Saturday, March 30, 2013

Damnation to bureaucracy

I don't know whether it's only something that happens in Communist countries and ex-British colonies, but dealing with government bureaucracies when overseas can be a total nightmare. As I wander through my handwritten journal from my China trip in 1989 I discover I have written an entire three pages on my experience of sending a book back to Australia from the Beijing International Post Office.

So I thought I might share it with you!

The scenario is: I have a large pictorial book that is fairly heavy and I want to send it home. I go to the counter marked "Printed Matter Parcels" (yes, signs in English, not bad hey?) where I get told to go to customs.

Ignoring this advice I stand in line at a desk selling packaging material. Service is extremely slow and when my turn at last arrives the lady tells me to go to customs. Stupid westerner!

I go to customs, they look at my book, say OK, and I head back to the packaging desk, where everyone just ignores me. I go back to the parcel desk, they also ignore me, so I go back to the packaging desk a third time, and at last someone serves me and wraps my book in some brown paper. I then label my parcel and go back to the parcel desk, where I need to buy stamps. People push aggressively in front of me and by the time it's my turn, the lady has decided she's no longer serving customers so directs me to the line next to her.

Since no-one in China actually stands in lines, they just aggressively push in, I am feeling somewhat pissed off, and by the time I get to the counter of the second "line" I'm not too pleased to be told by the girl that I need to go to customs. But I've been to customs I say. No, I need to go back to customs and get a stamp!

Back to customs, where they put a red stamp on my parcel, then back to the parcel line for what, the fourth or fifth time?

And this time I get my stamps.

I then have to go and glue the stamps onto the package and return back to the parcel desk, so she can reweigh the parcel to ensure I haven't slipped something else in. I get the OK, and the lady at last takes the parcel to be posted.

This whole procedure takes well over an hour!

But the book does arrive home, and I still have it to this day. Photographs of iconic Chinese scenery, some of dubious quality, but beautiful all the same. It reminds me of a China pre commercial boom, before the huge expansion in car ownership or road networks, when bicycles were still Emperors.

And it reminds me of an hour of my life when I had to cope with the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy.

It was worth it!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beijing Memories

Late March 1989. Mum and I arrive in Beijing on an early morning flight from Xian. Our local guide fails to pick us up from the airport so we take a taxi in to the city, find the back street operation that calls itself our tour agency, and amuse ourselves watching a man wash his hands with soap, water, then dirt! Hmmm.

Soon we are off to our hotel, situated south of the CBD on the road to the Temple of Heaven, where we spend the rest of the day waiting for our local guide to get his act together and arrange our itinerary. We have caused considerable confusion by tacking on an extra 4 days to our stay in Beijing, four days when we won’t have our lives ordered by fitting a limited amount of sightseeing in around sumptuous banquets at every meal. We will be free agents, something the Chinese authorities haven’t quite got their heads around yet.

Our first day of sightseeing we tackle the big-ticket items: a trip north of Beijing to the Ming Dynasty tombs and The Great Wall. I am suitably impressed by both structures, but not by the appalling sanitation and the need to bribe policemen in order for our driver to proceed. We return to Beijing tired, in desperate need of a toilet that doesn’t smell like a sewer, and a little poorer.

Day 2 we tick off a few more items on the bucket list. First up is Tiananmen Square where we line up to traipse past Mao’s embalmed body laid out in his mausoleum. Then across the road to The Forbidden City for a whirlwind tour through it’s many halls and palaces. We are in a hurry, because it’s soon time for lunch, yet another excessive banquet washed down with local beer. I have been enjoying the local beers though!

After lunch it’s off to The Temple of Heaven, which is truly a beautiful place and we vow to return there once we have more time on our hands. But next it’s off to The Friendship Store, before dinner and a visit to the International Club for an acrobatics show. Those kids are amazing, all that balancing of crockery and bodily contortions.

The Friendship Store was a Chinese institution back in those days, because it was the only place you could purchase goods using Foreign Exchange Certificates, or FECs. Goods sold in The Friendship Stores were considered better quality, so could be sold to foreigners without fear that they would fall apart within minutes. Friendship Stores also sold foreign goods, so Chinese people were very keen to get hold of FECs so they could buy a TV or some other highly sought after electronic equipment. Which meant there was a flourishing black market. Fast forward 20 years and now pretty well everything is made in China and exported to the world. Needless to say, Friendship Stores and FECs are a distant memory.

Our third day we venture out to the Summer Palace, before spending a couple of lazy hours strolling through some of the parks surrounding the Forbidden City. That evening we dress up to go to a posh restaurant to eat Peking Duck. A proper meal consists of making your way through various dishes comprising all the duck’s innards before the main course of crispy skin and meat wrapped up in a crepe with spring onions and plum sauce. And that’s topped off with a hearty duck soup. Very nice!

Day 4 we say goodbye to both our guides, breathe a huge sigh of relief and head off on our own. A bus and a subway ride away we arrive at the Tibetan Lama Temple and are overjoyed to see not only a working temple, but also a lack of tourist crowds. After a wander around here, we head off by foot through hutongs, and stop for a while at a Confucian Temple with a small archaeological museum and a map of the old city walls.  Even in 1989 there was little left of the old Beijing, and hutongs were rapidly being destroyed to make way for new modern buildings. With their decrepit courtyard houses and appalling sanitation it wasn’t a surprise, but it’s always sad to see a city losing its architectural heritage.

Back on the main drag we visited both the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, before heading down through Coal Hill Park to the shopping district of Wanfujing Lu. Next we hit the evening food markets along Changan Avenue, using our black market Renminbi to sample the local cuisine. Noodle dishes, dumplings, fried sparrows on sticks! Even ice cream. Failing to find the right bus stop, watching numerous bus 39s pass us by without stopping, we trudge our way back to our hotel. Exhausted, we scrub half a hill of dirt off our faces before heading to bed.

Next day we decide to visit the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which is in outer Beijing. This involves taking a bus into town, a trolley bus to the zoo, another bus to the Summer Palace then a final bus out towards the Botanic Gardens, before walking down a dry dusty road to the temple. Although not a working temple it was in a pretty setting amongst gardens and pagodas. The trip back, however, was a nightmare, where aggressive use of elbows was the only way to get onto the overcrowded plethora of buses we needed to get back to town.

After another meal of snacks at the night market we opted for the shuttle bus back to our hotel from its sister hotel closer to town. We have enough time for a lazy cocktail whilst waiting for it to leave.

Day 6 we return to the Forbidden City, now experts at wielding our elbows in the fight for a seat on the number 39 bus in to town. We enjoy an entire day wandering around through the various rooms, collections, gardens and relics that still remain. Although many Chinese imperial treasures were taken to Taiwan by the Kuomintang when they lost to the Communists, there was still a lot to amuse us for hours. And without the pressure to head off for a sumptuous midday banquet we enjoyed a quiet picnic in the Imperial Garden and continued our sightseeing.

That evening we decided to try Peking Duck again, this time opting for a less opulent restaurant where the clientele were all local, some of whom spoke English. We shared our table with one young couple who worked at one of the big hotels, and were complimented by others for choosing to frequent their local eating establishment. And the food tasted better too.

Our second last day in Beijing we go shopping. Dazhalang Hutong was a maze of shops selling all sorts of products at cheaper prices than the market stalls near the tourist sights. The nearby hutongs were in a dire state of disrepair, frequented by rag and bone men on tricycles and mangy cats. From the main Post Office we take a subway to the Beijing Observatory, a museum of instruments once used by star gazing Jesuits, before wandering through a few more shops and markets, changing some money on the black market, snacking on street food and indulging in overpriced cocktails back at the hotel.

Our final day in Beijing we visit the Post Office to send off some of my purchases. As I was heading off through South East Asia and not heading home with my mother, we decided to send home some of the heavy books we had bought. Rather than burden mum with the extra luggage, we decided to brave the bureaucracy of sending a parcel overseas.

That’s a story in itself!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Inspirational travel stories

I like to be inspired by reading about other people's travel exploits. It's one of the reasons I read travel blogs. Only, a lot of them just don't inspire me.

Now I'd like to say right here and now that my travel aspirations differ markedly from a lot of what I read on blogs. Which is perhaps why I'm so disappointed with so many. I'm not that interested in reading about people's travel budgets, even if I have been guilty of writing about just that myself. I'm not particularly thrilled by the blogs that churn out the "how to..." and "10 things you should know about...." posts, perhaps because I'm not a novice traveller. But I don't mind having a read and deciding how much of it I agree with and how much is just total crap!

Those sort of blogs don't interest me.

What I do like is reading people's stories. About the places they go to, or the people they meet. That make the effort getting to know the people in the places that they travel in, even if just for a day. And share that in a way that makes me want to do something similar. I'm particularly fond of those who do things in a more adventurous way, like hiking, cycling or boating their way around the world. Birders blogs can be quite interesting too, because they often go to some pretty out of the way places to find some rare species, and then draw a map on how to get there.

Like the chap in Yunnan China who travels around trying to meet and photograph all the different ethnic minority peoples, documenting their culture and festivals.

Or Edwin and Ivonne, who I've been following for a few years now as they travel gently and ethically around the world. Or my friend Roman, who went hitchhiking for 7 years and is such a talented photographer.

Or this guy who decided to walk, yes walk!, the whole way back to Germany from Beijing. He chose not to cut his hair or shave, and took a photo of himself every day, then combined them into an awesome timelapse video. He met some pretty interesting people along the way, and..... well you'll have to check out the blog to see whether he made it.

It was a birding report, complete with hand drawn maps, that got me interested in visiting Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra, and climbing the mountain. I still have the maps, but have lost the link.

Another source of travel inspiration has been the writings of past travellers. Some are still in print, but many would have been lost. A huge repository of travel literature has resurfaced thanks to Project Gutenberg, which has digitalised the travel tales of some mighty fine adventurers from over 50 years ago. And they put the hard core adventure traveller of today to shame. Never mind the average punter.

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace, was an early favourite, but I've also been struck by the adventures of Peter Fleming and Eva Maillart in the 1920s and 1930s in China and North Asia/USSR. A Wayfarer in China, by Elizabeth Kendall, follows an American lady and her dog through Western China and Mongolia, travelling in a way few westerners would be capable of today. The insights these early travel writers give about the places they visit is sometimes amusing, sometimes plain derogatory and patronising, but often spot on. It's interesting to compare what they muse as to the future for the people and countries they visit, see what has happened, and marvel at their clairvoyance.

My current read is a 2 book memoir by Thomas Stevens. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world on a bicycle. From 1885-1887, when bicycles had not long been invented, and his bicycle was a penny farthing. He carried very few supplies and somehow managed to survive everything the elements and the difficult political climate in Asia threw at him. Fascinating to read about the political shenanigans of the time, and realise very little has changed.

I don't mind reading modern day travel stories either. Bill Bryson is always a laugh and I've been a great admirer of Dervla Murphy's many adventures on bicycle, donkey and foot. I identified with Rolf Potts' Vagabonding (am yet to read his latest book), and I'm a big fan of Tim Hannigan's travel writing as well. I've read his first book and am looking forward to immersing myself in his second.

So much reading, thank goodness for my Kindle hey?

What travel writing inspires you?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Crossing chickens

I do love a good plan.

And having made the definite decision to jump next year, there's a lot of planning to do. I'm as happy as a pig in mud!

First, sort out the finances. Email to accountant, check! Need to find out the best time for me to sell the money tree to minimise my tax exposure. Hey, you don't get to be a capitalist pig without a healthy dose of due diligence!

Second, compile a list of everything I no longer need and start selling it. Man, for a girl who has spent her entire life hoarding and finding second, third and fourth uses for things, you'd think this was going to be hard. But, surprisingly, the list of stuff to get rid of is growing huge, because it seems I really am ready to give up most of my possessions. This is telling me something really profound about my inner psyche methinks!

Third, get my beach house ready to rent out. This means a new roof and guttering and a little downstairs conversion to create a secure storage space for my stuff. The stuff I'm not getting rid of!

Fourth, where to go?

Well.......there's nowhere I don't want to go really. Aside from an active war zone I guess.

I'm really keen to get back to Indonesia again, to visit even more parts of that amazing archipelago. It annoys me that I can only get a 2 month visa, though it can be extended, because I'm pretty sure I could use up a year or more in that country alone! And my Bahasa got really good by the end of my 3 weeks in Java so a bit more practice and I might even become semi fluent!

Then there's the Phillipines, another archipelago I'd love to spend a few months exploring.

Next is Taiwan and Korea, and of course China. And I still have plans to visit Myanmar, why not add Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh?

Right, that's about 5 years already, and I haven't even left Asia....

About this point in time I told myself I've just got to stop planning. The world's just plain too big.

So, aside from a 2 month visa and a one way flight to Bali, I think that's about the extent of my forward travel plans.

Which means I can keep my eye out for one of those ridiculously cheap Air Asia flights.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The honeymoon is over

2 months back at work and it's over. It's not for me. I want out.

The thing is, I don't mind the work, my workplace is fine, but I just don't want to do it any more. I guess the magic has gone, it doesn't feel like a vocation, just a job.

And I desperately want to go travelling again. What to do?

Next year I hit the big half century (my baby face is at last showing its age) and I'd long decided that I wanted to retire then. But I didn't have the cash to do so, and I'm in alot of debt. Which got me all depressed. Staring down the barrel of doing a job you no longer love for another 10-15 years was causing me alot of grief.

The trouble is I can't just work more, save more and retire sooner either, because I'm a complete train wreck as far as coping with full time work. I know this, my friends know this, my employer knows this, you get the picture....

But, the shining light in all this is my money tree. It's time to chop it down and reap the rewards.

Many years ago I turned 30. Before that particular event I had a fantasy. It involved meeting a man, falling in love, settling down together, buying a house, making babies and living happily ever after. Not a very original fantasy but it was one I'd had in my head right through my stormy teens and 20s. And then I turned 30, took a good long look at that fantasy and threw it in the bin.

I realised that I couldn't rely on a man/partner to provide me with financial security, I needed to do it myself. So I turned 30 and immediately began looking for real estate. 2 weeks later I'd bought my first house. And it wasn't just a house, it was a money tree!

I was lucky. I bought a house in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, before real estate prices skyrocketed.  It's now worth 4 times my purchase price. I've managed to purchase other property using the equity in that original property and expand my portfolio to minimise my tax and grow my future. But if the day job goes, then the money tree has to be forfeited to clear the debt. I can't have it both ways.

When I've been number crunching over the last few months I've been loathe to consider selling the money tree, because it keeps on giving. Not only is it worth a fortune, it also brings me in a very good income with minimal costs. My other investment properties have depreciated in value (meaning selling them won't remove my debt) and don't bring me in as good an income, only because you can't command those sorts of  astronomical rents outside of Sydney! But by going debt free the income they'll provide (along with renting out my beach house) is definitely enough to finance my type of low budget travel, and even allow me to keep contributing towards my superannuation.

It's like an incredible weight has lifted off me. What I thought was going to be impossible is now probable. I can now start realistically planning for that ginormous overseas trip. I really can do it after all!

Now I just have to hear back from the accountant about the fine print. Capital Gains Tax. Ouch!!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Post heatwave blues

February was a mess. Only 4 days when the mercury didn't hit 30 degrees, but that's hardly saying much when it got to 28 and 29 instead. The average was over 35 degrees and the coldest night was 13! That must have been the night I had to find the doona.

Because of my tender ministrations, the garden survived, but not without considerable carnage. The last of the eggplants got caterpillar infested and mouldy, but there's more flowers coming on so I expect more fruit in a couple of months.

All the lettuce died. Well, 99% did, there's a couple of hardy stragglers left. All the cucumber plants also expired, including the new seedlings. February sure is cruel..
once was a cucumber vine
Quite a few tomato plants curled up and went to the great garden in the sky, assuming that the sky garden hasn't been affected by climate change or else there's gonna be nowhere to go. But a few made it through.
sweet little cherries
Bizarrely, I've had a second rush of asparagus, and the stalks are thicker too. Perhaps the result of the feeding and TLC that I've lavished on them in the last 6-12 months, but the heat didn't hurt them at all. Nice to have a happy story amongst the general despair.

The citrus trees, having survived curling leaf miner through my regular leaf pulling, have put on big growth spurts this month, but they have dropped their fruit buds. My one lonely lime is still growing though, am so looking forward to that Mojito!

The rhubarb and fennel seedlings have had mixed success. I always thought rhubarb was a pretty easy plant to grow when I lived over east. It was always the perennial down the back that seemed to thrive on neglect. But over here, you can't take anything for granted, and regular feeding and watering is the only way to get them through big heat waves. The fennel, on the other hand, has thrived, but I'm thinking that they aren't exactly producing big juicy bulbs. Perhaps this will happen as the weather cools down, whenever that will be...

The okra plants that I raised from seed are currently at 30% survival, with the most successful ones being well shaded by other nearby plants. My companion planting strategy is to dump in a whole lot of different plants in the same bed, and to spread them around amongst all the beds. This spreads the soil and pest issues around - they may do better in one spot than another. And hey, I'm just a bit erratic when it comes to gardening OK?
a little okra plant heading for greatness
The mango tree is happy, and has a resident greenie that I have been trying to take macro shots of. He's a little shy though - or she, I'm pretty sure praying mantis are hermaphodites.
this little chap has been staring down the barrel of some pretty heavy duty camera lenses lately
The pumpkin plants have also been victims of the heat. All those lovely little new fruiting buds just shrivelled up and died. Even the chaps at the Farmers Market were commiserating with me last weekend - they struggle too to keep up the water.
this little butternut won't be making it folks!
A wonderful thing happened though, which was that my dragonfruit plant that is planted in the front patch put out its first (and only) flower. It only lasts a night and half a morning, but it's a wonder to behold. I totally get why it's named after a dragon now.
Fire breathing dragon in the garden overnight
So it's not all doom and gloom. A new fig tree I planted a month ago is going great guns and is even fruiting. The watermelon, which are all shaded, are coping and fruiting, though whether I can give them enough water is a moot point. I've exhausted the water in one tank and am starting on the water in the top tank. And praying for rain. Which may still be 2 months away. If I have to use scheme water I will, but I'll darn well grumble about it..
teeny weeny watermelon
The side tropical garden looks happy, and the papaya plants are thriving in the current conditions. The bougainvillea stump has been shooting out a few green shoots, and I've been throwing my organic sensibilities out the window and throwing poison on it. Take that you monster, I am determined to win this one not you and your wicked thorns. Look at me, talking to a plant! This heat sure makes a girl go a bit bananas.

Or friggin' figgy!