Archive for March, 2011

Andy and I have recently been involved with two UK based travel websites, Simonseeks and Sunshine that are attempting to break the mould when it comes to online travel and travel advisory sites.

Simonseeks has come in for some flack for its bold approach with some sites claiming that the ambitious travel advisory site has not won the approval of ‘the travel writing community’.

Really? Whose travel writing community is that? Europe’s? America’s? The World Wide Web’s…or five bitter blokes in a bar in Grimsby?

A criticism levelled at Simonseeks by some professional travel writers is that it uses travel guides from amateurs and celebrities. Celebrities heaven forbid; the quality press would never stoop to that level. I’m still laughing at that one.

But it’s the criticism related to using amateur writers that’s more interesting. This comment from a professional writer on a blog about Simonseeks was quite illuminating:

‘…I feel more useful and welcome at TTE (the Travel Editor) while at SS (Simonseeks) you are just another name among all those amateurs.’

Just another name amongst the amateurs. Simonseeks has what amounts to a level playing field when it comes to travel writing and here’s the rub. It’s the general public who decide whether contributors’ articles are useful and interesting. And that little fact creates a whole new ball game.

Simonseeks lists its most popular writers in order of recommendations from readers and guess what? Its top ten writers aren’t all professional travel writers. The list includes people who are travel enthusiasts rather than professional writers and that might not sit well with some.

Online travel writing has opened up a brave new world and I have a suspicion that the root of some criticism lies not only in a concern for maintaining quality (newspapers have been dumbing-down their travel sections for years) but in bruised egos and protectionism.

To me using travel enthusiasts (let’s not use amateur) is to be applauded….as long as they can come up with the goods. I’m a meritocracy fan (I’ve never been a fan of clubs so I have to be). The only thing that matters to me when reading travel articles is that they are accurate, informative and interesting, not the pedigree of the author or who they happen to know.

Ironically, after getting hot under the collar about the apparent arrogance of some pro-writers I came across a forum topic on Simonseeks and discovered the bitching wasn’t all one sided.

A handful of amateur contributors were complaining about the pros on Simonseeks. However, what the complaints actually revealed was that those making them really were amateurs, but maybe not in the sense that the quality of their writing was amateurish.
Many clearly didn’t have a clue about writing for the web (but then I suspect that’s not exclusive to amateur writers). What really came across as amateurville was that the most ‘outraged’ complaints were based around popular holiday destinations receiving prominent exposure on the site.

Some felt articles about off the beaten track and less well known destinations were more in line with what the ethos of Simonseeks should be. This isn’t only naïve, it demonstrates a complete lack of savvy regarding the business of mainstream travel writing online.

That quirky article about milking a yak in Outer Mongolia may be fascinating, but the ten people who read it a year aren’t going to make the writer, or more importantly Simonseeks, any money.

Like it or not, those popular holiday resorts are what are going to attract the most viewers and if that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. There are always, always different angles to be found by anyone who writes about them…as any true traveller and professional writer should know.

It became increasingly difficult to feel incensed on the non-pro writers’ behalf when some were coming out with nonsense like the following.

“…what I’m really looking for when I trawl the Net for hotel/resort/destination reviews is an amateur perspective. In fact, I don’t care how badly written it is – I just want to know what the ordinary punter has experienced in a place.”

I stopped reading after that little gem.

Ultimately who cares if something is written by a professional or amateur travel writer as long as it’s written well? The answer to that is both professional and amateur travel writers apparently.

How do you prevent someone from doing a naked tango on the open air terrace of a restaurant? You distract them with the Gay Gordons that’s how.

There’s no such thing as a conventional arrival on La Gomera. That’s partly because of La Gomera and partly because our friend Jo doesn’t really do conventional. From the moment we stepped off the little Binter plane on La Gomera we submitted ourselves to the swirling winds that constituted Jo’s plans.

The flight across had been a stunner; clear skies and a flight path via the north and west of Tenerife revealed a snow covered landscape that was more Alpine than African. La Gomera airport lies outside Playa Santiago, La Gomera’s version of Los Gigantes and the place you’re most likely to hear British voices on the island.

With other friends Sarah (not long back from 2 years with the VSO in Sri Lanka) and Keith (once took 2 weeks off work to drive a van from La Gomera to Blighty – took him 8 months) also waiting for us, the party was ready to start from the moment we set foot on terra firma.

It was Jo’s birthday weekend and lunch had been arranged for a motley crew of her friends at the Tagoror Restaurant. The Tagoror isn’t far from the Jardin Tecina Hotel and seemed to be one of the few places on the hill overlooking Playa Santiago that wasn’t owned by Fred Olsen. With its large scenic terrace, arty décor, jazzy chill out music and a menu that keeps both veggies and carnivores smiling it’s a top place for lunch.

It’s also the place where, we discovered as we arrived, that walking guide Gordo (Jo´s neighbour – if a few kilometres across a valley constitutes being a neighbour ) brings his tango-ing walking group.

As we ate a long leisurely lunch (sama, sardines, an appealing home-made hamburger and a pork fillet) and quaffed a few beers in the hot sunshine (I made a rookie error and didn’t put on sun cream – result glowing unattractive two-tone pink look by the end of the afternoon) the chat twisted and turned refusing to stay still before it eventually returned to the subject of Gordo’s dancing walkers.

Mostly Gordo’s walking groups don’t tango but each year he gets a group of visiting tango dancers who like to go on a walk, have lunch at the Tagoror and then tango on the terrace afterwards. Years ago we’d seen a movie called Naked Tango which had rather an erotic scene where the female star tango’d naked in front of a blindfolded orchestra and Andy described the scene, asking Gordo if any of his tango-ing walking group practised this au natural version of the dance. As drink had been taken and just in case anyone got the idea of playing out the scene for real everyone was made to promise not to tango naked on the Tagoror terrace. Everyone duly  obliged except Sarah. Normally you wouldn’t have to worry about friends impulsively dancing a naked tango in public but Saz can be unpredictable so, just to be sure, the subject was quickly changed to another dance to distract. Don’t ask me how but for some reason the Gay Gordons was mentioned. Of course when the non-Brits around the table heard the term ‘the Gay Gordons’ they were fascinated, so a demonstration was suggested…by Sarah. Unfortunately the only other non-Brit male in the company apart from me was southerner Keith who denied all knowledge of the dance.

So at around 4.30pm on Friday, about five hours after we’d arrived on La Gomera, I found myself and Sarah jigging up and down the terrace in front of bemused diners demonstrating the steps of a dance with a snigger inducing name.

Like I said at the start, there is no such thing as a conventional arrival on La Gomera.

The creature dancing in the rain had us spellbound; not because she was a Dalmatian with a girl’s head (that’s commonplace); she was doing a sizzling hot routine that turned the rain to steam as it hit the ground.

If Dal-girl wasn’t a professional pole dancer she should have been; her long black mane swirled in MTV music video fashion sending spray in all directions. Beside her, a basketball player-sized African man-women in bikini top and thong danced in circles oblivious to the downpour. It was 1.30am and it was wet, wet, wet…but it was 17C and the carnaval drug was coursing through the veins like an electrical current. This is what carnaval is really all about.

The carnaval day had begun nine hours earlier with the Gran Coso Apoteosis (closing parade). It’s a visually vibrant affair and I always go to take photographs. But it’s a spectator event and to be honest, jostling with the united nations of visitors to try to get a decent shot isn’t my idea of fun. After an hour I’d seen what I’d wanted to see and swapped the jostling for watching Man Utd defeat Arsenal in the FA Cup before heading for home, making dinner, watching two episodes of Desperate Housewives on Spanish TV and getting into costume to head back into town.

Where we live you can forget calling a taxi or catching a bus on the last night of carnaval. The only way in is to drive (that means no drinking) or walk the three kilometres into Puerto de la Cruz. We opted to walk.

However, two unexpected downpours had us pausing mid dressing up. The first was the rain which had made an appearance most nights at about 10pm; the second was something I’d eaten decided to turn everything in my intestines into liquid. Three visits to the loo in an hour presented a much worse prospect than the rain. Carnaval toilets aren’t exactly Glastonbury levels, but neither are they places where you want to spend a lot of time.

As it was the last night of carnaval we decided to take on the fates and, telling myself that at least my brown monk’s robe might act as camouflage in the worse case scenario, at 11pm we set off through the banana plantation.

The walk into town is always bizarre. We pass through the tourist areas of La Paz and the newer side of town where virtually no-one dresses up and it was unnervingly quiet to the point that we though the carnaval street parties must have finished early (we go through this year after year).

Then at Plaza del Charco you enter the world where the wild things are; the domain of the weird and the wonderful where dullness has no place.

Almost as soon as we arrived the rain returned and we sought shelter at a beer kiosk – cañas (glasses of beer) €1; combinados (triple spirit measure and mixer) €3. It was here that Dal-girl started her dancing in the rain routine.

A canopy reached from the kiosk to Mi Pequeño Mexico (a new bar/restaurant that’s on our list to try) and Café del Mar. The canopy acted as a sort of bizarroland’s Noah’s Ark (many couples dress up the same so the two by two ruling also fitted). Vampires, witches, N’Avi, Vikings, pirates, giant mice and sexy female airline pilots in mini dresses filled the space under the canopy as the braver creatures danced in the rain. Andy and I had pole position under a metal shutter at the bar so that all I had to do was raise two fingers and a buxom wench (not sure what sex) kept refilling our beers.

The rain became heavier and the Latino music louder so that Dal-girl’s routine became more frantic and she shed the Dalmation skin until she was left dancing in T-shirt and shorts. At that point it dawned on me that the rain hadn’t actually dampened the carnaval spirit; if anything it showed how strong it is and why the street parties are so special. It’s easy to be smiley happy people when it’s dry and temperatures are positively balmy but the rain hadn’t changed the expressions on the faces around me. Some people sheltered, others danced…and everyone but everyone smiled and laughed. What the weather got up to was incidental and that is what’s addictive about the street parties. Dressed up, you’re part of a surreal community where everyone knows all the words to Shakira’s Waka Waka and strangers with painted faces hug you and talk to you for no reason other than they’re tripping on happiness. Standing in that colourful crowd with drips from the metal shutter watering down my beer I experienced one of those moments where I loved the world and the wonderful people who populated it – this little section at least. This is why Andy and I are always extolling the virtues of leaving the sidelines and getting into the thick of things when it comes to carnaval or any other fiesta on Tenerife for that matter. It’s here where the real deal is and once you plunge in you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The rain stopped after about and hour and stayed away for the remainder of the night. We spent the rest of carnaval’s last bash dancing to the same music we hear year after year with the thousands upon thousands of other creatures who filled the streets. (Carnaval tip: the best way to get through the most crowded street is to dance your way through in a sort of chained feet, slave shuffle routine. For some reason it works.) At 4am, when the party was at its zenith, we decided to head for home. Even the forty minute uphill trek to home and bed didn’t dilute the feeling of wellbeing.

Carnaval 2011 has been demanding and exhausting but most of all it has been exhilarating. I’m already looking forward to next year’s.

By Friday night when I expected my enthusiasm for Tenerife carnaval to be very much on the wane it completely surprised me by heading in the opposite direction and soaring into the carnaval spirit stratosphere. There were a couple of reasons for this.

The first was thanks to a humongous chorizo and grilled green pepper catalana at Mesón California (basically a sausage butty Spanish style). I know I rabbit on about this stall, but the eating experience here is more akin to enjoying a culinary theatre performance than simply eating at a carnaval kiosk. The doorstep-thick chunk of bread that the chorizos and peppers rest on is too bready for Andy and she opted for the spicy pinchos (pork kebabs) which she declared to be the best tasting pinchos ever… and she’s tested quite a few. As I exercised my jaw and snapped a few shots, ignoring the warning by the camarero to not photograph the chef as his ugliness would break the camera lens, I also nosied at what others were eating. A plate of calamari on one side of me, a mountain of gueldes (fried whitebait) on the other and opposite was the king of carbs – a catalana consisting of a slab of tortilla as chunky as the bread it was resting on topped by what can only be described as an erect gherkin. Fantastic…and perfect as a carnaval alcohol sponge.

The second reason my carnaval spirit was soaring was that we were in Puerto de la Cruz to see the best carnaval event on Tenerife; the Mascarita Ponte Tacón (high heels marathon). The outrageous drag queen race has become so popular over the last few years that around 50,000 spectators turn up to see the 250+ contestants and their over the top costumes.

There are two ways to enjoy the Mascarita Ponte Tacón; either camp out along the route for hours until the ‘ladies’ stop parading and decide to run – or get close to the contestants’ free beer pump. We opt for the latter as the beer pump is a magnet to every stiletto-wearing giant chicken, Chilean miner and…err high heel shoe itself. The Mascarita Ponte Tacón goes against everything connected with sense and sensibility. Contestants have to tackle an assault course on vertigo-inducing heels after being plied with gallons of alcohol. Not only that, the more outrageous and politically incorrect the costume is, the more the crowd lap it up…oh, and brandishing a penis (fake clearly- I think) seems to be obligatory.

Add a charismatic and very funny compere; the best carnival music in Puerto de la Cruz, blasted out at such a volume that contestants sway on their heel as they pass the speakers, and an atmosphere bordering on pure elation and you’ve got an anarchic spectacle that blasts away any carnival fatigue. By the time the free beer ran out and the now staggering drag queens inelegantly headed for the race’s starting line (way, way, way behind schedule) I was relishing the prospect of donning a fancy dress costume and getting into the thick of the action for the final end of carnaval bash the following night.

Thursday night is R&R as far as Tenerife carnaval is concerned. It allows revellers one night to recharge for a big final weekend of merrymaking. We were relishing the idea of not having to go out anywhere…and then we heard that talented young Chilean jazz saxophonist Melissa Aldana was playing a gig at Lago Martiánez in Puerto.

We’re not jazz aficionados, although we used to go to the Brecon Jazz Festival every year, but we like to check out local concerts especially when they’re offering something different from the usual Latino fare…and the Lago at night is a pretty stunning setting.

So we dragged ourselves down to the lake to find that the organisers had squeezed the stage and seating into a narrow area between César Manrique’s Homenaje al Mar sculpture (affectionately known locally as La Jibia – the Squid) and the main lagoon. By the time we arrived it was standing room only; good to see that some ‘alternative’ music could draw a decent crowd.

Don’t ask me to describe the music – it was modern jazz and half the time I struggle to tell when some modern jazz musicians are tuning up or have actually started their set. All I know is that with the multi-coloured fountain as a backdrop on one side, the illuminated La Jibia on the other and the sweet sound of Melissa’s sax accompanying the moonlight, it felt like a mighty fine place to be…even if I was mentally calculating how long it would be until we could just enjoy a quiet night in.

The Burial of the Sardine procession is probably my least favourite carnaval event on Tenerife. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like its absurdity; it’s just that it’s a one joke gig – huge make-up wearing sardine followed by shrieking widows flashing plastic penises and mock vaginas. It’s surreal, it’s funny and it’s shocking but after you’ve seen it once the joke’s over really.

I don’t mean to put anyone off going to see it. Lots of people love the spectacle and the widows’ shocking behaviour has the older Canarian women screaming with glee, but the eagle-eyed out there will notice that, in Puerto de la Cruz at least, the best looking widows don’t even join the procession.

Like many of carnival’s events, the real fun lies in the street parties and what goes on after the parades are over. I get more of a buzz seeing a group of burly six foot blokes in black evening gowns and high heels standing outside one of the fishermen’s bars chatting to each other as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Or the gangs of thirteen year old lads in tight sparkling black mini dresses, fishnets and flowing wigs, which they flick back from their eyes just a little bit too convincingly. Quite a few of them look more glamorous than the ‘real’ girls that are with them. A visiting friend was amazed at seeing so many local boys ‘girlied up’ and remarked that lads of that age in the UK would never have enough confidence in their sexuality to dress up in girls’ clothing.  Ha…it ain’t only lads that age. I know plenty of men who wouldn’t.

Whilst most visitors crowd the harbour area waiting for the sardine to be cremated and the subsequent firework display, hordes of young and not so young ladyboys arrive at the carnaval kiosks at the top of Calle Perdomo. It’s here that some of the most imaginative and outrageous outfits are to be seen. And it’s here that we tend to hang about. But not for too long this year as we weren’t in costume and when you’re not in costume it’s impossible not to feel as though you’ve crashed the party.

However this year the sardine did actually manage to surprise us… and we discovered its lair. We were driving to the harbour car park when a policeman stopped us in our tracks. Lo and behold right in front of us the 20 foot long giant fish emerged from its secret den in full make-up and…get this…a plastic mac in case it rained. A fish wearing a mac! How crazy is that?

There should have been another street party before this post, but a downpour at around 9.30pm on Monday night had us stocking up the fire instead of slapping on the make-up and street party – the sequel was rescheduled.

My first attempt to photograph the carnaval queens in Puerto de la Cruz hadn’t exactly been successful. Luckily there was one more chance to meet the queens in the lovely little Plaza Iglesia last night before their appearance at the closing parade on Saturday.

Despite a weather pattern which has seen sunny days and occasional party dampening rain in the evening, the weather behaved itself for the carnaval queens and dames and I was able to get  close for some decent shots. It wasn’t totally successful as the inhabitant of the best costume was mysteriously missing. Her African themed costume was there, but not her. However, the lovely Esther Yanes García, Puerto’s carnaval queen, was present and I was finally able to get some decent shots of a queen who, for me, outshines that of Santa Cruz.

Whilst I was snapping away I was brusquely nudged once, and then again as someone tried to bump me out of the way. I turned to see a severe looking couple staring at me. It came as no real surprise when I heard what language they spoke.

Whereas the Spanish women in the crowd beside me laughed and chatted with the queens and thanked me when I knelt down to let them take photos over my head (they didn’t realise I was just trying a different angle), these two glared at me with expressions that could have curdled milk.

I try very hard not to stereotype, but sometimes it can be difficult…so I’ve got to say it. What is it about the Germans that makes some of them appear so rude? No let me rephrase that. The younger Germans are fine. It’s Germans of a certain age that seem to lack social etiquette. I’ve been bumped out of the way in shops and been the victim of attempted queue jumps at the post office and in the supermarket more times than I can mention and it’s nearly always Germans in their late 60s and above who are the culprits.

I’ve posed the question to German friends about why their compatriots behave in such a manner and their answers have been varied. Friends in La Gomera claim it’s because we get a different sort of German on Tenerife than they do – ours are common and uneducated. But then they say that about the Brits on Tenerife as well. However, a German friend from Santa Ursula agrees.

My favourite explanation is from Schwäbisch friends who simply put it down to the stern, rude Germans being from the north of the country whereas the southern Schwäbisch like them are more amenable, fun loving and artistic and would never behave in such a disagreeable manner.

Anyway the woman bumped again. Instead of doing what I instinctively wanted to do by coming over all Basil Fawlty/David Brent with a ‘it’s that sort of behaviour that got you into trouble in 1939’ reply, I simply smiled at the couple and turned back to the more appealing visions in front of my camera.