Tom?...are we there yet?"

Perhaps I ought to have paused to listen to my voz interior.

Tom was always adamant however that there was no 'pristine Maya forest' in the Yucatán. For that one had to venture south into his beloved Belize, or indeed into the then alluringly perilous Petén.

I don't think I really need to take the piss out of, because it kind of does it for itself. My mate at Barefoot Belize should take note: these guys are not even bothering to throw in a classy, custom-made eco-cabaña. No, all you get is your very own five acre plot of jungle in a part of Mexico where there is no jungle.

In the kind of pestilential scrub one finds just a few hundred metres behind the beaches here, it's the hum of the mozzies that one is more likely to hear than the cheeping of colourful birdies and the croaking of tree frogs...but then perhaps one can look upon that as
a cosmically-provided tool for tuning up one's ommmming.

Next question, which would be the more appropriately pretentious movie for me to watch tonight? Che, Part II or Rudo y Cursi. You decide...

Notes from abroad: another aside

Shame the room next door wasn't called "Rikkkay". (Apologies to non-Brits for this obscure gag!)

Notes from abroad: Las Ranitas, Tulum (2)

Perhaps there's a bit more to the present emptiness of this part of Mexico. After all there was that unfortunate business with all the face masks earlier in the year and the shopping mall shoot-out in DF last week.

In any case, in order to avoid the kind of self-catering which involves climbing trees for coconuts or throwing spears at the beach pooches, I caught a ride back to Tulum yesterday and stocked up with provisions at the San Francisco de Asis supermarket. (Why ever did M&S abandon the sainthood of its food range?)

These included little cellophane-wrapped squares of Manchego cheese, turkey ham, tortillinas, Pringles, olives, bananas, several cans of Arizona iced tea, a six pack of Bohemia Oscura and a bottle of Undurraga.

V has been ribbing me somewhat for the 'miedoso' and 'nostálgico' I appear to have become under conditions of solitude. (Comparisons have been made with the expression that Cherry adopts whenever she spots the horned Mayan devil mask hanging above our main staircase...and V often rams the point home by entoning spookily "la máscaraaaaa"!)

There is however a weird whispery noise that emanates from the spiky vegetation on the dunes, rather like the noise of an iPod that's been left on...

Anyway, it turns out that the place is not entirely deserted. Yesterday morning I was joined in the guest lounge by two Mexican ladies and a toddler (who appeared to call them both "mamá") They discussed civilised matters such as depilation between themselves then departed to one of the villas round the side of the main hotel.

The night before I'd gone for a stroll along the beach and came across a place called OM. It's not as bad as it sounds (viz my 'Namaste' worries the other day). The manager is a tall, bandana-bearing Mexican bon-viveur and that evening he appeared to be nursing a massive red state meathead as he strove to drown his plentiful sorrows in blue margaritas. They have wi-fi and a wood-fire oven.

This morning I got up to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic from the beach and the mosquitoes seemed to have made the most of the opportunity. I found this washed-up shoe which appears to have been on a bit of a journey.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Notes from abroad: an aside

Back in Playa on Saturday night I found myself attending a rock concert thrown by some visiting evangemusicals. Now readers of this blog will know that I'm not a huge fan of los vergeadores de biblias, but this lot weren't bad, so I hung around for several numbers...though without, I hasten to add, raising my arm up in exaltation.

For those of us who are not inclined to oraaar y oraaar, there are still times when we pause to consider absent friends, and today I spared a thought or two about J. We were briefly 'in a relationship' when I was 17 an then friends again up at Cambridge. After that I saw her just once more (at Foyles) after she had gone to live in Botswana. Years later I heard that she'd died from breast cancer.

In honour of J and others who have lived life to the full...but surely not a full life, here's what for me is an evocative tune from back in the time when such things were considered unthinkable:

'Tremendous aggression'

In a week in which Nick Love's remake of The Firm was released in the UK here's a reminder of why being a ref is a dangerous job in Guatemala (He'd turned down a penalty appeal from the San Carlos University side!)

Gracias a Scott por el enlace.

I went to heaven...

In honour of my (absent) hosts and their heavenly eco-resort, here's a track from la first lady Madame Sarko...a cover of that rolololón from Emily Dickinson!

Best to listen with your eyes shut IMHO.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes from abroad: Las Ranitas, Tulum (1)

This afternoon a turtle swam right past me as I floated on the waves close to the shore.

I'd seen some signs back in Playa asking sunbathers not to allow the poor little things to get caught up under their sunbeds and I thought 'yeah right.....and they can become completely disorientated by all the chill-out music'.

But this is the real deal. The closest I've ever come to the perfect Yucatec shoreline, with blindingly white sand and blue-green opaline seas. And this is what it looked like at 2pm today.

That Wal-mart, Starbucks and 'wannsum blow?' seem like a million miles away now, though in fact they are just an hour up the coast.

I seem to have the place pretty much to myself. I got to know the owner and his wife when I was last here in 2006, but they are sojourning back home in France right now so it's just me and the on-site manager. (He more or less just handed me a flashlight after I signed the register and wished me luck.)

The driver who brought me here warned me that there's not much tourism at this time of year. I suppose in most years this is the period when the hurricane threat is at its greatest, but so far in 2009 all the big storms have been frothing up over in the Pacific.

The restaurant is closed tonight so my decision about whether to stay on an extra day will depend on finding somewhere to eat further up the beach. I'm around 15km from the town and have largely been subsisting on Snickers bars today. I feel like Hurley from Lost.

Talking of which, some of the other hotels along the stretch south of the ruins look suspciously like the kind of establishments where the staff will greet you with a cheery 'Namaste' at the slightest provocation.

Over the past few years Tulum seems to have gone out of its way to attract nobs (actually nobettes in the main) from the New York media and fashion industries.

I could be wrong, but on both occasions I've come here Las Ranitas appeared mercifully free of the Big Apple's self-pampering crowd. Perhaps American fashionistas are a little intimidated by les grenouilles?

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Epicure, n. An opponent of Epicurus, an abstemious philosopher who, holding that pleasure should be the chief aim of man, wasted no time in gratification from the senses.

Notes from abroad: Playa del Carmen (3)

Back on the road today. But first I have do do my shopping and pay my Mexican immigration tax at the bank because I'm not likely to get another chance before I get to the border.

I'm looking forward to reaching Las Ranitas later this morning because I could do with being somewhere on this lovely coast that's a bit less of a gallinero. Still, if you get up early enough Playa can seem pretty empty.

Meanwhile, V has just remembered that she can watch endless YouTube videos on her iPod Touch with the result that I'm getting strafed with links. Not sure I can watch those Cabeza de Pija clips here in Starbucks, but here's one of the cuter alternatives, which reminds me of a familiar situation back home. (Except there the cat is on the receiving end!)

Right, off to Wal-Mart now to buy some queeeeeeeeeesooooo.

Let's get this over with...

Will someone please hurry up and hussle these de facto dinos out of power in Honduras? Nationwide curfews, blockaded foreign embassies. Puhlease.

These eedjits made their move against Zelaya when the grand total of his 'treason' against the Hounduran constitution was a no-car zone in Tegucigalpa and a non-binding consultation about a possible two-term presidency...which would have reached its conclusions AFTER an election he would no longer be eligible to stand in under the existing rules.

How much more completely premature and stupid could this coup have been? Even if the man had Chavista tendencies they might have been better off doing nothing at all, or at least waiting. Now they have seriously destabilised their country and have probably made their worst populist nightmare that much more likely to take constitutional shape than it ever was before.

Chávez may be a monster turd befouling the continent, but at least he has been smart enough to create an interesting new game plan for an old style autocrat intending to work within the new democratic Latin America. Micheletti and co are just retrograde bullies whose bluff has been well and truly called now. Time for them to start looking for condos in Panama.

On another note, it was amusing to hear la Christina of Arge stating that not even in the darkest days of dropping students out of aeroplanes over the Atlantic did Videla and co ever dream of intimidating a foreign mission.

Colom probably thinks it best to keep schtum at this point, because of course the Guatemalan goose-steppers DID indeed attack a foreign embassy in 1980 - the Spanish one. 36 people died in the subsequent fire. The only survivor from amongst the peasant protestors who had taken sanctuary there was later abducted from his hospital, tortured and murdered after his police guard went walkies.

Let's hope this doesn't provide an unfortunate precedent.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Elector, n. One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man's choice.

Notes from Abroad: Playa del Carmen (2)

Before launching into a plaintive piece about the Playa of yesteryear — you know the kind: "It was little more than a fishing village when I first came here..." — I have to fess up that I am enjoying a vanilla latte and free wi-fi at the Starbucks* outside my hotel. One of two I've spotted so far.

I also found the Wal-Mart yesterday evening. Huuuuge. 'We're gonna need a bigger suitcase...' It's packed with stuff I could never get my hands on in Antigua, such as organic chipotle sauce and lemon and chilli-flavoured microwave popcorn.

I'm going back on Monday to get some of those Oaxacan cheeses (quesos de pita) that V adores so much, having learned back in Feb that they can survive an epic journey like this.

This whole town sure hawks at its visitors in unison. "Taxi amigo?....cigarro cubano?**....wannsum blow?...this is the place....I give you very good price....etc."

The joke is that when I wanted a cab in Campeche I could never find one. Here in Playa where I'm quite content to use my patas, the taxi drivers practically chase you up the street. (Back in Tapachula they honked at me so much I thought they might be after a piece of my burro.)

Even the girls at the cheese counter at Wal-Mart were shouting out across 10m of shop floor to the next person to come round the corner with a trolley.

My favourite boutique on the quinta in Playa is still Caravan. It's the one with the flamboyán tree growing through the front window and up into the roof above it. There the elegant, premium-hippy owner from Argentina politely ignores you as you browse. Why don't the other guys get that this is an atmosphere more conducive to actual shopping?

There's always been a bit of Asia-craving in Playa and unfortunately they've gone and built a hideous thing called the Thai Village right next to Playa Tukan which so thinks it's a thing of exquisite beauty.

But I'm trying not to be negative. Sure, when Jeff Bridges was keen for the bean with Rachel Ward in Against All Odds the peninsula was still largely an unspoiled paradise. And when I first experienced Playa just a couple of years after that in 1988, it really was a nothing kind of place. The 'Quinta' was a sand track....

But Mexico's fastest growing urban space for many a year is now very much the Big Enchilada. Those surf shops I mentioned yesterday are just one of its many loveable absurdities.

You just turn up and pick your tribe. It's either on with the white linen shirt and off to Deseo for an absurd cocktail (absurd in terms of both price and content) lying back on one of their absurd bed-sofa hybrids surrounded by loads of other happily absurd and chilled out folk. Or, it's on with the Corona tank-top and off to the sports bar to watch the game before indulging in a bit of one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor...capped off by puking up all over the pool table.

Luckily there have always been more of that sort across the waters in San Miguel de Cozumel...not to mention the C word further up the coast.

Playa was always the anti-Cancún. The NFL-yahoos were crowded out by chain-smoking gamine French lovelies and carefree Italians travelling, as ever, in packs. Perhaps San Tropez of the 60s was their model, but it didn't last. The 'Mayan Riviera' came to mean white linen drapes and big fat cushions imprinted with the words "Be Fabulous".

The boundary between the Mexico we craved and the Mexico we felt repelled by, was inevitably blurred as the (now) city continued its relentless sprawl up the shoreline. Yesterday I saw an ad for a bar claiming to be 'Just like Playa used to be' but it was on 26th street. When V and I were last here together back in 2006 the numbers didn't go up much beyond 15.

But I'm not going to go all old git on you. Truth is I've always been quite fond of all the little painted skeletons, the mariachis, the 'Eat my Burrito' t-shirts. In the past I've tended to feel like a pasty, straight-off-the-plane intruder into this eurotrashy eutopia of hardened hedonists. In some ways I could make the case that I fit in better now, but a thing can reinvent itself too many times — like Madonna — until you're just a bit tired of it. (Madge is also no spring chicken; but it's not Playa that has aged, it's me.)

I'm glad I passed on the idea of staying at the Hotel Cohiba this time. That whole street was one big open-air night-club last night. Oddly though, the Blue Parrot itself was just a few beautiful people below critical mass.

They certainly came in for the fire show (pictured) but then wandered back into the collective holding pattern outside. They were like jumbos bunched up over Heathrow, except in no particular hurry to actually land. It's supposedly low season but busier than I've ever seen it here. Perhaps the Mexican unis are out for the summer still.

I chucked a few shapes (just glad to be able to chuck something other than conch), watched the show then headed for bed.

* Today's speciality coffee is 'Shade Grown Mexican' opposed to coffee left out unprotected in the sun to crisp up and die? You can just imagine it lying there against a wall, chin down with an oversize sombrero covering its features.

**Yanks who come to Mexico for their Havana cigars eh? They remind me of those other export-only sinners, the Saudis who flock to Dubai for its Moldovan hookers.

Notes from abroad: Playa del Carmen (1)

One of the amusing things about Playa is the number of surf shops there are.

How many smart Quicksilver and Squalo boutiques will you find in Puerto Escondido where the real surfers hang out?

Right, none.

The last time there were any decent breakers anywhere near here was when hurricane Wilma came in and tonked the whole town.

NB: You have to carry the surf board at all times, because if you just walk around bare-chested with the wet suit on up to your waist they'll take you for a scu-boor.

Comme Ça...

Notes from abroad: Campeche (5)

In the plaza you can buy baseball caps imprinted with the slogan: Más Campechano que Pan de Cazón. So here it is, the resistance piece of Campeche cooking. It's not very photogenic...

And it doesn't taste much different from the Panuchos Campechanos I had the night before.

Still, I waited to try this delicacy in the finest seafood restaurant in town: La Pigua.

The guy at the door — not in fact wearing one of those tall chef's hats — said to me as I departed: "el problema con el cazón es que es muy pesado de noche." Thanks for warning me when I came in!

Still, as I think I tweeted yesterday, now that I'm here in this adventureland of of 'kick-ass shrimp', I'm kind of missing ordinary Mexican food.

I had a very nice ceviche de concha at lunchtime today, but it didn't stay down very long. Note to self: stick to prawns dummkopff.

Playa has the same problem with regards to eating out as Antigua does, just on a much vaster scale: loads of restaurants, hardly any of which are any good.

It remains the case (regretably) that you need a substantial resident population of white-collar professionals if you expect to eat well locally. (Which is one reason why the food in Oaxaca for example is so much better.)

Eateries primarily geared up for tourists usually don't, as V would have it, "cook with passion". Winning the hearts and minds of people who may only come on one occasion is a completely different game, and if you want to see it done well, try Las Palmas in Antigua. (Just the once...)

UPDATE: One restaurant in Playa that I did rate, Agora, appears to be no more. It looks like it has become yet another one of those places where you can eat fajitas with a trumpet right up against your ear.

It still has a listing online however, so maybe I will have to look for it again tonight. Those Avenues behind the Quinta have changed so much..

FURTHER UPDATE: Nope, Agora is gone. For the past two years it's been 'El Bistro' (and onviously still attached to the La Tortuga hotel). When I passed yesterday it was completely empty. Never a good sign.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Notes from abroad: Campeche (4)

For much of its early history Campeche was constantly on the receiving end of a bit of aarrrrrgh.

Perhaps the aaaaargh-est of the lot was one Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf, aka Lorencillo.

In 1685 Lorencillo and his sidekick Grammond turned up here in Campeche with a small fleet and 700 men and generally sacked the place.

Once it was clear that the Spanish government was being a bit codo by refusing to ransom the population, Lorencillo decided that a mass execution might get those pieces of eight flowing. However, he'd only managed to off two unfortunate townsmen before being persuaded of the essential 'uselessness' of his actions by a certain Don Felipe de la Barrera y Villegas.

Earlier, in 1661, Henry Morgan had captured several heavily-loaded Spanish galleons in the port here. 8 years later another sea-going opportunist called Roche Braziliano attempted to blockade the city but foundered and was captured...only to 'escape' after sending the Governor a threatening letter.

Campeche's fortifications were originally designed by the Italian military engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli, also responsible for the defences of Havana, Cartagena, San Juan Puerto Rico and of course, the orthogonal grid street plan of La Antigua Guatemala.

Notes from abroad: Campeche (3)

Around the time of independence the government of the Yucatán formally petitioned its equivalent in Washington DC to admit them to the Union. Unfortunately, the pinches gringos puñeteros told them to take a hike...and so the peninsula eventually ended up as part of the 31 United States of Mexico and not one of 51 further north.

Until the 1950s road communications between the Yucatán and the rest of Mexico were almost non-existent, and as noted just yesterday in this blog, they still leave algo to be desired. Once you get past Ciudad del Carmen however, one does have the pleasure of zipping along Highway 180 which follows the Gulf shoreline northwards just a few metres from the shorebreak and lines of expectant pelicans.

This city, formerly the Maya community of Can-Pech, was re-founded in 1540 as San Francisco de Campeche by those persevering visitors from Spain. It had been something of a second coming for the conquistadores, as their first expedition to this side of the peninsula — led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517 — had been put thoroughly to the obsidian sword.

Nowadays local government is housed in this particularly dubious structure, the Palacio Legislativo, which is lit up every night with the colours of the Mexican flag...just in case you hadn't got the point already.

Notes from abroad: Campeche (2)

Campeche has a couple of decent bookshops, most notably the one in the Casa Seis, set in one of the recamaras in which you can still spot the hammock hooks on the walls.

I was expecting the usual piles of Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Isabel Allende and Paolo Coelho...and found them, but here at least Haruki Murakami has been admitted to that kitschy pantheon. I even spotted a collection of Bolaño short stories (Putas Asesinas).

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Edible, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

Blighted by competition

V was very sympathetic and asked me why the poor man was providing free advertising for his upstart rival!

He should try opening a coffee shop in London - though The Italian Coffee Co appears to have a virtual monopoly here, so Starbucks will have to stand there outside the legislative palace and make a fuss too.

As the Dragons would say, there aren't many barriers to entry in the tortilla-making trade. It's not that one can set up a guild and control the qualifications for new entrants.

Much the same thing has happened in our street, with Doña Mari and Doña Tere going head to head.

Mari's tortillas are yukkier*, but have the advantage of being made on a comal in the tradictional way with proper corn (not Maseca) and so the arrival of Doña Tere's start-up tortillería hasn't as yet put her into a violent sulk as far as we can tell.

* Don't forget that water is a key ingredient.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Notes from abroad: Campeche (1)

Funny, I'd vaguely recalled that the cathedral in Campeche was pink. Luckily the locals have spared themselves the ultimate in pastelisation.

Last time I was here, after a week in Playa followed by the Pu'uc trail, V's sun allergy was as bad as I think it's ever going to get, and so she was confined to quarters and what we saw of the city together was limited to the Plaza and a few blocks around it.

What is it with Mexicans and humungous flag poles? There's a thing on the seafront drive here which looks like a giant car aerial.

There are three Campeches as far as I can tell. First, the part the tourists come for (or rather don't, because for better or worse this is still the least visited of the various UNESCO-protected colonial cities of the region) — the bright and cheery old walled town behind its baluartes.

It covers roughly the same area as the historic centre of Bruges (without the wet bits) and similarly, once you step outside the gate set in the rear wall, you're into a pretty dismal urban accretion. In this instance it all kicks off with an unexciting (and slightly seedy) market and I didn't dare venture more than a block or so east of that.

Beyond the Gulf-side bastions however, the sea has been pushed back several hundred metres to allow for a wide concrete platform — the Pedro Sainz de Baranda — created it seems, so that the local SUV-owning classes may move around laterally without having to venture into the badlands of the back-city.

Rollerbladers, cyclists and old-style strollers are also catered for, but my irony-detectors were tripped by those PEATÓN ES PRIMERO signs. In this city you feel that the cars are sneaking up behind you all the time.

If those dastardly piratas ingleses were still marauding around these shores today they'd have to run the gauntlet of Ford Expedition's cris-crossing the Avenida Costera like freight trains before they even got within canonball range.

It's like someone thought...

"What this grotty old place needs is one of those massive seafront avenues with palms down the middle, like they have in Cannes and Nice."

Well, we're talking about the 60s or 70s before Patrimonios de la Humidad vastly improved the rentability of grot.

The highway zone is a missable spectacle until dusk when the sun starts to sink into seawater and the citizens of Campeche come out to play. Along this stretch there are some restaurants with promising names — Mediterraneo — and some with less promising ones — Videotaco. There are also a lot of karaoke bars.

You'll find some interesting Santa Monica-wannabe residential property along here as well, all dating back to the era when Thunderbirds first appeared on TV.

"And as for the rest of the old town, we'll paint it the colours of a Swedish cushion set..."

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Fashion, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

Notes from abroad: Chiapas and Tabasco

Southern Mexico still feels like a land under occupation.

It seemed that every time I managed to nod off the lights came on and some other official, usually armed, started patrolling the aisles looking for a random passenger to hassle.

I'm sure it's all in the interest of keeping Class A drugs and Class Z Central Americans out of the patria, but it can be a little intimidating, and for the seasoned traveller in these parts, a dispiriting reminder of the 80s. (A major flashback occurred when we stopped beside some heavily-camouflaged Mexican troops sitting behind a sandbag emplacement pointing a large, belt-fed machine gun at the coach.)

Back in Guatemala last time I had a flashlight shone in my face as someone shouted 'papeles papeles!' was way back in 2001.

Anyway, I'd thought this was my second journey along this road but then I recalled that somehow Surfer and I got back to Chetumal from Palenque in '88. Did we go all the way up to Campeche by bus before hitching that mad ride to the border, or did we knowledgeably hop off at the earlier crossroads? I can't remember...

In those days the military were everywhere. We'd exited Guatemala the (very) hard way, up to El Naranjo (Petén), and then via boat ride along the Rio San Pedro, which was a bit like the Apocalypse Now jungle-journey experience. Both the Mexican and Guatemalan armies were in gung-ho mode and indulged themselves by strewing the contents of our rucksacks on the ant-infested forest floor. Surfer had an alarm clock which one imaginative squadie took for the key element of a DIY bomb-making kit.

Anyway 'Checkpoint Carlitos' was one of the reasons I decided not to drive this time. That and the inherent difficulties of wet season roadtrips in this part of Mexico. Even the ADO GL coach took twelve hours to get from Tapachula (Chiapas) to Villahermosa (Tabasco).

Pictured: Tapachula's cute little Moorish-style bandstand.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

"Chucho Guizado" Huh?

...o pisado?

I love this guy. He's such a coche and his Spanish is sooo atrocious. (He has to be putting it on though, because he's married to a Mexican TV celeb.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Learning, n.The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.

The Children (2008)

You brought them into this world, they'll take you out...

A nice idea, realised a little imperfectly. Two sisters and their young families meet for an upper middle class New Year celebration in a mock-Tudor mansion somewhere in the English countryside...with patchy mobile phone reception.

The group includes — just for starters — a slightly creepy autistic four-year old, a stroppy teenager and her mother's 'new bloke'.. 'a bit of a nob' according to the aforementioned young lady.

Why these little horrors turn into murderers proper is never fully explained; perhaps a virus.

In exploring which parts of children's behaviour is inherently disruptive and disturbing and which might, given a little microbic nudge, turn truly malicious, Tom Shankland's script is certainly on to something. I would have just liked to see a bit more of this though.

I also felt that other themes such as the stroppy teen's flirtation with her uncle and the lifestyle and outlook conflicts between the two couples are left a little under-developed, even though the build-up section itself feels a little overlong.

Grade: B+

District 9 (2009)

Right on the cusp of deadly seriouness and downright silliness, District 9 presents the viewer with a parade of familiar ideas from several cinematic genres within a context like nothing you have ever seen before.

It's hectic, at times a bit too hectic for me. The underlying message is also ambiguous to the point of equivocation. But it's entertaining and often amusing. (I suspect there are some great in-jokes for the native South Africans in there too.)

With its central comparison of ETs to seafood I was inevitably reminded of 'Pik' Botha's memorable description of apartheid-era South Africa:

"We are not a nation of jillyfish."

V had her own Guatemalan way of getting her head around it. "So, these aliens have their own Pavón?"

Grade: B++

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Screensnaps #5

And this was one of the Prince's bodyguards...

Update: V wants one. (She says it reminds her of Clint's line in Gran Torino: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn'ta fucked with")

Kate Humble said she felt like she was in a Bond movie as the cortege of expensive 4x4s departed The Kingdom Tower.

Screensnaps #4

Kate Humble lived up to her surname as she was entertained (and thoroughly PR'd) by some of the richest men in Riyadh as she made her way along The Frankincense Trail.

One of them, HH Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud hangs out in this building in the foreground — the Kingdom Tower — HQ of a massive business empire. Humble was taken to his private resort (in the back of his SUV) as the Prince completed on the refinancing of Citigroup up front.

She met his 27-year old fourth wife Amira, who explained why she is comfortable with her husband being surrounded by so many beautiful (and ethical) women.

Saudi Arabia rakes in a profit of $1bn a day from the petrochemicals industry.

Peter Berg rather skipped on the outrageously glamourous side to Saudi life in The Kingdom.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Reporter, n. A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Screensnaps #3

One of the most stunning locations visited in Land of the Lost Volcano was this cave system on the island of New Britain, supposedly never before explored by crazy foreigners.

Leading the way was the team's resident adventurer Steve Backshall, a man with the body of an ex-Para who sounds like Lee Evans on amphetamines: "This is FAN-taaaastic!"

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Impunity, n. Wealth.

I'm going on my holidays...

And the blog is coming with me. Aside from the pre-processed updates the posts may be a bit thinner on the ground for the next couple of weeks...

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

An enthralling account of the Victorian crime that became a cultural phenomenon. The slaying of young Saville Kent in 1860 was to become the model country house murder and Jack Whicher, the prototype Scotland Yard detective sent to resolve it, the model sleuth for a generation just beginning to experiment with the genre of investigative fiction. (Dickens was very much a detective groupie it would seem.)

Now, I've not read it myself, but the good folk at the NYT Book Review have tipped me off that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood set the stanadrd for narrative non-fiction works based around a single incident which is used to explore bigger ideas about the time in which it occurred.

Summerscale does seem to sense the need to pan out beyond the crime scene into the realities of Victorian life and the sub-plots which spin off towards the turn of the century and on the whole I think, achieves this successfully.

Yet the author admits in the afterward that in writing this book, she herself almost lost sight of the victim. I think the problem she had to grapple with is not unlike the central difficulty at the scene itself, which for a while unhinged the career of Jack Whicher himself — the limitations of Victorian-era CSI meant not only that there wasn't quite enough evidence to get a successful conviction first time round, but also that there isn't quite enough detail in the core crime story to drive the narrative from cover to cover, and just occasionally one really can feel the padding being applied.

Still I can wholeheartedly recommend this book, even though I know Richard and Judy have already done the honours!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Screensnaps #2

Another recent offering from the Beeb was The Frankincense Trail presented by Kate Humble. When it was good it was fabulous, but when it wasn't so good, our toes began to curl a bit.

The trouble was that Humble's natural personality is the nice-but-dim charming English chump that Louis Theroux likes to affect to good effect.... just without any of the ironic knowingness. In many of the circumstances this trip deposited her in, this persona was just what was needed, but occasionally, when allowed to wander off the prepared script, her otherwise disarming gaucheness became a bit of deterrent to insight.

Episode one covered Humble's trek from the gnarly-tree source of frankincense in Oman through the desperately unstable nation of Yemen. It's perhaps rather a shame that country is so dangerous, as it features the extraordinary mud-brick cityscapes of Sana'a and Shibam. In the latter some of these structures rise to 16 stories.

M-shaped recovery?

"Under the rules of financial capitalism, corporations have become experts at extracting value — but not at creating it. Prosperity wasn't shared because 20th century organizations weren't built to share it. 20th century organizations were built to create value for shareholders, by acting "strategically" at anyone and everyone else's expense, by any means necessary: through lobbying, monopoly power, cost-shifting and hiding, or, most recently, trillions in bailouts.

"Who is it that organizations have become experts at extracting value from? It's, well, the rest of us: society. Whether as employees, taxpayers, or consumers, the gains that accrue outside the boundaries of the organization are small indeed. Bailing out Wall Street has already cost every American household thousands of dollars — and that's just for the latest crash. Capitalism 1.0 — financial capitalism — impoverishes everyone who isn't a financial capitalist.

"Our great challenge isn't "recovering" from a financial crisis. It is rehabilitating an economy. What we've really got to recover from isn't yesterday's financial crisis, but a century of toxic, self-destructive industrial-era business as usual. Without rehabilitation, tomorrow's crises will make today's look like a walk in the park."

Umair Haque

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Immigrant, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

Screensnaps #1

Thanks to the advent of 1080p I have invented a sad new hobby for myself: television photography. Once I realised that I could capture and manipulate some eye-catching stills from my HD programmes there was no stopping me..and so a new regular series is born.

This little fellow turned up in the BBC's exciting new adventure-science series The Land of the Lost Volcano, set in Papua New Guinea.

The format is not dissimilar to last year's Oceans in which a group of telegenic specialists led by a more seasoned chief scientist are sent off to the frontier of human knowledge, living together in a manner oddly reminiscent of reality TV...though thankfully the team-members assembled here are less obviously twattish than their marine equivalents.

Most of them are there to collect images and specimens and to generally push the cause of conservation, but this particular group also has a designated 'adventurer' whose mad larks are interspersed through the more earnest (and equable) footage of stick insects, perhaps so the director can justify the constant palpitations of his soundtrack.

Anyway, back to the ant. Jungle ants tend to be agriculturalists, growing fungae for food deep within their colonial homes. In this instance however the fungus has turned the tables on the farmer-critters. It grows from inside the body of the insect, somehow taking over its motor controls so that the possessed ant has no choice but to climb up certain types of forest flora and deposit itself on the underside of a leaf. There it will die as the fungus expands and grows the stalk you can see in the snap above. This will eventually disperse spores which will appropriate yet more ants for this fungal reproduction system.

Update: Thanks to Scott for sending me this video which explains the process in greater detail.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Almuerzo interrupted

V just screeched "like Monica Seles...being stabbed in the back" when she realised that her bowl of rice had toppled onto the floor. Not since that wrathful ghost had its mits around her neck in Scotland back in '92 has she emitted such a heartrending shriek.

Cherry bolted for the door and Bali gave me that fight or flight? look if his. For a brief moment the notion that it might have been my fault was enough to make me howl like a banshee too.

Fortunately we'd already consumed roughly half of it. V had cooked it up with latino condiment Bijol — essentially a mix of annatto, corn and cumin — adding sweet basil and 'culantro' for flavour.

But the of acme of this meal had been the veggie dish that the ill-fated arroz accompanied. Broccoli and grated carrot were first fried in olive oil, before a quarter cup of milk, a bit of cream and the liquid from a jar of olives were added. Once this had reduced, a beaten egg was broken over the pan to bind the dish and a few capers tossed on top. The whole concoction was then covered and left to simmer. Yum...

An innovative use of egg cartons

...and a plastic cup.

A couple of the band-members of Albatros (featured this month in the second most useful local listings magazine*) are V's acquaintances from back in the days when she used to hang out more in cyber-cafes.

Here's another energetic demo track:

and another...

* hmmm, backhanded compliments feel good. Thanks to Don Marco for showing me how it's done!

Excess baggage

US authorities have rumbled a decade-old cocaine ring in Puerto Rico, arresting 23 people including several AA employees who had been using the airline as the main conduit for smuggling tons of blow over to the mainland. (Still, nothing quite beats La Antigua's legendary scam, whereby samples of marching powder were finding their way into the baby milk formula at the Nestlé plant!)

Independence Day

With our ears still ringing from the drums we bought pizza by the slice last night from Pedro's (next door to 'the restaurant with no name') experience which reminded me somewhat of late nights in London.

We'd just followed a break-away group from La Salle's old-boy band as they made their way back to the school via the Calle del Arco, having paused beneath the arch itself for a ten minute mini-recital.

This event seems to get bigger and louder every time. I don't recall so many bandas de ex-alumnos in years gone by.

Performance styles varied from the very martial Tridentinos (an institution that must surely provide the kind of education which Señor Arzú would approve of) to the haciendose un colocho (shape-chucking) technique of the musicians representing the Liceo Antigüeñ sister-in-law's alma mater.

V once turned out as a batonista for the now defunct Colegio Mercantil.

The INSOL-ente girls undoubtedly possessed the most fetching flag carrier: more of a demure Señorita than a swotty Abanderada. In spite of having traipsed around the cobbles for hours in high heels she still managed a sweet smile as she passed:

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Rapacity, n. Providence without industry. The thrift of power.

Adventureland (2009)

A recent graduate with one of those more impractical degrees discovers that, as a result of his father suddenly winning less bread, he's going to have to work at a shoddy amusement park all summer if he's ever going to be able to take up that grad school place in NYC.

At Adventureland boy meets girl, and both find themselves having to work out if its Games Games Games or Rides Rides Rides that they want at this moment of their lives.

Is it me or were there more of these angsty young-love movies around at the time that this one was set (late 80s, early 90s)?

Greg Mottola also directed the guilty pleasure that was Superbad (why haven't I reviewed this..?) , and as such belongs to the Apatow gang. This is a gentler, dare one say maturer, look back on American youth, where the puking is served up almost as an afterthought. (Though Superbad was poignant in an rather indirect way at times too!)

Dr Mark is dismissive of the revenge of the geek comedy genre. American teens just aren't like that, he opines. It's comedy for older dudes who have failed to grow up...and reconstruct.

Having spent some time in the area before I went to Cambridge, dating a high school girl from Long Island, I think I can say that the good doctor is only partly right. Whilst my girlfriend and her circle of chums were actually remarkably ripe of mind for their ages— if a little unsophisticated — I also had the chance to hang out with some college kids at UCONN near Hartford, and these were the definitely the kind of archetypes that a director like Mottola could work with — in either of his modes, foul-mouthed or reflective.

Anyway, Adventureland is about recent college evictees and set in a period just a couple of years before my own graduation. I'm a real sucker for this kind of movie and really warmed to this one. (V was a little less enamoured, perhaps because she knew Bill Hader was in it and was expecting a laugh-a-minute comedy!)

I haven't seen Jesse Eisenberg since the superb Roger Dodger and had been wondering what happened to him. Kristen Stewart was great too. I suppose I'm going to have to watch Twilight now.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

The loan advisor is one promotion short of acquiring the kind of status in the corporate world that will perhaps enable her to dispel memories of an agricultural childhood.

She wants that job; badly. But her boss has mentioned to her that the new guy can sure crunch those numbers and take those tough decisions, and when the old gypsy woman comes into the the bank pleeding for a delay on that foreclosure, he tells her "It's your call..."

Horror movies live or die according to their relationship with the back catalogue. A little frisson of déjà vu is a must-have ingredient, but too much and you run the risk of accusations of being clumsily derivative. (viz The Unborn)

Many would appear to think that the clever way to transcend this little difficulty is to make one of those postmodern movies which knowingly quotes from the cult classics, though the result is more often than not rather boorish. And simply re-making an already notorious horror flick is surely the cop-out option.

So, what Sam Raimi has achieved here deserves proper recognition. He's trotted out many of the most perennial clichés of the genre but the result hardly ever feels anything but fresh. In fact it almost feels like a re-invention. Most of all, it's scary, funny and gross, and at its best when it's all three at the same time!

Grade: A-

Monday, September 14, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Talk, v.t. To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Rabble, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable -- omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, "soaring swine.")

Sunday, September 13, 2009

It appears to work anyway...

In an apocryphal story about supersition, an eminent man of science is found to have a horseshoe hanging outside his door. When confronted with this anomaly, he cheerfully admits that he doesn't really believe in that kind of thing...but it appears to work anyway.

In Sophie's World the tale is assigned to Isaac Newton, who did indeed dabble in alchemy and organised religion, but I do believe it properly belongs to Nils Bohr.

This week we discovered that enough Americans don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution to prevent the new biopic starring Paul Bettany from getting a US distributor.

Pathetic...but fear not. It appears to work anyway. This winter a good number of these idiots will go down with Tamiflu-resistant swine flu and end up a bit 'half-baked' themselves.

In the meantime here's Part 1 of last Friday's Newsnight Review special on the legacy of On the Origins of Species with guests Professor Richard Dawkins, novelist Margaret Atwood, the Reverend Richard Coles and Charles Darwin's descendent Ruth Padel. (The subsequent parts can be accessed via the YouTube menu.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tax rates, GDP and stuff

Don Marco made some observations in his reaction to a comment I made on his blog that I thought merited further investigation:

"Redistribution by confiscation is a drag on productivity, as can be seen by the retarded growth rates of those states in Europe whose marginal tax brackets are higher and whose central governments consume more than that of the US, a nation which has historically outperformed the EU in both growth and productivity."

Now let's look at the latest CIA Factbook data on GDP per capita. Most of the high-taxing European countries on the chart above do indeed perform less well than the USA in terms of per capita income. But there are exceptions, the most notable of which would be:

GDP per capita in USA: $47,000
GDP per capita in Norway (mother of all welfare states) : $55,200

But then again, look at Ireland, which until the credit crunch was experiencing remarkable growth while at the same time taxing rather less than the US. It's per capita level of GDP reached a very commendable $46,200.

At $52,000 per capita Singapore is the highest performing English-speaking economy in the world which isn't totally dependent on the export of oil. (Brunei comes in at $53,100) It also has a top rate of individual tax of just 20%.

Meanwhile, Mexicans are in aggregate three times as wealthy as Guatemalans (GDP per capita of $5200), who are in turn almost twice as rich as Nicaraguans...but not quite as pistudos as the Salvadoraneans next door.

Interestingly Cubanos are also almost twice as well off collectively as chapines.

Argentina is currently tied with Mexico at $14,200...pretty poor considering this South American nation was cruising way ahead of both France and Germany at the start of the last century. And they're probably not even going to the World Cup next year!

Top spot in the Spanish-speaking world outside the Iberian peninsula goes to Equatorial Guinea, (at $31,400 also top chucho in Africa), but over on this side of the Atlantic the winner is Puerto Rico at $17,800, followed by Chile at $14,900.

Spanish Pedazos #6

Asturias aka el pais de los quesos is a veritable treasure trove of edible productos artesanos. My mouth waters at the recollection of it.

Here in Antigua the cheese situation is generally less favourable. And I say this the morning after having grated the last little chunk of Parmesan I brought back with me in June....Parmesan from Reggio that is, as opposed to queso parmesano from Tegucigalpa.

The mainstream shops here mostly stock poor Central American simulcra of already insipid gringo imitations of real cheese: chafa not cheddar!

Step upmarket (into say Epicure but porfa not Sabe Rico, regretably a bit of a bare-faced estafa) and you can find premium old world staples from Switzerland — decribed in The White Tiger as "a small , beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money" — and Holland. But not a whiff of say Camembert or Manchego.

Locally-produced queso seco goes well sprinkled over frijoles and the queso de pueblo has a pleasingly creamy texture. The salty ricotta-like requesón, made from the first cut of the cheese, is also rather scrumptious.

For much of last year we were buying our queso de capas from don Andres, a charming itinerant who reaches our road from his home town of Patulul at around 11am every Friday. Unfortunately, once I'd whittled down the suspects in the case of our occasional bowl problems, don Andres's layer-set cheese looked in imminent need of legal counsel. We still buy his cream though.

Nothing produced here however is quite a match for the famous string cheese of Oaxaca — el quesillo — though one can make do with the ersatz versions flogged by the La Cuna del Queso (Taxisco).

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition...

The former President under whose regime Guatemala's independence day parades were briefly banned for being too militaristic delivered a controversial speech in congress earlier in the week in which he recommended a return to civil-military education as a response to what he described as the current "crisis of values"

Álvaro Arzú, these days Señor Alcalde of Guatemala City, also recommended the creation of an Estados Unidos de Centroamérica, to include initially Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and likened the international community's patrolling of democracy in the region to the sinister houndings of the medieval Inquisition.

As you can imagine, all this went down rather better with Ríos Montt than the likes of VP Rafael Espada, Helen Mack and Rigoberta Menchú.

Incidentally, it seems that the mayor's German shepherds here in Antigua have been beneficiaries of the 'K50' form of educación cívico militar as they are indeed highly disciplined, but occasionally escape into the street and randomly maul passers-by.

I mentioned the possibility of the chapines hooking up politically with the guanacos to V and her response was a well-considered "Fuck off!"

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Vanity, n. The tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass.

Friday, September 11, 2009

San Lucas...el sabor típico

Thanks to Scott for this pair of clips which will give you a feel for Guatemala's biggest street food drive-thru: San Lucas Sacatepéquez . We were tempted yesterday on our drive back from the city, but thanks to a marauding bus in the lane next to us we missed the turn-off!

Part II:

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Insurance, n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.

The Turing Test...of contrition

Via the PM's office website, Gordon Brown has issued a rather belated apology for the way Alan Turing, founder of modern computer science, was treated for his sexuality:

"But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present."

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Spanish Pedazos #5

Another view from the village of Cahecho, Cantabria. It's the kind of place where you can still see highly compact little Spanish viejas carrying buckets to be filled with water at a the hand-crankable iron pump at the lower end of this incline.