Thursday, December 29, 2011

My first windsurfing video

click on this link to see how I spend my summers. you don't get many better days than this down at Coros.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coronation Xmas

The culmination of my year is the annual camping trip to Coronation Beach. Coronation is my local windsurfing spot, and is only a mere 15km north up the beach from where I live, but it feels like a million miles away.

The world comes to us over summer, as Geraldton, and Coronation Beach in particular, is a fixture in the lives of many international wind and kite surfers, who travel here every year for our consistent wind and waves. Visitors who don't know, when they venture down the hill to see up to a hundred sailors out on the water often ask if there's a competition on. No, we explain, just a lot of people having fun. And us locals like to enjoy our time up here at the beach as well.

I brought the camper up 2 weeks ago, and initially I commuted to work daily, returning for an evening sail, but for ten days over Xmas and New Year I get to camp up here full-time and go sailing all day. It's a great time to just chill out with mates, spend lazy hours swimming, sailing and drinking copious cups of tea. Communal Xmas dinner, washed down with cold beer and a few glasses of red, after a day of wind and waves is what it's all about.

The solar setup is working fantastically, in fact there is little need to rotate the panels to the sun as there are so many hours of sunlight here that my battery stays topped up easily. Lights, fridge, shower and computer, with no concerns whatsoever. I've had all the men, and some of the women, come over to check out my handiwork, and leave suitably impressed, some even requesting advice.

The most fun we've had so far this holiday is filming with our Gopro video cameras. Kate has two cameras and I have one, so we have been having a whale of a time chasing each other around on the water trying to get the money shot. I've managed some nice aerials and wave riding footage and with Nicky on the kite filming with the third camera we are hoping to put together a fun little film. Stay tuned!

The Bradley kids arrived last night, and will stay a few days, though I had to ring home this morning to order more food, snorkelling gear, boogie boards, and Carter's toothbrush and thongs. And games, and jumpers - it can get cold here at night when the wind's blowing a gale till after midnight. They've timed their stay quite well, as it's looking like hot troughed out weather for the next couple of days. This is perfect for just lazy beach days, which I'm not averse to after 6 days straight of sailing. A little recharge of my batteries is in order.

And I've a little video editing to do….

Monday, December 19, 2011

A necessary evil?

Backpacker ghetto.

A location, often in a large city, but it also can be a small town or village which has taken on this role. It is usually only a small area, bounded by a few blocks only, but with a very high percentage of cheap hotels/ backpacker hostels and small restaurants, cafes and bars. And lots of tourist agencies selling bus and train tickets, local tours and more.

Within said location the population is almost exclusively foreign, except for those working in the businesses which flourish on the trade. The customers can be easily identified by their frequently revealing clothing, or lack thereof, their dreadlocks and fisherman's trousers, their tattoos and hair braids. The cafes and bars seem to be overly inspired by rastafarian themes, with reggae music blaring out into the street from midmorning till the wee hours. There are five or six tattoo parlours, knockoff CD and DVDs for sale on every corner, and there's usually a yoga studio or two. The breakfast menu always includes banana pancakes and a selection of smoothies, and the day menu offers pizzas and hamburgers for those times when the local cuisine becomes all too much. There's usually a few local dishes on the menu, but they've been modified greatly to suit the tastes of a much less sophisticated clientele. And there is always beer, unless it's run out. Of course there are other, unmentioned, substances for sale, it is merely a matter of asking and a young man will be sent off on a motorbike to source you a supply.

It's heaven on earth. A place where you can be surrounded by your own kind, eat food you understand, spend your time in an altered mind state, and not have a care in the world. All around you are cute young things who are only too happy to let it all hang out, have a wonderful time, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Bliss!

These places exist all over the world but my experience is primarily Australasian: Khao San Rd (Bangkok), Kuta Beach (Bali), Koh Phangan/Samui/Tao (Thailand), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Gili islands (Lombok Indonesia), Vang Vieng (Laos), Cairns Esplanade (Australia), Goa (India), Airlie Beach (Australia) and Yangshuo (China) just to name a few. Some come and go, like Tuk Tuk on Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia) which is a mere ghost of it's past glory in the 90's, and Dahab (Egypt) which has succumbed to high rise and the middle class tourism of divers and windsurfers. But others go from strength to strength, becoming bigger and bolder and more foreign with the years. Thailand, the most visited SE Asian country in the world probably has the monopoly on the backpacker ghetto, although I suspect Mexico and Central America have their fair share as well. And then there's Vang Vieng….

I am not a fan of backpacker ghettoes, but I can see their usefulness. Foreigners arriving in a new locale like to know where they can go to find reasonably priced accommodation, food they can eat without burning their insides, and people who speak their language who can help them with travel plans. And most importantly, where they can meet like minded fellow travellers to have fun with! These ghettos bear no resemblance to the people or culture of the country or city in which they are located. In fact their resemblance to each other is almost uncanny. A piece of familiarity the world over.

A backpacker ghetto's usefulness is in its familiarity. It isn't home, but it's a place where you don't have to feel pressured by the local social norms to cover up from head to toe in blistering heat, where you can relax and not attempt to speak a foreign language all day, where you know the bar will have beer and your favourite banana and mango smoothie, and you'll have an endless supply of new friends to party with. You never feel lonely in a backpacker ghetto, you're amongst your own kind.

The spread of these places across the planet means it is almost possible to travel from one ghetto to another without stepping outside into the actual culture of the country you may be travelling in. Thailand in particular has almost made this seamless, with private minibus services between tourist hot spots that make taking government buses quite redundant. So much easier than schlepping out to a bus station and trying to understand all that squiggly script. East Coast Australia from Sydney to Cape Tribulation - a breeze!

I am not immune to the advantages of the ghetto, but for me it's a chance to relax, recharge batteries (literally and metaphorically), and contemplate my next adventure. I'm also not a fan of the western food on offer, as it isn't food I'd eat at home anyway, so I'll usually venture out a few blocks back into the real world, find a street stall frequented by lots of locals and tuck into whatever the popular cuisine is. I really do miss noodle soup for breakfast...

The problem with the ghetto, is that some people feel so at home in it, they manage to travel the whole world without often leaving it. No real fault of the ghetto after all. It's really just a place that employs a lot of locals to look after poor bastards who are far too scared to get out there and really see the real world. Without the coterie of their own crowd. Without a common language. Or the benign palate of banana pancakes and gado gado.

You know the best bit about the ghetto? It's become a tourist attraction. Seriously. Khao San Road for instance is a very popular place for young Thais to go and have a laugh at the dreadlocked westerners trying to be hippies and buddhists for a gap year. Yep, we've become such an entrenched part of that city that the locals want to see what it's all about. Perhaps it's cross cultural exchange, but I don't think so, not from what I've heard. It's pure voyeurism.

Fancy that, go travel the world and become a tourist attraction. A cliched one at that. No thanks.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Were we a front?

March 1989. A fledgling democracy movement is spreading its wings. In less than 3 months time tens of thousands of young students and pro democracy demonstrators will be brutally gunned down by the Chinese Army in Tienanmen Square, the rest will be rounded up and imprisoned, the ringleaders tortured and summarily executed. But today that shameful episode in Chinese history fails to rate a mention.

Our Chinese tour company was China Youth Travel Service, government sanctioned, with most of our guides being recent university graduates with good English language skills. But there were only 3 participants: Mum and myself, and Alex, the sleazy geologist from Perth. In China we had a national guide, "Michael", and in each location we had a driver and local guide. And Alex only joined us for 10 days, so for the final 8 days mum and I had our own private tour. Not bad hey?

We wondered about that. Why did the trip go ahead with such a small group? It was an expensive trip, especially in comparison with the cost to travel independently, and perhaps everyone was making enough of a cut anyway? But mum's theory, made later, after the June massacre, was that we were a front, a way for our guide to legitimately travel without drawing the attention of the Communist Party spies. It certainly explains the all night meetings with "other students" wherever we went. And the number of times we had to wake Michael up in order not to miss our plane. I often wonder what happened to Michael, whether he died alongside all those others on that fateful day in June, or ended his days in front of a firing squad or maybe managed to gain asylum overseas....

The train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was uneventful. It was packed with Chinese taking consumer goods - electrical equipment mostly - to the mainland, and then they bought up all the duty free grog and cigarettes on offer as well. We spent the trip watching the scenery change from washing hanging off the balconies of every tenement block in densely populated Kowloon to modern apartment blocks in the New Territories, also heavily festooned with laundry. Once across the barbed wire and sentries at the border the land changed to intensive cultivation, interspersed with shoddy half built houses which increased in number and shoddiness as we approached Guangzhou. First stop lunch, our first experience of authentic Cantonese cuisine, and our first experience of the sheer horror of the Chinese communal toilet.

For the benefit of those who are yet to experience this wonder of Chinese ingenuity, Chinese public toilets have door-less partitions approx 2 feet high with a long gutter running the length of the establishment. You go into your partitioned area, straddle the gutter and squat down to do your business. You try not to look at everyone else, because yes, you can see who else is busy crapping, and whatever you do, you don't look down. That's where the overwhelming stench comes from, where all your and everyone else's excretions for the last two hundred years is fermenting away, a few feet below you. Plus the ones that didn't quite make it! If you are extremely lucky someone regularly hoses it out, but more often than not, luck is not on your side. As a general piece of advice, it's best to go to the toilet BEFORE a meal, if you get my drift...

Those squat jobs still exist all over China, particularly in rural areas, where they'll hang over an irrigation channel so your waste contributes to the next crop, but in the big cities they've installed a lot of nice normal loos, even Eco loos, and almost all hotels have western toilets. Here's my favourite: it was pristine, and when you stood up it bagged your crap, blasted a bit of cold air around and made ready for the next user. Not sure all that plastic was environmentally protective though....

Toilets aside, the joy of China is indisputably its food. Our days revolved around it. Sumptuous breakfast followed by some sightseeing, followed by a huge lunch of countless different dishes, a bit more sightseeing, then time to stuff ourselves yet again. It was difficult to work out where we'd fit in time to actually see some sights, as our guides were always making haste to get us to the next restaurant. We would taste a little of every dish, they were all so delicious, but we were bulging at the seams! We did once have a tense moment over one of the dishes, after spying dog meat in the market.

Even with all those meal stops, we managed to spend 3 days cycling in Guangdong Province, along quiet roads with little traffic, where we were a very new sight for the locals. We visited Seven Star Crags, where we took a boat trip through an underground river, played the black market and got to buy and let off an obscene amount of rockets and firecrackers. Then we went back for more! Kids in a candy shop, only a little more explosive...

Following our leisurely bike interlude, mum staying firmly rooted in the van, still wheezing away in the dank humid weather, we flew to Guilin, home to the mist shrouded karst scenery immortalised on numerous tacky Chinese paintings the world over. I believe Guilin has changed a lot, so here's a panorama I scanned and edited from some original photographs taken from one of the hills above the river.

Next we take a ferry to my first backpacker ghetto: Yangshuo.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Let's start with something easy!

I'm 24 years old. I've never been overseas before. My only travel experiences as a child and young adult have been road trips in Australia. I'd stayed with friends and family, I'd done a lot of camping, I'd frequented quite a few backpackers' hostels between Sydney and Cairns and I'd even done a few weekends in budget holiday cabins. I'm feeling pretty nervous.

Alongside me is my mum, veteran of two odd years travel back in the fifties, when she'd taken the boat to England, worked a few jobs in London in order to travel through Britain and the Continent, then spent a further year working in Canada. Mum's not fazed at all.

I was leaving Australia to travel the world, with no return date. I had a one way ticket to Hong Kong, then onto Bangkok. There I planned to find a cheap ticket to Kathmandu, where I would join an overland tour to London. But first on the agenda was China.

Yes China! Mum had wanted to visit China back in her journeying days, but back in the fifties China was closed to the outside world. Then in 1979 she opened her doors to the West, and a steady stream of international investors and tourists began to arrive. Travel was difficult. The trains were rundown, the road system was almost non existent, the planes were Russian and the Chinese Communist government continued to restrict where tourists could and couldn't go, where they could stay, and what currency they could use. By the time we arrived in 1989 there were less restrictions, but it was still a very difficult thing to navigate the bureaucracy and get where you wanted to go.

For all the above reasons we decided to book a tour, using a tour agency based in Sydney, which arranged guides, accommodation and transfers. For 18 days we were to join a fully supported tour to visit Guangzhou, cycle through the Guangdong Province countryside, fly to Guilin and travel down the river Li to Yangshuo, visit Xian then on to Beijing. After 4 days in Beijing seeing all the sights, we were to add on a further 10 days of self guided travel. Aside from our accommodation and transfers, we'd find our own way around for a further 4 days in Beijing, 2 days in Shanghai, and a couple of days each in Suzhou and Hangzhou. Then we'd fly back to Hong Kong and mum and I would head our separate ways.

China back then was really hard work. Very few people spoke English and Caucasian tourists were a huge tourist attraction. Chinese people have little concept of personal space so they touch you anywhere, and take your possessions to inspect and pass around to their friends whilst laughing and talking in a language you don't understand. We felt like prize zoo exhibits in a very cramped enclosure, and when we left China after a month we were so glad to leave. It was only when I returned to China in 2008, to a very different place indeed, that I realised I had in fact been deeply traumatised by that initial visit, and was kicking myself that it had taken me so long to return. China today, although not as easy as places like Thailand, is a fairly easy place to travel in, now that most of those past restrictions have been lifted. And although the cityscapes and people's clothing have westernised, China continues to be a place of amazing beauty, fascinating history and friendly people. Though a lot less "in your face" than back then.

The morning we leave Sydney my mother develops her first ever asthma attack. She boards a plane feeling wheezy, short winded and very unwell. And when we arrive in Hong Kong she throws her cigarettes away forever. My first job is to get us to a hotel, because we've been delayed in Melbourne 5 hours, and we arrive in Honkers at 2am. No friendly tour agent to meet us at that time, so we jump in a share taxi and make our way to HK Island via the tunnel and a drop off in Kowloon. I'm on red alert. My mum's wheezing like a steam train and that flag fall was 30HKD when I'd heard it was only 6.50. So when we get to our destination I refuse to give our man more than 50 dollars (plus tunnel toll) and successfully avoid my first overseas scam. But at the time I thought even that was a ripoff.

Later that morning I find mum a local health clinic and doctor, get her loaded up with antibiotics and puffers, leave her back at the hotel and head out to purchase a new pair of spectacles. I'd heard that optical services were cheap in Hong Kong, so I took my prescription in and a few hours later picked up my new purchase. And I did all this within 24 hours of arriving in my first overseas country. But it was only Hong Kong after all.

Back at the hotel mum's getting cold feet and thinking about going home. Well she is having a rather hard time breathing! But her daughter's a doctor and assures her that she'll get better with medication and time, and this trip has been so lovingly planned. We agree she probably won't be doing any cycling, something I later discover was never on the cards anyway. She acquiesces to the bullying of her able bodied travel companion and joins me in meeting our one other tour participant, a geologist from Perth called Alex. He's a nice friendly guy, and over the next 10 days becomes increasingly desperate to win my affections. Mum and I unfortunately gang up on him, poor chap, as he really wasn't my type, and far too old at 42. "Yuck!" I'm only just out of nappies remember!

From Hong Kong, we take the train to Guangzhou, where we are met by our Chinese tour guide.
That's the next story.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tales of past travel

I'm in a quandary at the moment. I'm not really sure whether I'll have enough money to pull the plug totally next year, so have been thinking about probably staying in the workforce a little longer. No doubt the uncertainty in the financial situation worldwide makes me somewhat jumpy about the viability of living on investment income for the next fifty years, but hopefully within the next six months we'll all know whether we are totally up shit creek without a paddle, or not. I'm thinking the smelly option myself...

Realistically though, when I travel overseas in developing countries (I do like a good euphemism) I have an uncanny ability to live off the smell of an oily rag (don't mind a cliche or two either!). I'm continuously surprised when I read other people's travel blogs to realise that my comfort requirements whilst travelling are extremely low. People post pictures of "the worst ever room" they stayed in, and I look at it and am reminded of that wonderful Python sketch involving the Yorkshiremen: "Luxury!!" And I also appear to be in the less than 0.1% of the western population that can not only eat it, but adore Durian! Ok I'm weird, get over it..

But I wasn't always so easy going in the travel department, and I'm also totally able to lush it up when the situation arises, though I'm not sure I could ever totally stomach first class air travel unless someone else was footing the bill. I prefer to travel on the cheap because it gets you much closer to the people and culture in which you are visiting. But there's the crux, I don't do it 'cause I have to, but 'cause I want to, and I don't mind the discomfort. Then again, I love camping and sleeping out in the great outdoors. If you have never slept out under the stars in the Aussie outback in a swag, then put it on your bucket list.

Since all this technology hasn't actually been around all that long, I've got a lot of back stories of travel that I wrote in journals, and took pictures of using a film camera, with only 36 pictures per roll. Yes that's right, back last century!!!

I thought I might start to revisit them, pull out the old diaries and write about my travels from back then. On this blog. Sort of a blast from the past while I'm waiting for the future. Plus I've got to do something to keep myself amused whilst I'm camped up the beach if the wind doesn't blow. You bet I've got a 12 volt charger for the computer!! And there's mobile coverage on top of the sand dune, so internet's possible as well!!

In 1989 I left Australia and went travelling for almost 2 years. The first place I went to was China, then through Thailand and Nepal and overland to Europe, including the Middle East. I went to Petra before Indiana Jones! I remember this because when I saw him hooning up the siq on that horse at the end of the movie I was so jealous. We'd tried so hard to get the locals to let us loose galloping their horses through that narrow passage and they'd flatly refused. The rich American actor got to do it, not fair!!

When I got to the UK I bought a bicycle, and aside from the time I spent doing a little work around the NHS hospitals of England and Scotland, I spent the remainder of my travels on that bike, touring Ireland, Scotland, England and finally the European continent. The latter was in the summer of 1990, not long after the Berlin Wall came down, and I got to visit the east before the crowds and the cynicism set in. It was a truly remarkable time.

So I'm going to delve through my personal archives, scan some old pictures, and start blogging again about past travel tales. I hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

This one's for you mum

Just a quick few shots of the camper being aired prior to being packed and taken up to Coronation Beach, possibly next weekend. I've almost finished the painting - well all that I'm going to do this year anyway - and the wiring is finished and happily solar charging as I write this. Mum hasn't been over since the overhead power lines were removed, so she hadn't seen the unobstructed view.
I've just put up the shade sails this week: the big one to protect the house from the afternoon sun, and the smaller ones for the vege garden. Bit of a mish mash, but they do the job.

Another hot weekend forecast....