Caribbean Carnival, the Dominican Dream

A view from the field…

Lounging by the pool at our 27-storey hotel amongst the urban chaos of Santo Domingo, it’s difficult to remember just how we got here. It’s sunny and about 30 degrees Celsius; there’s cheesy pop music gently rippling from nearby speakers and an atmosphere of calm despite the cacophony of sirens and horns echoing from the streets below. Behind the city skyline on the horizon is a perfect blue stripe of ocean. I’m enjoying the sun for an extra hour between rehearsals, though to be honest there’ll be plenty more time for this, what with there being just two short gigs at either end of an endlessly sunny week in the Caribbean, and one rehearsal day – today – to prepare. ‘We’re not on holiday,’ we sensibly tell ourselves, though perhaps this time we almost are.

A couple of days ago I was at home in cold, wintry Newcastle, solemnly gazing at my diary, desperately wondering how best to fill the following week. Sometimes, as in this case, last-minute gigs come up just at the time you need them to, though they’re not usually quite this far-fetched.

Buenos días, Santo Domingo!

I’m suddenly attempting to pick up some Spanish again, in a vague attempt to interact with any number of the friendly locals. Fortunately they seem to speak slightly slower here than the way people speak in Spain (at a million miles an hour), and act incredibly appreciative whenever you utter a single word in the native language. This bodes well for us novices.

In this particular part of Santo Domingo there are few tourists, and most foreigners seem to be here on business, having travelled south from the States. We therefore encounter a lot of staring as we walk down the street, as locals unashamedly ogle these pale outsiders who rarely see the sun. The roads are fast and hectic, and most cars that pass seem to be lacking parts, like bumpers, doors and the like, and very few have license plates. Yet, from the perspective of a pedestrian, they are the most courteous drivers I’ve come across, and crossing these busy roads becomes a simple matter of confidently stepping out and making yourself known.

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Plenty more where that came from (Photo by Alex Tustin)

Yesterday we walked down the road from the hotel in search of food, passing all the American fast food chains – Wendy’s, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Creme and the rest – until settling at a small sandwich place that looked more like an off-license with a few tables in the front. We ordered cervezas and sandwiches from a surly, matron-like Dominican woman, received the beers immediately and waited and waited and waited for the food, all the while listening to a loud, garrulous man in a cap, presumably a regular, who was prone to random outbursts of excitable shouting, but all in good spirits. The service in most places tends to be so hilariously slow that by the time you receive your meal you’ve forgotten what you ordered, making the whole experience full of brilliant surprises. There’s never any apology for how long it took, or for anything else, but time slows down and life seems that much easier simply for choosing not to care.

Later on we discovered ‘happy hour’ at the hotel bar – more like ‘ecstatic everything-is-free two-hours every-freaking-day’ – and exchanged our stories from the road of gigs been and gone over buckets of face-shakingly strong sangria and bar snacks. I got the feeling this might set the tone for an enjoyable week ahead.

 

And now for a little reflection…

The first gig turned out to be on the 27th floor of our hotel, with a panoramic view through glass walls. I remember entering a stage from the balcony outside and experiencing a flash of green lights and smart phones, a room full of cameras (presumably with faces behind them) and a backing track revealing what happens when samba meets pop. It was short and sweet, in contrast to our 10-hour rehearsal day, and followed by big-screen videos and a seemingly high-profile rap group. In the dressing room we learned the crucial pre-performance phrase ‘muchas muerdas!’ – like a cruder version of ‘break a leg’ – from a very amicable stage manager, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of the sun setting over Santo Domingo and its surrounding mountains. When you get used to putting on your gig make-up in a basement with no windows, this sort of thing feels pretty special.

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Sunset from the dressing room (Photo by Alex Tustin)

 

For our first day off we took a taxi to the city’s Colonial Zone, a historic neighbourhood famed for being the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World, and now a World Heritage Site. Our driver took the scenic route to get us there, by which I mean she drove us through an immense variety of neighbourhoods. We travelled down narrow streets, every humble home painted a different bright colour: splashes of red, orange, blue, green and yellow, a vibrant backdrop to the everyday activities of locals who sold fruit or took a break sitting on the bonnets of mashed-up cars and in deck chairs watching the world go by. Through open doorways we caught glimpses of everything from conga drums to fresh hanging meat, and the occasional siesta-taker. It was at once familiar and like nowhere I had ever seen.

Reaching the Colonial Zone the buildings suddenly got grander, the streets cleaner and the colours softer. We could have been somewhere in Europe (though I suppose that’s more or less the point). We headed via cigar and panama hat shops towards the Parque Colón, a grand square with restaurants on one side overlooking the stunning cathedral (Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor) on the other, and a statue of Columbus in the centre. This was evidently the tourist trap we had expected it might be – if you go for a day trip to Santo Domingo, this is where you go, and we could see why. We sat at a restaurant on the square, gazing around at beautiful buildings, a mix of excitable tourists and laid-back locals, and a mass of pigeons to rival that in Trafalgar Square. Men sat in the shade playing checkers and draughts on large boards supported by their laps; groups of Dominican kids on school trips explored the historical buildings around them; and Merengue musicians played for everyone’s entertainment – except for the occasional timid tourist afraid of being hounded for money, people stopped to watch and dance and there was a general atmosphere of sunny festivities.

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Merengue musicians entertain the crowds

While we waited for our food (fortunately time flies when you’re having fun), two young Dominican men approached our table, armed with guitar and guiro (in this case a metal scraper played with an Afro comb). Luckily for them, we’re never timid tourists, and so, as they got started on a Merengue version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, the forks and spoons came out and we got a rowdy percussive jam on the go, ropy vocals included. After putting up with us throughout their otherwise flawless performance, they deserved every peso we could offer them.

After filling our stomachs with pizza, pasta and all those other typically Dominican foods (we did attempt to find local dishes, it just wasn’t particularly easy), we decided the best way to explore was by the Chu Chu Colonial, otherwise known as a train for children, except that this was an adult-sized one, where they gave you sophisticated historical information about your surroundings. As the road train set off we soon realised the whole experience was something of an attack on the senses: with a Spanish-language audio tour coming through some loud speakers, an enthusiastic group of about fifty young locals making up all the remaining space after the five of us, an English-language audio tour happening solely for us through one very loud speaker interspersed with Latin music wherever possible, and all of the general city hubbub happening around us. It wasn’t even possible to see half of the buildings we were meant to be learning about beyond the low roof of the train, and so I resigned myself to simply enjoying the friendly greetings of locals as we passed them with a wave and an ‘Holá!’. It was amazing just how approachable everyone was – even those gazing into the abyss from chairs down alleyways or sitting alone in dark rooms – and how far a small greeting can go. Combine that with the sunshine and endless brightly coloured buildings and you’ve got yourself a recipe for contentment.

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Plaza de Espana

The following day we took a taxi to Juan Dolio, the beach paradise we’d naively expected to step out onto directly from the plane. Our driver told us it would be no better than the two other tourist-infested, litter-filled resorts he’d taken us to first, but fortunately he was wrong – it was everything we had imagined: white sand, turquoise sea perfect for swimming, palm trees, unspoiled views, and most importantly no other visitors. It was also not as far away from Santo Domingo as one might expect – Punta Cana on the eastern side of the island is better known for its stunning beaches, but is about a three-hour drive away. Here, about one hour from the capital city, the beach and the bar was all ours. So, it was 11am already and easily time for a Piña Colada. This was the most relaxing day I have ever had (and probably ever will) on a work trip. I will cherish every coconutty, rummy, sunburn-inducing moment.

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Unspoiled beach at Juan Dolio

A final day off before the next gig involved a visit to must-see natural wonderland, Los Tres Ojos National Park. The Three Eyes (Tres Ojos) are three underground lakes, hidden in enchanting caves laden with stalagmites, stalactites and immense vines – it’s no wonder both Tarzan and Jurassic Park were filmed there. These perfect azure lakes were enjoyed by local swimmers right up to 1972 when the site became a National Park. A Tarzan-like character still lingers in the cave’s shadows: having remained almost a permanent fixture since the sixties, the wizened (but presumably very fit), bearded, half-naked man climbs the rocks every time a large group of tourists approaches, and from a great height, as if out of nowhere, dives into the six-metre-deep Lago La Nevera to a roar of applause. After a short, quiet boat ride across this lake, this was perhaps the last thing we were expecting.

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On the other side there were more surprises: pillars as big as old trees, where stalagmites had met with stalactites over hundreds of thousands of years, running seamlessly from floor to ceiling. According to our guide it would take more than 100 years to grow one inch – that gave us a pretty good idea of how old and remarkable this place, which was once entirely immersed in sea water, actually is. After the three underground lakes, there was one more lake immersed in sunlight, surrounded by cliffs covered in trees and their elongated vines. The water here was teeming with fish, which we were given morsels of bread to feed, and there was a wooden platform which extended slightly further out towards the sunlight. If it wasn’t such a popular photo spot for the other tourists, we could have stood there and pondered for hours.

After all the hard work of being tourists for days on end, we deserved a proper night out. Things we discovered on a night out in the Zona Colonial include: cativias (also spelled catibias) filled with chorizo and cheese, a local and incredibly tasty street food dish; that sushi is surprisingly brilliant in the Dominican Republic (what with being so far from Japan) and available in most places; and that club nights playing Merengue are few and far between, but if you want hardcore house and techno from Swedish DJs you can go pretty much anywhere. All of our enjoyable antics that evening were due to the help of an incredibly kind and hospitable young woman who went to the ends of the earth to sort us out despite being under no obligation.

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Finally the day had arrived that Carnival was upon us. On Shrove Tuesday in the UK, we make pancakes. Here in the Caribbean, they throw the world’s most insane party, and apparently it goes on for pretty much a whole month. That funky pancake batter doesn’t seem so edgy now, eh? Our final day in the Dominican Republic was spent entertaining and subsequently being entertained by the party-goers at one of the biggest Carnival events on the island, in La Vega. We headed north in a mini bus with all our gear, on long stretches of road surrounded by mountains and lines of palms, a constant stream of Cuban Son and Bossa Nova on the stereo. We passed small villages full of life, pottery shops and long lines of vibrant rugs – or were they carnival capes? – catching brief flashes of fluorescent pink, blue, green and orange.

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En route to Carnival in La Vega

Carnival itself turned out to be one of the loudest events I’ve ever come across, as we discovered when we rocked up behind the main stage, sub-bass dance tunes blasting from one side and hoards of drummers bashing away at random on the other. The stage was enormous, about ten feet above the audience, and as we headed out there above the crowds for our first show of the day things went from surreal to crazy. At Carnival people drink and dance from the beginning of the day to the bitter end, so the atmosphere is lively all day long, to say the least. There were people in colourful matching t-shirts filling the backstage VIP area, with glitter on their faces and in their beards, and just when we were ready to go onstage for the second time, troupes of what looked like dragons in various team colours turned up. It turns out these represented the Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil), the mischievous main character of the carnival, who typically carries a ‘Vejiga’ (a faux animal bladder filled with air) with which he whips innocent bystanders. Fortunately the whipping must have been banned in the backstage area, but we learned about it the hard way the second we ventured out into the main arena after our gig.

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Time to eat – backstage before the showtime madness

Backstage, the Devils gathered around us, chanting ‘Gringo! Gringo!’ (a Latino term for white American or foreign folk), until we started up a spontaneous bossa groove, which seemed to make them dance with delight. Next minute, we were called to the stage and charged onto a catwalk to perform amongst ecstatic party-goers and confetti canons, and then charged back again to continue playing to our by-now admiring backstage audience. We gave all the energy we had, and it was worth every ounce of sweat and every lost breath. It’s not often you get to play drums at Carnival in the Caribbean, and after the incredible week we’d been given, we gave it everything.

Do You Know the Way?: San Jose and the Golden State

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Walking through the streets of downtown San Jose on a Sunday morning was a surreal experience. Having trudged through a selection of the busiest airports the previous night, the city had a kind of lifelessness to it, and as we searched for larger groups of people or bustling streets, we began to get the feeling we were oblivious characters in The Truman Show, the wide, clean, sunny streets our stage. It was a typically sunny morning – just what we expected from California – and the perfect uniformity of the roads lined with palm trees and new, nondescript buildings gave it the quality of a film set. Or perhaps it was just that, coming from dreary autumnal England, everything we saw reflected that which we had only ever seen in Hollywood movies: yellow fire hydrants on every corner, four-lane roads with huge street signs at every mammoth intersection, pavements teeming with skateboarders, all set to a backdrop of awe-inspiring golden hills.

As if all this wasn’t cinematic enough, as we wandered we spotted young men playing catch with a football (not soccer, the other one) in a park area, shortly followed by a couple dressed in extravagant costumes and make-up in a ‘Day of the Dead’ style: their faces were completely deadpan, giving the impression this was in no way unusual. Further down the street, past bagel bars, burrito shops and Philz Coffee (with a queue out the door), were endless groups of young cheerleaders, closely followed by a few budding American football players in full uniform. Then, just as we’d decided to amble back to the hotel, a rumble of drums echoed in the distance. Drumline? we thought. Surely not. Everything had been far too predictable so far, and this was just the icing on the cake. Like hungry hounds we briskly turned on the spot and followed the sound until its source crept into view. There in front of us was a great mass of vibrant feather headdresses, bare dancing feet, powerful incense, painted faces and frightening masks: a parade of Hispanic men, women and even tiny children (some still in pushchairs) moving to the beat of two extraordinarily loud drums as part of the Día de Los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) celebrations. The group of thirty or more dancers passed us in a colourful blur and we raced after them down the street until they stopped in a square by the sidewalk and continued in a ritualistic dance, led by a masked man with a conch. To make way for the parade, other masked dancers appeared to stop traffic simply with the power of their aura.


We stood and watched the dancers for a good while, unable to believe our luck in happening upon such an event. Gradually the crowd of spectators grew and grew, and soon we were surrounded by people eating Mexican food and handing out free orange flowers through a cloud of strong incense. We eventually managed to pull ourselves away, and off we went to play our own drums in a huge conference hall, in preparation for the gig a couple of days later in front of 5000 people.

After relatively demanding tech and dress rehearsals on Sunday and Monday morning, Monday afternoon was our chance to go out and explore. After a great deal of deliberation, we hired a car and headed for the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek. As soon as we got into the SUV on those wide American roads, it felt like freedom was ours. Every house we passed looked like the quintessential family movie location, with clapboard covered in Halloween decorations, tree-lined sidewalks, and always in the distance were those rolling California hills. We followed Bear Creek Road all the way to Highway 9 and Big Basin Way – a route we’ve since discovered is notoriously dangerous for all its winding turns along cliff edges. Of course, we went on the one night of our stay that it rained, and since nobody involved in our group outing that day had ever driven overseas, we found ourselves on slippery roads travelling on ‘the wrong side’ in an automatic car. Novices, we were, to say the least, but fortunately our drivers did an impressive job, and were suitably scared out of anything close to dangerous driving by the unfortunate car we passed that was being toed back up the cliff edge in a particularly ominous fashion.

Boulder Creek itself, a small town in Santa Cruz County, was both bleak and idyllic in equal measure. One main street of food stores, old saloon bars, the odd pizza place and a gas station made up the town centre, tucked deep into the forest. Looking up the road between old cafes and pickup trucks, we could see mist hanging like cobwebs between layers of towering pine trees. The low cloud and constant rain that day gave an eerie quality to the wilderness backdrop, while in the foreground impatient drivers honked their horns as workmen dug up the one through-road for the whole town.

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Boulder Creek

We stopped to pick up a late lunch at the local farm food store, full of healthy and interesting produce typically found in bohemian neighbourhoods, and were offered advice by friendly locals on which vegan wrap to purchase (without asking for it, I should add). We had come from the mild, sunny city completely unprepared for the great outdoors and must have stood out a mile, but received remarkably warm greetings as opposed to any small-town animosity.

After purchasing our falafel, vegetable samosas and mystery health drinks, we were back on the road. On our way towards the redwoods we passed charming countryside houses dotted throughout the forest, where we presumed people must live wholesome lives, and even these were covered in witches, skeletons, pumpkins and fake cobwebs. Reaching the National Park itself we were astounded by the natural beauty of the place. We exchanged a few words with the woman working at the Visitor’s Centre, predictably joking about how we must have brought the rain with us from England, and she playfully thanked us, having endured droughts over recent years which put the redwoods at great risk of dying out.


Now that it was beginning to get dark (we really had spent a long time deliberating about what to do that day), we took the shortest walk through the forest, feeling like characters in the Blair Witch Project as we wandered through the mist at dusk, expecting any moment to be split up by some unfathomable event. The trees themselves were astonishingly large, many of them between 1000 and 2000 years old and around 300 feet tall. One or two were burnt out in the middle, which had created a huge space inside: a tree-shaped room, the trunk its walls. We took full advantage of this by doing the choreography for one of our drumming pieces in this unique space, which was then filmed on the phones of unsuspecting passers-by who seemed to feel they’d caught a magical moment on camera. We can now say we have done our routine inside a tree. That can be added to the long list of things I never thought I’d say.

That evening we returned to the hotel reasonably late and went in search of food in downtown San Jose. We ended up at a video games bar, playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Wii while we ate pizza and fries and drank Root Beer. It had the gaming nerds among us starry-eyed, and was perhaps the only kind of drinking establishment where the aggressive shouts and screams of customers from across the room did not pose any kind of threat. No bar brawls here, just impassioned outcries aimed entirely at fictional characters on a screen.

The following day was bookended by gigs: preparation for the first beginning at 6am, the gig itself completed just after 9am, while the second took place in the evening. We packed up after the morning performance while listening to American entrepreneurs onstage giving motivational speeches that contained more references to baseball than we could ever pretend to understand. I took the opportunity in the middle of the day to meet with family friends for lunch in the heart of Silicon Valley. We drove out on the highway between numerous company ‘campuses’ where professionals live out their working lives and coffee breaks, to an area full of restaurants surrounded by nothing but fast roads and hilly horizons. There was a choice of every type of world cuisine imaginable, and we ended up at a Malaysian place that was jam-packed everyday by 12 noon. Given the lack of residential areas in this part of town, it was clear just how many people work in the area. It also seemed, as we caught up on news of each others’ families, that we could have been almost anywhere in the world, except for those imposing hills all around us; green on the west side towards the ocean and golden to the east – a natural compass.

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Photo by Lizzie Lowe

The gig that evening was lively and exciting, our main role being to draw the crowds into the City National Civic, a concert venue that has previously hosted performances by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Randy Newman and Barbara Streisand (I took note as I wandered down the autograph-lined corridor). We danced and drummed our way into the main hall to find an outrageous laser show that supported our act perfectly, and eventually drummed our way out again to make way for headline band Third Eye Blind. While it seemed every American attending the conference was their biggest fan, they were less familiar to us, except for a vague sense that we’d heard them before on the soundtrack to at least one teen movie from the nineties or early noughties. (It turns out we were right: they featured on the soundtracks to American Pie, Me Myself & Irene, and Coyote Ugly among many more.) So far America was everything we were hoping for and more.

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Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley

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The City National Civic on a quieter night

Our own gigs were a great success and this was largely due to the support of the people we were working with: stage managers and organisers who offered words of support and encouragement at every possible moment throughout rehearsals and performances. This display of good character seemed to stretch beyond the realms of work and into every part of leisure as well. Californian ‘service with a smile’ is more than just that. Whether we were indulging in a fancy meal (admittedly that was just the once), asking for advice on where to go in San Francisco at the hotel’s front desk, or simply ordering a coffee, every employee went above and beyond the line of good customer service. By the end of one meal we felt like the waiters who had served us were our best friends, despite knowing nothing about them; meanwhile the baristas at Philz Coffee in downtown San Jose merrily called out ‘I can help!’ with a beaming smile instead of the bored-sounding ‘Who’s next?’ we’ve come to expect at home. What was most satisfying was the apparent passion, whether genuine or not, shown by many for their work, perhaps most perfectly summed up by the waiter who insisted our wine was ‘a Pinot that acts like a Merlot’. We nodded in faux-agreement, looks of bewilderment faintly glowing in our eyes. Even if this waiter was simply acting like a enthralled connoisseur just as the Pinot was acting like a Merlot, we believed him, and it made our evening altogether sensational.

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A seafood platter poses next to a sneaky pinot in disguise

After a night of post-gig dancing and merriment in the downtown bars with various colleagues and conference attendees, we had one final day to ‘go see the city,’ as we’d been so instructed to do by so many. ‘The city’ was not, as we’d originally thought, San Jose, but the more vibrant city of San Francisco, an hour up the road. Having last visited with my family almost a decade ago, San Francisco still held precedent in my mind as one of the world’s most inspiring metropolises. When we arrived over the hills into this beautiful urban chaos, my excitement was reignited. We only had half a day, but we used it well, beginning at Crissy Fields in Golden Gate Park, overlooking that striking red landmark across the bay. On our way towards it we passed numerous houses with an unspoiled view of the bridge, so expensive ‘you can’t even touch them,’ said our taxi driver, yet still every one of them was covered in extravagant Halloween decorations; even the wealthiest aren’t above this spooky holiday. It was a glorious day, all clear blue skies and sunshine – summer, I’d been told, happens later in San Francisco – and even the top of the bridge, which is so often covered in low cloud, was in perfect view. All around us was the idyllic American setting: dog walkers ambling along the beach, the sun low in the sky, the bridge on one side and a city silhouette on the other, Alcatraz looming just far enough away in the distance. There are moments that it feels good to just stand, stare and appreciate. This was one of them.

After taking enough photos of the Golden Gate Bridge to make those back home bored, we ordered taxis to Haight Ashbury to see what was on offer in one of the hippest districts ever known. After mooching up and down Haight Street and exploring its range of bohemian shops, we bought colossal sandwiches in Haight Street Market, yet another large farm foods store. Sitting outside in the street with a sandwich, surrounded by giant pumpkins, the odd busker and hippies selling handmade gifts, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Locals recommended interesting bars around the corner but soon enough we knew we’d have to leave for the airport. In the final ten minutes before our departure I ran to Rasputin Records and quickly browsed through its immense music collection, and in what felt like a heartbeat it was time to go. Our taxi took us on a scenic route up and down San Fran’s steep streets, through beautiful neighbourhoods of colourful clapboard houses overlooking the striking city below. Our short visit once again whet my appetite for the place and left me wanting more. Apparently house prices in San Francisco have now been driven so far up that it’s too expensive for most people to live there. This is hugely unfortunate, though unsurprising, but I still plan to pass through again soon, and take my sweet, sweet time.

 

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Warning: do not touch

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Good morning, America!

Arriving at San Jose airport for our final departure, we were greeted by a group of giggling airline staff, who appeared to be having a lot more fun than one typically expects in an airport. Little did they know it was about to get better. When they asked what it was we were doing in the USA, we decided it would be fitting to launch into a dance routine with a cappella beats. If you happened to pass the front desk of San Jose airport at that precise moment you would have witnessed some dancing drummers surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic, clapping, cheering airline staff and a few cheerful strangers who latched on along the way. During our time in California I had seen a man being pulled along on his skateboard at breakneck speed by a small dog on a leash; detected evidence of sushi burritos; listened to a lot of Spanish radio; witnessed a man taking photographs of his new trainers in various scenic settings for a good hour; enjoyed the rain; danced inside one of the most enormous trees I have ever seen; attempted to motivate 5000 accountants and business developers before nine o’clock in the morning, and now this. It had been, at the very least, entertaining, and at best, friendly, inviting, hilarious, and something we need to do a whole lot more of.

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Coffee break with a view – Photo by Adam Stapleford

America, until next time, please take good care.

All Play, No Rest: 12 Days in Dubai

Arriving midweek into Dubai for the third time in the last year, the city felt more familiar than ever. Yet every gig we do seems to provide a new perspective, and this one, lasting nearly two weeks, gave another chance to explore a new (or rather ‘old’) side of the Emirates.

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Well, hello again, tall buildings.

After a long journey, the first full day was a welcome day off, with performances commencing a day later. And so, after an excitable group rehearsal in a hotel room, we wandered down the street from our hotel in Bur Dubai to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, situated by The Creek, where we had a slap-up meal of middle eastern delights, ordering too much food and then spending hours attempting to finish large plates of hummus, falafel, grilled meats and fattoush, all the while desperately clustered around one air-conditioning machine. The ‘neighbourhood’ was almost deserted, but turned out to be the best place we could have wished to visit. First, we happened upon the Coffee Museum, where we learnt about coffee-making processes from Ethiopia to Italy, and sat on rugs drinking small cups of strong Arabic coffee accompanied by rose-flavoured Turkish delight. We left practically shaking with delight, and not just because of the caffeine. Turning the corner outside, we then stumbled upon a spice shop, which hosted shelves upon shelves of valuable herbs and spices: here we took in the smells of cardamon and cinnamon, the dazzling colours of bright blue and yellow stones, and sampled perfumes of saffron and frankincense.

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Eagerly awaiting our tasty Arabic coffee, done good and proper

Next door, an enclosed area comprised of two workshops: one, a calligrapher and engraver, hammering away at a giant sheet of copper to create beautiful Islamic patterns for an ornate doorway; the other, a weaver, working fast on his weaving apparatus to create colourful rugs, prayer mats, bags, scarves and cushion covers. I entered this one first, and was offered a cup of tea or coffee by the friendly weaver, but politely declined, carefully considering the amount of caffeine already in my system. He showed us his weaving while his friend sat and chatted away, and then encouraged us to each have a go on the weaving apparatus, made only of chunks of wood holding together thousands of fine threads. The activity required both hands and feet, controlling pedals to move the threads up and down before carefully weaving the coloured pieces of thread in between. Five hours it would take our weaver friend to finish this rug, who weaved so fast you could barely see his hands moving, and probably closer to five weeks for one of us to do the same job. We looked around in awe at all the reds, greens, golds and blues covering the small room in which this man worked; there wasn’t a patch of wall, floor or ceiling to be seen. He continued weaving as we looked around, and bid us a cheerful farewell as we left, without buying anything.

We then wandered in to the engraver’s place immediately next door. We watched as the engraver hammered away in a bright room covered in stunning calligraphy, including everything from Arabic names engraved in jewellery to the face of Sheikh Mohammed, the Emir of Dubai, made up of Arabic letters engraved into shiny silver. This particular project would take him at least three months overall, though a large part of it was already completed. I was therefore somewhat surprised when he offered me the hammer and suggest I try some engraving. I enthusiastically agreed, and then did a measly amount of work, fearing I might ruin his masterpiece. I decided the man must have the patience of a saint, as this work was by no means an easy use of time, and even more so for letting me contribute with my unskilled hand. These were very special people – passionate, welcoming and patient – and I had a feeling we might see them again.

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Nighttime boat trips from The Creek

After the first day, most of our exploring took place from the window of the bus which took us between hotel and venue. Dubai is truly an international city, in the broadest sense. On one road we travelled down each day to reach our venue, I spotted an Iranian club, a ‘Parsian Hotel’, an English speaking school, an Indian high school, a Pakistani language centre, a Jordanian social club, and a French cultural centre, all interspersed with Indian, Arabic, Thai and Filipino restaurants and a handful of visually stunning mosques. On one journey we took particular note of the ‘Saudi German Hospital – Dubai’, and sat inside our minibus with perplexed expressions, silently pondering what, or who, might be inside.

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View from the bus: the Burj Khalifa standing out from the crowd

Bur Dubai, where our hotel apartments were situated, might best be described as Little India, hosting a large portion of the city’s huge Indian population and containing endless curry houses and Indian-owned convenience stores. In this part of town there seem to be fewer 4x4s and a million times more bicycles – shop workers will even hop on a pushbike from the greengrocers and deliver groceries in this way right to your apartment door. Local inhabitants make good use of the many empty plots of land yet to be built on, sitting in the dust just to hang out or even playing the odd cricket match.

Approaching our hotel one night, we passed a small group of men sitting in a circle in another sandy empty plot, this time accompanied by one massive goat. The goat sat out of their way, docile as ever, and nobody paid much attention to it. We wondered if the heat had finally got to us, like lost nomads wandering in the desert, dehydrated and hallucinating. It was such a big goat. What was its name? And what was it for?

 

From day one we knew this would be no easy gig: thirty-six shows over nine days at the Festival City Mall. The Dubai mall is the land of plenty – sparkly polished floors, top food chains, children’s play areas, 7D cinemas, mammoth supermarkets, IKEA, designer handbags, designer watches, designer everything, and air conditioning that makes you never want to go outdoors in the midday sun ever again. People come here for their daily entertainment, their meals, their socialising, and just about everything that isn’t work (unless, of course, they work there) every day of the week until late into the evening. They shop here, eat here, pray here, and, if they have them, they show off their expensive cars here – we exit through valet parking at the end of each day and see the delights of the motoring world, including pristine Range Rovers, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and many more. The Eid holiday is the busiest time of all, as nearly everyone is off work and in need of some entertainment, and that’s exactly where we come in.

Every day we paraded through various parts of the mall, often feeling like pied pipers as a crowd of excitable onlookers ran after us, chasing the sound of our drums, which seemed to reverberate throughout the entire building. The kids were typically one of two breeds: terrified criers diving in the opposite direction the second a drummer looked in their general direction, or joyful, confident enthusiasts desperate for a piece of the action. We made many children cry, but, somehow, we convinced ourselves it was for the greater good. Whatever attitude the shoppers had – whether it was shooing us away from a sleeping baby (not for long) or dancing tirelessly all the way from M&S to Toys R Us – it was impossible to escape our thundering beats, four times a day.

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Coming to a mall near you… [Photo by Alice Boynes, Worldbeaters Music LLP]

On our one and only night off after the gigs started, we headed to the aptly named ‘The Beach’ in Dubai Marina. Here we ate at an Arabic restaurant containing the largest number of plasma TVs ever to be seen, all set to different channels; saw the fastest, most expensive car in the world, the Bugatti Veyron, stuck in a traffic jam (I don’t profess to know a lot about cars, but my attention was drawn to the large queue of people taking selfies by this particular one while the driver was sitting in it); and watched the most impressive Eid celebration fireworks display as it echoed and ricocheted off the rows of skyscrapers lining the seafront. Incidentally this was just one night of eight on which you could observe this firework display – welcome to Dubai: land of splendour and excess.

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View from The Beach, where the sea water is a warm bath

Another night we accompanied one of our colleagues to an old haunt where the band she previously worked with were playing: it was none other than Jazz Night at Pizza Express. There, we ate pizza, drank a pint each (just one) of shockingly expensive lager, shared conversations with Brits, Americans and Australians, and enjoyed dancing to swing music – we could have been anywhere in the world.

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Just an average harbour, filled with boats and buildings

Overwhelmed by the international chain restaurants and eateries dominating the malls and commercial areas, we travelled by car one night to 2nd December Street in Al Satwa district, where we stopped by Al Mallah, a basic and very popular middle eastern restaurant serving some of the best chicken shwarma and mint lemonade I’ve come across, for a very reasonable price. We sat on plastic chairs at tables on the street outside, enjoying the rare opportunity of having a meal in the natural outdoor air, no matter how sweaty. Another cheap middle eastern banquet, another satisfied band of drummers.

On the last day, we awoke early, had a morning swim in the hotel pool (coolest, though still a tepid warm bath, at this time of day), and returned once more to Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood to buy some spices and to see a familiar face from the first day: Ahmed, the weaver. He immediately welcomed us in and without a moment to spare we found ourselves sitting among the woven rugs drinking Turkish coffee which he brewed there and then in a corner, accompanied by the sound of an old Arabic film playing from YouTube on a nearby laptop. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare before starting the final day’s work, but we gave all the time we did have to Ahmed, and took advantage of our last opportunity to buy some of his handmade creations: cushion covers, scarves and olive soap. Meanwhile, the weaver told us of his exhibitions in Syria, Turkey, and all across Europe. He then played a short tune on a kind of Arabic fiddle with one string (a likely relative of the rebab but otherwise unfamiliar to me), subsequently passing it to me and placing a fez on my head as I struggled to bow a clean note from this instrument I’d never before had the pleasure of playing. We finally left, remembering there was still work to be done, hyper from caffeine and beaming with satisfaction at the morning’s events. When we got to the mall that day, we decided the morning could be improved further with a visit to the 7D cinema, which filled a five-minute break with a virtual rickshaw ride on the Great Wall of China, jolting seat and water spray included. By the time we set up for the final day’s shows, we were practically flying through the roof with giddy excitement. Show number thirty-three was the most energetic and enjoyable afternoon gig of the trip, and they only got better as the day went on. Dubai single-handedly drained us of energy and injected us with new life all at once.

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We return to the UK a tad shorter, deafer, and in great need of a massage; but also with an appreciation for the passionate people and high level of hospitality in another part of the world, and a feeling that we now know our show better than ever before. Now, the busy season begins.

Cheese Boats and Sunburn: Another Georgian Summer

This August saw our return to Batumi, Georgia’s favourite holiday resort, for more street theatre gigs as part of Check-In Georgia, a nationwide summer festival. Same mind-frazzling, body-ruining, spirit-raising gig; same lovely air-conditioned dressing room; same venue and parade route along a beautiful beachfront to another lively crowd; different team – just as eager.

With a few new fresh-faced drummers on board, our excitement was renewed: for one performer this was her first international gig with the group, and I found myself reminiscing not only about last year’s Georgian adventure but also about my first drumming trip abroad, to Macau (the one that got this whole writing thing started). While the regular trips might become more normalised, our job as performers is still the most exciting in the world, and even a trip back to the same place is always full of surprises. This year’s hotel was different, if only a few yards down the road, with the same startling view of the country’s most baffling skyscraper and what looks like a down-sized London Eye stuck to its side.

When we arrived we were met with the type of humidity the new recruits thought we could only be exaggerating, perhaps because it’s typically associated with tropical places like Bali or Trinidad, and something of a shock to the system in this part of the world. The gigs themselves were as tough as we remembered – hot, sweaty, exhausting – but exciting and truly fulfilling. The crowds were yet again fantastic, with their heartfelt dancing, keen clapping, engaging grins and loud cheers. And there’s nothing more satisfying after a long energetic work-out (well, gig) than a soaking catsuit dropping to the hard floor with an immense ‘PLAP’. By that point you know all the hard work was worthwhile.

Now, let’s get down to business: THE FOOD. Our mission to find a good lunch on the first day involved finding the first place that sold Adjaruli Katchapuri (the cheese boat – see earlier blog-post ‘Bringing Batumi Alive’) and ordering a round of beers to accompany our cheesy, bready feast. ‘Stodge Heaven’ might be the best way to describe it, and it was just as good as I remembered. If I thought it was in any way good for me, I would probably eat at least one every day. It turned out that nearly every eatery in town served this traditional meal, and even the tiniest people could be spotted confidently tucking into the mammoth stodge-fest. While this is typically served for one person alone, pizzas, on the other hand, are for sharing. Following our first evening of gigging we attempted to order six pizzas for a group of six people, and evoked a reaction of startled confusion from the waiter, who suggested we have just two between us. A waitress soon came over to help out with this over-zealous and complex order (six pizzas and six drinks, please), telling us that ‘Here, we do not eat a whole pizza like they do in Europe – our pizzas are much bigger so they are for sharing.’ After a few confused looks around the table about which continent we were therefore in, we made a compromise and ordered three pizzas. They arrived quickly and were undoubtedly delicious but, being the ravenous animals we are after a tiring gig, we realised soon enough that this did not quite satisfy our appetites, no matter how greedy the staff thought we might be. ‘Tomorrow, we’ll get four,’ we mischievously plotted in near-whispers so as not to be found out.

Predictably, we returned to the first restaurant each day, and not only because of the cheese boats but also because of the friendly waiters, one of whom described our first meal as ‘the sea, a boat, and a piece of the sun in the middle’. What a charmer. So there we sat each lunchtime on the front terrace, next to perhaps the wildest crossroads in the world, where traffic lights and the demands of police seemed to mean absolutely nothing to any of the drivers. There was always something worth watching among the cacophony of horns, screeching brakes and wails of sirens among notably nonchalant pedestrians.

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Time to freshen up in Batumi’s central square

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It’s all action on these grand streets

We found that the general attitudes of the public were shamelessly blasé, and this was perfectly summed up by the way nobody (except us) at the hotel pool seemed to notice the alarmingly eclectic playlist being hurled out of unnecessarily large subwoofers with erratic volume-changes and the most inappropriate lyrics for a daytime family crowd. From Cab Calloway singalongs to Georgian covers of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’ and a few X-rated dance tracks, they had it all. The DJs were loving it, the Georgian guests, young and old, appeared indifferent, and all the while we sat there with mouths hanging wide open, unable to comprehend what kind of listenership the DJs imagined was there. This, coupled with the sounds of marching bands and rock covers groups echoing over from the seafront, provided endless entertainment and certainly kept us awake after we used up most of our energy on hyperactive ballgames in the pool. At the end of the day, there’s always a show to do, and every moment of sitting down without heavy drums attached is one to be cherished.

We played for around 90 minutes each night – sunburned, sweaty, and fighting off mosquitoes with our sticks – to an energetic crowd which somehow managed to keep up with us as we made our speedy stampede along the beach promenade. Each show ended with a swift game of pool or ping pong as we made our way back to the dressing room through outdoor leisure areas filled with families and holidaymakers. Perhaps this is the way in which we should end every show from now on.

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Fancy a game? Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley

Coming back to Georgia this year has made me realise how much more there is to discover: from the beach resorts on the Black Sea to the hiker’s mountainous paradise always in sight on the horizon, and far away on the other side, the capital, Tbilisi, where it seems half the people in Batumi actually come from. And if we needed any more reasons to return, perhaps next year they’ll be handing out free Georgian wine at the airport again. There’s only one way to find out.

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Six drummers lungeing for joy.

A Thousand LEDs for Qatari Eid

Occasionally, a gig comes along that leaves you thinking, ‘Is this humanly possible?’. The answer, it turns out, is always YES. After all, adrenaline works wonders, and after many gigging endurance tests I’m still here to tell the tale. Qatar, in summer time, is one of the hottest places imaginable, and whether you’re performing in the daytime or at night, it is still very, very hot. The heat is so entirely consuming that it doesn’t just come from the direction of the sun, but seems to to radiate from every direction, as if everywhere you went you were surrounded by fifty fan heaters covering the ground, the walls and the sky, and even in the shade. Our most recent gigs in the capital, Doha, varied from the slippery (intensely humid, much like swim-drumming through a hot bath) to the utterly parched (dry, contact lens-deteriorating), but we did it, and we survived.

Now that’s enough of talking about the heat. We were told on our first day in Doha that we had precisely one day during which we were allowed to mention the weather, and that was day one. Following that, no complaints, and no obvious statements regarding outdoor temperature. Done. Fin. Stop it at once.

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Is this the moon? View from the hotel pool, 11 storeys up. The phone weather app simply read ‘dust’.

We arrived in Doha at night, when it was still around 40 degrees Celsius (OK, I might have to mention it once or twice), stumbling quickly through the sweat between air conditioned airport, van, and finally to the hotel. After throwing down our things in tired and hungry delirium, we descended upon the Souk Waqif for the first of many outings to taste its glorious cuisine and explore its fascinating alleys and Aladdin’s caves full of good quality tat. Our midnight feast took place at a Syrian restaurant, its interior covered with hanging moons and stars, reminding us that Eid was fast approaching, plus there was a drumming man and an exciting/terrifying sword dance to add to the festivities. We filled ourselves with hummus, falafel, fattoush, tabbouleh, pastry, lamb and other delicious mystery meats in yoghurt sauces, got a mild chill from the air conditioning, tried a refreshing Syrian tamarind drink, and headed back out into the heated streets. We returned to the hotel to find our host and fellow performers, the friendliest bunch of people ever to grace a hotel lobby at 2 AM, and then it was time to sleep before the big rehearsal day ahead.

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Sword dance in a Syrian restaurant at the Souk Waqif

I say big rehearsal day… what I really mean is rehearsal night, because going outside to do this amount of moving during daylight hours is practically suicide; let’s just say I had a tremendous amount of respect for construction workers going about their daily jobs. Fortunately performers’ working hours tend to be in the latter half of the day, and so after a swift gym session, a visit to the (indoor) hotel pool, lunch and a team meeting, we set off in the late afternoon for our venue, at the Katara Cultural Village. This being the lead-up to Eid, reminders that it was still Ramadan were everywhere: most notably, we were forbidden to eat or drink anything (even water) in public before sunset with respect to the local traditions – no mean feat in this extreme climate. For this reason, traffic in Doha in the final hours of daylight was even more hectic than usual, making our daily commute in a minibus full of excitable circus performers all the more thrilling.

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View from Katara Cultural Village by day, with stage on the right

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Panorama mania at the amphitheatre, Katara Cultural Village

Twelve shows over four days, plus one mammoth, sweltering rehearsal. In each dream-like, LED-tastic show: a BMX gymnast, poi dance duo, German wheel, LED-clad break-dancers, a hula hoop acrobat, quick change duo, and to finish, us drummers. The third and final show of each night ended with an impressive firework display from the harbour behind the stage, at which point we moved quickly through the 4000-strong crowd to get photographs with more lights and sparkly things than ever. The gigs themselves went brilliantly, and we never tired of watching the quick change act before us, involving a dancing couple magically changing costume every few seconds in the blink of an eye. I saw that show twelve times and I still haven’t worked out how they do it (though I put this down to concentrating too hard on marching in time to their soundtrack, which changed tempo and/or time signature every time they revealed a new outfit).

As with the shows in Hong Kong earlier in the year, it felt good to be part of a larger group of performers forming one huge show. It meant spending every finale looking around in amazement as we were awestruck by the skill of the other acts, and ultimately having more people to empathise with when the sweat was dripping out of every nook and cranny of one’s being.

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But the end of the show is never the end of the show. If a keen crowd wants photos, we give them photos, for however long it takes. In fact it’s often in the photo-taking that our theatrical characters really come to life, as this is the best chance to interact with our audience up-close. The crowds in Doha were among the most friendly and polite we’ve come across, and in many cases extremely trusting. At least, this was my thought as a man handed me his baby and left me there to fend for myself, attempting to get a tiny and completely unaware human to look towards a camera somewhere in the distance. Well, they did make me feel part of the family, if only for a few moments. Another man took the opposite approach, as he insisted on getting a photo with me without the means of eye contact or speech, and so it was only as he was leaving, seemingly unmoved by our moment together ‘on film’, that I noticed he was there. But overall, the atmosphere was alive: even at midnight, the audience consisted largely of little kids, full of energy, buzzing off the spectacular Eid celebrations.

After a string of incredible shows and many good times sharing bucketloads of hummus, falafel, pitta and mint lemonade at various eateries with our fellow performers, we had one final day off to explore our surroundings by ourselves. The Museum of Islamic Art is one of the most impressive buildings in Doha and perhaps one of the most inspiring structures I have ever seen: it’s simply an architectural heaven, inside and out. From floor to ceiling, every shape and angle is considered, designed, and executed perfectly. Climbing the stairs, one looks down upon a floor plan that could be an architectural drawing rather than a reality, with every item precisely, uniformly marking its place. And taking a closer look, you begin to notice the tiny Islamic geometric patterns present in almost everything – hidden gems in the lights and the walls – and a chandelier in the shape of a Darbuka drum. All of this against a backdrop of one huge window perfectly framing the Doha skyline over a turquoise sea.

We sat in the museum cafe in the central lobby, eating posh food from jars and drinking Moroccan mint tea from fancy teapots, taking in the view across the water from the safety of the bright, air-conditioned indoors. Then, remembering suddenly that this is not just a fancy building but a fancy building full of fancy things, we climbed the stairs to the first of many galleries. First up was a Muhammad Ali exhibition: an interesting tribute to his life, with a particular focus on his big fights in Qatar and his humanitarian principles; this was all the more moving following his very recent death. After this, we moved onto the Islamic art exhibits, covering just about every other space in the entire building. Handmade artefacts mostly from Central Asia and what we now know as the Middle East, dating from the 7th Century onward, covered every wall, and just when you thought you’d seen everything the entrance to yet another gallery appeared. What was most incredible was the amount of work that must have gone into making these highly-detailed objects – ornate rugs, doors, jewellery, lamps, tiles and so on – long before the time in which seemingly-vital tools came into existence. If people could do this kind of work then, we should all be doing it now without any struggle.

The final evening involved one last visit to the Souk, just down the road from the museum, admiring the old wooden dhow fishing boats as we strolled along the harbour. Winding down the hot market alleyways, which had trapped much of the heat from the 47-degree day, we enjoyed gawking at bright scarves, patterned rugs and Moroccan-style lamps, and taking in the evocative smells of spices and shisha, and I bought a traditional hat for tuppence. Sipping on our last mint lemonades outside amongst the bustle, we excitedly jumped up to the sound of a parade, and were pleasantly surprised to see an all-female group in gold masks, singing in Arabic, clapping and hitting drums and cymbals. If it hadn’t been for the flight we had to catch, we might have stayed all night. Next time, maybe we will.

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Romance and Realism in Le Gai Paris

Trips abroad as a performer can vary hugely when it comes to having spare time and opportunities for tourism. Sometimes you might travel for two days to a country far across the globe, only to play a short gig in a conference centre and be transported straight from airport to venue and then back to airport again for the return flight. It can even leave you wondering whether you were ever really in Istanbul or just in Swindon. Other times you play numerous gigs over a few days in one location, allowing time to meander in the mornings, or even a whole extra day for tourism before a late-night flight home.

Our most recent trip to Paris fell somewhere in between: two nights in town, one day of gigs, allowing precisely one afternoon/evening and one morning of sightseeing for us keen explorers.  Despite its vast size, it turns out that, with accommodation situated in the central district of Le Marais, one can see a lot of the city in one evening, entirely on foot.

Starting around 5pm, and with two Paris-virgins in our group, we set out to squeeze in everything we possibly could, starting with a picturesque walk to Notre Dame to take obligatory photos amongst the other thousand tourists. Then it was time for a café stop, as it always is, and where better to have a tasty snack and a coffee than by the river Seine on a sunny day in Paris? It seemed like everyone else had had the same idea, so we joined the masses and, with our chairs facing out towards the street like everyone else’s, we watched the world (including mad traffic) go by, coffee in hand and crepe all over face.

Then it was on to the Louvre, which we embarrassingly pointed at for a while, loudly pondering what ‘that massive building’ might be, having forgotten from the last time any of us were in Paris, about a decade ago. The glass roof that everyone immediately recognises was, to be fair, on the other side. And when we eventually walked through to the other side we found the city’s largest area of absolute tranquillity. Even outside the gallery, wandering through the courtyard were people in ‘museum mode’ – respectfully spread out, quiet, lost in a moment of awe and contemplation – a breath of fresh air from the bustling street café moments before. Gradually, moving on and away from the museum, there appeared groups of street vendors selling miniature Eiffel Towers. It seemed like we didn’t stop seeing those men for the rest of the trip – in every tourist area were people selling Eiffel Towers: some sparkled, some lit up, some did absolutely nothing. Even hours later, having been to the top of the actual Eiffel Tower and back down again, we still didn’t feel the urge to buy one. But somewhere, there must be someone who does.

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Courtyard of the Louvre

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Oh, THERE it is.

Ascending the Eiffel Tower at dusk, going up in daylight and coming back down in absolute darkness, was a highlight of all of the trips so far. We watched from the top level, where the cold wind chilled our bones, as Paris began to go dark and simultaneously lit up, bulb by bulb, ready for the night ahead. Two different worlds, night and day, and it felt like we were caught right on the frontier between the two. Of course, this was prime time for Hen Do’s, but even the crowd of twenty American women taking selfies and proclaiming ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M ON THE EIFFEL TOWER. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?’ weren’t so bad.

Our late dinner, sometime after 10pm, was provided by a quaint and friendly Italian restaurant in Le Marais, on a street recommended by our taxi driver, who responded particularly well to our bandmate’s French conversation skills, which we would no doubt be lost/embarrassed/disliked without.

The day’s most unexpected mishap took shape in the form of a public toilet incident not far from the Louvre. Never before had I been afraid to enter public toilets on a main street, but this was the stuff phobias are made of. Having waited a number of minutes outside an occupied single cubicle, I made a leap through the sleek, silver, electronic door the moment the previous user left. This was my first mistake. I pressed a button to allow the toilet door to close, sealing up the open view between myself and the main road outside. It closed, and stayed closed. I felt I was in safe hands. Second mistake. Then, just seconds before I proceeded to undo my trousers, the toilet bowl flipped up and disappeared into the wall behind. I laughed. ‘Close call,’ I thought. But then, all of a sudden, just as I began to hear my friends outside question my current well-being, water and disinfectant flooded the whole cubicle, and I quickly realised I was trapped in what is essentially a human-sized washing machine, filled with shit. I panicked and, wading through foamy water (though at the time I did wonder if it wasn’t something else entirely) I frantically punched the button to open the door to the street, half screaming, half laughing a hysterical laugh, and dragged my wet legs out with me. I walked for the rest of the evening with sodden shoes and wet, stained-white tights, still in desperate need of the loo.

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Parisian self-cleaning toilette: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK

Naturally, after escaping the self-cleaning cabinet of doom, this became hilarious in every way, and putting up with wet feet didn’t seem so bad as we wandered the leafy avenues by the river, surrounded by stunning historical architecture from every angle. I jokingly suggested I’d find a toilet at the top of the Eiffel Tower, which of course I then did, and felt all the more glorious for having relieved myself so high up in the sky, in a globally iconic structure.

The following morning, we had a couple of hours to ourselves before heading to the dressing room to start preparing for the day’s shows, and so we took the metro to Sacré-Cœur, where we explored the stunning basilica and looked out over Paris in the morning sun. There are some moments where you feel very lucky to be on this planet doing what you do. This was one of those. It’s not every day you get a free morning when you just happen to be in one of the most striking cities in the world.

The gigs themselves were an absolute blast. Situated just around the corner from our hotel in Le Marais, we found ourselves outside a shop window playing to intrigued passers-by and increasingly merry sales assistants and customers. In the preparation stage, we enjoyed the rare luxury of having our make-up done by glamorous Parisian make-up artists (we usually do our own), while observing French models being dressed up in the most outrageous costumes. Le Marais in general was flooded with unstoppably stylish and sophisticated people, passing shops that sell beautiful flowing clothes that would only flatter impossibly thin model-like beauties. Our shows went on throughout the afternoon and evening, playing one twenty-minute slot every hour – an exhausting but increasingly entertaining feat. They began with fairly quiet and conservative reactions from a small crowd, but by the final show we were rocking out to drag queens and dancing fashionistas who’d quaffed enough champagne to create a wild party. The film Paris is Burning came strongly to mind (despite it actually being set in New York, yes, yes).

After so much fun dancing, drumming and being equally entertained by a lively crowd, I think it’s safe to say we were in exceptionally high spirits. Good work, Paris, good work.

The evening came to its full conclusion with us enjoying a bottle of vin rouge and a dinner of salads, meats and bread outside one of Paris’ many bistros. There we sat, engulfed in cigarette smoke coming from every direction, jazz pumping out the speakers, being served by incredibly hospitable, charismatic waiters, drinking in the Parisian night air. Not a bad way to end a day’s work. I feel I could do this as a regular thing…

 

 

Lights and Sights in Taiwan

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Less than a month on from our Hong Kong shows, we’re in Taiwan for the Lantern Festival, continuing the Chinese New Year celebrations with more lights and even more giant monkeys.

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The gigs are as they always seem to be when we go to East Asia – huge. The stage feels like the size of a football pitch, and it takes a lengthy run just to reach the edge of the audience from where we’re performing, and then the crowd itself is enormous. People flock here every year in their thousands to see various performing groups, lanterns and, this year, a King-Kong-sized LED monkey that lights up in a tremendous psychedelic frenzy and bellows humorously in Mandarin across the crowd for five minutes every half hour for the entire evening. This includes a spot right in the middle of our hour-long show, when we stop and turn to the monkey to do its thing. After experiencing this surreal audio-visual extravaganza once, the second day’s performance feels surprisingly routine.

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View from the stage during daytime soundcheck

The first night’s show is fun but challenging. The second night we feel more relaxed and in-tune with our audience, who are a gleeful delight from start to finish, and show a great deal of gratitude towards us. Bizarrely polite heckles reach us from the crowd, with English phrases like ‘Welcome to Taiwan!’ and ‘Wonderful!’. A new piece we’ve added to the end of the set to gradually exit the stage is a particular hit, as we march all around the front of the audience to clave-based rhythms, high-fiving as we go. Then, it’s time for an abrupt end and another show from our monkey friend, the last of the night.

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The Lantern Festival by night

 

Walking down the street near our hotel in Taoyuan is like a glorious attack on the senses, as we encounter all of the sights, sounds and smells imaginable. Although there are plenty of apartment blocks, the buildings are not generally high-rise like in Hong Kong or contemporary China, but are comparatively modest, tiled and utilitarian-style, meaning your eyes are often diverted by all of the signs hanging off them, or the activity surrounding them, the buildings themselves fading into the background. (There are, of course, occasional Buddhist temples and shrines among these that, painted in bright red, green and gold, and with intricate dragon statues on the roof, never fail to draw one’s attention.) Almost everyone in Taiwan rides a moped, and this, coupled with the distinct lack of pavements on busy roads, puts you at a constant risk of being hit by one. Crossing the road is a wholly thrilling activity, filled with the uncertainty of whether or not you will reach the other side unscathed. Open shop fronts invite you into cluttered rooms that sell anything and everything, their shopkeepers passing the hours watching soap operas on widescreen televisions hidden between piles of items for sale. Neon lights, flashing signs, food smells, drain smells, barking dogs, rice paddies, mystery-meat restaurants, street vendors, queues for street food, night markets, day markets, food, food and more food… There is so much to take in at all times of day and night; I urge all street photographers to get here immediately.

We fly home late on the final day, leaving enough time for a tourist day led by friends of friends who conveniently happen to live in Taipei. The day is completely awe-inspiring from the moment we go up Taipei 101 in the world’s fastest lift (reaching 60 kilometres per hour) and see the Taipei panorama, to watching the sun go down from Liberty Square outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The view from the top of Taipei 101, thus named for its number of storeys, is perhaps one of the most genuinely awesome things I’ve ever seen. We’re lucky to visit the tower on a relatively clear day, and at 390 metres high (as far as you can go up the 509-metre building) the city of Taipei seems to stretch further into the distance than one can see with the human eye, way off into the misty hills somewhere on a faraway horizon. Taipei 101 is one of few actual skyscrapers in Taiwan, hence nothing in the surrounding area even nearly competes for size and it feels as though you are in a plane looking down on an entire civilisation. My face freezes in a constant state of wonderment for the whole day.

This sublime experience is followed by a very cheap underground train ride and a wander towards Taipei Fish Market: perhaps the most up-market market I’ve ever come across. Bounding straight in towards the food (it’s lunchtime and we last ate almost five minutes ago) we at first pass a stall entirely devoted to wine and oysters, and then book a table at a beautiful restaurant where we can see fresh sea-life being cooked in front of our eyes. While we wait for a table to become available, we take a stroll through the market itself, passing an abundance of sushi, fresh fish and vegetables and the all the most glorious food smells. Then we pass into a large room filled with hundreds of crates of crabs, lobsters and other sad-looking sea creatures, having our hands sprayed with disinfectant as we enter, the idea being that we literally hand-pick our meal and inform them of how we would like it to be cooked before making our merry way home with hands and mouths full of fresh crab-meat. Instead we simply browse, find our way through another very posh market area full of huge, shiny vegetables, more fish and various other healthy, middle-class produce, and eventually make our way to our table at the restaurant. Here, we order as much fish, prawns, scallops, meat, rice cakes, vegetables and beer as we can manage, and sit and watch with glee as waiters arrive with a new plate of food every five minutes to add to our communal hotplates. It is food done to perfection.

The meal is walked off by a subsequent wander around Taipei’s bustling streets with a view to explore. Walking down unknown streets and getting (temporarily) lost is my favourite way to explore a city, and on our stroll we discover a whole host of new insights, some of which include:

  • Male-female couples wearing matching clothing – not by accident, but very much deliberately. Some simply wear matching t-shirts or hoodies, while others attempt to wear all of the same colours or even matching tracksuits. If there’s one thing that screams ‘WE ARE TOGETHER AS ONE’ it’s two people in identical black and green Adidas from head to toe.
  • People taking group naps (heads resting on tables) in shops and cafés, including a 7/11 where tables are provided seemingly, though not explicitly, for this ‘activity’
  • Cat hospital for sick kitties
  • A bright pink Hello Kitty moped (well there was bound to be one, with this number of mopeds everywhere) – just as I’m busy ogling this, I look towards the sky to see a Hello Kitty pink aeroplane flying overhead. It feels like a very strange dream.

 

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Mango (and other stuff) ice

After a coffee stop at a French-style café for the caffeine addicts among us, we find whole streets of trendy and bohemian shops selling beautiful clothes, natural soaps, yarns and gifts, and then, typically, we stop for more food. This time it’s dessert – mango shaved ice, a Taiwanese sweet delicacy: it’s incredibly cold but refreshing and tasty, something the warm weather (at least for us) calls for. Then it’s a walk to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall for a brief history lesson and to appreciate some traditional-style architecture and beautiful green open space. A moment of relative tranquillity.

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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

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Sunset over Liberty Square

Here we are on an island less than half the size of Scotland with almost five times the population. Here on the other side of the world, 6000 miles from where we live out our ordinary everyday existence, there is so much going on. Every trip makes me realise how small the world is, yet how culturally rich and diverse every area and district is, and undoubtedly how fortunate we are to experience a taste of it all. This time it’s been short and sweet, but I strongly suspect we’ll be back for more. After all, we can’t miss out on seeing next year’s giant LED talking rooster.