Exploring a world of different cultures on the streets of London, it’s easy to forget where you are sometimes….
A chest-pounding Egyptian beat gathered a small crowd where a man stood in the centre. He was wearing a turquoise body suit, red and gold boots, a matching hat and a strange sort of skirt that flared out around him as he spun in circles. He span faster and faster, becoming a human spinning top, warping the skirt into all kinds of weird, psychedelic shapes. It crossed my mind that it looked more like a woman’s outfit than a man’s – perhaps he was just filling in at short notice, I thought. He pulled out an Egyptian flag from nowhere and held it up to the sun in praise as the crowd erupted into cheer. After ten dizzying minutes of spinning he stopped and grabbed my girlfriend, Sylvie, out of the hundreds that were now watching and put the skirt over her head and around her waist. Without instruction she started to spin, the skirt spreading out like a fan around her.
Caribbean girls with skimpy outfits, gold boots and metre-long purple feathers blocked the road as tourists flocked around them, posing for pictures and waving their Trinidad and Tobago flags in the air like it was still the Olympics. An English gentleman made the most of the closed road by banging a pair of drumsticks on the ground whilst chanting, “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the world! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” He was wearing a navy England football shirt and had a two-inch scar down the centre of his shaved head. One of the event staff asked him what he was doing…… “I’ve gorrra right to sli….sing if I wanna!” The event guy was obviously concerned that this might be some kind of racist slur on the event’s overall tone, but I actually think he was just trying to do his bit for Britain – all the other countries were playing their music, after all!
I indulged in a £4 bottle of Carib lager from the Carribean drinks stand, it was a rare sunny day and I wanted to celebrate. The barman poured it into a plastic glass but looked almost as disappointed as I felt that it didn’t all fit. “Come on, man, drink!”. I took a few swigs while he waited with a big grin on his face, then he poured the rest of the beer into my glass and gave me a wink. Now that’s service, I thought. We sauntered further down the street passed a couple of New York yellow taxi cabs and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty. A motorised elephant that looked like it had been made by pre-schoolers drove down the road, pumping out songs from Slumdog Millionaire. The ‘Indian Princess’ sitting on top waved at her adoring crowds and pretended she was singing.
A sky-blue marque flapped in the wind and had Argentina, beats to your rhythm printed boldly across the front. I demolished an Argentinian steak sandwich with roasted red peppers and a rich chimi-churi sauce, while Sylvie nibbled away at a traditional empanada – South America’s answer to the Cornish pasty. A tall, casually dressed man started playing an acoustic guitar and singing in Spanish. His voice wasn’t very strong but he sang with such sincerity and un-pretentiousness that a group of us found ourselves utterly absorbed in this intimate performance.
He finished his first song and started chatting with us about Argentina: “You know something about Patagonia? I am a mountain guide there and I write music inspired by the beauty of the glacier.” He was down to earth and humble in a way that only people who call Mother Nature their office can be. His eyes were Antarctic-blue, small and slanted like a wolf’s – all of the girls were clearly besotted, including Sylvie. I could hardly be angry, even I thought he was the coolest guy ever. He introduced himself as Ceferino and shook everyone’s hand.
“This next song is about my friend, Sean, and his girlfriend, Roberta. Roberta died in a car accident and Sean was so depressed. He decided to base jump in Patagonia and spread her ashes across the mountain. With the suit, you know the suit, with the wings? He flew down, touching the mountain, so incredible, oh my god, but the wind was so strong that when he opened his chute he was blown back up into the sky. But then two condors appeared from nowhere and looked at him in the eyes like to say, ‘follow us’. And Sean followed them through the valleys to safety. We say that one of the condors was Roberta.”
He began to sing, this time in English. It wasn’t the most mind-blowing song I’d ever heard but having an understanding of the weight behind the lyrics made it something incredibly powerful. I could imagine Ceferino sitting on the ice with a pair of finger-less gloves and his guitar, his voice echoing through the mountains. I wasn’t in London anymore, I was in the Patagonian Glaciers, with Ceferino, Sean and Roberta, mourning her loss and celebrating the beauty of the mountains.