I had a train ride in Africa — through a country where the street signs still say Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse and Zeppelinstrasse. As one woman told me, “In Namibia we still speak the Kaiser’s tongue — not like up there in Deutschland now where foreign influence has so much polluted the language.”

Ochre deserts to the right, the deep Atlantic blue to the left, we trundled north on our tourist train. This was its inaugural trip and the bar car was home to a crew, including foreign journalists, who might have come from a camp remake of Murder on the Orient Express.

A hyperactive British reporter – think Mr Bean on speed, with the added wickedness of speech – was winding up the train’s equally highly-strung tour guide – think Basil Fawlty goes to Africa. Young Bean, witty, weird and at heart still a very naughty English schoolboy, had his sights set on young Hanna, a Rubenesque, blond German journalist. Basil of Africa, fortyish, angular and anguished, had his eye on her too. Meanwhile, Hanna’s colleague, Ulrike from Erotikfuhrer magazine (the title evoked images of Hitler in fishnet stockings) was attracting the attentions of the train’s Afrikaner wildlife guide.

Before arriving, all I knew about the country was that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Colonial Reich held sway in Deutsch-Südwestafrika for 30 years from 1884. After the Germans were expelled during World War I, this became a South African protectorate. True to form, white Pretoria overstayed its invitation by decades, protecting the hell out of the place, which just happened to be fabulously rich in diamonds. In 1990 South-West Africa finally gained its independence and a new name, Namibia.

Tensions in the train’s bar car rose. Hanna, as clever as she was curvaceous, delighted in dropping double entendres before both Bean and Basil. Meanwhile, the train had four mini-buses which were rolled off for excursions. Bean further enraged Basil by commandeering one and, as a Londoner perfectly unaccustomed to driving on desert sand drifts, promptly rolled and totalled it. Hanna smiled winningly at both of them, and then had dinner with me. A train is, if nothing else, a rumour on rails. Although I retired solo to my blameless bunk, reports of our soiree saw me added to Basil’s “daggers” list — which Bean thought even jollier fun. “Let’s wind up old Basil again,” was his favourite battle cry.


We reached the ghost town of Kolmanskop on the edge of the diamond-studded desert known as the Forbidden Territory. A community of 1300 Germans and Afrikaners once thrived here. Amid the encroaching dunes, we found their old social club, complete with a skittle alley, wooden balls and ninepins. The windowless, two-story mansion of the mine’s chief engineer stood nearby like a sand-blasted skeleton of the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Jack the Chef, too, had his eyes on Ulrike and not, as they say, on his fries. The distracted result was that his “out of Africa” cuisine increasingly became a gastronomic massacre. Pate of biltong (dried meat jerky) would accompany an offering of oryx or antelope — both of which look far better loping across a plain than demised on a plate, even if lathered with Jack’s “secret sauce.” “It’s like eating a game park with cranberry sauce,” lamented Bean, loudly. When served “tongue” (of which animal we never knew), a woman from Florida announced to the dining car, “I can’t eat that — you never know what it might have licked.”

We rolled on to Ludertiz, a sunny fishing port that looks like Bavaria-by-the-Beach. Here we were joined by Markus, a dour Namibian accountant who had been press-ganged into the role of barman. He could not accept that anyone — especially a tourist, or worse, a journalist — ought to be trusted to volunteer a correct cabin number for a bar tab. Undeterred, the wildlife guide — Bean had nicknamed him “Rolf the Ranger” — was straining to impress Ms Erotikfuhrer. His lines sounded like Karen Blixen badly rescripted by Wilbur Smith: “Let me tell you about my Hereros [a Namibian tribe] on my farm …” At which, much of the bar crew winced, as did Rolf’s wife who was darkly observing it all.

Our sometimes ship of fools of the desert moved further north to the pretty seaside town of Swakopmund, which might be a suburb from 19th century Hamburg. It was here that an elderly German woman informed me that she and her kind were preserving the Kaiser’s “pure” Deutsch tongue. Cupola domes and widows-walks crown Swakopmund’s elegant Belle Epoque buildings and everything is in good repair. In fact, Namibia is sometimes known as “the Switzerland of Africa” because of its wealth, cleanliness and rule of law. If only Switzerland had a coast like this and strudel like Swakopmund’s it could aspire to be the Namibia of Europe.

With Basil of Africa fuming at Bean on Speed, Hanna smouldering at them both, and Rolf angling for Ulrike, things were getting messy. It all hit the punkah on what became known as the Night of the Wrong Wives when Hanna enjoyed one too many cocktails with Bean and one too few with Basil.

Sulking Basil attempted to have Bean put off the train. Bean mugged, “No! There are lions out there. Tigers! Dingos!” Hanna intervened, batting her eyelashes and whispering some delectable promise — though never to be delivered — in Basil’s ear. He was torn, but Bean was reprieved. Instead, Markus the suspicious barman was relieved of his duties — no explanation was ever offered — and the bar ambience improved mightily, as did it the flow of drinks. So much so that at two a.m, Rolf’s wife stormed into the bar car and emptied the great white hunter’s drink over his head and that of the adjacent Ulrike to boot.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas by David Latta


It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada (although I do love that town as well, for other reasons), but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town of just 14,000 souls located 105 kilometres east of Santa Fe.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

Sudden death, at the end of a bandit’s gun or a hangman’s rope, was commonplace well into the 1890s and, if official justice didn’t manifest quick enough, the local townspeople were more than happy to form vigilante groups that routinely broke into the town prison and strung up lawbreakers.

It was the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879 that attracted the wildest of the wild westerners as the population skyrocketed and economic prosperity made Las Vegas one of the most important centres of the New Mexico Territory (it became the 47th State of the Union in 1912). It was the railroad that split Las Vegas in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.


The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most of which date from the post-railroad period, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilised Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), Wild Hogs (2007), Paul (2011) and On The Road (2012). The recent television series, Longmire, although set in Wyoming, films exclusively in northern New Mexico, particularly Las Vegas (Sheriff Longmire’s office is on the Old Town Square, adjacent to the Plaza Hotel). Movies and television provide such an economic benefit to the town that it has its own Film Commission.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel.


Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

©David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Slices Of Santa Fe by Glenn A. Baker

New Mexico - Santa Fe church by Glenn A. Baker

Paul Margetson, the personable Englishman who has run the Hotel Santa Fe for a couple of decades now, doesn’t blink when famous film stars are in his midst. John Travolta holding court by the bar. Natalie Portman at the desk negotiating a veggie burger. All as life should be in an establishment which is the first port of call for film folk working in what was recently ranked as the number two shooting location in the United States.

Yet even with all that trackwork behind him, he wasn’t all that sure about the two disheveled and, it seemed, somewhat disreputable characters in his car park back in 2007. When he asked his Duty Manager if they might be quietly moved on, the response ran along the lines of: “What, up to their suites boss? That’s Joel and Ethan Coen.”

The eccentric directing brothers were in town on what would become Oscar-winning business, filming No Country For Old Men, a novel from two years earlier by celebrated but reclusive resident Cormac McCarthy who, at that moment, was in his writing room in Tesuque penning his Pulitzer-winning, The Road. They can’t have heard of Margetson’s misreading of their status (or, more likely, couldn’t have cared less) because, a few years later, were back in residence putting together their re-make of True Grit with Jeff Bridges, who was also familiar to the town from his presence not long before shooting chunks of Crazy Heart.

In Los Angeles, there’s a roaring trade in Maps of the Stars’ Houses to gullible and star-struck tourists. If you were that way inclined, you’d likely have a better strike rate in Santa Fe, a city of just 75,000, only the fourth largest in the vast state of New Mexico. For those unable to make their own arrangements, the subsidiary airline American Eagle has one slim jet on a round trip from Los Angeles every day (another from Dallas) and securing a seat is not always easy, being as they’re often in hot demand by actors, directors, producers, cameramen and best boys. There’s a lot going on and most of it is creative; has been since the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the actress Greer Garson started spending sizeable portions of each year on their New Mexico ranches.

Santa Fe chillies 1

Robert Redford is back in town, having recently bought a house near McCarthy’s in Tesuque, while notable residents, present and past, include Shirley MacLaine, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Ali McGraw, Gene Hackman, crime writer Jonathan Kellerman, King of the Road singer/songwriter and Big River stage musical creator Roger Miller, and New Age music superstar Ottmar Liebert.

The Sundance Kid put Park City, Utah, on the map with his Sundance Film Festival, to the extent that its population increases six-fold during the week, but as quickened some pulses by moving the Sundance Institute to New Mexico and establishing Milagro at Los Luceros, just outside nearby Espanola, as a locale for film, fine arts and environmental training programs for Hispanic and Native American filmmakers. Big things are expected.

Of Hackman, whose two Oscars are mislaid somewhere in his house, the expectations would only be literary, he having taken up the pen to the exclusion of all else; a certain discipline being required to maintain his distance. “I will see the wagons on the side of the roads sometimes and I’d like to go talk to somebody but I don’t,” he told Time. “I did once when there was a young assistant director on a backstreet in Santa Fe, directing traffic. I pulled up next to her and asked if they were hiring any extras. She said ‘No, I’m very sorry sir’.”  

Redford, who manages to do it all, had first sighted the state in the early 1940s when his mother was driving from California to Texas to catch up with family. “It was so different. Native Americans on the streets in blankets, the streets were muddy, lots of artefacts around,” he has said. “I got fascinated by that. Years later, when I was 17 or18 and I had my own car, I was able to drive into these areas and explore on my own. I would camp out, spend time on the reservations, and the more I learned, the more I realised there was a value there and if we didn’t honour it, it would be gone. So it became a part of the fabric of my life.”

Santa Fe gas pump graveyard

That happens a lot, even if vicariously, through O’Keeffe’s enduring and celebrated art or through a diverse array of films that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Easy Rider, the Muppet Movie, The Book of Eli, Did You Hear About The Morgans?, All The Pretty Horses, Wild Hogs  City Slickers, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Men Who Stare At Goats, Young Guns, Natural Born Killers, Thor,  the Redford-directed Milagro Beanfield War and the Redford-starring Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. For you find yourself gazing upon New Mexico more than you are aware. Since 2003 over 150 major screen projects have been shot in the State, injecting $2 billion into the state’s economy. Lawrence Kasdan, who directed Silverado and Wyatt Earp there, marvelled at how “every day the sky was putting on a show.” Oft cited is its ability to accommodate archetypical western landscapes as much as a post-apocalyptic future.

In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the southern end of the Rockies, the place is loftily sited – 7,000 feet above sea level (with nearby mountains topping 12,000) –  making it both the highest and the oldest capital in the United States. The air is sweet and pure, the vistas stirring and inspiring. Less than two hours drive to the north is Taos (with an easy diversion to Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project where the bombs that ended WWII were hatched) and, to the south, Albuquerque, with its big city skyscrapers.

Though one is closer to it in Santa Fe, nothing scrapes the sky in Santa Fe. All structures (particularly the brace of up-market hotels, including Inn of the Anasazi, El Dorado, Inn and Spa at Loretto, La Fonda on The Plaza and Old Santa Fe Inn), blend in with the high desert surrounds. The Pueblo Revival style was embraced in 1912 and, since, no building has been allowed to climb higher than a few storeys; nor to be built of anything much beyond traditional durable adobe – sand, clay, water and fibrous matter like sticks and straw fashioned into bricks and supported by large logs called vigas. One of the oldest examples of this is the Palace of the Governors, the northern side of the compact downtown square which has been the centre of activities for four centuries. Spanish officials used it for houses and barracks, making it the oldest continually occupied public buildings in the U.S. (in a city that has been, one way or another, New Mexico’s capital for 300 years).

Today, Native American craftsmen and women array their wares on blankets under the portal of the Palace of Governors – where Lew Wallace, governor of the New Mexico territory for three years from 1878, wrote Ben Hur, while at the same time leading the effort to bring Billy The Kid to justice. But then craftspeople and artists are offering their outpourings to you everywhere you look. There are well over 200 galleries in this small city, rendering it America’s third-largest art market, after New York and Los Angeles but ahead of Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Boston and New Orleans. There’s an extraordinary amount of art commerce taking place, with much of it concentrated on Canyon Road. Jammed with galleries, studios and vendors of leather goods, jewellery, home furnishings and trinkets aplenty, it was officially designated in 1961 as a “residential arts and crafts zone”.

Santa Fe art gallery 2

While it is said that more interesting people and events pass through Santa Fe than any other urban city its size anywhere else in the world, it needs be added that almost all of them are associated with the arts. In 2004, the United Nations named it the US’s first member of the UN’s Creative Cities Network. With Hispanic art breaking out of traditional moulds in the 1960s, a mounting vibrancy took hold and, by the 80s, galleries and curators were exploiting and exposing this incredibly fertile vein. Indeed, the intensity of art is something to behold. It tumbles out all over, indelibly marking the landscape. Statues, sculptures, mosaics, murals, canvasses – the full spectrum of visual expression.

Visual and aural. The Santa Fe Opera, founded in 1956 and made famous by the conducting presence of Igor Stravinsky who stuck around for six summers, is celebrated globally for its acoustically-perfect outdoor theatre in the foothills of the backdrop mountains, where over forty world premieres have been staged, including nine commissioned operas. Then there’s a leading ballet company and the treasure that is the Lensic Performing Arts Centre, an auditorium built in 1931 in Spanish Renaissance style that has played host to troupers from Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland to, the week I was passing through, Bruce Hornsby and Arlo Guthrie.

Of course, if all this artistry gets a tad cerebral for some, it’s a relatively short road or air hop to the glittering, coin-spinning Strip in Las Vegas, where an edifice complex throws up aggressively modern temples of worship. In Santa Fe they certainly say their prayers – but not over roulette wheels and craps tables. A walk through the city – an absolutely essential means of acquainting yourself with its stand-alone charm – will take you past four of the most impressive religious buildings in the American west. Santa Fe is Spanish for St. Faith or Holy Faith and there’s been no shortage of that over more than three centuries. In 1608, a Spanish governor christened the settlement Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi and, today, his Cathedral Basilica on Cathedral Place vies for attention with San Miguel Chapel, said to be the oldest standing church structure in the United States; Loretto Chapel, on the Old Santa Fe Trail, famous for a “miraculous staircase”  with two 360 degree turns held together only by wooden pegs; and the 18th century Santuario Guadalupe fronted by a 12-foot statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

They are prominent on all visitor checklists, along with the long-established New Mexico Museum of Art on West Palace, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Johnson Street, and the imposing and impressive New Mexico History Museum on Lincoln Avenue, where you will learn that the only successful indigenous rebellion in the history of North America was when Ohkay Owingeh medicine man Po’pay lead the Pueblo Revolt which expelled the Spanish from Nuevo Mexico for twelve years in 1680. And that the famed Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad did bring rail to New Mexico but the name was a fraud, given that it didn’t actually make it to Santa Fe, going by some 17 miles to the south, at a town called Lamy. (Trains are now seen in the heart of the city, with The Railyard area also playing host to a busy weekend market).

Santa Fe boot shop

What doesn’t seem to be on those checklists but eminently worthy of investigation is the Kowboyz store just out the back door of the majority Native American-owned Hotel Santa Fe (a rare thing outside of casino-dotted Indian land apparently) which has moved over from Los Angeles and specialises in thousands of pairs of pre-owned-finely tooled cowboy boots, and At The Ranch – Classic Cowboy Collection, where all those shirts you’ve dreamed of owning since the westerns of your (or your father’s) adolescence can be found on jammed racks.

New Mexico will have been one of the fifty United States for a hundred years in 2012 but, all things considered, that may be one of its lesser distinctions. At every turn there seems to be something that reminds you of just where you are and where you are is somewhere endlessly exotic. For starters, you are on Route 66, as it wends its way (at least in celebrated automotive history) from Santa Monica through to Chicago.

The city’s longest park parallels portions of the short Santa Fe River, an occasionally flowing Rio Grande tributary. The city itself was named after the village of Santa Fe in Granada, Spain, not just because there was a distinct similarity between the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains of Granada but because King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella were much occupied with removing Moorish invaders from Granada during the first decades of their reign the name was elevated in their consciousness.

What will be elevated in yours is the twin tonings of red and green. For that is the decision to be made at most mealtimes. Just which chili to go with? While the cuisine is not limited, many a dining establishment is dedicated to fire food of fabulous ferocity, with your appetite perpetually aroused as you wander around the streets (or even in and out of your hotel) past kebab of totem-type gatherings of the beloved staple plant, swaying in the breeze and providing a mighty motif. In matters of the plate, Tex-Mex doth rule.

As does New Mexico in scenes of the screen, a situation not likely to change until the mountains crumble and the ravines close over. The directors keep coming. One of them, Billy Garberina, responsible for Stiffed, recently explained why. “The noble tradition of the Southwest outlaw is still alive and well. An indie filmmaker can still get away with flagrant acts of high cinema on a zero-dollar budget and manage to steer well clear of the official infrastructure in doing so.  That said, New Mexico is still working hard to bend over backwards for big Hollywood money. It’s a paradise for the high-dollar Hollywood hot shot looking to make good press and also an oasis for the zero-budget auteur still needing to walk between the raindrops.”

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

The Demon-Slayer of Kuta by John Borthwick


Back in the late-1970s, like a lot of people, I went to Bali. Instead of packing what everyone else “on the road” seemed to – a Swiss Army knife and a Carlos Castenada book – I threw into my bag, though for no special reason, an old insulated screwdriver.

At Denpasar Airport, a gaggle of kids shanghai’d me and my surfboard onto a bemo truck, then deposited us at a losmen guest house somewhere in that rainbow scrum of paddies and people that used to bloom halfway along the coast between Kuta and Legian. The nondescript brick building was distinguished from its neighbours by having once been the home of a Dutch colonial who’d gone, in sequence, native, nuts, then home.

“Hullo, I’m Nyoman,” said the keeper of Losmen Hanuman. “And this man,” he added, pointing to the grinning youth beside him, “is my cousin. We run the place. His name is Nyoman, too.”

“Got it,” I said. “Nyoman One and Nyoman Two?”

Nyoman Two showed me to a batik-curtained room. It was tidy and clean, although dim.

“Is there a light in there?” I asked. Nyoman Two grimaced, poking out his tongue and bulging his eyes like a Balinese Barong dancer.

“Sure, have light,” he said. “But ghosts too. Look.”

Cautiously stretching his finger towards a light switch that dangled from a twist of wiring, he flicked it on. A blue flash raced around the connections and Nyoman pulled back his tingling finger.

“Not earthed?” I said.

“No. Not Earth. Maybe Hell,” he laughed. “Bad ghost, I think. Maybe left here by the Dutchmens. I’ll bring you candles instead. They don’t make the devils angry.”


I took the room then hit the surf. This was my reward for months of ten-hour days building a big power station north of Sydney. Three weeks full of nothing but Kuta Reef and Ulu Watu point surf lay ahead of me. And so it was. Black rice porridge at Mades Restaurant. Hibiscus heat and dragonfly mornings. Massages on the beach. The evening ritual when everyone rolled down to the shore to look out for the fabled green flash just as the sun blipped into the sea.

Every night there seemed to be a different temple dance: Barong, Legong and Kechuk; shadow puppets and the trance Fire Dance. Through the kampong’s black palms came the sound of galloping gamelan orchestras and bamboo sticks clacking away the evil spirits. Between performances, the Balinese appeared to be perpetually making both offerings and money, activities which seemed somehow interlinked.

The Nyomans and their families were prosperous only to the point of not caring whether they were or weren’t. Some days they feasted; on others they ate only rice and papaya. I felt free to leave my door unlocked any time. The little canang offerings of rice and incense in a woven palm frond, which the family placed in front of my room each dawn, seemed security enough for my few possessions.

“Any thieves in Bali?” I asked Nyoman Two.

“No, not in this country. But be very careful with your things.”

“Why – if there aren’t any thieves?”

“The thieves are all in another country. But some comes here from there….” said Nyoman, lowering his voice, “….Java.”

My three weeks in Bwana Nirvana slipped out to sea in an endless session of good waves, fruit salad days and gado-gado dinners. The only interruption to losmen life occurred when Didier, the languid Frenchman in the room next to mine, emerged dripping from the mandi bath and flipped his light switch with a wet hand. The sparking blue demon rushed out of the socket, up Didier’s arm and kicked him onto his bed before short-circuiting the building.

“Nyoman,” I said next morning, “In Australia, I build temples for these sorts of demons. We keep them locked up there, then we let them out only to do work for us.” I winked, hoping it didn’t sound too patronising. It did.

Nyoman One winked back. “It works that way here, too. John, I understand electricity. What you don’t understand are demons. There’s been one in this house from long before tourist times. When the Dutchman left, my grandfather had the priest carry this spirit into the sea. He even changed the name of the house so that the spirit would not be able to find it again.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“I think the priest made the wrong offerings.”

“OK, Nyoman.” I said. “I’m no priest, but can I have a go?”

“If you can get rid of the ghost, I’ll give back the rent for your whole stay here.”

“If I can do it, I’ll do it free.”


I began the exorcism. With a spool of electrical flex purchased in Denpasar, plus that old insulated screwdriver from the bottom of my bag, I stripped the exposed wiring from the walls and ceilings, replaced the copper vermicelli that bristled from the antique fuse-board, stapled new wires in place, screwed switches securely to walls, and then completed it all by installing a proper earth. The whole ritual took a day and a half.

When I had finished, I waited until dark, then called Nyomans One and Two, their parents and kids, plus assorted neighbourhood Mades, Ketuts and Wayans, as well as the singed Didier and the other guests. Having turned every switch in the darkened building to “on”, I waved my magic wand, the redoubtable screwdriver, and inserted a new fuse.

Losmen Hanuman lit up like a Christmas tree. With lights that stayed on. No flashes, no flicker and fade. Hamming it up now, I stepped up to a light switch and flipped it, then held on – see, no kick! No ghosts. The watchers erupted in their quiet Balinese way, clapping and laughing a great many “baguses” and “terima kasihs”, then gathered round to examine my wondrous demon-slayer, the old screwdriver. Even a couple of passing Javanese boys stopped to look at it, until Nyoman One moved them on.

Next night, the Nyomans prepared a thank-you feast. Roast pig, all the gado-gado I could eat, sticky rice and Bintang beer. Nyoman One attempted to return my rent, an offer I sidestepped by promising to come back and take advantage of next year. Four neighbours tinkled and gonged an impromptu gamelan performance and Nyoman One’s daughter, little Ketut, and her friends danced around the coconut husk fire so fluidly that I thought they must have liquid bones.

Soon it was time to leave. On my last morning, the waves far out on Kuta Reef were pumping and there were still three hours until the plane would exile me back to Sydney. I said goodbye to the Nyomans One and Two and walked down the beach facing the reef, where I dropped my bag and took the long paddle out into one of those surf sessions where nothing else counts. The waves were my own private Fire Dance. After more tube rides than I could count, I stroked, in a bliss of exhaustion, the half kilometre back to the beach.

On the sand was my bag — open. Beside it, my camera and my travellers cheques. A little further away was my passport and wallet, still containing the rupiah I had kept for airport tax. Puzzled, I upturned the bag and inspected the belongings that fell out. Two batik shirts, a kris knife from Ubud, spare board shorts, a sarong for my girlfriend, jeans and towel. All present but nothing correct.

I stuffed it all back into the bag and hopped a bemo to the airport. Somewhere over the Timor Sea, while reading an article about Java, I realised what was missing. The insulated screwdriver.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Mojitos and Mobsters by David Latta



Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about Cuba outside its popular mythology but knew instantly where I wanted to stay.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was popularized in the movie Godfather II as the venue for what came to be called, in real life, the Havana Conference. Held in December 1946, it brought together America’s top crime bosses including “Lucky” Luciano, then in exile in Italy, and Meyer Lanksy, who was to head the push by American organised crime into Cuba’s numerous casinos under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.

The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirst for when travelling. The hotel opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder of the firm, Stamford White, had his own literary pedigree; his 1906 murder forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Havana was everything I was expecting and far, far more. While the people may be poor, they are overwhelmingly hospitable with a ready sense of humour. It seems as if every second Cuban is a musician; linger for more than a few minutes in a bar or café and a group will wander in unannounced and strike up a tune that would have the Buena Vista Social Club tapping their toes in appreciation.

The Nacional, however, was a mixed bag. The public areas, in dark local mahogany and imported Spanish tiles, are an intoxicating melange of Moorish and Art Deco, the design equivalent of Othello dancing a tango with Nora Charles. The guestrooms tend to the smallish and could most kindly be described as Period Shabby Chic but many have histories that almost make up for their lack of comfort.


The breakfast buffet was a constant feast of surprises, some of which were actually edible. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what had most likely originally been a huge slab of frozen pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and then been boiled in one piece. In another country it would have been a prop for a particularly obscure piece of performance art or an unwanted item from the Damien Hirst factory store. Guests gathered around it, curious and rather unsure of what to do with it. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.

Hotel staff generally, with the exception of the friendly and efficient housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is terminated with a sigh of detached reservation and a polite refusal. I was determined to get a tour of the hotel and eventually found a concierge who defrosted slightly under a relentless barrage of flattery and a folded €20 note.

It opened up a seemingly endless exploration of the second floor, where all the celebrities of the last 80 years stayed. The so-called Mafia Room is a double suite, numbers 211-13. It doesn’t appear like a hangout for a mob of wiseguys and their henchmen, where the 1947 hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was sanctioned or the corporatisation of the American drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place your grandparents would stay for their golden wedding anniversary.

Celebrity guests of a more benign nature included Frank Sinatra (Room 214), Nat King Cole (218), Ava Gardner (225), Fred Astaire (228) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller (232).

Errol Flynn stayed in Room 235, two doors down from mine. If our rooms were identically sized, I figured he needed to be extremely dexterous to exercise his growing reputation. Flynn was also said to have been a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway although it must be noted that, if you had a pulse and were in Cuba anytime between the 1920s and 1960s, there’s a pretty fair chance you’d end up drinking with Hemingway.


The Celebrity Hall of Fame in the Bay-View Bar shows that celebrities have been a little light on in the recent past, the best-known being Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone and The Backstreet Boys

The rear gardens amble down to a cliff-face overlooking the harbor. Pancho, the Nacional’s pet peacock, lives in a small shed in front of La Barraca, an outdoor restaurant promising, although not exactly delivering, Cuban cuisine. A living and breathing contradiction in terms (locals will readily admit that the best Cuban food is in Miami), I overheard a group of Australian tourists refer to it as La Berocca.

The centre of the hotel’s social scene is the colonnaded verandah just off the lobby. At any time of the day or night, hotel guests gather to consume fat cigars and over-priced, shamefully bad mojitos and watch the security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.

The long driveway from the street to the front entrance is lined with the immaculate late-model Mercedes that function as official hotel taxis and decrepit but vigorously-maintained 1950s American cars. Enormous mid-century land yachts, masterfully-wrought slabs of Detroit steel, what little remains of their original paintwork faded and blemished but fastidiously polished, chrome pitted and cloudy, body panels rusted out by sea spray and held together with wire and prayers, these leftovers of the days when Cuba was America’s playground can be hired for tours of the city. The owner-drivers, once you break through their habitually gruff exteriors, are like classic car custodians the world over – proud and more than happy to share their enthusiasm. Cut off from such niceties as spare parts by more than 50 years of economic sanctions, a look under the hood of these automotive dinosaurs reveal wondrously inventive repair methods that would make MacGyver green with envy.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as the Cubans might say (if they spoke Spanish as badly as me), offers up buenos tiempos but it’s all a matter of interpretation.

©David Latta. Words and photographs. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Vlad The Amazer by Glenn A. Baker

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There is a sense, as you stroll easily about what has been described as “one of Russia’s greatest wandering cities”, that you, indeed we all, know so very little about Vladivostok. Its skyline is not familiar in films, it does not appear in novels of note (though Colin Thurbon’s In Siberia travel tome does have him wash up there at the end of a particularly long wander), anecdotes are not bandied about where travellers cross paths. 

For a very long time that was entirely intentional. During the Soviet era (a phrase uttered often by its citizens to excuse everything from potholes to ugly architecture) it was, as the headquarters of the USSR’s Pacific Fleet, a “closed city”. Not only were foreigners not allowed but Soviets needed permission to visit and so generally didn’t. After all, it is a nine hour flight from Moscow and tenth of the vast nation’s eleven time zones. Most of those who did set foot in the far eastern city were – and still are – weary souls alighting from a week on the Trans-Siberian Railway, all 9289 kilometres of it.

The fleet is still there; in fact, it has been said that were you to get much closer to it as you poked about the historically-layered town you would have to enlist. Now you can pretty much line up and have your photo taken with a crew of a destroyer back from a six month deployment off Somalia warding off pirates. Jump on one of the ferries zig-zagging across Golden Horn Bay and you can sun yourself on the beaches of islands once restricted to navy folk.

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Over days of investigating ornate Russian orthodox churches, stone fortresses, the Art Deco house where actor Yul Brynner was born and raised, cobbled courtyards, a tiny funicular railway near a beguiling Pushkin statue, a silver Neptune head spilling out over a park, a Maxim Gorky Theatre, Siberian tiger, mermaid and war warrior statues, a GUM department store with preserved architecture, the odd surviving hammer’n’sicle emblems, spectacular views of bays, harbours, inlets and peninsulas, family-thronged parks, impromptu sun bathing platforms where near-nakeds loll by slabs of melting ice, and vivid sunsets over bays, viewed through birch trees – you come to realise that nobody cares much where you nose about. Security guards and other uniformed spoilsports don’t dot the landscape here. The western world’s obsession over private property doesn’t carry over to a realm where, for a very long time, there was no such thing.

Leaving the Arsenyev Museum after trawling through the entrails of the natural, military, social and cultural history of Eastern Russia and Siberia, admiring everything from a giant black bear to savage swords to the gowns and pumps of a famous ballerina, I couldn’t help but fall down Alice’s wonderland hole through a basement door, to nobody’s particular concern, and there come upon a dusty tumble of giant marble busts of Soviet heroes – Lenin, Stalin and even cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Once venerated, they are now remnants of a past that cannot be entirely left behind.

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It is the lack of familiarity, it is the one surprise atop another and it is the sheer improbability of pure Russia where, really, it should not be, that renders Vladivostok so appealing – and, for Australians, it is the proximity and ease of access. Just as going to outer Mongolia is no harder than flying to Seoul and walking off one wide-bodied jet onto another for a further three-hour leg, visiting Vladivostok is nothing more complex than taking a Qantas flight to Tokyo and settling into an S7 Airbus at Narita for a little over two hours. When you get there, you are almost close enough to smell the Chinese city of Harbin and the North Korean border. Within not much more than a couple of hour’s air reach is 200-300 million people, all of them Asian. Yet, apart from the smattering of Chinese workers who are replacing the 5,000 or so locals who move west each year, you could be in St. Petersburg (or San Francisco to which it was compared by none other than Nikita Khrushchev).

Had it not been for China being able to defend the region after being defeated by Britain in the Opium War and some nimble movement by the Russians, you would not be encountering the palette of vodka, mini-skirts, borscht, anguished literature and some suspicious-looking characters in black Volgas and recycled Mercs.

Vladivostok’s aspirations to be a hot Pacific Rim city were boosted considerably in September 2012 when twenty heads of government came to town for an APEC meeting. A hundred million dollars of development projects are on the board, including a vast casino complex being dubbed as a “Northern Macau”. The Japanese are already assembling Mazdas there. A couple of hours out of town, you can encounter safari parks of Siberian tigers – somebody knows that tourists are coming.

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© 2014 Glenn A. Baker – words and photos. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Cusco’s Monasterio: The Sin Of Wanderlust? by John Borthwick


In Cusco, the ancient Inca masonry is so supple you’d swear the stones were woven. The ten-, twelve-, fifteen-sided blocks fit together as though diced from plasticine. For good reason this improbably-finessed granite is known as “pillow masonry”. Keyed together, the massive, irregular blocks made formidable ramparts that have endured the upheavals of Andean time – earthquake, invasion and revolution.

The Spanish Conquistadors, who stomped uninvited into Cusco in 1533, built their own grandiose temples and palaces atop these invincible footings, having first demolished the existing Inca equivalents. The resulting architecture is a tale of two histories – Inca from the knees down, and Spanish to the crown.

The Seminary of San Antonio Abad was founded in 1595 on the site of an Inca palace. Today it is the five-star Hotel Monasterio, listed on the Peruvian National Heritage register. Step across its threshold – beneath the historic escutcheon of no less than Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – and you brush against centuries when these colonnades shaded piety and intrigue, cruelty and riches. As you wander below ceilings marzipanned by centuries of whitewash, portraits of remittance men grandees and their collaborative friararchy gaze down from adumbral portraits to interrogate your presence.

Undaunted, indeed, relaxed by a quick, strictly medicinal snort on the oxygen cylinder in the hotel lobby and a belt of coca tea from the adjacent urn – it’s the 3325-metre altitude, y’know – you proceed through garden courtyards and flag-stoned corridors towards the Monasterio’s piece de resistance, its baroque chapel. Not so much a private chapel as a pocket basilica, its altar is an orgy of gold glittering by pale candlelight.


More portraits by the brilliant, anonymous Incan painters of the Cusquena School look down within the chapel. In one major painting (as a local author put it), “… celestial hosts gaze down on lurid infernos … a demon even dares to appear before Christ, whispering sulphurous advice into the ear of a Jesuit who is advocating the closure of this very seminary.”

An air-conditioned guestroom and cable television, plus fine ceviche and crème caramel in the restaurant (once the priests’ refectory) remind you that you haven’t died and gone to the 17th century but remain alive in a 123-room hotel. Still, somewhere beneath your feet –according to legend – is a subterranean passage that obligingly ran from this all-male seminary to the adjacent convent of Nazarene nuns. Sacred vows of chastity, as with those of poverty, were much observed in the breach. You can take coffee beneath a 300-year-old cedar in the inner quadrangle that has witnessed the building’s serial incarnations, as a seminary, a Royal Pontifical University and, from 1965, a hotel.

Taking a breather from all this cloistered pomp, you step out into Cusco and its nearby centre, Plaza de Armas. The seminarians and horny friars of San Antonio are long gone, but Cusco is still a university town. Its cobble-stoned streets are awash with students and raggle-taggle backpackers. The internet cafes, pizzerias and music clubs of Tecsecocha Street are pumping behind colonial portals that were already old when Captain Cook was still finding his sea-legs.

By night, the Plaza de Armas, flanked by World Heritage cathedrals and dished in an Andean valley of lights and stars, is almost other-worldly. High on the rim of the valley above the town, an illuminated white statue of Christ is caught like a brilliant bird in flight. All of which seems rich stuff until you step out even further beyond the town centre. The soft geometries of that Incaic “pillow masonry” reach monumental scale at the giant fortresses of Sacsayhuaman and, even further away, at Ollantaytambo.


The best is yet to come. Leaving Cusco on an early morning train you travel the narrow cleavage of the Urabamba River valley. Your destination is, of course, Machu Picchu. Its stones remain in almost perfect condition some 500 years after they were abandoned. The Incas often built with a sense of drama. In the case of Machu Picchu, high on its Andean spine, they made a city that resembles an altar of stone amid a temple of mountains. Or, as poet Pablo Neruda saw it, “a city raised like a chalice”.

Back at the Monasterio, an Inca harpist in the lobby maintains the transcendent theme. A few steps away is that chapel which makes this perhaps the only hotel in the world where you might seek in-house forgiveness for – should it be deemed one – the sin of your perpetual wanderlust.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.



The End Of The World Came To Bombay Beach A Long Time Ago by David Latta



Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but, when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach, you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.

Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.

In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up along its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to wipe out the fish life.


Although boating remains popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death like the sun-bleached bodies of fish along its shores. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.

Turn off the highway, past the sun-battered Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.

It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the hearse to pick up her dead chimpanzee.


At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three-metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly sucked into the earth, the salt slowly eating away and devouring everything.

The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than usual, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, clamber back into their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.

My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.


© David Latta – words and photos. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.