AN ex-banker named Guillermo Benitez swings a sawed-off hockey stick in each fist, bringing both of them down on an old computer keyboard like a furious gorilla locked inside a school supply cupboard. His girlfriend Lorena Dominguez is more methodical, lining up empty wine and beer bottles on a metal rack to smash them one by one with an axe handle. The Ramones are playing loud and dumb over the in-house PA system. Through the bunker-like slit of the observation window, it looks and sounds as if these two are having a wonderful time, and this is the entire point of The Break Club.
ALMOST 100 years ago, a young apprentice from a Japanese sake company was sent to Scotland to study the art and science of whisky-making. Masataka Taketsuru travelled the highlands and islands and took menial work at various distilleries – learning by getting his hands dirty. He also took a local wife, marrying one Rita Cowan in Campbeltown before returning with her to Japan in 1921.
CHRISTMAS in Uruguay marks the start of the high season. Perhaps this sounds like a giddy little pun on the fact that marijuana is now legal here, but that would not be in the proper spirit. Arriving in Montevideo just as this landmark legislation is being rubber-stamped by the Senate, I quickly learn that foreigners tend to get much more excited about it than most Uruguayans, who kindly request that we please be cool.
IF you’re going to Lake Baikal, you’re going to Olkhon Island. And if you’re going to Olkhon, you’ll be staying at Nikita’s Homestead. This is the babushka-doll logic of a Trans-Siberian itinerary, especially as the railway passes through Siberia itself. In theory, you are wandering one of the world’s great wide-open spaces. In practice, you are following the same route as every other foreigner aboard the trains here, and probably making all the same stops.
THERE is a fat, goateed man in a leather jacket standing far too close to a Magellanic penguin. He is giggling nervously – the man, not the penguin – and slowly extending a finger towards the animal’s soft white belly. Surely, I am thinking, he is not actually going to poke this poor bird, which has just swum thousands of miles from the Antarctic to join its colony here at Punta Tombo, a thin, chilly strand of Patagonian desert on the coastal edge of Argentina.
VIEWED FROM outer space, the traffic in Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t look particularly bad. In 2002, the European Space Agency launched a new satellite – Envisat- to monitor air pollution levels across the planet. Envisat sees the spectral traces of man-made gases, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as they rise in vertical tropospheric columns from power plants, shipping lanes, centres of heavy industry and major urban road networks. Compared to places such as northeast China in those terms, Scottish cities form an almost negligible part of a global picture.
A GIANT red robot soldier stands over 20 feet tall in the long, wild grass of a roof garden, atop a pastel-coloured building surrounded by trees and hedges. It’s a strange sight, even for Tokyo, but also dimly familiar, like something you once daydreamed or doodled in primary school.
WE only came for the pandas. Thirty-six straight hours on a train from Shanghai, across the interior of China, almost to the border of Tibet, on “hard sleeper” beds in smoky and crowded compartments. But there is no question of the trip being worth it, because there are pandas at the end of it. Hundreds of them. Or at least 108 of them, according to the last count at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre in Sichuan Province, including 12 new cubs that were born there over this past summer.
CATCH a bullet train out of Tokyo at night, and watch the megacity warp into a single continuous strip of bright and indecipherable signage. The carriage seems to float above the rails and a polite hush reigns within, as the view blurs into Yokohama, then Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka; the world outside the window a boundless field of energy. The circuit finally breaks at some point north of Kyoto, where the countryside suddenly begins, and all that electric light gives way to occasional fires in the distance. Inside one of those fires is an evil wooden fish, burned in effigy every year by rowdy Japanese villagers.
LAST Sunday in the French Alps, more than 5000 people gathered to watch a succession of professionals and capable amateurs attempt to ski down a mountain and across a lake, from one shore to the other. None of them made it, or even came close. Some were at least able to remain upright, even elegant, cutting a smooth, continuous line through the vertical of the slope and then horizontally across the water, before slowing to a stop and sinking well short of dry land. They looked like captains going down with their ships, and the crowd saluted them as such.