Posts Tagged ‘SOTM’

SOTM – New Orleans

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

New Orleans is like Manchester United. Wherever you go in the world, someone’s heard of it and people are talking about it.

Difference is, everyone seems to love New Orleans, but you can’t have everything.

So it was with much excitement that Kate and I arrived in the Big Easy, just ahead of Mardi Gras.

I’d forgotten this rumbustious, anything-goes city had been given this nickname, but at one point a big SUV stopped to let us walk across the street.

As we scuttled on our way, the SUV drove past and through the open side window a sizeable, smiling African American chap yelled out: “This is the Big Easy. Y’all take your time.”

New Orleans’s French Quarter is undoubtedly the best part of the city. It’s iconic and instantly recognisable from so much screen time.

Other parts, it must be said, are poorer, rougher, like they haven’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina and maybe weren’t in mid-season form even before the winds and floods came.

These areas, neighbourhoods like Crescent City and Treme, have wild chickens and feral cats roaming around. The pretty but down-at-heel houses have a lot of their residents sat out front who are hugely friendly. Almost makes you forget that this is one of the most murderous cities in the United States.

“Y’all come from LONDON?!” an incredulous elderly chap yelled out as we got out a taxi. And as we walked through the streets, people lounging about on their porches wished us a happy carnival.

1488021_10153944585785241_667523191_nThe architecture all over New Orleans is remarkable, one way or another, and no more so than in the French Quarter.

And if you ever want to buy a place in this part of town, always check to see if it’s occupied by someone else first. Especially if they might be dead.

Speaking of the supernatural, that was the theme for plenty of people during the annual Mardi Gras festivities.

This city’s heartbeat is its population, both the locals and those it adopts with a warm embrace and cocktails that’ll make you forget your mother’s name.

The costumes on display were pretty cool. At the top of the page you’ll see me with a couple of guys in full on Breaking Bad meth lab gear. And I came across giant green soldiers, just like the ones I had when I was a boy, which I really enjoyed seeing. If only I’d met these chaps when I was eight…

I told this young lady I liked her sling, and she told me she liked my accent in return. At that point her boyfriend, seen here in the top left, interjected  and hurried her along.

Just in case you didn’t realise these are a New Orleans voodoo couple, they carry a sign.

Now here’s a collector’s item – the Naked Cowboy, usually seen in New York’s Time Square, but clearly on his holidays along with his wife, seen below.

I spotted her having her picture taken with a number of guys who were fondling her bottom while their friend photographed the moment. She seemed to be quite enjoying it and stuck her bottom out even further. Clearly a good sport.

This city was built not only on a swamp (it’s the only American city below sea level) but also on music. And when it comes to Mardi Gras, there’s music in most places, even the middle of the street.

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This bass player was big on orgasmic facial expressions. He could play, too.

And this guy could be the human version of Animal from the Muppets.

1795494_10153944655225241_902536361_nBut it’s not just the musicians who claim the streets. This is Cubs the Poet who sits on Royal Street, across from the Court of Two Sisters, and bashes out bespoke poems on a 1912 typewriter.

He did one for Kate and me called Two Nikons after he spotted the cameras around our necks.

Food is as much a fingerprint of New Orleans as its architecture, music and copious vampire stories. That would warrant an entire, meaty blog post of its own, so I’ll just choose one – beignets.

I’d never heard of them before but soon Adventurous Kate was sternly forbidding me from having two sessions a day at Cafe Du Monde, a staple of this magnificent part of the city since 1862 and which sells the best beignets and coffee in town.

They taste like a little bit of heaven, being a sort of fried dough, and the coffee served with is lovely, a mild, smooth blend, very pleasing to my pipes.

Beignets are also served covered in a liberal explosion of icing sugar, which amusingly gets everywhere – across the floor, all over the tables, over the staff and you too, no matter what precautions you take. Be aware that you may emerge from the premises looking like a drug lord who’s sneezed into a bag of his latest shipment.

Now then. Let’s talk beads. At this time of year, they’re the lifeblood of the city. Money, sex, food and drink take a back seat. When it’s Mardi Gras, it’s all about the beads.

This is how it works. People stand on balconies and throw beads to the crowds below.

The aforementioned crowds then go nuts when the beads are thrown down to them, as this lady is doing above. This moment you see below actually captures a feather boa being chucked down, just for a change.

Once safely in their clutches, the party people then proudly display all the beads they’ve collected. They get pretty heavy, let me tell you, but these lads didn’t seem to mind.

1185125_10153944649505241_1082909453_nBut there just aren’t enough necks to hang all those thousands of beads around. So they also get draped around the front of houses…

…or end up on the floor.

Go home, Mardi Gras bear. You’re drunk.

There’s so much mess, child labour has to be employed to keep on top with the cleaning effort.

282985_10153944647435241_1680710128_nWhile in town I managed to rattle off a few SOTMs. This one was a highlight – the excellent Israel told me a fascinating story about an elderly, long-standing customer at his bank who gave him this advice one time. Israel told the story brilliantly too, and you can hear it via his audio clip – click on his photo to go to his page on the SOTM site.

And I also attended a burlesque night in New Orleans, something every man should do at least once in life. I got the lovely Tallulah to share a story about her beloved grandmother.

16042014Finally, here’s a bit of trivia from a city teeming with remarkable facts. This is the house that Richard Simmons grew up in.

If you’re not American and don’t know who he is, go ahead and click that link. He’s like a camper Leo Sayer, only a fitness instructor for those who aren’t good at exercise. Simmons, incidentally, went to the same New Orleans school as Lenny Kravitz and Lee Harvey Oswald. Not all at the same time.

Next time, I take off on a Deep South road trip. Oysters and grits ahoy!

SOTM World Tour – Brunei

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_nI confess that when my old friend Helen invited me to Brunei, I had to look it up on a map as I wasn’t exactly sure where it was.

My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.

So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.

What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.

If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.

It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.

An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.

But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.

He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.

The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

1654136_10153786110345241_1188310171_nSee the gold bits? They’re actual gold. Not solid, but the paint has real gold in it.

This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.

1514290_10153786050385241_1982378209_nThis is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.

1497448_10153786045140241_1677519658_nThis is a roundabout decoration. Yes, it is a giant diamond ring replica. No, I don’t know why it was built, either.

1779241_10153786042695241_1793821859_nThere are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.

Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.

When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me. 

994106_10153786073420241_2106784417_nThe kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.

1601248_10153786070455241_1922540329_nSo, they listened attentively as Kathy got across the mechanics of how SOTM worked.

1480632_10153786068980241_1696050172_nThen Kate and I set about taking their photos for SOTM. It was a lot of fun and the children tried very hard in their best English.

After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.

1514960_10153786074445241_285881954_nHere’s one of the chaps, the mischievous Nasrul, whose photo I took.

And I was pleased to see how neatly the children kept their shoes. This is what my shoe cupboard looks like generally (at last count, I had 33 pairs of shoes pre-yomping around the globe).

Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.

After all that fun, it was time to meet the school’s headmistress, the charming Hjh Noraini Binti Hj Timbang who insisted on having her photo taken with us.

1011982_10153745661870241_216549647_nIncidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.

After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.

This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.

What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.

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1013855_10153786056565241_1985442986_nHowever, they are perched on a series of concrete or wooden stilts, and these supports don’t look all that steady to my untrained eye.

1656257_10153786080445241_1243085560_nThis is one property that had collapsed, possibly done on purpose as sometimes families break down shaky parts of their dwellings when they can afford to replace it with better quality living space.

1000224_10153786066320241_999046251_n The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters).  They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.

1607077_10153786061905241_1960550207_nThe people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.

When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.

1017358_10153786093145241_1101384797_n I was trying to get this guy with my long lens, but then he spotted me and wouldn’t stop waving until I’d definitely taken his shot.

The place is a normal, working village, filled with people going about their daily lives, which are a far cry from the opulence of the nation’s ruling family.

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But here’s another building that had fallen into the river, demonstrating that life here isn’t always that secure.

1554337_10153786062840241_990448216_n This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.

1554541_10153786089165241_819633475_nI spotted something that I really liked – not only do a lot of these houses have (apparently illegal) satellite dishes, but they often have their own little islands built to house them, too.

Now, at one point Helen took us to a supermarket called Supersave, which is known among the locals as Monkeysave. This is because monkeys congregate there and loiter in hope of getting food.

I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.

They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.

1625752_10153786048795241_975333473_nWhile Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.

photo 4Kate talked about the joys and perils of travel blogging, and shared a few tips with how to get started in blogging.

photo 5The kids were great and we had a smashing time talking to them, both this (unexpectedly) large group, and a smaller set we chatted to in the school library afterwards.

Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.

1507370_10153763001400241_774863366_oAnd as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.

Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.

Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.

This was the view at one point, and it was sumptuous. Welcome to the tropics.

1654398_10153786118635241_52814837_nKris advised me not to lean against this tree. Upon closer inspection, I could see why. Mother Nature was clearly having a bad day when she came up with this design.

1689032_10153786137050241_1590580866_nBrunei is a place to pop into for sure, as there are many fascinating sides to it. But it would be a difficult place to visit on your own, without any help.

Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.

Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.

They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.

Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.

So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.

Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.