Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #s 12 and 13

V is rather suspicious of the pre-prepared noodle technique that these pad thai stalls seem to practice, but the end result was always yummy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #11

These things were effing delicious: barbecued banana with coconut wrapped and grilled in banana leaf.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #10

Supernatural chedi guard at Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo.

Britain rises to the TV challenge

In a gloomy, wet weekend that had its disappointments, a beacon of light was provided by the finale of series five of the new Doctor Who.

Complex ideas literally fizz out of Matt Smith's Doctor, indicating a pleasing determination on the part of new producer Steven Moffat not to pander to the Saturday evening lumpen-publikum like his predecessor. Ratings have dropped, but a certain carry on in South Africa may have contributed to this.

As someone who started watching Doctor Who as far back as 1971, I can honestly say that Matt Smith is by far the most inherently fascinating incarnation of the Time Lord yet. His comic timing is spot on. And Karen Gillan is also the strongest of the companions since Russell T. Davies rebooted the concept in 2005.

Even V is now hooked, and she used to regard catching up with the series as a bit of a chore. (Me too at times, I have to admit.) Now she can't wait for the Christmas special.

For so long British TV drama has lagged behind the output from across the pond. But now there are several multi-season shows from the BBC which are worthy of comparison, such as Survivors, which started off so terribly, but has pulled itself up to become one of the most gripping and well-written TV narratives in the UK.

The opposite appeared to happen with the now defunct US show Heroes which showed so much initial promise before declining into incoherence.

FlashForward (now also cancelled) had an interesting premise and also seemed keen to suck in audiences beyond the geek heartland, but its self conscious soapiness created a terminal inbalance in both plot and character. Viewers of Survivors can find more and more reasons to care about its characters (even the flawed Tom), but FlashForward's former stalwarts were surely struggling to give a hoot about its central FBI team and the various conspirators who rather conveniently tagged along with them.

The show that was supposed to herald a new era in sophisticated American TV drama was of course David Simon's The Wire, a series retrospectively praised recently in the LRB by Michael Wood:

"Part of the lure of The Wire, of course, is its drawn-out storylines. Not only are there multiple narratives in any given episode, but a single complex story threads its way through a whole season. This is a method that creates both a sort of viewing leisure, and an unusual, slow-burning suspense. Richard Price, the author of Clockers and Lush Life, who worked on several episodes, calls The Wire a ‘Russian novel of an HBO series’, and Simon himself is fond of this metaphor too, speaking of ‘a novel for television’ "

Multi-strandedness for the masses duly arrived in the form of Lost, which concluded with a bit of a splutter last month after six seasons. WTF? its loyal fanbase asked. What happened to time travel, the Dharma initiative etc. After so many possibilities had been opened and so few of them closed, the final set-down was the very one we could all have guessed back in 2004 without having to tear our hair out over what exactly was the matter was with Desmond.

This may in part explain why the writers had given the illusion (unlike those of Heroes say) of knowing exactly where the longer narrative was going at any one time. In the end I would rather they had focused less on creating new characters and themes in the final season and more on tying up the loose ends from the previous ones.

What was so impressive about Moffat's creative contribution to the new incarnation of Doctor Who was the way he weaved a series of threads through all the stories, his own and those of other contributing writers, and then properly tied them back in the concluding double-episode.

David Simon's new show Treme, set in New Orleans, is currently running on HBO. I watched the start of the first espiode and thought hmmm, this is a bit heavy.

I'm still following Dexter and True Blood because these are not only well-written but also a bit less up themselves than some of the aforementioned offerings. The writers of Dexter have certainly surprised me with their ability to keep up (and even extend) interest in this character and I'm looking forward to season five in September...though V's not a fan, largely because she hates voiceovers.

The updated version of V is also quite fun. It's a bit soapy like FlashForward, but the cast is much stronger and it seems to have a better (and simpler) idea about how it's going to generate the necessary dramatic tension going forward. It has yet to be scrapped by the network too.

It's possible that a whole generation of the best writers in America have moved from the silver screen to the LCD/Plasma screen, but the jury is still out on whether they have fully realised the potential which we all anticipated in the mid part of the last decade. But the Brits are now catching up for sure. And we don't have that annoying tendency to cancel shows before any kind of satisfactory wrap-up can be achieved.

Technology to the rescue?

It's not really clear that the result in Bloemfontein would have been any different had Frank Lampard's equaliser been allowed to stand. If England had come on in the second half and not had to chase the game, they might not have resorted to a that suicidal Chilean-style formation with almost all ten outfield players stuck somehere between midfield and the German back line.

On the other hand, most English people are being realistic: our team were pants across all four matches in this World Cup, and would more than likely have still been suckered by the Germans' well-conceived tactic of defending very deep before racing out in deadly counter-attack.

In contrast Mexico were surely robbed last night by the team led by the man my Bulgarian friend calls the 'hairy meatball'.

He can't understand why they even bothered staying on the pitch after ugga-wugga caveman Carlos Tevez's blatantly offside header was replayed on the big screen (accidentally and against FIFA regulations it seems). For a moment the officials looked conscience-stricken, yet were still unable to right this wrong under the current rules of the game. Mexico had been bossing the play up until that point and quite obviously went to pieces after it.

Now I've said here that controversy is part of the habanero-munching nature of the pleasure of watching international football, but some of the decisions at this Mundial have been just so completely bizarre (USA's disallowed winner, Kaká's red card etc.) that the competence of FIFA to run a tournament of this size and significance has to questioned.

The Guardian's Sean Ingle described FIFA as "football's answer to the Amish, but without the killer beards." They ignored all the calls for decision-assisting technology after the Henry handball saw France qualify for this World Cup at the expense of Ireland. But with this level of renewed public interest in the issue, can Sep Blatter really hold out much longer?

One thing is clear however (and can be resolved quickly and without technological aid) Mick Jagger should be kept away from all future England and USA fixtures.

Of my favourites only Chile and Japan remain. The latter might just make it to the quarters with their super-skilled pin-up star Honda, but you have to fear for the temerarious Chileans against a fully-reinforced Brazil today. Half the Chilean team is missing too thanks to the equally swashbuckling efforts of the ref in their last match against Spain.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #9

Fifteenth century elote-shaped prang at Wat Phra Ram, Ayutthaya. The temple was founded in 1369 on the cremation site of King Ramathibodi (1351-69) by his son Ramesuan.

This structure however was the result of later rennovation by King Borommatrailokanat (1448-88) and is decorated with garudas, nāgas and walking Buddhas.

Antigua's inframundo

There's something rather entertaining about the matter-of-fact way this Spanish TV panel discusses the espantos (and espantados) of La Antigua Guatemala:

They make La Llorona sound like a Japanese horror movie waiting to happen.

On a separate note, my American neighbour has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Tikal where he intends to return on December 23, 2012 for the end of the world.

Apparently he's not alone and some sort of event is definitely being laid on by the locals if not by the Almighty.

I wonder if anyone around here has considered just how many fast bucks are to made out of the credulous in roughly eighteen months' time. Guatemala should certainly position itself as ground zero.

At the very least there's an excuse for some serious end of Baktun cycle partying!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jalea de Cacao

Don Willy dropped by again this afternoon (at half-time quite fortuitously) in order to drop off some of his exceptional jams.

The one on the left is his latest creation, not yet released onto the local market; hence the absence of a label. It's made from pure cacao, he told us proudly. His major concern remains that Guatemalans aren't famed for their love of chocolate, but his mixture is only very lightly sweetened and I think it will probably go down well here.

We were spooning it out of the jar and consuming it neat during extra time. Yum.

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #8

Chedi at Wat Pho (Bangkok). The one on the right, the Phra Si Sanphet chedi, encases the remains of a sacred Buddha image.

Best Baristas

Guatemala might have failed to make it to South Africa, but over in London right now two Chapines have just taken first and second place in the Seventh World Barista Championships, which concluded on Friday.

And so, Guatemala's Héctor González is officially el mejor catador de café en el mundo.
(Thanks to Rudy for this spot.)

It's not enough merely to win

Yesterday, on the Guardian's World Cup Daily pod Paolo Bandini put his finger on the reason Team USA tends to wind the rest of us up so much every four years: if they win, they gloat, but if they lose, they don't really seem to care.

Still it was an American (and former resident of La Antigua) Gore Vidal who though I'd hesitate to suspect him of being a soccer fan came up with a sentence that surely encapsulates the essential thrill of the World Cup: "It's not enough merely to win, others must lose."

Thinking ahead to England's potential exit tomorrow in the last 16 stage, I'd have to add that it's not enough merely to lose, others must NOT win.

Anyway, if the USA does overcome Ghana today (cue gloat) it will apparently be the first time that they have won back-to-back World Cup fixtures since 1930.

Ghana clearly didn't expect to make it even this far because their government has had to announce the imminent repatriation of a thousand fans whose trip to South Africa they'd financed. But now, with the group stages completed, the budget has run out, and so West African support tonight will be somewhat depleted.

Owing to bandwidth issues it has been easier to me to follow the BBC's World Cup feed live online than ITV's. Several of my mates back in the UK have observed that ITV has come up with livelier pundit panels and better coverage all round.

Perhaps even more excruciating than Guatemalan commentators' persistant referrals to Africa as 'the black continent' (and to the Nigerians as 'the black eagles': they are in fact the Super Eagles) have been those little video reports on the 'real Africa' which the BBC has insisted on showing once the likes of Shearer and Hansen have worn themselves, and everyone else, out.

Ghana, however, really are known as the Black Stars.

Sit down, stand up

England might well have won the next game against Slovenia, but things weren't much more comfortable on the bench...especially for Capello's assistant Stuart Pearce, once known to fans affectionately as 'psycho', but here thoroughly out loco'd by his boss.

Pass the #%&# ball!

England's manager Fabio Capello here expresses sentiments we were all feeling during the match against Algeria, but with some rather Italianate gesticulations.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #s5, 6 and 7

Tuctuc rides in Thailand offer a far more hair-raising experience than their equivalents here in La Antigua. These things go...

My round-the-world tour very nearly came to a very unfortunate end when the driver who'd taken me to some of Bangkok's less accessible sights chose to exit the Marble Temple's driveway without looking ahead, and (somehow) just pulled out of a head-on collision with another tuctuc entering it at considerable speed.

This ought to have been my last ride on these death traps, but my feet were so sore when I finished exploring Wat Pho that I decided to risk it once more rather than face the rather long walk back to Banglamphu. The video below resulted.

The fares for using tuctucs to get around the Thai capital are deceptively inexpensive. This is because the drivers are incentivised by various businesses around town (gem shops, bespoke tailors etc) with petrol vouchers, so there are usually a number of unscheduled stops on any visitor's journey.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wimbledon's 'infinite' tennis match

It finally came to an end this morning, having lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes; the fifth set alone went on for 491 minutes. Between them Isner and Mahut had served 215 aces.

Mahut looked a little distraught, but then Tim Henman appeared an handed him a commemorative prezzie in a fancily wrapped box. Isner also got one. (No Frenchman was available apparently. They must all be in hiding.)

It was the least the All England Club could do as this marathon encounter has given The Championships a higher profile at a time when everyone — except the H.M. the Queen apparently — would rather watch the footie.

I suspect that when Henman himself is long forgotten, they will be bringing this particular match and its stats up during the summer broadcasts.

Elizabeth II missed it as she'd had more than enough tennis watching Andy Murray in her first visit to SW19 at this time of year since her Silver Jubilee year of 1977.

Meanwhile, I have decided to watch all future World Cup matches shown by ITV on their live online feed as I am getting pretty fed up with some of the Guatemalan commentators, especially that jowly one who uses the term la zaga every few seconds.


Trip pic of the day: Thailand #s3 and 4

A bit of a foodie share this one. Having arrived at Bangkok's beautiful new airport deep into the government-imposed curfew, I decided that discretion was going to be the better part of valour and prepared myself for a night in the terminal's food courts.

Unlike Singapore's Changi, where the airport food is surprisingly dreadful, Suvarnabhumi offers a veritable emporium of Asian culinary delights. (Plus some Boots and Starbucks outlets for those who are that way inclined.)

I took up residence in one such eatery with my Netbook and ordered some 'spicy sour rice noodle with pork ball and ground pork', washing it down with a couple of jugs of Singha beer (served from what looked a bit like a Pret-a-Manger coffee machine).

Some very smart crockery this.

There were three American girls from Princeton at a nearby table who consumed so many litre bottles of Singha while they were there, that the restaurant staff gave them a box of chocolates after they'd settled their bill.

Forza Azurri anyone?

We remember so fondly our Italia 1990 team (indeed one might say that Bobby Robson's boys changed the profile of football in English culture) not because of their mediocre performances in the group stage, their subsequent near-run-things against Belgium and Cameroon, but because of their glorious failure in the semi-final penalty shoot-out against old foe Germany.

For that reason I'm glad England have drawn the Germans again in the last 16, and that, should they somehow overcome them, they could then have to renew hostilities against the Argies (and Diego Armando Maradonna in particular).

Of such fixtures is a Mundial made, not comparatively insipid match-ups against the likes of Ghana, where there's not much more at stake than pride and a prolongation of the footballing fiesta back home.

The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on Earth. And what a contrast it makes with the noble yet ever so pompous and fascistic ideals of its only real competitor, the Olympic Games. For in spite of FIFA's rather tedious 'Fair Play' anthem, we all know that this is sublimated world war, an arena where it is acceptable (in fact downright pleasurable) to express the kind of xenophobic sentiments which would be completely unacceptable in any other circumstances.

It has been fascinating to watch the Americans starting to catch the bug in 2010. For one doesn't have to be a loyal week-in week-out soccer fan (I'm not) to appreciate the naughty pleasures of this tournament.

Of course they still tend to labour under one or two misconceptions, such as the notion that things would be somehow better without controversy (cheating, poor refereeing etc), for these things are surely fundamental to the intensity of the experience. Yesterday when England played Slovenia I chuckled as the Chapin commentators surmised that the German ref was being biased in England's favour, while their equivalents in the UK ranted that the opposite was in fact the case! (Really, a German referee. Only someone over here could imagine the existence of some sort of pact of European solidarity on the football pitch.)

Andrew Leonard's article in Salon suggests that Landon Donovan's late winner against Algeria will help America transcend the culture war which has broken out since the Jabulanis started flying in South Africa. Let's hope not, eh?!

The very idea that international football can somehow foster lets all get on together, multicultural values is of course complete nonsense, and both the left and the right in the US should quickly disabuse themselves of it. It's a silly doctrine that briefly gripped the French after their win in 1998, and just look at them now.

If this was universally understood to be just a 'sport', why would politicians take such a keen interest?

Anyway, Donovan produced one of the great World Cup moments to send the USA through and to the summit of Group C; deservedly so, because they produced a lot more excitement than England across the three games and were denied victory against Slovenia by the kind of 'erratic' decision we love so much.

David Beckham's place in the pantheon was guaranteed by a similar late intervention. England were down a goal in injury time in their final qualifying match against Greece for the 2002 World Cup, a scoreline that would have denied them top spot in the group, and thus condemned them to a play-off. Up stepped Beckham for one last free kick...

Or perhaps it's his sending off against Argentina in 1998 that most grabbed our attention? In the World Cup you're either a hero or a hate-figure (as Wayne Rooney is discovering) and it's best not to wish for the alternative.

Talking of hate-figures, Italy is down a goal to Slovakia as I write and heading for bottom of their group behind New Zealand. Yes, that's New Zealand, whose squad features at least one part-timer who works in a bank. I took this pic of Italian ex-pat preparations for the great spectacle in London last month. How I'd like to be hanging around outside
Bar Italia in Frith Street this afternoon; just for a bit of therapeutic gloating, you know. (It wouldn't be such a bad place to be if they make some sort of heroic late comeback either.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The sound of one hand clapping

I've always had a great deal of sympathy for the intuitions that underlie the teachings of Buddhism. I listen and I think hmmm, there's something in that. Sure there are loads of platitudes, but these are accompanied by a batch of startling profundities.

En cambio....when the basic Christian myth is set out: that some charitable Jewish bloke, whose mother incidentally was a virgin, sort of engineered his own execution by the Roman occupiers of Judea so that everyone afterwards could have a chance of eternal life, I listen and I think hmmm, huele a bollocks.

This rectangular rock garden at Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is one of Japan's greatest and most recognisable treasures. It measures twenty five metres from east to west and ten metres from north to south, and consists of fifteen carefully placed rocks set within equally carefully raked gravel. It's the late fifteenth century work of a painter and gardener called Saomi and is considered the quintessence of Zenniness.

Usually only fourteen of the boulders are visible from any given angle, though one can know one has attained enlightenment the moment one also sees the fifteenth. Anyway, it was hard enough for me to get a view of the garden which didn't also include una molotera de turistas, for the most part deep in contemplation of Saomi's mystery.

The walls around the Zen garden were made from clay boiled in oil, so that a peculiar surface patina would emerge as the centuries passed.

Nearby there's a wash basin (Tsukubai) for the tea room, featuring the inscription 'I learn only to be contented'.

Foodie share

V now has a favourite Asian curry....better even than the standard red, green and yellows of Thailand.

As a base she used an Indonesian Padang Rendang paste containing shallots, ginger, galangal, dessicated coconut, turmeric, coriander seeds, candle nut, chiles and lemongrass, as well as sugar and salt, which ought to be relatively easy to reproduce without the head start provided by the Dancing Chef paste I'd picked up in Singapore.

She then added a few extra ingredients such as coconut milk, chopped cabbage, lime leaves from the rough land next to our house, and Japanese yaki nori (roasted seaweed).

We used beef, but chicken and lamb are also permitted, I read on the back of the little packet.

The end result was, I believe, a little more liquid than the version one tends to encounter in Padang. And completely delicious.

The rice was prepared with more kaffir lime leaves, carrots, peas, green tea, sultanas and saffron.

Trip pic of the day: Thailand #s1 and 2

Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, it seems impossible to capture the essential experience of being in a place using a digital camera.

Such, I have found, was the case with Nikkō, the most affecting location I visited in Japan. In the case of Thailand however, I've discovered more fascination in my photographic review than I recall actually encountering on the road; the afterglow has been more pleasurable than the glow, so to speak.

And what a glow it was. I felt completely irradiated as I traipsed around Ayutthaya, Thailand's ancient capital. Never have I experienced such intense calor.

Heat and humidity aside, there are perhaps other reasons why I was less than 100% engaged with the pleasure of the trip at this stage. Apart from Vancouver, where my sojourn was brief, Thailand was the only destination where I lacked a local friend to show me around a bit.

I'd been on the road for quite a while too, and would probably have been pidiendo pelo even if I didn't feel in constant danger of shedding my entire moisture content.

The political crisis was a mixed blessing. As I had suspected, such moments are often the best times to put in an appearance — the general absence of other foreign visitors at some of the key sites meant that I often had them basically to myself. But then every guide, every hawker and every tuctuc pilot was after a piece of my action, and I found myself having to take evasive action on numerous occasions. This was the only developing country on my itinerary and I felt very much back in pushitero-land.

These ones in the pic below were easy enough to sneak past. The intense heat was even getting to the locals it seems. Their colleague above got lucky however with these two young, middle-class Thai girls.

One last chance...?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hong Kong Photo Essay

I was a little overwhelmed by Hong Kong when I first arrived, yet by the time I moved on to Japan four days later I had become, if anything, somewhat underwhelmed.

My father viewed a few of these snaps last week and commented that Hong Kong didn't quite look like it does in all the tourist brochures he's seen. Perhaps the latter don't put quite so much emphasis on the juxtaposition of swanky and shabby that had struck me so powerfully. For those parts of the city which don't look like the inside of a kind of mutant Selfridges (or at least the biggest airport departure lounge duty free emporium you've ever come across), are actually on the grotty side of grungey.

V has since berated me a little for not getting out of the compressed urban sauna and onto the outer islands where waterfalls and semi-pristine tropical forest awaited me. I did try to move around, spending my first two nights in Causeway Bay and then shifting onto the mainland with nights in Tsim Sha Tsui and then further north up Kowloon's Nathan Road in Mong Kok. I also spent a very pleasant evening at Raj's place on the north side of Hong Kong island which is certainly less developed.

The legacy of colonial rule and cultural interchange is less obvious than it is in Macau, and I was later on to feel much more at home with the superficial Britishness of Singapore. That said, Hong Kong fully deserves its moniker of 'Asia's World City' because none of the other places I visited were anywhere near as cosmopolitan. The food in Tokyo and Singapore is indeed wonderful, but it remains predominantly local food, whereas in HK's Causeway Bay one finds premium food halls (Gourmet, City'super) offering a smidgeon of just about everything from everywhere, from sushi to Taiwanese cookies, from tacos to the best selection of European cheeses I've seen anywhere in the world.

It's a great pity that the morning I chose to go up to The Peak the mountains behind the Central district were almost completely enveloped in fog, denying me the postcard view of the harbour below. The tram ride was properly atmospheric however.

Monday, June 21, 2010

National Orchid Garden

Set within the Singapore Botanic Gardens (founded in 1859) the National Orchid Garden has been breeding orchids since 1928. The clip below was shot inside the Tan Hoon Siang Mist House, where some of the rarest of the collection of 1000 species and 2000 hybrids in the collection can be appreciated.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wonders of the Solar System

Watching this series on the Beeb recently we learned that there are essentially only two worlds in our solar system with 'Earth-like' characteristics and that there are essentially only two outfits in Brian Cox's suitcase. (He's wearing the warm weather version here in Arizona/ 'Mars'.)


A selection of food-related clips from various parts of Japan (Yoyogi - Tokyo, Kyoto, Nikko), which concludes with a section of my Pontocho festín before jumping to Satoshi mixing up the horse sashimi with raw egg. The grilled udon and assorted yaki tori were also very delicious.

Novelero fodder

Rather than using the phone or indeed the doorbell, a person or entity wishing to remain anonymous, decided to put up notices on every post in our neighbourhood (a space normally reserved for the faces of chuchos perdidos*), advising local resident Hector to get in contact urgently regarding a matter of an unspecified personal nature.

By last night these mysterious notices had all come down as quickly as they went up, leaving the nosier amongst us to speculate as to whether the said Hector had indeed responded to this intriguing invitation. Regardless of the outcome of his/her/its printed appeal, this bill-sticker has at least succeeded in making a vecino's business the business of the wider community at large.

I overheard one local suggesting that he intended to call the number advertised and pretend to be Hector just to relieve himself of the curiosity...

* The usual tactic being to list, along with the physical characteristics of the misplaced pooch, the various diseases from which it suffers and the expensive medicines that it will quickly need in order to avoid expiration.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In search of a new flag

British high street retailer HMV has announced the withdrawl of T-shirts and posters with the slogan
ANYONE BUT ENGLAND from its stores across Scotland, reportedly following complaints that they were racist, but perhaps also because they've detected a growing market for this kind of "criminally irresponsible" product across the border in Enger-land itself.

During this World Cup English people don't need to head north in order to get beaten up, because just watching our national team's passing game has felt like being set upon by a rampaging mob of Jocks with wooden clubs.

How great we once felt when, having ejected those two incompetent Scotsmen from Nos 10 and 11 respectively, new PM David Cameron declared that the flag of St George would be flying over Downing Street this no extra cost to the taxpayer.

After yesterday's horror show I'm giving serious consideration to the idea of packing up my own flags, sticking a pin in that inflateable hand, and picking a new team to support in South Africa. The trouble is...which one?

Now I like the jogo bonito as much as anyone else, and Brazil were indeed my second team throughout all previous Mundiales up to perhaps 2006, but Dunga's workaday bunch are conspicuously incomparable with the '82 squad of fondest memory lead by the magnificent Socrates. And Kaká appears to be continuing where he left off with Real Madrid last season.

Anyway, as our love affair with our own team fades into indifference (and perhaps even loathing), one of the great hate figures of all time in our national consciousness is experiencing an unlikely rehabilitation. After nearly 30 years memories of the Falklands War and the Hand of God seem to have faded sufficiently for us to admit that Diego Maradonna has brought a certain feckless charm to an event FIFA appears determined to keep humourless.

His strenuous denials of limp-wristedness to the gathered media on Thursday were hilarious. Anyway, here's a clip for all those who, like Don Marco, believe the beautiful game to be intrinsically more "effeminate" than rugby, gridiron, kick-boxing etc.

Could I then contemplate cheering on the Argies? Perhaps....against the Germans or the Italians for sure, but there are still other more inherently likeable teams from this hemisphere in the competition, such as Chile and Mexico (and to a lesser extent, Paraguay.)

And what of Spain? They were my first/second team for Euro 2008 (England having already disgraced themselves before they'd had a chance to subject the country to a summer of misery and disappointment) but they were still the perennial underdog underachievers back then.

This time however, they've arrived as clear favourites, having only lost to the USA in 49 previous matches. Watching them stroke the ball around the midfield in tight little triangles against Switzerland I was immediately reminded of the brilliant but un-loveable FC Barcelona, and was thus rather satisfied when the Swiss did a bit of a number on them.

I still think it highly unlikely that a European team will be crowned as World Champions this time round, and it remains to be seen how many African nations even make it through to the knock-out stages. The Asians are game, but lack the extra quality required, so the Latins do seem like the safest bet still, but I have a sneaking suspicion that those other chronic nearly men, the Dutch, may just make a proper impact in 2010.

At half time during the Algeria match last night we switched over to ESPN where they were repeating the conclusion of Andy Murray's comprehensive defeat against Roger Federer in the final of this year's Australian Open. On one level this was a timely reminder of British sporting over-anticipation and ultimate underachievement.

But then I remembered that Murray is of course a Scot and has made no secret of hanging out with members of whichever nation happen to be taking on England at the time. He probably even has one of those t-shirts and will turn up to Wimbledon on Monday wearing it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pad Thai time

One little expedition I undertook outside of what I had previously outlined to myself as the 'safe' part of Bangkok was directed at locating the concentration of street-food vendors outside Wat Saket which Rick Stein filmed for his Far Eastern Odysssey recently. (I am, it is said, of the necio persuasion, and had already had to be turned back on one of my morning wanderings by a man claiming to be a plain clothes copper: "Not that way...protests.")

I didn't partake of the pad thai at the Ghost Gate however. Bangkok was by far the warmest place I visited on my travels and just standing anywhere near the big woks in operation there made me feel in imminent danger of deliquescing on the spot.

The first of these stalls was in the (normally) tourist-packed thoroughfare of Khao San Road and the bank of three woks was just outside the train station in Ayutthaya.


Here are two fine examples of local fish smoked the German way by an ex-pat lady called Crista (Christina?) who can often be found at Tabacos y Vinos on Thursdays and Fridays.

Yesterday however she apparently got with the programme and came around knocking on doors in our neighbourhood. (Thursday is actually a bit of a dead day for itinerant vendedores in Panorama.)

The shark (foreground) was especially tasty, served by V with a ceviche-style salad, a cabbage salad and guacamol.

Spring in the air

Satoshi and I had the good fortune that when we turned up in Asakusa to visit Tokyo's oldest temple, Senso-ji, spring festivities were in full swing.

Students of comparative religion will no doubt note the superficial similarities with the goings on here in La Antigua during Cuaresma (andas, drums, purple etc.) though these Japanese folk do seem to be having a lot more fun than your average devoto cargador.

The only drawback that Sunday was that the streets around the temple were so packed and we were so short of time before meeting some friends at Shibuya station, that I ended up having to come back the next day to visit the temple itself.

'Never write off the Germans' ?

No European team has ever won the World Cup outside their home continent, and although it's still early days (and those Italians are such notorious slow starters), there's really no sign of that particular duck being broken down in South Africa.

England's off day last weekend now pales in comparison to the slow starts we've now seen from the likes of Spain and France; and Italy needed yet another instance of kamikaze goalkeeping in order to scrape a 1-1 draw against Paraguay.

The Germans had such a lively opener against the Aussies that one German paper declared the next day that 'We're going to blow you all away.' They did seem to have one slightly unfair advantage over the other European teams in that a German firm (Adidas) designed these dodgy Jabulani balls and then gave them to their compatriots to practice with long before everyone else.

Enter the Serbs...and what's this, Germany misses a penalty?!

Meanwhile Klose was sent off just before he managed to equal Pele's World Cup scoring record. He'll miss the next match, which might just be the Germans' last in the competition. (If England want to avoid the old foe in the last 16, it might now be an idea for us to allow Slovenia to top Group C!)

After the French went down 2-0 to la Tri yesterday, The Guardian's Barry Glendenning declared that to a man they were a 'disgrace to their country'. A bit harsh, because the French had played positively at times, but the Mexicans had just a bit more determination about them on the night. Anyway, Glendenning is Irish and no doubt has a greater sense of the karmic implications of this particular looming debacle.

Slovenia is often described as the Switzerland of the Balkans and right now they seem to be doing a bit of a Switzerland on the USA, who will surely be heading home early if the score stays the same.

Talking of Switzerland, Paul Doyle reported earlier this morning on The Guardian's live World Cup blog that "the marketing team at Swiss supermarket Migros ran a big, patriotic, advertising campaign before the Spain game, promising 10% off everything in store for one day if Switzerland won. The only problem being, they did win. Migros reckon the exercise has cost them CHF5m (£4.18m), though I'm betting that in reality the publicity generated and extra customers brought in have probably made it worth their while."

Next up England v Algeria. We'll see what they're made of now. It does seem that even a manager with an ego the size of Fabio Capello's couldn't face the implications of putting Green in goal again and David 'Calamity' James will be putting on the No1 shirt this evening in Cape Town.

Macau Photo Essay

After their 1974 revolution (A Revolução dos Cravos) Portugal's left-leaning government attempted to return this territory to the Chinese...and were refused. In the end Macau had to effectively piggyback on Britain's negotiations with Beijing on the future of Hong Kong two decades later.

It was, and, humungous casinos notwithstanding still is, more of a backwater than its near neighbour, yet I saw plenty of signs that its inhabitants have cultural ambitions beyond consumerism.

I've put this down in part to the Portuguese 'universalism' suggested on my tour by the Jardim de Luis Camões and the Museo de Macau. There would definitely seem to be a more interesting colonial legacy here, and the symbiosis pursued by the Jesuits here from 1565 onwards expresses itself most deliciously in the local cuisine, which blends mediterranean and oriental styles.

I tucked into some bolinhos de bacalau and balichao tamarino (a pork dish in tamarind with black olives and rice) at O Porto Interior on the Rua do Almirante Sergio. Its walls are covered in old black and white photos of Portuguese poets and Chinese a signed pic of Audrey Hepburn in pride of place above my table.

The menu came within a kiddies's photo album with teddies and the words Forever Friends on the cover. Helpfully it had images of every numbered item on the menu.

Earlier on I bought some little wooden boxes from a Chinese lady who was reading Ruth Rendell mystery in her delightful shop. She advised me to set off in search of the old East India Company cemetery which dates back to 1814, and which is semi-hidden behind the Marrion Anglican chapel. There I found plenty of tombstones from the 1850s in German and English. And one commemorating one Oliver Mitchell, an American seaman from Vermont who came aboard the USS Marian, and died of dysentry here on July 23 1850. His headstone was erected by his messmates.

By now without any battery power in my camera, I followed the shopkeeper's advice to explore the narrow streets around the Rua da Erva, where grimy 7+ storey apartment blocks are completely encrusted with custom-made and painted iron balcony-cages, each filled with an air-conditioning unit and the day's washing.

Macau turned out to be one of the highlights of my recent odyssey. Its Iberian-inflected architecture reminded me of familiar places, such as the Canaries, but the rickshaw ride I had in from the ferry terminal was certainly more of a uniquely Asian experience.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spring Festival in Shibuya

Beside me Satoshi noted rather ruefully: "If all you saw was this, you'd think we Japanese were a very happy people!"

Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavillion in Kyoto

This rather fetching little early fourteenth century structure, set within the grounds of a magnificent strolling garden, was conceived as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. His son Ashikaga Yoshimochi then converted it into a Zen temple of the Rinzai school. (Properly known as Rokuon-ji.)

The uppermost storey reflects traditional Chinese cha'an style (aka zenshu-butsuden-zukuri). The one below it, also covered in gold leaf, is in the house style of the Samurai, or Buke-Zukuri. The ground floor is rendered in Shinden-Zukuri style, apparently reminiscent of the residential style of the Heian imperial aristocracy. Upon the roof covered with shingles sits a Chinese phoenix.

The building you see in the clip was reconstructed after an arson attack in 1959; an event which is central to the plot of Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavillion.

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Tokyo Crossings

The first is between the Mosaic store and the Sony Centre in Ginza. The second is the famous one outside Shibuya station.

Ueno Park Lullaby

Singing is off this year

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Vancouver Photo Essay

I remember tweeting from Vancouver that I found the city very pretty but a tad dull. I was probably anticipating the loucher attractions of the Asian metropolis, but I hadn't been in Hong Kong for long before I'd started to yearn rather belatedly for the the wholesomeness of British Columbia.

That said, I never felt more uneasy about my personal safety than I did in the Chinatown streets around my hotel in Vancouver. For a city that tops so many 'live-ability' tables, this one contains a surprising number of vagabonds, many of them sporting a decidedly un-wholesome, unbalanced look.

First morning in Tokyo

After arriving in Japan late on May 12 I holed up close to Ueno Park with the intention of visiting the Tokyo National Museum the next morning. There was time early on however to browse the streets around Ueno station, where I was to have my first taste of the sensory assault this astounding city serves up.

I ended up breakfasting in the Soba joint which features at the start of this clip...though I had to stand for a few minutes and observe how the natives ordered (via a vending machine just inside the door which then 'calls' out to the kitchen/serving staff) before I felt confident to follow suit.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


One of the finest things about Vancouver was this little street stall selling Japanese-style hotdogs made with shrimp sausages, red peppers and chile sauce. I found it outside the Canadian Pacific Railway building and also spotted the final touches being put to the second permanent Japadog restaurant in the city.

They're run by the husband and wife team of Noriki and Misa Tamura and they gained a lot of buzz with the Japanese media during the recent Winter Olympics. My fellow snackers (below) were commenting that if there was one business in Vancouver they'd like shares in, this would be it!

Coolness interrupted on Ocean Drive

Loved the little backward glance he gave me as he re-mounted the skateboard!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Déjà vu

Not a bad result on paper, but it was always going to be more agreeable to American (and Scottish) people.

Expectations for our national team have been much lower at this Mundial, but we were all hoping not to have them met quite so quickly. The problem was that all the known weaknesses of the squad, which we'd kind of hoped would miraculously vanish the moment the competition started, were not only present, but present in near exaggerated form.

And to cap it all our formerly 'lucky general' has started to demonstrate the decision-making prowess of his predecessors.

Significantly, England (or indeed any other international squad) only seem to do well at the World Cup when their guardametas can post a reasonable claim to being the world's best.

Unfortunately, England's recent history on the pitch has been littered with the sort of goal-keeping clangers one tended to associate with our northern neighbours. It began with Seaman's gaffe in 2002. Then England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 largely due to spectacular penalty area cock-ups by Robinson and Carson in the home and away legs against Croatia. In came Robert Green...and like Seaman, Robinson and Carson, a single mistake may have brought down the curtain on his international career.

Yet the alternatives aren't great. There's an ageing David James (aka 'Calamity James') and the young and untested Joe Hart. Many did feel the latter deserved a shot at the No1 shirt in South Africa, but Capello stuck with the keeper he preferred in qualifying.

The one player in Team USA who would have made it into Capello's squad ahead of all of the alternatives was indeed their goalie, Tim Howard.

Aside from Landon Donovan there's hardly another player in the American first eleven who ought to have posed England major difficulties, yet a bloke who's having trouble breaking into the Hull first team helped make our expensive midfield look ragged.

Anyway, all we have to do now is perform better than the Yanks against the likes of Algeria and Slovenia to win the absolute must it now seems, as the runners-up are likely to run into Germany: an option that looks increasingly unpleasant.

(Thanks to James for the pic!)

Friday, June 11, 2010

0 days to go...

It's certainly all ogre now for any one with a football phobia.

V:"Ya me aburrió el futbol..." and we're only 45 minutes in. For some reason the opening match is often a big snore, but the hosts just scored, so maybe this one's about to wake up.

I thought the Tube poster above was a great example of localised marketing, although the gag might be lost on most of the movie's target audience, and many of the foreign visitors wandering around London.

I also noticed that Tesco is selling large Toshiba flat screen televisions with the promise that anybody who buys one will get their money back if England win the World Cup!

Could be costly for them, but should this highly unlikely event come to pass, they'll also benefit from the orgy of consumer self-indulgence which is almost certain to come in its wake across the southern portion of the British Isles.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ya no existe Guatepeor?

This weekend, the local TV newsman reported, Guatemala has suffered a trio of horrible disasters. The first two were rather obviously the volcanic eruption and tropical storm respectively.

V tells me she was expecting him to go on to mention the sinkhole which appeared in Zona 2 at 11 Avenida and 6 calle, but no, the final member of this unholy trinity of calamity was the 5-0
goleada that Guatemala suffered at the hands of World Cup hosts South Africa this weekend.

Anyway, readers may recall that I predicted a renewal of this unusual Guatemalan real estate phenomenon when the heavens opened above a city already creaking from the fervours of its nearby volcano Pacaya.

Yet when I first saw the pic of the apparently brand new sink hole as it went viral on the Web, I suspected that someone had either been dredging up images of the hoyote of 2007 vintage or playing with Photoshop, in order to reinforce the increasingly fashionable view that Guatemala has somehow fallen out of favour with the Creator.

As we saw three years ago, any explanation other than those offered by scientific experts appears attractive to both chapines and Internet commentators the world over. It's a secret UFO tunnel, a side-effect of time travel, or indeed, according to comments on a bulletin board Scott found earlier, a base for reptilian shape-shifters.

The most promising local theory I heard today was that it is somehow part of a devious plot concocted by the Mexicans, who will of course stop at nothing in their quest to divert tourism away from Guatemala and into their own territory.