Aprilmayhem 21

 

 

Last stop before reality sets in. The Langham foyer expertly photographed by Michelle Lia McEwing

Breathe a sigh of relief! I’m about to celebrate my 21st and Aprilmayhem will come to an end.

But not quite yet, because Hong Kong is now outside our Langham Hotel window. Down there is food like no other place, Sam, tailor to the rich and royal, Marks and Spencer whose pants accidently fit me and shops to bring our near-comatose credit cards out for a final death defying appearance.

A word about the Langham, that fragrant centre of solace in the final pause before Sydney. Even though we are not middle eastern royalty booking out half a floor, we are treated as special, wallowing in the false importance we are accorded. This time we were upgraded to one of the hotel’s recently renovated rooms. I always liked the old rooms. They were not very big but were well designed for overburdened travellers. How much better could the new ones be? The answer is, not. While they’ve gone mausoleum marble in the bathroom they’ve left out the second basin. In the bedroom we now have a marble fireplace with real logs sitting in it, but if we lit them we would be arrested. There is a set of open shelves displaying books and vases and artwork of no particular merit or use. The bed would easily sleep four and the spaces in the wardrobe are largely taken up with its internal organs. There is a laden cabinet housing items that we will have to pay for if we use them and, of course, the dreaded minibar waiting to bring about financial hardship. In the entire, designer dominated room there are only two drawers. The useful desk of yore has been replaced by a round table and two lounge chairs which tells me that people who use computers in their rooms are a tad downmarket. Yes, I’m carrying on about not much, and I still love the place, but I don’t like to see good upgrade money being dominated by interior design rather than practicality.

I took my New York sourced shirting fabrics to Sam the tailor in Nathan Road. His turbaned manager looked down his nose at them and, after waving his ruler about like a magic wand, smugly announced that only one out of the five had enough fabric to make a long sleeved shirt. Short sleeved was manageable – just. I was crestfallen. How could New York’s Mood Fabrics have been so wrong? Sam shrugged his shoulders in support of his manager – with the non-verbalised message that if you bring your own fabric you deserved to be treated as the idiot you are. I decided to accept the long sleeve plus one short sleeve (in the eye-assaulting print) and took the rest away to try another tailor near the hotel. He was dearer, but more optimistic, immediately accepting one for long sleeve and later agreeing to all three.

To escape the Saturday rain, which is depressing and dangerous in downtown Hong Kong because of eye-gouging umbrellas, we allowed ourselves to be prospected by a man with a colourful sign and supporting brochures praising his pedicure and foot massage service. He took us inside a building where he turned out to be one of the masseuses and his wife the other. He attended to Michelle while the wife donned a powerful miner’s lamp to get a better look at my disgusting feet. She went to work with some kind of scraping instrument, sending down a shower of skin flakes that resembled snow. I feared my feet would be whittled away to stumps when she switched tack with nail snipping and painful massage. Michelle did somewhat better, only having ordered reflexology. We had to admit to feeling more fleet of foot as we again joined the jostling crowd in now heavier rain.

We’d booked at one of our favourite restaurants for Saturday night: The Red Pepper in Causeway Bay. I am not much of a drinker, but I always get drunk at the Red Pepper. The reason is that the Szechuan food is so hot that in order to ward off spontaneous combustion you must drink beer. The restaurant should serve its own brand from a fire hydrant shaped bottle, but on this occasion I had to make do with Tsingtao. When you order chilli beef, chicken and green beans the chilli index is equal to that of nuclear waste. That’s what we ordered and the beer dousing did the usual job on me. We travelled by train to get there and I travelled home on autopilot, locked on to Michelle’s ankles as she led the way, mobile phone in hand, conducting a conversation with Siri.

Hotel Toaster Review

The unimpressive Langham six slotter.

Because the Langham is such an elegant hotel, I expected an elegant toaster, maybe a Faberge French masterpiece or even the sun-fired crumpetiser used on the International Space Station. But no. I found two plain, middle aged, round shouldered six slotters. They are, in fact, no better than a long wheelbase domestic model. Each can make one piece of toast or up to six. There is an inspection lever to see how your toast is going but you must also inspect everybody else’s, and some people hate their toast being looked at during toasting. Furthermore, the timer is small and dark and can turn off the toaster by stealth while the hapless clients run out of patience and walk away.

On Sunday morning, in the interests of avoiding the consequences of the Langham six slotter toaster, we took to the subway and went across to the island for breakfast. The Hong Kong underground train system is really an underground walking system in which you cover vast distances on foot between short train rides. Our walk after disembarkation brought us into contact with the Hong Kong equivalent of the Spanish running of the bulls. Here, it is called the meeting of the Filipina girls. They are the employed domestic help to the Hong Kong rich, and Sunday is their day off. They meet and sound like migratory birds in their thousands at the railway stations and parks of Hong Kong Island.

Once through that throng we joined a queue at Tim Ho Wan, a strange little café in a long, deserted shopping arcade. It is Michelin-star famous for yum cha, and is able to process patrons in about 20 minutes. Tiny tables and hard chairs deter lingering. But the reward for such taste-haste is price and outstanding flavour – a contrast in this outrageously expensive city.

Prices in Hong Kong are through the roof compared to our last visit four years ago. Forget the cheap cassette player and clothing. Michelle went to buy a box of throat pastilles that cost A$5 in Australia against A$16 here. I love the clothes at Shanghai Tang but a cotton shirt for A$500? Because it was pouring outside we took breakfast at the Langham today where the management made the mistake of bringing us the bill before we’d finished. We were sitting down at a hundred dollar plus breakfast – bearing in mind that the Langham is not the most expensive hotel in Hong Kong. We secreted the breakfast bill under out dinner napkin and surreptitiously continued towards our lunchtime nutritional needs. Pussy’s bow came and went. The waiter kept taking away plates and we kept returning with new, laden ones. We waddled out, having done our bit to fight Hong Kong inflation.

And so it’s goodbye from me, and thanks for your company. Once again I express my awe and gratitude to Michelle for being the best personal travel agent ever and unerringly leading me to new and exciting places. She has mastered the navigational technology of the mobile phone, is a personal friend of Siri and a devotee of Uber. Without her I’d still be wandering around Sydney Airport trying to leave.

Aprilmayhem 20

The president of Harvard University lives here in Massachusetts Hall, the oldest surviving building at Harvard College. Tradition dictates that the top floor has to be occupied by residential first year students.

Harvard is America’s most famous university and, in many ways, the most prestigious in the world. It was established by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 under the name ‘New College’ until John Harvard, a not-so -poor clergyman tipped in half his estate and all of his vast book collection to dramatically expand the campus. As a thank-you, the name was changed to Harvard University in 1639.

In order to honour John Harvard, a bronze statue bearing his name was created by Daniel Chester French for the Harvard Yard in 1884, but because of a previous engulfing fire in the building that had housed John Harvard’s books and memorabilia, there was no image of him available as reference. This did not deter French who buttonholed a fellow called Sherman Hoar to sit for the head of the bronze. The result is a fine statue of John Harvard that doesn’t look anything like John Harvard.

Lining up for a tour on a bracing afternoon we found the place to be quite magical. We walked through and around many of its old, elegant buildings, all kept in perfect order. The university is so large that some of the departments such as medicine and business are elsewhere in Boston. Harvard’s $34.5 billion financial endownment is the largest of any academic institution. The Harvard Library, which is the world’s biggest academic and private library system, comprises 79 individual libraries with over 18 million books. Harvard’s alumni includes eight US presidents, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars, 242 Marshall Scholars and 130 Nobel laureates. Maybe I should have gone there instead of dropping out of Melbourne University.

Some of the better known alumni include Barak Obama, Matt Damon, Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger and Tommy Lee Jones. When famous people are invited to make speeches at Harvard they often get an honorary doctorate for their trouble. This year Mark Zuckerberg (he founded Face Book while at Harvard) is due to give an address to graduates, but there is some controversy over giving him a doctorate because, as a Harvard student, he didn’t finish his degree. What a pity. Think of how successful he could have been if he’d got right through economics or business.

To bring us down to the more fundamental function of eating we stopped off at the Harvard branch of Mike’s Pastry to load up a box of sweet not-good-for-you totalling about half a million calories. This was a typical have-to-do when you go somewhere famous and you cannot risk the shame and ridicule of arriving home without having ticked the box. Another such box involved eating a famous and delicious Boston lobster role which we ordered as a delivery to the hotel at the cost of a silver service dinner.

Looks shocking but tastes heavenly. My favourite dish among many that were extraordinary.

And speaking of remarkable food, we saddled up for the tasting menu at the Japanese Uni restaurant. It comprised 11 courses, all diminutive and all superb. As each plate arrived, sometimes with the food appearing as a few specks in a vast, white porcelain landscape, the waiter would passionately and minutely describe what we were about to eat. The actual eating took far less time than the verbal delivery. My favourite was ‘spicy tuna and foie gras’ which is as un-photogenic as it is delicious. Although many of the portions were barely there, 11 of them in total managed to slay our appetites and we waddled away convinced that this was the best meal we’d ever eaten.

The Isabella Stewart Museum palace built inside a plain brick facade.

Our last day in Boston, and indeed the U.S., was spent in cultural pursuits. We visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, supposedly one of the finest in the US – but not because of size or numbers of pieces. Isabella (1849 – 1924) was left $1.6 million dollars when her father died in 1891 and she commenced putting together a remarkable collection art, artefacts, tapestries and furniture from all over the world. She then had built a sort of Spanish style palace in downtown Boston to house it. The palace itself sits inside a plain brick building and surrounds a garden courtyard where the sounds of frogs and birds are piped in. The entire project is simply stunning as you walk from room to room, some of them of hall proportions, to look at groupings of pieces and paintings that go back as far as the first century. Isabella was not only a collector but patron of the arts and music. Paderewski played concerts in her music room where you can also see a plaster cast of Liszt’s right hand.

The art collection, which also includes 13 empty frames, covers some of history’s great artists. The empty frames are where paintings had been when, on March 18, 1990, two men dressed up as coppers tied up the guards and pinched the works. The haul included four Rembrandts, (one was the only seascape he’d ever painted) several Vermeers, and others by Degas, Manet and some priceless Chinese vases. Despite the museum offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to their recovery, they’ve never been found. This means that they are hanging somewhere in the world, on somebody’s walls, and that somebody knows they are hot. I’d like to think that the descendants of the illegal collectors will hate what grandpa did, package them up, the leave them outside the door of the museum one spring morning.

 

Aprilmayhem 19

The ground floor of this modest little building on Commonwealth Avenue was for sale in 2012 for US$4.5 million. It is worth more than triple that now.

Boston couldn’t have been more of a contrast to Havana. Cool, ordered and scholarly, it has a feeling close to home. After the first Uber driver didn’t want to stuff our baggage mountain into his nice car and went away muttering, the second one had an SUV and cheerfully took us to the traditional elegance of the Eliot Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue. The doorman nearly fell over his own feet as he scrambled to take charge of our luggage and, with flourishes and jolly commentary, transport it inside.

The Eliot was built in 1924 as offices for Harvard academics, then turned into a hotel. Not a cheap hotel, I should add, even though our room was minimal for two people and looked down on the hotel rubbish pile rather than the handsome boulevard at the front. All the fawning doorman, now turned bellboy, could say about our room was that it was nice and quiet – as he stood, head bowed, right hand cupped, waiting for the obligatory tip. We appealed to the management for a better room but the hotel was fully booked, so we continued to squeeze past each other and check the state of the rubbish from our window six floors above. Apart from a wounding room rate you pay for everything else as well. Room service food is inflated enough to begin with, and then18% gratuity is loaded on top after which you get charged another $2 for the buggers to bring it up in the lift. If the lift is out of order, they probably charge $10 a step to go up the stairs and a further descending fee.

It’s a corny thing to do, but we like to take a city tour as soon as we arrive in a new place. We found the hop-on-hop-off bus, hopped on, but didn’t hop off until we’d done the full loop. It revealed, with the help of a gravel-voiced, wise-cracking driver, that Boston is indeed a beautiful city, proud of its history and distinctive buildings, its sons (like JFK) and its waterways. Apart from designer malls and supermarkets, Boston street shopping is a delight. Near us there are rows of what used to be brownstone style houses, now turned into shops, restaurants and small businesses.

America is such a huge market that branded products offer more variety than they do in Australia. For instance, the Boston Lindt shop has five levels of cocoa percentage in plain dark chocolate. I’d never seen 99% cocoa before, and had to buy a trial block. It contained zero cholesterol, one miserable gram of sugar and hardly any carbs. Furthermore, its military ration-style sealed packaging carried tasting advice to the effect that you should work your way up to 99% via the lesser percentages to prepare your palate for the final assault on the summit. We couldn’t follow this advice because it was printed inside the wrapping. We had to hit the 99% cold turkey. This chocolate is the closest you can get to eating a ceramic tile. It is bitter, brittle and, although has almost no taste, still causes your cheeks involuntary retraction. The eating advice finishes by suggesting you should let it melt in your mouth, which I doubt would happen in under an hour, if ever, and have coffee at the ready as an antidote.

Still on the subject of eating, the Eliot Hotel has an adjoining Japanese derivative restaurant called Uni. We bumbled in there last night and ordered from a menu without knowing what we were doing. It turned out that the chef, Ken Oringer, is a famous award winner with 16 restaurants now under his control. The flavours of the small-portion dishes we ordered was exceptional, including two bowls of brussel sprouts that were cooked with such imagination as to be almost unrecognisable. The meal, along with a potent cocktail or two saw us, in a state of delirium, booking in for the tasting menu two nights later. The cost will be ridiculous, but at times like that I remind myself that the end of my life is much closer than the beginning, and receding bodily pleasures have not yet included eating.

Another one of my pleasures in visiting Boston was to see my old Murrumbeena and Wesley College school friend, Ross Terrill who, for eight years, was Professor of Government Studies at Harvard University and then went on to write best-selling books on China – among other subjects. Ross has been a resident of Boston for 30 years and I went to visit him in his apartment. A true unorthodox academic, he bought part of a former carpet factory turned into a massive living room, a kitchen and bathroom lined up along the inside wall and one bedroom at the back. His loaded bookshelves could be taken for a school library. He has big, comfortable leather lounges, tables, cabinets and memorabilia scattered around. Downstairs are umpteen filing cabinets holding his written records. His diaries alone run into hundreds of thousands of words.

Ross has a business partner and together they have invested in property and a limo service. They arranged to pick me up in the limo yesterday. I looked for a modest black car as I waited in the street, but along came the latest Cadillac SUV – huge, black and utterly luxurious. I’ve never been in a quieter car. It had been used the previous day to transport a Saudi princess around Boston. She left with 17 pieces of luggage.

Commonwealth Avenue, which Winston Churchill said was the most beautiful street in the English speaking world, has a park running up the middle. Our model pictured is not as pretty and has fat running up the middle.

Aprilmayhem 18

Cuban cars – this says it all, except that they ride like billy carts.

The four-hour road trip to Trinidad, Cuba (as distinct from Trinidad & Tobago) was as bone-shaking as I’d feared. Although we were on the great four-lanes each way, central, national highway for much of the time, our driver had to dodge potholes and broken surfaces all the way along, with the Chevy’s suspension bottoming out continually – to say nothing of the overpowering presence of diesel fumes.

Thankfully, the Iberostar Grand Hotel in central Trinidad was a rare oasis of calm, good taste and even had a pleasant receptionist. Israel whisked us away to see the local Ancon Beach, a tourist attraction with its white sand and clear water. We’d forgotten to bring our swimmers and had to make do with a paddle. The sea water was astonishingly warm, far warmer, in fact, that the shower at the Raquel Hotel where I’d had a run-in with the bellboy that morning. He won a spiteful tug of war over using the hotel trolley – only for me to go downstairs later and find that he was doubling that day as the receptionist. I had to grovel my way back into his favour because we wanted to leave some cases at the hotel overnight. I’d found the doubling practice in other hotels, too. One waiter at Hemmingway’s hotel was also the security guard. I hoped he didn’t get the jobs specs mixed and shoot his drinkers.

The Iberostar Grand Hotel tries very hard to be five star, or even four, and I appreciate that, but still has a way to go. For dinner, the seductive description of a seafood pizza and the high-stepping waiters won me, but the delivery, with a base of uncooked  of dough, let down the passable topping. The accompanying live music didn’t help either as a fumbling pianist and a struggling violinist loudly fought each other for dominance. The trouble was, the well lubricated diners clapped, making the musicians think they were stars.

Hotel Toaster Review

The Theme Park Inferno with a slice of bread strapped in for the ride of its life.

I have to say that the Iberostar had as good a breakfast as the Raquel had bad. Furthermore, there were no sparrows helping themselves to the food at the Iberostar – as they do every morning at the Raquel. The Iberostar toaster is a classic. Standing on four legs like a lunar landing module, this toaster is modelled on a theme park ride, which is why it’s called The Theme Park Inferno. The bread is strapped in with a meal safety bar and is then sent on a fiery internal trip, while you wait for your toast like an anxious parent looking for his kid to come through the exit door. For all its engineering wizardry, the toast is pretty ordinary and I’d only give The Theme Park Inferno six and a half out of ten. I must remember to send Derek Breadchamber a picture.

Apart from is public buildings, Trinidad has quite a different architectural style to Havana. It is more ‘Spanish township’ than Italianate or colonial. The narrow roadways are paved with river stones and are a threat to the ankles. That didn’t stop us from walking, climbing towers, looking into museums and the proliferation of art galleries, fending off vendors and stopping to eat what always promises to be enticing food but turns out to be bland. We have grown used to ordering and calling immediately for Tabasco sauce to bring the food into some kind of taste zone. Without doubt, Cuba is the most unappealing place to eat out. But the cocktails work on the plus side. I walked around partly drunk much of the time because cocktails are about the same price as soft drinks in Australia.

Because we’d prepaid, our last night in Havana was back at the Raquel. This time, the formerly grumpy-schoolteacher receptionist was all smiles as she announced that we’d been given a suite.

I think she’d set us up. When we opened the door we found that the suite is the same as a standard room except that it is a little longer and bent around the bathroom. Our big prize was a double bed which comprised a tired mattress suspended between iron railings and propped up by a large wooden stool underneath. Unless the mattress was scientifically positioned to sit exactly on the railings it sank through to the stool and produced a sleep-denying slope.

I noted that the hotel had a well-priced massage service in the basement. I tried it out. I was sealed up in a marble coffin and basted in oil like a Christmas goose – which the masseuse neglected to remove before I left. I shone my way through dinner and then slithered into the double bed in the hope that this may have been the best way not to disturb the critical balance of the mattress on the rails and the waiting stool beneath. Another feature of this room was the unreliability of the room key card which, when placed in its slot, was supposed to keep the power turned on in the room. It got the wobbles five times during the night, turning off the air conditioner which effectively heated up the room.

The Raquel has to go down as the most beautiful but worst equipped and staffed hotel in my experience.

Our departure the next morning for Boston gave us the final finger. Because our baggage had now grown to three large suitcases, two carry-ons and two hand bags we called for a big taxi or a van. What arrived was the smallest taxi available in Cuba. Our biggest case became a front seat passenger as we rattled along, the open windows in the role of AC and pollution collector.  

 

 

Aprilmayhem 17

 

Michelle getting stuck into cigars and rum in Havana’s big square.

One of the highlights of visiting Havana is to witness the firing of the nightly canon. Originally it was used as a nine o’clock signal that the town gates would close in one hour – in case you were getting lucky in an out-of-town haystack with a milkmaid and didn’t want to be locked out of the city. This ceremony is full of pomp, with soldiers dressed up in olde garb marching stiffly to a kettledrum beat as they head for the ancient canon and go through a routine of barking orders and pounding gunpowder into the breach. Then, at exactly nine o’clock the canon is fired to the enjoyment of a big crowd. You get an excellent bang for your eight bucks.

Interesting and humorous as the canon ceremony was, I was brought down to earth by the realisation of how close the world came to catastrophe during the Cuban blockade of 1962. On a headland, not far from the nine o’clock canon, a decommissioned Soviet missile stood pointed at America. While Kennedy and Khrushchev argued over the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets had moved 36 of these missiles into Cuba, each with a one megaton warhead (that’s 77 times more powerful than the bomb that fell on Hiroshima) and capable of travelling over 1000 kilometres to its target. Just one of these missiles could have wiped out New York. Apparently, there were only minutes to go before firing when the leaders agreed on a deal. The current situation with North Korea has the early signs of something similar.

There is a clear delineation between old Havana and new Havana. Old is where the Italianate and art deco Spanish buildings, erected between 1900 and about 1960 stand in narrow streets and are being strictly preserved. That goes for magnificent public buildings and churches. ‘New’ allows for modern high rise buildings. For tourist and aesthetic reasons, never the twain shall meet.

There are two things you don’t do in Cuba. One is blow you nose in public. It is about as acceptable as urinating on a heritage building. If you want to blow you nose you have to sneak into a secluded place and honk quietly. The other is not to utter the English word for a certain fruit. If you went to a produce market and commented on the female stall holder’s nice papaya, you would be talking slang about her vagina.

Although Havana has a magnificent central railway building (in restoration) and several long platforms, there are very few passenger trains running. The reason is that the system has become so obsolete and decayed that it will be cheaper to start all over again – which the government plans to do. A trip between major cities can take days because of stops at various towns while carriages and engines are reorganised. Another problem is that the line it is only single, meaning that you can only run one train in one direction. Trips between major cities favour car, bus or horse. In our case our journey will be by diesel Chevrolet with a clapped out suspension

We visited the oldest synagogue in Havana, built in 1924 for a then thriving Jewish population. It was well fortified with wrought iron and barbed wire but the minders let us in without checking too stringently. We entered a dim office/classroom and asked to see the Rabbi. I expected him to be small, fussy and sad, but he turned out to be just the opposite. I shook hands with the biggest Rabbi I’ve ever seen. He must have been at least six foot six, with a rampant beard and plenty of ballast around the middle. A black hat would have brought him into contact with the low ceiling of the shule. He was also the most humorous Rabbi I’ve ever met. He laughingly explained that his congregation was nearly all in the senior ranks and, as such, was literally dying out. Most of the members were poor and attended services for the food that was handed out. These services were timed to fit in with the two other synagogues in Havana so that the faithful could do the rounds and pick up spiritual and physical sustenance from all of them. He was a native Cuban, had a Spanish accent but had been trained in Israel. He told us that his synagogue’s membership was now so small that he had to do everything, which included running the services, being the cantor, doing circumcisions, ritual slaughtering, overseeing kosher food preparation, preparing the dead for burial and conducting wedding and burial ceremonies – more the latter than the former. He certainly deserved the donation we placed in his tzedakah box. We returned three days later with some bathroom products and antibiotics we’d brought for hotel staff to express our appreciation and gratitude, but because we didn’t feel either, the Rabbi got the lot for his flock of improvised oldies.

I now understand why so many people in Cuban service industries are generally discourteous and disinterested. It is because the Cuban communist government controls virtually all employment. It also either fully or partly owns all real estate and businesses, as well as public services like hospitals and schools. Its massive employment service allocates all the jobs. The employer pays the government a substantial monthly rate for employees and, in turn, the government pays the employees – after deducting about 90 percent for its own coffers. The result is that there is no incentive for good service, or a downside for bad service. Israel told us that a doctor, for instance, after training for seven years to be a GP, earns about $350 a month. The government pays for his or her training overseas and, in return, demands two years’ service at this lousy monthly rate. After that, the doctor is a free agent – and probably leaves Cuba for better payment opportunities overseas.

We had dreamed of siting in the big Havana square, with live Latin music playing while we ate a meal, drank rum and smoked cigars. This we did on our third night here. Even though the meal was typically tasteless, the world looked decidedly better by the time we were done. We woke the next morning with headaches and mouths like the bottom of a bird cage, but for that night, life could not have been sweeter.

Fraser dutifully following his wife’s example.