Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Nine Percent

Friday, February 6th, 2004


The fun thing about this site (which I haven’t really explored at all) is that after you complete the countries visited page, it gives you a little progress report in the caption.

Mine read “visited 22 countries (9%).” But I think it should have said “9% done.”

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Saturday, December 20th, 2003

Took some good pictures of Athens that I’ll get up after I charge the camera. For now, try to appreciate how great my Saturday was:

  1. Woman at airport chided me for being there just 2 hours before departure — and then gave me a middle seat in a regular aisle for the 4 hour ATHLHR journey.
  2. In the gate, they passed out a letter informing us in-flight entertainment wasn’t working.
  3. Boarding was delayed 25 minutes due to “certification problems.”
  4. They found me an aisle seat — but it was behind a very generously-sized woman who kept trying to recline.
  5. Takeoff was delayed 15 minutes because they had trouble disconnecting the jetway.
  6. Landing was delayed 20 minutes because air traffic control wanted us to hold.
  7. The customs guy was the rudest I’ve ever dealt with.
  8. I spent €2 [US$2.48] for a 15-second call to Matt, where I discovered he wasn’t at the airport because he thought my flight wasn’t in for another 2 hours.
  9. I had to spend Euro because the ATM on the ground level wasn’t dispensing cash.
  10. There was no ATM on the second level, though staff on ground said there was.
  11. While the train to Paddington was fine, I sat at the Circle Line platform watching no less than 8 trains pass on the opposite one before mine came.

But all of that doesn’t matter, because sitting patiently at the last station was Matthew, ready to guide me to his place and play the gracious host. He’d even made a “JSP” sign for Heathrow. Go Matt!


Wednesday, December 17th, 2003

So, initial thoughts on Athens: the practically brand-new airport makes Heathrow (at least Terminal 4) look like a sad old relic. But they’re going to need more than that to get geared up for the 2004 Olympics — and everything is still under construction (even on the weekends, I’ve been told.)

Not least among these will be more airport shuttles. I was crammed — with my ever-expanding luggage — into a city bus with 48 other travelers* and their luggage for the 75-minute journey to the city center. This after being crowded at the bus stop by people who jostled for boarding position while puffing madly on cigarettes.

Not to make far-reaching generalizations, but it’s impossible to imagine the Singaporeans doing this. Just as it is difficult to imagine a Singapore** resident asking me the question I got upon leaving my (impressively dingy) hostel this morning:

“Do you play basketball?”

* All the Greek taxi drivers have been on strike since 0500 Thursday, so this number may be inflated. However, it’s a 35km journey, so it’s probably pretty expensive.
** In Singapore, for example, I can’t stand straight up in the phone booths (the on-hook phone doesn’t even come to my navel.) No joke.

The Thing About Singapore

Sunday, December 14th, 2003

“I love everything about Singapore. It’s so clean [and] modern, yet so conservative at the same time.”

That’s how the Singapore Abuzz! leaflet in my hotel room proudly quotes Shah Rukh Khan, “Bollywood superstar”. Apart from the pleasing implication that “clean and modern” is not normally associated with “conservative,” it’s hard to see what he’s talking about.

After all, the thing that struck me most about Singapore wasn’t cleanliness or modernity (though both are evident), but the many malls. The downtown map lists no fewer than 78 “shopping centres” and the four I’ve visited were each at least six stories. Which I suppose is no surprise when you consider it’s a place with a strong economy and frequent thunderstorms.

So what’s this conservative deal? Everyone I’ve encountered over the past few days has been scrupulously friendly, with the hotel staff ridiculously so (but they may be a tad overzealous at everything — housekeeping actually aligned my toiletries and folded up clothes left on the floor, boxers included.)

True, the arrivals form seemed a tad unsubtle in its boldfaced announcement of DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW. And I suppose there was that whole caning thing — so maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked to see that HBO is edited. (You can determine this quite quickly when they’re showing Snatch.)

Therein lies Singapore’s problem, kids: you can be friendly and clean and warm and safe, and that’s a great accomplishment. But a country where Dennis Farina isn’t allowed to say the word “fuck” is just not somewhere I’m going to want to live.

Deadline Looming

Monday, December 8th, 2003

Yes, I’m still here! No time to talk right now (in fact, really should be in bed — it’s 4:35a) but wanted to throw up something for the lovely people who check regularly.

Since I last wrote, I’ve visited the nation’s capital, Canberra, where I managed to get tickets to observe “Question Time” with the Prime Minister. I hope to discuss that and more whenever I get a chance to do a proper update. Sadly, that’s not right now. But soon, I hope!

Here in Hobart

Wednesday, November 26th, 2003

Tasmania’s natural beauty is legendary. Australia’s island state is home to “one of the world’s last temperate wilderness areas,” among other wonders. So naturally, I want to talk about the movie theater.

Hobart’s State Cinema, to be precise. Conveniently (but not coincidentally), my lodging in Tassie was located only 100 meters up the street from this formerly state-owned theater. “Formerly,” because When drastic budget cuts forced the Australian Film Institute to let it go, a local businessman bought it and kept it going.

All of which is nice, but what’s better is the friendly staff. On my exploratory visit, a woman greeted me and answered all my questions about the cinema and its history. She showed me the notebook where visitors are encouraged to leave comments — and the manager writes his reply/rebuttal alongside. (Example: A request for popcorn was shot down due to management’s view of the stuff as loud, smelly and otherwise invasive. But several kinds of wine are served — in proper glasses.)

Then we got into a discussion about travel, touched on the recent Getaway episode discussing where Australians most want to visit, and then she had to leave — but not before giving me a free (actually “nil cash”) ticket to the film I wanted to see (Lost in La Mancha.)

When that screening was finished, a guy I met at the hostel who moonlights as ticket taker secured me a tour of the projection room, where the owner himself showed me around. Then he requested I be his guest to see the next offering, Swimming Pool. I’d seen it before (with B in Minneapolis) but of course I took him up on it. Hooray for free movies!

I didn’t spend all my time staring at the silver screen, of course. I also got out to see other things, such as the Salamanca Markets, a street-long bonanza of products and personality:

Plenty of people, crowded in the market

But no bushwalking. I’m on record as being staunchly pro-environment, but I see no need to be out in it all the time.

End of the Road

Monday, November 24th, 2003

Leaving the Fly, I snapped this picture of a lovely pastoral scene — cows on parade, you might say:

Green hills, blue sky and a bunch of black and white cows

The roads all over were like this. When you weren’t looking at the ocean, you were seeing great sections with forests on either side:

Curvy road disappearing into forest

This is the stuff from which car commercials are made, folks. And I don’t even have photos of the impressive bits: rising, falling, twisting and turning right on top of the Southern Ocean. That’s because it was too much fun to drive to stop and take snaps.

Fantastic stuff.

Otway Fly

Monday, November 24th, 2003

A short detour off the Great Ocean Road took me to the Otway Fly Tree Top Walk, a 600 meter steel walkway high (9-47 meters) above the forest floor. I’d first learned about the concept when I read Bill Bryon’s glowing account of his visit to the tree top walk in WA. As there are just 3 steel canopy walks in the world (all in Australia; the third is in Tasmania) I knew a detour would be worth it.

And it really is something to see. At ground level, the trees (the Otway Ranges, part of a cool temperate rainforest with an average of 2m of rainfall annually) are massive and seemingly all the same:

Parallel trunks, reaching to the sky

Twenty-five meters later, you’re much more aware of the different trees that make up the canopy…

Variety of tree tops

…even as you’re dodging some of them to get along the path!
Limb hanging near path

(The brochure notes “The Fly is designed to have little impact on the fragile rainforest.” That’s nice, but what about the recent logging in the area?)

I found the walkway very secure and firm, with perhaps a slight give. Or, as the flyer puts it: DON'T GET A SHOCK, THE WALKWAY IS MEANT TO ROCK. Yet it seemed so stable, it’s a surprise when you get back to the ground, look up, and realize how high you were:

Looking up at feet on walkway

See also the pictures on The Fly’s website.

Port Campbell Fly

Monday, November 24th, 2003

After a night in “Sounds of the Sea” B&B, I’m ready to make them my primary form of accomodation. What’s not to like about lazily rising at 10 to find a full breakfast magically appearing as soon you step out the door?

Table set with yogurt, cereal, assortment of fruit and jams, and fresh flowers

After dining, I set off once again. As I was about to pass yet another brown sign, I remembered someone saying that not all of the Twelve Apostles could be seen from “terra firma.” I decided to pull in.

That sign read SCENIC HELICOPTER RIDES 300m.

Helicopter just after takeoff, hovering above a green field

Strapped in, helmet on, mic positioned, I was ready to talk to my fellow passengers — and the pilot, who first took us for a different perspective on London Bridge:

London Bridge rock formation, aerial view

…and then told us that when the “bridge” portion collapsed in 1990, it stranded a couple on the new island. Hours later, a park service helicopter rescued the pair but not — the pilot claims — before TV helicopters broadcast their faces to a viewing audience that included their respective spouses. Whoops.

Then we moved on down the coast:

coastline, Port Campbell National Park

coastline, Port Campbell National Park

coastline, Port Campbell National Park

In that last one in particular, you can see a grey stripe jogging roughly parallel to the ocean’s edge. That, folks, is the Great Ocean Road — which after landing, I rejoined in the Falcon to see some of these sights from ground level:

coastline, Port Campbell National Park

coastline, Port Campbell National Park

This included, of course, the Twelve Apostles group itself, which is the second-most photographed attraction in Australia. (You can guess the first.) There are actually 16 formations, making the name a bit of a misnomer. However, it was probably chosen not for its accuracy, but for its comparative dignity when compared to the original “Sow and Her Pigs.”

Twelve Apostles, as seen looking east on viewing platform

Twelve Apostles, as seen looking west on viewing platform

Good Morning, Get Going

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

After a glorious sleep, the friendly innkeepers gave me directions on how to get to the Road.

But first I needed fuel, so I cruised into the first petrol station I saw — and was surprised when a woman came right out to my window. Was it closed? Far from it. Turns out that particular station was full service. The prospect of full service for no charge (in that tiny town!) amused me so much I took the woman’s picture:

Natalie, smiling and standing behind the car

She, in turn, was amused when I told her how much I could have used her the day before.

After crossing into Victoria, I was closing in on the Road. Soon enough, brown signs announced “scenic lookouts”:

Jagged coast formation, with really blue water

— as well as named formations such as The Grotto:

An arched section of rock, with stairs on the right

— and London Bridge. The “bridge” once had two arches, but (as a playful sign informs) one section collapsed in 1990.

London Bridge

Further down the road, and more sea-side scenery:

Rock arch, with wave crashing at base

I stopped for the night in Port Campbell, a tiny fishing village just before the 12 Apostles (in Port Campbell National Park, naturally.) I was hungry, so I stopped for food first. At the restaurant, I introduced myself to Melissa, a 29yo from San Francisco. We shared a meal, and I learned that she had recently left her job in sports marketing to take a 2 month trip around Australia. In the process, she found a passion for landscape photography, and though she’s a complete novice, she hopes to make a living at it.

We chatted about this and other things for quite awhile — so long, in fact, that Port Campbell effectively shut down by the time I was out and looking for lodging. Everywhere in a 15km radius was shut, it seemed: even the Best Western on the highway was dark.

I was beginning to wonder what sleeping in the Falcon would feel like when I cruised by a house with a “Bed & Breakfast” sign at the curb. I crept in and was soon greeted by Maxine, the proprietor.

Soon enough, I was set up with a bed for the night.

Great Ocean Road: Get Ready

Saturday, November 22nd, 2003

Queensland was lovely, but I just didn’t have time to do it properly. I decided to save the Whitsundays and the rest for another trip and instead hire a car and drive the Great Ocean Road, which runs along the south coast in Victoria.

I decided to start a bit further away and flew to Adelaide, where the people at Adelaide Central YHA are so warm and friendly, I just love them. They instantly recognized me from last month, and were joking around (“Hey there, band chick,” I greeted the staffmember who has her own group. “How are you doing, computer geek?” came the reply.) and just making me feel welcome. Clearly, Adelaide was a good choice for my starting point — and as I found out the next day, the YHA had another advantage: it was a scant 500 meters from the Hertz office.

I’d prearranged the car on the Internet, so it was merely a matter of signing papers and dodging upsell attempts (personal effects insurance? fuel deal?) before I took possession of my Ford Falcon XT:

bright red Ford Falcon

I didn’t request red, but I did ask for the Falcon because it was the sportiest car they had — for my requirements. Though Hertz has a “Prestige Collection” which includes the BMW Z4 and Jag X-Type, those cars can’t be returned at branches in different states.

Mercifully, the friendly Hertz woman put the car on the street for me, so I didn’t have a witness for whom to feign nonchalance as I entered my first car with right-hand drive. Even better, the street was a one-way with a traffic signal just a block down, so I could literally ease my way right into traffic. Things were going swimmingly.

Until I was pulled over.

Minutes after I’d left Hertz, a police car fell in behind me, lights flashing and siren whooping. I signalled a turn to the curb, but strangely the wipers started. I cursed and switched hands, finally managing to get my “blinker” on and pull over. Meanwhile, I did a mental rewind: Did I miss some red light? Had I been going too fast? What was the speed limit anyway?

Soon the officer was at my window, and he offered an explanation: I hadn’t done anything wrong. During “Schoolies Week,” when the students are on break, police do random breathalyzer checks. Moments after I blew a .000 (this at 11am) he cheerfully sent me on my way. Deciding (wisely, I think) against asking the speed limit, I cautiously pulled out and resumed my original goal: finding how the hell to get out of Adelaide.

Hertz had thoughtfully provided a thick street directory for Adelaide and a much thicker one for Melbourne, but I had no clue how to connect the two. I’d been told the RAA would be the place for maps of all kinds, so I set off looking for it — and couldn’t find a damn thing. After passing through the intersection marked on the map at least five times, I pulled into a parking garage and set out on foot.

Naturally, I arrived at the new “around the corner” location approximately 2 minutes after they closed for the day. So after all that, I had to buy my maps at a newsagency.

But at least I was moving. I hit the M1 and opened her up. Damn, it was good to drive again! And drive I did, not stopping until 150km later, when I saw the oddest sight:

Pink lake, with clouds above

If that lake looks pink, that’s because it is. According to the helpful sign, the hue is caused by “a combination of dunalialla salina and halo bacteria,” the former of which is used as a natural food coloring. Great, but I still wouldn’t dip my toe in it.

Onward! When I came to Meningie, the next town on the B1, I elected for a pit stop. After ducking into the head, I came out to find my car refused to start. There was no possible way the battery could have been drained in the few minutes since I’d left it, yet the starter didn’t even turn over.

I tried a few more times and then gave up, more mystified than anything. Fortunately, Hertz has roadside assistance for those times when you’re in a town of 1,500 people on a Saturday afternoon. I rang them up.

After arranging a service call, I slid back in and realized the shifter wasn’t, ahem, firmly in “Park.” After rectifying this, the Falcon started instantly. One sheepish phone call later, I was ready to move over to get some gas — er, petrol.

Fuel pump, with unleaded and super

As you can see from this photo, gas was priced at AU$0.939/L for unleaded and AU$0.959/L for “super.” (That’s about US$2.57/gal and US$2.62/gal — a calculation I thankfully didn’t make at the time.)

I figured the 2¢/L difference was negligible and grabbed the “super” pump. Oddly, the nozzle was just a hair too big for the car’s tank. I found this strange but lined it up flush and gave the handle an experimental squeeze.

Ninety millileters of “super” dribbled down the side of the Falcon.

I was literally scratching my head when a service station employee came out to let me know that “super” was actually leaded and the too-large nozzle was a design feature to clue in idiots like me. So educated, I switched to unleaded.

After topping off with fuel and a wide assortment of sugary snacks and drinks, I was on the road again. What a varied road it was: when not right up by the ocean, I drove through pasture, forest, and vineyards. It was very much the case that you might find on the right a beach with some fascinating cloud (poorly captured here):

Clouds over the water

…and awhile later on your left you’ll find some “before and after” animals.

And if living animals aren’t your thing, there’s always The Big Lobster.

Really big metal lobster

For the record, that middle bend in the legs is about my height. Also for the record, I took this picture and scurried away.

OK, it wasn’t without considering for a moment whether I wanted to dine there. But I decided I would eat at Mount Gambier, which, incredibly, is the second largest city (22,000 people) in SA behind Adelaide (1,045,000.)

When I arrived in Mt. Gambier, the first thing to greet me was a roundabout. This is the guidance Hertz gives for roundabouts:

Drivers entering a roundabout must give way [yield] to traffic already on, entering or leaving the roundabout if there is any risk of collision. Decide before you enter the roundabout if you are going to turn right, left or go straight ahead.

To me, this translates as: “sit paralyzed at the intersection until there isn’t a car for miles kilometers and then creep in.” As it happens, though, the roundabouts were lightly used and I had no trouble with them.

I dined at a nice Chinese restaurant, where my waitress was friendly and flirty, and then managed to procure entertainment: though the cinema was only showing films I’d seen, the city had a Blockbuster! More importantly, it had the most friendly Blockbuster employee I’ve ever come across (save Matt, natch) as he laughed at the idea of a credit card imprint or deposit and gave me my own membership card with the motel as my address! Even better, he said now that I was in the system, I could translate the card to any other Bbuster in Australia and short-circuit all of the ID and money requirements. Brilliant!

Thusly I was able to end the night relaxing on my large and comfy bed, watching an Australian DVD — after catching the crucial final period of the Rugby World Cup, of course.

Then I had the best sleep yet.

Another Day, Another Airport

Friday, November 21st, 2003

I love the Qantas safety video because during the evacuation portion, it warns to pay attention to exit locations, as you’ll “almost certainly” be seated in a different seat each time you fly.

I’m the reason for that “almost.” On Qantas 737-400s (i.e., those used for Cityflyer) I fly 14C. On Virgin Blue 737s (the newer ones, which unlike the Q aircraft have a hinged exit hatch and not a “throw out” one) I sit in 12C.

I know this because it’s my business to know, just as I can recite the qualifications for emergency exit row seating* in my sleep.

I’m getting to my next airport via a mode of transportation I haven’t yet tried. More on that later.

* Varies by country, but generally: must be able to lift 20kg without injury, able to follow written/spoken instructions given in English, at least 15 years of age, and without hearing or vision impairments (save those corrected by contact lenses/glasses.)

Now It’s Getting Weird

Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

Today I sat on a bench near Jimmy’s on the Mall and was happily typing away until I heard a voice: “John?” I turned to my right and discovered I was sharing the bench with a young couple I’d met…in Fiji. Who’s next?

Of course I’m really holding out from someone from Fat Dog. That would be the real kicker. (At this rate, it may even happen.)

Why I Like Brisbane Already

Monday, November 17th, 2003

It’s clear, sunny, and a pleasant 80° here in Brisbane. Less than 24 hours since I stepped off the plane (remember the bus plan? Haha.) I’m nothing but impressed with the reception I’ve gotten so far. For instance:

  1. At the first movie theater I went to, the girl helpfully told me the film I wanted (Spellbound) was actually playing at another chain. Then she drew me a map, so detailed it included the location of the elevators.
  2. When I reached my destination, that guy was happy to sell me a ticket. Then he whipped out a map, pointed out a helpful navigation tip (in the CBD, all the streets in one direction have male names [e.g., Edward, George], while all the intersecting streets have female names [Elizabeth, Ann]) and gave me specifics on where all the good nightlife was located and how much it cost.
  3. The City of Brisbane provides free wireless internet throughout the Queen Street (ped) Mall, so anyone can sit at the myriad cafés — or even just a bench — and enjoy a bite to eat while checking e-mail and planning the day. Today, there’s even a free concert, with a woman doing a pretty good version of “No Woman, No Cry.”

I wonder if I’ll meet any Iowa Staters here…

Abbott & Shields Streets: Crossroads of the Universe?

Friday, November 14th, 2003

Scientists have yet to back me up on this, but I think there is ample anecdotal evidence that the intersection of Abbott St. and Shields St. in Cairns is, in fact, that crossroads of the universe.

Item: as I was walking along Shields last night, I took notice of a couple that seemed quite familiar to me, and as the female noticed my open-mouth stare and brought them up short, I got confirmation. I had spied Wade and Stacey, he my college floormate from five years ago, she his new wife of one year.

Item: as the three of us stood on a street 12,000 miles from where we’d last seen each other, another face approached from the opposite direction. Here was Benjamin, with whom I’d shared a room in Sydney weeks ago, our paths crossing again at nearly the precise moment I’d met the other two.

Item: just steps from what I shall now call The Crossroads, I came to City Place, where a singer was performing. Under a bandshell criss-crossed with faux evergreen, red bows, and twinkling lights, he belted out “Chicago” Sinatra-style to an audience gathered in the warm Cairns night.

I know I’m not technically from Chicago, but I did spend a ton of time there this year. Now if I can only find the wormhole that will allow me to get Giordano’s…