“Can I Wash Your Windows?”
I met a guy at a gas station tonight. I can’t stop thinking about him.
I work in the West End of downtown Dallas and live in Fort Worth, about 35 miles away. I usually can get away with filling the gas tank once a week, on Sundays, but I did just enough extra driving this week that my little Subaru was thirsty this afternoon. I tried the 7-Eleven on Ross and Field, but it was packed, so I pulled in a few minutes later to the Valero station at I-30 and Sylvan. Last stop before the westbound express lane home.
This is a big station — something like 24 pumps, a store, a taqueria, and usually an elotes (Mexican corn) stand/cart outside the main door. It’s always busy. I’ve stopped there dozens of times over the years, and it’s a hive of activity every time. Tonight, around six, I pulled in, found a pump, popped the tank, got out, locked the car, and went around to slake the Subie’s thirst with some 87 octane.
I paid at the pump with a credit card and filled the tank with thirteen gallons of gas. As I was putting the nozzle back in the pump, I turned toward the station store, and a man standing by the door caught my eye and gestured. “Can I wash your windows,” he asked, though I couldn’t really hear. He came closer, and repeated the question. My car’s windows weren’t dirty — at least, not unduly so — but that wasn’t the point.
“I’m just trying to get my mom a hotel room for the night,” he said. He was about my age, I’d guess, dressed in a t-shirt and work pants. “We got caught in the rain earlier.” Part of that, at least, I knew to be true. A strangely monsoonal rain came through the area about 3:00. It poured for 20 minutes, then went away, but it would have been a shitty 20 minutes to be outside.
Mom was nowhere to be seen, but I hadn’t even registered that, or anything else, when I said, reflexively, “I’m sorry. I really don’t have anything. I don’t have any cash at all.” In response, he said thanks anyway, and told me to “be safe.” I got in the car and drove away. I don’t carry much cash. Everyone takes cards, so it’s just easier to carry a card. But I do always have a couple of emergency $20 bills tucked in my card holder. To tell him that I didn’t have any cash at all was a white lie, I guess, but it was a lie for sure.
Why did I do that? Why did I lie and say I had nothing, instead of just telling him I couldn’t help, or — on the other extreme — actually giving him some cash? I don’t know. It was reflexive. I suppose that I assumed, subconsciously or otherwise, that his story was bullshit. But why? I’ve got no basis for that, and anyway, is someone whose life is going swimmingly really going to stand in front of the Valero station on the West Freeway, telling tall tales about his mother’s homelessness, just to scrounge a few bucks? Probably not. Whatever the full truth is, life ain’t grand.
So, I started thinking about these things on the way home, and have kept on turning them over in my mind tonight. If I had a do-over, would I do anything differently, upon reflection? Does it really matter if his mother is without shelter, or if “only” he is hard up enough to be offering to wash car windows at a dumpy gas station on a rainy Friday afternoon for a few bucks? I’m not made of money, but I could have given him some without any lasting worries, and despite what I told him, I did have it. Should I have given him $10? $20? Would I, in version 2 of this story? Or would I demur again?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d help him. Perhaps I would, and perhaps I will, next time. What I do know is, I don’t like the default mode of distrust that I found myself in today. Maybe he really needed money to help his homeless family. Maybe he was just looking for an easy mark to score some beer money. Probably, it was somewhere in between. But I assumed the worst, and I wish now that I hadn’t. Which is why I’ve been thinking for a few hours about the man I met at a gas station tonight. I think he deserved better.
TBT to Antarctica
Three years ago today — March 24, 2013 — was my favorite day of possibly the very favorite of all the trips I have taken. The M/V Plancius took us to Petermann Island and Vernadsky Station on the far northwest tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Petermann Island is home to an enormous penguin colony and some spectacular mountains. Vernadsky Station is a former British research base and home of “Wordie House,” named after Sir James Wordie, a member of Shackelton’s original team. I’m proud of these photos, but even they don’t do justice to the beauty of the place. I was accompanied by the great explorer Sir Richard Sawyer (pictured) and all of the new friends I met on that trip — Melissa, Victor and Britt, Josh, and many more. In every way, a lifetime memory.
Shooting at Each Other
Lots of presidential politics on my timeline tonight, so I’ll offer some thoughts. I like Bernie Sanders. Not that I need to justify my opinion, but I think his focus on economic inequality is appropriate and important, I trust him to defend my civil rights not just as a gay man but as an American, and I think it’s okay to vote for an “aspirational” candidate, even if he’s not certain to push his whole agenda through, unchanged.
But you know what? I also like Hillary Clinton. A lot! Just a little bit less than I like Senator Sanders, because they’re focused on different issues and I think Sanders has his eye on more pressing matters. If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, you can bet your bottom dollar and your ass that I’ll be out in force for her. I hope everyone who is committed to Sanders right now feels the same way, and it’s for that reason that I’m upset by some of what I’m seeing from Sanders’ other supporters (who I count among my friends). Don’t insinuate that Clinton didn’t legitimately win Iowa, and don’t get offended when someone suggests that New Hampshire was always going to be in Sanders’ wheelhouse. Of course it was. No shame in that. We’re winning. Onward. Quit being nasty.
By the same token, I’d very much appreciate it if Clinton’s many supporters would drop the “Bernie Bros” meme. If you know me, you know that I’m not supporting Sanders because I can’t stomach the idea of a woman in high office. I did, after all, spend several months working full time as a volunteer on Wendy Davis’ campaign. I know I’m not alone; I know, instead, that I’m in the majority. I like Sanders on the merits, not because I’m threatened by Clinton in particular or women in general. Please stop taking seriously the sophomoric crap spewed by anonymous sub-Reddit trolls. That goes for Ms. Steinem and Secretary Albright, too. Please also put an end to telling me that I’m not supporting a serious candidate, or that I’m throwing my vote away. Give me some credit, and change my mind if you can by selling your candidate instead of belittling mine. We’re in this together.
We’re choosing between two strong and worthy candidates. Let’s act like it. I don’t want some cancerous divide to develop that would allow a buffoon like Donald Trump or a zealot like Ted Cruz to steal the election in November because Clinton’s primary backers won’t go all out for Sanders, or vice versa. We can win and we must win, and we must keep all of our eyes on that prize. Please.
Politics is (are?) Dumb
When news of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino broke on Wednesday, “liberals” (like me!) immediately began calling it exactly that — terrorism. It self-evidently was terrorism, so why not?
Without skipping a beat, the entire crowd of GOP presidential hopefuls, joined by a chorus of others, accused liberals of “politicizing a tragedy” to advance their/our “perverted” (Cruz) anti-gun agenda. Liberals were further accused of “prayer shaming,” when they/we had the temerity to suggest that perhaps we as a nation might think about doing something a bit more concrete than that, in light of the number of terror attacks carried out this year alone using legally-purchased weapons of war. And yes, we spoke up right away.
Then the GOP group found out that the terrorists were Muslim. Okay, now it’s okay to call them terrorists — “Muslim Terrorists,” as the New York Post splashed across its front page.(I guess the passing of Wednesday night into Thursday morning meant that enough time had passed so that conservatives weren’t politicizing a tragedy.) Now “liberals” like President Obama stand accused by the GOP and many of its supporters in the press and the punditry of not doing enough to prevent the sort of terror attack carried out on Wednesday.
In the view of the GOP leaders, as expressed in their own words and actions over the last 48 hours, if a terrorist is a Christian terrorist (like the Colorado Springs terrorist, or the terrorists who attacked a church in Charleston, and a movie theater in Aurora, and a f*cking elementary school in Connecticut), then proposing laws to reduce access to weapons of terror is an anti-gun agenda. But if a terrorist is a Muslim terrorist, liberals are incapable of keeping the same weapons out of the terrorists’ hands, and the grown-ups in the GOP need to step in and get tough.
It’s all terrorism, and it’s all domestic terrorism, and it’s all abhorrent and it’s all frightening. I am firmly of the belief that we should fight terror wherever it threatens us. I am also firmly of the belief that no private citizen needs access to arms like the four legally-purchased weapons used this week, and that no private citizen should be able to stockpile the arsenal that these people had. I believe that we should do everything we can to prevent exactly that, including writing much stricter gun laws and standing up to the gun lobby and its fraudulent (former Chief Justice Warren Burger, quoted below) interpretation of the Second Amendment. And I think that’s true no matter the religion of the terrorists. Keeping terrorists from having weapons is a pretty good way of fighting terror. And I’ll somehow be accused — indeed, I have already been accused — of politicizing a tragedy for saying that.
And that’s dumb. I’m so very tired of politics this year, and particularly this week. So now that I’ve vented, I think I’m going to have a drink. Surely I can get bipartisan support for that.
Chief Justice Burger’s quote is from 1990, when the then-retired, rather conservative Nixon appointee wrote:
“The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
He was right. Still is.
Our Leaders Lied, and HERO Died
Al Franken once wrote a book called “Lies, and the Lying Liars who Tell Them,” or words to that effect. He might as well have been describing the driving forces behind last night’s resounding defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, for make no mistake: the only reason the measure lost was because of outrageous lies spun by our state’s highest officeholders and a cabal of bigots willing to stop at nothing to perpetuate their right to discriminate. I am disgusted. You should be, too.
There is no national or statewide law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodation against LGBTQ Americans. It is legal to fire a gay employee for being gay, and to hang a “no lesbians allowed” sign on the door of your restaurant, hotel, or shop. You can’t refuse to rent your apartment to an African-American, or a woman, or a Christian. You can refuse to rent it to a gay or transgender person without breaching federal or state law.
So it’s left to the cities. Every major city in Texas has a non-discrimination ordinance of some sort. Even Fort Worth — the reddest big city in the reddest big county in the state. My home town has had an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation for fifteen years, and in 2009 adopted an ordinance expressly prohibiting discrimination “based on transgender, gender identity, or gender expression,” because “Fort Worth’s vision to be Texas’s ‘Most Livable City’ cannot be realized without providing equal protection in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation to all members of the Fort Worth community.”
Houston was late to the game, but last year the City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — HERO — without a lot of controversy. A noisy minority raised questions about whether the ordinance was of a type required to be put to a vote, and the Texas Supreme Court ultimately agreed, leading to yesterday’s up-or-down vote. HERO’s purpose was simple: afford protection in employment, housing, and business services to all Houstonians without regard to sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy. It doesn’t say anything about bathrooms.
But that isn’t what you’ve heard about HERO, is it? You’ve heard that the purpose of HERO is to create some sort of unisex bathroom rule. Former Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman distorted the ordinance in a widely-aired ad, in which he said:
“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms,” Berkman says in a new radio ad. “I played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm’s way.”
“Troubled men?” Transgender women like actress Laverne Cox, or tennis star (and pioneer) Renee Richards, or Olympic hero and professional famous person Caitlyn Jenner are just “troubled men” who want to sneak into women’s bathrooms and “put them in harm’s way?” Hardly. The “troubled men” trope has its origins — or some of its origins — in a lurid fantasy that Mike Huckabee likes to talk about:
“Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE,” Huckabee said in the February speech. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’”
If that were a real problem, you’d probably have heard about the rash of guys sneaking into women’s bathrooms in Dallas, or El Paso, or San Antonio, or Fort Worth, for the opponents of HERO would surely have used real-world examples if they existed. They don’t, of course. Transgender men and women have been allowed to pee in peace for many years without encouraging little Mikey Huckabee to “find his feminine side.” Undeterred by this basic truth, our lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, among others, helped fuel the fire with more lies:
Mayor Annise Parker “ought to be embarrassed” by the ordinance.
In Patrick’s TV ad, set to begin Tuesday airing on cable and network stations, he tells voters that “no woman should have to share a public restroom or locker room with a man.”
“This is absurd. Years ago, a decade ago, we would laugh at even thinking about that the people would cast a vote to keep men out of ladies rooms.”
So a bunch of straight, cisgender men think that because other straight, cisgender men can’t be trusted not to sneak into the girl’s locker room to get their jollies (something that’s already illegal and would very much remain so if HERO became law), transgender Houstonians aren’t entitled to basic civil rights? That’s the story voters heard:
“The equal rights ordinance?” the Uber driver said, making eye contact in the rear view mirror. “The only thing that I have heard is that it allows men who dress up like women going into the ladies room. I heard commercials that said it would increase crime. If a person woke up one day and said, ‘I identify as a woman,’ he could just go into the bathroom to see titties or booty.”
“What else could it do?” he asked.
To be honest, the good people working with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Texas didn’t do a great job getting the message out that opponents of civil rights made up an untrue story about Peeping Toms to persuade credulous voters into supporting their discriminatory world view. Instead, they let our governor have the last word.
The day before the election, Greg Abbott lent his hand and his office to the anti-HERO campaign and perpetuated the lie about “men in women’s bathrooms.” Transgender discrimination is a “Texas value,” apparently:
And so HERO went down to defeat, by a substantial margin. The Governor’s successor as attorney general (at least until he is convicted of securities fraud, when he will lose his bar card) reveled in the defeat:
Dan Patrick released a statement last night that added another level of dishonesty:
“I want to thank the voters in the City of Houston for turning out in record numbers to defeat Houston Prop 1 – the bathroom ordinance. The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law. It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms – defying common sense and common decency.
“The supporters of this proposition brought in movie stars and elites from Washington, DC and Hollywood to try to force their twisted agenda on the good people of Texas. It didn’t work and advocates of this ridiculous proposal are on notice tonight that the voters of Houston will not stand for this kind of liberal nonsense.”
Equality is “already the law?” Not for LGBTQ Houstonians it isn’t. Not at all.
No wonder the ordinance was defeated. The holders of the three highest-profile statewide offices flat-out lied about the state of the law and the content of the ordinance. They turned a non-discrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill.” They and their supporters made up fantastical stories about straight men slapping on dresses and walking into the women’s room like they have a right to be there. And because voters believed those lies, LGBTQ Houstonians are left without equal rights.
Disgusting. And it’s about to get worse. These three and their cronies want to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to pass a state law that would make it illegal to pass municipal ordinances that give more protection than national or statewide laws. That’s right — it would be illegal for Fort Worth not to allow discrimination against LGBTQ Texans. I suspect they’ll try to cast that as a “bathroom bill,” too. It won’t be.
When is enough, enough? When will the good people of Texas tell their leaders that they don’t want bigotry enshrined in the law? When will lifelong GOP voters turn their backs on candidates who tell the sort of lies we’ve seen in Houston?
This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. Conservatism shouldn’t naturally lead to intolerance, and I know for many people it does not. But it’s time for all Texans — liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat — to demand change. There aren’t two sides to this coin. Just because “Hollywood liberals” are for it, doesn’t mean that everyone else has to be against it. It’s okay to agree sometimes.
The politicians aren’t going to change until they hear from their constituents. They’re going to keep up the type of behavior that led to the defeat of HERO, because they think it’s what their supporters want them to do. Did you vote for these guys? Take a minute and tell them they’re wrong, and that they won’t have your support next time. If you’re considering supporting our junior Senator for President, you might drop him a note, too.
If not now, when?
National Coming Out Day
Today is National Coming Out Day around the world. The purpose is to celebrate coming out and raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ community and the civil rights movement. The notion of coming out as something to be celebrated isn’t entirely new. Harvey Milk gave an impassioned speech in San Francisco during the summer of 1978, imploring gay people to come out not just for their own good, but for the good of the community:
“On this anniversary of Stonewall, I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country … We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.”
I think the last four decades have proven the wisdom of his words. The LGBTQ+ community is much more broadly integrated and accepted into society at large, at least in Western countries. In many parts of the United States, it is no longer legal to refuse to rent a house to a gay couple, or to kick a gay patron out of a store or restaurant, or to fire an employee after discovering that they are gay, lesbian, or whatever else they might be. All of those things remain legal in Texas – in my part of the United States – so the fight is far from over, but the legal landscape today would be unrecognizable from 1978.
The Supreme Court “largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda,” in the words of Justice Scalia, when it threw out a Texas law making private sexual conduct a crime – in 2003! Two years ago, the Defense of Marriage Act died an ignoble death, and this summer came the wonderful and long overdue affirmation gays and lesbians have the same right to state-sanctioned marriage as everyone else. It wasn’t a universally popular decision, but it was possible in a way it would not have been a generation ago.
I believe that coming out is what forced the change. Not me, and not any one person in particular, but one by one and all together we have changed the world. The CEO of Apple Computer is gay. So is the mayor of the biggest city in Texas – and she’s been elected three times. A straight man has won a bunch of Emmys for playing half of a gay married couple on the most popular sitcom on TV. Bruce Jenner was the most famous athlete in America when Harvey Milk gave his speech; Caitlyn Jenner won the Arthur Ashe award this year. Ellen is the new Oprah. The most remarkable thing is that so much of this isn’t remarkable at all, anymore.
It isn’t easy. I didn’t come all the way out until my 38th birthday, in an essay I wrote while I was halfway around the world on a trip I took after quitting my job to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Still a lawyer, it seems. But a happier one.) If I’d been born in 1995 instead of 1975, I might have come out at eighteen. I don’t know. I can’t presume to say that it’s easier now for younger people to come out, because all I know is what I felt at that age, and I certainly wasn’t ready. At least, I didn’t think I was ready. I wish I had been. I do know that there are so many more role models in the public eye, and I hope gay kids – gay people of any age, really – see that the culture in this country has changed for the better, and rapidly so. But I can’t get inside the head of anyone currently in the closet.
What I can do is offer resources, starting with myself. I’m here for anyone who wants to talk about any of this, at any time. Please reach out. The Human Rights Campaign has a great “Coming Out Center” and tons of other resources on their website. The Trevor Project – which is a wonderful charity worthy of anyone’s support – is a confidential crisis support hotline for LGBTQ+ teens. Their primary mission is suicide prevention, but they offer good printed and online resources that can help anyone navigate their own unique coming out experience. The Huffington Post has a very helpful collection of links on a page it published for National Coming Out Day two years ago.
So there you go. Whether you’re out and proud, closeted and questioning, or just someone who wants to be an ally and a friend, happy National Coming Out Day. If you’re ready, go for it. It really does get better.
With my coffee this morning, I read a story in the paper about Ellen Page confronting Ted Cruz on LGBT rights. And, while the specter of two Canadians arguing about American public policy at the Iowa State Fair is strange enough, that isn’t what prompted me to write. No, it was Ted. I’ve never been a fan, as anyone who knows me will know, but what he said yesterday made me mad. What he refused to say made me even angrier. Let’s vent, and maybe learn.
It is the established law of this country that many businesses open to the public — “public accommodations,” including hotels, restaurants, and places of entertainment (there is some debate over the scope of the term) — cannot discriminate against a potential customer on the basis of the customer’s race, color, religion, or national origin. Forty-five states have similar laws (Texas doesn’t), and many of those are broader than the federal law and explicitly cover all businesses. All of these laws also make an exception for religious organizations and private clubs.^ They can refuse service.
So when you see a sign at the McDonald’s that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” that’s fine. That sign probably also says “we refuse the right to refuse service to anyone.” Well . . . yes and no. You can refuse service, but not on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If I were an innkeeper, then, I couldn’t refuse service to Ted Cruz on the basis that he is Canadian, or Catholic, or Hispanic. I am free to refuse service to him because he is an asshole, and I probably would.
The Civil Rights Act, which is the federal law that extends those protections, doesn’t cover discrimination based on sex. The states have taken care of that; every state with a public accommodation law prohibits public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sex. The Americans with Disabilities Act extends protection to people with disabilities. Many states prohibit discrimination based on a customer’s age. That’s all as it should be, I believe. Nobody should be discriminated against because of the fundamental nature of their being, or because of their religion.
There is no federal law prohibiting discrimination against a customer based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Many good people in Congress are trying to change this. Many states have already changed this — twenty-one states and the District of Columbia make it illegal to refuse service to LGBT persons on that basis. One of them is Iowa. The pork-burger vendor where Ms. Page and Sen. Cruz had their argument couldn’t have refused to sell her a pork burger because she’s gay or to Ted because he is, as far as I know, straight. (The asshole rule still applies.)
In twenty-nine states — again including Texas — there are no such laws at the statewide level. Some cities have municipal ordinances. Houston’s city council voted for one a few months ago; you may have seen our Lieutenant Governor’s intemperate remarks about how this is an advancement of the “gay agenda,” and the Texas Supreme Court has held that Houston must put its ordinance to a public vote. Did you know that Fort Worth has a broad public accommodations ordinance?* I am very proud that in my city, it is unlawful for any place of business to deny access to goods and services to anyone on account of his or her “race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and transgender.”
The question Ms. Page actually put to Sen. Cruz was about employment discrimination, but his response was to go on a riff about public accommodation. He says “Bible-believing Christians” are being “persecuted” because of their beliefs, and after telling Ms. Page that he would not have a “back and forth debate on the subject,” told a story about an Iowa business that was “forced” to close after its owners denied service to an LGBT customer based on the owners’ religious beliefs. He tells the story all the time. It’s false. The owners of an art gallery and bistro in a converted church, who sometimes rented a room out as a private wedding venue, decided they didn’t want to rent it out for a same-sex wedding. When they were told that they had to follow the law, they chose to pay a fine rather than accommodate the one customer, and then they decided not to rent it out as a wedding venue anymore. That’s all. Their religious beliefs about gays and lesbians are so deeply held that they made the choice to change their business. Nobody forced them to do anything. In Sen. Cruz’s telling, though, the effect of the Iowa non-discrimination law is akin to “forcing a Muslim imam to perform a Jewish wedding ceremony.”
It isn’t anything of the sort, of course. Again, religious organizations are generally exempt from the Civil Rights Act — the one that prohibits public accommodation discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. In every state-level public accommodation law I’ve read that covers sexual orientation and gender identity, religious organizations are similarly exempt. And you know what? That’s fine. If a church that purports to teach the word of God wants to hang a “no fags allowed” sign on its clubhouse door . . . well, I’m not sure I want to go in there anyway, but the government can’t stop them from doing that. Why? Because the Constitution says that the government can’t make a law that impedes a person’s free exercise of religion. Whatever you do behind the closed doors of that church, or mosque, or temple — so long as it’s not hurting anyone — is no business of mine and, more to the point, none of the government’s business, either. And it shouldn’t be.
But if you throw open your doors to the public? That’s different. If the owner of a restaurant in deepest Alabama still abides by an outdated belief in the superiority of the white race, he’s entitled to that belief, but if an African-American customer comes in and asks to be served, the restaurateur has to stew in his own bigotry but serve the customer. That’s the law. He isn’t being “persecuted” because of his beliefs regarding color or race. He isn’t being prevented from doing anything, and he’s free to believe as he wishes. Likewise, a gas station owner in El Paso can’t refuse to sell gas to Hispanics, or to Mexicans, out of a fear that they might be illegal immigrants intent on having anchor babies just up the road. The station owner is free to worry about border security, and free to think deeply uncharitable thoughts about Mexicans, but he’s not free to discriminate against customers based on their race or national origin. He isn’t being “persecuted” by anyone — but he doesn’t get to persecute others.
Religion is the same way, and the constitutional “freedom of religion” doesn’t change that. If a gun-store owner tried to make his firing range a “Muslim-free zone,” that’s illegal. That is an example of persecuting a customer based on his religious beliefs. The inverse would be equally true. If the atheist owner of a coffee shop wanted to bar all Christians from entering his store and buying his cappuccino, that would be “persecution” of “Bible-believing Christians,” and it is absolutely and unequivocally unlawful throughout the country. As well it should be.
“Religious freedom,” however is a shield from discrimination. It is not a sword. It is not a license to discriminate. A devoutly Catholic Subway shop owner cannot not refuse to sell sandwiches to a Muslim customer because of the store owner’s genuinely held belief that Mohammed was a heretic. That’s fair. Both parties have “religious freedom;” that is, freedom to believe whatever they want to believe without repercussion by the government. If a customer does not wish to patronize a movie theater run by an atheist, or a Catholic, or a Jew, she can. That doesn’t affect the theater owner’s religion one bit. But if a religious person wants to see the latest blockbuster, she can’t be stopped from doing so because she’s religious. That’s the law, and it’s a good one. I’m very sure Sen. Cruz would agree.
Now let’s bring LGBT rights back into the mix and shine the light on Sen. Cruz’s hypocrisy. Senator Cruz claims to believe that if public accommodation laws are extended to include protection for LGBT customers, then “Bible-believing Christians” who want to refuse service to gays and lesbians will be “persecuted.” And in the court of public opinion, perhaps they should be. Others think they should be held up as heroes. But requiring the Mennonite owner of an art gallery with a rental room to rent it to gay people, if they ask, is not “persecution.” His refusal would be “persecution” on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation. Senator Cruz wants to protect this “right to persecute” non-believers, sinners, and heretics of all stripes, but most especially the right to persecute LGBT Americans.**
That’s horrible, and that’s a large part of what made me mad this morning. But what hacked me off the most is his refusal to actually utter those words. It’s a very simple question, Senator: do you believe that a business should be allowed to refuse service to a gay person because’s gay? Do you believe that a business should be allowed to kick out a transgender woman because she is transgender? Those are yes-or-no questions, Senator. I know you believe the answer to each is yes, and you’ve ably telegraphed that answer to like-minded people. But you won’t say it in so many words. Why? Because you know it’s politically unpalatable. You know a huge swath of voters would be offended. So you cloak your anti-gay beliefs in the guise of “religious freedom,” make up a bullshit story about a business that was “forced” to close, and talk up unfounded worries about “Bible-believing Christians” (why is this always about Christians?) being “persecuted” for refusing to do business with gay people because the Bible tells them so.
I don’t want the government to do anything to take away your right to believe whatever you believe about gays, or women, or Muslims. I don’t care if it’s your religious belief or just your inherent prejudice that makes you think the end times will come if transgender men and women are allowed to have a pee in the right bathroom. You knock yourself right the hell out. But be honest about it. Answer the question. Admit that you think it should be okay for me to be fired by my employer for being gay, whether that employer is Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. Admit that you think it should be okay for me to be refused service at the only inn in town, whether that innkeeper is Jewish, or atheist, or anything else. I won’t stop thinking you’re a bigot and an asshole and wholly unfit for public office. But I might stop thinking you’re a coward.
(P.S. – In my spare time, I’m a lawyer. None of that was legal advice.)
^So a Catholic church could refuse to admit non-believers, because the people who wrote the Civil Rights Act were careful to protect “religious freedom,” and the local Skeptics Society could probably refuse to admit Ted. Probably, because what counts as a “private club” isn’t entirely clear.
*The Texas Legislature and Governor Abbott want to pass a state law that makes it illegal for cities to have non-discrimination ordinances. Think about that for a minute.
**”Protect” should probably be in quotes, because it’s not actually an affirmative right yet; it’s just that there’s no law against it. It would be an actual “right to persecute” — a right to discriminate, so long as your religion says it’s cool — if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ever became federal law, as Sen. Cruz fervently wishes.
Garage Sale Pre-Sale
I will have the following items available at the garage sale, in addition to several smaller, run-of-the-mill things. I can take and send more pictures of any of these. See notes at bottom for additional items not pictured.
(1) Ethan Allen coffee table (17h, 50l, 19/38w)
(2) Ethan Allen console table (26.5h, 36w, 14.5d)
(3) Ethan Allen small chest (22h, 23w, 14d)
(4) Haverty’s armoire/TV cabinet (66h, 37w, 19d) (shelves removable; power strip integral to cabinet)
(5) Pottery Barn entertainment console (30h, 66w, 20d); removable shelf in each “half”; both doors full range L-R
(6) Printer table (24h, 24w, 20d; drawer is legal-size file hanger (no bottom) (mostly particleboard; Staples?)
(7) Chefs d’Oeuvre large framed print (“glass” is good-quality plastic) (48h, 46w)
(8) Pottery Barn side table (22h, 22w, 22d)
(9) Bar stools (23.5h) (2) (Target, but solid wood not particleboard)
(10) Pottery Barn 2-drawer side/end table (26h, 20w, 20d)
(11) Foldable, stackable shelves – total of 8 units, 3 shelves each; hardware to stack securely; C&B several years ago
(12) Giant bike with (if you wish) car-mount bike rack, saddlebag, helmet; don’t know enough about bikes to intelligently describe in more detail
(13) Denon sound system, incl: AV Surround Reciver (AVR-487); DVD player (DVD-557); Speaker System (SYS-57HT); specs available online or I can e-mail from user guides; I do not have mounting brackets for surround speakers, which were aftermarket parts, but the part that clips into the bracket remains on those speakers
(15) HP-5600 4-in-1 printer and a bunch of extra cartridges
(16) cast-iron Hunter 4-blade ceiling fan; works fine AFAIK: I replaced for aesthetic reasons
(17) Panasonic microwave (12h, 20w, 14.5d)
I will also have a GE stainless side-by-side fridge and a washer-dryer set. I will add photographs of these later. Fridge was mine and works fine; W/D came with the house and I cannot vouch for them. There are also two framed Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo prints signed by Buck Taylor, for the 100th and 101st stock shows. I can take/send photographs.
I also have four Pottery Barn rugs, which are rolled up and bagged and which I’m not inclined to unroll just to photograph. One is 8×10 solid green (with darker green border); it is their Henley rug, which is no longer offered in green. Near-new condition. One is red/tan patterned, also 8×10, gently used. Another is mostly tan patterned, I think 5×7, very gently used (under a bed). The fourth is black/red 5×7 and was under my dining room table. It’s got more wear but is serviceable. I have rug pads.
Please e-mail questions: email@example.com or text/call: 214-563-0183.
Same-Sex Marriage, LGBTQ Rights, and the Texas Elections
Last week, the United States Supreme Court’s decision not to consider the states’ appeals in several same-sex marriage cases came as a surprise to many people on both sides of the issue. For now, it means that same-sex marriage is legal in the affected states. It was a welcome result, but the fight is far from over. Many pundits – correctly, I think – have speculated that the Supreme Court will take up the issue as soon as there is disagreement at the appellate level. The State of Texas is attempting to foment that disagreement by appealing the February determination by a federal judge in San Antonio that Texas’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The case is pending in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and both sides have urged the court to act quickly.
My purpose in writing is not simply to call your attention to the pending lawsuit. As you know, the Texas elections are less than a month away, and early voting starts a week from Monday. I want to make very sure that before voting, everyone I know understands the positions that the top-of-ticket Republican candidates have taken in the lawsuit and on LGBTQ rights in general, and to consider what those positions say about the men and women expressing them. I admit there are no perfect candidates. We all vote for people with whom we disagree on some issues, because we agree on most issues. There are times, though, when a party or a candidate endorses a worldview so extreme and so repugnant that holding one’s nose and voting for the candidate for other reasons becomes inexcusable. I believe this is one of those times and one of those issues. I hope you will agree. I hope, at minimum, that you will listen.
In February, a judge in San Antonio ruled that Texas’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a brief seeking to overturn the ruling. I’ve provided a link to the brief here and links to another couple of briefs below. It isn’t possible for me to link to specific pages, but I’ve given page numbers in case you want to see for yourself that I’ve not taken anything out of context. In the opening brief that he filed on behalf of you, me, and every other Texan, General Abbott argued (page 15) that the purpose of marriage is “not to publicly recognize the love and commitment of two people,” but rather to “generate positive externalities (and avoid negative externalities) for society by encouraging responsible behavior among naturally procreative couples.”
In a second brief filed on Friday and available here, General Abbott elaborated on this, explaining (page 6) that “Texas’s marriage laws reduce unplanned out-of-wedlock births and the costs that those births impose on society. Recognizing same-sex marriage does not advance this interest because same-sex unions do not result in pregnancy.” The state can “rationally decide to subsidize opposite-sex marriages” to allow those couples to avoid the “costs to avoid making children – either by spending resources on birth control or refraining from sexual intercourse.” By contrast, for same-sex couples, the “cost of conceiving a child through assisted reproductive technologies are high.” So, to sum up, marriage isn’t about love, it’s a “subsidy” necessitated because opposite-sex couples can’t be trusted to behave responsibly, which isn’t a problem for same-sex couples because they can’t have unwanted children the old-fashioned way. That’s bad enough. But why not just extend the right of marriage to same-sex couples even if it won’t encourage opposite-sex couples to behave responsibly? What’s the harm? There’s an answer for that.
In the State’s opening brief, General Abbott also told the court (page 26) that if same-sex marriage is allowed, “then any conduct that has been traditionally prohibited can become a constitutional right.” What does that mean? A group of more than sixty Texas state legislators calling themselves the Texas Conservative Coalition filed a brief available here to explain. The TCC includes State Senator Dan Patrick, now running for Lieutenant Governor (probably the most powerful position in Austin) and State Senator Ken Paxton, now running for Attorney General. Like General Abbott, the members of the TCC argue (page 13) that permitting same-sex marriage “problematically opens the definition of marriage to a variety of unions that society has deemed unacceptable” and that “marriage restrictions on age, polygamy, and consanguinity are also ripe for challenge.” They approve (page 20) of a report that foresees legalized pedophilia, and argue that the goal of “actively trying to prevent those practices from becoming valid is entirely rational public policy.” The lawmakers admit (page 21) that there is no guarantee that “recognition of pedophilia or other morally reprehensible actions” would follow recognition of same-sex marriages; it is the imaginary risk that prevents me from marrying.
Not satisfied with equating the fight for same-sex marriage to a crusade for legalized pedophilia and other “morally reprehensible actions,” the legislators find (page 18) a “great deal of merit” the view that same-sex marriage will lead to “poverty and abuse” for women and children, but that banning it will promote “healthy psychological development of children.” They also call (page 19) the Court’s attention to an argument that prohibiting same-sex marriage “is the surest way for a family to enjoy good health, avoid poverty, and contribute to their community.” The surest way to promote healthy families is to prevent same-sex families. General Abbott acknowledges that this argument is entirely made up, but thinks it’s still good enough. In the state’s final brief, he claims that (page 12) “unsupported conjecture that same-sex marriage will harm heterosexual marriage or children . . . is sufficient to sustain” the law. Just like the imagined risk of legalized pedophilia and incest, “unsupported conjecture” about harming Texas children is enough to justify the discriminatory law. In a final affront, General Abbott closes the briefing by pointing out (page 22) that “Texas’s marriage laws classify, but they classify based on sex, age, and consanguinity – not sexual orientation.” The law banning same-sex marriage doesn’t really discriminate because hey, a gay man and a lesbian are perfectly free to enter into an opposite-sex marriage!
The Fifth Circuit is expected to rule quickly. If that very conservative court sides with General Abbott, these are the arguments that the State of Texas will present to the Supreme Court. But this isn’t just about marriage. In his capacity as Attorney General, and in response to a request from Senator Patrick, General Abbott issued an official opinion (reported here) that Texas cities offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples do so in violation of the Texas Constitution. Let’s be very clear: the man running for governor believes that it is illegal for cities not to discriminate in offering benefits to the partners of city employees. In addition, it’s already perfectly legal for an employer to include a “no gays need apply” provision in a job posting, and businesses are entirely free to refuse service to gays and lesbians. Senator Paxton didn’t just support a bill in the last legislative session that would have incorporated this right to discriminate into the Texas Constitution, he wrote it, as reported here. General Abbott spoke out against a proposed city ordinance that would have protected gays and lesbians in San Antonio from employment discrimination. Senator Patrick opposed a similar ordinance in Houston.
By their words and their actions, then, these candidates have demonstrated time and again that they consider LGBTQ Texans to be second-class citizens in the very literal sense, and that they will work very hard to preserve the legalized discrimination in which they believe. Senators Patrick and Paxton and the rest of the Texas Conservative Coalition have somehow convinced themselves (page 21 of TCC brief) that their beliefs are not born “out of an animus toward homosexuals.” General Abbott also denies (page 9 of original brief) accusations of discriminatory animus, but what other conclusion can one reach? How can someone without discriminatory animus claim that same-sex marriage is akin to legalized pedophilia? How can someone without discriminatory animus believe and act on unsupported conjecture that same-sex marriage will harm Texas women and children? How can someone without discriminatory animus condone firing a woman for being born a lesbian, or making it illegal to grant benefits to the long-time partner of a firefighter, or teacher, or any other government employee? Only a party with prejudice in its heart would proclaim in its 2014 platform (at page 14) that “homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that have been ordained by God in the Bible,” and therefore “must not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.” Instead, Republicans “recognize the legitimacy and efficacy” of so-called reparative therapy “for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.”
I know that most Texans, regardless of political party, are loving, kind, and compassionate. I realize that there may be more important issues for my Republican family and friends, and that you might disagree with the party and its candidates on this matter. I am thankful for that, but I believe it is time to draw the line. I believe that turning a blind eye and voting for these candidates for other reasons is no longer acceptable. A vote for any one of them is a vote to endorse the view that Texas’s ban on same-sex marriage should remain in place. It is a vote to continue acting on the belief that same-sex marriage might lead to legalized polygamy, incest, and pedophilia, poverty for women, and psychologically stunted children. It is a vote to endorse state-sanctioned discrimination against me because of who I am. It is a vote that tells me I am a second-class citizen who has chosen to live an unacceptable “lifestyle,” and therefore am unworthy of equal rights and in need of healing therapy. For you, it may not be a vote “born of animosity,” but it is a vote to write that animosity into the Constitution and laws of the state that you and I call home, or at least to tolerate those laws.
Please look into your hearts and reject candidates who condemn me because of who I am. Don’t wait for change to happen. Don’t assume we’ll get there eventually. Don’t vote for hate. Draw the line. If not for me, then do it for your gay and lesbian friends and family members, including the ones you don’t know about because they’re afraid to come out in such an environment. Refuse to tolerate hate by withholding your vote and your support from candidates proud to proclaim it. If not now, when?
Equality and Greg Abbott
Tonight was the second and final debate between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis. KERA hosted, and the moderators asked for questions via Twitter. I posed this one, which KERA chose to use:
“If a 10-year-old girl asked you whether her two dads should be allowed to get married, what would you tell her?”
General Abbott said this:
“John, I want you to know that there are good and decent people on both sides of this issue. I believe in traditional marriage. That’s what 75% of Texans agreed with less than a decade ago when they passed a Constitutional amendment in the State of Texas saying that marriage in Texas is a union between one man and one woman. Now, for me personally, this is more than a Constitutional amendment. I’ve been married to my wife Cecilia for more than 33 years now.”
The moderator asked, “is that what you would tell the ten-year-old?”
General Abbott responded, “that’s what I just told John.”
I’m not even sure how to react. General Abbott didn’t answer my question. Perhaps he thinks it’s not (or I’m not) worthy of a response. I won’t attempt to parse what he actually said. I frankly don’t understand it. His answer to the thousands of Texas children with same-sex parents is to shrug and observe that he’s been married for a long time, so it’s…personal? Is he personally offended by same-sex marriage? I don’t know. All I do know is that I have no hope of obtaining equal, fundamental rights if Greg Abbott is elected, even if he considers me a good and decent person (and I’m having real trouble accepting that at face value). More than anything, I’m saddened that General Abbott is so dismissive of the idea of same-sex marriage that my question merited only a flippant non-response, and by the fact that hundreds of thousands of fellow Texans and I would remain second-class citizens with limited rights in an Abbott administration.
The Best Year of my Life
Exactly a year ago today — August 23, 2013 — I flew from DFW to New York City for the very first leg of my round the world trip. My first thought, when I woke up this morning, was that it seems like just yesterday that I was packing up my office, selling my house and my car, overstuffing a backpack, celebrating a last meal at Joe T. Garcia’s, and getting on that plane. It does feel like the time has gone by very quickly, as if I’ve lived the past year paying homage to some maxim about how life is short and you have to make the most of it.
That’s true, but you know what? You can pack an awful damn lot of stuff into a year if you do it right. Among many other wonderful adventures, I’ve watched the greatest women’s tennis player of all time in action at the U.S. Open. I’ve experienced the fascinating chaos of urban Nairobi, and returned soon after to see how the city dealt with grief over the Westgate Mall attacks. In between I spent two weeks on safari through Kenya and Tanzania. I watched two lionesses stalk their prey, communicating with only twitches of their tails. I watched elephants walk single-file in search of water. I saw part of the great migration across the Mara River, the zebras leading the way for the wildebeests. Best of all, I met a group of Maasai warriors and their kids, and actually got to talk to the kids and their third-grade teacher and learn about the nomadic life and the way the modern world is intruding, for better or worse. I’ve got their picture on my wall, and proudly so.
I walked through the Soweto Township in Johannesburg and through Nelson Mandela’s house on Vilakazi Street. Two months later I watched his funeral from my hotel room in Thailand. I stood on Table Mountain in Cape Town and took a day trip to go diving with Great White sharks in Gansbaai. In Australia I watched the sun set over Uluru, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, dived the Reef, and fell in love with Melbourne . . . before falling even more madly in love with amazing, beautiful New Zealand. I sat on a bench in Queenstown and wrote something I’d wanted to write for a long time, and published it on my thirty-eighth birthday while I was exploring Bangkok. Before I got there I spent a few days in Singapore; when I landed, I officially set foot on my seventh continent. I learned to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai. Eventually, I made it home for Christmas (and cooked a Thai meal for Christmas Eve), but I wasn’t back for long.
In Hawai’i I went from hedonistic Waikiki Beach to somber Pearl Harbor in the span of an hour. A few weeks later, I watched Kilauea erupt one day and stood in the freezing cold on top of Mauna Kea the next, watching the sunset and the stars while standing next to telescopes that can see more of the universe than any others. I visited Japan, which may be the most unique place I’ve ever been. I stood where the bomb detonated in Hiroshima, now a city of peace. I ate amazing ramen in Fukuoka and bought some purple-yam flavored Kit Kat in Tokyo Airport before flying home to rest a broken foot. I recovered in plenty of time to catch a flight to Berlin, where I rented an apartment and spent three months happily exploring (and re-exploring) Europe. I made it to Manchester for my close friend Richard’s thirtieth birthday, and I caught up with a lot of other old friends — Munich, Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam, Belgium and its chocolatiers, Madrid, and Paris, among others — while making a few new ones, like Salzburg and Venice. I can’t believe I’ve been traveling to Europe since 2001 and had never been to Venice! Eventually I bade goodbye to funky Friedrichshain and the rest of Berlin and boarded British Airways flight 193, which brought me home. Eventually, I exhaled.
So, back to the point. Yes, life is short. Yes, you absolutely need to make the most of it. But if you play the game the right way, you can get a lot done in that lifetime. I set foot on all seven continents in 2013. I did all of the stuff I just described in nine months! I’ve learned more about the world in the last year than in the thirty-seven that came before it, and I’ve certainly learned more about myself. It has been the most enriching and rewarding experience of my life, and I wouldn’t trade the last year of my life for anyone else’s. The best part of it is, I’ve probably got about fifty more years to go. If I can do all of that in a year, then life is somehow short and long at the same time. That’s good, because there’s a lot I still want to see, and do, and experience, and learn, and share.
But who knows if the odds are in my favor? Maybe I only have five years left. Maybe it’s only five days! Maybe you do, too. So go now. If you can’t take a year, take a month. If you can’t take a month, take a week. As I’ve learned, you can pack a lot of living and learning into very little time. Distill it, reduce it, concentrate it, but my God just go. Do what you want to do. See what you want to see. Figure yourself out. Figure the world out, or at least have fun trying. Make yourself happy. There will be plenty of time left for the boring stuff, if you still want to do boring stuff after you get back. I only want to do enough of it to fund more exploration, which is why I’ll probably be planning out the next trip while driving to San Antonio to meet with a client on Tuesday. North Africa? Vietnam? Turkey? Costa Rica? All of them? (Probably.)
Thanks so much to everyone who has supported and encouraged me in the last year. I hope you all have enjoyed following along on my adventure, and that you’ll continue to keep up as I keep moving. I’ve had the pleasure of catching up with a lot of you — a lot of my friends — since I’ve been back. If I haven’t, I want to. Fort Worth is lovely this time of year. Meet me at Joe T’s.
One Hundred Thousand
I’m in the process of putting together some “big picture” thoughts and reflections on my trip, now that I’m back home after nine months more-or-less constantly on the road. I hope to have that essay (or series of essays, probably) posted in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’ve done some number-crunching.
Starting with my trip to Antarctica last March, I’ve visited twenty-four countries if Antarctica is included. Four of those — Canada, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Switzerland — were merely airport stopovers between destinations. I spent real time in twenty different countries encompassing all seven continents. In order, they were: Argentina, Antarctica, United States (twice), United Kingdom (twice), Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and France. In those countries, I spent at least one night in fifty-four separate destinations, as well as another eight nights in various bush camps while on safari, and I passed through airports in eleven cities that I didn’t stop to visit. Sorry, Addis Ababa and Dusseldorf.
I traveled by air, by train, by boat, by car, and by foot. I took sixty-eight scheduled flights through fifty-two different airports, for a total of 91,788 miles. I rode seventeen trains for 2257 miles, and drove or was driven about 1793 miles from point to point in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. I don’t have a way to calculate the exact distance traveled on the M/V Plancius from the tip of Argentina, through all of the little islands surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula, and back to Ushuaia. As the crow flies, it was at least 3024 miles. All together, that’s 98,862 miles by some form of motorized transport, and even that’s selling it a bit short. I rode plenty of subways, buses, trams, and sailboats, which taken together must have covered a few hundred miles, and I walked. A lot. I’m not convinced that the Nike FuelBand is especially accurate in its step counts, and converting those to miles is an inexact science, but over the course of the nine months I know I averaged at least five miles a day, or about 1350 miles on foot. Taking all modes of transport into account, then, I covered just over one hundred thousand miles. I think that’s a pretty cool milestone.
The trip is winding down. After the best part of nine months on the road, I’ve got less than three weeks left before I’m “unemployed” instead of “on sabbatical.” I am working hard to change that, but not at the expense of a few days in one of my favorite cities: Madrid.
What I like best about Madrid is its simplicity as a destination. Unlike Paris, London, and my current home of Berlin, the visitor’s Madrid isn’t spread around dozens of diverse neighborhoods separated by miles-long subway rides. There are outlying areas, to be sure, but a visit to Madrid is a visit to an area of no more than about three square miles. It’s all walkable. The sites are few but spectacular: the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), one of the grandest in Europe; the Prado Museum, which I really believe to be the best art museum on the continent; and the Reina Sofia Museum, home to (one of?) the twentieth century’s most important works of art, Picasso’s Guernica. None of these is more than a thirty minute walk from each of the others, and in between are two grand squares (Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol), all connected by several newly-pedestrianized streets and the Gran Vía, with its imposing 1930s architecture).
I’ve seen it all before — twice before, in fact — but I was happy to return. I flew directly from Berlin on Friday, arriving at Madrid’s gorgeous and enormous airport, where the newest and grandest terminal was designed by Richard Rogers, famed for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Millennium Dome in London, among many other projects. I took the cheap and efficient subway into the center of town, exiting about a hundred meters from my hotel on the edge of the Chueca neighborhood, just north of the Gran Vía. I spent Friday afternoon and evening not doing much capital-T Tourism. I wandered — led for a while by a suggested itinerary in my guidebook but eventually on my own, aimlessly — before making my way into a couple of tapas bars (about which more below) for dinner. By the time I turned in for the evening around midnight, the Madrileños were just getting started. I woke up in the middle of the night — around three — and there were people spilling out of the bars and clubs along my street. This wasn’t a festival, or pride, or anything. Just Friday night in Madrid.
Unlike most of those revelers (I assume), I was up bright and early on Saturday. My first stop was the Prado. I think Spain has produced more great artists per capita than any other country, perhaps excepting the Netherlands, and the Prado gathers the very best of the best together — Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya. I’m very far from expert in these things, but I can’t really disagree with the critics who tout Velazquez’s Las Meninas as the greatest painting, period. For my money, though, Goya really delivers. His early work is Classical; his late-life “Black” paintings foreshadow Modernism, and his el 3 de Mayo en Madrid (a/k/a “los fusilamientos”) is my favorite piece in my favorite collection, though Hieronymus Bosch’s amazing The Garden of Earthly Delights — painted 500 years ago and yet looking like something Salvador Dalí would have done — gives it a run for its money.
Both of my previous visits to Madrid had been in the summer, so I took advantage of the spring to do something I’d always wanted to do, and got a ticket to watch Real Madrid at the famous Bernabéu Stadium. They’re perhaps the most famous club in the world, the perennial champions of La Liga, and as I type are thrashing Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League. It was akin to seeing the Yankees in the old Yankee Stadium (check), the Packers in Lambeau, or maybe the Knicks in MSG. I spent a bit for a good seat and got a great one, halfway up and right on (and I mean right on) the center line. Real were on their game, most notably their world-famous superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 was in fine form, opening the scoring with a twenty-five yard strike in the first few minutes of the first half, and putting Real up by two with a similar shot just after halftime. Watching his footwork and ball-handling and movement around the pitch, it was easy for even a semi-serious fan of the game to see his genius. Real cruised to a 4-0 victory over Osuna. As I tweeted on the way back, I opened this trip by watching Serena Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open, and I’ve finished it watching Cristiano Ronaldo in his home. Not bad bookends.
Sunday morning I toured the palace (it’s ornate; there’s not a lot I can add to the website above, other than that Juan Carlos, the current monarch, seems like a genuinely good guy) and then walked over to the Reina Sofia to visit Guernica. There’s really not a lot of value I can add in attempting to describe or quantify it — it’s Picasso’s masterwork, his Cubist representation of the Nationalist army’s indiscriminate aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1938, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. I suppose it’s not for everyone, but for me, to stand in front of the painting for fifteen minutes is a way to grasp the horror of modern warfare. Guernica presaged the firebombing of London by the Germans and Dresden by the Allies, and Picasso captured the effect on the innocent, common man in a way that I’ve never seen duplicated. As a bonus, the museum has gathered several of Picasso’s studies and preparatory sketches, as well as several photographs of Picasso in the process of completing the painting, so the exhibit as a whole is a study of his process as well as of the finished work. I’d go back next week.
I capped my visit with a tapas tour on Sunday night. I’m absolutely sure that there is plenty of fine, white-tablecloth dining on offer in a city as cosmopolitan as Madrid, but I’d rather do exactly as I did. I started at Mercado de San Miguel, a repurposed warehouse just off of the Plaza Mayor that’s now home to a couple of dozen upmarket food and drink stands and a lively atmosphere. For my first course, around 6:15, I had a glass of sweet vermouth (on tap!) for €1.50. As in any self-respecting Madrid establishment, the drink came with a tapa, which in this case was a small dish of vibrantly green olives. After savoring the drink, I walked a few hundred yards to Calle Cava Baja, where I stepped into the Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileña, which is quite a mouthful. I upgraded from a tapa to a slightly more generous ración, opting for the brocheta de pollo y salsa mojopicón (grilled chicken with spicy sauce on a skewer, on a piece of very good bread, also toasted on the grill…the Spanish is a bit more efficient) along with a small caña of Rioja. That set me back €5.70.
After another walk through the southern part of central Madrid, I found myself around 8:00 at the Taberna la Dolores, on Calle de Jesús. This tiny place, with a few stools and some standing room along the bar, is as old school as it gets. Although I was early (yes, at eight on a Sunday…Madrid just runs on a different clock than the rest of the world), the bar was crowded, and I had to wait a couple of minutes to get my two tapas: a canapé de jamon and a canapé de mozzarella with anchovy, accompanied by a copa (no half-sized caña here) of the house red. I left around 8:30 and headed back west a kilometer or so to Calle Victoria, home to a number of tapas bars, famous or otherwise, and went into my favorite, La Casa del Abuelo. They’re known for one thing and they do it right: gambas al ajillo, or tiny shrimp sautéed in olive oil and handfuls of garlic, with a bit of red pepper thrown in for fun. I stood at one of the little tables in the middle of the room and enjoyed mine, with fresh bread to sop up any leftover garlicky oil, and a little cup of their distinctive sweet house wine. By the time I paid it as nearing 9:30. That’s a three-hour, four-course dinner, encompassing all of the best a great city has to offer, and it cost a grand total of €25.40 (I kept careful track). It would be easy to blow that on a mediocre meal in a tourist trap “where Hemingway dined,” or where twelve varieties of paella are always on offer. I know I got the better deal, and I’d go back to Madrid again and again to replicate it, substituting bars and tapas and wines here and there. It’s part of what makes the city special (and all of these places are well within the radius defined earlier).
I had a last, late-night look around Chueca after dinner, and managed to sleep in a bit on Monday before heading back to the airport for my return flight to Berlin. I spent just under 72 hours on the ground in Madrid. On a first visit, I might recommend a half-day more, but I think my itinerary would work as a good introduction to the city. I actually found myself thinking that I should have chosen Madrid rather than Berlin for my European home base this spring. Berlin is a better travel hub, which was the ultimate decision point, but Madrid would have been a damned fun place to spend three months. If you haven’t been, go. This post has not been sponsored by the Madrid Tourist Board, I promise. Adiós!
I first came to Europe in fall 2001, as a law school exchange student in London. While there, I made weekend trips to Scotland, Paris, Nice/Marseille, Amsterdam, and Berlin. I’ve been back to Europe every year save two, and I’ve accomplished most of the Grand Tour. Portugal is the only country in Western Europe that I’ve missed entirely. As observant readers will know, I’ve now been around the world. And yet, somehow, I had never been to Venice until last week. Silly me.
I flew direct on Air Berlin, which is sort of the Southwest Airlines of Germany, with Tegel Airport as its Love Field. Very convenient. I landed at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport around noon on Wednesday and hoppped a bus for the twenty-minute ride to Venice’s “bus station,” Piazzale Roma, which is really just a big parking lot at the end of the bridge to the mainland. I stepped off the bus, walked a few feet to the Vaporetto dock and gawped at the perfect view down the Grand Canal to the Scalzi Bridge. I could bury this post with pictures of Venice (see all of them on Flickr) but I’ve got to show my very first look at Venice:
It was love at first sight.
I boarded Vaporetto No. 1 for a forty-five minute waterbus ride down the canal to St. Mark’s Square. It was a perfect way to get oriented, as we passed (and docked at) most of the major sights, including the famous Rialto Bridge, the Accademia, a host of beautiful churches and elegantly decayed Venetian mansions, before arriving at Piazza San Marco. I’d only brought a little daybag for my two-night trip, so I went straight into the square without stopping to check-in at my hotel. It was a warm, sunny day, and the cafés lining the square were packed. I’d been warned that these places are overpriced. I disagree. They’re expensive, to be sure. A glass of house wine and a little lunch-sized pizza set me back 25 Euros, including the cover charge. I don’t think that’s too much to pay for a front-row seat in the sun on one of the grandest squares in Europe, with a three-piece house orchestra over my shoulder and world-class people watching in front of me and St. Mark’s Basilica to my left, enjoying a bit of lunch served by solicitous white-jacketed waiters. I think it’s a bargain.
I seized the opportunity to tour the basilica. It’s a shame that so much of the magnificent exterior was covered in scaffolding, but what was visible was beautiful, and the interior is mostly unaffected by the ongoing restoration. The vaulted ceilings are covered in mosaics – collectively the size of a football field – that have retained most of their splendor over hundreds of years, and it’s just a magnificent space overall. Not as ornate as Notre Dame, certainly, or even St. Stephen’s in Vienna, but impressive for both its grand scale and its little details. Eventually, though, I made my way around the corner and along the Riva to my room for the next two nights at Casa per Ferie Santa Maria la Pietà. It’s not quite a convent, as I think I described it on Twitter, but it is a church-run, dorm-style place with bathrooms down the hall. Breakfast was a hard roll, a bit of peach marmalade, coffee, and water, which seems rather Franciscan in its austerity. It’s five minutes from St. Mark’s, profits go to help the poor, and it’s cheap, so it worked for me.
I had plans for a big, full sightseeing day on Thursday, so I spent the rest of Wednesday afternoon having a walk around the part of Venice on the St. Mark’s side of the Grand Canal. I suppose it’s the “south” side of the waterway, though it twists and turns so much that that’s only accurate about two-thirds of the time. I had a map and a guidebook and an audio tour to follow, but I still got lost a few times in the back lanes and one-person-wide alleyways. It’s easy to do, and it’s fun. You can’t get too far on a small island, and every corner and square hides some little surprise. I say this with the expertise of someone who’s spent parts of three days there, but I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape the (other) tourists in Venice during the daytime. The main attractions are well-known and well-attended, and there are a couple of ritzy Prada-and-Swarovski shopping drags around town to draw those hordes. The back lanes are nearly empty even in the early afternoon. Getting lost was fun, and I feel like I got to see a bit of what’s left of un-touristy Venice.
I dined memorably and well at Osteria al Mascaron, a few winding blocks north(ish) of St. Mark’s. The seafood-heavy antipasto misto course could have been a meal by itself, and was mistaken as such by at least one Facebook commenter. I persevered and was rewarded with a swordfish filet so fresh and flavorful that I’m certain it had been separated from the rest of the fish only that afternoon. I did a bit more walking around after the meal, and discovered to my delight that a huge percentage of the daytime tourists retreat to their cruise ships in time for dinner, leaving the city refreshingly crowd-free. I don’t begrudge anyone their cruise ships, and I know plenty of people who return to them again and again, but I’ll never understand it. If you’re in Venice, why would you want to have the seafood buffet on the Disney Magic instead of the real thing a mile away?
After an austere breakfast Thursday morning, I set off at a brisk pace for the two fresh food markets on the other side of the Rialto Bridge, the bustling (and adjoining) fruit-and-vegetable and fish markets. It’s a farmers’ market on steroids. Seemingly every stall had every possible fresh fruit and vegetable (or, next door, every creature formerly living in the Adriatic), at perfectly reasonable prices, and everything was presented with such care and style. Presentation matters in the Erberia and the Pescaria. Just one more picture:
Avoiding the urge to pick up a picnic lunch at 9:00 a.m., I walked a bit deeper into the San Polo neighborhood to the Frari Church. I’ll be honest: after eight-plus months on the road, they’re starting to run together. St. Stephen’s stands out. The temples in Thailand stand out. Even the nearby St. Mark’s Basilica stands out. But if my life depended on it, could I tell the Frari from similar cathedrals and churches in Prague, or Munich, or Manchester? Not easily. Still, I’m happy I saw it, and it is very tall. Lunch was more interesting: a selection of chicchetti at Enoteca Cantine del Vino Già Schiavi (I can’t find a good link). These little bar snacks are similar to those at the Buffet Trzesniewski in Vienna. I asked the bartender to pick a mix of six for me. I’m not sure what all of them were, but at €1 a pop and an additional Euro for a glass of the house white, I really didn’t care. They were tasty and the atmosphere was fun.
In the afternoon I visited the Accademia, full of Titian and Tintoretto and the rest of high Venetian art from the Middle Ages through the Romantics, and the island-church of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s (and, therefore, the best place to get the postcard pic of the “skyline”). I couldn’t pass up the chance to have just one more glass of wine in the fading daylight in St. Mark’s Square, after which I wandered slowly around the city before ending up at Osteria Bancogiro. The food was good — I had a selection of Italian cheeses as an appetizer, and baked sea bream with polenta as my main — but the Grand Canal-side seating a few feet from the foot of the Rialto Bridge was spectacular. I reflected on how monumentally stupid I’d been not to come to Venice years ago.
Friday morning – Good Friday morning, in fact — I checked out of the hotel and walked around the corner to the Doge’s Palace. It’s rather grand, as palaces tend to be, and I learned quite a lot. I hadn’t realized just how powerful Venice had been in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, nor how powerful the doge (the elected duke) had been in controlling Venice. The complex system of councils, colegios, senates, and a fearsome Council of Ten is the forerunner of the American system of checks and balances, and it worked well enough that little Venice remained stable and prosperous enough to control the Mediterranean and much of the world beyond it for hundreds of years. The fact that the doges hired Titian and Tintoretto to do the walls only helped. Afterward, I had a last, wistful look at St. Mark’s Square, stopped for a delicious gelato (I opted for a cone with one scoop of kaffé and one scoop of mint), and caught Vaporetto No. 2 — the fast boat — pack to Piazzale Roma.
My flight back was with Lufthansa, with a connection in Frankfurt. We took off on time and had good weather all the way in to Lufthansa’s big hub until we were about ten feet off of the ground. I felt the plane move noticeably to the right, on two axes — the nose was no longer pointed straight down the runway, and the right wing was lower. This was easily perceptible from the cheap seats, which suggests just how massive a push we got from a rogue gust of wind just as the plane was about to touch down. The pilot gunned it and we roared back into the air at full speed. It was a genuinely frightening couple of minutes. Eventually the pilot came on and informed us that we’d just done a “go-around” because he hadn’t been certain he could land the plane safely, and that this was a common occurrence and nothing to get excited about. We did a big, lazy turn and were coming in to the airport again about fifteen minutes later, when the pilot came on the P.A. again and in a complete deadpan asked for the “cabin crew to please prepare for landing…again.” German humor. We landed without incident, I had a medicinal beverage in the terminal, and I continued on to Berlin without further peril. I was home in time for a late dinner, very pleased that I’d taken a little over forty-eight hours to experience Venice. I’m certain I’ll be back.
I’ve posted my pictures of Venice to Flickr. If it seems like there are a lot of them, just know that I cut the total in half before uploading. Venice is pretty.
The Low Countries – Museums, Memories, and Chocolate
A couple of weeks ago I flew to Manchester to help my friend Ricky celebrate his thirtieth birthday. As some of you will know, Ricky was my traveling companion for last year’s amazing journey to Antarctica, by way of Argentina. I think probably the less said about the weekend, the better. It was quite a time. Along with about sixty of his closest friends, Ricky and I cruised Manchester’s canals in a chartered “party barge” (with a pirate theme – I dressed as a lawyer; Ricky spent an hour getting his makeup done to look like Jack Sparrow) for a couple of hours before disembarking at a bar across the way from his apartment, where the festivities continued into the wee hours. I can’t claim to remember every detail, but it was quite the occasion. I’ll not be posting those pictures, I’m afraid.
From Manchester I flew to Amsterdam. Fortunately — here’s a seasoned world traveller tip for you — I had the foresight to schedule an afternoon flight, so I was relatively sound of mind and stomach as I proceeded from Manchester to Heathrow to Amsterdam’s enormous and wonderful Schiphol Airport, which has justifiably won several awards for design and efficiency. A bus and a cab later, I was at my hotel in Amsterdam’s museum district. I stayed at the Hotel Piet Hien, and I can recommend it with enthusiasm. The rooms are on the small side but elegantly decorated in a modern minimalist style, in keeping with the rest of the property. The lobby bar is nice for a pre- or post-dinner drink, and the staff were very apologetic when I pointed out that a momentary power surge had caused enough of a spark in my power charger to leave a burn. (I got a free breakfast out of it.)
After having traveled all of Sunday afternoon and evening, and having had a good sleep that night, I made the most of my one full day in Amsterdam on Monday. I followed a one-hour Rick Steves audio-guided walk through the center of the city, from the impressive Centraal Station on the north, through the shopping district, past Dam Square, through Leidseplein, and across more than a few canals, before ending just before noon back down south at the Museumplein. I’d save the museums for after lunch, which I had at the fun Wok to Walk in Leidseplein. Sort of like Chipotle for Chinese food. Extra spicy sauce seemed like a good idea at the time. It would come back to bit me in the end. After lunch, I had a long visit at the Rijksmuseum. The last time I was in Amsterdam, the building was undergoing a massive renovation, and little of the artwork was on display. The renovation has resulted in a soaring new atrium and ticket hall, and everything is back on show. The Dutch Masters collection, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the world’s best, including four of the thirty-four known Johannes Vermeer paintings (including the iconic Milkmaid) and a relatively huge collection of Rembrant’s best stuff. The most famous — and certainly the biggest — is the Night Watch, but my favorite is his Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, from 1661. It’s a simple portrait, but at least to me it conveys the personality and character of its subject with tremendous depth.
I had a bit more of a walkabout before retreating to the hotel for some rest. Refreshed, I walked back up to Lijnbaansgracht, where I had a lovely meal at Restaurant Dubbel. The restaurant is a stone’s throw from the Bulldog Café, which raises an important point. Amsterdam has a reputation in the states as a hedonistic, party-hearty hub beloved of American college kids looking to let loose. It really isn’t. The Bulldog is the biggest “coffee shop” in town — coffee shop being the lingo for a café that sells joints and hash in addition to snacks, juice, and coffee. To us, it’s a big deal because it’s different; we see it as selling an “illegal” drug. To people in Amsterdam — and there are plenty of little mom-and-pop coffee shops catering to locals — it’s no big deal, and no different than a bar in Brussels selling dozens of carefully selected Trappist beers. Same with the Red Light District. Yeah, there are a couple of places where you can see prostitutes sitting in their windows, sometimes under a red light, enticing potential customers. It’s there if you want it, and it’s safer because it’s legal and regulated. Same with the pot. I’m sure plenty of college kids on semesters abroad do make a point of hitting Amsterdam because they can get stoned legally, but that really is a very small part of the experience. I hope other breeds of tourist aren’t put off the city because of the outsized reputation of these insignificant trades, because it really is a beautiful place. Anyway. After dinner, I chose a café with a front-row view of the square and had a couple of glasses of wine, which I much prefer to the other stuff, and watched the people pass by in the rain. It was very nice.
Having bought my timed-entry ticket the day before (a two-minute exercise that let me skip an hour-long line…read guidebooks, people), I visited the Van Gogh Museum on Tuesday morning. It’s not a huge collection (it’s a huge amount of Van Goghs, but a small museum overall), but it’s well done. The paintings are presented chronologically with a lot of biographical detail, so it’s possible to watch Van Gogh’s development over the course of his brief career, from the dark “peasant” realism of The Potato Eaters through his Impressionist self-portraits, The Bedroom and other works from his time in Arles, and finally the somewhat surrealistic paintings he completed before taking his own life. Afterwards, I went around the corner to the Stedelijk, which has been Amsterdam’s modern art museum for decades.
I couldn’t and didn’t linger there, though, because I had a train to catch. Several trains, actually. From Amsterdam Centraal, I went first to Antwerp, where I changed for Roosendaal, where I changed for Bruges. I hadn’t been to Bruges in a decade, but it holds a special place in my heart. After my seizure and surgery in 2002, I knew I wanted to take a European trip to celebrate my recovery. In the spring of 2003, I did just that — and traveled to Bruges, Brussels, and Amsterdam, in that order. I’ve made annual summer trips to Europe every year since, though I didn’t know at the time that I’d develop the habit, but the first place on the first trip was Bruges. I still remember the details of my first visit — climbing the bell tower, touring the brewery, eating mussels for every meal. After decamping at the hotel, I went to the Markt Square and sat with a drink, looking back on those memories and where I’ve been since, in every sense. It was actually a pretty emotional little moment for me. Before retiring to the hotel, I had a very nice meal at Bistro den Amand, a tiny place with six table, a husband-and-wife team handling chef and server duties, and a cool ambience.
Wednesday was my one full day in Bruges. Unlike Amsterdam, there aren’t three blockbuster museums to see. It’s much more of a place for wandering around the canals, stopping for a coffee or a chocolate or maybe a Straffe Hendrik beer, brewed very locally at De Halve Maan brewery. Having not been here in a while, I followed (this will surprise you) a self-guided walking tour, passing through squares and lanes and charming back streets. I popped into a couple of small museums along the way, but none were particularly interesting. The Church of Our Lady, currently under comprehensive renovation but still partially open, is noteworthy for its Madonna and Child, the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy in his lifetime. I took a picture. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is noteworthy for housing a few drops of Christ’s blood brought back from one of the Crusades a thousand years ago. Sadly, the drops weren’t on display. Along the way, I stopped for a picnic lunch in the Markt. It consisted entirely of a small box of chocolates from Chocolatier Dumon, and I won’t be apologizing for that. I may have skipped the marijuana in Amsterdam, but I wasn’t going to pass over Belgian chocolate in situ. In the afternoon, I climbed the bell tower in the Markt for a nice view of the town and the surrounding countryside, just as I did eleven years before. Dinner was at the boisterous De Hobbit, where I declined the all-you-can-eat spareribs in favor of the much more restrained five-meat plate…to which I added a small side of spareribs. I’m on the Paleo diet, I guess. The ribs were dry but the rest of the meats were good.
Thursday morning I caught the Intercity train to Brussels, about an hour away. I’d been here in 2003 as well, and passed through one other time. It’s not a tourist hot spot, despite being the de facto capital of Europe. (Two Latin phrases in one post.) I’d booked a hotel using miles — almost everything I’m doing this spring is using miles accumulated in the fall and winter — and found myself at the Metropole, a once-grand old place that is trying hard to retain a bit of its former splendor. The hotel touts itself as a five-star luxury accommodation. It’s as five-star as Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and the pictures on the website are perhaps retouched a bit, but it was fun and more than a little bit charming. Old-timey elevator, grand central staircase, reception with mailboxes for each room. It must have been quite a place a hundred years ago.
I had a spin around the nearby Grand Place, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site (previous link) and really is one of Europe’s finest public spaces. There’s not a sight worth seeing anywhere on it, but the harmonious architecture is pretty, the cafés were bathed in warm sunlight, the buskers were at work in the center, and the crowds were all over the place. It’s an easy place to while away a couple of hours, and so I did. I did the requisite pilgrimage to the Manneken-Pis, the small statue of an oddly muscular little boy having an al fresco pee. It’s the symbol of the city, and there were throngs of tourists around it. It’s weird. That evening I found sustenance at L’Estaminet du Kelderke, a Brussels institution housed in a vault on (and about halfway under) the Grand Place. I’m very sure I was the only tourist, which is always nice. Mussels were out of season, so I had the Carbonnade (Flemish beef and beer stew). Tasty. Before retreating to the Metropole, I stopped by Galler Chocolatier. It’s not as well-known as some of the Belgian biggies because it doesn’t export, but Galler is the reputed favorite of the royal family. The shopkeeper took the time to give me a thorough rundown of the various pralines (the locally correct term for chocolates that aren’t truffles) and truffles before sending me home with a small box of the former and a small bag of the latter. I managed to keep out of them that night, but I’ve been enjoying two or three little chocolates for dessert every night since. Best souvenir bargain in Europe, I think.
I’m now back in Berlin, but not for long. Tomorrow morning I’ll fly to Venice for a couple of days. It will be my first time, and I’m very excited for it. In the interim, I’ve been spending my days hunting for interesting jobs, since I will need something to do in about a month. I’ve got some leads, but nothing definite. The phone call I had this morning with a recruiter in London was more positive than I expected, so I’m happy. More this weekend if I don’t fall out of a gondola.
New Pics: Amsterdam, Bruges, and Brussels
Words to follow tomorrow, but here are some pictures from my recent journey through Belgium and the Netherlands. Enjoy!
Pictures from Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna
My pics from the latest trip are up on Flickr (click the pic). To whet your appetite, this is a stall at Munich’s Vitkualienmarkt. Butter and cheese. That’s it.
Catching Up: Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna
I’ve been slacking off on the writing, I know. Sorry to those of you who’ve been waiting with bated breath for the continuing adventures of me. Here we go.
A week ago Thursday I went to Munich. I’d been to Munich once before. It can’t have been more recently than 2005, because I was still using a non-digital camera. Remember those? That means I don’t have pictures in iPhoto to jog my memory. What I do remember is that it was grey and gloomy and raining, even though I must have been there in mid-summer. The only specific thing that stands out in my mind is listening to a German indie-rock band performing on a stage in the main square, in the rain. They were pretty good. I bought the CD. Remember those?
I thought it was worth another visit. I flew from Berlin to Munich’s very modern and efficient airport and caught a subway to the equally modern Hauptbahnhof (central train station) and walked a few blocks to Hotel Belle Blue, where I’d made a reservation. The neighborhood around the station is kindy of seedy — the walk took me past dodgy casinos and a few strip clubs — but not dangerous, and the hotel is small but comfortable. By the time I unpacked it was early afternoon, so I set off on an audioguided town walk to get oriented. Although it’s a big city — Germany’s third-largest — the old town and tourist area is compact, contained almost entirely within the original town walls. I walked up Kaufinger Strasse, a pedestrianized street full of shops and sidewalk cafes, to Marienplatz, which is dominated by the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall), which was built in the early 1900s but looks much older than the Old Town Hall, which is seven hundred years old. I waited for the famous Glockenspiel to do its thing before spending the next couple of hours happily wandering through town. I passed first through the open-air Viktualienmarkt (click that link; it’s the Google Image search and does the place justice), where modern-day Munichers go for the best produce, meats, seafood, and beer, with more than a few tourists mixed in. After seeing St. Peter’s Church, the Frauenkirche, the former royal residence, and the famous and now disgustingly touristy Hofbräuhaus, I circled back to Marienplatz and had a restorative glass of German red wine while contemplating dinner. I ended up at Haxnbauer, where I had what is reputed to be Munich’s best pork knuckle. It was certainly Munich’s biggest. And it was goooood.
I spent the better part of Friday at Dachau concentration camp. I’ve been to plenty of World War II sites, Holocaust museums, and the like, but I’d never before been to an actual camp. It’s as grim and sobering as you would expect. To their credit — and this applies not just at Dachau but at every site and museum I’ve visited — the Germans don’t pull any punches when it comes to the Nazis and their atrocities. The Nazis documented most everything on film, much of which survives, and a thirty-minute introductory video at the start of the camp tour shows just how horrific the conditions were. When the camp was liberated in 1945, the Allied soldiers recorded what they found — piles and piles of bodies, bunkhouses with almost 100 prisoners sharing space the size of a large bedroom, and gaunt survivors who, despite their conditions and the ever-present risk of beating and execution, somehow kept their wits and their spirits alive, ran camp libraries, and generally made the best of the worst situation imaginable. As terrible and depressing as the Nazis’ extermination campaigns were, the perseverance of the prisoners was equally inspiring.
I returned to Munich after lunch, toured the excellent Alte Pinakothek museum and its collection of 14th to 19th century European art (some of which, unfortunately, wasn’t on display due to ongoing renovations), and spent the rest of the day taking in the town and stopping for a while to sit in the sun in Marienhof, a huge grassy square behind the Neues Rathaus, read a book, and watch the people go by. Dinner that night was at Der Pschorr, a very upscale beer hall (that description hardly does it justice) serving locally-sourced, mostly organic cuisine along with their own fresh beer. I had braised veal with spinach-basil-and garlic dumplings, and it was amazing — truly one of the best meals of my trip. I returned to the Belle Blue in high spirits. The next morning I trekked out to the BMW Museum on the outskirts of Munich. I’d heard great things, but my God was it boring. With the exception of some cutting-edge electric prototypes, it’s basically a big showroom with a huge store in the middle with all manner of BMW merchandise.
I high-tailed it back to the Hauptbahnhof and caught the next available train to Salzburg. I’d never before been to the home of The Sound of Music, but then I’m also pretty certain that I’ve never actually seen The Sound of Music, at least not all the way through. As we crossed from Germany into Austria, it started to rain. This would be a recurring theme. Salzburg is small and undeniably charming. I’d booked into a hotel in the new town, across the Salzach from all the action but with much better views. I stayed at the Hotel Krone 1512, a few blocks uphill from the river. The building is old but the rooms are new; I’d pick it again. As I had in Munich, I got oriented to the city with another of the Rick Steves audioguides. I really enjoy these, which are essentially audio versions of the in-depth self guided walks that appear in his guidebooks. They’re available for most cities and for lots of big sights (museums, cathedrals, etc.) in those cities, and it’s a lot easier than walking around with my face in a guidebook for a couple of hours. In Salzburg, having the guided walk in my ears also let me hold onto an umbrella. It was rainy and cold for my entire visit, which I’m sure has colored my impression of the town. I liked it but didn’t love it. Wandering the narrow, ancient shopping streets is fun — centuries-old clockmakers and jewelers sit next to McDonalds (with its appropriately low-key merchants’ sign) on Steingasse. I had a good dinner in the small, atmospheric Gasthaus zum Wilder Mann, tucked in a tiny passageway between tiny streets. The next morning I visited the house where Mozart was born and raised. It’s worthwhile. I guess I didn’t realize just how young he was when he began composing, or that his musician-father took him on grand tours around Europe when he was six or seven years old. I walked back to the hotel — poking into the giant Baroque cathedral along the way — and through the rain (and cold) to the train station, eager to get to Vienna.
Like Munich, I’d been to Vienna once before — I believe it was on the same trip in 2004 or 2005. I had far better memories of it than of Munich, and I was very much eager to see it again. I didn’t arrive until early Sunday evening. I’d booked a cheap business hotel through Expedia and was a little bit leery of avoiding guidebook recommendations, but I was thoroughly pleased with the Hotel Imlauer. I had dinner at a Beisl just around the corner from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the epicenter of tourists’ Vienna. A Beisl is basically a pub — a neighborhood place for locals, with simple food, good drinks, and fair prices. I might have been the only tourist in Reinthaler’s Beisl, where I perused the daily, hand-written menu for a while before settling on a big bowl of spicy goulash. I had a bit of a walk around — the famous Opera House is particularly beautifully lit at night — and retreated to the hotel to set a plan for Monday, my only full day in Vienna.
I think I made the most of it. I began at St. Stephen’s, the massive cathedral and symbol of Vienna. You don’t have to be the least bit religious to appreciate it. The oldest part of the church dates from 1240. It’s been built up and improved over the centuries, and extensively repaired after serious World War II damage. Given its size — the tower is 450 feet tall, the nave must be at least that long, the whole interior is filled with masterful carvings, and the organ only has about ten thousand pipes — it is very easy to imagine how awe-inspiring it must have been centuries ago. It really still is. I couldn’t linger, though. My next stop was the Hofburg Palace, just outside the northern part of the Ringstrasse, the road (and tramway) that forms a tight circle around the old city. The Hofburg was the home of the Holy Roman Emperor for hundreds of years, then — after the dissolution of the empire in the mid-1800s — the home of the Austrian royal family. The most famous residents from that period were Emperor Franz Josef I and his wife, Empress Elisabeth. Elisabeth — Sisi to her friends and everyone else — was seriously strange. She was known for her tiny waist, her ankle length hair, and her devotion to severe dieting and weird exercise. The Diana of her day, she was adored by the masses and remains so to this day. The tour took me through the imperial apartments, including her bedroom, where I learned that her attendants spent three hours a day tending to Sisi’s hair. Sisi was assassinated in 1898, but Franz Josef lived on until 1916, having ruled for 68 years (four years short of Louis XIV’s European record; Liz is at 62 and counting). He was known most of all for his tireless devotion to his duties and his people. He rose at 3 a.m. and worked for sixteen hours a day. A few times a month he held audiences at which any of his subjects could get a few minutes of face time to air grievances, give thanks for some honor, or ask for an imperial favor. Imagine that today, anywhere.
After a lunch of famous finger sandwiches at Buffet Trzesniewski, on Monday afternoon I went up to Schönbrunn Palace, just a few miles away from the Hofburg but far enough out of the city to constitute the “summer residence” for the family. It’s huge — 1400 rooms or more. Like the Hofburg, the rooms on view are the imperial apartments and grand public spaces, including a massive ballroom. This is where Kennedy and Kruschev summited in 1961, and where Napoleon lived both times he conquered Vienna, and where little six-year-old Mozart gave his first concert. Unlike the Hofburg, which has been extensively rebuilt, the palace survived World War II largely intact. Many of the non-public rooms, incidentally, are rented to Austrian civil servants. I dined that night at Cantinetta La Norma, a ten-table place just off the main square that’s locally famous for its pizza (justifiably so, in my now-informed opinion) and had another walk around nighttime Vienna. Despite it being a cold (but dry) Monday night, the squares and streets were full of people, most of whom didn’t seem to be tourists. The old town is still the main part of town in Vienna, it seems. I like that.
I headed back to Berlin on Tuesday, but not before making the most of a half-day in Vienna by seeing its two renowned art museums, the stunning Kuntshistoriches (a collection of Renaissance art as good as any outside of the Louvre and perhaps the Vatican) and the modern Albertina, with some post-Renaissance European art and rooms upon rooms of Impressionist, Modernist, and Abstract art from the 19th century to the present. From there, I was off for the airport and back in my Berlin apartment in time for dinner.
I’ll get pictures up on Flickr in the next day or two and will post the link. In the meantime, I’ve started the search for post-sabbatical work in earnest, a task that’s been occupying quite a bit of my time in the last week. I’ll take a break from it on Friday, when I head to England for a dear friend’s birthday. I’ll be making my way back through Amsterdam, which I’ve always loved, and to Bruges, where I haven’t been since 2003 — it was my first destination on my first of many two-week summer trips. I’m looking forward to those places almost as much as I’m looking forward to finding a job.
I woke up this morning right at five. I had an alarm set for 4:30, but I also had the volume on my iPad turned all the way down, so…five. I got up, went to the kitchen for a glass of milk and to put a piece of bread in the toaster, then hurriedly showered, shaved, dressed, and brushed my teeth. Back to the kitchen to wolf down the toast – mainly so that I’d have something on my stomach for my medicine – and then back to the bathroom to close up my toiletry kit. That went into the bag I’d packed last night. Phone, camera, iPad in my little daypack, shut off the lights, and out the door at 5:30 on the dot, for a flight due to leave at 7:20. Hm.
My apartment is in Friedrichshain, on the far eastern side of central Berlin. Tegel airport is in the northwest. I walked a few blocks to Warschauer Straße and rode the M13 tram up to the Frankfurter Tör U-Bahn on Karl-Marx-Allee. I rode the U5 two stops east to Frankfurter Allee, where I transferred to the S42, the counterclockwise S-Bahn that circles Berlin. Ten stops later, I emerged at Beusselstraße and got the TXL express bus to the airport. It pulled up at Terminal A at 6:30. The whole journey cost €2.60.
I walked directly to Gate A11 in about five minutes, and I do mean directly. There’s no central security bottleneck at Tegel, at least not in Terminal A. My boarding pass was on my phone. When I showed it, I was admitted to the security checkpoint for Gate A11. It took all of thirty seconds. Imagine how much more efficient DFW would be if the many metal detectors, bag scanners, and TSA agents at the three checkpoints in each terminal were instead distributed to each gate (or pair of gates). Bit of remodeling, but probably the same amount of manpower and much improved efficiency. I even had time for a cup of coffee before they started boarding at seven.
My flight landed in Munich at 8:30. I only had a carry-on, so I walked straight to the subterranean S-Bahn platform, where I bought a day pass for Munich’s public transit network and hopped on an S1 bound for the center. By 9:15 my bag was safely stowed in a locker at the Hauptbahnhof.
I walked fifteen minutes to Marienplatz, the center of old Munich, and sat at a sidewalk café for a croissant (not traditionally German, I know) and a coffee. The café has been there since the Civil War. Satiated, I set off on an audio-guided walking tour of the center of the city that I downloaded from the Rick Steves website a few days ago. The tour took about three and a half hours at a pretty leisurely pace, and covered all of the main sights. I’ll go back to tour a couple of the museums, but on the four (or so) mile loop I got to pop into a few churches, linger in big squares, and walk through the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s venerable open air food market and Biergarten.
At about 1:30 I was back in Marienplatz. I backtracked a couple of blocks to have a fresh salad at a recommended restaurant, then walked back to the train station, reclaimed my bag, and walked three blocks west to my hotel. It’s a little after three. I’m unpacked, a bit rested, and ready for the afternoon. Not bad for ten hours.
Interesting Dresden and Magnificent Prague
Last Tuesday, after a weekend spent exploring ever more of Berlin, I set out for my first extended European trip (of the year, I mean). Using my Railpass, I got a mid-mornng train to Dresden, about two hours south of Berlin. I don’t think it’s on most tourists’ German agendas — certainly behind Munich, Berlin, the Romantic Road, and the castles — but I had a thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours. Dresden has been the capital of what is now the Free State of Saxony since the Middle Ages. It was famously firebombed in 1945 near the end of the war; the historic old town was flattened. Everything is new.
I arrived a little before noon and hiked up a broad, pedestrian only street lined with all the big shops to my Ibis Budget hotel. If I’m somewhere like London or New York, I’ll make a point of seeking out quirky or historic accommodation if at all possible, but for a quick one-night stop, a simple en suite single for about €40 is plenty fine, especially when it’s five minutes from the center. I dumped my bag and did a little self-guided walk around the Old Town, and was amazed at what I saw. Within a few minutes of Theaterplatz I found the Zwinger palace complex, the Royal Palace, and the truly breathtaking Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). All appear to be Baroque masterpieces, and they are–but they were all constructed after World War II, painstaking re-constructions of the originals lost in the bombing. If you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell. Some of the reconstruction happened during the Communist era (Dresden was well behind the Iron Curtain), but the church wasn’t finished until the 2005. I popped back to the Zwinger and toured the Old Masters Gallery’s smallish but impressive collection, which was the first of the reconstructed buildings to open after the war, in 1956. I had a leisurely stroll around the rest of the Old Town, taking in Communist-era architecture and allegorical murals telling the story of Saxony through the centuries, along with a winter carnival and skating rink set up in the newer town square. Dinner was nothing special–actually a pretty badly overcooked piece of salmon–but all in all, I was very happy with the afternoon and evening I spent in Dresden, and am very glad I made it an overnight stop en route to…
Prague. My God, do I love it. I had only been once before, for a few days in the summer of 2006 on one of my two-week whirlwind European trips, and I remembered liking it, but the details are a bit hazy, so I was eager to see the city again. My morning train from Dresden arrived around ten-thirty at Prague hlavní nádraží (main station), a weird architectural mish-mash in which a dark and unlovely Communist-era station–rectangular, functional, entirely sterile–was built below and around a pretty Art Nouveau masterpiece, including a central dome featuring a frescoed cupola and a nice café that I do remember vividly from my prior visit. I’m told that the café is now closed, and the station has been augmented since my last visit with a bunch of “Western” stores and eateries (including a Burger King and the newest ubiquitous invader, Dunkin’ Donuts). It’s an odd place.
The station is on the southern edge of the New Town, and my hotel was just northwest of the Old Town Square. I had my guidebook map and was sure I could navigate the mile or so without waiting in the long line at the Tourist Information office for the much more detailed city map. Welp. I made it, eventually, but it took at least an hour and more than a few wrong turns. I was sort of worried about what I would find at the Hotel Hastal, because the owner had been a little squirrelly over e-mail about the price of the room. I needn’t have been. The desk clerk checked me in even though I arrived a few minutes before noon, and quoted the lowest of the three different prices I’d been promised in various e-mails. The room was small but comfortable, and the hotel, while hardly new, is obviously well cared for and very central.
I unpacked, reoriented myself on the map (and realized where I’d made the big wrong turn earlier), and headed out for an afternoon of sightseeing. I was in Prague for two nights, departing Friday in the late afternoon, so I’d done what I often don’t do and written out a daily itinerary. Wednesday afternoon was for the area around the Old Town Square, and the nearby Jewish Quarter. The hotel was a five-minute walk from the square, which was absolutely mobbed with people on a cold weekday afternoon in very early March. It looked like mostly tour groups, with mostly young (early 20s) people–many Russians and a fair number of Italians. Not sure the significance of the first week in March for them, but there you go. Anyway, the Jewish Quarter, which I didn’t really explore on my first visit. The sites, which together comprise the Jewish Museum, are all clustered in a two-block area that was formerly Prague’s Jewish ghetto. I walked through the Pinkas Synagogue, which now serves as a memorial to about 77,000 Czech Jews who were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. Names of the deceased are handwritten on the walls, organized by hometown, with dates of birth and death by each. It is silent, stark, and profoundly moving. Around the corner is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which stands a few feet proud of “ground level” because centuries of burials took place on top of one another. Twelve thousand moss-covered headstones, jammed next to one another, cover approximately 100,000 tombs. The last stop on the museum itinerary is the Old-New Synagogue, eight hundred years old and left untouched by the Nazis, and the place of worship for a Jewish community of about 120,000 before World War II. Ten thousand survived; there are now about three thousand Jews in the entire country.
Sufficiently sobered, I went back to the hotel for a little while, and then back out for dinner. By that second departure from the hotel, I felt “moved in,” and that I had Prague in the palm of my hand, a feeling I retained until my departure about forty-eight hours later. This is the benefit of both centrally-located hotels and two-night stays. Your really do feel rooted, or at least I do. Perhaps it’s familiarity after all the years of two-week pan-European trips, but I’m very comfortable recommending this kind of trip to anyone, even a first-time visitor to the Continent. I’d allow more time in the true biggies–Paris, Rome, certainly London–but ten days of fairly close together two-night stops would not be too rushed, and could be a very diverse and rewarding experience. Connecting the dots by train is easy, and saves the hassle of long airport machinations for what turn out to be very short flights. For me, a day with an internal flight is a mostly wasted day for sightseeing and enjoyment. That’s how I’d do it, anyway, if I were you.
Dinner was at Klub Architekt?, recommended to me as a “hip” restaurant back in the Jewish Quarter. The setting was interesting–in a medieval cellar–but I didn’t think the international menu was all that impressive. For some reason, I had salmon for the second night in a row. It was better than the Dresden salmon, but not by a lot. Back to local food for me. I spent the rest of the evening in and around Old Town Square, not “doing” so much as just enjoying. The square was busy well into the night, with little stands set up around the perimeter selling sausages, meat skewers, pretzels, “Old Prague Ham,” and of course beer and hot red wine. It was cold, so I had one of those and sat at the base of the statue of Jan Hus, a fifteenth-century Moravian martyr whose unjust conviction for heresy motivated Martin Luther.
The next morning I was up early for a hike to Prague Castle, on the other side of the Vltava River across the Charles Bridge. The bridge is a sight in its own right, anchored by a Gothic tower at the Old Town end, and stretching about a kilometer to the Castle Quarter. It’s full of tourists taking in the views at all times of day and night, as well as jewelry hawkers, caricaturists, and more talented water-color painters and photographers selling their work. The castle itself is well worth a steep uphill hike. There’s also a tram, for cheaters. The only must-see sight within the castle grounds is St. Vitus Cathedral, started in 1344 and finished about six hundred years later, including a striking stained-class window by Alfons Mucha (about whom more momentarily), but all of it is fun to wander around. I exited through the Golden Lane, perhaps the most overrated “sight” in Prague, and wandered down to the Little Quarter, where I took a look at the ever-changing John Lennon Wall and had a nice lunch at a vegetarian café around the corner.
After lunch I took a tram into the near suburbs for a look at the Prague National Gallery. It’s a collection of very mediocre modern art, starting from about the turn of the last century, and famous for Mucha’s decidedly not mediocre Slav Epic. Around 1910, the Czech artist, best known for Art Nouveau posters created for Sarah Berhnardt’s Parisian stage shows, offered to create a series of massive, nationalistic paintings and donate them to the city of Prague, if only the city would build a suitable place to display them. Prague’s leaders agreed, and over the course of almost twenty years, Mucha painted nineteen canvases telling the story of the Czech people, sometimes through allegory, over the centuries. Each is 25×20–feet, not inches. They weren’t particularly well-received at the time, and were only relocated from a decaying castle to new exhibition space in the gallery a couple of years ago, so I’d never seen them. They’re somewhat more impressive for their size and scope than the content, but having seen them, I would’t recommend a visit to Prague without taking them in.
Dinner that night was more authentic. I sought out a recommended pub on the edge of the informal divide between the Old and New Towns. Restaurace u Provaznice was bustling with locals, every one of whom had a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. It was boisterous but not at all unruly, and I had a plate of roasted pork with potato dumplings and sauerkraut, which is served not as a condiment but rather as a full-fledged side dish. It was fun and cheap, and while there wasn’t another tourist in sight, I felt entirely welcome. I spent the rest of my night putting my new pocket camera, a Sony RX 100-II, through its nighttime paces for the first time. I beat up the very good little Nikon I’d bought for the fall leg, and ordered this on the recommendation of a friend while I was home recuperating from my foot fault. Not cheap, but it’s really, amazingly good. I’d just be repeating the CNET review linked above if I ran through its features, but after just a couple of weeks, it’s clear that the photo quality is on an entirely different level than any compact camera I’ve ever used. I’m very deeply impressed, and the night shots were no exception. I expect to post pictures from Hamburg, Dresden, and Prague to my Flickr page at about the same time this post hits the blog. You’ll see for yourself.
I spent my last day in Prague in the New Town, anchored by Wenceslas Square. It’s a shopping district now–really always has been, but the shopping is quite a bit better than it was during Communist days. You will recall footage of the playwright and activist Václav Havel proclaiming Czech independence from Soviet rule from a balcony in the square in November 1989, the culmination of the non-violent Velvet Revolution. The building and the balcony are still there. It’s now a Marks & Spencer. Just off the square are the unremarkable Museum of Communism and the small, engaging, and rather expensive (€15) Mucha Museum, a large room with several of his Art Nouveau posters and prints and some interesting photographs he took as studies for the Slav Epic. It was a worthwhile end to my time in Prague, as I hiked back to the hotel to retrieve my bag, and then onward to the train station for a pleasant five-hour ride to Berlin.
I like Prague quite a lot. The sights are good, if not Earth-shattering, but the most enjoyable part for me is the city itself. Nearly the entire Old Town is full of gorgeous and beautifully maintained Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings, interspersed with the occasional magnificent church or synagogue. Old Town Square is a delight, and on a warm day would be a very fine place to sip a Czech Budvar or two and watch the crowds gawp at the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall. The people are friendly, the food is good if you go local, and it’s all easily walkable or accessible by tram. The city itself is well-connected by train to Budapest in the east, Poland to the north, and Germany to the west and north, and would be an ideal stop on the type of vacation I mentioned earlier. I’ll be back. For now, I’m back in Berlin and preparing for a visit from a couple of friends from London who’ve never seen Berlin. I may not have made too much progress on the language (though it’s coming), but to them, I’m practically a local and definitely a tour guide.
Berlin: First Impressions
I arrived in Berlin last Thursday, after a very comfortable flight over on British Airways. Unlike the newly-cheap turkeys at our beloved American Airlines, BA are still willing to offer complimentary drinks on overseas flights, which is nice. What’s more, the food in “World Traveller Plus” (the front of economy, with a few extra inches of legroom) is off of the first class menu, which is very nice indeed. For future transatlantic flights, I’m a convert. After a quick and painless transfer in Heathrow and an hour’s flight, I landed at Berlin’s central Tegel Airport, only a few miles from the city center. Any other day I’d have had a 20-minute train or subway ride, but because I was lugging a giant suitcase with a broken handle — my own fault earlier — I took a cab to my new apartment.
I am staying in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, in eastern Berlin (which is to say, the former East Berlin). My apartment is on the second floor of a small building at Krossener Straße 26, just off the southeast corner of Boxhagener Platz, the central square of the neighborhood. I’d seen plenty of photos before agreeing to the lease, but I was still very pleasantly surprised at the apartment. It’s sunny and light, with new pine floors and a selection of IKEA furniture. That means the couch has about a quarter-inch of padding, but other than that, everything is clean and comfortable. I’ve got a north-facing balcony overlooking the street, which is very nice in the morning.
I spent the first few days just getting my feet on the ground, and getting over a cold that had me laying low for a while. I did manage a long walk, which served both to reorient me to the layout of a city I last visited in 2008 and to test my boot-free left foot. I started at the giant, gorgeous Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) — which is easily the most efficient train station I’ve ever come across — before continuing past the Reichstag, under the Brandenburg Gate, and all the way down Unter den Linden, the main drag in East Berlin. I did about three miles in total, and my foot felt fine while walking and the next morning, and I haven’t had any real trouble with it since. I haven’t started running again yet, but I think that will come later this week. I hate that I missed out on Kyoto and Tokyo, but I’m very glad I came home early to get treatment for whatever in hell I did to hurt myself.
I’ve done plenty of exploration of my neighborhood, too. It’s only gentrified recently, and it still has a bit of an edge to it in places. The streets around Boxhagener Platz, including Simon-Dach-Straße, are a bit less edgy, and remind me somewhat of the West Village, with lots of sidewalk cafes, hip design galleries, and organic markets, all interspersed with Döner kebab shops and convenience stores. It’s fun, as are the weekly farmers’ market (Saturdays) and flea market (Sundays) in the square. I’m sure in warmer weather the sidewalks are even busier, but as it is, Germans are very willing to sit outside in 45-degree weather sipping their beers. The cafes don’t do outdoor heaters, but they all provide blankets with each chair.
I will spend most of my three European months in Berlin, and I’m making a real effort to learn the language (through the excellent Duolingo app), but I also want to do some traveling. I’ve started making plans to get further afield, but for my first trip I took the super-fast Inter-City Express (ICE) train to Hamburg. I hadn’t been to Hamburg since 2001, when I did an easyJet trip from London while I was there studying law for a semester. I don’t remember much of that first visit. I’d flown into Amsterdam and taken the train to Hamburg, so my first experience with its airport was upon departure. To my surprise and disappointment, I learned as I arrived for my flight back to London that easyJet doesn’t serve Hamburg’s main airport, but rather what they (and only they) call Hamburg Lübeck Airport, which is in the very different city of Lübeck, some fifty miles away. That was an expensive lesson. The only other memory of that trip is that somewhere along the way, I bought what remains my very favorite coffee mug, a big blue and white ceramic job labeled Kapitänstasse, which shows all of the main knots a sailor (or a Kapitän, I guess) must know how to tie. I don’t really do souvenirs, but that little mug is one of my prized possessions.
Anyway. This time I spent two days and a night in Hamburg. It’s a pleasant city with a lot of public green space, but there really aren’t a lot of blockbuster sights other than the old town itself. I had a gander at the impressive Rathaus (City Hall) and a stroll through the very seedy Reeperbahn entertainment district, once home to the Star-Club where The Beatles got their start and developed their “Hamburg Sound,” and now where multi-story whorehouses (nothing explicit on the landing page, and it’s pretty interesting, but I wouldn’t click that link at work) sit side by each with theaters showing The Lion King and several other family-friendly productions. It’s an interesting place, but seemed a bit run down. I suspect, like Bourbon Street, it looks better at night. More interesting and a bit classier was the St. Georg district on the other side of town, where I stayed in the chic and literary Hotel Wedina and dined surprisingly well at the Portuguese Vasco da Gama restaurant on Lange Reihe, the main street through the area.
I’m now back in Berlin. I visited the Hackescher Markt and the new-to-me Topography of Terror exhibition/museum this weekend, but I’m trying to save most of the sightseeing until next week, when my friends Chris and Scott will be here for a few days. It’s their first time to Berlin, so we’re going to hit all the biggies, on which I will duly report back. Today I have managed to successfully mail a package to the states from a Deutsche Post office (I think), and purchase a SIM card for my iPad, so I’m pretty proud of myself. Tomorrow (Tuesday) I’m leaving for a three-night trip to Dresden (never been) and Prague (not since 2006), and I’m pretty excited for both. Must go pack.
I think I remember how this thing works! After a couple of weeks of necessary and beneficial rest and rehabilitation for my foot here in Fort Worth, I’m back on the road on Wednesday afternoon. By lunchtime on Thursday, I’ll (hopefully) be in my apartment in Berlin, where I’ll be home-basing for ninety days.
I won’t spend the whole three months in Berlin, though, and I’m already working on plans for two- or three-night excursions around the Continent, in addition to an already-scheduled trip to sunny Manchester for my dear friend Rick’s thirtieth birthday. In addition, I’ve already got one set of friends planning to visit me in Germany, but if anyone else wants to make the trek, just say the word. And I do hope to enjoy plenty of time in and around one of my favorite cities, and hopefully to come out of it with a working grasp of German.
I have stuffed a giant Tumi suitcase full of sixty-six pounds of stuff (British Airways won’t let me exceed seventy), and I have a small carry-on with the essentials. Uber to DFW around noon, then BA from there to Heathrow to Tegel Airport in Berlin, for the start of the end of the adventure. I plan to get back to daily or near-daily blogging, and I might even focus my Twittering more on travel and less on politics and LGBT rights (or maybe not). I hope you’ll follow along, whether here on the blog or on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Tumblr, or simply by telepathy. Links to all but the last are on the homepage. Please keep in touch!
My photos from Hawai’i and Japan are now up on Flickr. Enjoy!
My Left Foot (Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Coming Home)
Wednesday morning I made the short walk from my Hiroshima hotel to the nearby train station. At the Japan Rail (JR) office, I traded the “exchange order” I had purchased from a Houston travel agent for a 14-day Japan Rail Pass. This pass–a tremendous bargain intended to encourage foreign tourism–would give me free reign over the entire JR network with the exception of two or three of the fastest bullet trains. All of the Shinkansen trains, which are plenty fast, are covered, and so I boarded the 10:51 train for Fukuoka’s Hakata station. We arrived precisely on time at 12:04, having covered 280 kilometers in 73 minutes, an average speed of about 230 kph or 143 mph. That’s very fast, but far from the fastest possible. A different Shinkansen operates at the even-more-unbelievable speed of 200 mph. That we arrived on time isn’t unusual, either. In 2012, the average delay for all trains on the network was 36 seconds, and that includes delays caused by natural disasters. The train wasn’t luxurious, but I’ll take comfortable, fast, and punctual over plush extras any time.
Fukuoka, the largest city on Japan’s southernmost island of Ky?sh?, isn’t on most tourists’ itineraries, but I thought it would make a nice stopover between Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I moved north to tackle Japan’s mega-cities. I successfully made my way from the train station, to the subway, to the Nishitetsu Inn Fukuoka, a business class place in the central and bustling Tenjin district. The room was small but comfortable and overlooked one of the city’s many canals. That afternoon, I had a walk around the neighborhood, including the shopping district and the nearby Hakata Machiya Furusato-kan folk museum, as well as an adjacent shrine. Not that I have any right to expect it, but the folk museum had almost no English-language descriptions, so while it was diverting, I didn’t gain a lot of insight into 19th-century life in Japan.
I returned to the hotel late in the afternoon, in some amount of pain. I first noticed pain in my left foot in Hawai’i, although it came on gradually and I’m really not sure there was any one traumatic event. I did a lot of running when I was in Waikiki, and I was fine. When I returned for the one-night layover before flying on to Japan, it hurt badly enough that the walk of a few blocks from my hotel to the little health food shop was painful, and done with a noticeable limp. In hindsight, hopping on the treadmill that afternoon for a four-mile run had been a mistake. Anyway, I stupidly soldiered on through what I think is probably a repetitive-stress injury from all of the running, hiking, climbing, and walking I’ve done in the past six months, and it didn’t bother me too much in Hiroshima. It bothered me now.
I walked, slowly, through the Tenjin district that evening, and ate dinner at a local branch of Ippud?, a restaurant serving the distinctive local style of ramen called tonkotsu ramen. Ippud? has spread as a chain throughout Japan and now abroad (I believe it is or soon will be open in New York and London), but Fukuoka is the original, and it is good. It’s not fancy, just a big bowl of medium-firm soba noodles in a pork-based broth, with slices of pork, green onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, red chili sauce, and I think a soft-boiled egg. The communal tables were busy with locals slurping it up.
To be honest, there really isn’t a lot to do in Fukuoka. On Thursday, I did a little more walking around, and visited the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. I hope that link works, because I’ve had to code it in myself. The WordPress link interface doesn’t want to work, and I’ve now deduced that problems with it are what has caused me to lose so many drafts lately. So, yeah. Lonely Planet describes the museum’s Asian art collection as “world-renowned.” I’m not sure about that, but it is a nice, small collection of Asian works from the 19th and 20th centuries, some in the traditional style, some with obvious western influences. I completely flummoxed the nice ladies working the information desk when I asked whether there was an audioguide, which I thought would be an internationally-understood word, at least among museum workers. I guess not. I looked up the Japanese word on Google Translate–it’s (supposedly) ?diogaido. That was met with confusion, too, and so I just said “it’s okay” and took the proffered brochure. A few minutes later, one of the ladies came up to me with a live, paid guide willing to show me around. I passed. (There is no audioguide.)
For dinner, I tried the other locally-famous ramen house, Ichiran. The food is very similar to Ippud?, but the experience is very different. At the entrance to the restaurant is a vending machine, where you buy tickets for the ramen, any extras (i.e., a noodle refill), and any sides or drinks. A host shows you to a booth that I can only liken to an old-time long-distance phone booth at the post office, or I guess like a voting booth a little bit? You sit on a stool, facing a small cube with floor-to-ceiling walls and a built-in desk. You can’t see what your neighbor is eating, though you’re not so far into the booth that you can’t see your neighbor him/herself. A server raises a bamboo screen at the back of the cubicle, gives you a card on which to specify the desired firmness of noodles, the amount of hot chili sauce, the thickness of the cut of the green onions, and lots more, then returns a few minutes later with your made-to-order ramen, to be eaten in solitude. I didn’t dislike the experience, and I get the hygienic aspect of the vending machine. It’s just weird eating in a voting booth.
Friday morning I packed up my bag–which seems to be getting heavier, even though I haven’t bought anything other than a winter coat, which I was wearing–and got the subway back to Hakata station, where I caught a non-Shinkansen but still very fast train to Nagasaki. By the time I got off the train and did just a little walking around the station to try to get oriented and figure out where my hotel was, my foot was really killing me. I put my bag in a coin locker and had a little bit of lunch, and (probably unwisely) walked a quarter-mile or so up the hill behind the station to the Nagasaki Museum of History & Culture. Here there was an audioguide, though I didn’t think it was that great. The museum tells the story of Nagasaki’s centuries of international trade. This is where the Chinese and Dutch, mainly, made their initial inroads into closed Japan, and Nagasaki remained the “face” of Japan to traders for hundreds of years.
Back at the station and once again in possession of my bag, I managed to orient myself for the half-mile or so walk to the Chisun Grand Nagasaki, down the main drag. Getting there was genuinely painful, and I was half-dragging my foot rather than put too much weight on it. When I got up to the room, I found that the top of my foot and the outside of my ankle were both swollen, in addition to being painful to the touch, and I started looking into cutting the trip short. I really want to see Tokyo and especially Kyoto, and I hate the thought of giving up on part of a trip to such a distant place, one to which it won’t be especially easy to return. I reasoned with myself, though, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. I changed my ticket on United, canceled a few hotels, and made plans to come home Monday. Touring Tokyo and Kyoto would by necessity involve tons of walking, including a lot of hills, and I really didn’t want to make anything worse and only have four days in Fort Worth to get treatment before heading to Europe for three months. I really don’t want an aching, broken foot impeding my abilities there. So, I’m flying up to Tokyo Monday morning (local time), switching airports, leaving Tokyo Monday evening and returning to DFW on…Monday evening. It will be about a thirty-eight hour day.
I made all of those plans Friday night. Saturday I got up and found that my foot was quite a bit better. I know this sounds incredibly stupid, but part of me wanted it to start hurting, as if to validate my decision to cut the trip short. If my foot was all better and I’d overreacted to a bad day, I’d feel very dumb and frustrated. I will say for myself that I at least realized this was a stupid way of thinking, even as I was thinking it, and in any event my foot did hurt badly by the end of the day yesterday, so…yay? In the meantime, I saw all of the atomic bomb sights in northern Nagasaki. In my opinion, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is very well-done, better (and more tightly focused) than the larger Peace Museum in Hiroshima. The devastation caused by the bomb, which was much more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, is made clear through before-and-after photographs of the city; bent, melted, twisted artifacts; pictures of horribly burnt victims; and the stories told by survivors. A “peace park” surrounds the hypocenter, and both it and a silent memorial hall adjoin the museum. It’s a somber place, but I’m glad I went. I had an early dinner at a Chinese place in the Dejima Wharf district on the waterfront. As I write, it’s mid-day Sunday. I’m going to do a little bit more poking around this neighborhood and maybe the Shianbashi district nearby, then I suppose I will come back and pack up my trusty backpack for the last time and get ready to head home tomorrow. That exercise will probably make me a little bit sad!
I checked out of my Waikiki hotel early on Friday morning and got a cab to Honolulu airport, where I checked in for my flight to Tokyo. I was pleased to discover that my frequent flier status, earned on the round-the-world ticket, had resulted in an upgrade to United’s “economy plus” mini-cabin. The only real difference is an extra few inches of legroom and a little bit more recline–welcome features on a nine-hour flight.
When I originally conceived this year-long journey of discovery, I thought I’d spend the winter and early spring making a grand circuit of Asia and the Indian sub-continent. I drew up grand itineraries including not just Japan but China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, India…but I decided not to book anything until I had a couple of months under my belt.
That was a wise decision. I absolutely loved the travel I did this fall, and I’m very grateful to have been able to see and go all of the places I went, but I moved around a LOT. Only once or twice did I stay in any city for more than three or four nights, which is great for covering ground but not so good for feeling (somewhat) rooted and actually getting to know a place. That’s why I’ve scheduled the winter and spring as I have: nearly three weeks in Hawai’i, but divided among only three stops; two and a half in Japan, with a couple of short stops at the start but long stays in Kyoto and Tokyo coming up; and home-basing in Berlin for European exploration in the spring. I think it’s the right way to go.
I had what I thought was a tight (90-minute) connection in Tokyo for my onward flight to the southern city of Hiroshima, and I was really worried about missing my flight and getting stuck in the airport overnight. I needn’t have worried. I timed it, and it took precisely forty-nine minutes from touchdown until I reached the departure gate, including taxiing to the gate; deplaning; walking to the arrivals area; immigration (passport control); baggage claim; customs; checking in for my connecting flight; clearing security; and walking to the gate. That’s amazing efficiency, and I’m told it’s par for the course in Japan. It’s taken me longer just to get my bags after a domestic touchdown at DFW, many times.
The flight from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Hiroshima took about ninety minutes. The Honolulu-Tokyo flight was long but hadn’t been overnight, and we lost five hours, but we also crossed the international date line, so where I had woken up at six a.m. Friday in Honolulu, I landed in Hiroshima around seven p.m. Saturday night. I didn’t have any Japanese cash. I’d been warned by guidebooks that Japan is a nearly exclusively cash-based society, but is also read that I would find ATMs and currency exchange desks in airport arrival halls. Well…the ATM at the 7-Eleven didn’t take non-Japanese bank cards. There was a post office (in Japan, they provide other services and have internationally-linked ATMs), but it was closed, as was the exchange desk. I had a wad of greenbacks and a wallet full of cards, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to leave! Then the nice woman at the information desk said I might be able to buy the necessary bus ticket with a card at the 7-Eleven, popped the “back in a minute” sign on her desk, walked down there with me, and explained to the cashier what I needed to do. Superb.
Ticket in hand, I rode the bus about forty minutes to Hiroshima’s main train station. I’d purposely booked a hotel close to the station for my first stop, so it was only a five minute walk (once I got oriented) to the Toyoko Inn across the bridge. This is a chain of no-frills business hotels all over the country, which is been told offered good value, and so it did. Three nights for a total of about $150, including breakfast and wifi. Not bad at all for what is otherwise reputed to be a very expensive country for travelers.
The next morning, after extracting some cash at the nearby post office, I headed for the World War II sights that make Hiroshima famous, or infamous. As I walked to and through the Peace Memorial Park, the first thing I saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. This wasn’t precisely ground zero for the bomb–it detonated a few hundred meters away–but it was the closest thing left (barely) standing. Hundreds inside were killed, of course. It’s been preserved as a memorial and a symbol of the past.
Nearby is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall, a somber and silent memorial to the approximately 160,000 people known to have been killed by the bomb. The memorial includes written and oral accounts by survivors of that day in August 1945. It’s really beyond imagining. The decimated city began rebuilding almost immediately, though. Streetcars were running only a few days later, and it became a point of pride for the remaining citizens to rebuild and persevere.
The A-bomb (as it is universally called here) is never far from today’s citizens’ minds. Hiroshima has become known as the City of Peace, and its Peace Memorial Museum is the centerpiece. The displays pull no punches in showing the effects of nuclear weapons (nor, it should be said, in describing Japan’s war footing and the fact that it caused the war in the Pacific by invading China and bombing Pearl Harbor–the story isn’t told from an American perspective to be sure, but it’s more self-critical than I expected). The museum is more than just Hiroshima’s story, and covers the development of ever more powerful nuclear weapons through today.
Finally, in the central hall, there are large before-and-after models of the epicenter. Volunteer guides are on hand to describe the models and the effect of the bombing to every visitor, individually. To be selected as a volunteer for this purpose is apparently a rather high honor locally. The elderly gentlemen who chose me spent about fifteen minutes pointing out where things had been, what was lost, what was left, and how the city had come back to life. The museum has an overt purpose: to convince every visitor that nuclear war isn’t worth the cost. They’re right, though I wonder whether the cat can ever be put back in the bag.
I had a late lunch at Chari, a nearby café, then a browse through a posh shopping mall before finishing the day on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle. The castle was built in the 1500s. What remained four centuries later was entirely destroyed (save the foundation) by the bomb, but a rebuilt guard tower has a small but interesting collection of artifacts and tells the story (mostly in Japanese) of life in a castle/garrison town.
On Tuesday I had a browse through the Hiroshima Museum of Art. The focus of the collection is mid-19th to early 20th-century art, mostly French, and in some respects it reminded me of the Kimbell back home: relatively minor works by all the major artists. Some of it was really interesting. Photography wasn’t allowed, and the museum’s website doesn’t show much of the collection, so I’ve lifted a pic from the web, which I hope renders correctly when I post this:
That’s a Picasso, one of just a few paintings he did of his young son, born when Pablo was in his 40s. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to identify it as a Picasso without help. I like that.
I spent the afternoon just sort of wandering around Hiroshima’s entertainment district. For a late lunch or early dinner, I had to try the local special, okonomiyaki. There’s a picture on my website (and Instagram feed), but it’s a giant savory pancake, filled with cabbage, meat, greens, an egg, and God knows what else, fried on a hot griddle and topped with painted-on sauce. It was the size of my face and it was amazing. I didn’t last much longer after that, and fell into a happy food coma sleep just about as soon as I got back to the hotel.
I’m glad I started my Japan trip in the south. Judging just by Hiroshima, I think starting in hyper-frenetic Tokyo or even Kyoto would have been a mistake. Easing in to Japanese culture and daily life is a much better way to go about it. I wouldn’t have planned it this way myself, and I suspect most first-time visitors start in Tokyo, so once again I must thank my friend Chris for steering me in this direction. Next stop: Fukuoka.
Hawai’i – Final Thoughts
So I spent the last three days on Maui, in the old west coast resort town of Lahaina. The main drag – Front Street – is full of the kind of shops and restaurants I’d expect to find in Atlantic City. Cheeseburger in Paradise had the longest line, and every other storefront was a t-shirt shop. The coffee place was “Bad Ass Coffee.” Still, it had a certain charm. I was in the oldest hotel in the town center, the Pioneer Inn, now a Best Western, but recently and respectfully well done. It’s right on the wharf, a block from the main drag.
The weather on my first full day was dreadful: serious rain and high winds all day. Most of the whale-watching tours and other boat trips departing the wharf were canceled, spoiling up plans for the day. I did some self-serve laundry up the road, had a great lunch Lahaina Fish Company, went for a long treadmill run at a gym where I bought a day pass, and finished with a poor dinner at Lahaina Coolers (about which I lightheartedly cplain end on Facebook, for which I’ve taken some deserved shots – oh well).
Yesterday I didn’t do a lot more. I had an outdoor run in the morning and a browse through the art galleries and curio shops, then spent some fe reading up on Japan – my next destination – before a very fine treat of a dinner at Kimo’s. I killed some time this morning and flew to Honolulu this afternoon, to catch my flight to Tokyo tomorrow.
So I’ve been in Hawai’i for nearly three weeks. As is probably clear from earlier posts, I liked heavily-populated O’ahu the best. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but I really prefer being on the go and doing to sitting around -even in a place as beautiful as Waikiki Beach – and relaxing. I get bored. I understand the appeal of some time off from the mainland and the RW (the real world, as Cousin Dorothy puts it), and I’d recommend a week or ten days split between Honolulu and the active side of the Big Island (I’d stay in Hilo or Volcano if I went back, not Kona Town or Kailua), but I don’t see myself making yearly visits.
I’m just in Honolulu tonight – back in Waikiki, in fact, where I had to have a turkey avocado sandwich from Ruffage, the cool little health food shop and deli on Kuhio Street – as a layover before flying to Tokyo and on to Hiroshima tomorrow. I’ve actually got a very tight connection at Narita, buty dear Japanophile friend Chris assured me I’ll make it with time to spare. I’ll probably sue him if I don’t. I need to do some lawyering to keep in practice.
Sorry in advance. This is a long one.
Saturday morning I headed out early from Kona, bound for Kilauea and Manua Loa, “only” about ninety miles away in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The drive took two and a half hours, and there wasn’t even much traffic. The Hawai’i Belt Road, which (as the name implies) circles the island around its shoreline, is just narrow and winding as it passes through tiny towns and up and down several little mountains. It’s a scenic trip, although I had to be careful not to take my eyes off the road for too long.
I got to the park around one. It’s ten bucks for a week-long pass, which would have covered a whole carload of people, if I’d made any friends at the shitty Sheraton (or tried). Not a bad deal. I headed to the visitor center first, and was lucky enough to arrive just as a free ranger-led walk was about to depart. It was only a quarter-mile to the closest crater rim overlook, but the park ranger – actually a volunteer from Switzerland in Hawai’i on some sort of exchange program – taught us about the native plants along the way and the trouble they had with invasive species, almost all of which had been brought to Hawai’i to beautify gardens and had gotten out of control.
After the nature walk – and my first glimpse of the crater – I returned to the visitor center and set off on a forty-mile rountdrip down Chain of Craters Road. This scenic drive passes several small craters at the start, then makes a stop at the Thurston Lava Tube. This is a quarter-mile or so long tube – cave, really, but with openings on both ends – formed when a long-ago low-viscosity lava flow formed a crust on top while hotter lava continued to flow below. The temperature inside the tube is at least twenty degrees cooler than ambient, and it’s constantly seeping water.
The road didn’t used to be a dead end. A series of eruptions and lava flows from Kilauea have buried sections of the road at its southernmost point, most recently a 1986 flow that ended right in the middle of the road and mostly buried a “road closed” sign (now a great photo op). I admired the volcanic-rock cliffs for a while, then drove back up to the visitor center. I browsed the little museum and shop for a while before staking out a spot on the viewing deck for the six o’clock sunset.
What’s commonly called the “crater” is in fact the caldera of the Kilauea volcano. It’s about two miles across. Inside the caldera, several eruptions have occurred over the years. The current hotspot is Halemau’ma’u Crater. No lava is currently flowing, but there is a “magma lake” at the bottom of the crater, from which a constant cloud of sulphurous gas (called vog) has been emitting for a few years. At and after sunset, the orange-red glow of the magma lake becomes visible in the vog, making it look to untrained eyes as if there is a plume of lava pouring out of the crater. There isn’t, though there probably will be in the future. It’s still a spectacular sight and ample evidence of the power of nature. Sufficiently awed, I drove back to Kona, arriving late at night, exhausted.
I was at least able to sleep in a bit on Sunday. Around one, I drove into Kona Town to the offices of Hawaii Forest & Trail, for the start of their small-group Mauna Kea Summit Tour. After a couple of stops at nearby resorts to pick up guests, eight of us were loaded into a rugged, lifted Econoline van driven by Nate, our tour guide. The resorts were seaside, and thus zero feet above sea level. About an hour later, after a drive northeast, we stopped for a picnic dinner at an old Parker Ranch sheep station, at about seven thousand feet. The difference in temperature, and in everyone’s ability to breathe, was noticeable. After dinner, Nate handed out heavy parkas and gloves for the really cold stuff to come.
As we continued our ascent, we learned about the geological history of the island, and of Mauna Kea in particular. It was Nate who taught us about the deforestation caused by non-native grazing animals and plants, as mentioned above. The Parker Ranch, which until a sell-off a few years ago was the fifth-largest ranch in the United States, was the worst offender, running thousands of cattle and sheep for most of the twentieth century. The ranchland, both current and former (the government now owns most of what the ranch sold off), is featureless pasture, covered entirely by the non-native fountain grass, which came to Hawai’i as one plant intended for one garden. Now it covers hundreds of square miles.
Around 5:00 we drove past the Ellison Onizuka Observatory Visitor Center, named for the first Hawai’ian astronaut, who was killed in the ChLlenger explosion in 1986. The visitor center, to which we would return, is at about 9000 feet. We kept going, along a bumpy dirt track that suddenly changed to smooth Tarmac as we crossed about 11,000 feet (so that vehicle traffic wouldn’t kick up dust to interfere with the telescopes above), all the way to the summit at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. We’d ascended close to three miles in about three and a half hours. Everyone was lightheaded, and everyone was cold. The air temperature was a little below freezing, but there was an unusually strong wind which made it feel like about zero. Quite a change from the muggy day we’d left below.
The summit is a perfect place for an observatory for a few reasons: first, it’s close to the equator, so 100% of the northern sky and 80% of the southern sky are visible on any given night. Second, it’s dark. Hawai’i is the world’s most isolated landmass, and the Big island is pretty sparsely populated, so there’s very little light pollution. Third, it’s dry and clear, with very little chance of interference from the weather. As a result, most of the world’s biggest and most advanced telescopes are on top of Mauna Kea. The current record-holders are two truly giant scopes with nine-meter lenses. By comparison, the human eye’s lens is about an eighth of a millimeter. The difference is astounding.
After watching the sunset from the summit, we went back down to the visitor center, where Nate set up a telescope with a pretty robust twenty-eight inch lens. The star clusters around Orion’s Belt, visible only as faint smudges to the naked eye (from one of the most pristine viewing spots in the world), was revealed as thousands of distinguishable points of light. Jupiter was visible unaided as one of the brightest objects in the sky, but no more. Magnified, I could not only see the weather patterns on Jupiter but three of its moons (the others were out of sight behind the planet). Unless someone lets me in one of the biggies on the summit, it was probably the best stargazing I’ll ever do.
We had to leave eventually. By the time I got back to the hotel it was past eleven, and I crashed hard. Monday was my last day on the Big Island, and I spent it exploring some of the time north of Kona and relaxing on White (Magic) Sands Beach while watching daredevil surfers and bodyboarders attempt to ride some massive waves. Overall, I think I’d have Oahu over the Big Island for its greater diversity, both natural and man-made…but the volcanoes make it a close call. I’m very glad I got to explore them.
Oh. My first few days on the Big Island are covered in the Pearl Harbor post. Sorry, WordPress. You’re still terrible.
I have actually written a couple of updates in the last week. Just realized that they have disappeared into the abyss. Thanks once again to WordPress. You get what you pay for.
The first thing I did after arriving on O’ahu was to go online and reserve a ticket to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. It’s a good thing I did, as I was just able to book the last available slot at 8:00 Tuesday morning, a week in advance. I could have risked waiting for a walk-up ticket, but that’s crazy. So, confirmation number in hand, I headed out at the crack of dawn on Tuesday – so early that Starbucks wasn’t open – and arrived at the memorial site just as it opened at 7:00. (I had been told I had to be there an hour early to claim my reserved ticket, or it would be released – apparently this isn’t strictly true.)
Just before eight, about one hundred of us were brought into a small auditorium for a twenty-minute introductory film, which covered the buildup to war; the vulnerability of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet as they sat moored, nose to tail, off of Ford Island; the attack; and the aftermath. A substantial portion of the film was narrated by sailors, airmen, and Marines who survived the attack on December 7, 1941, which lent a particular poignancy to the story.
After the film, we all boarded a little shuttle boat (which is actually an official Navy vessel) for the short cruise from shore to the memorial, just off of Ford Island. The Arizona memorial itself is much smaller than I expected it to be, and incredibly moving. The memorial floats directly above the sunken, rusting remains of the battleship Arizona, one of many hit and a handful sunk that day. Bunker fuel is still leaking from the ship, at a rate of a couple of pints a day. In places, the water is noticeably slick, but nothing is done to “clean up” the leaks, as this would be a desecration. Several hundred men were entombed in the Arizona when it sank, and many survivors of the attack choose to be reunited with their shipmates upon death – some of the names on the memorial wall had been carved only weeks before my visit.
The memorial complex, formally known as the “Valor in the Pacific National Monument,” also includes the USS Missouri and the submarine USS Bowfin. I toured both. The “Mighty Mo” was still under construction at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It saw extensive service in the war and was most famously the site of Japan’s formal surrender to General MacArthur in Tokyo Bay. That spot features prominently on the (poor) audio tour, but the ship served another half-century, including in the first Gulf War. The dioramas in the mess hall, computer lab, officers’ quarters, and the like all show shipboard life as it existed in the mid 1990s. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was certainly more comfortable than life on board the tiny Bowfin, where enlisted men bunked in the torpedo room. I don’t think if have done well on a sub.
I’d expected Pearl Harbor to take up most of the day, but I was back in Waikiki a little after noon. I took the opportunity to spend a few more hours on the beach, since the sun was out in full force after some sprinkles that morning. I walked all the way down to the strip of sand in front of Waikiki Aquarium, read and relaxed for a while, then wisely took off my watch (my Fuelband) before jumping in the surf to cool off before heading back. Just as I got to the hotel, I realized I’d left my watch on the beach! Hawai’i has a terrible reputation for petty crime (you’re advised never to leave anything in a parked car, whether in sight or in the trunk, and to leave the doors unlocked to avoid parking lot break-ins), so I didn’t hold out a lot of hope as I hiked back to the part of the beach where I’d been, a half-hour away. I was therefore very pleased to find my watch, half-buried in sand but no worse for wear, just where I’d left it. Karma, I suppose.
I packed up all of my stuff and then had a take-out dinner from Me’s BBQ, a little Korean place across from the hotel that’s all the edge on Yelp! and favorably reviewed in Lonely Planet. It was a lot of food, and it certainly looked good….but it really wasn’t. The four sides were fine, but the chicken katsu was dry and the kalbi (beef…ribs?) was tough. Oh well. I ate pretty well on O’ahu, all things considered.
Wednesday morning I caught a short flight from Honolulu to Kona International Airport on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I arrived Wednesday afternoon; as I write this, it’s Saturday morning, and honestly? I haven’t really done very much. All of Wednesday and most of Thursday were devoted to trying to rescue my new little iPad, which was locked up when I got off the plane and required a trip to a Mac repair shop in Kailua, a factory reset, three calls to Apple Care (they were great), and many hours of time to mostly fix. I still don’t have any of my music or my photos, but I should be able to recover those when I get home and can sync with my laptop. In the end, a minor inconvenience.
Yesterday I drove an hour or so north of the Sheraton “resort” where I’ve unwisely chosen to stay – it’s a dated dump – to the cattle-ranching town of Waimea and then on to some secluded little beaches nearby. These were the very opposite of Waikiki’s white sand: rugged, completely non-commercialized, hard to find, and very sparsely occupied. Most of the people I saw appeared to be locals, too, though I certainly wasn’t made to feel unwelcome. I had a nice time, the returned south for an okay dinner at Ke’ei Café in the town of Captain Cook. Today and tomorrow are devoted to volcanoes. If I don’t fall in, I’ll report back.
Where did I leave off? Thursday morning I decided I needed some trashy paperbacks to read on the beach. I love my little iPad, but I’m regretting not also bringing my Kindle, which is ten times as easy to read in bright sunlight. I found a second-hand bookstore in Kailua, on the windward side of the island, and took the opportunity to take in some scenery along the way. The Pali Highway cuts through the mountains north of Honolulu. It’s a mix of steep mountain roads (the Chevy Sonic handled these about as well as I’d imagine an old Bug would) and tunnels. The Pali Lookout is the definite highlight of the route. Just outside of Honolulu, the thousand-foot peak offers a commanding view of the towns of the windward coast and even some of the other islands, including Molokai on the very distant horizon. It’s a beautiful spot.
I eventually made my way down to Kailua, purchased a few old Clive Cussler paperbacks that I know I’ve read before but won’t really remember, and headed back the way I came. By the time I got to Waikiki, I realized I was finally starting to get oriented and learn my way around the town and the other nearby parts of Honolulu. It took longer than usual, primarily because I had been under the mistaken impression that Waikiki was toward the west side of the city. It very much isn’t. Anyway, now I know where I am, which is nice. Although intermittent showers had been forecast, the rest of the day was sunny and warm, and I did, in fact, spend it on the beach. For dinner, I headed to Hawaiiana Cafe and Sushi, a tiny place I found on Yelp! Much more so than Uncle Bo’s, it’s a real hole-in-the-wall and a local find. Cliff, the very funny and very hard working owner and host, takes orders at a walk-up counter and then shows dine-in guests to tiny tables tucked into the indoor seating area or on the equally small patio. He doesn’t actually prepare the sushi, but I’m pretty sure he does everything else, including plating the food, delivering it to the tables, clearing the tables, getting water, running the cash register, and God knows what else. I had a huge plate of very fresh sushi and sashimi (the “dinner bento” – I think I put a pic on Instagram and thus on my website) for not very much money. I will probably go back before I leave the island.
The annual PGA Tour stop is in town this week, and on Friday I decided to spend the day at the tournament. The course is a fifteen-minute drive east of Waikiki. Parking was free and so was the shuttle bus to the front gate, where I bought a ticket for fifteen dollars. Don’t count on those prices at Colonial. Waialae Country Club probably isn’t the most challenging course on Tour, but it’s very pretty and attracted a strong field, many of whom were in Hawai’i for the Tournament of Champions last week and decided to stick around. As a result, I got to watch Adam Scott, Jason Dufner, and Matt Kuchar as a threesome in the afternoon. Not bad for a minor tournament. Zach Johnson and John Daly (who is actually playing well as I write this on Sunday afternoon) also attracted big galleries, but not nearly as large as the group of mostly Japanese fans following the teenage sensation Ryo Ishikawa. No matter that he wasn’t playing well at all; the Japanese women, almost all decked out in high-fashion dresses and sun hats, and all carrying parasols, were undeterred. He’s apparently a rock star back home. I got back to Waikiki just as the rains finally came. Dinner was another smple sandwich from Ruffage, across the street.
Yesterday I decided to take a long drive around the island. I first headed north to visit the Valley of the Temples and By?d?-In, a 1968 replica of a 900-year-old temple in Uji, Japan, built to commemorate the anniversary of the first Japanese settlers in Hawai’i. It is a peaceful and serene place, surrounded by an interdenominational cemetery, and very much worth a visit. From there, I drove another half-hour or so to reach the famous North Shore, one of the surfing meccas of the world. It wasn’t much like what I expected. I thought the whole area would be built up and commercialized. It really isn’t. In fact, the locals are actively campaigning against development, and “Keep the Country Country” signs were everywhere. All of the famous surfing points–like all of Hawai’i's beaches–are public access, and surfers and beachgoers just park along the Kamehameha Highway (the main coast road) and walk down to the water. The little stores and shops along the road reminded me very much of Route 1 along the coast of Maine, and a little bit of the lesser-developed parts of Cape Cod. I had lunch at the famous Ted’s Bakery, where all the surfers and most of the tourists go to load up. The lunch special number two came with delicious barbecued chicken, beef short ribs, fried local shrimp, a big scoop of macaroni-crab salad, and two scoops of white rice. With a bottle of tea, it was about fourteen bucks, and it was awesome. To burn off some of the calories, I decided to take a walk along Sunset Beach. The sand was coarser than the fine white sand of Waikiki and the southern part of the island, and it was soft. With each step, my feet sank several inches, making walking much more of an exercise than usual. I plodded along, stopped to watch some surfers and paddleboarders, and thought about parking it for a while to read when the rains came. They came hard and fast, and by the time I walked back to the road and ran back to the car, I was soaked. I high-tailed it back to Waikiki, in heavy traffic.
I had hoped to use the Nobu gift certificate I received as a Christmas gift from my very generous sister for a fancy Saturday night dinner. I was disappointed to learn that they won’t take a reservation for one person, don’t offer full service at the bar, and “wouldn’t recomment” showing up and asking to be put on the wait list. I guess I’ll hold on to the certificate until I find myself in a city with a Nobu and a date. Instead, I went around the block to another celebrity-chef place, Sansei, which had been happy to take my reservation. The food was good, if not spectacular. On the waiter’s recommendation, I chose the “sansei chirashi” sampler, which included top-quality tuna, hamachi, salmon, mirugai, and spicy tuna. I also had the “award-winning” panko crusted ahi sashimi sushi roll, which I enjoyed. I’m sure this will prove to have been my fanciest meal on O’ahu, and maybe in Hawai’i generally. I don’t mind that at all.
Hawaii – First Impressions
The winter-spring part of my year-long adventure began very early Monday morning. I had packed up the night before, but still had to drag myself out of bed around 3:30 a.m. to get ready. I’d planned to take an Uber black car to the airport, but discovered to my dismay that there were no cars available at 4:00 a.m. (I’ve never had to wait more than fifteen minutes for a car, even early morning, so this came as quite a surprise.) Luckily I had a backup driver fifteen feet away. I rousted Dad out of bed, and without even taking a shower first, he drove me to DFW. Heroic.
As you’ll know if you’ve been following along, I did my round-the-world ticket on the Star Alliance carriers. The first flight was New York to Toronto, way back in late August. The last flight was Taipei to Los Angeles, a few days before Christmas. In between, I accumulated just over 35,000 air miles — not a bad haul for four months, and just enough to earn frequent traveler status for 2014. Taking advantage of this perk, I flew United from DFW to Honolulu, via Los Angeles. The quick check-in and “economy plus” seating were nice, but I can’t say I was too impressed with the airline’s level of service, particularly on the Honolulu to Los Angeles leg. This is a six-hour flight, and yet there was no complimentary food service, and the only food-for-purchase items were “snack boxes” — no meals to be had aft of coach. Even frugal American Airlines serves a free meal on its Transatlantic routes. Lesson learned, although I couldn’t really complain in light of my destination.
Hawaii. There aren’t many states where I haven’t at least set foot, and Hawaii definitely stood out in the crowd. (The others, for the record, are Oregon, Idaho, both of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas, South Carolina, and Alaska. I would like to see Alaska.) I’ve always wanted to see the beaches, the volcanoes, and the island lifestyle as interpreted by Americans. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I’ll have about two and a half weeks to find out. After collecting my bags and my teeny, tiny rental car, I drove about twenty minutes to the Vive Hotel Waikiki, on Kuhio Avenue in the middle of Waikiki. The hotel is very new and very nice, and the location really couldn’t be more central. I’m two blocks from Waikiki Beach, and two blocks in the other direction from a huge park. The world-class shopping district is a few blocks further on, not that this holds any particular appeal, but it does make for some good people-watching. I checked in, unpacked, and then walked across the street to Ruffage, a little health food shop and café. I took my tuna and avocado sandwich and side salad back to the hotel. By the time I finished it, it was going on seven o’clock. I did some advance planning for the next few days, including booking literally the last ticket for the USS Arizona Memorial available in the coming week (very lucky there), and fell asleep early and easily.
After an early-morning run along the nearby Ala Wai canal, I just had to devote my first full day in Hawaii to the beach. I borrowed a beach towel and chair from the front desk and walked over to Kuhio Beach Park, the slice of sand closest to the hotel. The sky was cloudless, the air warm, and the sand full of people of all ages and types, enjoying the sun and the calm water pooled inside a little man-made breakwater about thirty feet out. I spent several relaxing hours reading and soaking up the sun, with occasional cool-off runs to the shallow water that nevertheless attracted schools of small fish. Beyond the breakwater, paddleboarders were playing in the gentle waves, and I could see a few “party” catamarans (all-you-can-drink booze cruises) on the horizon. Unusually enough for me, I managed not to get a sunburn. When the clouds rolled in around five, I went back to the hotel for a quick shower and right back down to the beachfront promenade, where I had a quick workout at a small and not very nice 24 Hour Fitness gym. The day of doing not very much had worn me down, and it was another Ruffage dinner (turkey avocado this time) and early bedtime.
It was raining when I woke up on Wednesday. This was a surprise, and had not been in the forecast. Luckily I hadn’t planned on beach time, and instead (after a drizzly run along the beachfront) headed into downtown Honolulu to have a look at some sights. My first stop was the ‘Iolani Palace. built in 1882 when Hawaii was still an internationally-recognized independent nation (Queen Victoria made a state visit, and hosted the Hawaiian royals in London), it remains the only place in America to have ever served as a royal palace. It’s charmingly small, with only about a half-dozen rooms on each of its two floors. Compared to the great palaces of Europe, the rooms are plainly furnished, though not without a few touches of opulence. For instance, ‘Iolani Palace had electric lights earlier than both the White House and Buckingham Palace, and the many chandeliers were clearly a source of pride. The building’s service as a royal residence was short-lived, as Queen Lili’uokalani was forced by American-backed insurgents to abdicate under protest. She would later spend several years in solitary confinement — well, solitary except for a lady-in-waiting who volunteered for a concurrent sentence of five years’ hard labor — in a second-floor room in the palace. After lunch at a nearby Greek café, I toured the small Hawaii State Art Museum around the corner. It’s amostly modern collection of paintings and sculpture by mostly Hawaiian artists — nothing Earth-shaking but an interesting show nevertheless.
For dinner, I decided to forego a third night of Ruffage and treat myself to a nice meal. I chose Uncle Bo’s Pupu and Restaurant, a fifteen-minute walk away. It looks like nothing special, a neon sign at the end of a small strip of shops and restaurants, but it had been well-reviewed on Yelp! and in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Rightfully so. Every table was taken and there would have been a long wait, so I sat at the bar and had the Ahi Katsu pupu (described on the menu as “ahi flash-fried in nori and Japanese Panko and served with ginger-wasabi butter”) followed by the Steamed Opakapaka Chinese-Style (“steamed island fish with garlic-soy sauce, topped with green onion, cilantro, and olive oil”). The menu was a little over the top, but the food was excellent, particularly the flash-fried ahi, which was raw and cool in the center but just cooked underneath the thin layer of breading. I had my first glass of wine since Texas — I really did book into Hawaii to get back in shape — and hiked back to the Vive, making mental plans for the next few relaxed days.
(By the way — I brought a wireless keyboard and my new iPad with me, so these updates are far less tedious to type than using the touchscreen keypad and the WordPress app on my iPhone. That probably means they’ll be longer and more detailed, as evinced above. I suppose you can skim them if you’re pressed for time. I won’t know. Your conscience will, but that’s between you and…it? Him? Anyway, sorry for going on at length, but there is actually a point to recording things in detail.)
So I know I haven’t written anything since taking off from Phuket airport. Sorry. I flew from there to Bangkok, then Taipei (on a Hello Kitty-themed plane), Los Angeles, and finally DFW, arriving on December 20. And, well…bing home for the holidays has been great.
The season kicked off with the extended-family holiday party, and it kept going through several days of catching up with family and friends, a couple of days (and one night) in Dallas, Christmas at home, and finally a half-day with my colleagues at Figari & Davenport. I’ve talked about my trip, my coming out — which, as I suspected, was a less than complete surprise to many — and my plans for the future nearly every day for the last couple of weeks, and I’d be happy to keep doing it if I weren’t heading back out on the road.
On that subject: I’m flying to Honolulu tomorrow to kick off about two and a half weeks in Hawaii, where I’ve never before been. I’ll divide my time between Oahu, the Big Island, and Maui. I plan on seeing the sights, hiking into a volcano or two, snorkeling, zip lining, and generally relaxing in the sun. I’m also hoping to use my time there to whip myself back into the shape I was in before a slothful four months on the road, so I’ve got a 24-Hour Fitness membership in my wallet and hotel-room workout gear in my bag. I might even try eating better and drinking less, other than when I’m using the Nobu gift certificate I got for Christmas from my sister.
From Hawaii, I’m heading north to Japan. I’ve never been there either, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I’m also very grateful to my friends Ray and Leigh, and Chris, for their wise, first-hand advice in that regard. I’ll spend about three weeks working my way north from Hiroshima, through Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Osaka, and Kyoto, before finishing with a week in the craziness of Tokyo.
I’ll head home for a week in mid-February. When I leave again, it will be for a three-month stay in Europe. I’ve rented an apartment in Boxhagener Platz in East Berlin, one of my very favorite cities on Earth. Or, I suppose, anywhere else. I’ll stay there for three months, maxing out the 90-day visa offered to Americans by the EU. I’ve already got a couple of friends planning to visit, and I hope more of them (more of you!) will decide to do so, too. I’m going to be making lots of two- or three-day trips around the Continent, in between poking around Berlin and possibly becoming passably proficient in German. I also hope to spend some time figuring out what to do when I’m done farting around Europe, as there will come a point when I have to start earning money again, rather than spending it like it’s going out of style. Suggestions in that regard are welcome.
I’ll start back up with the daily blogs, Instagrams, Facebook check-ins, Tweets, and Tumbls when I get back on the road. Thanks all for following along, for your friendship, and — for many of you — for your recent words of support. Please stay in touch. You know how!
Last Stop Phuket
After a relaxing week in Chiang Mai, I flew back to Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon, for a quick layover before a flight to the southern resort island of Phuket the following morning. The protests were still active at the time, so I cancelled a booking I had made at a downtown hotel and opted for one near the airport, through Expedia. I ended up at a golf resort, with a fully-equipped suite (with kitchen) of about 1000 square feet, for $100. That was the last minute push rate, I’m sure, but it was still surprisingly cheap, and very nice — once my cabbie was able to find it. The only distraction was the night golf. The course was right outside my balcony, and as the sun went down, the floodlights went on. There were golfers on the course at ten o’clock at night.
The next morning I caught a very short Thai Airways flight to Phuket Island, a well-known resort area just off the south-western tip of the mainland. I admittedly hadn’t done a lot of research before choosing the hotel a few months ago, and I ended up in the most heavily-touristed, hedonistic beach town on the island — Patong Beach. It’s not bad, necessarily; it’s just completely packed full of package tourists (including so many Russians that most restaurants have Russian-language menus), cheap bars, cheaper souvenir shops, and some pretty seedy-looking nightclubs.
I spent the first day on the beach itself, which is very nice and has a great view, facing away from the town and towards the turquoise water! In between strenuous bits of relaxing, I managed to book a few activities for my week on the island, the first of which was “Captain Mike’s” speedboat tour of Phi Phi Island. The six-thirty departure from my hotel was brutal, but the trip was well worth the effort. We left the marina on the other side of the island just after eight, and after an hour’s cruise to reach the island (which is about 50 kilometers east of Phuket Island), we spent the rest of the day anchoring off of several different beaches, with plenty of time for snorkeling, laying on the beach, and swimming in the crystal-clear water. The marine life wasn’t quite as abundant and varied as the Great Barrier Reef — what is? — but I was still able to swim through whole schools of blue-and-yellow fish, and to explore the coral formations on the bottom. Some of the larger beaches attracted big boats that disgorged fifty or more people at a time. We hit one of those beaches very early, then spent the rest of the day and early evening at smaller ports-of-call with our twelve or so people. It was very nice. Oh, and we got to see Maya Bay, where the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” was filmed. So there’s that.
Phi Phi was Friday. Saturday I divided between browsing through the town and sitting on the beach, under an umbrella, watching the world go by and reading a book. While there, I met some friends on vacation from South Africa, and we made plans to get dinner that night and to do a driving tour of the island the next day. Dinner led to drinks, which led to more drinks, which meant none of us were feeling all that great when we piled into a local guy’s car on Sunday morning, but we persevered and spent the day driving up to see the Big Buddha, exploring an orchid farm (where we had an amazing lunch), and wandering around Wat Chalong, the largest and most important Buddhist temple on the island. The interior of the largest building on the grounds is especially beautiful, and rivals some of the most spectacular temples I saw in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. By the end of the afternoon everyone was pretty tired, and after being dropped off at my hotel, I walked across the street to a night market, where I bought a takeaway dinner from a street-stall vendor for 50 baht. I don’t know the name of the dish (or whether it even has a name), but two kinds of noodles, freshly-grilled chicken, and mildly spicy dressing was delicious, and the portion was enough to feed three people. For a dollar and a half. It was great.
Monday I did another boat trip. This time we left at the more sociable hour of ten o’clock, and it was again an hour’s drive to a (different) marina, where about fifteen other people and I boarded a boat for John Gray Sea Canoe’s “Hong by Starlight” trip around Phang Nga Bay. Amazing. We cruised for about an hour, then got into three-man kayaks (two passengers and a guide) and paddled into several caves — Bat Cave, Oyster Cave, and three rooms of Hong Island, to be precise — over the course of the day. The entrances to the caves were well-hidden, and are only accessible for a couple of hours each day. When the tide is too high, they’re underwater. When the tide is out, there’s no water. As it was, we had to lay prone in the kayaks to squeeeeeze into Bat Cave, but it was worth it when we came out the other side into a lagoon surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs several hundred feet high, hidden right in the middle of the island (and accessed only through the Bat Cave passage or by helicopter). Between caves, we anchored for some free time in the kayaks or just to swim in the bay, which is the option I chose. As had been the case at Phi Phi, the water was warm, calm, and clear. We had a buffet dinner cooked on board the boat, then returned to Bat Cave after sunset. We paddled in darkness, then made our wishes, and lit the candles and incense on the traditional Krathong offering that we had made earlier in the day, before letting it float away. It was a magical night. We didn’t return to the marina until nearly nine, and I was only back at the hotel at ten thirty.
As I write, it’s Tuesday afternoon in Thailand, very early Tuesday morning in the states. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have flown from Phuket to Bangkok, and will be waiting for a flight to take me to Taipei, where we’ll re-fuel (or possibly change planes) and continue on to Los Angeles. I’ll spend the night near LAX and then fly on to DFW on Thursday morning. Only then, when I’ve stopped to rest after four months on the move, will I really be able to organize my thoughts and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had on this journey. Right now, I really do still feel like I just left, but also that things I experienced along the way happened forever ago. I’m looking forward to the time for reflection, and for the chance to share stories with family and friends over the two weeks I’ll be in town before hitting the road again.
The last two days in Chiang Mai have been very low-key, which isn’t a complaint in the least. Sunday morning I had breakfast in the hotel — at ten-thirty or so — and then walked into town for the day. I did a lap of the old town moat, which is a solid 4 mile loop, then walked east to the Mae Nam Ping river. I had hoped to catch a tour on one of the long-tail boats, but Sunday service is limited. Instead, I had a pizza and a Coke at the apparently venerable and venerated Riverside Bar and Restaurant. It wasn’t memorable. I walked back into town and bought a Lonely Planet Japan — the better to plan my winter trip with — and had a sit down in a Starbucks while waiting for the Sunday Walking Street to kick into gear. This was worth the wait. One of the main east-west drags in the old city is closed to traffic, as is part of the main north-south arterial running north from the Chiang Mai gate, and all manner of vendors set up their carts, stands, and tables. I sipped fresh orange-mango juice, nibbled on barbecued chicken, and bought lots of little souvenirs and an overpriced Chang beer t-shirt. It was loads of fun — sort of the Chiang Mai version of the Main Street Arts Festival in Fort Worth, combined with a flea market, combined with a bunch of fancy food trucks selling stuff for 25 cents. Despite all this, I still found room for dinner at The Swan, a Burmese restaurant on the eastern moat. The garden seating was peaceful and pleasant, and the beef soup was very flavorful, and spicy without being obnoxious.
This morning — Monday morning, here — I read up on the ongoing protests in Bangkok. The PM has dissolved Parliament, but from what I garner from the various English-language papers, that’s not going to be enough to quell the unrest. I am scheduled to fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Tuesday noon, connecting on Wednesday morning to Phuket, my final fall destination. Unfortunately, I had reserved a room at the funky Federal Hotel on Siam Square, in the heart of Bangkok. That’s in the district I had to avoid last week, and it’s still a no-go. With my luck it will be fine tomorrow, but to avoid any risk, I’ve reserved a room at a five-star golf resort a couple of miles from the airport. The last-minute rate for an 1100 square foot room, with breakfast, Wi-fi, and a bunch of other amenities was $103. I might have to pay for the night at the Federal, too, but I’ll survive. Meanwhile, today was even less eventful than Sunday. I had lunch back at Plus Salad (from Thursday), then sat with a book in a park for a few hours before picking up some more edible souvenirs in the market and hiking back to the Lotus for the last time.
By the way…Chiang Mai photos are up on Flickr. I’ve tried not to go overboard, again…and have probably failed, again. Ever so sorry.
Top Chef Thailand
The flight on Wednesday from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was quick and painless. I had sprung for a “Royal Silk” (i.e., first class) seat for an extra ten dollars, and was rewarded with a hot towel, a little meal and a drink, even on a fifty-minute trip. Upon landing at the small airport in Thailand’s second city, I was met by a driver from my hotel, which turned out to be about fifteen minutes away. After unpacking and settling in for a six-night stay, I headed back out immediately for a look around town.
Chiang Mai is much older than Bangkok. As I would later learn at the Chiang Mai City Arts and Culture Centre, the area was first settled in the thirteenth century, and has been an important trade and cultural center in northern Thailand for hundreds of years. The “old town” is guarded on all four sides by a moat, and the gates every few hundred meters are the remnants of what were fortified town walls, hundreds of years ago. My hotel was north of the old town by a kilometer or so, just off of Chang Phuak Kew Road, north of the gate of the same name. I walked down to the gate and around the moat (which is paralleled by a busy road) clockwise to the eastern side, where I had a look around the bustling, student-heavy neighborhood before settling in at Aroon Rai, a nondescript corner restaurant with old metal tables, rickety plastic chairs, laminated menus, Kleenex boxes on the table instead of napkins…and some of the best food in a city known for its cuisine. I read up on things to do in Chaing Mai, and booked a couple of them, as I ate.
Thursday was sightseeing day. I had breakfast at the hotel — about the only food I would have in Chiang Mai that wasn’t great — and then set off with a map and a Lonely Planet walking tour of the old town. Although much older, the Wat (temples) in Chiang Mai don’t rival their counterparts in Bangkok for over-the-top decoration. Instead, these simpler places, like Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phan Tao (newer and make of teak), feel more “local” and a part of the community, rather than just tourist attractions. After a morning and early afternoon of temples, I had a spicy green papaya salad (and a mango lassi) for lunch at Plus Salad, before finishing the day’s work at the small but interesting city museum mentioned earlier. As I think I mentioned in one of the Bangkok posts, December 5 was the 86th birthday of Thailand’s revered King Rama IX, who has reigned since 1946 — he’s a year younger than Queen Elizabeth II, but has been head of state for six more years. I was surprised at the low-key nature of the public celebrations (though there may well have been more in Bangkok — after all, the birthday was the impetus for the tenuous truce called by the anti-Shinawatra protesters), but there were a few, and because it was a public holiday, traffic around town that evening was light. I had dinner at the Chiang Mai Writers Club, run by ex-foreign correspondent Bob Tilley and his wife Tong. She told me that because of the holiday, they were unable to serve wine; Bob overheard and questioned this, made some calls, and discovered that while some restaurants chose not to serve (and others chose to close), there was not an actual law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on the king’s birthday — so I had wine, as did a few other tables of relieved diners. Wine or not, it’s a fun place.
I didn’t have too much wine, though, because I had an early appointment on Friday — an all-day cooking course with Asia Scenic. This was even better than the half-day school I had done in Bangkok a week earlier. A driver picked me up at my hotel and took me to the school’s city campus, from which we walked to and through the local market. Here our focus was more on learning about the various herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables that go into all Thai cooking, rather than on picking up ingredients for our cooking to come. With a little free time, I picked up some dried Thai ginger (galangal) and Keffir lime powder that I might have trouble finding in the states. I’m not sure I can bring either or both back through customs, but if I can’t, I’m out 30 baht (about ninety cents) for both. A risk worth taking. We returned to the school and re-boarded the minibus for the school’s organic farm, a little less than an hour northeast of the city. The nine of us in the course were given a tour of the farm by our teacher, Proud (it means something different in Thai) before assembling in the open-air demonstration kitchen for our day’s work. I made six dishes: green papaya salad, pad see ew, coconut milk soup, red curry paste, red curry chicken using that red curry paste, and sticky rice with mango. Not everyone made the same thing; I got to watch as my classmates made massaman curry, glass noodle salad, spring rolls, deep-fried bananas, and all sorts of other dishes. By the time we finished, around 5:00, I was stuffed full and had all sorts of recipe ideas to bring home, along with the school’s cookbook and ingredient guide. Back in town, I wandered the markets for a while before a light (really!) dinner of green curry at an anonymous little food stall. It cost me $1.20.
I spent Saturday morning firming up plans for the winter/spring part of my travels, before heading downstairs to wait for the driver to pick me up for the Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining and eco-trek tour. I’m afraid this one was a bit of a disappointment. The driver was supposed to arrive at noon; after I called to ask, he showed up at 12:45. We picked up two more guests after a half-hour drive through Chiang Mai, then took another hour to reach the mountain village where the company is based. The scenery was very nice; the drive was very rough. I’m not sure the driver had a lot of experience with a manual shift. After a sales pitch for local handicrafts, our “ranger” led us to the zip course, which took about two hours to complete. It was fun. Nothing quite as exhilarating as the huge drop that caps the Queenstown course, but there were a couple of fun long lines, and a “super hero” jump, for which I had a rope hooked into the back of my harness and jumped off of a platform down to a rope net/ladder a couple of hundred meters away. I had to climb the ladder to get to the safety of the platform. The rest of the lines, though, were short and kind of dull, and the “eco-trek” part of the excursion, which I’d been looking forward to, was entirely perfunctory. We returned to the village, wasted fifteen minutes on another sales pitch — this time for photographs — before heading back to Chiang Mai. Because of the late start, I guess, we skipped the promised stop at the Mae Kampong waterfalls, with no explanation and certainly no refund. Oh well.
I finished up the major trip-planning on Saturday night. I’ll fill in more details later, but the basic outline is this: after a couple of weeks in Fort Worth, I’ll fly to Hawai’i on January 6 and spend almost three weeks there. I’ve never been, and am looking forward to the relaxation and the culture. From there, I’ll fly (on an astoundingly cheap ticket — thanks, United Air Lines) to Tokyo. I’ve never been to Japan, either, but several close friends have either done long-term travel there or (in one case) lived and worked there, so I’ve got lots of people to bug for advice on how best to spend the nearly three weeks I’ll have on the ground there. I’ll then head back to Texas for a few days before heading to Berlin. I’ve been to Europe several times, but there’s lots I still want to see, and lots more I want to see again. Rather than tramp around with a backpack and a railpass for three months, though, I’m going to rent a furnished apartment in Berlin to use as a base. I’ll spend most of my time there, hopefully doing some writing and language-learning in addition to figuring out what I’m going to do with myself once I stop traveling, and I’ll also have the chance to do short two-night trips throughout the continent. I’m very excited!
Temples and Thai Food…the Dramatic Conclusion
Okay…it’s been pointed out (by my own mother) that my Bangkok post ended mid-sentence. Did you wonder whether I survived the Riverside walking tour? Well, I did. Here’s what I wrote about it and, thankfully, saved in draft form.
“I followed a walking tour around the Riverside area, past artistically decaying colonial-era buildings and streets with narrow shops and the most amazing tangle of electrical wires dangling ominously overhead. As I write, I’m back at the hotel and have just confirmed an extra two nights at my hotel in Chiang Mai and a last-minute (but not all that expensive) flight from here to there for Wednesday morning. I had planned to spend Wednesday in Bangkok, take the train to Ayutthaya Thursday and then on to Chiang Mai on Friday, but I really don’t want to get stuck here if the protests escalate and the train station shuts down, as could happen. By all accounts, the airport won’t close, so I should be fine to get out of town in the morning, and since this neighborhood is safe (it’s all safe, ultimately, I think…but I’ve been tear-gassed once in my life, and don’t want to repeat the experience, even inadvertently as an innocent bystander), I’m planning to head out later for a nice dinner. Thai, I think, rather than pizza.”
Temples and Thai Food
You may be wondering why I haven’t written in a few days. It’s because WordPress ate my post about Bankgok. Haha! Isn’t that funny? I’m glad WordPress is free, beacuse it’s worth every penny. Anyway, a couple of days late, Bankgok.
Amid news of growing protests against the Shinawatra regime, I arrived in Bangkok on Saturday afternoon, planning a five-night stay. The immigration and customs process was slow; easily the slowest I’ve experienced since Kenya, possibly since Heathrow at the very start of the trip. Nevertheless, about an hour after landing, I was in a minibus bound for my hotel in the Si Lom district southeast of the city center. It was late afternoon by the time I settled in, so I had just a brief exploratory walk around the neighborhood before dinner at the locally famous Somboon Seafood, in existence since 1969 and reputed to serve the best fried curry crab in town. It was bustling at 9:00 p.m., and the crowd looked to be mostly local. I had some dumplings and then the crab, which was good, but not the best thing ever, and it was a lot of work for not a lot of meat. Some day I will learn that I really don’t like in-the-shell crab, and I’ll stop ordering it.
Sunday was my birthday, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. I spent some time editing and re-editing my little coming-out post — which, as some people will know, I’ve been working on for some time — before heading out to explore the city. I walked to the main train station, intending to peer at the Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha temple) nearby, but was frustrated by major road construction projects that blocked all access points. I don’t know whether the temple was actually closed, but that’s what a helpful man on the street told me before starting to pitch me on taking a river cruise. My first instinct is always to push these touts away — and he may well have been lying about the closure of the temple; it’s not an uncommon tactic — but I decided to go with it. He explained the various options for long-tail boat tours, got me in a tuk-tuk pointed towards the right pier, and told me that someone would meet me there. They did, and I signed up for a two-hour trip up the river. It turned out to be a really nice way to see parts of the city I otherwise would have missed. We motored upriver from the pier at the end of Charoen Krung Soi 32, past the flower market on the right and Wat Arun on the left, then past the major temples of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew (which I’d come back to later), before turning into a side canal a couple of kilometers further north, where we passed through the locks before docking at the Taling Chan floating market. It may not be the most authentic of Bangkok’s floating markets, but it was fun, and filled with food vendors working out of “kitchens” stuffed into canoes tied to the docks. I had a light lunch and a browse through the stalls before boarding the long-tail boat again. We made our way back through the locks and were headed back down river, when the pilot stopped at the temple complex to let me disembark (just as I’d requested of the tout a few hours before).
As with many things I’ve seen on this trip, trying to use words alone to attempt to describe and explain Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the adjacent Grand Palace, and the neighboring Wat Po (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is a fool’s errand. The size and scale of the buildings, the vibrancy of the colors, the smell of incense, the sounds…the only way to really experience these places is in person. As a second-best, take a look at my Bangkok photo album. If you only want words, well…they’re both spectacular sights. Wat Phra Kaew is a much larger complex, home to several temples and the palace, the king’s official home since the 1780s. The star attraction — beyond the palace grounds themselves — is a relatively small emerald Buddha, who sits cross-legged on top of a pedestal in a grand temple (and who isn’t really made of emerald). I wasn’t allowed to take his photograph, but I did capture the exterior of the temple, the surrounding golden spires, and the green-and-red roofed palace. Next door, the Reclining Buddha is just jaw-droppingly huge. Emerald Buddha would fit in the palm of his hand. Fifteen meters high (about fifty feet, or five stories) and forty-six meters long (a fifteen-story building laid on its side) and covered entirely in gold leaf except for the mother-of-pearl inlays on his feet, he takes whole minutes to circumnavigate and must have been a particularly impressive sight to pilgrims two hundred years ago, when he was built.
After a few hours contemplating nirvana in the temples, I walked back to the train station through Chinatown, a distance of about two and a half kilometers. It was by now early Sunday evening, and the city seemed to be winding down. I hadn’t seen any indication of the protests, but kept abreast of developments as best I was able. Until they expanded overnight on Monday and into Tuesday morning, most of the protesters were between the Democracy Monument (a kilometer or so north of Wat Phra Kaew) and Government House, a further kilometer north along the same line, so I was taking care to stay south of that area. From the train station I got a cab back to Si Lom, caught up on the very heartwarming e-mail and Facebook reactions to my earlier post from night-owl friends in the states and early risers in the UK, and had a passable pizza dinner at Scoozi Pizza, just up the road. It wasn’t quite as good as I’ve had in Naples, but what is?
Monday morning I skipped breakfast, on the advice of Mhai, the doyenne of the Silom Thai Cooking School, where I’d signed up for a morning of cooking lessons. I met Mhai — who accurately described herself as a “tiny Thai woman with big glasses” — on Si Lom Road, where she introduced my eight classmates and me to our instructor, a Bangkok native who now works as a chef in Newcastle, but who returns to Bangkok every year in the offseason for a few months of rejuvenation and recipe-gathering (and class-teaching). He walked us through the nearby market, where we learned about the types of meats, vegetables, herbs, and spices commonly used in Thai cooking, and then carried the necessary ingredients for our day’s lessons back to the “school,” which in reality is a second-story apartment at the end of Soi 13, off of Si Lom Road. We alternated hands-on prep work, cooking at our individual woks, and watching our instructor…and eating. We did a lot of eating. We made hot and sour prawn soup; pad thai; green curry paste; green curry chicken (featuring the green curry paste); and northern-style chicken salad, and although we didn’t have a hand in making it, we were treated to coconut sticky rice and mango as a dessert. I left stuffed, and armed with a recipe book and a much better understanding of how to cook dishes that sound intimidating but are actually not that difficult to assemble, if you can find the right ingredients. I’m not saying this is Christmas Eve dinner this year, but I’m not saying it’s not, either.
Monday’s dinner was a room-service special, as I decided to spend the evening working on my plans for winter-spring travels (still very much up in the air). When I woke up this morning, I learned that the protests had spread overnight and had taken a more violent turn. By all accounts, the southern parts of the city, including my neighborhood, were largely unaffected, but I read that the palaces were now difficult to reach, and that the area around Siam Square and Sukhumvit Road were basically off-limits (and that all of the shops were closed). I decided to accelerate my departure by a day, and to make Tuesday my last full day in town. I followed a walking tour around the Riverside area, past artistically decaying colonial-era buildings and streets with narrow
I’ve posted a few days’ worth of Bangkok photos on Flickr. Words describing those photos to follow later today.
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It’s My Birthday (Please Read)
I’m in Bangkok, Thailand. When I landed here yesterday afternoon, I touched mainland Asia for the first time. When I did, that meant I’d officially, unequivocally traveled to all seven continents — and all seven of them in 2013, to boot. I’m proud of that achievement, and I’m thrilled to have done it. Seeing the world is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
As some of you will know, December 1 is also my thirty-eighth birthday. It’s been a great journey, and so many memories come flooding back whenever I stop to ponder it: the early years in a three-generation household on Hillcrest — dinners with Grandma, skate parties at Silver Wheels, and Indian Guides meetings with Dad; a two-year detour to Houston, where I learned to love baseball by watching Mike Scott and the Astros win the division; back to Fort Worth, with my first job in the Museum School’s live animal room, and a sack lunch in Room Five with Mom and the rest of the teachers, or with Jessica in the old cafeteria; four years as a Paschal Panther; college at TCU, then (eventually) UT Law and an eye-opening and life-changing semester in London, starting a week after 9/11; a fulfilling career with my friends and colleagues at Figari & Davenport; and now a trip around the world and the chance to reflect on my life thus far, from my seventh continent, on my birthday.
It’s been a great ride, and today is a special occasion, so I’ve decided to give myself a present that I hope will make the next thirty-eight years even better: I am gay, and I’m now officially out. Several of you know this already. Many more, I imagine, will have made educated guesses and now are having your suspicions confirmed. Maybe some of you are completely surprised — I don’t really know. What I do know, and what I’ve known for some time, is that I am and have always been gay.
Let me be clear: I haven’t known this fact of nature forever, and I certainly haven’t always accepted it. As a young child, I didn’t know that gay and straight existed. (Now I probably would, in an age-appropriate way. That’s great.) As an adolescent, I began to have feelings, and a bit later began to understand what those feelings were and what they might mean, but I wasn’t sure they were permanent and definitely wasn’t sure whether I wanted them to be. I though not, at least for a while. It’s difficult to say when I finally acknowledged my nature and (somewhat later) when I accepted and embraced it. Suffice to say that by now, I have.
I’m not quite sure why it’s taken me so long to take the final step from self-acceptance to public acknowledgment. Fear of rejection from people I love and care about loomed large in my mind. It still does, to some extent, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to believe that everyone who truly loves or cares about me will feel the same way tomorrow as they did yesterday, even if they have legitimate questions or have an adjustment to make. What I hope everyone ultimately is able to understand and accept is that I haven’t changed a bit. I’ve been gay ever since you met me. It’s true! And I still am, just like I’m also still a Horned Frog and a football fan and a traveler and a reader and a Democrat and a Texan and a lawyer and a partner and a friend and a cousin and a brother and a son. It’s something you might not have known about me — but I’m still me.
The world has changed, too, in my lifetime. It is not my intention here to jump up on a political soapbox, but unlike even a decade ago, in most of the western world, it’s okay to be openly gay. In a growing number of countries and states, I can’t be fired for being gay, I can have the same type of civil marriage available to anyone else, I have the right to visit my sick spouse in the hospital, and it’s not a crime when I make love.
Precious little of that progress has made it to my home state of Texas, but that’s something I hope to change. I don’t want or need any special rights or privileges, but I want the same bundle of rights and responsibilities as everyone else, because at the end of the day I’m just like everyone else. I’m a human, just like the other seven billion or so of us hanging around this planet. I just happen to be a gay human. My purpose in pointing out the inequality I’ve faced from the shadows as a gay person, and that I’ll continue to face from the sunshine as an openly gay person, isn’t to play for sympathy, but rather to offer some understanding for what’s been going through my mind — and, perhaps, to help put to rest any question about whether being gay is a choice. It’s patently not. The choice is in coming out, and that one’s hard enough, thanks.
I don’t know what I’ll be doing this time next year. I may be back in Dallas with my once and future law partners. I could go in a different direction altogether, perhaps even some civil rights work to help end the discrimination I’ve just referenced. Maybe I’ll just keep traveling the world, picking up seasonal work at hostels in exchange for a bed and beer money — but probably not. Wherever I land, though, I hope you all understand that I’ll be the same person I’ve always been, except that I won’t be carrying the self-imposed burden of concealing (perhaps loosely, but officially) a part of me from many of the people closest to me. The lifting of that burden, on the occasion of my seventh continent and my thirty-eighth birthday, is my present to myself. It is one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
Thanks for reading and hopefully understanding, and for letting me get this off my chest. I know this may be unexpected. That’s fair. You all know where to reach me if you want to know more, ask questions, or talk through any issues, no matter how big or small. I really do invite and welcome the discussion.
After a looooong (ten and a half hour) flight from Auckland, I landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport late Tuesday evening. It’s billed as the world’s best airport. Perhaps that quality will reveal itself when I leave tomorrow. It was nice, in the arrivals hall, but not “world’s best.” Lots of duty free. Anyway, I got a cab into the center city and my hotel. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the cab fare for the 21 kilometer ride (actually 21.5 – it was on my receipt) was only about 26 Singapore dollars, or just over $20. That’s a far cry from the outrageous cab fares in New Zealand.
I stayed at the Hotel 1929, a little boutique on Keong Saik Road in Chinatown, just south of the CBD in an area full of similar places and hip bars and restaurants. By the time I’d checked in it was 9:00, and I was just in time to get at the hotel’s affiliated restaurant, Ember, before they shut it down. The roasted pork belly was quite nice, though for this dish (not that I have it all that often), I’m not sure anything will ever surpass the version I had in Tallinn, Estonia, last summer, randomly enough. I unpacked in the tiny room – tiny enough so that the shower and the toilet are in the same enclosure; I could poop while showering – and hit the hay.
On Wednesday morning I followed a couple of Lonely Planet “self-guided” walks, the first through teh Colonial District north of the Singapore River and the Quays, the second through “my” neighborhood of Chinatown. They’re crap. Don’t get me wrong – Singapore itself is really interesting. But these walks are poorly written, with vague directions, inadequate maps, and precious little information on most of the sights. I’m a fan of LP’s books in general, but the Singapore book is a huge disappointment, and the guided walks really make me wish my travel idol, Rick Steves, did work outside of Europe. Despite the griping, I did get to see a good bit of modern Singapore, and was further enlightened when I had a long lunch with my local friend Huey in the CityLink foodcourt. The heat and humidity (seriously 99%) became oppressive, though, and I retreated to the hotel around 4:30 for a nap. Well, I intended it to be a nap – I woke up about 8:30, shut off the lights, and went back to sleep. I guess I needed it.
On Thursday I was determined to see more of the city, and set off early for the Little India neighborhood to the northwest of the CBD. None of these distances are great, mind; the whole city is perhaps 25 kilometers square, and Little India is only three MRT (subway) stops north of Chinatown, despite their being on opposite ends of the little pull-out map in my guidebook. I had a nice long walk around this more workaday part of the city, with its small alleyways, ornate temples, and copious cafés, before making my way across New Bridge Road to the older Kampong Glam neighborhood. This is a mainly Muslim zone, and I ogled the ornate Sultan Mosque before dipping in to the Malay Heritage Centre, the historic home of the last sultan of Singapore and now home to a small but enlightening series of exhibits on the history of the Malay people in Singapore, housed in a beautifully restored colonial-era house on well-maintained grounds. After that, I had lunch at the nearby Café Le Caire, a Cairene (which is to say, Egyptian) restaurant for which I must give the Lonely Planet authors due credit. The shish kebab was mighty fine. I passed the afternoon gaping at the conspicuous consumption in evidence all along the Orchard Road, home to mall after mall, each one home to a Marc Jacobs, a Kate Spade, a Rolex, a Swarovski, and every other luxe/designer outlet you’d expect to find in a high-end shopping emporium. It was impressive and a little edisgusting at hte same time. I bought a Swatch watch.
After wending my way back to the hotel, I had a much-needed shower before heading off for what was, for me, Thanksgiving dinner. I considered a few options before settling on the nearby Blue Ginger, reputed to be a neighborhood favorite and a very difficult table to get. I turned up without a reservation around eight, and was immediately shown to a small, corner table on the second story. The service and the food were each fantastic. I started with some little crab and prawn pastry “cups,” then progressed to a steamed sea bass. I got the whole thing, head to tail, already filleted and served with a piquant tomato sauce and a side of Singapore-style rice. It may not have been a traditional Thanksgiving meal of the sort served at Plimoth Plantation, but it was very pleasant and a nice way to end a good day.
Friday morning started with a Thanksgiving-day call back to the homeland, which in turn included following along online as the Cowboys rallied to beat Oakland, after which I rode the MRT uptown and hiked a bit to the National Museum of Singapore, where I spent a diverting couple of hours learning about the history of the island, primarily from Raffles’ landing in 1819 to the present, as told through a recounting of seminal events, as well as through the eyes of several participants and witnesses. This little country has been though a lot, from initial occupation by the British (who, from the beginning, wanted a free trade zone rather than a traditionally subservient colony), through Japanese occupation during World War II, to the fight for independence, and finally to the modern first-world financial capital of today. It’s an impressive display, as was the temporary exhibition in the basement, showing the development of Singapore/Malay art from the early 1950s (around the time of independence fro the Crown) to the modernism of the late 1970s.
The skies opened just as I left, so I high-tailed it for the Raffles City Mall and had lunch in the food court, before getting the MRT back to Chinatown and my nice, dry hotel. I’ll head out for dinner after posting this update, but I can say now that I have enjoyed my few days in Singapore. It’s not quite what I expected and it’s probably not the most representative introduction to Asia. That said, it’s been interesting to see the international mix of cultures, religions, and ways of life, and the overlaying of the modern financial economy onto the bones of the old trading port. I’m quite glad I came.
Sunday morning I slept in, had an all-American breakfast at Starbucks, and bailed the hot Holden out of the Man Road car park just in time to deliver it to the Avis desk at the little Queenstown airport, where instead of a helicopter or a bouncy little prop plane, I caught Air New Zealand’s twice-daily big plane service to Auckland. I had been advised by Chris to spend my valuable vacation days elsewhere, but good international connections out of New Zealand are really only possible from Auckland, so I signed up for about a forty-eight hour stay.
I did at least manage to choose my neighborhood well. I stayed in a small hostel just off of Ponsonby Road, in the neighborhood of…Ponsonby. The main drag is lined with cafés, coffee shops, little independent gift and book stores, and plenty of restaurants and bars. The line between these last two categories was pretty blurry on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I had a couple of glasses of wine on the semi-open patio of Chapel Bar & Bistro, before dinner of two personal-size gourmet pizzas (really small, and only 4 NZD/each, a happy hour bargain to beat all in a country where a can of Coke costs nearly that much) at A similar place down the road. I could have stayed out – it was only about nine and most if the places that were open looked full – but I went back to the hostel to do some writing and to plan out a one-day assault on Auckland.
Monday morning I breakfasted at a little place on Ponsonby Road and then walked about fifteen minutes towards the CBD to the Auckland Art Gallery. Not entirely unlike the Kimbell and the Modern in Fort Worth, the building is as much of a star as what’s contained inside. The new wing, which is a modern addition to the hundred-year-old original, was opened not long ago and is the “World Building of the Year 2013,” according to the World Architecture Festival. The collection is focused on New Zealand artists, similar to the NGV’s Australian-artist collection in Fed Square, Melbourne, but with a much greater emphasis on modern art and current artists. It was an enjoyable couple of hours.
I followed a Lonely Planet walk through the Albert Park, which surrounds and is surrounded by Auckland University, then through the fashionable shopping district and ultimately up to Quay Street and the waterfront. It was…kind of dull, really. Not unpleasant, but there wasn’t anything special about it. I saw but didn’t visit the national maritime museum, opening instead for an al fresco lunch overlooking the water on the edge of the massive marina. After lunch, I kept up my recent tradition of going to the top of tall things by ascending sixty stories to the upper viewing platform of SkyTower, which bills itself as the tallest “structure” in the Southern Hemisphere. They all have something – Sydney was the tallest tower, I think, or maybe the highest viewing point; the one in Melbourne was the tallest residential building; the Kenyatta Tower in Nairobi was the tallest in East Africa. So yes, SkyTower was and is tall, and I got a nice view of Auckland, albeit with an overcast sky limiting visibility.
I poked around some of the nearby shops before hiking twenty minutes, mostly uphill, back to the hostel. Along the way I picked up guidebooks for Singapore and Thailand, my final two stops. Back “home,” I did my laundry, caught up on email, uploaded a ton of pictures of Mount Cook and Queenstown, and generally got ready to move on to a new country and continent. I ventured out only for a late (and perfectly nice) dinner at Ponsonby Road Bistro.
In the morning, I settled up at reception then had a last walk around the neighborhood (and a last walk around the country, at least for this trip), before a shuttle arrived at 10:45 to take me to the airport. I imagine I’ll be back here at some point, though. Auckland may not be any great shakes, but I have been amazed by the diversity and natural beauty of New Zealand, from the dolphin-filled Bay of Islands in the far north (which is never have sought out on my own – another thanks to Chris), to the wineries around Napier, to wonderful Wellington, to the genuinely awe-inspiring, rugged beauty of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps, it’s a great place full of truly welcoming, friendly people. Exhilaration, sophistication, and relaxation. Glad I came!
The Adrenaline Rush
Thursday morning’s drive from Mount Cook to Queenstown wasn’t quite as spectacular as the drive from Christchurch, but it was close. Climbing through the Lindis Pass, in particular, was fun. After a few hours, I arrived in Queenstown, the self-styled “adrenaline capital of the world.” So it would prove to be.
After the splurge at The Hetmitage, I decided to economize by booking three nights in a dorm at the Adventure Queenstown hostel, a repeat champion as the number one hostel on New Zealand on TripAdvisor. With clean rooms, a nice lounge, a modern kitchen, and all sorts of free loaner devices (including iPads and Go Pro cameras), I understand why.
After a quick lunch at the fun and funky Vudu Café, I went back to the hostel’s booking desk to set up my next couple of days. Friendly Ryan, who reminded me very much of Andy Dwyer from Parks & Rec, helped me schedule a heli-cruise-fly trip to Milford Sound for Friday, and a zip line trip all the way down the mountain overlooking Queenstown for Saturday. I briefly considered a bungee jump at the site of the world’s first commercial bungee operation, but decided that would be a bit too much adrenaline.
I was happy to spend the rest of Thursday afternoon wandering around town and sitting in the pleasantly warm sun in the lakefront park, reading a book. The beach, park, and sidewalks were packed with backpackers and other visitors of all stripes, including loads of Japanese and Chinese package tourists. The twenty-something backpacker was the dominant species, though, and I saw and met people from all over the world, lots of whom had decamped to Queenstown for a couple of weeks of fun. That evening, on Ryan’s recommendation, I ate at Winnie’s Restauranton the Queenstown Mall. The meat pizza rates a solid B, but I was distracted by the anticipation of tomorrow’s adventure.
If the shared-dorm hostel was an economization, the trip I took with Helicopter Line was a huge splurge, but it was worth every penny. We departed Queenstown’s little airport around ten in an A-Star helicopter, the first I’ve ever been on. With just five passengers and the pilot, it was an intimate group. Just the sensation of flight was exciting enough, but the views of Queenstown, the lake, and the surrounding mountains were stunning – and they were only the beginning. Our destination was Milford Sound, to the southwest, and to reach it we had to fly over the top of the Southern Alps. The peaks are covered in glaciers, and after about twenty minutes, we made a landing on one of the glaciers for a quick look around. That’s a pretty cool sentence to write. I’ve been to Antarctica, so I’ve seen more than my share of ice, but to just plop down on a glacier on the side of a very tall mountain is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I even had the pilot take a picture of me. It’s as flattering as per usual, and will be on Flickr as soon as I can get the album uploaded.
The helicopter took us from the glacier to the tip of Milford Sound, a seventy-kilometer freshwater inlet in New Zealand’s “fjord country,” where we boarded a small boat for a two-hour cruise. It’s a deep channel (400 meters in the center) with steep-walled sides and more jaw-dropping natural beauty, including a waterfall three times the height of Niagra Falls. We checked in with a colony of seals and learned about the receding glaciers past and present before returning to the dock for a bus back to the airport.
Here, eight of us boarded the tiniest little plane I’ve ever been on – it was a completely full flight, and one lucky passenger got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat – me! Bounding and bouncing down the short runway, the single prop whirring away on the nose and the engine fully revved, was amazing, as was the entire airborne experience. I watched the altimeter and the airspeed (and ground speed) indicators, while the wheel in front of me turned whenever the real pilot moved his. I kept my hands well clear, though truth be told I was pretty much occupied with my camera, as we flew through fjords and in between mountains, before bouncing back to Earth on what seemed to be a very short runway in Queenstown!
So, that was a pretty good morning. When I got back to town I had a genuinely great (and huuuge!) burger at Fergburger, which had a line out the door that’s apparently always there. It was so good I bought a t-shirt. The afternoon, as before, was a sit/nap on the beach with a book – David Balcacci’s new one – and maybe a local beer.
For its size, Queenstown is a great food destination, and I wandered a while before choosing Fishbone, on Beach Street. It’s shoehorned into a shotgun-style space, stylishly turned out, with just a small bar at the front and one row of booths heading back, where I had one of the four tables along the rear wall. Everything was fresh – as had been, I’m told, the house made bread and butter, which sold out just before I arrived – and I had some local little neck clams in “XO Sauce,” which I think was all the garlic in New Zealand, sautéed with some green onions, a bit of red chili, something sweet, and good olive oil. For a main, I had the chef’s special, pan-sautéed John Dory, a whitefish somewhat similar to cod, not found in North America but common in the Southern Hemisphere. It was divine, served with herbed gnocchi. After a nightcap at the historic – and hopping – Ballarat Trading Company, I was back at the hostel at the end of one of the very best days of the trip thus far.
Saturday wasn’t too shabby either, but I’ll try to not be quite as long winded in describing it. I was again up early, breakfasting back at Vudu Café before catching the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak, which stands 450 meters above Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. To get back down, I rode six zip lines of increasing length and speed, courtesy of Zip Trek. I’d done zip lining once before, in Puerto Vallarta last year. This was better. The guides – Stephen and Jock – talked to us about the forest, and about sustainability efforts and the desperate need for them / as they took us through six lines. The first few were gentle, around a hundred meters and not too steep, and we learned a few tricks, including how to hang upside down! The sixth and final line, at the end of a fifteen minute hike thst begins in a forest of invasive Douglas firs and ends in a stand of native beech trees planted by the company, is three hundred meters long (not quite a quarter mile) and drops the equivalent of a thirty-story building. I cannonballed it (knees tucked, arms around knees) for maximum speed, and Jock and I both figured I was going about 50 kph before the brakes kicked in. It was beyond exhilarating.
After a cheap and decent pad Thai lunch, I again spent the afternoon at the beach. Broken record, I know, but it’s just so pleasant. The “beach” is actually pebbles rather than sand, but bright sun, mild temperatures, huge and fun crowds, bold and curious ducks, and the occasional rogue Corgi (really – watching him run after ducks on his stubby little legs was just as funny as you’re imagining), more than makes up for any discomfort.
The only unwise choice I made in Queenstown was Saturday’s dinner. I chose Madam Woo, on the mall, as it looked busy and fun. I was seated with no wait, and the waiter told me that it was their first night open! I’d seen people here the last two nights; previews, I guess. I’d include a link, but all of the social media stuff on the menu (which all has the username Madam Foo, oddly) doesn’t work. The food and service really didn’t, either. Decent wontons, good tiger prawn satay, and a weird (not in a good way) chicken roll weren’t especially filling and weren’t cheap, either. It’s probably worth another try after they get the kinks worked out, but I’m not naming on returning to Queenstown any time soon.
This morning I checked out of the hostel, grabbed a coffee, a muffin, and a half-hour of Wi-fi at Starbucks (yes, they’re playing Christmas music here; it’s especially jarring with the warm weather), did a bit of souvenir hunting, and reluctantly brought the Hot Holden back to the airport – after paying $100 to fill the tank! Onwards to Auckland for a quick layover, then Singapore on Tuesday.
Tuesday morning I caught a quick flight from Wellington to Christchurch – from the southern tip of the North Island to the northern top of the Southern Island. On the advice of my best Kiwi friend Chris (hi Chris!), I booked a “premium” car with Avis for the drive south. I got one : a Holden Commodore SS-V Sportwagon. Holden is the crazy Aussie GM cousin, and this is basically a Camaro wagon. Six-liter V8, rear wheel drive, six-speed auto with good manual mode…and it goes like stink. Puts the hot Falcon I had in Queensland to shame. It’s loud and unrefined and an unbelievable amount of fun to drive to and through New Zealand’s Southern Alps. As I did.
I made Christchurch around ten and hit the road right away. I drove south-southwest on a series of mostly two-lane state highways to Mount Cook, about 330 kilometers (or just over 200 miles). I passed through beautiful, verdant rolling hills for the first part of the run, after which I hit glacier country. I know I’ve written this a couple of times already about New Zealand, but it really is true: no matter how well I write, words can’t do it justice. I’ll post pics in a few days, and I hope you’ll take a look, but the glacial Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are stunning. Bright turquoise blue like I’ve never seen in nature (which, I would learn, is due to the refractive qualities of the finely ground sediment pushed into the lakes by the surrounding glaciers). Calm water. Shorelines rising quickly and dramatically into the plenty-tall foothills north of Mount Cook and the other big peaks.
I stopped at a lookout over lake Pukaki and was delighted to discover a “salmon shop” nestles next to the public conveniences. Salmon aren’t native to New Zealand, but they have thrived since being introduced by British colonists (as have some other, far less beneficial species of plant and animal). Near Lake Pulaki is the highest salmon habitat in the world, the produce of which was on sale in several forms in the shop. For ten New Zealand dollars (about $8 USD), I had six pieces of gorgeous nigiri that couldn’t have been more than a few hours off the line. Fresh, buttery, “fishy” in the very best sense; it was a real treat.
About thirty minutes later I reached the Aoraki Mount Cook national reserve and pulled up at my home for the next two nights, The Hermitage. It’s a luxury hotel/resort within the park, and I had a mountain view room, the single biggest accommodation splurge of the trip. The room itself was fine but not special, but the views of Mount Sefton (with its spectacular hanging glaciers), with Mount Cook in the background, were well worth it. I dined well Tuesday night and went to bed early, as I had a full day booked on Wednesday.
I had pre-booked a guided five kilometer walk for Wednesday morning, but is been warned when booking that without four people on board, the walk wouldn’t go. I checked in that morning, learned I was still the only one…and had the very sincere pleasure of a solo guided walk around the base of the mountains, alongside the moraines, and up to the “muddy” (but not really) glacial lake hiding around the bend. My guide, a Japanese native who now splits each year between seasonal jobs in mountain resorts in New Zealand, Switzerland, and the Canadian Rockies, told me all about the native and introduced plants we saw along the way; the occasional bird (the bigger animals steer clear of the hiking trails); the mountains and their glaciers; and the changes he’s seen in just the few years he’s been doing seasonal work in the area. Fascinating stuff, and I really was pleased that, rather than canceling, they’d let me go off with a private guide, probably at a loss.
That afternoon I had a different kind of tour. A family from Singapore and I loaded into a LandCruiser piloted by local guide Graham for a five minute ride to a car park, where we switched to an Argo ATV. We rode (and bumped and jostled) about six kilometers, between old and new moraines (piles of rocks/scree caused by the push of glaciers), and eventually up to a glacial lake being fed and propelled by the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s longest. Even from the remote overlook at the end of the trail, it’s tough to get a sense of scale. The face of the glacier, which looks small, is 30-40 meters tall (over 100 feet; a ten-story building). It’s miles long, as is the lake at its feet. Of course, all these are dwarfed by Mount Cook, at 3754 meters (12,316 feet) the highest in the country. I got some postcard photos before we returned to the hotel.
The buffet dinner that night was a profound disappointment for a number of reasons, but whinging about them here does precious little good, so I won’t. Suffice to say that I will recommend staying at The Hermitage to anyone visiting Mount Cook for its prime location, in spite of (and definitely not because of) the level of service, which just doesn’t match the price. Thursday morning I had a quick breakfast before heading out in the hot Holden for a three-hour drive to the adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere, Queenstown. More on that soon enough.
North Island Pics
A few albums of pics from the North Island of New Zealand are up on Flickr. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place!
I had a nice dinner Friday evening in the Emporium bar and restaurant in the historic Masonic Hotel, on the waterfront in Napier. It’s apparently just re-opened in the last year after a long refurbishment and restoration, and I understand why it’s popular. Very cool atmosphere. Saturday morning I checked out of the disappointing little Criterion hostel and made it to the tourist office just in time to catch the 10:00 walking tour of the Art Deco highlights of Napier. The town and surrounding region were devastated by an earthquake in 1931, and the town planners implemented a harmonious, measured rebuilding plan that led to the construction of dozens of Art Deco banks, shops, civic buildings, and houses. It calls itself the Art Deco Capital of the World. I’m not too sure about that, and the tour wasn’t very interesting, but some of the buildings are pretty cool.
To pass a bit of time beforehand flight to Wellington, I drove a few kilometers outside of town to the Black Barn winery and restaurant, where I sampled a few of their current vintages and snapped some good pictures of the vineyards and surrounding hills. I liked the Church Road wine much better, though, so I’m doubly happy with my buys from the day before.
A forty-minute flight on another little puddle-jumper brought me to the southern tip of the north island and the national capital of Wellington. I had booked a basic chain hotel on Cuba Street, which is the cool part of town, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a thoughtfully renovated heritage building, not a soulless econobox. Well done, Comfort Hotels.
I got settled in and them had a walk around Cuba Street and the CBD on Saturday evening. I’d have a better look on Sunday; for now, I was hungry and thirsty. I had a glass of wine at a little café before settling on Scopa for dinner. All of the dozen or so tables were full, so I sat at the bar, which was really just an extension of the open kitchen. I chatted with the bartender while I watched the pizza chef work his magic. He really was talented. Every ball of dough became a thin, round crust with very little flour, then the pies were sauced, dressed, and slipped into the ripping hot oven about ten feet to my left. About a half-hour after I ordered, my Salsiccia pizza was out of the oven and on front of me. It was very, very good. I finished it and a second glass, before heading back down the block to my hotel.
Sunday morning I got up early, anticipating a full day on the town. I was more right than I’d imagined. I started with breakfast and strong coffee at Fidel’s, a local institution just down the block. Cuba Street is named after an early immigrant ship, not directly after the little island off the Florida coast, but there is a definite and pronounced alternative, funky vibe in the neighborhood, which is reminiscent of the best parts of San Francisco, or of Camden in London. (Or, I suppose, Austin – though Austin’s hipster/alt/funk reputation is sort of out of line with its current vibe…but I digress.) Anyway, filled up with revolutionary coffee, I walked up to the excellent Museum of New Zealand, known by its Maori name, Te Papa. It’s a natural history museum, an art museum, a science and industry museum, and a people’s/cultural museum all rolled into one. I’m sure I could have spent most of the day there.
After about three hours, I left Te Papa in search of lunch, which I found at the very hip Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, an earnest but not terribly authentic take on a southern soul food diner. I don’t remember grilled chicken tacos at many real southern places…but who cares, really. They were good. Afterwards I had a wander around the waterfront and up the main shopping street, Lambton Quay, and eventually made it back down to the hotel.
At about six-thirty, I met my local friend Caleb for what I thought was going to be a quick drink. Without any real advance planning, we decided to try Uncorked, a little wine bar and tasting room a few doors down from my hotel. We didn’t know until sitting down at the bar that it was in its third day of operation (perhaps that’s why their website doesn’t seem to be operational yet).
The manager/bartender sat with us as we tried several different red wines, not limited just to New Zealand producers, and told us how he’d come to be here. Eventually we shuttle place down (at eight), and the manager – whose name I knew but have lost – the other bartender/waitress (spending a year abroad from Holland), Caleb and I set out for Foxglove, a swanky cocktail bar on the wharf. We relaxed there for a while, possibly with a bit more wine, before we all realized we were starving. We piled into a cab and lot out for Chow, apparently a staple of late-night Wellington dining, where we had some good, simple Asian food before repairing to the adjacent Library bar, which is filled with comfortable chairs and shelves of old books, and which does a nice cocktail, too. I think we left about 1:00, and I can’t claim to remember every little detail of what turned into about a six-hour running conversation about everything and nothing, but it was a tremendously fun night out with new friends – one of the best of my trip. And, unlike Caleb, I didn’t have a 7:00 flight to catch!
I slept as he flew, and didn’t manage to make it out of the hotel much before noon on Monday. No harm in this, of course. I had lunch at Heaven, a pizzeria the other direction on Cuba, and a coffee across the street at the very vegetarian Midnight Espresso, then walked uptown, where I got the historic cable car up to the Botanic Gardens overlooking the city. The sun came out and the weather was just right for admiring the landscaping, flower gardens, and peace fountain. I had a leisurely half-hour stroll back to the waterfront, them returned to the hotel to take advantage of the noisy washer and dryer next door to my room. With clean clothes, I walked down the block to Ombra, a Venetian tapas-style restaurant and café. I know that’s the last in a lot of links in this post, but I have genuinely enjoyed and been surprised by the food scene here, and want you all to get a sense of it, as best you can. I had a mini-pizza and some lamb meatballs with good house-made bread, then best a retreat to the hotel to pack up in anticipation of an early flight to the South Island on Tuesday morning.
The Best of Northern New Zealand
On Tuesday morning I got up early, checked out, and made it to the pier in Paihia in time to catch the four-hour Bay of Islands cruise by Dolphin Discoveries. It was great. The bay is huge. As the name suggests, it’s filled with little islands – 144 at last count. Most are uninhabited; a few are privately owned, with sprawling “cottages” and at least one helipad. At the far end is the “Hole in the Rock,” which is…a big rock with a hole in it that’s big enough to drive a boat through. We couldn’t go through because of the chop, but we got up close and saw how the hole does, in fact, go straight through the rock. I don’t know. The Kiwis are quite proud of it.
Much, much more rewarding were the dolphin sightings. We spotted three of four different pods of bottle nose dolphins and a few isolated common dolphins. In each case, they stayed with the boat, swam all around, and did jumps and flips and dives that seemed to have no purpose other than to entertain us. A few lucky passengers on a sister ship got the chance to swim with the dolphins for a few minutes as well. It really did seem like they were “welcoming” us to their bay. More so than any other wild animal ice seen on this trip – and I’ve seen a lot – there was a real connection with these guys. I’d happily spend more time with them.
After returning to the pier, I killed a bit of time in Paihia before driving to the tiny little airport to wait for an equally tiny plane to fly me to Auckland, where I made a connection to another tiny plane, which took me to Rotorua, about halfway “down” the north island. I got there pretty late, so after checking in to the Funky Green Voyager hostel, I ran across the street to the grocery store for a self-catered dinner.
Rotorua has been a “spa” town since the 1800s. The whole region is alive with geothermal activity (about which much more later), and the air in Rotorua has an especially sulphurous kick to it. The resulting black mud is supposed to cute any number of real and imagined ailments, as I learned at the small Rotorua Museum, which is housed in a former spa. The museum has a good exhibit on Maori culture past and present, and the impact of colonization. As I began learning at Waitangi, the experience of the Maori was markedly better than that of the Aboriginal people in Australia, or the black Africans in what’s now South Africa. I’m sure it’s far from perfect, but the Maori people seem fully a part of the culture and society here in a way that’s absent elsewhere.
After lunch I drove a little way out of Rotorua to the Waimangu hydrothermal area and followed a self-guided two hour walk that really felt like a walk back through time. The area was already on the tourist map in the late 1800s, when the Tawera mountain volcano erupted, changing the entire landscape and destroying all plant and animal life. Scientists believe that the development of life in the area over the last 130 years is similar to the way life itself began many hundreds of millions of years ago. The world’s largest hot spring, Frying Pan Lake, was formed as a result of a further eruption in 1917. The walk pointed out features large and small, down to a boiling silica spring about two feet square, in the shape of a large clamshell (hence the name, Clamshell Spring), that is home to thermophilic bacteria of the type believed to have been in existence at the dawn of life. I couldn’t see any bacteria, but still. Pictures coming soon of this fantastic landscape.
Back in Rotorua for the evening, I went to the historic Pig & Whistle pub in the town center. I’m not exactly sure why it’s “historic,” but it was packed full, and I had a decent pub meal and listened to a good cover band for a couple of hours while chatting with some locals and a few fellow travelers. It was a nice way to spend a night.
Thursday morning I had a good breakfast (including elusive filter coffee in this espresso-mad country) at Lime Caffeteria before driving about 200 kilometers south to the coastal town of Napier. The drive passed over mountains, through bright green valleys full of sheep, and eventually down to the coast at Hawke’s Bay. I dropped my bags at my hostel and set out for a couple of wineries near town. The first was a dud (albeit with a gorgeous main house), but the Church Road more than made up for it. I missed the tour but found the tasting room, where friendly Rob took me through several of their best, including some Grand Reserve wines that should have cost me $10 to taste, but for which he managed to forget to charge me. I learned about several of their unique grapes and vintages, and ended up ordering a mixed case to send home for the holidays. I’ve had it sent to mom and dad’s house and it will probably beat me home by a couple of weeks, so I hope most of the twelve are still around when I arrive…
Relaxing in the Bay of Islands
I left Cairns, and thus Australia, in my rear-view mirror on Sunday morning. I’d had a low-key evening, with dinner back at the little Italian place on the Esplanade where I’d had a glass on Friday. The Esplanade remained busy well into the night with the same sort of mixed crowd I’d seen during the day, but I best a retreat so I could get back to the hostel to pack (and because I was starting to feel the effects of an afternoon spent in the sun).
The Cairns-Auckland flight was my first exposure to Air New Zealand, which has a reputation as the “fun” airline in this part of the world. The safety video featured Betty White and Gavin Macleod and is pretty funny; the rest of the almost five-hour flight was pleasant but not especially comedic. Once again, the food was good (a prawn curry) and complimentary.
I was through customs and standing in front of the Auckland airport around six on Sunday evening (with a three-hour time change). I had a flight out the following morning, but had foolishly booked a hostel in the CBD, a fair distance away. I decided to eat that cost and stay in a little economy hotel near the airport. Getting there was more of a challenge than it should have been and cost 20 NZD (about $16) for a five-minute ride, during which the cabbie berated me for slamming his door — I hadn’t — and then for “illegally” taking a picture of his license and the door of his cab, so that I could complain. That, I did.
I didn’t expect much out of the restaruant attached to the Ibis, and so was very pleasantly surprised with Szimpla. I wouldn’t make a point of dining there if I weren’t at the hotel, but it was a definite step up from the Holiday Inn Express junk food shops or even the type of Jon’s End Zone Bar and Grill usually slapped onto mid-range places. (Click that link for one of my favorite funny Internet people.) I had a creditable filet.
On Monday, after a 6 NZD bus back to the airport (better!), I flew to Keri Keri on the smallest plane I’ve ever been on. Every seat was a window seat and an aisle seat on the little 18-seater turboprop Beechcraft. The complete lack of security screening at the airport was a bit alarming – no x-ray of me or my bag – but the flight was fine.
Keri Keri airport serves the Bay of Islands, on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. It’s a region of small towns, rocky coastlines, and stunning natural beauty, and reminds me very much of coastal New England (more Maine than Cape Cod). I poked around the town of Keri Keri and then drove to my hostel in Paihia, forty or so kilometers down the coast. After checking in, discovering a kitchenette in my private, 60 NZD a night room, and doing a load of laundry that I hung to dry in the sun, I toured the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the site of the first European settlement in New Zealand and the place where, in 1840, the Maori tribes and the British crown signed a treaty recognizing New Zealand as an independent nation. The guided tour, led by a descendant of one of the Maori signatories, was informative (although in discussing the unofficial leader of the confederated Maori tribes, Hone Heke, he did leave out his subsequent dissatisfaction with the crown and repeated attempts at resistance, if not rebellion).
On the road back, I picked up some groceries and decided to do my own dinner and breakfast en suite. I really ought to do this more often; it’s such a cost savings, especially if the Nescafé, muesli, and OJ are spread over a few days. Note made for the spring trip. I had dinner, paid a few bills, and finished the book, then slept fitfully as a result of the earlier sunburn.
Tuesday I took the passenger ferry from Paihia to Russell, twenty minutes away. Russell – -despite its historic nickname of “the hellhole of the Pacific” — is a bit less commercialized than backpacker mecca Paihia, with several grand old homes from the 1800s, a couple of tiny museums, and a few shops. I’m writing from the verandah of the Duke of Marlborough hotel and restaurant, whose slogan is “Refreshing Rascals and Reprobates since 1827.” It’s New Zealand’s oldest hotel and would not be out of place on a lake in the mountains of New Hampshire. I might not fly around the world just to vacation in the Bay of Islands, but I understand why it’s so very popular with Kiwis, and it’s a very nice “vacation from my vacation” for a couple of days.
Photos from Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef are up on Flickr. Reef pics are in “Cairns…pt 2″ until I get them better organized. I hope you like fish. And coral!
Friday morning I checked out of the little resort south of Port Douglas, and drove about 40 kilometers back down the Captain Cook highway to Cairns. Regarding pronunciation: when non-Australians pronounce it as “cans,” that’s akin to a non-Bostonian talking about Baaahston, or Haahvaahd. The town is named after the rock formation called a cairn. Pluralized, cairns. Cairns. With the “r,” please, unless you’re Australian. It sounds silly.
Anyway, I got to Cairns a little before noon. It’s not nearly as big as I expected. Certainly not a small town, but I had expected a big city and got a mid-sized port town at most. It is right on the water and had an international airport, which combine to make it a popular holiday destination for Aussies and visitors, but it’s not on the same league as Sydney or Melbourne.
I did some necessary shopping and then found and checked into my hostel for the next two nights, the Tropic Days. At about 60 AUD/night for a private room and a down-the-hall bath shared with only two other rooms, it’s a bargain. I checked in and got their complimentary shuttle bus into town for a look around. There’s not much of a beach in the city itself, so they’ve created the Lagoon, a large, public swimming pool (knee deep at most) surrounded by a huge lawn that was filled with people on blankets, soaking up the sun and reading, chatting, or doing whatever else they pleased.
It’s really a nice, free public space. There are a half-dozen built in barbecue stations available for guests’ use, and most of them were up and running on Friday afternoon. I didn’t have any charcoal or meat handy, so I contented myself with a bottle of water and the tail end of the newest Clive Cussler book, Mirage. (It’s good.) I then wandered up and down the Esplanade, the street that forms one of the long boundaries of the park, also called the Esplanade. (The other border is the water.)
My guidebook was noticeably thin when it came to dining options in Cairns, so I did a little impromptu food crawl. I started with a drink at the fun Rattle n Hum, which to my knowledge is not named after the U2 album that people love to hate. It is right on the Esplanade and was full, with a mix of tourists and locals celebrating the end of the work week. I moved down the street to a little Italian place, where I had a bruschetta and a glass of wine on the sidewalk patio and watched the people go by. My final stop was Khin Khao, a fairly well-reviewed Thai place a couple of blocks off of the Esplanade. It wasn’t especially busy, but I was also dining at 7:30, a little before prime time. The coconut chicken soup was good, and the beef jungle curry was authentically hot – I tend to disregard waitresses’ warnings about the heat of a dish (because I’m strong, or possibly dumb), but here she was right on. It was good, but it was fiery. A walk back to the hotel along mostly empty streets completed the day.
I’ve spent Saturday doing not much at all. I drove around the small CBD for a while before finding a place for breakfast, then went straight for the Lagoon and the Esplanade. Armed with a beach towel, sunscreen, and a bottle of water, I laid in the bright sun for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, re-reading an old thriller I found on my Kindle, and pausing only to walk across the street to Grill’d, which advertises “healthy burgers.” I’m not exactly clear on what made it healthier than the typical burger, but it was definitely tasty. The weather was perfect and the park was absolutely jammed with people of all ages, types, and nationalities. It can’t cost that much to maintain such an attractive gathering spot; other cities ought to give it a try. (Looking at you, Fort Worth.)
I’ll wind down Cairns this evening, then have a period of travel: I’m flying out of Cairns at ten tomorrow morning, arriving (with a time change) in Auckland, New Zealand, at about six-thirty tomorrow night. I’ll stay on a hotel by the airport to wait for an eight o’clock flight the next morning to Keri Keri airport, which serves the top reaches of New Zealand’s North Island, including the remote Bay of Islands region, my next real destination. In the meantime, I’ll probably put together some thoughts from my three weeks in Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef
After dropping a box of no-longer-needed stuff at the post office and picking up some medicine for a chest cold I’d unintentionally picked up earlier, I had breakfast at Almond Bar down the street from the hotel and caught a cab to the airport. I had a lady cabbie! Why is that so unusual (I’m sure she was the first ladycabbie I’ve had on the trip)? As an entrepreneurial, set-your-own-hours operation, it seems like a good gig for mothers who can’t or don’t want to commit to a full-time job, for one. I pondered this as we made the fifteen-minute drive.
I was checked in and through security in just a few minutes, again. It really is nice. I organized photos and browsed a bookstore before boarding a three-hour flight to Cairns, up the coast in tropical Queensland. There I picked up a car from Avis – I hadn’t asked for anything special, but was handed the keys to a souped-up Ford Falcon, with a V6, a six-speed auto with a great manual override, and even low-profile tires. It has been a lot of fun to drive, especially on the winding Captain Cook Highway that hugs the coast between Cairns and Port Douglas.
My first stop was a little resort tucked right on the coast about twenty kilometers south of Port Douglas. I was still fighting the chest cold, so the first afternoon and evening were dedicated to simply relaxing and resting. On Wednesday, I drove up to Port Douglas for a look around. I walked through the small but excellent Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat, with its carefully-tended displays of the wetland, rainforest, grassland, and savannah habitats native to Australia. I saw a couple of shy, sleepy koalas (don’t call them koala bears!), several kangaroos and wallabies with joeys in their pouches, and all sorts of birds, including the strange-looking cassowary, which is a “keystone” species critical to the survival of the rain forest because of its wide spread of seeds, and which is critically endangered.
I drove into Port Douglas proper for a look as well. There’s just one main road, and it’s lined with restaurants and hotels (some of each are very upscale; “Port” isn’t a backpacker’s town). I browsed the surf shops and went up to the lookout over four-mile beach, then went back to the resort, where I ate at the communal table and met fellow travelers from all over…Australia. Plus a token Canadian and me. I did pick up some local knowledge and gossip at least, and I learned why the Melbourne Cup is such a prominent fixture on the Australian sporting and social calendar.
I didn’t stay up too late, though, because I had big plans for Thursday: the Great Barrier Reef. I booked with Quicksilver. I didn’t love the idea of going out to the reef with three hundred other people, but the package of activities was the best by far. We set off from Port about ten and cruised for ninety minutes to reach their pontoon anchored about forty nautical miles out, on Agincourt Reef. My doctor won’t let me go deep-sea diving (rightly so), but en route to the pontoon I signed up for the next-best thing: “Ocean Walking.” After the ship’s doctor cleared me, I knew I’d get to go beneath the surface after all.
The first thing I did once we reached the pontoon was a bit of snorkeling, just to test out my Lycra wet suit and get used to being in the water. The fish were everywhere, just beneath the surface, but so were the other dozens of snorkelers. The Ocean Walk was very different. Five of us put on heavier wetsuits, weight belts, and boots, and clear helmets were lowered onto our shoulders. Non-compressed oxygen was pumped into the helmets to let us breathe and to keep the water from coming higher than our necks, even as we descended about fifteen feet under the surface on a viewing platform hung off the side of the pontoon.
It was amazing. Words can’t possibly do justice to what I saw. I’ll have a photo album up as soon as I can find a solid, speedy Wi-fi connection, but it was just spectacular. Hundreds if not thousands of fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors swam past us and schooled around us. The divers accompanying our walk brought samples of sea cucumbers, anemones, and even a small coral for us to see and touch. The fish got a bit of food, too, which attracted more and more of them. I found Nemo, among many other species. We also saw a big moray eel and a small white-tip reef shark. The twenty minutes we were down there felt like forever.
Back on the pontoon, I had just enough time to ditch my equipment and board the last semi-submersible trip of the afternoon. The thirty-passenger “sub” keeps its head (and pilot) above the surface, while the passengers ride in a glass (or Plexiglas, I’m sure) sided tub a couple of feet below. This allowed us to get very close to the reef itself. As with the fish, the diversity of size, shape, and especially color in the coral was breathtaking. I am sure I’ve never seen so much blue in nature as in the brightly-colored coral we floated past. There were fish here, too, of course, and it was interesting to see the different species and how they interacted with each other.
Unfortunately we had to leave sometime. We made Port Douglas right on time at five in the afternoon, and I drove straight back to the resort. I again sat at the communal table, with many of the same guys but a few new ones, too, including a New Zealander who gave me some insider tips for my visit there in the next week. At least three people besides me were traveling solo, and I really appreciate the hotels and resorts (and in some cases, restaurants) that make an effort to make it easy for solo travelers to connect with each other. The fact that these tables are always busy is a testament to the desire of all travelers, I think, to make new friends and gain new insight while on the road. I certainly have.
A Bridge Too Far?
So, the bridge climb. Before tackling it on Monday afternoon, I took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. The building really is a fascinating example of modern architecture. I didn’t realize until I saw it in person that what appears from the iconic view to be a single building is actually three separate auditoriums, connected underground but standing side-by-side on the surface. I will attempt pictures at the end of this post.
I also did not know until the tour that the roof “sails” are in the shape of progressively larger sections cut out of a sphere, an entirely new concept developed by the architect after most of the building had been constructed. Unfortunately, this was about the only interesting fact gleaned from the hour-long tour. The unenthusiastic guide endlessly repeated himself (we learned four times that during opera season, three shows rotate, but that ballet season features just one show with three rotating corps of dancers). He also told us how much it costs to rent each performance space – who cares? They could and should do so much better.
After a quick lunch and not too much water, I headed to the Bridge Climb center. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built between 1923 and 1932. It’s long – 3770 feet – and quite tall, rising 440 feet at the “summit,” or approximately the height of a 45 story building. The tallest steel arch bridge in the world. And I was to climb it.
We were a group of fourteen, plus climb leader Gareth. There were a few multiple-climb veterans, and a father with his twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son. That’s the minimum age to climb. There is no upper limit, and a 100-year-old woman set the record recently. The waiting room had a display if an impressively eclectic group of celebrities who’ve done the climb, including Prince Harry, Oprah, Daniel Radcliffe, Al Gore, and Bette Midler. At least I would be in good company.
We began by emptying our persons and pockets of anything not tied down. No cameras, phones, wallets, coins, watches, bracelets, or hats allowed. One girl was made to remove her barrettes. We then were fitted with climbing jumpsuits, colored grey to match the bridge and this not distract the drivers below. We were breathalyzed and made to fill out a detailed medical questionnaire, then led to the equipment room.
I had expected the type of step-in harnesses only used for rock climbing or rappelling. Instead, we got safety belts that cinched right around the waist with substantial buckles on each side. Dangling from the belt was a safety wire perhaps three feet long, with a “slider” at the end. This, we were told, would attach to a wire cable at the start of the climb and remain there throughout, with no possibility of becoming separated. We had a safety briefing – only one person on a ladder at a time, always three points of contact, don’t descend ladders facing away from the rungs – and had our eyeglasses cinched right with straps that clipped to the back of the suit. Then, with little fanfare, we were off.
First we had to go up, through one of the support pillars on the southern end of the bridge. (They actually don’t support anything and are purely ornamental.) this involved narrow catwalks with either wooden boards or metal grids, through which I could see the ground below. Okay. There were, of course, handrails and I kept a tight grip with my left hand. Then came four tall ladders. As anyone who’s been around me will know, I’ve never been great with staircases, especially ones I can see through (as the tempered-glass stairs in the place we stayed in Buenos Aires, Ricky Sawyer, or your attempts to get me to run stairs at the gym, Brad Brown), and these ladders were very nearly vertical. Still, I made it to the top. Okay.
Now it was time to venture onto the bridge itself. At this point, we were several dozen feet above the roadway, at about the point in the following picture where the top arch meets the support pillar:
We proceeded out of the pillar and onto catwalks, again with either wooden boards or metal grates below our feet. The catwalks had handrails at waist height and further rails at about knee height, and our “sliders” snaked along the safety wire that hung level with the upper right-hand railing. The six-Lane roadway was below me. To my very immediate right was Sydney Harbour. And the wind was starting to blow. Although the rational part of my mind knew that I was perfectly safe, I was getting nervous quickly. I had two hands on the rails at all times, and whenever we stopped to hear facts about the bridge (we had radios and headsets tied to the suits) I was in a locked stance.
After a couple of hundred feet, we came to some gentle uphill steps. This was the transition point. As we stepped up, we stepped out, onto the top of the uppermost arch of the bridge. Solid metal below our feet now, which was good because I kept my eyes firmly planted on my feet. The same railing system was in place on the top, and of course I was tied to the safety wire, but if I’d been untied and stumbled, the edge of the arch was a foot or so to the right. At this point, of course, the wind picked up. It was blowing steadily at about 30 miles per hour, with regular gusts that were probably about 50 but felt a lot stronger to me, standing on top of a bridge, on a piece of metal the width of a sidewalk.
Onward and upward we walked, led by Gareth the guide, who was trailed by the ten-year-old kid. I grew more and more nervous, even though I knew it was irrational. When we were moving it was sort of okay, but when we stopped and stood broadside to the wind to listen to a fact about the rivets or the paint or whatever, I felt like I could have been blown right into the harbour with one strong gust or missed step. We stopped at several points to take photos. You’ll see one of me elsewhere on the site. I don’t know how Gareth managed to get me to look so relaxed. I can assure you I was very much not. I will say, though, that I did manage to look up often enough to appreciate the magnificent views of the entire harbour, much clearer views than I’d had from the tower the day before. Here is a photo provided by the climbing company of the view up to the crane at the summit:
Eventually we reached the top, and crossed over the bridge (and the roadway waaay below) on a metal-grated catwalk. I didn’t know where to put my eyes – down was see-through and in front was the top of a bridge. I went with one foot in front of the other and gritted it out. We turned left and began the descent of the topmost western arch. It would be far too much to say that I became comfortable or relaxed on the way down, but it wasn’t as terrifying as the ascent, probably because I knew that I’d made it to the top and was on the way home. The descent was also quicker, which was nice, as I’d now been standing on top of a bridge for an hour and a half.
Finally we made our way to the pillar opposite where we started (same side of the harbour, opposite edge of the bridge – we made a left and then another left at the top) and descended in a mirror image of the earlier ascent. Back on terra firma, we unclipped, shed the jumpsuits, and retrieved our loose items. From the first introduction to the exit to the photo desk had taken exactly three hours. It felt quite a bit longer.
I realize I haven’t exactly climbed Everest here. Thousands of people have done this climb before, including the aforementioned child and a woman kicking off her second century. I wasn’t ever in danger. Still, standing upright on the very top of a very tall bridge, buffeted by a strong wind and secured only by my death grip on two waist high handrails and a cable with a hard plastic slider on the end, was challenging and frightening and exhilarating and, in hindsight, a fantastic experience. I don’t believe I’ll go back for seconds, though.
I had a nerve-calming G&T at a bar near the climb center and, later, a really good pizza at Mad Pizza on Victoria Street, where I chatted with the two American-born bartenders about our respective travels and, somehow, the plight of zoo animals around the world (here, my photo of a chimpanzee chained to a bench at the Moscow Zoo, smoking a cigarette, was top trumps). That was plenty for one day.
P.S. – sorry if the pictures don’t show up, or look wrong. I can’t see what the final post will look like until you do.
Sunday morning I had breakfast at Coco Cubano in Taylor Square. The food was good but the service was terrible, and do I understand why it was barely half-full at prime brunch time. I walked uptown to the Westfield shopping center and rode up the 280-meter Sydney Tower for a 360-degree view. It was overcast and the smoke had come in again (though not nearly as heavily as the day before), so the views probably could have been better, but that’s not to say it was unimpressive. To the contrary, from up top it’s easy to get a sense for just how massive the harbour really is, not to mention Sydney itself.
I walked up Macquarie Street to the waterfront and got the 12:30 fast ferry to Manly (which I picked over the flashier Bondi Beach). It was warm, windy, and overcast, but the forecast was for sun later, and the ferry was packed. I like Manly. It lacks big resort hotels, and instead has a pedestrianized main street, the Corso, filled with surf shops, ice cream stands, burger joints (I had a good one at BenBry Burgers and a very occasional bar. The town and beaches seemed to be full of families and locals rather than tourists, and almost everyone was more interested in their book, boogie board, or game of pickup volleyball than in showing off the latest fashions in swimwear (there were exceptions). As promised, the sun came out, but the wind picked up to near gale force and I headed back to Sydney after a few hours.
I took it easy Sunday night. I’m planning the bridge climb on Monday, as well as a tour of the Opera House, so I took my beauty rest!
After the Kata Tjuta hike on Thursday morning, I got the shuttle to the Ayers Rock airport and then a three-hour flight to Sydney. I flew Jetstar, a discount cousin of Qantas, and it was the first time since my American Airlines flight from DFW to New York that I wasn’t offered some sort of complimentary food or drink. Even on the fifty-minute Qantas puddle-jumper from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock featured a little snack box along with drinks. All of my internal Kenyan flights had free food, some of it pretty good; likewise, the short South African flights from Cape Town to East London and from EL to Johannesburg.
I know AA and Delta and United serve meals on international flights. On the other end of the spectrum, I don’t expect anything complimentary on a discounter like Jetstar or, in Europe, easyJet or Ryanair. But I really don’t understand why the US carriers, on long-haul domestic flights, can’t do anything more than a Coke (maybe the whole can, if the attendant is feeling generous). I shouldn’t have to spend ten bucks for a box of stale Tostitos and gloppy “cheese” dip. The flight experience is so much more pleasant everywhere else. Surely our guys could do the same, especially with ticket prices so high. (Russ Hubbard, if you’re reading, can you take care of this please? Thx.)
Anyway, I got to Sydney about six on Thursday afternoon and took a cab to the swanky Kirketon boutique hotel in the Darlinghurst neighborhood. I’d originally booked a sister hotel, but when its renovations were delayed, I was upgraded with apologies to a premium room at the Kirketon. I’m not complaining. Rather than go exploring on my hike-weary legs, I had room service from the neighboring (and very good) Chinese restaurant and read up on what to do in Sydney for the next few days. I did not dress up for Halloween.
On Friday I walked around the neighborhood a bit and had a tasty breakfast at the fun Wholemeal Café on Flinders Street. From there, I walked up through Hyde Park and all the way to the waterfront at Circular Quay, where I got my first look at Sydney’s two iconic structures: the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. Several friends are trying to convince me to climb the bridge. I may yet, but I wasn’t ready for that on my first day. Instead, I walked around the waterfront and ducked into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a quick look. The Primavera exhibition, an annual showcase for young artists, was a highlight.
After lunch in a little pop-up market, I took a guided walking tour of The Rocks, site of the original settlement of Sydney in 1788 and home to several original buildings and narrow lanes. The tour was informative and the guide good. However, the experience was severely undermined by my fellow tourists, a group of a dozen or so retirees from Queens. When they weren’t griping about the number of steps or adding unwanted commentary about similar (but not really) facts about America, they talked loudly amongst themselves about their cruise, their hotel, and any number of other topics. It took some restraint not to tell them to shut up. What an embarrassing bunch.
Thus educated and irritated, I walked back to the hotel for a rest and a shower before meeting a local acquaintance for a late dinner at a nondescript Thai place near Oxford Road. He moved to Sydney from Adelaide a few months ago after deciding that he wants to use his accounting degree rather than his law degree, but hasn’t found great work and so is doing data entry and hunting for more. Despite this, he said he’s really liked living in Sydney (and, despite being about twenty-five, he’s lived and studied all over, from Beijing to Stockholm). He liked the diversity and energy of the Darlinghurst and Surry Hills neighborhoods and the fact that everything is pretty close (there are ever-expanding suburbs, but he says there’s no reason to go there). We chatted about past and future travel destinations, and I got a few tips for the next few days before heading back to the hotel.
When I stepped out the front door on Saturday morning, I immediately smelled smoke – lots of smoke – and assumed there was a fire nearby. It didn’t take me long to realize that the city had been blanketed by smoke from the much-publicized brush fires. The skyline was hazy, and the top of the Sydney Tower Eye, at 309 meters the tallest in Sydney and one of the tallest in the hemisphere, was entirely obscured.
I walked down to the waterfront, had an early lunch at a different stall in the same little street market near the MCA, then jumped on the hop-on, hop-off boat for a cruise around Sydney harbor (the world’s largest). It’s immediately apparent why this site was chosen for settlement. Today the miles of shoreline are dotted with mansions, one of which went for $54 million (Australian) last year, and every little harbor was full of boats, mostly the white-sailed racing boats thst appear in every photograph of the Opera House. They really are all over the place.
I got off the boat at Darling Harbour, which has been redeveloped and is home to a shopping mall, tons of mid-market restaurants, and is similar to the V&A waterfront in Cape Town. I walked through the supremely dull Maritime Museum, then got a cab back to the hotel. I was dragging, and had a nap. I went out with the intention of having dinner and seeing a movie (either Captain Phillips or The Butler), but after an unmemorable pizza, I had second thoughts about taking in a 9:30 showing that (with previews and the walk home) would keep me up until 1:00 Sunday morning. I don’t want to be too tired for the bridge climb! (Maybe.)
Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Inspirational Dinner Guests
Tuesday morning I flew from Melbourne to Alice Springs, then connected after a three-hour layover to the tiny Ayers Rock airport. I was after Uluru.
Uluru (Ayers Rock) and its sister rock formation, Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas), sit just outside a national park. The only lodging reasonably close to the park is controlled by Voyagers, a vaguely state-affiliated concern. Its property is about ten minutes from the airport and includes three hotels of varying luxury, as well as a campground, a few restaurants, a cook-it-yourself barbecue, and a grocery store where you can pick up an emu steak to throw on the barbie.
I stayed at the Outback Pioneer, the least luxe of the three hotels. Because I would have limited time in the area, I had attempted to pre-book several activities. When I arrived, I discovered that one had been cancelled and only two of the other four (the two run by Voyagers) had actually been booked. Worse, the other two I’d wanted were now full. Some quick rearranging by the check-in clerk got me close to what I’d wanted, but not quite.
I arrived around three, and so had enough time for a quick shower (and a lie down in a non-bunk bed for the first time in a week), before heading off for a sunset viewing of Uluru. We got to the viewing platform on top of a sand dune around six fifteen for the seven o’clock sunset, and on arrival were given free wine (well, to be precise, wine was included in the price of the activity – and activities in and around Uluru are shockingly expensive). So my first up-close view of this wonder of the world came with a glass of Sauv Blanc in hand.
I can’t decide whether the rock is smaller or larger than I expected, which I know makes no sense. It’s not thousands of feet tall, like a mountain (it’s roughly the same height as the Eiffel Tower) and it doesn’t go on forever and ever (you could walk all the way around it in well under an hour, with rest stops). And yet, riding up out of the middle of the flattest landscape I’ve ever seen, all desert oaks and pontifex and stubby little plants, it looks massive, even from miles away, and it’s easy to see that it is special.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see the rock, because the constantly changing angles of the sun’s rays, as further filtered by the prevailing low, wispy clouds, cause it to turn colors, including colors not normally found in nature. Attempting to describe it here would be mostly futile; I’ll have photo galleries up on Flickr in the next few days. Watch how the rock changes color as the sun sets (or rises).
After the sunset lookout, I went back to the hotel and had a nice enough dinner in the restaurant. The main course was kangaroo, which was the first time I’d eaten that particular marsupial. It was good: basically beef lite, in my opinion, though I later heard from others who thought the steaks were gamier than beef. I can’t agree.
Wednesday was the first of two very early wake up calls. We left the resort around 5:00 for a sunrise view of Uluru, which was as spectacular as the sunset the night before. From there, we made a couple of photo-op stops before arriving at the Uluru cultural centre. There we learned some of the history of the rock, including it’s condition and status in the wake of white settlement of Australia in the late 18th century. We then had what I think was one of the highlights of my Australian trip: a lesson in traditional ways (including the making of hunting and cooking implements) from Katherine, an Aboriginal woman. Following that, Katherine and the local interpreter took us on a guided walk around the very base of Uluru, and stopped to tell one of the native peoples’ origin stories, complete with reference to the caves, nooks, and crannies in the rock that provide physical evidence of the events.
From there it was back briefly to the hotel for a nap. Then, about six, I joined a large group for the “Sounds of Silence” sunset dinner overlooking Uluru. I dined at a fantastically interesting table: an 83-year-old British military dentist, whose wife died earlier this year; a couple from Vancover, he a winemaker who was responsible for Baby Duck, and she a figure skater who knows Peggy Fleming well, and who was an ice dancer at the 1968 Winter Olympics (when that was just a demonstration sport); a retired couple from Scarsdale, New York, including the now-83-y.o. Man responsible for founding Sports Illustrated for Kids; and a family from Manitoba on a Make-a-Wish trip with their seventeen year old son.
We had a delightful dinner, watched a traditional Aboriginal dance, and had a TL on the stars of the southern sky (including a couple of Aboriginal stories) from a local astronomer. The two geriatric guys were a particular inspiration. Both are hale and hearty at age 83, sharp of mind and quick to tell a story from their career (or childhood). I hope I have the ambition to travel so far when I’m that age – when I’ll (hopefully) have the money and (certainly) have the time. I see them both as object lessons in how to keep on living, healthy of body and keen of mind in their eighties. I hope some in the audience of this post will take heed.
On Halloween morning I packed up very early and got the Uluru Express bus to Kata Tjuta, the lesser-known but perhaps more spectacular sister formation a couple of dozen kilometers from Uluru. After the usual sunrise photo opportunities, I set off on a 7.4 kilometer hike through the “Valley of the Winds.” A lesson: in the states, a hike of minimal intensity is labeled “moderate,” and a moderately hard hike is “difficult” or “expert,” thanks in no small part to lawyers (right?). In Oz, a “difficult” hike is just that – bare rock, steep climbs, long ascents and descents that kill your knees. Difficult, in other words. I had to stop and catch my breath several times. At each stop, though, the scenery was stunning. Again, photos coming soon to Flickr. It’s just too hard to describe well.
I survived and loved the trek, despite inappropriate footwear, and got the bus back to the hotel, where I grabbed my bag and got another bus for the airport and a three-hour flight to Sydney, which…is another story.
So Monday was my last full day in Melbourne. I woke up at a reasonable hour, to the sound of my bottom bunk-mate packing up her tons and tons of stuff. Ice felt for a while that I’m traveling too heavy; she must have twice as much, if not more. Lifting her bag must be hard. I’ll stick to my resolve to travel light.
I had a good breakfast next door at the little café next door – scrambled egg and chorizo on a big ciabatta roll, with red onion jam – and got the term into the city center. I visited the Immigration Museum, which houses a small but really thoughtful collection focusing on white migration to Australia in the 1800s and early 1900s, including the backlash from “established” residents to later waves of migration. As I’ve written before, racism is something I just don’t understand, but it was clearly present in Australia for decades, and (as in the states, to be sure) remains a problem. A special exhibit on the cultural implications of and reactions to Muslim women’s traditional dress added to my experience.
From the museum I went to Eureka Tower, an 88-story residential building in the Southbank. It’s the world’s tallest residential tower, and the top-floor viewing deck is the highest in the Southern Hemisphere. As in New York, Nairobi, and Cape Town (Table Mountain), the bird’s eye view was useful for understanding the scope and layout of the city.
I had an indifferent burger in the Southbank mall food court, then browsed the stores (including historic department stores) in Bourke Street, before returning to St. Kilda, collecting some laundry I’d dropped off earlier, and going back to the hostel to pack up for tomorrow morning. Those tasks done, I went back to Big Mouth for dinner. The porterhouse was as good as advertised, and the Côte du Rhone on special was a nice accompaniment. With a 6:45 airport bus scheduled for Tuesday morning, I couldn’t and didn’t stay out too late on my last night in what has quickly become one of most favorite cities.
Sorry, all. Please ignore. My blogging software is being difficult. This is just a test of the emergency blogcast system.
Weekend in Melbourne
Well, Friday night ran a bit long, so Saturday “breakfast” was more of a slightly early lunch, taken at Gypsies Cafe in St. Kilda. Nothing too fancy – fried eggs on grilled sourdough, some avocado, a “long black” coffee and juice – but well done. From there I got the tram into the CBD and browsed through the other half of the National Gallery of Victoria: the international collection on the south bank of the Yarra. As I remember reading about some other museum, the NGV is mostly minor works by major artists and major works by minor artists. That’s not a knock – only the Louvre has the Louvre’s collection. The modernist building, which apparently was a bit controversial when built, is as much of an attraction as the art, and includes a public reading room with a soaring stained-glass ceiling, and a “wall of water” at the entrance.
I walked around the Southbank area for a while but eventually crossed back over and discovered the narrow Degraves Street, a collection of cafés in a tiny alleyway leading north from Flinders Lane. I had a coffee at The Quarter and wrote Friday’s blog. Restored, I walked back over to the Fitzroy neighborhood in search of more.
I browsed through the eclectic clothing shops, art galleries, and just plain weird stores along Brunswick for an hour or so, then settled in at The Alchemist, a cocktail bar and restaurant with quirky, medical-themed decor, a short wine list, and (at least) two bartenders with a talent for creative cocktails. I chatted with one for a while as I sipped wine and he made a number of drinks that involved the application of fire to alcohol. He’s from Eastern Europe but had been in Melbourne for a few years and loves it, especially Fitzroy. I’ve run into several other relatively recent immigrants with plans to stay long term, which I think says a lot for the city.
I could have eaten at The Alchemist, but as I want to try as many places as possible while I’m in such a cool food-and-drink town, I went down the road to Little Creatures Dining Hall, the restaurant of the Little Creatures craft brewery. It’s a huge space and was packed full of people, from families with little kids, to couples, to groups out on the town. The beer is the draw, I suppose – I had two of the pale ale – but the food didn’t disappoint, either, and I had a nice pizza with chorizo as I surveyed the scene (and learned a little bit about the different beers from the bartender. I didn’t go straight home from there – I am on vacation – but I managed to roll in a bit sooner than I had Friday night.
One motivation for this was to make sure I was awake and alert for the TCU-Texas game, which kicked off at 10:30 a.m. Melbourne time. I accomplished that goal, only to see the Frogs and their apparently hapless offense fall behind early, before a weather delay. In the meantime, I went on a three hour walking tour of central Melbourne, led by Dave of Melbourne by Foot. We covered a lot of things I’d already seen, but the local insight was useful, especially on the subject of the street art that fills several lanes and alleyways around the CBD. Dave pointed out the one spot where Banksy is known to have been, as well as several other prominent spots, some of which were being re-painted as we watched. Dave told us about Melbourne’s founding and flourishing, including the influence of several waves of foreign migration, and dropped us back in Fed Square.
I checked my phone to find that the Frogs had lost badly and headed down to St. Kilda for dinner. After my successful encounter with Tex-Mex in Cape Town, I thought I’d give it a try here as well, and went to Amigos on Acland Street. Fun atmosphere, but the “traditional” fajitas were served in a strange tomato-garlic sauce, all of the sides but guac (cheese, pick, sour cream) were extras at 3 AUD a pop, and the beef wasn’t especially tender. Not recommended!
Acland Street is still busy as I write this at 9:00 Sunday night, and it feels like most of the crowd is locals. I’ve just dropped in to the Big Mouth restaurant and bar for a quick nightcap. On the corner of Barkly and Acland a couple of blocks south of my hostel, it describes itself as a St. Kilda icon, and I can see why – cool, quiet but not too quiet, good wines, and what looks like good food (though most of the crowd at this hour is just on drinks). I’m inside, which is mostly full, because all of the sidewalk tables are occupied. At 9 p.m. on a Sunday. Have I mentioned that I like Melbourne?
Cricket and Dirty Secrets
Friday I started with a late breakfast at Rococo, a little Italian café in my adopted neighborhood of St. Kilda. Friendly staff and good (and fancy!) scrambled eggs. I rode the No. 16 tram back to Fed Square and walked from there to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The MCG is the Australian Old Trafford or Yankee Stadium. The Melbourne Cricket Club first established the Ground in the 1880s, and it’s been expanded and remodeled several times since then, to the point that it now has a seating capacity of about 100,000 for most sports.
The Olympics were in Melbourne in 1956, and the MCG served as the Olympic stadium. There is a plaque outside commemorating Queen Elizabeth’s ceremonial role as the “Patron” of the games. It’s pretty remarkable to consider that fifty-six years later, she not only opened the London Olympics but was for enough to parachute out of a helicopter to do so! In addition to Olympiads, the MCG hosts the local Australian Rules Football team, occasional soccer matches (to the Aussies, Australian Rules Football is just “football;” thus, like us, they say “soccer” for what everyone else calls football.) They’re also oddly proud of several concerts, including the Stones, Madonna (Blonde Ambition), and The Three Tenors), as well as a Papal visit (JP2) and a Billy Graham revival reputed to have been the largest crowd he eve drew overseas.
Cricket, though, is the real draw, and was the focus of both the National Sports Museum (part of the grounds) and the 90-minute tour led enthusiastically by a man who’s been a Member of the club (basically, a season ticket holder, though that’s not a perfect analogue) for more than fifty years. I learned about the origins of the game in Australia, the growth in popularity of international “Test” cricket after Australia’s successful tour of England over a century ago (which gave rise to the “Ashes”), and several memorable bowlers and batsmen and the astounding things they accomplished, but I can’t claim to understand the game any better than before. I’m considering buying a book, though, because I think I would like it if I understood it. I do know that, like baseball and unlike every other major team sport, there’s no clock in Test cricket.
I walked from the MCG back into the city center and then up to the inner suburb/neighborhood of Fitzroy, as recommended by Winston from the night before as well as the Lonely Planet folks. Centered on the intersection of Brunswick and Johnston and radiating about a mile radius from there, Fitzroy is a hip, Bohemian, creative hub that reminds me very much of the parts I like best about Soho and Camden in London, or Greenwich Village, or in some respects the Hyde Park and Tarrytown parts of Austin. I like it very much.
I wandered around for a long time in the light rain, and then popped into the Provincial Hotel bar for a wine and, later, the fun Palookaville restaurant, where I had a sirloin steak that the waitress assured me was at least a thirty-dollar steak, for the special price of 18 AUD. She was right; it was well worth it! Later I found a little club on Smith Street where I spent a few hours losing (mostly) at pool and meeting some neighborhood residents, one of whom took me to Dirty Secrets, a cool, small whiskey bar for a nightcap. It is still a nightcap if it’s nearly morning, right? Great day all around. I really like Melbourne, and I’ve barely seen the sun!
Wednesday morning I got a cab to Perth airport and a nearly three hour flight to Melbourne on Qantas. Australia really is massive in a way that I didn’t fully grasp; a display at the airport showed several other countries’ maps within the boundaries of the state of Western Australia. If it were its own country, W.A. would be the tenth-largest in the world – it’s nearly four times the size of Texas. Big and sparse, too – the population is a little over two million, slightly more than Tarrant County.
Now, however, I’m in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. A twenty-minute bus ride from the airport dropped me at the central Southern Cross station, where I could have figured out the tram system but instead splurged on a cab to the Base St. Kilda hostel in the southern part of central Melbourne. Lonely Planet ranked it as one of the ten hippest hostels in the world, and it is a fun place with a booming bar and a good travel desk. I’d take The Backpack in Cape Town if I were choosing one, but it will be fine accommodation for a week – and at 38 AUD/night (the Australian dollar is just about on par with the US dollar), a bargain in what is proving to be a very expensive city.
I didn’t get settled in until about four, so I just did a quick orientating walk around the neighborhood and picked up a map. I went back to the hostel for a couple of 9 AUD beers, then walked around the block to Barkly Street, where I scoped out a few of the many fun restaurants before settling on Itali.co, where I had a late dinner of lamb with carrot purée. Back to the Base, where the bar was still going strong but I wasn’t – into the upper bunk for me.
Thursday proved that Wednesday’s chilly weather wasn’t a passing fad, though I am told that it’s unusual for this time of year. I had breakfast in the hostel and got a lesson on the tram system, then caught the #16 into the CBD and, in particular, to Federation Square, a very big public space filled with funky modern architecture but surrounded by some of Melbourne’s oldest landmarks, including St. Paul’s Cathedral and Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s oldest and busiest train station.
I had a coffee at Starbucks (in my defense, I was really in search of an outlet to charge up my dead phone, and didn’t find one) then walked through the National Gallery of Victoria, which (in its Fed Square branch, anyway) houses a collection of exclusively Australian art, including but by no means limited to works by Indigenous Australians (a/k/a Aboriginals). I had never heard of most of the artists, and it was interesting to trace the various recent artistic movements – Impressionism, modernism, abstract, etc. – through Australian eyes. I liked some of it very much, and was surprised and disappointed that the museum shop didn’t offer a catalog of the collection (the shop assistant wasn’t entirely familiar with the concept). I’d have loved to add it to my little library.
I had lunch at MoVida, a high-end tapas bar just up a street-art-covered lane from Federation Square. It was very good, with several exotic preparations including “cold smoked” fish presented with a flourish of dry ice “smoke,” and savory sorbets. After lunch I walked through the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), also on the square, and browsed some of the shops along Collins Street (including an outdoor shop that graciously replaced a broken buckle on my daypack for no charge), then decided to walk back down to the hostel via St. Kilda Road. It didn’t look like an especially long walk on the map, but turned out to be every bit of four miles. By the time I got back, it was nearly six.
I had intended a quiet night “in,” and was sitting in the bar with a Coke and a book when I started chatting with a guy who wanted a game of pool. I accepted (and won, although we were pretty lax on formalities like the actual rules of the game) and ended up talking with Winston until the wee hours. He’s a Melbourne native home for a month, having most recently worked at a hostel in Freiburg, to which he plans to return, at least for a few months. He’s lived all over, just moving when the mood strikes, and I think there’s some appeal to that lifestyle, though it would necessarily come at the expense of things like making real money or having a career rather than just a succession of short-term gigs.
We talked about this, that, and the other for a few hours, at one point having been joined by Madeleine and Ophelie, real estate agents from France, and watched with amusement as the crowd got rowdier and louder as the “bucket” drinks went down faster and faster. (We stuck to beer.) I got some great tips for places to see and eat while I’m in town, and some insight on Australian culture from the perspective of someone who grew up with it but now views it from the outside, too. I missed out on the quiet night if intended, but it was well worth it. It’s those sorts of conversations and friendships I came all this way to find.
Monday morning I had a late breakfast at the Crane’s Nest, packed up and left my bags, and spent the day having a look around Pretoria. There’s just not that much to see. To be fair, a couple of the museums were closed. The one that was open – the Ditsong Museum of Natural History, formerly known as the Transvaal Museum – might as well have been shut, too. It’s a cavernous old place, with time-worn diorama and taxidermied specimens telling the story of life on earth, with an expected for us on the plants and animals native to Western Australia. There are a few hands-on interactive exhibits (many of which didn’t work), but it’s mostly dull and passive. Not surprisingly, I was the only patron – and wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did had it not been pouring rain outside.
Afterwards I had a pleasant enoughAmerican iced coffee” at Café Riche on the central Church Square. An “American iced coffee,” by the way, is a sweetened, milky iced coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a squirt of whipped cream on top. Not what I was expecting when I ordered it, but I didn’t send it back. Church Square is home to some imposing old buildings, including the Palace of Justice where Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants were tried – but there’s just not much worth doing.
I walked the four or so miles back to the Brooklyn area and had a more restrained coffee before the pre-arranged taxi arrived to take me to the Gautrain station, where I got the quick commuter train service to the Johannesburg airport. I had a few hours to kill and spent most of that time in the business lounge before boarding the 22:05 flight to Perth on South African Airways.
The flight was barely half-full, so after a mediocre beef dinner, I stretched out over two seats and tried to get some sleep. It didn’t come easily, and I wasn’t especially well-rested when we landed in Perth at about 13:00 Tuesday afternoon (six hours ahead of Jo’burg time). It was still pretty cool to step out into the bright sunshine and onto my sixth continent. The seventh and last – Asia – will be a little more momentous, but I still enjoyed the moment.
With less than twenty-four hours on the ground, I didn’t have time to see much of Perth. My hostel was central, so after dumping my bag I had a walk through the Northbridge area and the museum district. It was a weekday afternoon and there weren’t a ton of people out, but the weather was great and from what I could see, Perth is a clean, mostly new city that pumps a lot of money into public spaces. There are lots of pedestrian zones and tons of fun public art (at night, the museums and some of the trees along the sidewalks are bathed in multi-colored light).
I had dinner at Grapeskin lounge inside the The Brass Monkey, a block’s worth of old Victorian-era buildings turned into a locally famous hotel and bar. The steak sandwich, despite the waiter’s recommendation, was only okay, but the atmosphere was fun and the mostly-local wine was nice, and cheap. I walked back to the hostel, had a ginger beer and a chat with my roommates, and packed up for an early exit in the morning.
Hogsback and Back to Gauteng
Not a lot to report, really. Saturday morning I left Hogsback after breakfast (and after saying farewell to Chucky, who I came to like quite a bit), and hopped in the car to drive to East London. It isn’t a tough drive, and I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Jo’burg. The man at Avis took a hard look at the car – which, to be honest, I best up on the mountain roads after leaving Cintsa – but gave me a pass anyway.
The flight to Jo’burg was quick, and the driver for the Crane’s Nest guest house in Pretoria picked me up. He drove what the locals call a Citi and what I’d call a old school VW Rabbit, with the boxy front end and all. It was the same size and shape as Dad’s two Rabbits (the dark brown and the bright blue) and was one of several on the South African streets.
I unloaded my bags at the hotel and had a browse through the nearby Brooklyn Mall, which is a collection of mostly second-tier shops. After freshening up, I got a cab to Kream restaurant, about a klick away. It was really magnificent. I had a yellowtail sashimi prelude, seared scallops, and a sesame-glazed salmon fillet, plus a bottle of nice Sauvignon Blanc, plus ice cream with chocolate sauce, plus a little glass of port with dessert, all for R650 with tip (about $65). I think it was the best meal of the trip so far; certainly the best after leaving the states.
I slept off that dinner and had a very slow Sunday today. Breakfast at the hotel, the. The Gautrain to Sandton for some shopping (trainers [tennis shoes], a shirt, and an Australia guidebook), then a cab to the MiPiChi in Melville to rescue my Kindle. After some harrowing moments owing to the fact that the cabbie didn’t know that the defrost button (in his C-class Merc) existed, we made it back to Sandton and I got the Gautrain back to Pretoria. Dinner at Crawdaddy’s was not great – though the staff was lovely – and back at the hotel writing this and keeping an eye on the Cowboys.
Friday was a lazy. Rainy day. It was drizzling when I woke up. I had a nice breakfast (a fry-up) in the Wizard’s Sleeve, then hung around reading and fine-tuning my spring itinerary before driving around noon to The Edge, the imaginatively named place on the edge of town. I avoided the crystal shop and instead traversed the labyrinth, which wasn’t a maze (in the sense of a thing with false leads and dead ends) but just a long path of eleven concentric rings around a Celtic shamrock. It was…long. The scenic overlook nearby, though, was quite spectacular, even with thick fog. Most overlooks in this region are.
I had a lamb and mint pie in the little restaurant at The Edge, then drove back through town – at about 20 kph, in light of the weather – and returned to Hogsback. Other than a quick sojourn to the viewpoint on the perimeter of the property, which did produce some nice photos, I spent the afternoon in Frodo’s Rest, reading and generally doing nothing much at all. I went to the restaurant/bar for dinner and had a tasty pizza. I sat and chatted with bartender Chucky (not Clint!), friendly Johnny of South Africa and his new friend (name unclear) from Leeds, and – randomly – Spencer and Brittany from Buccaneers in Cintsa. Topics included 80s music, South African highways, corporal punishment, and Johnny’s vaporizer, shaped like a walkie-talkie. He’s quite proud of it. I admired from a distance. After Chucky’s guitar exhibition, I quit the bar for bed.
Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Cintsa photos now on Flickr.
After a farewell breakfast with Ed, Emma, and the rest, I checked out of Buccaneers, checked Google Maps (surprisingly good coverage) and drove about 170 kilometers northwest to the mountain hamlet of Hogsback. The drive was easy and pretty, with the last 30 kilometers on a single track road – partly Tarmac and partly rock and dirt – and up, up, up into the bright green mountains in the mist and the clouds.
I checked into Away With the Fairies, a hostel/hotel on the edge of the wilderness (though that is true of the whole town, really). J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings here, so everything is a variation on that theme; my room is called “Frodo’s Rest.” I had a nice lunch at a café across the street and then set off on what the Fairies’ receptionist told me would be about a two-hour hike.
I was deep in the woods, and the trail was pretty minimal most of the time. It was beautiful and peaceful, and well thought out. Every so often I’d come to a tree with a placard identifying the species and explaining its uses – white stink wood, lemonwood, and real yellowwood, including “The Big Tree,” an 800-year-old specimen that more than lives up to its name, at 124 meters tall and 8.5 meters around at the base. The only place I got in a little bit of trouble was at Swallowtail Falls, where the “easy” path wasn’t blazed very well, and the “difficult” shortcut was more than I was ready to handle. I just backtracked to the start a few kilometers away and saw everything in reverse.
It had been drizzling the whole time, apparently, but none of it penetrated the canopy and I wasn’t too wet from rain when I got back to the hostel. I was soaked in sweat, though (the elevation change over the course of the hike was substantial and often very steep), so I had a shower and headed to the restaurant/bar for dinner. It’s called the Wizard’s Sleeve, and yes, that is very rude anatomical slang, especially in England. I have no idea whether it’s intentional.
I had a nice Thai green curry ( two nights in a row – this was better than Buccaneers) and had a long chat with the itinerant bartender, who I think might be called Clint. He’s an ex-shark watching skipper and wildlife conservation expert who got fed up and is now bouncing around hostels in the mountains. Among other things, he told me how he used to free dive with tiger sharks on the reef near his home, but that constant feeding and chumming to attract great whites had had the unintended consequence of attracting black tip sharks, miles from their natural habitat. Those sharks are disrupting the ecosystem and driving away the tigers. His frustration is understandable. I chatted with a few fellow travelers over drinks before retiring pretty early. The hike had taken it out of me!
After the late-night soccer the night before, I sort of eased into Wednesday. As I walked up to the breakfast room, through, I was pleased to see that the wind had subsided dramatically from Tuesday’s gale-force levels. I ate with Ed and Emma (and Canadian Spencer and his new friend Brigitte) and tried to explain the shutdown and impending default, which interested Emma (who did politics and history in university) very much.
Around noon I headed for the beach. The sun was out in full force and the wind, at least as I set off, was close enough to calm. I walked east along the coast for about an hour and a half, maybe covering three kilometers as I stopped several times to take pictures or just stand in the surf and feel the strong undertow. I saw Spencer – a novice surfer who has just “picked it up” while in South Africa – testing out his skills with Brigitte and another girl, then quickly retreating to the safety of a nearby sand dune.
When I got far enough along that I couldn’t see the harbor in front of Buccaneers, I turned around and headed back. As I did, I discovered that the wind had picked up. I hadn’t really noticed if at my back, but definitely did on the way home. It took me a couple of hours with the headwind, and I had to walk in the wet sand under the ride line to avoid the stinging, blowing sand up higher on the beach. It was still beautiful, blissful, and nearly deserted.
Back at the ranch, I did a bit of reading and a bit of springtime trip planning, then went up to the bar for dinner, which was good for the their night on a row – this time Thai green curry. During dinner, Ed tried to explain cricket (which was on the TV) and Emma and I fell into a long conversation about Ted Cruz and Ann Richards and Scottish devolution and Winston Churchill and whatever else came to mind.
After a few beers, I faced each of them in a game of pool on a small table with smaller than normal balls and a cue with a noticeable warp. Both games were close, not due to any skill on my part but rather a lack of skill on the part of all of us. I left one ball on the table when Ed best me; Emma won with only the eight left. I’m pretty sure I made it to bed before midnight, but not long before. All in all, another very pleasantly in eventful day in Cintsa.
Tuesday morning I drove back into East London for some supplies – again managing not to drift over to the right-hand side of the road – and returned to Cintsa around noon. My plan had been to take a book down to the beach and spend the afternoon there. There were two problems: I had forgotten to buy a book in East London (my Kindle remains on holiday in Jo’burg and reading on the iPhone in the sun isn’t easy), and the wind was blowing hard. I can’t say this with any certainty, but I think it was steadily 30 miles per hour with frequent gusts twice that. I went down to the beach anyway, but the sand is very fine and the wind was whipping it up to the point that it hurt to walk into the gusts of sand.
I retreated to the verandah on my cabin, but there, too, the wind was so strong that even sitting outside was uncomfortable. I sat inside my cabin and started reading the new-ish Nelson DeMille book (The Quest), which so far is quite stupid. It’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed anything of his, but it’s what I had on the phone. When I got bored with it, I went up to the lounge and picked up the Wi-Fi signal, and spent a couple of hours doing some advance planning for the winter-spring leg of my trip. (On that note, anyone with tips for Japan, China, Southeast Asia, or India, please let me hear from you.)
The meal was a good Indian buffet, and then we all retired to the bar, where a drummer with good banter and impossibly quick hands entertained us for a while. I chatted for a long time with Ed and Emma, who’d just been on safari on a park in South Africa, about our experiences, then sat with them and watched some soccer. Ed is English, and England had their final World Cup qualifying match, needing either a win against Poland or a very, very unlikely Ukraine loss to San Marino to win the group and make it through without a playoff. It really is fun watching the national sport with a passionate fan, doubly so since England dominated play and won 2-0. We stayed up late with a few others. In fact, I’m not sure I made it back to the cabin before midnight. For not having done much of anything, it was a really nice day all told.
Left is the New Right
Monday morning I had a last walk around Cape Town and, in particular, the Gardens and Bo-Kaap areas around my hostel. I have really come to like Cape Town. Apart from New York and London (which have always been on my list), it’s the first place I’ve been on this trip where I can imagine living. It’s big but doesn’t really feel big, the landscape is beautiful and different in every direction, the people are (mostly) friendly, and there is a relaxed and youthful vibe that reminds me a bit of Austin.
Alas, it was time to leave. I got a cab to the airport and caught a short flight to East London, a big but anonymous city a few hundred miles east, on the coast. There I faced my latest challenge: driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I don’t usually rent cars on my vacations, and before Monday I’d never driven a right-hand drive car. Avis still gave me the keys to a Toyota and directions to the N2 motorway, and I was off for Cintsa, thirty or so miles away.
Several times I turned on the wipers when I meant to signal, and every time I get in the car I instinctively reach over my left shoulder for the seat belt, only to find it each time on the right, but other than that it’s just not that hard. I made my way through East Lpndon and onto (and back off of) the N2, and got to Cintsa around four.
I’m staying at the Buccaneers Backpacker village directly on the beach in Cintsa West. It’s still shoulder season, but the hostel is mostly full, and the crowd is uniformly social in the manner of backpackers everywhere, but diverse in age, race, and definitely nationality. On the first night I met people from Canada, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and South Africa, and I’m sure there were others from other places who I just didn’t meet. The hostel has a counsel dinner each night (Monday was bangers and mash) and then entertainment in the bar. A good magician (card tricks and sleight-of-hand, not rabbits out of hats) and a glass or two of the (very decent) boxed red wine, at 90 US cents a pop, wound down the day.
One of the reasons I decided to spend so much time in Cape Town was the chance to go cage diving with great white sharks. That chance came Saturday; it didn’t go exactly to plan but was still a thrill.
I’d booked with Marine Dynamics through my hostel, and their driver picked me up at about 10:15. We made only one other stop, at the extremely posh Cape Grace Hotel on the waterfront, where six others joined. We drove about two hours south-east, past the whale-watching resorts at Hermanus and around Walker’s Bay to Gansbaai (Gans Bay), the unquestioned white shark capital of South Africa.
On arrival we were introduced to the twenty or so others who would be joining us aboard the Slashfin, most of whom were on a package tour from England. We were given a light lunch, a life jacket, and an introductory talk, and were told that wet suits and other diving gear once we were on board.
We set off from the dock about 2:15, and rode fifteen minutes through a moderate to heavy chop (about three meters – not much when you’re crossing the Drake Passage on an icebreaker, but plenty big on a ten-meter boat). One of the guides tossed me a gear bag with a wet suit, which I endeavors to put on while we were still making our way to the site. A few others were doing the same, and the top deck of the boat became a mass (and mess) of half-naked bodies trying to wriggle into thick Neoprene.
I was really struggling with mine and was sure from the start it was too small. A couple of guides tried to help by tugging the legs up into place as I shifted my weight from one foot to another, then helping me again as I got my arms through. By the time I was fully zipped up, we were at the dive site – and I couldn’t stand up straight and was having trouble breathing. I said again that I thought the suit was too small, but I was told it was fine and that I didn’t want it too big or it would get waterlogged. Not being a diver, I accepted this for a while.
The first wave of divers hit the cage as I made my way to the main deck. I wasn’t at all seasick (many, many others were – they’d eventually run out of puke bags) but I was overheating. I unzipped the top partway and sat down to watch the sharks approach the boat, in hopes that I would become acclimated to the suit. The sharks were fantastic. We saw a total of seven different ones, the first few smaller and the last a large (4.7 meter) female as long as the eight-person cage. They swam within just a few feet of the port side of the boat and once practice leaped dramatically out of the water to strike either the bait (fish heads crammed on a big lure) or the decoy (a piece of plastic intended to look from below like a Cape for seal).
Unfortunately I didn’t get any better, and had to take the suit off down to my waist to cool down at all. I complained to one of the guides that the suit was really, truly too small. She offered to see if there was an extra of the next size up, but by that point the experience had kind of been wasted. I felt bad, and I was irritated about the lack of care that had gone in to sizing the suits in the first place, and those facts in combination made me irritable. I told her I just wanted to change back into my regular clothes. As yet another guide struggled to peel the thing off of me, he acknowledged that I’d been given the wrong size.
I didn’t come all the way to Cape Town just to go shark diving. If I had, I’d have picked my own operator and would most certainly have had more than two hours on the water – and is probably have invested in my own personal wetsuit. Moreover, what I got to see from above the water really was magnificent. The sharks look like they belong to another, much more distant evolutionary age (as they really do), and getting so close to them was exhilarating. Seriously amazing – I don’t want that to get lost here, because it was one hell of an experience. The people who went below said they got better views, but only very briefly, and no good photos, so I have that advantage. Still, on the whole, the experience wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. In hindsight, that’s partly on my shoulders for letting my irritation overcome by desire to five and refusing the (potential) offer of an on-the-fly bigger suit, and that’s something I need to work on anyway. But part of it is on the operator for not making damn sure everyone has a suit that fits before leaving the dock! Why wait until we’re at sea?
So after, um, going shark diving – I can still say that’s what I did, right? – we rode back to Cape Town while watching the sun set over the water. South Africa really is a beautiful, diverse country just in terms of its natural landscape. I understand why people settled here, especially around the Cape.
I was back at The Backpack by eight and forewent (big word!) the chain-dinner option of Nando’s for “Cape Town’s First Tex-Mex Restsurant,” the Fat Cactus. Some of their specialities are a little odd – the “(N)iceberg,” for example, is a glass of lager with an iceberg of frozen margarita floating in it – but on the whole it was pretty authentic and good. I had lamb fajitas, which were very nice and which (in addition to the usual fixin’s) were accompanied by “cactus crema,” which as best I could tell was a mix of fresh sour cream, minced nopal, maybe some heavy cream, and some lime juice. If I can figure it out I’ll add it to the fajitas I do for tailgate parties. Cultural exchange! Back to The Backpack to pack my backpack and spend a final night in a very fine hostel.
The weekend started off slowly, with my shark diving trip postponed from Saturday to Sunday. I spent the morning working on photographs, blogs, and other (fun) chores, then walked down to the Company’s Garden, now a park and heritage site but originally the garden established by some of the first settlers in about 1650 (Cape Town, which was settled in part because sailors needed a waystation to avoid the effects of scurvy, and partly because so many ships kept foundering nearby, is centuries older than Johannesburg.)
From the park I walked down Long Street and through several pedestrianized streets with vendors selling mostly t-shirts and African souvenirs. I was there around noon on a Saturday, but the crowds weren’t big Nd the whole thing felt a bit downmarket, honestly. I headed down to the waterfront, which was busier, and watched a couple of street performances and had a pretty average burger (or “beef burger,” as they’re known in most places outside of the states).
I had been scheduled for a walking tour of the Woodstock area, focusing on graffiti and street art, but cancelled that when it started pouring rain. It turned out to be a brief storm and I probably could have gone, but instead I spent a happy couple of hours in the food halls and craft markets at the far end of the waterfront, somewhat removed from the most touristy bits. Afterwards I got my first haircut since Manchester and went back to The Backpack by way of The Beerhouse, reminiscent of the (old) Flying Saucer in Sundance Square, Fort Worth. The sound was off, but I still tried to learn rugby by watching a match between the Free State Cheetahs and the Blue Bulls. I don’t think I’ve quite got it down.
I’d expected an early night and a very early departure for the sharks, but I learned when I got back that I wouldn’t leave until 10:15 on Sunday. I took advantage of the extra few hours by watching some soccer/football in the lounge while following some TCU football on my phone. I had a good Thai dinner at Simply Asia on Park Road, watched/followed a little more football of both varieties, and remembered to put on my seasickness “patch” just before bed!
Better late than never, all of my safari photos are on Flickr. I was way too snap-happy the first few days, but became more selective as we went. I’m pretty proud of some of these and hope you like a few of them, at least! (Do hit the “favorite” button on the ones you like so I’ll know, please.)
I uploaded small-size versions, but if you see something you like and want the hi-res version, just let me know and I’ll email it to you!
The bus from Wine Flies was supposed to pick me up at 8:15, so when I showed up in the bar at 8:04 and found myself ordering behind a group of about twenty high schoolers, I was sure I wouldn’t get to eat before heading out. As it happens, I had plenty of time, as the bus didn’t arrive until nearly nine.
“Lord G” was our driver, and Philadelphia newlyweds Margaret and Kevin were already on board when I joined. We stopped to pick up Dennis and Alyssa (sp?) of California, then blogger Virginia and her three colleagues, and finally a South African couple from Durban whose names I knew before all the wine. We drove first to the Fairview winery in the Paarl valley, about forty minutes north of central Cape Town, where sampled three white and three red wines, paired with cheese also made on the (expansive) premises. Of these, my favorite was the Mourvèdre.
Were boarded the bus for a quick ride into Stellenbosch and the Villiera winery. Of the many offerings here, including some Champagne by another name, I preferred the 2011 Gewürztraminer. We then had a quick stop for a late lunch (a braai, really) at Middelvlei winery, where the stars of the show were three rambunctious dogs, including a giant four-month-old Great Dane puppy and a tiny, fully grown Dachshund that delighted on giving the bigger, dimmer dog a hard time.
As the afternoon progressed, the veined got better but the crew got more and more drunk. Our next stop was the Lovane boutique winery, which has only two and a half hectares (about five acres) under cultivation. We sampled two whites and three reds, the best of which was the Isikhati 2007 Bordeaux blend, which was at once complex and smooth.
Our final stop was the Annadale winery, run by ex-South African rugby international Gerhard “Hempies” du Toit. Here we had six excellent reds (including a port), the best of which was a spectacular 2004 Shiraz, aged eight years in new French oak barrels. We got a little silly on the bus back to town, but I was very pleased to make friends with the whole group.
To cap the night, I learned from the booking desk that my shark-diving trip had been postponed until Sunday. I went to dinner at Biesmiellah, on Upper Wale Street – it was on the recommendation of someone. From the winery tour, and my mutton curry was good, but I was the only one in the place at 9:30 on a Friday night. I returned to The Backpack and watched England best Montenegro 4-1 to all but clinch a World Cup berth, accompanied in the lounge by a few authentic Englanders. The later Uruguay-Ecuador match from Quito didn’t have local support, and I admit I gave up before the final whistle.
Thursday morning I spent a bit more quality time on the phone with Wells Fargo before giving up on the idea of having a card sent overseas, and instead agreeing to have it sent to my PO box in Fort Worth, from which I’ll ask my parents to forward it to my hotel in Melbourne or Sydney, depending on how long it takes to make it to Fort Worth in the first instance.
After finally putting this issue to bed, I walked from The Backpack down Long Street (Road?), home to antique shops, coffee houses, bars, and cool independent shops. This led eventually past Strand and into de Waterkant and its small gay district, through which I had a quick browse before continuing back to the V&A Waterfront, albeit from a different direction than that from which I’d approached it the night before.
I browsed around the waterfront for a couple of hours, slipping into malls and small shops and popping out to watch drawbridges in action and to check out the working ships and boats tied up to the docks (side by each with touristy “harbor cruise” boats and pleasurecraft). I picked up a couple of things at a bookstore and then had an unremarkable lunch at a seafood “pub” looking out onto the water.
After a bit more browsing, I got a cab to the bottom of the Table Mountain Cableway and bought a round-trip ticket to the top, some 1086 meters above (the very nearby) sea level. The views from the top – in their majesty and in their diversity – were amazing. To the southeast were the mountains that form the southern cape, leading eventually to the Cape of Good Hope and one of two places on earth where two oceans collide (the other being Cape Horn, at the tip of Argentina, by which we passed on the Antarctic cruise in March). To the north lay Table Bay, the sheltered harbor that was for centuries the basis for Cape Town’s economy. Beyond that, in the distance, were the northern suburbs and eventually the beginning of the wine-growing regions, which I’d visit the next day.
I stayed up top until about four, when I descended and got a cab back to The Backpack (where, upon arrival, I had to tell the cabbie firmly and repeatedly that I was not going to pay R150 for what had been a five-minute drive). I spent some time catching up on my blog, photo uploads, and other housekeeping matters, then had a glass of (not great) fair trade Merlot in the bar before going down the road to dinner.
On the recommendation of one of the bartender-receptionist-travel agents at The Backpack, I ate at Rick’s Cafe Americain, which sounds hokey (and is), but where I had some good fish cakes followed by a Moroccan baked yellowtail fillet, with mixed vegetables and sautéed new potatoes. It and the other restaurants along Park Road were hopping, and I had a good time. I came back to the hostel and made preparations for a fairly early departure for the wine tour on Friday.
The Complete Incompetence of Wells Fargo Bank
My flight for Cape Town wasn’t due to leave until eleven, and I’d already sorted a ride to the airport with either Jacco or Pierre, so I packed up and decided I needed to bite the bullet and call my bank, Wells Fargo, to have them issue a new debit card to replace the one Standard Bank had decided to keep as a souvenir of my visit. I thought it would be an easy process.
No. First, the South African toll-free number they provided didn’t work, so I had to pay $5.00 peri mute for the privilege of speaking with the bank’s customer service representatives. The first two were no help at all, but then I was put in touch with Nelson, a supervisor in the Premier Banking division. He could help, right?
Nelson first told me that the replacement card would have to be sent to my home address. I explained patiently why this would not work, insofar as I am quite literally halfway around the world. Then he said it was possible to send a replacement overseas, but I’d need to wait two weeks because international mail can take that long. I told Nelson that this, too, was unsatisfactory, but that I’d be in Cape Town for five nights, more than enough time for the bank to overnight a card.
“That’s not an option,” he said. “We can’t deliver a card to South Africa overnight.” I informed him that both FedEx and DHL are capable of such witchcraft, and he clarified: it was out of the ordinary, but as a special accommodation, the bank could just possibly issue an emergency card, with the same functionality as my debit card, that would reach me in forty-eight hours. Success! All I had to do was answer a few additional verification questions.
I was ready, since the questions would be about me! Except they weren’t. Nelson asked me three public-record questions about cars, car loans, and cell phone numbers, with multiple choice answers. Since I didn’t take out a car loan in 2004, own any species of Toyota, or have a cell phone number different than the one from which I was very demonstrably calling, I answered “none of the above” to each. Nelson told me I’d answered every question wrong, and therefore that he could not issue a new card. We went back and forth, with my argument centering on the fact that Got each answer right, but I lost. He said I could call back right away, and the system would have re-set and would populate with three new questions. I said I had a plane to catch but would call from Cape Town.
The flight was unremarkable, and I landed in Cape Town about one-thirty. I got a shuttle bus to The Backpack, counted by some as the best hostel in Africa. It didn’t disappoint, with a comfortable private room, big bar, pool, lounge, and travel desk, through which I booked a wineries tour and a day-trip to watch and dive with (okay, near) great white sharks. I couldn’t schedule a tandem paraglide off of Table Mountain, but would keep trying.
That done, I called Wells Fargo again. I made it to the Premier Banking division, where I spoke with Brittney and then her supervisor, Timothy. We went through the story again in all of its sordid detail, but there was a twist! According to Timothy, the questions don’t repopulate for twenty-four to forty-eight “business hours.” This is owing to “the banking regulations,” and there is nobody in all of Wells Fargo with authority to override this requirement or otherwise issue me a card. I would have to call back the next day, or maybe two days later. Hard to say.
I made fairly clear to Timothy that something was wrong. Either the questions from earlier were pulled using someone else’s SSN or public records (either the fault of the bank or its vendor), or the system didn’t recognize that I had answered all three correctly (still a problem, still not mine). As a result, I was left without a card and, as far as he knew, completely without access to money. Timothy blamed me, the vendor, and “the banking regulations,” and asked me what I wanted him to do about it. I suggested something anatomically impossible and hung up.
I resolved to call my future ex-bank again on Thursday morning. Wednesday night, though, I had a beer in the hostel bar and met a few fellow travelers, then got a cab down to the V&A waterfront, where I had dinner in a Portuguese-Turkish restaurant. It was more exotic than delicious, but certainly not bad. I had a quick look around the area and returned to the hostel for some fortifying sleep in anticipation of Episode III with the bank in the morning.