The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Friday, 26 August 2011

The art of colour....

The scent of wattle fills the air and blends into the sweetness of apple blossom, its still a week away from the beginning of spring, yet Albury Wodonga's streets are bursting with flowers and buds. Magnolias, wattle and apple trees bloom brightly, jonquils, daffodils and pansys spray across the parklands and surrounding paddocks are filled with the sunny yellowness of canola. High above, wide blue skies and warm sunshine abound. there's still a cool crispness to the air but at least we've left behind the cold chilly winds and rains that have plauged the North Coast this winter. 

We're about to jet out to a land of 34degrees but on the way have droped into see "the Bud" and "gorgeous Gal" at thier new home town of Wodonga.

Earlier this year they announced to us they were uplifting thier life and moving south. Big M and I were shocked,curious and if not just a little excited. Shocked that they had picked Albury Wodonga as they'd never been to the area before, we half wondered if they had played 'pin the donkey' one night after a few drinks and instead of a donkey picture, had used a map, the pin landing on the tail end of the Murray. I was curious as to what was Albury or her twin sister, Wondonga.....and quite excited at the prospect of discovering their unknown delights.

Since the Bud & Gals move, Big M and I have had the pleasure to visit AW a number of times and with each visit fall more in love with these regional gems. There is always something happening in AW and surrounds whenever we visit and this time is no different. A wander around AW streets is sure to delight the lovers of anything vintage and art inspired - lined with art deco architecture mixed with colonial grandeur, Alburys streets offer lots to discover. 

After exploring Wodonga's street yesterday, enjoying the art work's that dot the main thoroughfare, today we decide to pay a visit to the Albury museum where we find an exhibition "Albury Delightfully Deco" in full swing. Big M was delighted to find a beautiful Cord 810 Sportsman 1937 on display, its curved sleek lines bringing images of Dick Tracey to mind. I was thrilled to find stunning bakalite radios in fluro jellybean bightness and fabulous vintage posters.

Our next stop in Albury was to the beautiful St Matthews church. Built in 1857-1859 of granite from the local Monument Hill, this stunning place of worship was guttered by a massive fire in 1991. Photos of the fire and the rebuild are on display in a corner of the church and after seeing the evidence of the destruction we are amazed with the result of its resurection. I chat with two lovely ladies who man the 'tourist desk' in the church's entry and we learn the beautiful ceiling was reproduced exactly to the old ceiling; the richly adorned pulpit and fretwork of the sanctuary were a gift from Westminister Abbey (England!) and that only one stain glass window was rescued from the ashes. This window was inserted into another window depicting a pheonix rising from the ashes - simply beautiful.

Our next stop is some 40ks away - Rutherglen - a village known for its wineries and colonial architecture. Last time we visited Rutherglen, we were two of twenty thousand who had descended upon the township. The Rutherglen Winery Walkabout was on (more like the Rutherglen stagabout...) and its delectable liquid delights were being celebrated. We had jostled for space on the street with drunken bananas, power rangers and red nosed santas... not to mention drinkdrivers of prams.

This time Rutherglen has the ambiance of a bygone era, the afternoon sun shines through the lacework adorning the hotels, plays gently on clay chimney pots and lightens the faded advertising signs of years ago. We wander the main street, turn up the 'best garden street' and marvel at the leopard tank in the memorial park. A late lunch and a sample of the local wine at one of the pubs completes our afternoon.

The drive back to AW is awashed with colour - sage green olive trees, a flash of blossom pink and the river gums ghostly white dotted by wattle yellow...a spring of new beginnings awaits


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The plans o' mice an' men

As Robert Burns once said "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men....often go astray..." well I suppose that's not exactly how he said it, but in the spirit of his words, my plan to not plan, has well and truly gone astray. 

Only last week I was high on the idea of landing in KL and floating off to whereever the wind would take us. Nothing booked, nothing planned.... just a map and the open road ahead.  

Then as I whimsically flit from one travel site to another on the net, reality dawns. Eid. Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The end of Ramadan will be happening the day of our arrival to Malaysia. I couldn't believe our luck. After a month of fasting and abstinence, Malaysia would greet Ramadan’s end with a feast and party to last into the coming month. 

How fabulous to arrive upon this celebration.... and to my added excitement I further learn the day after Eid is Malaysia Day, the nations day for commemorating it's independence. My delight reaches exhilaration when I then discover that a Chinese festival lasting a whole week also begins the day we arrive - the Lantern and Mooncake festival. Flags, parades, feasts, lanterns, dancing dragons and music's all so fabulous until I realised that with Eid comes holidays and with holidays comes completely booked out accommodation. 

Suddenly I panic! I throw a question onto the Thorn Tree forum.... what are the chances of just turning up and finding a bed? The replies come back thick and fast..... Zilch! This is serious party time for Malaysia, and for those in Singapore too.... and Thailand. I'm told that many of the neighbours head to Malaysia to soak up the beaches and the Highland coolness.... along with many of the locals. All the top spots will be filled with holidaymakers and celebrators galore. One kind soul tells me "Even if we did score a bed, we'd be flat-strapped getting transport out of KL."  

I suddenly see Big M and I out on the open road, completely.... not dancing in the streets, but sleeping in them...with not a bed in sight. 

"What are we going to do?" I wail to Big M. As he trawls the internet for a room at the inn, I watch my dream of serendipity fade into organisation hardness.  

Finally, we find accommodation in KL and for a moment I feel deflated as the confirmation booking number appears on the screen. Then I realise, in a way this is serendipity. The accidental discovery of these celebrations happening on the day of our arrival is sure to be indeed something very pleasant.   

As Robbie Burns says.... “And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!”

Monday, 15 August 2011

Free Falling

I click on the confirm icon and raise my glass in a celebratory salute. “It’s done!” 

Our tickets are now booked. Nothing unusual about booking airline tickets but this time there’s a difference. These read ‘One Way’. There is no return ticket. No return date. No return from destination. Only an inbound ticket for two to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In a world where guarantees and certainty are demanded and the need to have everything planned out and organised is expected, I feel a surge of exhilaration course through me at the thought of being free. Free of deadlines, plans and expectations. Nothing is organised other than to land one morning in KL. Where we’ll lay our heads that night and the next and onwards, we do not know. The uncertainty of this journey will thrust us into the world of free falling where the gift of serendipity awaits.  

The glasses raised in salute softly clink together and we smile, a hint of nervousness in both our faces. “Yep, it’s done!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Guided by History

Today, I started packing in earnest for the trip. Still no date or tickets yet… but it’s just around the corner. We’re just waiting now for our passports to come back home from their small wander around the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra. I’m hoping they'll come back with good news - visas to visit this wonderful country. In the meantime, it’s on with stuffing the Mamapacca with all the essential needs for a trip.

I’ve laid out the powerboard and international socket, asmoke detector and spare battery and a rubber doorstopper alongside my all important jar of vegemite, heavy duty tropical strength mozzie repellent and my guidebook - Lonely Planet “South-East Asia on a shoestring” printed in 1989. 

Yes that’s right, I did say 1989. It is the first guidebook I ever owned, a relic harking back to my younger self, where dreams of carefree endless travel crashed head on into the reality of business ownership.

 It also became the catalyst for my passion in collecting guidebooks. I have shelves filled with countries I’ve been to, would like to go to and for places that will forever remain just a name to me. They range from the yellowing pages of vintage 50s to today’s prints, all the keepers of my journeying desire. 

The first “South-East Asia on a shoestring” published in 1975 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler was originally born from a small quirky 1973 guide called “Across Asia on the Cheap”. It quickly became the bible of backpackers worldwide. I love the story of the Wheelers and the birth of Lonely Planet, envying them in discovering like modern day explorers, the world at our feet and ever so grateful that they did. My quest one day is find original editions of both these titles. 

Unfortunately it’s not an original idea by me to explore with an old guidebook. I have shamelessly borrowed this idea from one of my all time favourite travel writers, Brian Thacker. Last year I was lucky enough to meet Brian whilst he was promoting his latest book “Sleeping Around” a look into couch-surfing (something Big M and I had tried once in NZ many years before I’d even heard of the term, but that’s another story for another time…) and in my wide-eyed giggly groupie voice asked him what his next endeavour would be. He told me he’d just finished a trip with the Tony Wheeler re-tracing the 1975 version of LP SEA Shoestring. I was enthralled and annoyed all at the same time – what an amazing trip that must have been…..and damn, why didn’t I think of it!!!!

So why take a twenty-two year old guidebook? After all, as the LP’s warn, things change, prices go up, places close down and yesterdays “off the beaten track” is today’s tourist trap. And a glimpse into the 1989 Asia certainly shows changes. 

In 1989 Burma had become Myanmar and Cambodia was still Kampuchea. Hong Kong perched precariously on it’s own, countdown to reunification with China was just a short eight years away... and long hair in Singapore was very much frowned upon. Thankfully Big M no long needs to worry about this.  

The book itself speaks volumes to the changes in guidebooks. This copy is thinner from todays, and its cover entices not with glossy photos of palm trees, beaches and beautiful dancing temple girls but with an almost childlike illustration of a simpler time in the world. It’s faded yellow boarder an indication of the colour of the dust that coats the traveller in Asia. This is overlaid with a watercolour painting of patchwork rice paddies in various dull greens, a pencil sketch of temples and to the front, a woman - probably from a hill tribe - is depicted with a basket strapped to her head.

Inside, it is void of photos – not a one – no invisible fingers to hypnotise and wrap around you and say “come, put yourself into this picture”. Even the maps are simple. Cities, towns and countries are depicted as uncluttered with few streets shown. And they are beautiful maps too, very much from a bygone era. I particularly love the maps of Burma, intricately illustrated and scripted, as if Rudyard Kipling himself had drawn them.
Flicking through, I discover in 1989 Brunei was described as a comic-book country and I find myself almost agreeing with that. 
We had visited the country in 1999, some ten years after its quirky penned nickname and found a country of indeed comical contradictions. Immaculate streets ran side by side to black rubbished rivers where debris from forest logging caught the plastic garbage of the sewers. Stunning shopping centres of marble and glass sold luxury items of electronics, perfumes and designer wear for the cheapest prices I’d ever seen. Colossal mansions overlooked neighbours of rickety floating kampong villages that could go up in flames within six minutes of catching fire. During our week there, two kampongs burned down and many families left homeless, the newspaper reported it with little interest….as if it were a regular occurrence. And “nodding donkeys” (oil pumps) sat in people’s back yards, turning endlessly, pumping out the black gold that made Brunei so rich. It was indeed a bizarre world here. This was also a strict religious country where women were rarely seen and definitely not spoken to. I spent the whole week being conversed to thru either Big M or “the Bud”, including in one instance, Big M receiving congratulations for having a good wife who had given him a son. I also spent the whole week unable to personally buy a cup of coffee from a coffee shop. These were “men only places”. Brunei, an alcohol free country has no pubs …. men instead enjoy their man-bonding in coffee shops where they sip strong thick black liquid in between smoking the hooker pipes. I was enthralled by the intricately exotic pieces of glass and silver that left a trail of apple and cinnamon spiced haze. In contrast to women being kept under wraps, sitting in port was the beautiful yacht the “SS Tits” along with its Nipple One and Nipple Two tenders. Opulent watercraft of bawdiness’, these were the pleasure boats of a Brunei Prince. His brother, the Sultan was celebrating his 53rd birthday and the whole country was invited to the party. Brunei in July glowed like a December christmas tree, its streets festooned in hundreds of garlands of colourful lights. If in 1989 Brunei was a comic-book country, in 1999 I found her to be a country of wonder.
As I continue to peruse the pages of travel past, I find myself becoming increasingly intrigued. Other than a name change, I’m keen to find how Myanmar has changed in twenty years. I read in 1989 I could only get a 24hr or a 7days visa, and “the Lady” is not even mentioned. Much to Big M’s interest, he discovers that back then the exchange rate of Kyats (pronounced Chats) is 6.2 to 1US and a beer – made by the proudly named “Peoples Brewery and Distillery” would cost K17. Today the exchange rate is K1050 to 1US….he’s hoping however the beer has remained close to the same. And a glimpse of yesterday’s LP Laos doesn’t appear too much different from today’s guidebook. The Land of a Million Elephants “is only just stirring” according to my 2010 LP….I’m praying I’m not too late for its awakening.
Yes, even though it’s not my idea and it’s already been done and written about, I’m curious to compare the pages of travel history with the discoveries of today. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

My Backpack Romance

I pulled my backpack out today. It greeted me like an old friend, throwing itself upon me, covering me in its scent – a dusting of musky spice, reminding me of out last jaunt together. The next trip is just around the corner, about two weeks away, mind you I haven’t booked any flights yet.... nor set the actual date... nothing like leaving things to the last minute!

Contemplating what to pack for Asia shouldn’t be difficult. There’s no need for anything too flash or too warm, I’m sure I can pack light. Although, I don’t know if I could pack as light as friends of mine who travel with only carry-on luggage. This couple travel the world, experiencing wild and crazy adventures and they do it all with just a tiny day pack. And this includes their photographic gear. “S” takes amazing photos and not with a point and shoot. She sports the full deal – SLR with lenses and tripod – where she fits it is beyond me.

Big M and I have had a number of discussions on how much to pack and what bags to take. We did consider for two seconds the possibility of taking just carry-on but I need more than two pairs of knickers for a four-month-plus trip, and definitely more than one pair of socks. I know you can now buy special quick-dry-no-chaff travel undies, but I do still like a bit of femineity to my underwear. So the carry-on idea was quickly dismissed. However, the type of luggage was greatly debated. Big M suggested a wheelie-bag with handle. I suspect he’s hoping we won’t be legging it too often. I definitely have other ideas!

I love my backpack. She’s been with me for eons. A lovely green and purple Macpac with lots of straps and zips. Zips locked tight with padlocks of which I’ve lost the keys to. Thankfully, I can still get in via the top. I dubbed her Mamapacca. 

Like any typical mum, I try to account for every need and scenario and then proceed to pack everything.  

I remember the first time Mamapacca and I trekked off together. Cradle Mountain 1997. I had visions of intrepid travel, scaling mountains and wilderness, inspired by the likes of my heroes Sue Fear and Bridget Muir. Filled to the brim with 20kilos of everything, including a pair of high heels (for a night in Hobart after our 8day trek), we set off into the Tasmanian wilderness and for the first three days it rained solidly. My 20kilos became a sodden wet 50. I secretly suspect Big M put some of his gear into my pack (he too was toting 20kilos!). Mamapacca was carried up rugged mountainsides, dragged thru thigh-high mud, pushed across waterfall boulders and used as a seat in alpine cushion meadows. She never kept my clothes dry (I forgot to line with waterproofing bags) but she weathered the elements and held fast. She may have been green, but I was positively lime.  

Our next outing was to Nepal where she held the load with little care as Big M, Bud and I traipsed across this mystical country. Oblivious to the insurgency that was igniting around us; we slept through bombings, were chased by cantankerous cows and cranky carpet sellers, lost "the Bud" for a couple of hours, and averted a possible kidnapping. Well I maintain it was a kidnapping ....although, the chap with the machete in the back of our jeep could have been a farmer and our driver with his gun, possibly a .... no, I’m definitely sticking with the kidnapping theory! Oh how we had merrily skipped our way along. By the end, Mamapacca was a shade of dusty olive, but I felt a tinge of sage start to settle upon me.

In between continents, Mamapacca and I explored the great southern land, trekking the Snowy Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef islands, Boonoo Boonoo & Bald Rock, across Lake Eyre and up the Birdsville track.... well ok we didn’t actually trek it but she held the gear whilst sitting in the back of the car. 

In New Zealand we did trek the beautiful isle of Stewart Island, though I prefer its Maori name, Rakiura – land of the glowing skies. Gone the need to pack heels and the blow-dryer, this time my item of indulgence was a full size pillow. Oh what a sight I must have made, staggering up and down the endless boardwalk steps, ten’s of thousands of them, with my pillow strapped to the lid of Mamapacca, bobbing high above my head. Thankfully, "the Bud" was also on this trip, took pity on me and (after endless bouts of begging and weeping and threats of being grounded for the rest of his life) carried Mamapacca up most of the steps.  

As my emerald years passed, Mamapacca accompanied me across the globe, her deep forest green slowly drifting into drab army-tent-green by time we had paused in Cambodia. And then I did the unthinkable! I took another! A torrid interlude with baggage that left me sour. 

Big M and I were going to Paris - city of lights. A city of love. A city of endless cobblestones. Mamapacca was not fashionable nor cool enough to carry my garments to Paris. Actually, if truth were told, Big M had decided he didn’t want to strap on a backpack anymore. His was cutting into him he said. I gently suggested that perhaps it wasn’t the straps fault, more like his creeping middle age girth, but we were going to the city of love and I wanted it to be all about the Amour! So I agreed to be escorted by a wheeled bag with a long handle.  

In fact, we got two. Two big, huge suitcases with wheels and handles. Ah yes, I remember it well. Strolling the cobblestone streets of Montmartre looking for a hotel. The clunking of wheels trundling behind us as we hauled great lumbering suitcases up tiny winding hillside lanes. The narrow spiral staircases of quaint hotels that don’t have working lifts (or any lifts for that matter). The ups and downs of the Metro tunnels, its eternal crowds waiting to catch trains, giving no room or way to tourists with big bags with a long handles.... make that two bags with really long handles. Yes, taking wheelie cases with handles on shoestring style travel can be such fun!  

And then disaster struck.  

We were leaving gay Paree and her romantic delights and needed to catch a train to Tours. It was a working day, early morning and hoards of commuters. The gypsies were swarming, the traffic was chaos and we are tightwads, no taxi to the station for us. No, we intended to stroll the cobblestones to Gard de Nord. 

Clonk, clonk, clonk...scrape. Cobblestones have gaps. And my bag’s wheel had found one. Lodging itself tight, it tore free from the bags frame and left me with a huge suitcase on one wheel. Big M offered to carry it with its tiny little minute handle to the train station whilst I pulled his bag along. When we finally arrived, red faced from over- exertion, we realised we were running late for the Tours train. Real Late. The type of late that requires you to run extremely fast. Amazing Race fast! Not only were we late, but we were on the wrong level to catch the train. We headed for the stairs. Lots of stairs. Big M carried my bag up, I pulled his bag as well as carried the day pack and my hat bag...... I was in Paris, in the springtime and I needed a selection of nice fashionable hats!

And then it not another wheel loss, this time it was a snap of the handle. As the bag had bounced from one-step to the next, the handle completely snapped at the base and dislodged from the case! All my Paris loving went out the door. I kicked the bag, I cursed the stairs, I swore at the train as last call rang out and worst of all, I yelled at poor Big M.   

We did catch the train but it was a dash that nearly killed us both. We carried and dragged and stumbled and tripped our way along the platform with such a great angst and hurriedness that almost gave us coronaries and broken legs and scrapped heels that I never want to see another wheelie bag with handles for as long as I live.

Now as I look across at Mamapacca, the red security stickers from our last Bali sojourn still evident on her clips. I think about I how I laid against her on the beach as we waited for the boat to Gili Trawangan, a comfort no suitcase can offer and how when she sat strapped to my back in the crowded markets, I felt secure in the knowledge that no one was about to run off with her. And as she sits there, waiting to be filled, it’s her vibe of "promised adventures to come" that fills me with eager anticipation. 

I am indeed happiest with a ticket in my hand and a backpack on my back and these will be my continuing evergreen years. Now, what to pack!

Another Begining

I've always had one foot out the door, heading off to somewhere. Kicking up a whirlwind of dust as I run from one experience to another, trying something new and getting bored easily.  

Life is meant for living, grabbing, savouring, to be enjoyed to the fullest. Trouble is I never seem to finish anything. But then I think of the inspiring words of the poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” and I think, just go, get started. Do. 

And do I will, from salsa sashaying, pumping the treadly, trekking thru the wilderness and clinking the champagne whilst watching the dream machines spin around Monaco.

So I hope that you'll join me on this little blog spot and follow my journey, where ever it may lead - my travels, my thoughts, my writing. I hope you will get something out of this experience but most of all I hope it’s all about life, lived to the fullest.