Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

Is there a cure for wanderlust?
17/05/2010, 22:34
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At the weekend, I caught myself eyeing up the prices of apartments in Brooklyn. Again. I’ve been reading up on Norway after noticing a budget airline had launched a route from North East England to Oslo, a city and a country I’m yet to visit. My head is packed to the brim with dates and prices for visiting my mum in Ontario, to book a handful of days in Barcelona, while I wander whether I can return to New Zealand some day soon.

And then there’s the voice telling me to simply sling some clothes into a bag and disappear into the world.

In short, I have a severe case of wanderlust. It’s been building for the past few weeks, to the point where it’s now overwhelming. It’s excruciating. I don’t stress that for the sake of effect – there’s a considerable sense of panic, claustrophobia even, if I dwell the situation for too long.

Image by adamjackson1984 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But of course, there’s the reality of the situation. Money. Work. A manic few months ahead. I might escape for a couple of days in June, otherwise it’s the end of September before I can seriously consider travelling. The wait feels as if it’s going to kill me.

Yawning spans of time between trips are par for the course, because we have to scrimp and save to afford them, or we need to commit to the mundane trivialities of what some laughingly refer to as real life. So how do you quench your thirst? How you stem the loss of hours to idle daydreaming? If you’re a serial traveller, how do you stop your feet itching when you can’t travel just yet? Let me know in the comments.


Around the world, Merry Christmas
24/12/2009, 11:14
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Heavy fluffs of snow have been descending from the sky all morning – I daren’t do much more than whisper it, but for the first time since I was a kid, it looks like it’ll be a white Christmas at home in Gateshead.

I’ve just started preparing lunch for tomorrow, beginning with the bread sauce. There’ll only be me eating it, which is a shame because it’s fantastic with chicken and turkey, a fragrant and tasty sauce scented with cloves and bay leaves. It’s medieval in origin – I don’t know many people who still bother with it, but it’s one of the few family traditions we had, passed down from my mother’s side of the family.

I’ve done a rude amount of travelling over the past twelve months and I’ve plenty of friends and strangers to thank for that. 2010 will see more globetrotting – I dare say it’ll be far more restrained, but who knows? After a year I’m returning to Barcelona twice in January after 12 month’s absence and hoping that other plans will allow me to spend far more time in New York on a regular basis (although I managed to return to NYC four times this year, so I can hardly complain). I’d certainly like to see more of Sweden too after my brief encounter there in August. And then there’s SXSW in Austin – I’d love to go back and experience the event after more than three hours sleep.

It’s been quite a year. 365 days ago, I never saw it coming. Any of it. If you take anything away from that, it means 2010 is already full of possibility and opportunity. It’ll be what you make it.

Over the next hour my Twitter stream will no doubt fill with messages from new acquaintances in New Zealand as Christmas Day begins. So wherever you are, have a grand ol’ Christmas – I trust you will eat and drink far too much – and here’s to a fine time in 2010.

It was good enough for Magnum, it’s good enough for me
02/11/2009, 22:38
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Another day, another post that has no place on what I laughingly refer to as a travel blog.

But again, it’s an important post. Yesterday we had bipolar. Today, cancer. It’s chuckles all the way, kids.

It’s not that grim, honest. Movember is a movement that began in Australia some years ago; those involved have the whole month of November in which to grow a moustache. And that’s it. When there’s a noticeable rise in the number of dudes looking like they’ve stumbled out of Life On Mars (ladies you’re welcome to get involved, but I’m not saying a word), people ask why and there’s the opportunity to explain. Movember is all about raising awareness of men’s health issues in general, and raising money for prostate cancer charities in particular.

Millions have been raised by this apathetic attitude towards the top lip. I met a couple of the guys involved in setting Movember up when they visited Newcastle last month – not only can they drink a camel under the table, but they’re passionate about their cause.

So here I am, a Mo Bro for the next 28 days. Fortunately if there’s one thing I can do very well, it’s grow facial hair. It’ll be as thick and luxurious as a Swiss forest at nightfall. But don’t think this will be easy. It’s won’t. I’ll want to hack the bastard off after a fortnight. This is going to drive me insane. So two things you can do for me:

donate a little money towards this brilliant cause – a couple of pounds or dollars would be great, perhaps more since it’s been seven months since I pestered you for donations

– help me choose a moustache style; there are a couple of days left before I’ll have to make a firm choice, and I can’t decide what to do with my follicles. If any particular style catches your eye, let me know:

Twitchhiker - Movember

Order, disorder – coming out about bipolar
01/11/2009, 11:23
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I really don’t have to write this post. Really. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure why I am. The topic certainly has no place on a travel blog, and it has the potential to do me more harm than good. Then again, that’s rarely stopped me from opening my mouth before inserting both feet. Continue reading

The good, the bad and the ugly – Barcelona’s La Rambla
22/09/2009, 21:36
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I used to be a regular visitor to Barcelona; for the past decade, the blessing of budget airlines and a two hour flight time made it a must-visit once or twice a year. If you haven’t been, the Catalan capital a fantastic city. Art, architecture, history, sunshine, beaches, food, drink – it’s got the lot. A city centre compact enough to traverse by foot, a good transport network for exploring further afield – what’s not to love?

How about the most popular tourist destination in the city – La Rambla.

For those that haven’t visited, La Rambla is a mile long street (actually five older streets following the path of a stream that fed rainwater from the hills into the sea) in the heart of Barcelona. From it wind alleys and roads into the neighbourhoods either side. By day, the broad boulevard is packed with street theatre, artists and stalls, lined either side by restaurants, theatres and markets. La Rambla is one of the most famous streets in the world and an instant draw to visitors old and new.

La Rambla suffers a Jekyll and Hyde personality, though. The guidebooks will warn you that pickpocketing is a concern, so caution is required. The more honest ones might mention that by night La Rambla is a haunt for prostitutes – again, once you’re aware you can choose to avoid the area. And this isn’t anything new – La Rambla has been this way since I began visiting. My friend Paul tells me that prior to the Olympics in 1992 there was a coordinated crackdown on crime in the area; before that the problem was even worse.

To me, it feels like La Rambla is reverting to those older, more dangerous ways. Last December I visited Barcelona with a friend for two nights. On both nights we were the target of gangs of muggers; one attempt was successful. The first incident was just off La Rambla in El Raval, to the West of the street – a neighbourhood notorious for prostitution and crime, although gentrification and modernisation in recent years has lifted the area’s reputation out the gutter. The second incident occurred a few yards off La Rambla in Barri Gotic – the Old Town to the East, the neighbourhood all guidebooks tell you is safe as houses.

Twitchhiker - Barcelona

Both times, the gangs of teenagers and twenty-something year old men performed the same routine – they’d approach us quickly, claiming they wanted to show us a football tackle, interlock their legs around ours, and pick our pockets while we fought to move away.

These things happen, right? They could have happened to anyone, but they actually seem to happen to an awful lot of people, hence the reason guidebooks feeling to need to add the same caveat year after year. But in nearly a decade, it had never happened to me before. I follow the rules, I stay safe and I’m not a small guy – in a line-up, I’m probably the last person you’d care to pick a fight with. Not anymore, it seemed – two incidents, two nights in a row, both before 9pm – and that was just the muggers. The prostitutes were a little braver too, taking to the streets earlier, unconcerned by the occasional police patrol. It felt like the seedier side of La Rambla had a little more edge, a little more swagger.

Last week I read a story on the The Times website about an article published by El País – the link to that article is here, but I’ll just say now it’s quite graphic. It shows a series of photos taken on La Rambla of tourists having sex with prostitutes – according to The Times, this all happened in full view of passing visitors. I was a little bit sick into my own mouth when I saw the photos. This isn’t airbrushed porn, it’s dirty, desperate, pathetic and real.

Read through the comments of The Times article, and the same arguments crop up in La Rambla’s defense; tourists shouldn’t go to La Rambla at night; if you don’t like it there, don’t go; only stupid people who don’t hide their valuables get mugged; crime happens wherever you go in the world; Barcelona is a big place so go elsewhere. And so on.

So is there really a problem? Without a doubt. I don’t think any of the arguments above hold water at all. This isn’t some out-of-they-way forgotten back alley that lost tourists are stumbling down, miles from civilisation; this is La Rambla – it’s full of restaurants and theatres (you know, places the public like to visit at night), the Metro has three stops on it. It’s the heart of Barcelona in every sense of the word, so why has it been allowed to become a sewer once the sun sets?

Consider for a moment, the same conditions in Oxford Street in London, or Times Square in New York; this wouldn’t be tolerated, not for a moment, not in these times. It’s not the 1970s anymore, anarchy doesn’t rule and it certainly shouldn’t have the final say on the city’s most popular and famous thoroughfare – arguably the most important to tourism and economy. When it’s the first place any and every new visitor wants to visit, a city can and will be judged by a single street.

Curiously, since the article was published by El País, there’s seems to have been a great deal of talk by the city council about how it intends to tackle prostitution, while simultaneously claiming it’s already tackled it. It feels more like a PR department in crisis management, simply because the resilience of the gangs over time suggests organised crime is at work – rather than a handful of random street workers and kids with time on their hands – and that’ll take more than good intentions to rectify.

I haven’t been back since December, and I’m not sure when I’ll return. I’d love to hear from anybody who’s had experience of Barcelona over the past twelve months – for better or worse. There are plenty of destinations in Europe to enjoy, but until I feel I don’t have to avoid swathes of the city centre for 12 hours a day, Barcelona won’t be one of them.