Notes from Afar 9: Berlin and Italy


Flew back to London from Peru, seem to be getting better at long distance flights etc. A bit hectic changing in Paris, as it involved getting from Charles de Gaulle to Orly, on opposite sides of Paris, and the plane was late, so the transfer time was super tight. A couple of days in London, catching up with folks and planning next steps. Came down with a helluva sickness the couple of days in London, not helped by spending a night in the airport on the way out, so when I arrived in Berlin, I was pretty unwell.

Stayed with my friend Jorri, who couchsurfed with me in NZ. Had a brief explore, then it rained. Went home and collapsed in a heap. Had an early night, which turned into a long night of fever and chills. Felt bad enough in the morning to go to a hospital to get checked for malaria, since I was just coming back from the jungle and it had been long enough to incubate, and I haven’t been sick enough to need a doctor in over a decade. Six hours and epic bureaucracy later, it transpired I didn’t have malaria, or dengue, or anything else, so it was probably just four and a bit months of non-stop travel plus switching hemispheres into a cold autumn all piling up. Made for some interesting paranoia, though. 

So I didn’t really get out and about much in Berlin. At least, not so much at night, and it seems like the nightlife is what makes the place. Like, thirty dance parties a night on the *underground* party listing website. In general Berlin has a nice lived in feel. It is covered in graffiti, and kind of shabby, but in a way that feels like people live there, rather than a way that it feels fucked up. That there are loads of artists and creative people is obvious. Crazy art is everywhere.

Yeah. A nice town. An easy place to be. Would like to return in better health someday, and go dancing. Seems like a place where you could have a hell of a lot of fun. It is just chilled out. Lots of stuff that shouldn’t be an issue just isn’t. You can drink beer on the bus, or train, or tram. People still smoke in bars, and smoke spliffs in bars. It is all a bit cruisy, and seems like it would be awesome to be in one’s early 20’s here.

Felt better after a couple of days, and started riding around town. It is a nice size. Berlin is about the least European looking city I have seen. So much is modern, rather than old, though there is still lots of impressive old shit scattered about. Crazy history all over the place. Holocaust memorial and Berlin wall remnants. Walking streets where Hitler once marched. (And Napoleon.) A museum – Topography of Terror – where the SS used to have its headquarters. Having to confront their history must be a truly weird shaping of the national psyche, and I can see how there is massive pressure for things to never get out of hand. (Though, weirdly, in the countryside, the neo-nazis are still strong. This was explained to me as being people in the country who actually were better off during the Cold War socialism, and miss the good old times.) Caught up with some folks from Nowhere, drank some beer.

One thing: on the trams and trains, no one checks tickets. Like, apparently there are undercover people who check sometimes, but it can be months between being checked. However, no one would consider not having a ticket. This seems a curious thing, a remnant of a culture of informers, and the Stasi; the fact that they are out there is enough. In NZ, if they tried it, lots of people would take their chances and not pay.

Italy. It is the little details and differences between the European countries. It started at the airport, where there was no passport check at all. Catching the train from the airport was weirdly chaotic. Then a train to the countryside, then a bus into the middle of nowhere. Then being picked up and taken to the Art Monastery project. Spent a couple of days there, then went to Italian Burning Weekend, the Italian decompression.

225 people for what becomes a three-day weekend party, actually a burn, there was a wee temple and a man. (And to be fair, that is about the scale of my first two Kiwiburns.) Was really excellent to reconnect with many faces from Nowhere, and people I had met elsewhere around Europe. It really brought home the community side of things. Nowhere could have been a one off random thing, but this solidified connections, and allowed new ones. So yeah. A tiny awesome burn, where, being Italy, they provide two meals a day in the ticket price, and the whole thing is really based around the kitchen (and the fire, as it was pretty damn cold.)

Also, IBW was in Narni. Which is where Narnia got its name. CS Lewis spent some time writing there, it seems. Funny. Has been a journey of collecting fantasy kingdoms. On the hill opposite the monastery is the medieval town of Labro, which is pretty like a fairytale.

Then back to the Art Monastery. Will get to that in a later post, as I will be here for most of a month. It has been amusingly hectic, with many visitors, and only now is getting into something like a rhythm. I have started rewriting the novel I finished a draft of just before leaving NZ, and hope to get another draft done before leaving… nice to have some stability after a lot of chaos, and nice to get into some focused work.

I haven’t actually seen much of Italy, and may well not. Went to the tallest waterfall in Europe, which is nearby, and an unbelievably good restaurant. But it is autumn, the countryside is very pretty, and I am with good people. As they say here, good times, good times.

Notes from Afar 8: the Jungle


Did an 8 day amazon jungle tour, in the Manu National Park, which is way over a million hectares of protected jungle, and one of the highest regions of biodiversity on Earth, encompassing the cloud forest in the mountains and the Amazon basin itself. This is a relatively small chunk of the Amazon in Peru. It is pretty remote. A day of driving over dirt roads in the mountains to the end of the roads, then a day on a boat heading upriver. There are still tribes living out in the park. It is illegal to contact them, and it is possible there are uncontacted peoples out there. So yeah. Remote.

Saw lots of birds and bugs and critters. Quite a few monkeys, at a distance. A troop went by 40 metres overhead, and threw poo at us, raining down through the leaves. Luckily they were bad shots. Highlights were macaws, capybara (giant guinea pigs, utterly ridiculous looking) and tapir (an early ancestor of the horse? a rhino’s bum, horseish body, weird long rubbery mouth). However, my main focus was to just be in the jungle, to experience it as an environment, rather than to see wildlife.

The jungle is intense. Just so crammed full of life. Everything is adapted to a specific niche. Humans have no niche here. At least, not any niche we of the modern world understand. Two metres off the trail it becomes a dense impenetrable mess. There is no relaxing in the jungle. You cannot sit down comfortably anywhere. Even the ants bite, painfully. There are lots of poisonous things. Freaky noises fill the night, and the day. Howler monkeys are insane. The jungle is almost the best argument against untrammeled nature. The first natural environment I have encountered that did not feel innately peaceful. It is not a place people go for fun.

The jungle is also humid and hot. Like, five minutes after a cold shower, you are soaking again, from sweat. This, along with a dose of diarrhea, coloured my experience somewhat. Luckily, our group was very small – me and two others – which made for a much better experience than trampling around in a group of 15. Our guide was also really excellent, passionate, and knowledgeable. Random highlight was playing soccer on a makeshift pitch in the jungle, with our cook, and guide, and boatmen, against the staff of the lodge next door. There are soccer fields everywhere in Peru. Very expensive for what it was, but I am glad I got to do it.

Then everything got hectic.

From there took a 21 hour bus back to Lima, then a flight to Pucallpa, which is a small town in the Amazon. From there ended up in a remote jungle village without power or running water, and participated in a traditional healing ceremony, drinking the local plant medicine, under the guidance of a 75 year old Shipibo shaman. This was an utterly extraordinary experience, but not one I will blog about now. It was a real privilege to be there. (If you know what this was, ask me about it sometime.)

Flight back to Lima (internal transport in Peru is fucked, generally always involves having to return to Lima), overnight bus to Trujillo. Stayed in Huanchaco, visited some pre-Inca ruins from the Moche civilisation, the Huaca de la Luna, and Chan-Chan. The Huaca is pretty amazing, and the relation between their art and the Polynesians was striking. A very mental and foreign culture, the museum is really fascinating. Chan-Chan is gigantic and impressive but somehow bland. Ancient stuff is deeply weird to my kiwi mind.

Was going to go to more ruins further North the next day, but ended up out on the town with my hosts. The next day we went to a bullfight, which I didn’t even know they did in Peru. It was a bit sad, really, and frankly a custom which can be abandoned, though I can see how it would have meant something different hundreds of years ago, when humanity’s dominance over nature was less established. Weirdest thing about it was the way it was a family day out. And the crazed hysteria at the tiny entry gate.

From there another overnight bus back to Lima, watching a twisted Japanese movie with Spanish subtitles at a friends place, then hopping on a flight to London… Peru was a fantastic experience overall, and I am really glad I made it there. One of the three places I had really wanted to go, originally it had seemed there was no way I would be able to get there…

Oh, and apparently the last post was the 1000th post on undulatingungulate!