Monthly Archives: November 2013


It is hard to find a clear answer why Americans dropped the bomb specifically on Hiroshima. It was indeed a key military object in that it was a port through which the Japanese troops were sent overseas. However towards the end of the war the American planes had such an overwhelming control of the skies that any city could be easily destroyed using conventional bombs. Tokyo for one for practically levelled by incessant bombings. At a certain moment the American High Command on the contrary created a list of cities where conventional bombing was forbidden – so that in case of a possible atomic bombing the results would be most obvious. On this list was also Kyoto (16 UNESCO World Heritage sites). Later after some reflection Kyoto was removed from the list. Hiroshima however remained as number 1. One of the theories is that it was thought to be the only city without POW camps (which turned out wrong).

On 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb in the history of humanity was dropped on Hiroshima. This action led to the deaths of 140000 persons, from the first second to years later, due to explosive wave, heat, fires and radiation.

In today’s Hiroshima no visible traces of the bombing persist. The old quarters are all built up with modern buildings. But one building remains as it was right after the attack. It was one of the rare concrete buildings in Hiroshima. The models showing the situation after the explosion the city looks like a grey ashen desert in every direction – and only this building stands in the middle, like a monument. The hypocentre of the explosion was just a couple of metres away.

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Magical Nara

I decided to publish my impressions of Japan out of chronological order, but rather in the order as they come to my mind. I am right now in the city of Kagoshima, at the Southern end of the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu. This post though is about a wonderful place called Nara, where I was just a short time ago. Before Nara I visited also Tokyo and Kyoto, in fact revisited as I already went to both of these metropolises on my last year’s trip to Japan. So this time I only visited some selected sites. However I decided to spend most of my time in the less known Japan. And so I visited Nara, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Osaka…

Nara is the ancient capital of Japan. In the prehistorical times the capital was moved every time the emperor changed, due to shintoist taboos. Later as the Yamato tribes settled and buddhism grew in influence at the imperial court, it was decided to found a permanent capital. Two other places were briefly tried, but finally the emperor chose Nara, which gained the status of the capital in the year 710. Nara was built in imitation of China’s glorious capital of Chan’an (today Xi’an), then the largest city in the world by population. Nara’s plan was also based on the cardinal points and the main temples and palaces were placed based on a system also involving cardinal points. Nara remained capital only for 75 years, as due to complicated palace intrigues the capital was moved to Kyoto, which remained capital for more than a thousand years.

However Nara still possesses many important Japanese cultural sites, of which eight are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Mostly these are Buddhist temples. The imperial palace did not survive until our times, however archeological excavations are taking place in its location and some parts of the palace have in fact been restored.

My visit however started from the Isui-en garden. This is the most famous garden in Nara. In the season of falling leaves it leaves a truly magical impression.

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To reach Hawaii, I took a plane from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The frequency of flights between LA and Honolulu is surprisingly high: several companies fly the route and each has several flights a day. Therefore although the distance to Hawaii is great, you don’t feel there as if you were isolated from the mainland United States. Hawaii is an archipelago consisting of four main islands – ­from West to East Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island (Hawaii itself) – ­and many small islands. The capital is on Oahu, and that’s where most population lives, although Oahu is not the largest island – ­that’s the Big Hawaii, which is several times larger. The distances between the islands are rather significant and so normally you have to fly between them. I spent a week in Hawaii and all this time I was on Oahu – ­there’s enough to see and do and I didn’t want to jump from one island to another in crazy tempo.

The touristic centre of the island is no doubt the famous Waikiki beach, located just outside of the Honolulu downtown. This one of the most celebrated of the world’s beaches is a symbol of Hawaii. In the Waikiki beach area there is a whole panoply of hotels, restaurants, a zoo, an aquarium, tennis and golf courts, huge shopping centres. Everything for the tourist. The beach is indeed very pleasant. Despite my general boredom with beaches I went to this one quite a number of times and swam, usually at dusk. Classical view of Waikiki with the Diamond Head mountain in the background:

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In America

San Francisco has always been for me one of those fairytale cities which are located somewhere really far away, seducing you with a magical green light. That’s why when I realised that it could be included in my trip, should I decide to head over the Pacific via the States (so-called option 2, see here), the temptation was difficult to resist. The TACA airline offered the route Santiago – ­Lima – ­San Salvador – ­San Francisco for a relatively reasonable amount, but my hand somehow resisted buying it, as it involved two changes of planes, departed at 7am and arrived in SF after midnight. At the time there was a BART strike in San Francisco, which meant that I would have to magically summon a taxi out of thin air to get from the airport to the centre. So I prolonged my stay in wonderful Santiago and finally the right option came up. I’ve never before benefited from airline miles, but nonetheless gathered earnestly the miles from various flights – ­I have an account in each major airline alliance. And suddenly it occurred to me to check mile possibilities. The very convenient flight Santiago – ­Dallas – ­San Francisco with American Airlines had a price tag of $4000, but via British Airways website it was possible to get your hands on it for $300 + some miles. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, so good a deal it seemed; but it was all correct, you can fly half the Earth for the price of a local European flight. Afterwards I also flew San Francisco – ­LA for $2 (and 12000 Lufthansa miles). The miles are difficult to use in Europe due to very high airport taxes; but in America they turned out to be highly useful. We’ll see if they’re any use in Asia.

On a wonderful sunny day I arrived in San Francisco.

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The Birdman of Easter Island

We are visually saturated with the images of moai. But for me the places associated with the other, later cult of the island seemed a lot more visually impressive.

The Birdman cult was something rather extraordinary. It demonstrates again what mad fantasies can be developed by the human mind if it is left to its own devices, in relative or full isolation (this is felt very strongly all over the world in isolated places, for example in Japan, where I am right now).

The Birdman cult was concentrated in the sacred village of Orongo. The path from Hanga Roa to Orongo can be undertaken by foot, it is about 5 km up the slope of the volcano, and indeed it retraces the ancient sacred route that was used by the processions from other parts of the island to climb the volcano. This is how this magical path looks:

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Surprises of Easter Island

On my RTW trip I took a decision to travel all the time in the Westward direction. Logistically, the most complicated decision on a RTW trip is how to cross the Pacific. I considered two options: option nr 1 was to fly from Santiago to Easter Island, from thereon to Tahiti, and further to Australia or to Japan via Hawaii. Option nr 2 was to first get to the United States, then fly to Hawaii and on to Japan. Eventually it became clear that option nr 1 did not quite fit into the logic of my trip, which was to be as spontaneous as possible, the reason being that in fact there is only one flight a week from Easter Island to Tahiti, this flight is very expensive if buying close to the date of the trip, and also the further flights were rare and expensive. The working option turned out to be option nr 2, which I eventually implemented.

However visiting Easter Island was my long standing dream. And so I decided to fulfil it. From Santiago I bought a return ticket to Easter Island, spending three days on the island. It is funny that even in our day a simple price arbitrage is possible. My initial intention was to buy the ticket on the website of LAN (the Chilean airline that flies monopolistically to Easter Is). But then just for fun I checked the price on some aggregator websites as well as on related companies’ sites. And – ­surprise surprise – ­on the website of TAM, a Brazilian company related to LAN, the same flights on the same days cost 200 dollars less. So of course I bought the ticket via TAM. Don’t know how that is possible and what is the explanation, I just know that such inefficiencies occur time and again. I remember once I needed to buy a ticket from Seychelles to Mauritius (we had an Air France flight arriving in the former and leaving from the latter). But Seychelles’ national airline due to some bizarre local rules refused to sell a one-way ticket and insisted we pay the price of a return one. I just refused to accept this. So sometime later out of nowhere a ticket found itself on a site of a small web aggregator of which I’d never heard, three times cheaper. At the time I was traveling around China, was staying in a small town in the Gobi desert. It was really exciting to be buying this ticket around the Indian ocean while sitting in a huge café on the outskirts of China filled with smoke and shouting Chinese hackers.

Although Easter Island belongs to Chile, it is actually pretty far from mainland South America; the flight takes about six hours, the distance is 3700 km. Easter Island will probably be the most remote place I will visit on this trip. It’s a fantastic feeling to approach it from the air.

The clouds and the Pacific below:

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Pink tide

Leaving Latin America, I want to comment on a phenomenon that seems to be sweeping this part of the world. It is the so called pink tide, the simultaneous occurrence of a left swing in the politics of the most countries on this continent. It is pink of course because bloody red is somehow appropriated by the communists, whereas the socialists can be safely painted in pink. Latin America has been under robust American control for many years, belonged to the immediate American sphere of interests. But especially in the most recent years, after the end of the Cold War, the situation here changed radically and one after another pieces of the domino fell as socialist or left-wing presidents won elections.

There are 12 independent countries in South America. Today there are left-wing governments in 9 of them, and Michelle Bachelet just won the first round in presidential election in Chile and is likely to win the second, making it 10 out of 12.

This is how it looks:

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Valparaíso is a famously beautiful port city about an hour from Santiago. Chile’s main port, it used to be one of the most important ports in all of Latin America. In the days of old galleons full of silver sailed from Lima all the way to the Drake Strait before moving on to Europe, and on the way they always stopped in Valparaíso. It remained a key economic point until the Panama canal was opened, when all the traffic instantaneously moved there and Valpo turned into a secondary port now serving only Chile’s needs and more famous for its beautiful streets.

But let’s start from the port on a sunny day:

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Coffee in Latin America

After writing about the food in Argentina and Chile, I would like to devote a separate chapter to Argentinean and Chilean coffee. I love coffee, but only in particular preparations. Of course nothing on Earth is better than coffee in Italy. In Peru and Bolivia the coffee is rather disgusting. However once I arrived in Argentina, the land of Italian descendants, the coffee shares started going up! I discovered a coffee chain Havanna offering a truly endless variety of preparations and sampled every article with gusto!

I must say in general that the coffee terminology is turned upside down in every new Latin American country. Sometimes the same term has the opposite meaning within just one country. For example in Puerto Iguazu I described in detail to a lady in the coffee shop that I want the coffee that in Europe is called caffe latte. Finally she got my request and said: well that’s lastima! Lastima worked quite well in Buenos Aires, although produced some hesitation at times. However ordering a lastima in Mendoza resulted in a mini-espresso (very tasty)!!!

(This is true for everything though, not just for coffee. Particularly in Chile and Argentina they have invented an argo vocabulary for everything under the sun, and the Chilean vocabulary has nothing to do with the Argentinean one. In Chile in particular the pronunciation is terrible, the words are not finished, every sentence is interlaced with jargon. With some of my interlocutors, I had to ask them to repeat every sentence. Perhaps though they simply enjoyed exercising their linguistic superiority over a hapless gringo. In Argentina they have invented a whole separate grammar, they decline verbs in a different way. But at the end of the day this is wonderful. Adds a local feeling.)

So in order to avoid linguistic debacles, I often use the old trick “I’ll have what she’s having”. Sometimes I even unobtrusively photograph the item and then point to it on the screen of the iPhone. Otherwise explaining the particular coffee variety you want may take days.

This is what they call capuccino in Argentina. A little cup. Next to it packed in gold is an alfajor, see below. In Argentina they always bring a glass of sparkling water with the coffee – a ­wonderful habit, in my opinion.

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Avocado with champagne in Santiago

Some months ago I wrote about the wonderful Peruvian cuisine. Now I would like to describe my gastronomic experiences in Argentina and Chile (with emphasis the latter). The food in these countries can be characterised as relatively simple but fantastically tasty.

Argentina is of course famous for its amazing steak, which is accompanied by wonderful Malbec. I already describe taking a self-guided wine tour in Mendoza. I’m a big lover of steak and it took me some time to select the variety that I like the most among many offered in Argentina. Interestingly it is not the most expensive one – ­which is usually ojo de bife, or ribeye. Ojo de bife tends to be rather boring, although it comes from the best meat. But the tastiest – ­definitely not the healthiest – ­is bife de chorizo. It is a real steak with small fatty parts. It’s quite incredible, just melts in the mouth. There is an ever fatter variety, very popular in Argentina, with whole long pieces of fat included, which is called here asado, but this one I could not eat.

In Argentina they love their steak well-cooked, which is right against my preference, as I like it tender and bloody. Every denomination here needs to be decreased by one notch, so for example if you want it medium-rare, you ask for rare, for medium you ask for medium-rare etc. I insisted every time that I really want it rare, i.e. jugoso, sí, sí, ¡bien jugoso!

One of the many melt-in-the-mouth Argentinean bife de chorizo:

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