Amazon Rainforest: A Photo Essay
by gringosam

"The Amazon? But only David Attenborough gets to go there." This was my friend's disbelieving reaction to the suggestion of a long-weekend in this infamous haven of wildlife. A rainforest which spans an entire continent, the Amazon greets visitors with an air of the vast unknown. Sure we've all seen stunning BBC HD documentaries but that sense of raw, powerful nature just doesn't transmit through any television screen. Having said that, it was slightly unnerving when my first alligator sighting wasn't limited to the familiar boundaries of a 42" Sony LCD.

Ecuador is home to 2% of the entire jungle but, with primary rainforest accessible only by river, the biodiversity is unparalleled here. GringoDisclaimer: Any gringo with a fear of insects is best advised to let the soothing tones of Mr. Attenborough guide you through what is a frightening yet beautiful natural habitat!

Photography: GringoSam


Businessman 35
by gringorem

wait up for Friday
it buys you a drink
it reminds you
where you are
crumpled notes
lift from wallet creases
into your hand
your fun is empty [give up today

wash out tomorrow]

see a pretty face
watch it smile / frown
young bucks on the dance floor
you old stag

your suit
parts the crowd
against loud
music hurts your head
it reminds you
where you are

years have slid
by without you knowing
like beads of sweat
on your receding hair line


Check out this website where you can play Jackson Pollock, without the mess!
(Double click for Double fun!)



'The Wilderness' by Arcade Fire

If you haven't done so already, you're going to want to check out Arcade Fire's "music video" from their latest album, The Suburbs. Please note the quotation marks I've appended above: this is probably unlike any music video you've ever seen before.

You'll need to be using Google Chrome as your browser to check it out but a) it's a cinch to download, b) probably the best browser available on the internet anyway and c) totally worth it.


Wasps and Perpetual Motion
by gringoluke

It was 9 am, it was 98 degrees, we were 4,000 feet up in the Cuyamaca Mountains in South Eastern California. A few years earlier man-made forest fires in this area had wiped the slate clean on nature's handiwork, leaving behind nothing but dry scrub and the spindly grey carcasses of burnt-out trees. The brittle vegetation clung to the dust and the dust clung to our socks and bare shins. Everything was dry and thorny.

A narrow path had been whittled through the brush, carving its way up and round the ridges where I imagined Native Americans had been raising their head-dressed silhouettes for centuries. We were always on the lookout for cougars and hawks, for rattlesnakes and coyotes, for anything my father and I, sunburned and suburban, could find to remind us what a hostile environment we'd plunged ourselves into.

We had a rough idea of where we were going, knew that we were northbound on a trail that would eventually take us to the 'Airplane Monument'. I imagined a massive boulder that someone had generously described as airplane-shaped, just a simple rock that was used to designate our trail. I wasn't concerned with finding the monument, I'd only set out to enjoy the adventures of the trek. The monument was only there to guide us.

The trail carried on upwards and soon the sun had dried up our conversation. The only sound now was our panting and grunts of effort, mostly drowned out by the steady drone of insects in the thick brush that shouldered either side of the path. Occasionally a creature would scramble away ahead of us, long before we had the chance to even see what it was. Birds glanced off our peripheral vision but for the most part the sun was too hot to pay them any attention. Every few minutes we would nervously scan the horizon for the Airplane Monument, aware that the sun was only rising higher and higher in the sky.

The overwhelming feeling in this part of the Cuyamaca Mountains was one of death. Not death in the morbid, frightening sense, but death as a total absence of life. The vegetation had been sucked dry of moisture, what animals existed didn't want to be seen, didn't want us to know we were stumbling through their homes. We were unwelcome in this moribund paradise and it was almost as though that was exactly what the crackling undergrowth that scrabbled for our skin and our blood was trying to tell us.

We nearly missed it. A smaller, even narrower fork in the trail, corridored by rising brush either side, veered down the ridge to our right. A partially obscured sign read 'AIRPLANE MONUMENT, 0.2 MILES'. With elbows protecting our faces we set off down the new path. It wound further and further down the ridge, to a point where we both realised what an effort it would be to backtrack our way to our original path. Finally we lowered our nicked forearms from our faces and found ourselves in a tiny clearing. The Airplane Monument I had expected to find rising out of the earth before us wasn't there. The giant boulder I had been anticipated was nowhere in sight. Instead, before us, on a battered stone base sat a charred and dilapidated V12 cylinder engine.

Back in 1922 when they still built planes out of wood, US Army pilot First Lieutenant Charles F. Webber and his high-ranking passenger Colonel Francis C. Marshall set out in a DeHaviland DH4B model biplane from a nearby Californian airfield to Fort Yuma, Arizona. The plane never arrived and it was only after many months of painstaking searching that the wreckage was finally found. Due to a combination of foggy weather conditions and a malfunctioning engine, the plane clipped a tree while trying to fly over the Cuyamaca mountains, tearing off its tail and leading to a crash that killed both men. The life expectancy of pilots in those days was particularly low, though this incident was made particularly notable by the huge international effort made to locate the crash site. In the end it was a horse rancher who stumbled upon the charred remains of the airplane and its occupants, many weeks after the authorities had given up hope of ever finding out what happened to 26 year-old Webber and his 55 year-old passenger.

I could make you cry with stories of Webber's old co-pilot who spent many months combing the dangerous flight paths searching for any sign of his friend's plane, or the “great relief” experienced by Webber's parents when they knew their son had been found, albeit long dead. Far more thought-provoking are the actions of Webber's friends back at base who, knowing that removing the wreckage from the steep ridge would be nearly impossible, simply built a concrete base around what remained of the burnt-out engine and installed a plaque in memory of the two men who had perished.

Despite what occurred there, the monument is not a sad and solemn place. The brush has been cleared away and stone steps frame a circle around the massive engine. It is hard to believe that the towering pines that sent Webber and Marshall's plane crashing to the earth once stood here. No tree grows higher than six feet or so and there is nothing to block the view of the quiet valley nearly five-thousand feet below.

I approached the engine to take a photograph and suddenly stopped dead. As I stood near the monument, I could hear that the engine was running. A mechanical buzz churned out from its gutted innards. Despite a crash that had killed its passengers, a massive forest fire and nearly eighty years of relentless sun, it seemed this lump of steel and brass had suddenly whirred back into life. I turned to my dad whose face expressed the same look of perplexed fear that I felt, and together we approached the engine.

It only took us a few moments to see the wasp's nest. From one of the inlet valves we noticed wasps regularly trickling in and out. The sound we had mistaken for a running engine was actually the cavernous echo of thousands of insects beating their wings inside the tubes and valves of the defunct machine. They buzzed back and forth, oblivious to our presence.

As we silently snapped a photo and left the monument, letting the ghostly sounds of the engine fade out behind us, a funny thought struck me. Amongst all the death and frailty that the forest fire had left in its wake, one machine appeared to keep living, buzzing on constantly through the day, inattentive to the comings and goings of the hikers who stumbled across it. There was something comforting in the fact that a monument to the dead continued to beat with life, that nature had infused the silenced pistons and valves with new energy and that the engine would continue to run nearly a century after the men who controlled it perished beside it. I tried to think of a complex metaphor to assist these thoughts but the sun was too hot. I just smiled and closed my eyes to the sky.


If it Int In Yorkshure It Int Wurth Visitin'

by GringoSam

Yorkshire folk have long been slated for having deep pockets and short arms. In fact, when you Google ‘Yorkshireman travelling’, the first story you’ll stumble across is one of a Mr. Howard Josephson using his free bus pass to swindle fourteen connected bus trips over three days which would take him the mere 200 miles from Leeds to London. When a direct train ticket over the same distance costs £14 and would have saved 70 hours of Mr. Josephson’s time, one begins to see where Yorkshire’s undesirable reputation comes from. So, when I was born in York District Hospital in 1990, Ecuador was probably the last place the midwife would have put money on me ending up. That is, if she had the gene-defying audacity to put £5 on anything at all.

As anybody who likes to travel will know, there are perhaps one or two occasions every year when you sit back and think the following:

1. Where the heck am I?

2. What ridiculous sequence of decisions in my life ever led me here?

3. Pretty cool though, huh.

Well this philosophical moment hit me most recently this weekend when I was on a clapped-out ferry, crossing between the indigenous villages of San Vicente and Bahía de Caráquez on the Ecuadorian coast. The fact that Will Smith’s 1998 hit ‘Gettin Jiggy With It’ was playing over the tannoy system only served to make the picture more surreal. So it was on that rickety vessel that I sat back and wondered just how many Yorkshiremen have ever made this very journey – was I perhaps the first? If so, is that any great achievement or just the long-anticipated confirmation that I am indeed an oddball? Either way there I was amongst the jaded South American locals, the warm gusts of the Pacific Ocean leaving my hair resembling that much-coveted Oscar Gamble look.

Before you get false illusions of Columbus-esque voyages, we should probably consider the sobering mathematics of travel probability. Even if any one place is a far-flung and unlikely destination, there are thousands of such places on our planet and we’re all likely to visit a few of them over the years. So effectively what I’m saying is that we’re all likely to end up somewhere unlikely. I’ll name this GringoSam’s Paradox.

And for those of you wondering quite how I managed to get to Ecuador on a shoestring budget typical of my home county, you can find the answer with Yorkshire Airlines who market themselves as ‘the affordable Ryanair’:

We’d love to hear about a time when our readers have ended up somewhere quite remarkable, somewhere you had never pictured yourself being. It doesn’t even need to be abroad – after all, Newport is as perplexing and foreign a place as any for us to end up isn’t it?!

Being a pretty rubbish Yorkshireman myself, I can’t boast to have travelled to South America for free; although I did manage the journey in fewer than fourteen connections. The same cannot be said for Mr. Josephson however, we’re expecting him sometime in early 2011…


Mama This Surely Is A Dream
by GringoSoos

You either know those girls or, as in my case, you are that girl.

The girls who will scream ROADTRIP! every time a potential vacation is considered, the girls without licenses or car, without any sort of idea of how big the United States really is but the vague impression that driving from New York to California won't take too long (“a couple of days right?”).

Like my exuberant companions around me screaming ROADTRIP!, I knew in the back of my mind that no such feat could in reality be mastered. Despite the plans we made, the finances we budgeted, the bikini outfits we devised, we would never have the kind of experiences the pre-college teens seem to be living out in PG-13 movies. No drive-thrus, no hitchhikers, no road trip playlist.

Two weeks ago, on my way from Charleston, South Carolina to Daytona, Florida, I realized I was wrong.

I have been on so many ten or fourteen hour plane rides that the six hour drive between these two states seemed like a breeze, no big deal. I thought we'd leave Charleston after breakfast and make it to Florida in time to catch some rays and get at least a little uncomfortably sun burnt. This was where my realization, nay, my epiphany occurred.

We'd just left the Wendy's drive-thru, I was sitting shotgun and a very old song came on the radio. Well, when I say old, I mean mid-90s. Old enough for it to be a pleasant surprise when it came on the radio, but new enough for my big sister to have listened to the very same song on a very similar road trip over ten years ago when she was my age. It made me realize the unaging tradition of road trips and our ability to be affected in the same way as the people who took them before us. My sister and my Dad and my aunt, even Jack Kerouac, all got in a car with their friends and drove through America. Like me, I'm sure they didn't consider it a big deal either to begin with, just a means to an end, but I bet when they got out of the car at the other side, they privately savored the lack of a quick ninety minute plane ride (because come on let's admit it, all you can see on a plane is the clouds and perhaps a surprisingly sad rom-com, that, no, what, I swear I'm not crying at, I'm just tired, and this cabin is dusty).

So for all the girls like me who nodded along with the suggestion of a road trip, while secretly rolling their eyes and doubting its ability to live up to the Hollywood hype, you just have to sit back and be patient and you'll eventually find yourself in a car with the right people, at the right time, experiencing a rite of passage. Oh, and don't forget to turn on the radio.


The Big Smoke
by GringoKev

Caesar crossed the Rubicon for one, Dickens wrote endlessly about one, the Greeks left a giant horse outside of one, Japan has the biggest one and you are probably in or around one at this very moment.

But why have cities so captured the human imagination?

If you look at them from an outsider’s point of view, from a rational and objective perspective, the whole thing seems pretty absurd. Imagine trying to describe the whole city situation to a complete foreigner. And I mean a real foreigner – like aliens, or this guy - someone who is pretty much unaware of human civilisation.

“So, like, you put yourself in a small box. You might have some grass if you’re lucky but it’s pretty likely that your box will be stacked onto some other boxes. It will definitely be next to lots and lots of other boxes. Uh, and like some of these boxes will be labelled different names like ‘shops’ or ‘office’ or ‘restaurant’. And yeah, so you just like spend your life commuting between these boxes. Oh yeah and to get from box to box, you get into another box, that farts out smoke”.

Catch my drift?

This is not to say that I detest cities and wish to move into a rural hippy commune with no electricity or paved roads. Gosh no. I mean, where on earth would I get my vegetables? Peas come out of a freezer, right?

Still, there is something strangely alluring about the country and open road that appeals to us big bad city folk. I’m going to hypothesise that it has something to do with the warm feelings that come from a combination of nature, freedom and the successful splitting of a block of firewood. And besides that, non-city people are just relaxed.

I went down to the Victorian coast with a few friends a couple of weeks ago and at some point on the long and undulating curves of the Great Ocean Road we were graced with a roadblock. We were also told by the cheery looking sign-holder that the delay would be around 20 minutes.

Now I want you to think now how drivers in a city would react to such an obstacle. A cacophony of angry horns, cursing and abusive questioning is what springs to my mind. But perhaps I’m just a biased cyclist.

I think that what followed encapsulates perfectly what is wrong with our modern city life and what is right about the country. Firstly, the 20-year-old sign-boy squatted near our car and happily chatted to us for a few minutes. He also seemed genuinely interested - the presence of two pretty girls in the car notwithstanding - in my backseat guitar playing. We then got out of the car to have a look at a whale that had been spotted quite far offshore. Now cities may have cool cafés and galleries but a whale. ‘Nuff said.

We all gathered excitedly on the side of the road – twenty or so people, including the construction workers and sign-boy – and did a bit of communal whale spotting. We had a bit of a chat, a bit of a laugh and drove off twenty minutes later. There was not a word of discontent, not an unfriendly face, nor a shimmer of impatience or anger from anyone who was forced to stop.

Perhaps it says more about human nature than cities themselves that I was genuinely surprised by this warm and spontaneous community experience.

Now I’ve just got to get hold of a dolphin costume and we can start making Melbourne a happier place.


Play Me

by gringojenny

Picture this: a casual Sunday evening game of Scattergories – you’ve got 10 seconds left to think of 'Things found in the City of London'.

Blackberry: yes. Suit: yes. Piano…yes!

For the second year running, the City of London Festival began with an installation of 21 second-hand pianos all over London – from Hampstead Heath to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each piano comes with a sight-specific song book including the likes of 'London Bridge is Falling Down', as well as the odd Beatles Medley thrown in for good measure.

The project aims to encourage social interaction and connection through music, and from my experiences, it does just that.

My first encounter with the street pianos came last year when I decided to tickle the old ivories myself on an otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon. After stumbling my way through a few precarious renditions of 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Humpty-Dumpty' I was approached by a sheepish looking tourist who requested I play 'Happy Birthday' for his girlfriend. Soon enough, we had the whole street involved, in was what was perhaps not the most tuneful version I have ever heard, but certainly the most enjoyable. Since then, my day is always made that much better whenever I spot complete strangers squeezed onto a piano stool, arguing over who gets to play the chorus of 'Hey Jude'.

Like public renditions of 'God Save the Queen' played on second-hand pianos, personal experiences are so much better shared, and I urge you to let me know about some of your experiences of the London street pianos, or indeed any similar musical encounter.

GringoJenny doing her part to improve her capital's ambience

(London, 2010)


Señor, be my twin?

by gringosam

Buxton is a quiet spa town in middle-England. The majority of British people would not be expected to place it on a map, but this peaceful countryside community is of importance due to its more prominent relatives. Buxton is, unknown to many, the British sister town of Quito – the Ecuadorian capital in which I am based.

At first glace, the two have very little in common. While the former is a tranquil haven for the British middle-class, the latter is a vibrant and crowded urban settlement tucked away in the Andes. Nevertheless, while they may be worlds apart in terms of culture and history, the two have more in common than first meets the eye. In relation to their respective countries, both are high-altitude market towns – although Quito’s impressive elevation of 2800m comfortably dwarves the 307m of Buxton!

Despite having a population seventy times smaller than that of it’s Latin American relative, Buxton comes with an impressive business repertoire of its own. Its thriving economy includes revenue derived from the commercialisation of the local spring waters, bottled and marketed by the Buxton Mineral Water Company. It is owned by confectionary giants Nestlé UK and has been the official mineral water of Wimbledon since 2001.

Michael Clement of the Buxton Tourist Information Centre declared that the local people of Buxton are 'very proud to be twinned with such a culturally vibrant city’. Buxton has been producing the same high-quality mineral water for over 5000 years, and Clement believes that the ‘common feature linking the two cities is one of a rich history’.

Our friend Michael could well be clutching at straws here though – I’ve never met anybody who is convinced by the logic behind the twinning of towns in this way. There are some bizarre examples out there: Gaza–Barcelona, Caracas–Reykjavik, Minsk–Nottingham and Hay-on-Wye–Timbuktu to name but a few. And I certainly wouldn’t have thought that Bishek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (yes, Microsoft Word, I shall ‘Add to Dictionary’), would have much to offer to Canada’s most populous city, Toronto.

These non-relationships are quite unique in terms their subjects. Towns and cities are numb to their exotic twins, but imagine if the same concept was applied to humans. For every one of us fortunate enough to be paired with a Brazilian beach babe, there’d be three who landed themselves with a middle-aged Russian alcoholic called Sergei.

The twinning body, rather conveniently, is known by the acronym POINTLESS – Pick One Irrelevant Nation Then Locate Extravagant Sister Settlement. Having been critical of this set-up, I would say that my time in Quito has been wholly different on account of the city’s links with Buxton. Wait, no, it hasn’t. Perhaps in Buxton the Quiteño influence means you can now freely consume guinea-pig or call a white chap gringo as a matter of course? Somehow I doubt it.

The Shining: Freaky twins.


I Pledge Allegiance
by gringoluke

America is the centre of the world.

The above sentence will immediately tell you two things about me. First of all, despite my current residence in that so called Land of the Free, I'm still stubborn enough to keep spelling like an Englishman, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm enchanted enough by America for this to one day change.

It's difficult to find a person who doesn't have a romantic, enigmatic and bemused image of the most powerful nation on Earth. Ask anyone to draw a picture of what they think the average American looks like and they are probably going to hand you a sketch of an overweight redneck in a Hummer, automatic rifle in one hand and sun-glinting crucifix in the other. I guess that's fair. I take a huge amount of pleasure in asking people from other countries to describe the archetypal English person through the eyes of their own culture, and I'm always surprised with the wide variety of answers I get back.

(My German godparents tell me that English people are generally understood to be polite, calm and-- bizarrely—often red-headed. I guess they've never been to Magaluf.)

Everyone has their own general idea of what people from other nationalities will be like, but Americans appear to be in a league of their own. Granted, there are deviations within the country itself—we all know, of course, that California is full of iPad-toting yuppies and everyone in the South is a Republican—but for the most part, there is this general blanket of mystique that coats the entire country. Whether you think America is the land of opportunity or the land of broken dreams, you definitely think that it's something.

I grew up in America. A few months after my sixth birthday we moved from Southern England to a small town in Connecticut that was basically the backdrop for The Stepford Wives. In fact, it was the backdrop for The Stepford Wives as well as Revolutionary Road, which, if you've seen either of those two films that were filmed on location in my American hometown, will probably tell you a lot about the place where I grew up. My family, being English and therefore a little too round-pegged for square-hole suburbia, always teetered on the wispy edge of waspishness, never quite succumbing to the country clubs and Cape Cod summers that my classmates indulged in, but nevertheless planting ourselves into a comfortable New England lifestyle. Connecticut buried something in my DNA, a little nucleic egg that began to hatch many years after I left the states, at a time when I was looking at universities and my future. I knew that the latter lay in the US, but I was too intimidated by everything it stood for to even consider applying to an American college.

My parents have the same magnetism for America that I have. My father burst free from the dark winters and reluctant war of 1970s Britain and dragged my mother along to Detroit, Michigan, where the winters were even darker and war even more reluctant. The American spark took hold of them then and they've been coming back ever since. When my father finally retired last year, they arrived, shipwrecked and comatose by nearly forty years of travel, on the shores of Southern California. Filial piety and suntanned American girls meant I came too.

We've all been swept up in this tidal wave of American romanticism and, rationalise it as much as you like, that endless queue of curious emigrants, tourists and hopeful wannabes is not getting any shorter. Whether your mental image of this vast nation involves a white picket fence or a white hooded mask, you certainly have your own ideas about America. No matter where the currents of life drag you in the years to come, one thing is for certain: this country will cross your mind and probably your path at least once.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep spelling 'colourful' with that extra 'u' and calling London my capital. I don't think I'm ready for people to be drawing me as a fat evangelical redneck quite yet.


Morocco: A Photo Essay
by gringomeg

I feel for the Moroccans, having to put up with the downside of a booming tourism industry. But even more so, I feel for Moroccan camels that have to carry overweight German tourists across what must seem like an endless fragment of the Sahara. Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those pretentious travelers who insists that the term ‘tourist’ and all activities associated with it is beneath them. No, no. I let a poor camel carry me over Saharan sand dunes, and I enjoyed every second of it. The eternal expanse of orange sand-waves was as breathtaking as good sex. But as I watched my overweight father wriggling around on his camel in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt for the poor creature that was probably suffering from extreme exhaustion.

That was Morocco for me. Moments of beauty and awe, interspersed with bouts of guilt and frustration. In awe of the extraordinary mosaics adorning the walls of the majestic riads at which we stayed. Overwhelmed by the intricately woven streets of Fez’s medina that transformed my world into Agrabah, the fictional city of Aladdin. And frustrated that I was, indeed, a tourist. Like all the others, I had been convinced to buy more carpets than anyone could ever want or need.