Nutcote. Nutlog. Books and Films. Webcams. Sierra Leone. Tokyo. Sagas. Diego Rivera. Sydney. London.

Nan Tien Temple, New South Wales. Passi's Angel, Waverley Cemetery, New South Wales. Temples and Clanhouses, Malaysia.

Where I've Been Recently...

These are my impressions only; they may not be your impressions should you choose to visit these places. This is not a travel guide, more a synopsis of some of my experiences, which I hope you find interesting. When you travel, what sticks most in your memory is not always what you were expecting to see, and part of the joy of it is that you can never quite predict what will happen. The main piece of advice I'd give is to read up a bit about the history and culture of the place, and to respect the people who live there for their way of life (it's their country, not yours, even though you may not like all aspects of the country). People of goodwill will generally make allowances for your strangeness and lack of knowledge of local customs, as long as you respect them. For Westerners travelling to Asia, I'd recommend doing a certain amount of study of Asian cultures and religions, partly because this is a very rich and interesting subject in its own right, but partly because it will help you understand far more of what you see (both in terms of temples and in terms of customs and how the people live) than otherwise. Keeping face, respect and politeness are all very important to most people from these cultures; making an idiot of yourself will get you absolutely nowhere. For the Spanish-speaking Americas, I'd recommend the same, although Latin American culture is probably closer to Euro-American culture; however, it is well worth learning at least a few words of Spanish, which is quite similar to French.

A good travel guide is pretty important for a successful trip. I generally recommend the Lonely Planet guides as being useful and very extensive. The Rough Guides are also good, if less extensive. For trips to cities in developed countries (e.g. New York, Paris, Rome, London, Sydney) I'd also recommend the Time Out guides to those cities. For interesting and offbeat travel reading, I can recommend the following books :-
The Granta Book of Travel. Granta is one of the leading literary magazines in English-speaking countries, and this book is its collection of travel short stories.
The Granta Book of Reportage. Another Granta collection, but more focused on journalism from around the world.

Wherever you go, it's important to travel ethically. Try and minimise any negative impact of your visit and be aware that human rights abuses take place all over the world. In 1993, the Burmese city of Pagan, which contains many ancient Buddhist treasures, was emptied of its inhabitants so that foreign tourists would be spared the inconvenience of the sight of human beings; the townspeople, whose own ancestors had built the temples of Pagan, were forced from their homes. This is just one example of the negative impact of world travel. For updates and information about human rights worldwide, take a look at Amnesty International's website.

Also remember to travel safely; travel advisories are produced by the British Foreign Office and the US State Department.

1996-1997 - Australia

I came to Australia first to visit, then to live there for about a year, mainly in the Sydney area.

Best aspects of Australian travel :-
1 - natural splendour. Australia is still largely unpopulated, with large regions of rainforest, mountain and desert. The Blue Mountains and the South Coast are only a short train trip from Sydney, both of which contain stunning, largely untouristed scenery. Even the Greater Sydney metropolitan area contains pockets of rainforest (good for bushwalking) and largely unspoilt beaches. Also highly recommended is a visit to the rainforests of far northern Queensland.
2 - Sydney. Sydney is a vibrant, multicultural city which is home to many different kinds of people (I think around one third of the people living in the Sydney area were born outside Australia). Sydney is home to large east Asian, southern and eastern European, and Pacific islander communities, which means there is a good choice of eateries, as well as other interesting places to visit, such as temples. Sydney also has a fair range of good bars, clubs and live music venues. The RSL clubs are interesting for a bit of a taster of a 'true blue' Aussie life, although they are extremely lowbrow; the beer and food are cheap though. The setting for Sydney is quite impressive; one of the greatest natural harbours in the world, and sunny weather more or less all year round. It also has a flourishing cultural life - especially film-making books. I'm told that Melbourne also has quite a cultural life, but I've never been there.
3 - Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal art, both modern and ancient (in the form of rock carvings) is definitely something worth coming to Australia for. Many museums have good Aboriginal sections, and bushwalking in the Sydney area can lead you to an interesting Aboriginal carving or two. Unfortunately, despite its openness multiculturalism, there is still a fair amount of racism in Australia, and the Aborigines come in for the brunt of it. The Aboriginal community still suffers a fair amount of injustice, especially in the outback; rates of absolute poverty, child mortality, and illiteracy are far worse for Aborigines than for the community as a whole. This is linked to the ugly history of British colonisation of Australia and subsequent discrimination. Having said that, Australia is a developed, open, ethnically diverse country and has made great strides correcting many of its social problems.

Take a look here for pictures of the Nan Tien Chinese Buddhist temple complex in Wollongong, NSW; and here for a picture of an angel in Waverley Cemetery in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

1996 & 1997 - Singapore & Malaysia


I visited Singapore on the way to Australia and Malaysia on the way back; they are similar enough to be treated together. One thing to bear in mind that both countries are very very hot and humid, which can take a few days' adjustment if you come from a cold country. Singapore is a thoroughly modern city which still maintains its culture - one of the world's major ports and financial centres, yet the kind of place where people go to pay their respects at their ancestors' graves. Malaysia is a more traditional, conservative place, although it too has undergone radical changes over the last couple of decades.
Best aspects :-
1 - Asian culture. Both places are home to a large number of ethnic groups from many different parts of Asia. There are three principal groups, each of which maintains its own traditions and beliefs : the Malays, who are in the majority in Malaysia and are mostly Muslim; the Chinese, who are in the majority in Singapore in and are generally Taoists, Buddhists, or Christians; and the the Indians (mostly Tamils, originally from southern India) who are mostly Hindus, although some are also Muslims or Sikhs. This diversity means that there are a lot of interesting places to visit in both countries. Penang in Malaysia is home to many Chinese temples (both Buddhist and Taoist) and clanhouses, as well as Hindu temples. Exploring the different cultures which live in the two nations is a bit of an adventure in itself. The Chinese and Hindus are generally quite open about their beliefs and traditions, and there is no problem with visiting temples of either culture, as long as you are not intrusive. In Buddhist and Hindu temples you should remove your shoes; this is not necessary in Taoist temples. In Buddhist temples it is generally not acceptable to take photos of statues of Buddha - buy a postcard instead. Be circumspect about taking pictures, follow the rules, and tip generously if someone offers to show you around. A visit to a mosque requires a bit more tact, so it's best to check on what's expected of you. Some mosques are off-limits to non-believers, and most require modest dress (for women, this sometimes means covering your head) and ban photography. Again, buy a postcard instead.

Obviously, the range of cultures means that there is a good choice of eating too; in Singapore, you can buy a good meal from vendors on street corners. English is used as a lingua franca in both Singapore and Malaysia, although Bahasa Malaysia (the Malay language), various dialects of Chinese, and Tamil are also widely spoken. There have been tensions between the different cultures in the past, however; the Chinese tend to dominate the business world, and the Indians tend to succeed in the professions and the universities, which has led to the 'bumiputra' laws in Malaysia, meaning that native Malays find it easier to enter university or find jobs than members of the other groups.
In all communities, keeping face, respect and politeness are very important.
2 - Rainforests (in Malaysia). Malaysia is home to lots of rainforests and the natural life associated with them - butterflies, exotic birds, monkeys, colourful plants, and so on. This is well worth a trek.

Negative aspects - Singapore and Malaysia are fairly strictly controlled societies which means that cultural life can be somewhat sterile, and local newspapers express only a narrow, officially sanctioned band of opinion; in Singapore especially, foreign newspapers and magazines brought into the country are subject to censorship.

Take a look here for some photos from Malaysia.

1999 - Mexico City


I came here to visit, in spring 1999. Mexico is really a fusion of two quite different cultures - the indigenous culture of the Mesocamericans and the European culture of the Spanish. This is reflected in the social structures of the country and its religion - Mexico is a Catholic country, but with a uniquely Mexican twist.

Best aspects -
1 - Mesoamerican ruins. This is really why I came to Mexico. Just outside Mexico City are the enormous pyramids of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan was at the heart of a thriving civilisation in what is now the Mexico City area for many centuries and the temples and pyramids still stand as a monument to it. I've been to a fair selection of the world's great temple sites (Stonehenge, cathedrals in Europe, temples in Asia), but Teotihuacan tops all of them, except possibly St. Peter's in Rome. The Teotihuacan civilisation predated the Aztec civilisation. In the heart of Mexico City lie the remains of the Aztecs' central temple, which is also very very impressive.
2 - Mexican churches. I did not come to Mexico looking for churches, but I was surprised and pleased to find that the places of worship in Mexico City are as impressive as anything in Europe. They are often ornately designed, almost Moorish, and unlike northern Europe they are obviously home to a living religion; I sat in on a church service which was packed, full of weeping women and genuine believers, expecting miracles; something I have never seen in England. Even an empty Mexican church is a peaceful, contemplative place, and quite touching, with so many images of the crucified, bloody Christ and the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe (the patron saint of Mexico); lovingly tended by priests, and often centres of 'liberation theology', the strand of modern Catholicism that seeks to bring Christ's teachings to the masses with a message of social justice.
3 - Art. As a result of my trip to Mexico I became a huge fan of the muralist Diego Rivera and his lover and fellow-artist Frida Kahlo. Murals are everywhere in Mexico City, always colourful. Rivera was a revolutionary socialist and keen observer of social conditions, and this is often reflected in the murals. Kahlo's art tends to be more surreal and personal. The stormy relationship of the obese Rivera and diminutive Kahlo is a fascinating story in itself - Rivera compared it to a 'love affair between an elephant and a dove'.
4 - Food. Mexican food is a bit of an adventure in itself; you can get a good cheap meal from a street stall. If you do buy a meal from a street stall, I'd advise using one which has a lot of customers, as these are probably the safest from the point of view of food preparation.
5 - The Mexican people. Of all the places I have been to in the last few years, Mexico probably has the most likeable; rather shy, but friendly, helpful, kind and religious.

Negative aspects -
1 - Poverty. Beggars and street kids are everywhere in Mexico City, as are a large number of people in 'borderline' occupations such as shoeshine merchants. The number of poor people increased dramatically after the collapse of the peso a few years ago. Having said that, there are a fair number of people who look very well-heeled in Mexico City. Racial divisions are very obvious; the wealthy are generally Caucasian, the poorest beggars very often native Mexican, everyone else somewhere in between. While I was there, I never saw a Caucasian beggar, and I never saw a native Mexican in a suit. On the face of it, there is a huge social gulf between rich and poor, and which group you belong to is largely determined by your ethnicity. Another distressing aspect is the sheer number of guns in Mexico City; as well as regular police, there are large numbers of security guards who wear paramilitary-style uniforms and carry submachine guns!
2 - Pollution. Mexico City, is the largest metropolis on Earth, and quite frankly, an ecological catastrophe; the air is heavy with smog and pollution. Not somewhere to go if you like it clean and green. ;)

So would I go back? Most certainly. Mexico is probably the most challenging of all the countries I have ever been to, but was definitely worthwhile. It's one of the most rewarding places I've ever been to. I came to look at Mesoamerican temples, and found many other things which I fell in love with; despite their many problems, above all I have faith in the goodness of the Mexican people. If I went again, I would travel more - probably to Yucatan (which is clean and green, and also home to many ancient sites); and I would learn to speak more Spanish before I went ;). And I'd probably take someone with me too.

Look here for images of some Diego Rivera murals.

1999 - New York City

I visited New York City on my way home from Mexico.

After the culture shock of Mexico City, I had a fairly easy and relaxing time in New York. New York is full of art galleries, museums, bookshops, and lots of other interesting things I kept myself active with; it's also full of lots of good eateries of many different nationalities and for all budgets. It's very very similar to London in lots of respects; if you like London, you'll probably like New York, and vice versa. New York seemed to have more vibrancy about it though; I'd attribute this to the fact that London hasn't had much of a proper central government since Thatcher abolished the GLC. My main complaint about New York is the lack of decent, affordable places. When I arrived I stayed at a place in Chinatown which was cheap and ok, but a bit of a dive, to be honest; tiny, noisy cell-like rooms and radiators which were loud and came on at odd hours so you boiled! then I moved into a hotel in Midtown which was great; comfortable and restful, luxurious even, but soooo expensive. There seemed to be nothing in between; you either slum it on the cheap or stay in luxury but shell out big bucks. In London at least you can stay in reasonably priced bed and breakfasts, even in central London; this may be something worth considering for New York.

Most of the tourist attractions in New York are familiar to people worldwide, but I'd recommend a walk through Chinatown and a visit to the galleries in SoHo too. The Museum of African Art, in particular, is a bit of a gem, and a beautiful building too. For lots of good stuff about New York, look at Paperless New York.
I met my good friend Michele in New York, which was lovely. :)

Tokyo

I went to Tokyo in June 2000. I haven't written it up yet, but you can look at some pictures here.

Sydney/Kuala Lumpur

My 2001 holiday. I kept a weblog as I travelled - look at it here.