England! 9 april – 18 May
We landed in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on April 9. We arrived via overnight ferry from Amsterdam. This was our third overnight ferry on this trip. Always an adventure! On the evening of the 8th we waved good-bye to the European continent and on the morning of the 9th we looked out to see the largest of the British Isles.
When we were preparing for this trip I worried that by this time, 8 months in, we would be burned out on travel. However, landing in England rejuvenated all three of us. After over 4 months, it is really nice to be in an English speaking country. While many people in the world speak at least a little english, casual conversation is limited and one feels that a lot of stuff going on that one isn’t getting at all.
For instance, the announcements on the train in whatever the local language is are always about three times longer than the english version that follows. And heaven forbid we are in a bilingual region, because then the english is dispensed with altogether.
Here are some pictures of the UK for your viewing pleasure.
We landed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on April 9, after an overnight ferry ride from Amsterdam. Newcastle is and old city, but is known mainly for the nearby coal fields which peaked about 100 years ago. It’s a working class town build of yellow stone, with the remnants of a medieval castle at the edge of the city center. After the hyper-tourism of Amsterdam, it was nice being in a low-key sort of a town. Plus, the Geordie accent is pretty great!
After a night in Newcastle we headed a short way east to the picturesque village of Corbridge near Hadrian’s wall.
Above are three photos from the remains of two different Roman forts. The wall in this region isn’t much, but the fort remains were pretty interesting. The Romans brought underfloor central heating to Britain 2000 years ago.
Aydon Castle is the first castle we visited in the UK. More of a fortified farm, it was spooky and enchanting. We rented bicycles and explored the Corbridge area for a couple of days. Rolling hills, stone buildings, sheep. England!
After Corbridge we headed to the Yorkshire Coast. We stayed in a cottage in a village called Lythe about half a mile from the beach.
The walk to the beach traverses farmland – this was our first experience with the public access pathways across private land. England, Scotland and Wales are crisscrossed with these trails through woods and farmland, along coastlines and over hills. This country is heaven for walkers. This was lambing season and little white lambs romped through vivid green fields.
Whitby is a largish town about three miles from Lythe. In the mid 7th century St. Hilda founded an abbey on the clifftop above the village. The remains of the gothic structure, lacework arched windows of melting sandstone are breathtaking. In the late 7th century the Roman Catholic Church met with the Celtic Church to determine the official date of Easter. Fittingly we were there during the week leading up to Easter.
Our week in Lythe coincided with a school holiday and we shared the beach with numerous Yorkshire families, licking ice cream cones and building sand castles. After a long spell of big cities in winter in Europe, it was brilliant to be in the countryside, enjoying the beach.
From Lythe we headed to York, an ancient city with loads of history, and very picturesque. We arrived on Easter and all the young people were in serious party mode. The streets were thronged with young men in short hair and tight pants, the young women all with too much make-up and too little clothing. (English women seem quite enthusiastic about false eyelashes).
York was inhabited by Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The battle of Hastings was lost in York. The city walls are still intact and we walked most of the way around, and had lunch twice in the Perky Peacock, a cafe in one of the old guard towers.
Constantine the Great was declared Emperor of Rome in York, of all places.
Oxford was next on the itinerary. Oxford seemed packed with ghosts and the air seemed filled with centuries of student stress. Oxford is old and stone with medieval spires, swans on the Thames, and two coffee shops claiming to be the oldest coffeehouse in Europe. Many famous authors lived and wrote here, many famous people studied here, it has one of the best museums in the world (Natural History cum Pitt Rivers Collection).
But somehow it still managed to disappoint. It is simply not a happy place. Our airbnb was certainly haunted. It feels like a place of tortured souls.
Human skull in the Pitt Rivers Collection. For fans of His Dark Materials, this is the museum where Lyra saw the trepanned skulls. Sadly, the skulls were not on display during our visit.
Much of HDM takes place in Oxford. I visited Will and Lyra’s bench in the Botanical Garden, along with some other key Philip Pullman locations.
Punting in Oxford. Oxonians are too good for paddles, apparently, and prefer to propel their boats with poles. Slow and inefficient, we soon swapped our punt for a rowboat.
London! we had one week in London, I could have stayed there a month, easy. of all the cities we visited, London felt the most vibrant, alive. We visited the Brixton Market, the Portobello Road Market, The Camden Market. We toured the street art in Shoreditch, went on a Karl Marx walking tour in Soho, had a drink on the 31st floor of the Shard. All in all it was a grand week, but, likesay, too effing short!
From London we headed to Bath. Bath is a small gem of a city, packed with tourists. We stayed on a boat opposite the railway station. It was small and cramped and smelled a bit mouldy, but it gave us a very different perspective on the town, and a real glimpse into life on the canals.
England has an extensive canal system dating from the 19th century mostly. The canals were used for shipping coal, steel, and whatever other products and materials required for and/or produced by the industrial revolution. Nowadays the canals are maintained and managed by a network of community organizations and are used for pleasure. People live on barge houses, ranging from floating shacks to luxury lodgings, and move up and down the country via the canals, following the weather or their whims. The canal dwelling population seems to be a combination of retirees and nomadic bohemians.
On a warm spring day, life on the canals looks pretty appealing. By all accounts, February isn’t as charming, holed up inside your boat, huddled beside a coal stove while the world outside is soaked in cold rain.
Our host on the boat, Dunstan, roped us into working the locks for a fellow boater. The locks are small, simple and hand-operated, a pleasantly low-tech mechanical apparatus. We watched a heron pull a fish out of the canal while we worked the lock – it was a really unique experience.
From Bath we took a day trip to Stonehenge. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but in fact I was awed. We all were. Stonehenge is beautiful and impressive and we had splendid weather for it, as well. Some of these stones came from over 100 miles away! Stonehenge is magical, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Bristol was refreshingly untouristy. The main attraction is the Banksy trail, a few of his early pieces that have survived gentrification and municipal clean-up crews. The Stokes Croft neighborhood is home to a community arts organization called The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft. We purchased some bone china in their shop and had a long, pleasant conversation with the grey-haired grandmother who happily sold us some anarchist-themed kitchenware.
We didn’t get out much in Bristol, to be honest. Mild illness combined with general tourism burn-out; there comes a point when you just need to sit inside and stare out at the rooftops for a few days. We managed to make it to the M-Shed, a museum very much like Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. Aardman Studios is in Bristol, and Bristol played a key role in the slave trade in the Americas.
Bristol isn’t pretty enough to ever be a top tourist destination, but the culture there is vibrant and very leftist. We came upon two groups of French schoolchildren having a lecture on street art in front of The Deal, pictured below. I felt validated in my notion that I was providing my son some education by dragging him around town looking at graffiti.
Years ago Glenn rescued this little game from a free bin at the side of the road. It languished in a drawer for a decade, maybe two. We never played it because we didn’t know how and we typically ply games.
I popped it into my suitcase when we were packing for this trip. Travel has a lot of downtime, and while Glenn and I are happy to occupy ourselves with writing or sketching in the negative spaces of our days, Timo tends to require more exciting diversions.
Since landing in Europe in early January, we have played this game nearly every day. Ludo (meaning simply “game” in Latin) is an ancient pastime invented in India. The rules of the game are simple but the play is intense. We’ve come close to tears on a few occasions, expletives have been expleted (thank goodness no one around us spoke English), I may have threatened divorce after one particularly vicious play by Glenn (don’t let that friendly demeanor fool you – the man is a demon on the Ludo board).
The three of us have been in close quarters for nearly nine months now. We get along surprisingly well. I chalk it up to Ludo – the game provides an outlet for our frustrations with each other. We kill each other, we block each other, we gang up two against one, then shift alliances with no warning.
We are required in daily life to continually compromise in order to maintain harmony. In Ludo there is no compromise. No quarter given.
God bless Ludo.
We landed in Milan on January 10. We stayed 5 or 6 weeks in Italy, and then headed north and east. We visited Salzburg and Graz in Austria. We spent a week in Budapest Hungary. From there we traveled to Prague and stayed for a couple of weeks, partly because Prague is nice and partly because we needed a break from making decisions.
We stayed for a few days in Berlin (I liked it more than I expected) and then took a train halfway across Europe to Amsterdam.
Here are some pictures with descriptions.
Dolomites – Italian Alps – SudTirol Feb 4-18 2019
The Dolomite mountains in the Sudtirol aka South Tyrol. We skied and sledded and had a great time.
We hiked two hours up a steep road, pulling wood-and-metal sleds. After a hot drink and swing, we sledded back down – it took about 20 minutes.
The Dolomiti are as beautiful as you’ve heard.
Val Pusteria is a valley that runs east-west near the Austrian-Italian border in NE Italy. Most of the inhabitants speak German, as this was part of the Habsburg Empire until after WW1.
There is a train that runs the length of the valley, stopping at villages. Each village is located at the base of a smaller valley that runs down from the higher peaks. Each of these valleys has a few villages as well, and several of these have ski lifts, all have groomed cross-country ski trails. Buses run up these smaller valleys, connecting the train line to the ski lifts and the groomed Nordic ski trails.
There is something like 1200km of downhill runs in the area, and another 1300km of groomed Nordic trails. All are connected by train and bus. It is a wonderland of winter fun – all the skiing you could want, no car required. There are huts and lodges and cafes everywhere. You can take a bus to the top of a valley and ski down, stopping as needed for refreshments. Sitting on a sun-warmed patio eating wurstel and strudel, sipping hot tea, sparkling snow and sheer mountain peaks, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Amidst all this fun, it is easy to forget that this area was the scene of intense fighting during WW2. So much history in Europe.
Austria – Feb 18-Mar 4
Austria is beautiful. Picturesque villages tucked into snow-covered mountain valleys, elegant small cities full of baroque buildings, pastry shops and cafes around every corner.
Austria capitulated quickly to Germany after the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (aka Nazi party) took control. Hitler was born in Austria. There are Solpersteine, Stumble Stones, scattered throughout the cities, monuments to those who perished under Nazi regime.
Salzburg has an immensely satisfying castle – it is in excellent condition and houses several fun and fascinating displays.
Salzburg was a theocracy for many centuries. It was an independent city run by archbishops who were wealthy from the local salt mines. Salt used to be extremely valuable as it was the only way to preserve food before refrigeration.
Salzburg Austria. A small city with a castle on the hill and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Mozart lived here, as did Stephan Zweig.
The crest of Styria, a white panther. Graz, Austria.
The region of Styria as a lovely woman.
Graz Austria is a city of about 300,000, with six universities. Graz is the capital of Styria, the eastern region of Austria. Historically Styria included areas in modern day Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary.
Graz is artsy and cool. Musicians carry instruments through the streets. Sleek new glass and steel structures nestle into blocks of baroque tiled roofs.
We attended a museum exhibit on the holocaust. Many Grazers celebrated the coming of the Nazis and the mayor of Graz himself threw a burning torch into the synagogue on Kristallnacht.
That such evil can occur in a city this lovely is sobering.
The Kunsthaus, built in 2003. Grazers are not afraid to embrace the future while honoring and preserving their past.
To the right is the very center of Graz, marked by a giant apricot pit.
One knight in Graz.
Detail on a well.
Budapest ,Hungary Mar 4-11
We stayed one week in Budapest, a large city that sprawls out at the edge of the Hungarian Plain. Budapest has seen a lot of action over the centuries. The earliest recorded inhabitants were the celts, though humans likely lived here for millennia prior to that.
The Romans built an outpost here 2000 years ago. They were displaced by the Huns, who were displaced by the Avars. Germans, Mongols, Magyars, Turks, Croats, more Germans, Austrians have all conquered this city.
Budapest is built on 100 thermal springs. There are several public thermal baths in the city. We visited two. Soaking in hot water in an ornate historical building is a real pleasure.
Fisherman’s Bastion. This marble confection was built at the end of the 19th century. There is a frivolity in Central European architecture that you don’t see in Italy.
Central Europe is all limestone, so the water is chalky and just a bit salty.
Before WW2 Jews comprised about 20% of the population of Hungary and held high positions in the government. Antisemitic policies were put into place in Hungary prior to the Nazis actively occupying the territory. In 1944 the Jews were rounded up and bricked into the Ghetto. Some were deported to Auschwitz but many died of hunger in the ghetto.
The bronze shoes commemorate Jews who were shot and dumped into the Danube River.
The holocaust could never have happened without the capitulation and cooperation of some portion of the citizenry. If I were Jewish I would never trust a gentile after this trip.
The Jewish Quarter of Budapest still has an active Jewish community, though much smaller than it was 70 years ago. The derelict buildings in the quarter are now ‘ruin bars’, graffiti covered warrens where you can party into the night. Where once was the ghetto is now party central for Central Europe.
A memorial to holocaust victims. The metal tree has seven branches (like a menorah) and each leaf bears the name of someone murdered by the nazis. Unlike other ghettos, the residents of the Budapest ghetto were not sent wholesale to the camps. This was because the Nazis ran out of time, not out of any generous feelings. At the end of the war there were something like 70,000 dead bodies in the streets of the ghetto, Jews who had perished from hunger, or from disease exacerbated by hunger. These were once solid citizens, men, women and children who were proud and prosperous, educated members of the community.
Some fat bronze guy. And Glenn and Timo.
A satyr shields his eyes from the sun. This may have actually been in Graz.
Emblem of some ruling family in Budapest. Note the fish on the top of the jouster’s head.
Alchemist stuff. Before the enlightenment, alchemists were the cutting edge of science.
Painted door, Jewish Quarter. in 1944 the Jewish sector of town was made into a ghetto and packed full of Jews from all over the city and from other parts of the country. We walked the street where the brick wall once cut the jews off from the rest of the population.
Prague, Czechia Mar 11-27
Prague is a lovely city. It sustained very little damage during WW2, unlike so many other cities in Europe. The downside of this is that it is incredibly thronged with tourists.
Many of Prague’s buildings are in the baroque style, several with painted facades. It reminded me of Graz, though much larger and more spread out.
The Nazi party gained control of Germany in 1933. In 1938 they annexed Austria, with the enthusiastic support of most of the Austrian people. The Nazis then set their sights on Czechoslovakia. They annexed the border regions in 1938 per the Munich Agreement, but then took over the rest of the country as well.
Czechoslovakia set up a government in exile in London, and a resistance at home.
In late 1938 the Nazis decided they had had enough of the Czech resistance, so they sent in Reinhard Heydrich to administer Prague. Heydrich was third in command in the Nazi party. He is credited with engineering the Holocaust.
Heydrich was labeled “The Butcher of Prague” for his heavy-handed approach at wiping out the Czech resistance. The Czech government in exile decided to take action.
In December 1941 seven men parachuted into Czech from London. These were Czechs and Slovaks who had escaped to the West and had been fighting with the allies. Two of these men were assigned to carry out Operation Anthropoid – the objective was to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich.
Jan Kubis and Joseph Gabcik succeeded in wounding Heydrich in May 1942 with a grenade; one week later Heydrich died.
In retaliation, the Nazis destroyed two entire villages, killing all the men and women, and sending the children to camps where they were subsequently murdered. Several thousand people were murdered.
Eventually one of the parachutists was pressured by his family to give information to the Nazis.
The parachutists had taken refuge in the crypt of the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. 500 German soldiers came to flush them out. The parachutists held out for six hours; each one took his own life to prevent being taken prisoner.
The Nazis then hunted down and murdered all family members of the parachutists, all their friends and acquaintances, anyone who had provided any assistance to them.
The brutality of these reprisals kicked the West into action. They dissolved the Munich Agreement.
This is a photo of the church where the parachutists made their stand. The crypt is open for visitors.
You can see the bullet scars here by the window to the crypt.
Prague had a large and thriving Jewish community before WW2. There are several synagogues in Prague, and a cemetery.
Below is the Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270. The origin of the name Old-New is obscure. An old Jewish man gave us a tour and explained the possible origins of the name, but his accent was thick so I didn’t really catch much of it. Rabbi Loew of this synagogue summoned up a Golem in the 1600s to pester the Christians that were causing the Jews a lot of trouble. When the Golem’s work was complete, they stuffed it in the attic and locked the hatch. Perhaps they should have let it out again in 1939.
The newer Synagogue pictured below is the Spanish Synagogue. The cemetery was a small piece of land that Prague Jews used for centuries. Apparently the graves are 12 deep in some spots.
Berlin Mar 27-Apr 1
We were in Berlin for a short time. We were pretty tired of the tourist churn at this point. Also, after immersing ourselves in the legacy of WW2 for the past two months we weren’t that keen on Germans, sorry.
Will you think less of us when I tell you that we spent most of our time holed up in the apartment eating and watching Star Trek on Nextflix?
When we did go out, it was mainly to look at street art and craft markets. There is some great local art/craft in Berlin, and the organic grocery store in our neighborhood was top notch. The bakeries in Berlin can’t be beat.
On a Sunday we visited the remnants of the Berlin Wall. We passed by a techno club, with black clad young people patiently queued at noon to get into a brick warehouse throbbing with deep bass. Ah to be young.
From Berlin we took a train to Amsterdam. The rail service in Central Europe is a bit hit-or-miss. Twice the train we were on stopped before our destination, and we had to get off and wait for the next train to come. Some trains were hours late. One train was hours late AND stopped running before our destination.
Our final train ride on the European continent went off without a hitch. We arrived in Amsterdam on time, on a sunny day. Central Europe was wonderful, but it felt good to be near an ocean again.
Amsterdam April 1-8
In Amsterdam we met up with Matt Bertles, who was celebrating a milestone birthday. Amsterdam is a pleasant city. It lacks the grandeur of some of the other cities we visited but it has a charm all its own.
In Amsterdam we visited the Jewish Museum, located at the site of a former Jewish school. We visited several Jewish museums and synagogues on this trip but this one may have been the most emotional for me, as it focused on the children who were taken by the Nazis.
The photo to the right is part of a larger photo, taken at the school in the early Nazi days – note the stars pinned to the children’s clothes.
Off all the kids in the picture, only the girl in the white dress with the bow in her hair survived the war.
Italy – Jan 10
We landed in Milano on January 10, just in time for the post holiday clothing sales. After wearing the same clothes for the last six months, we happily indulged ourselves. The drastic change in weather from Vietnam to Milano also served as justification for our three days of pillage.
Italy is so wonderful that I’m not going to write much, since anything I say will sound like bragging. Here are some pictures of where we’ve been these last few weeks.
Decorative window in the Sforza castle, Milano. The Sforza family dominated Milano politics in the late middle ages.
Relief sculpture in the Sforza Castle. Probably from the Visconti family, another powerful family from back in the day. Note the snake on the shield – this is now part of the Alfa Romeo emblem.
Cimitero Monumentale – the stylish place to go when you die in Milano.
Necropolis in the Cimitero Monumentale. What a way to go.
Roman gate to Verona, 1st century BCE. Verona is built, beautifully, on it’s own history.
Skipping rocks on the Adige River. The Adige starts in the Alps and empties into the Venetian lagoon.
The Castelvecchio (old castle) sits atmospherically on the river in Verona.
Old and older. Fossils in a marble step in the Roman Arena.
Glenn holding up the Roman Arena in Verona. The town boasts two Roman theaters – this one is still used in summer for opera performances.
Glenn and Timo on the bridge.
While Venice has more than her share of white marble and gold leaf, much of it looks weathered and decrepit.
This shop sells handmade codpieces, and $5000 handpainted smoking jackets with brocade skulls.
Venice is a dream of little windy paths and narrow twisting canals. No cars! You could wander this city for a lifetime and still discover hidden treasures.
The word ‘ghetto’ originated in Venice, in the neighborhood where this synagogue resides.
Our apartment for 5 nights. This castle in nestled in a valley at the foot of the Tyrol north of Venice. The arched opening used to be the only passage through the valley.
The castle was mostly built in 1337 CE. The final battle of WWI on Italian soil took place here.
Vietnam 5 Dec – 9 Jan
We spent just over a month in Vietnam. We landed in Ho Chi Minh City and stayed a couple of days, just long enough to see the War Remnants museum (formerly known as the War Crimes museum), eat an amazingly good meal in a beautiful restaurant, and for Glenn and Timo to get haircuts.
Ho Chi Minh was a great man, but his eponymous city is challenging. Most of the population drives scooters and when they aren’t driving their scooters, they park them on the sidewalk, making it pretty much impossible to walk anywhere without having to step out into the street, making yourself a target for oncoming traffic.
Next we flew to Phu Quoc Island and stayed for three weeks. Phu Quoc is located west of mainland Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand. The island is becoming a popular tourist spot and there are some large resorts going up, but the area we stayed was relatively quiet, with one-storey bungalows and cows wandering the fields and roads.
The water temp and the air temp were the same, around 29°C. Our hotel, Pomelo Gardens, was built in a pomelo orchard, with large ponds of water lilies and fruit hanging from the trees. Frogs and insects were abundant, and the lush green combined with the simple elegance of our cottage made it easy to pass the time. We swam in the ocean, we swam in the pool, we planned the onward phase of the trip. Many coconuts were consumed.
We visited our friend Wolfgang in Vung Tau over New Year’s Eve. Vung Tau is a growing town on the coast a couple of hours south of HCMC. Wolfgang has lived there for several years now and we learned a fair amount from him about the area and the country. Vung Tau is home to a large number of aging Aussie expats, and a fair number of Russian soldiers decompressing from their Syria stints.
With Wolfgang we toured the area on motor scooters – we visited caves where the Viet Cong made bombs, and a monkey temple where the monkeys eat from your hand. Tuyet, a friend of Wolfgang’s made us a delicious lunch, a Da Nang style noodle dish. It was one of the best meals we had in a month of really good meals.
We traveled to Da Nang via a creaky overnight train. Watching the verdant countryside from the train window was a pleasure. Cool moist wind blew through the open train window, while we watched farmers in their rice fields, water buffalo grazing in the rain, cemetery after elaborate cemetery pass by the window.
Da Nang is growing fast by all measures, and we were glad we booked a room on the quiet side of town.
Our friend Kristine lives in Da Nang and has done for about 18 months. We let her guide us around the city, taking us to her favorite food spots and favorite coffee spots. Da Nang doesn’t have many actual tourist sites, but it does have some great food. The coffee shops are fantastic – good coffee, funky artsy décor, loads of young hipsters drinking coffee and vaping, surrounded by styley kitch and antiques.
Kristine had us over for dinner and invited several friends, young international expats, all in Da Nang for different reasons, or maybe the same reason but in different guises. They were a lovely group, and it was a real pleasure spending an evening with them all.
Hoi An was our final destination in Vietnam. Hoi An is an historic town with old quaint buildings and a pedestrian only section near the river. The buildings are two-storey, a combination of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles. Most date from around 1600 CE– stone and concrete exteriors with wooden interiors and red clay tiled roofs. The old town is strung with lanterns of all colors and at night the lanterns are lit, illuminating the street side cafes, and families strolling down the street enjoying ice creams and coconut coffees.
Our hotel in Hoi An was an French colonial house with swimming pool. High ceilings, dark wood trim, elegant proportions, it was the perfect spot for our last two nights in Vietnam.
Vietnam is not always the easiest country to be in. There were things I liked about Vietnam, but also things that bothered me deeply. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say: I am glad that I visited Vietnam, and I am glad that my visit has ended.
Australia – events of 16 Sept- 5 Dec, posted in Vietnam
I will now attempt to recount our Australia adventures for your reading pleasure.
We arrived in Sydney on 14 September and stayed there 5 days. The weather was sunny and cool, a relief after the humid heat of Chengdu. We relaxed in Sydney, getting our bearings, recovering from the sensory overload of China. Sydney is in a beautiful location. The residential architecture is like gingerbread So Cal, the downtown a combo of grand old stone edifices nestled among glass skyscrapers. It is pleasant enough, but bland.
From Sydney we flew to Cairns and spent a week in Holloways Beach, a residential suburb with a beach. Cairns is pronounced “cans”, btw. We snorkelled at the GBR, visited the Daintree Rainforest, played on the beach and swam when it wasn’t too windy. The rainforest wasn’t as rainforesty as we were expecting, though there was a lovely walk through a swamp that was pretty impressive. The beaches in the area are stunningly beautiful, like your ideal vision of a tropical beach.
The beaches in Queensland are clean. You can walk forever it seems without seeing a spec of plastic. I don’t think I’d seen a beach without plastic since the 1980s. Nothing is perfect: there are reportedly crocodiles and jellyfish, but luckily we saw neither. The water is shallow a long way out, so not great for swimming, but Timo and I went in anyway and lolled about in the knee-high surf.
After Cairns, we flew to Melbourne. We quite liked Melbourne, despite our stinky hostel. What was that smell – cooking gas? Backpacker farts? Noticeably unpleasant either way, and potentially toxic. Our tiny room had with barely enough space for the beds much less our bags and bodies. As a result, we saw a lot of Melbourne. We left the hostel shortly after breakfast each day and stayed out until dinnertime, as the thought of returning to the smelly dungeon was not enticing.
Melbourne is a charming city, my favorite city in Oz, of the few I’ve seen. It reminds me a lot of Portland, OR, though much larger, and perhaps more culturally conservative. Melbourne has great shops: hat shops and comic shops and used clothing shops, plus the food is really good and very international with heavy Indian and Asian influences. An Aussie opined that the food is so good because white Australia doesn’t have it’s own cuisine, so it picks the best from around the world. Whatever the reason, I had the best gelato and the best omelette in Melbourne. Molly Moon could take some lessons from Gelateria Messina in Collingwood.
We were in Melbourne for the Footy Final, the annual championship of the Australian Football League. Australian football is not the same as rugby, apparently, though I would be hard pressed to explain the differences. The Footy Final is an annual event in Melbourne; Footy Final Eve is an official holiday with nearly everything closed – don’t expect to eat out or buy anything that day. Apparently, everyone used to skip out on work the day before the match to see the two finalist teams parading through the central business district, so the city decided to make it an official holiday since no-one was showing up to work that day anyway.
Footy is the silliest activity I’ve ever seen adult men perform. The uniforms are silly, the ball handling is silly, and it is incredibly homoerotic – clad in sleeveless tops and short shorts, the players fondle one another, grabbing each other and rolling around on the ground in bouts of sensuous grappling. Intersperse this with slapstick attempts at ball catching. Watching the match gave me some real insight into the Australian psyche.
After a few days of this action, we picked up our rental campervan and headed off into the bush. Anything that is not the city is the bush, it seems. Our van was a Toyota Hiace and is a great size for two people, but perhaps a bit tight for three, especially for two months. We used this as a test to see if we could do it for six months in Europe.
We headed north out of Melbourne, and spent a few days at Hattah-Kulkyne park near the Murray river. The Murray River is the largest river in Australia, but it is not large by world, or even American standards. Thus came my realization at how dry Australia is. Australia is the driest country in the world. It is the second driest continent in the world, after Antarctica.
Hattah-Kulkyne park is mallee scrub with a system of lakes that are fed by annual flooding of the Murray. Mallee is a type of shrubby eucalyptus and mallee scrub is land where mallee is the predominant plant species. This particular spot is extremely important for migratory birds, and is part of an international agreement for protection of such bird habitat. Sadly, Australia is in the throes of a drought and the Murray hasn’t flooded in several years, so the Australian government has put in an elaborate pump system to pump river water into the Hattah-Kulkyne to keep the birdies happy.
And a great thing it is, too. Hattah-Kulkyne is a beautiful place, with abundant wildlife. Emus strut, kangaroos hop, snakes slither, shingleback lizards move sleepily across the path, while loads of birds enjoy the waters of the many lakes. Cockatoos abound, as do black swans and galahs. An emu family strutted across the sandy lakefront beach in front of our campsite and we got a close up look at the giant footprints – emus lead you to believe we are still in the age of dinosaurs.
Birds flew, stars shown, ants swarmed. We saw a goanna lizard digging a hole. The desert is scattered with bones. There are no large scavengers on mainland Australia, and the long-term water shortage diminished the quantity of grazing material resulting in dead kangaroos and emus littering the landscape. At once grisly and fascinating, we spent a lot of time looking at bones, outlines of emus as they fell, the bones mostly undisturbed from their positions at death.
We look for bones in the Oregon desert, been looking for years, and while it is common to find a few scattered bones or fragments, finding an entire skeleton is a rare thing. In Oregon vultures and coyotes and other various critters will tear a corpse apart and scatter it around. In Australia, the crows are the only real scavengers and they don’t have the strength to relocated large portions of dead animals, so they lie whole in situ. It is quite the anatomy lesson.
After Hattah-Kulkyne we headed towards the Flinders Ranges in the state of South Australia. We made a few stops along the way, most notably at Murray River National Park where the rain threatened to strand us down a clay dirt road. We spent a wary night listening to the rain start and stop, with the most amazing chorus of frogs in the background. I’ve never heard so many and so many different kinds of frogs in one setting. Standing at the edge of a great pond in the nearly pitch dark under mallee gum trees, listening to the mating songs of hundreds of frogs, orchestrated into a symphony.
The Flinders Ranges are a series of low mountains that run roughly north-south a few hundred kilometres north of Adelaide. Once upon a time, about 650-500 million years ago, when multi-celled life forms were just coming into being, this piece of land was a shallow sea. Over the course of 150 million years sediments were deposited, along with the various primitive life forms that lived in this ancient sea. Eventually the continental crust was pushed up and dried out, and then compressed, taking these flat layers of sediment and bending them into arches and valleys, a series of mountain ranges. After the uplift and deformation, the erosion began, revealing layer upon layer of ancient earth and the plants and animals that inhabited it.
Nowadays it is hot and dry, with a few waterholes and intermittent streams. The predominant tree is the River Red Gum, probably the most elegant tree I’ve ever seen. These beauties are big, solid forms with bark rough in spots, but with large swaths of smooth striated grey and red, with leaves of silvery green. They grow near rivers, or where rivers sometimes are. They are curvy, shapely, elegant, but massive at the same time. The soil there is alternately light grey or red, depending on the predominant sedimentary layer that is exposed. Kangaroos, wallabies (Euros) and emus abound, along with echidnas, goannas, sleepy lizards, cocktoos, galahs, ravens, and the ubiquitous blue fairy wren. The Flinders is also home to the yellow-foot rock wallaby, which lives on rocky scree slopes – it is the mountain goat of the kangaroo family.
The days there were hot and the nights cool, and the nasty swarming black flies don’t have a bite, thank the gods. We spent days wandering valleys and hillsides, looking for fossils, looking for views, looking for animals, dead and alive. We spooked a green python (or it spooked us) and we all lived to tell the tale. An epic thunderstorm came through one night and we were up for hours, huddled uin the van, watching the lighting, counting the seconds between flash and roar.
We spent a few nights in Brachina Gorge, a beautiful spot that is part of the geological trail and tells the story of life on earth at it’s earliest dawn. The park main campground and visitors center is run by the Adnymathana people, the original stewards of the area. There we met Ringo, a local Adnymathana fellow, who suggested we WWOOF at his dad’s place, Iga Warta, an Adnymathana cultural center, just to the north of the park. So we did.
Iga Warta is a campground in the North Flinders Ranges, with cultural activities. You can come as a group or as an individual. There are various tours on offer, for various fees. But since we were there as WWOOFers, we mostly worked. Iga Warta is run by the Coulthard family, mainly Terry and Josie, but with help from some of their brothers and cousins. They are all a friendly, interesting bunch, all sporting the best Aussie outback hats. Terry has a heart of gold, stewarding the land, providing water for kangaroos and feral horses. Sharpie, his cousin, took us on a tour to see some rock paintings dating back 30,000 years. We picked quandong fruit with him, a local indigenous fruit, kind of like a glorified rosehip. In addition to the fruit flesh you can eat the flowery-tasting seed inside the hard pit. This plant was a main food source for the people prior to colonization and industrialization.
Timo and I helped dig a garden bed while Glenn worked on a roofing project at an adjacent property. He drove each day through the desert in an old Toyota Landcruiser with Terry and Jordan, a young jocular Frenchman. Timo and I worked with Mel and Rosa, sisters from Melbourne who had planned to stay a week but were over a month in when we met them. Iga Warta has that effect on people. One WWOOFer, years ago, had stayed 9 months and then married into the family. I felt I could stay there a year or a lifetime. Care, Share, Respect is their motto.
Terry had raised a baby kangaroo named Jake. It is now repatriated into its kangaroo tribe, but comes back to visit and get snacks. Timo fed him and petted him while his kangaroo compatriots watched from close by.
After three full days of labouring away, we bid Iga Warta adieu and headed south to Adelaide. Adelaide is nice, rather like Portland Oregon but maybe a bit duller. Adelaide’s business district is fairly small, and bounded on all sides by extensive parkland. Beyond the parks it is urban and suburban sprawl for miles – this is what you get when you have lots of flat land everywhere.
We attended an Aboriginal Art Fair at an Aboriginal Cultural Center in Adelaide. Tribes from all over the continent were represented. Some of the Aboriginal Art is extremely engaging. Seeing the Aussie landscape gives me a better appreciation for the art. Like Northwest Coast American Indigenous art, it is very much informed by the landscape and local wildlife. The Aboriginal colour palettes are rich and gorgeous.
In Bordertown, southeast of Adelaide, we spent a week WWOOFing on a farm called Humble House. Rachel and Wade are the purveyors, with their sons Flynn, 13, Tom, 10 and Mako, 3. It was a great week for all of us. Rachel and Wade welcomed us warmly and made a genuine effort to give us the South Australian experience. We ate SA specialites, including Lamingtons, pie floaters, pavlovas and, best of all, coat-of-arms tacos. What are coat-of-arms tacos, you ask? Tacos made with kangaroo and emu meat!
The work days consisted of tasks such as feeding chickens, watering plants, picking and packing huge succulent strawberries, along with project oriented tasks like clearing out beds of bolted kale, transplanting gladiolas, and making biochar.
Humble House was a satisfying and edifying immersion the SA rural experience. Sitting out on a warm evening eating pizza, listening to the casual conversations of family, friends, watch the boys play, hearing the myriad songs of birds and insects; there is really no better way to see life up close in a foreign country than to live and work with the people, if only for one week.
From the farm we headed south towards the Great Ocean Road which follows the coast from the SA/Victoria border nearly all the way to Melbourne.
We visited caves at Naracoorte along the way. Since much of Australia is made of limestone, it’s no surprise that there are numerous cave networks scattered around the continent. There are several caves at Naracoorte, but only a few open to the public. We visited one small self-guided cave, and another larger cave containing fossils. The small cave was all stalactites and stalagmites and drippy limestone needles, quite unlike the PNW lava tubes we’ve seen.
The second cave, the cave with the fossils, was really impressive. For centuries, there had been a hole in the ground that dropped directly into the cave. Animals periodically fell into the hole and became prey for cave dwelling animals. This went on for centuries, perhaps millennia. As a result, layers upon layers upon layers of bones fill the cave, many from animals now extinct. The ancestor of the wombat was about 20 times larger than its extant relatives. A marsupial lion skeleton was found that had had a baby in its pouch when it died. The cast of the lion skeleton is displayed in the cave, lit to great effect.
There are many ancient things in Australia. Here we were standing next to the bones of thousands of animals that walked the earth thousands, tens of thousands of years ago. Stepping into Australia is stepping into Deep Time.
Onwards to the Great Ocean Road. The name is guaranteed to set expectations high. And when expectations are high, so is the potential for disappointment.
Had I lived my whole life far from an ocean, and never been to a coast, I might have come away from the road saying, “Boy, that Ocean Road was really Great!” Perhaps I was just cranky about leaving the open desert and entering cold and wind and rain and dense dark forests. Suffice it to say, the Great Ocean Road was nice enough.
The coastline is predominately limestone cliffs, some rather dramatic, with little cove beaches interspersed. The water was too cold for swimming.
A few spots on the coast are reputed to have penguin rookeries. The fairy penguin is the only penguin that lives in Australia. It breeds Oct – April, making nests on land. The penguins fish during the day and come home at night to feed their babies. One evening we headed out to see them. On a clifftop with a boardwalk and viewing platforms we watched the sunset and awaited the arrival of the penguins.
Huddled against the cold wind we watched the sun go down, as a few clusters of hardy souls joined us to watch the penguin spectacle, including a group of Koreans who plied Timo, shivering in his panda jacket, with hot chocolate.
The sun went down, the sky began to darken. We watched the beach in anticipation, and watched and watched, but no penguins. We eventually saw a clump of kelp wash ashore, but didn’t think much of it in the dwindling light. We were about to give up our wait when we noticed that the kelp clump was moving up the beach – through the binocs in the fading golden light we could just make out the forms of penguins, moving together in a dark little group up the beach toward the grass at the base of the cliff.
We spent a night in Port Campbell, in a caravan park located next to a stream that empties into the Southern Ocean, a few hundred meters away. We walked barefoot through the stream right into the ocean, albeit only ankle deep. We untangled kelp on the shore, laying it out to revel in its full glory. I’ve seen plenty of kelp, but I’ve never seen kelp as large, thick, robust and luscious as on the Victoria coast. The kelp there is nearly a centimetre thick, with a lustre that makes you want to take off your clothes and roll around in it. It seethes in the surf like a playful animal.
Koalas live in this part of the world. We saw koalas in two caravan parks, hanging out in trees just a few meters from our campsite. Koalas park themselves in a tree in plain sight, sleeping most of the day, but occasionally rousing themselves to eat a few leaves. November is koala mating season, and the males let out a series of low rumbling bellows that send chills down your spine. I laughed every time I heard it, highly amused that such an ominous sound could come from such a cute cuddly looking animal.
At Kennett River there were two koalas very near our camp site, one of which bellowed every few hours throughout the night. Kennett River is green and lush, where the rainforest meets the coastline. People have been feeding the cockatoos and rosellas (a type of parrot) there for decades, and the birds will land on you and eat from your hand; the café sells bags of bird seed (despite the “do not feed the birds” sign). Timo and I had hours of fun feeding these beasties, though I did sustain some damage from a feisty cockatoo who tore a hole in my thumb with its powerful sharp beak.
Kennett River flow to the ocean and a walk up the river reveals an astounding assortment of birds. Australia is home to so many wonderful birds, and so many are so easily spotted. Timo became a champion birder on this trip. With his binocs always close at hand, he demonstrated a high level of observation and attention to detail in listing the distinguishing features of each bird.
After a week on the Pretty Good Ocean Road, we made our way to the Spirit of Tasmania ferry in South Melbourne. The ferry takes about 10 hours to cross the Bass Straight. The first two hours are spent crossing through Port Phillip Bay. The transition from bay to open waters was noticeable; the deep-water wave roll was distinctly different from anything I’ve ever experienced on a boat before. We had heard that the trip can be rough, but we had a blessedly gentle crossing.
We arrived in Devonport at 6am and kicked around town until the shops opened. Timo needed new shoes (he keeps growing!), I needed a warm sweater. I had been looking for a hand-knitted sweater, for several weeks, but despite the multitude of sheep in Australia, no-one seems to knit sweaters.
Devonport is a small town, but does have a couple of outdoor stores, so Timo and I emerged well-shod and warm. I hadn’t realized quite how endemically cold I had been until I donned my new fleece jacket and sighed into the warmth of recycled plastic.
In Chudleigh we stopped at Melita, a local honey producer with more types of honey than you would ever think existed, and samples of all of them. We tasted most, and bought a jar of Manuka honey. Manuka is a tree that is native to Tasmania, and the Manuka honey is supposed to have medicinal properties. I can’t vouch for the health benefits of it, but it is incredibly tasty, with an herbal flavor that is really unique.
Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary was our next stop, one of our favorite places in Tasmania. Trowunna nurses injured animals back to health for release or permanent residence, depending on the severity of their injuries. Trowunna also breeds Tasmanian Devils for release into the wild. It is a small operation, but they are doing good work. Quolls and bettongs, wombats, devils, and numerous birds like the tawny frogmouth and the Tasmanian eagle reside here.
Here I discovered my spirit animal – the Tassie Devil. Devils are small but tough, have poor eyesight, and can’t outrun a chicken, but they can cover large distances in a single night. They can hunt, but mostly they scavenge, cleaning up the place, getting rid of all that unsightly roadkill (Australia is the roadkill capital of the world). And while they look like they are fighting over the carcasses, they aren’t very aggressive – one devil can drag the meat away and the others will simply look elsewhere for food.
We were introduced to Wombats at Trowunna. Wombats are herbivores with a docile appearance but are lethally protective of their burrows. Wombats have on their rumps a thick bloodless plate that lacks nerve endings. When an intruder tries to enter a wombat hole, the wombat uses its powerful backside to crush the intruder’s skull against the ceiling of its lair. Do not underestimate the intelligence and ferocity of the cuddly wombat.
The kangaroos at Trowunna eat from your hand. Some of the kangaroos had babies in their pouches, and while few things in this world are cuter than a mama kangaroo with a baby’s head peeking out of the pouch, about the silliest thing I’ve seen (other than AFL) is a mama kangaroo with a baby’s feet sticking out of the pouch.
At the Mole Creek caravan park our campsite was right on the creek, on lush green grass. Chickens wandered through campground, pecking at scraps. In the evening we looked for platypus in the small creek, and were immediately rewarded with a sighting. We got a good, up-close view in the fading light.
The next day we drove to a town called Penguin on the north coast. Penguin is full of penguin statues, but to see real penguins we had to go Burnie, an industrial town mostly lacking in charm, but host to a large penguin rookery. Volunteers give talks in the evening and help people spot the penguins as they come up the beach. The Fairy Penguins are one of the few species of penguin that is neither threatened nor endangered. We stood on a boardwalk with red-coloured flashlights and watched as the little birds waddled up the shore. Some of them nest under the boardwalk and we were able to spot them just below our feet. They hopped and scrambled over rocks and sand, preening themselves before entering their nests.
From Burnie we headed south through rainforested mountains to MacQuarie head near Strahan on the West coast. Due west of Tasmania the next bit of land is Argentina. An air current at approximately 40° south circles the globe heading east. The lack of continental interference allows this wind to build up great speeds and the west coast of Tassie is blasted with the “roaring 40s.” This is mirrored, by the way, at 40° north, but the northern version doesn’t work up much speed because it bumps into continents along the way.
The wind behaved itself during our time at Macquarie Head; we were told that the previous week there had been 130km winds with 8 meter swells in the ocean. The day we spent there, Glenn’s birthday the sun was warm, the winds were subdued. The beach is 30km long, with cold blue ocean on one side and high dunes on the other. The sand is nearly white, and very fine, and strewn with little clam shells in yellow, orange, blue and purple. We made a 1km model of the solar system (the Earth is a peppercorn) as we marched up the shore, and generally enjoyed ourselves collecting shells and running about.
In the evenings pademelons grazed at the perimeter of our campsite. We kept our eyes open for devils but didn’t see any.
We spent one night at St Claire Lake in the mountains. The area is beautiful, but very cold, and very treed. Wildlife abounds – we saw possums, snakes, and even a platypus swimming in the lake at dusk.
The cold drove us out of this lovely spot. That and it looks a lot like the PNW – forests, ferns, mountains. I’ve come to realize that I’m no longer interested in dense forests and mountains. For so many years mountains and woods held my heart, but now I love open spaces best, where you don’t need a trail to wander for hours. Deserts and open plains are more to my liking these days. Timo likes to wander but gets bored walking a trail, so he and I were happy to move on.
Next stop – The Wall. The Wall is the work of Greg Duncan, wood carver extraordinaire. A purpose built longhouse – wood walls, a gabled roof and clerestory windows – shelters a long wood panel, carved on both sides with a history of the area, natural and human history. The carvings are detailed, masterful and quite moving, incorporating graphic design alongside narrative representation . The work is unfinished, tantalizingly so, with figures half-carved, or outlines drawn but no chisel yet brought to the wood. A woodstove cooks away in one corner, and a large cabinet full of drawings stands in one corner. A coat hangs on a wall with gloves sticking out of the pocket – oh, wait, it is carved out of wood. A hat sits carelessly on a table – also carved of wood.
We arrived in Hobart, the largest town on the island on Saturday afternoon, just in time for the tail end of the Salamanca Market, a weekly event near the waterfront. We were hoping for crafts there wasn’t much of that. Aussies just don’t seem to be big on the crafts. All their creative energy goes into food, apparently, not least into cheese and honey. Tasmania has great honey – with so many plants that are endemic to this place only, the honeys take on unique subtle flavors.
Everything closes at 4pm on Saturday in Hobart. It is old-fashioned that way. We were hoping for an urban fix, but realized we weren’t going to get it that day, and we figured that nothing would be open on Sundays at all.
We camped in Snug, memorable only for the bandicoot we spotted scampering through the campground at dusk. I had no idea what a bandicoot was before that, but now I think it is the best-named animal in the world.
The next day we rode the ferry to Bruny Island at the south end of Tasmania. Bruny Island is named for Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, a French explorer who visited the island in the late 1700s. This island also hosted Captain James Cook and Captain Bligh around the same time. Captain Cook has been memorialized in many place names here. In a fit of 18th century vandalism, he carved his initials in a tree – the remnants of the long-dead tree are in a museum, but the carved part disappeared some time ago.
The south end of Bruny Island is a national park. We stayed for two nights, in a campground in the trees, walking distance from a beach. A 10 mile long trail heads out of the campground and skirts a peninsula at the tip of the island, through blooming shrubs and gum tree woods, and past several beaches. The white sand crescent beaches are lined with blooming gum trees, the waters are crystal clear, the kelp is huge and thick and luscious. The day was fine, even hot, and on a small cove I stripped my sweaty clothes and plunged into the bracing water, baptising myself in the Southern Ocean.
We saw surprisingly little wildlife here. Most of the easy-to-spot critters prefer open fields, apparently. There is a wild beauty about the place, not unlike the San Juan Islands, but with a sense that you are at the edge of the world – when you gaze out over the water knowing that the next bit of land is Anarctica.
After the park we moved back to the civilization of Adventure Bay, so named by our buddy Cap’n Cook, and the town followed suit. Adventure Bay is white sand beach with delineated by rocky capes, with more of that amazing Australian kelp writhing between the rocks as the waves approach and retreat. We stayed at the Captain Cook Caravan Park, located on the banks of the Captain Cook Creek. The trees and shrubs were in bloom and the fragrance was intoxicating. Eucalyptus blooms have a smell that is herbal and sweet and animal all at the same time, a heady blend. We paddled kayaks up the creek and the strata of plants all blooming, all in variations of creams and whites, with the overarching smell of the gums made me feel I was in a dream.
The blooming gums here attract the endangered Swift Parrot in which comes to breed here each year, feasting on the nectar of the this particular type of gum tree flower. An ornithologist was on hand monitoring nesting boxes, and we watched the community of these bright green birds swooping among the trees.
Tasmania has its own native hen, unofficially known as the turbo chook (chook is Aussie for chicken). These are a graceful fowl with smoky grey and black plumage and long legs that earn them their turbo moniker. A family inhabited the brush at the edge of the creek, a mother with little black babies, and a father who kept guard at a distance.
We had some rain in Adventure bay, an excuse to do laundry and hole up in the van watching Doctor Who. The clouds lifted in the evening, the moon was full and we walked out to the beach to watch it shimmer on the Southern Ocean.
After a couple nights in Adventure Bay it was time to leave the Isle of Bruny. We breakfasted in the only restaurant in the village, the Penguin and Pardalote (a pardalote is a Tassie bird). The menu was all crepes: savory and sweet, and all excellent. Australia is pretty amazing that way. Here we were in a tiny town on a small island, with one place in town to eat, and the food was as good as anything you would expect to find in some fancy-schmancy big city eatery.
There are three types of snakes in Tasmania, all of which are dangerously venomous. Two of them kept residence next to a tree stump along the path to the café. Timo berated us for trying to get a closer look. I suppose he was right.
The ferry to Bruny is a small open affair that holds maybe 20 vehicles, give or take. If you’ve ever seen Five Easy Pieces, where Jack Nicholson takes a ferry to visit his estranged family in the San Juans in the early ‘70s, that’s the type of ferry we took.
On the way to Hobart we stopped at a little shopping mall made out of old train cars. There was a pancake car, a lolly shop car, a bar car and a shoe store car. In an adjacent antique mall I chatted with the proprietor who showed me the nasty lesions on the back of his hand. Australia suffers from being near the ozone hole, resulting in a high level of skin cancer.
Australia also suffers from obesity, having now surpassed the USA with highest obesity rate in the world. I suppose it is the downside of having all that amazingly good food (another meat pie, anyone?).
Hobart was open for business and we whiled away a few hours in the business district looking at shoe stores, record stores, and natural medicine stores. Hobart has its charms: a lot of old stone buildings (probably built by convicts), a walkable downtown, loads of skate punks, and plenty of places to purchase slip-on leather work boots. If you’ve ever wondered what Australia has given the world, it is slip-on leather work boots. Who needs pesky shoestrings?
With only a few days left before our scheduled ferry back to Melbourne, we let the weather be our guide and headed north to Narawntapu Park. We stopped at Bonorong Sanctuary along the way. Bonorong is similar to Trowunna but has more visitors – the kangaroos are fatter and less enthusiastic about being fed.
Narawntapu is called the Serengeti of Tasmania. It was everything we wanted for our final days in Tasmania: a beach several km long, a large pond with abundant water fowl and bird hide, and a vast open grassy plain stretching into tidal mudflats where hundreds of kangaroos, wallabies and pademelons gathered at dusk. In addition, pademelons frequented the campground day and night, quietly grazing in the campsites. Such fun to step out of the van and see mama pademelon with her bouncy baby a meter or two away.
There are several types of kangaroos and several types of wallabies, but here are the basic profiles.
Kangaroos are big, up to two meters tall, and muscular. They look cool, like they aren’t going to take any crap from anyone. Their faces are sort of a cross between deer and camel. The large males have huge gonads – you have to wonder how it feels for those big boys as they hop across the landscape. The females are slightly smaller than the males, but with that same look of savvy alertness.
Wallabies are smaller than kangaroos. There is a wide variety of wallabies, from the Euros which are basically shaggy kangaroos to the yellow-footed rock wallabies which are much smaller, with striped tails and an impressive ability to navigate rocky slopes, to the pademelons.
Pademelons are a type of wallaby that only lives in Tasmania. The pademelons are about 18 inches tall with red-brown fur and rodent-like faces. They are very cute but look dumber than the kangaroos and the larger wallabies, kind of like oversized rabbits.
The amount of poop on the kangaroo plain was astounding.
After three nights in Narawntapu we headed to Latrobe, the Platypus Capital of the World, for our last night in the campervan. We spent the afternoon cleaning out the van, sorting through stuff – the garbage pile, the donation pile, and the “send back to the states” pile, followed by a wipe-down. With two months of desert dust, beach sand, and Tassie mud, there was a bit to do.
In the evening we met up with Ron, a retired landscaper who offers platypus viewing tours. The tour involved standing on the bank of the Mersey River at dusk, looking for platypuses, but Ron knew exactly how to spot them. We spent a couple of hours watching, and spotted several platypuses,; some of them we watched for quite a while as they swam along the surface, then dove down looking for dinner, then rising again to the surface. The river is about 20 meters wide at that location and most of the animals were swimming at the farther shore, and wind on the water made it difficult to spot them. Finally in the failing light one brave platypus came to our side of the river and we got a great close-up view.
The next morning was our last day on the island of Tasmania. We were enthusiastic about visiting the Axeman’s Hall of Fame Museum cum Platypus Information Center (quite the combo) across the road from the caravan park, but it wasn’t open. We waited around for a bit underneath the 20ft long platypus sculpture to see if someone would unlock the doors.
Eventually we gave up, after an internet search revealed that the place was closed until further notice (maybe someone could put up a sign?). Disappointed at missing out on what was certain to have been an unforgettable museum experience, we drove the 10km to Devonport, to wash the van and savor our last moments of the wild land of Taz. We wandered the town, had lunch in a hipster alley café called Laneway. Again, top notch food in a back alley café in a small town.
We took the van to a car wash and scrubbed it inside and out. “Ah, the glamour,” I commented as we mopped out the van with a stained rag, cars whizzing past us on the strip-mall street, “of our around-the-world adventure!”
We visited a park on a rocky stretch of coast, killing time before the ferry. There was an Aboriginal cultural center there. The center was not open (no hours posted, of course) which really annoyed me because the entire time I was in Australia I was keeping my eyes open for an Aboriginal flag sticker and I finally spotted one – there inside this shut-up building. Dang! The Aboriginal flag is simple and beautiful, a yellow circle on a field half-black and half-red. The black represents the Aboriginal people, the yellow represents the sun and the red represents ochre, and important part of the Aboriginal ceremonies.
Finally it was time to board the ferry. The sea was calm, the journey smooth, we slept well and woke up just as we approached the Melbourne terminal. A few hours late we had dropped the van off and were in a cab heading into the CBD, to our airbnb apartment.
The van was a good experience overall. Australia doesn’t have an extensive train and bus service; you need wheels to get anywhere outside the cities, and the cities aren’t all that interesting (though Melbourne has some points of interest). We rented the smallest van that sleeps three, and it was pretty tight. There was a lot of van yoga, squeezing in and out of tiny spaces. We were forced to practice patience, lest tempers flair: someone was always in the way because the space was so small. Going to bed each night was an ordeal, as we had to rearrange all our possessions in order to get the beds into place. The first few nights were a real struggle, then we got the system down and then it all fell apart when Timo worked out some Really Clever Ways to Annoy His Parents and Prevent the Operation from Going Smoothly. Eventually we had to set some rules about where the limits of annoyance were.
Suffice it to say, the van was great for Australia, but we probably won’t get a van for Europe.
Our Australia trip ended with a few days back in Melbourne, running errands, taking care of business, eating gelato. And now we are in Vietnam. Stay tuned for the Vietnam adventure.
Australia Notes –
Wildlife viewing in Australia is immensely satisfying. The wildlife is fascinating, unique and abundant. In our first few days in Australia we hoped we would get a chance to see a kangaroo, a wallaby and maybe an emu or two, but we didn’t want to get our hopes up. Since then we’ve seen literally hundreds of kangaroos and wallabies, and loads of emus. We’ve also seen various snakes and lizards, echidnas and platypuses, and loads of beautiful birds.
In November we entered koala territory. “I hope we see a koala!” I said as we started on the Great Ocean Road. A week in, we’ve seen at least ten. And by the end of the day today, the count will rise even higher.
I’ve been camping and backpacking for about 35 years. In that time I’ve seen maybe 5 black bears. Now, in one week, I’ve seen twice that number of koalas.
Koalas are adorable. They sleep most of the time, wedged into the branches of eucalyptus trees (aka gum trees). They look like little fur balls, about the size of two basketballs put together. Sleepy little eyes, and ears that look like giant old-man eyebrows. You just want to cuddle them, their fur looks so soft.
Every so often you see one awake, standing, stretching, chewing on eucalyptus leaves. They really look like little cute teddy bears come to life.
And then they bellow. The sound they make is totally incongruous with their appearance – loud, bellowing, almost anguished. It is a sound that strikes fear into the heart. I can only imagine the terror of the early white settlers, hearing that great roar in the night coming from the deep woods. What a relief it must have been for them to discover no slavering behemoth, but instead, a cute cuddly koala.
Sydney, Australia – 2018-9-17
We landed in Sydney on 15 September. The sky is blue, the air has just a touch of chill. We are staying in a neighborhood called Glebe Point, a few km from the downtown area. It’s nice here, easy after China. The air is clean, the water potable, the people are friendly and most of them speak English.
Since I didn’t post much in China (partly from being busy, partly from lack of reliable internet) I will give an overview of the last month.
We started a tour with Glenn’s dad Tom on 16 August. The tour was just the four of us with a guide and driver. We started in Guilin where we visited a limestone cave full of stalactites and stalagmites and all kinds of amazing formations, all lit brilliantly with color changing LEDs. The cave was stunning and the lighting design was great.
The thing to do in Guilin is take a boat up the Li river and so we did. This river runs through karst hills. This is the quintessential Chinese landscape you see in paintings – it really is beautiful. A boy on the boat befriended Timo so that he could practice his English. He fed Timo snails in the dining lounge.
We also hiked a hill town in the area where the hills have been terraced for rice growing for centuries. The area is called Longshen – Dragon Spine. A village nestled in the hillside, where they cook meat and veggies inside bamboo sections over a fire – delicious!
We spent a night in Yangshou, which apparently used to be a quiet little hamlet where western backpackers liked to chill out. Now it is a rowdy tourist town catering to Chinese tourists who began frequenting the place in order to watch the western backpackers. Noise, noise, noise! The carnival cacophony was unbearable, though the ice cream sellers were pretty cute.
After Guilin/Yangshuo we flew to Chengdu, the Panda capital of the world. We spent a day cleaning panda poop at a panda breeding center. We also got to hand-feed carrots to a panda.
In Chengdu we ate at the Surging Dragon Hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is the Chengdu specialty, and it is good! We ordered half spicy, half mild. The spicy was insanely spicy! Glenn was the only one who could handle it. The menu had some odd items, courtesy of google translate. “Sign the sign the rabbit lumbar” turned out to be rabbit kidneys on a stick (we didn’t order it).
From Chengdu we took a high speed train to Xi’an, home of the Terracotta warriors, interred in the ground 2200 years ago to help Emperor Qin Shi Huang on his way to the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang was the first person to unify China. He employed some questionable methods to achieve his goal, such as burying hundred of scholars alive to quell dissent. Those were the good old days. Xi’an still has its original city walls, and we rode bicycles on the top of the walls, circumnavigating the old city. The sky was threatening rain, the wind blasted dust in our faces, but it was still one of the most fun and memorable places I have ridden a bike.
In Beijing we visited the Forbidden City and learned more about the egotistical excesses of the Emperors than I cared to know. It made me think that maybe the Cultural Revolution wasn’t a bad idea. Smash the Hierarchy! We spent a day visiting the Great Wall and Timo and Glenn took the toboggan back down to the parking lot. The wall is an architectural gem, and it is set in beautiful mountains. The sun shone, and the whole place seemed magical. Having heard about The Great Wall of China since I can remember, it was breathtaking to lay eyes on it.
Beijing itself was much nicer than expected. Not just a tangle of concrete and glass skyscraper, smog, and noise, Beijing also has some quaintness, some old-style buildings, windy alleys, funky cafes and restaurants. Some charm, in a word.
We had tea in the old bell tower; the old cities all had a drum tower and a bell tower, to ring out the hour and to call the soldiers to arms in time of need. Nowadays they are lit up at night to great effect.
The tour ended in Beijing and Tom flew back to the USA on 26 August. Glenn and Timo and I relocated from our hotel to the apartment of Melanie and Victoria, friends of Glenn’s from Seattle who are currently living in Beijing. It was great meeting them and spending a day and night with them. Good discussions of China culture and living, great to have someone to bounce ideas off.
After a night at Melanie and Victoria’s place, we got on a train to Lanzhou, the most polluted city in the world. It was an overnight train and we had a sleeping compartment. Gazing out the window in the early light of the morning, I felt we had entered another world. Grey tiled houses nestled into red rock hills, eerily peeking through the fog (or smog).We arrived in Lanzhou at 7:30am after 16 hours. We somehow managed to make it to the bus station across town in rush hour traffic and board a bus to Xiahe in good time – all told, we spent 3 hours total in the most polluted city in the world.
I wrote previously about Xiahe. so I’ll skip that part.
In Langmusi we did a 3 day horse trek into the high country where we spent two nights in a yak-wool tent with a nomad couple and their friends. A truly great experience. The high country is beautiful, the nomads are intensely hard workers (the women, anyway), the yaks are like docile hairy horned cows that grunt and moan in the strangest ways. We shovelled yak dung, we slept on yak dung, we ate food cooked on a yak dung fire, we breathed yak dung smoke. Our guide spoke little English, but he took to Timo and they chatted in Mandarin. He called Timo “Baby” the entire trip – we couldn’t remember his name and he couldn’t remember ours. I feel like I gained some insight into the Tibetan nomad life. The nomads, by the way, are just as addicted to their smart phones as any city dweller. Our hosts had a solar panel they used to charge their phones. Heaven help them if the Chinese government ever quits blocking youtube and facebook!
After Langmusi we took a bus to Songpan. The Songpan area has been inhabited for thousands of years, but the current city walls were built about 1000 years ago, give or take. They’ve been reconstructed in areas, in the original style. Everything inside the city walls is built in the traditional style, some of it genuinely old, some reconstructed. There is definitely a tourist town feel to parts of the town, but it is also a real trading post for the Tibetans, Qiang and Hui Muslims. There are shops that sell traditional Tibetan clothes (ready made and made to order), prayer beads, silver jewelry, along with PV cables, portable batteries and LED lights.
Songpan has a large covered market where farmers sell produce, meat and fish. The fish are live in tanks, gutted right there for you when you pick one out. On the other side of this small town is a Muslim meat market, where yaks are slaughtered out back and butchered to order in a covered area just off the main road. It was an anatomy lesson, to be sure. Every see a pile of yak hearts? We watched a man grab a pile of organs, all connected, and cut the heart and liver out. A tube oozed green with the animal’s partially digested last meal.
A pedestrian bridge in the middle of town hosts all the local mushroom foragers. Villagers bring in carts of garden produce for sale. The people-watching was fantastic. A real slice of life in the high country. All in all we really enjoyed our stay there.
Back in Chengdu (after a terrifying 7 hour van ride down a steep mountain road under construction) the air was thick, humid and smoggy after the mountains. Chengdu is a big noisy city but it does have some real charm. The riverfront has been turned into a park and tea shops abound; we spent a couple of hours in a park drinking tea and playing games, seemingly the official pastime of Chengdu. We ate more hotpot (yum!).
Things I like about China:
- The food – there is a lot of really good food in China! In fact, we all liked pretty much every meal we ate in China. Most of the food was fresh and delicious, and lacking in those gooey sweet sauces so predominant in American Chinese restaurants.
- The people – Chinese people are easy to deal with, even when you don’t speak their language. They are practical and non-dogmatic, happy to help, willing to bend the rules, not easily offended.
- The sense of personal safety. You get the feeling here that it is unlikely you will be physically assaulted. Young women go out at night wearing short skirts and there isn’t a sense that they will be targets of sexual harassment. You also don’t see advertising with oversexed, scantily clad women models like you see in the USA. At least in the public sphere, women don’t seem to be objectified in China in the same way they are in the West.
- The infrastructure – transportation is very organized, there are toilets everywhere, things work, for the most part (except the internet, see list number 2 below).
- The markets – food markets, craft markets, junk markets, China has them all in abundance and they are more fascinating than just about any other markets I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Who needs museums? The markets are endlessly fascinating.
- Clean streets and parks. The government pays a lot of people to sweep the streets. The air may be foul, but there isn’t much garbage lying around.
- Traditional architecture – the old tile roof buildings, the temples, etc, are very beautiful.
- The wide variety of vehicles. There are cars, there are bikes, there are electric assist bikes, there are electric scooters, there are three-wheeled electric trucks, there are 4-wheeled scooters, there are three-wheeled cars, there is every variation on a wheeled vehicle you can imagine, and more!
Things I don’t like about China
- The air quality. This is a serious problem. The big cities are smoggy and in the small towns the main fuel is coal. Coal smoke is nasty. And the very small towns have a mix of coal and dung – the dung smoke may be worse than coal!
- Everyone smokes. This is a subset of the above item. People smoke inside restaurants, inside hotels, everywhere. It reminded me of my childhood.
- The tap water isn’t potable. Maybe not a huge deal, but when you think about the fact that China is a major industrial economic world power, it seems a bit silly that they can’t manage a potable water system.
- No high speed internet, and no reliable internet period. Every hotel and restaurant has free wifi, but it seems like more of a nice idea as it seldom works. Again, this is a first world problem, but see above.
- China is noisy! Drivers honk all the time (Beep! Here I come!), and there seem to be constant jackhammers everywhere.
Things that I have better understanding about
- Okay, we all know the stereotypes about Asian drivers. Well, it all makes sense to me now. There are only a few rules of the road that are enforced, so the streets are a semi-orchestrated chaos. In order to get anywhere, drivers in China must exercise a heady combination of extreme caution and aggressive opportunism. Drivers can’t move very quickly because they never know what is going to come at them, but they are required to wedge their way into any open space ahead of them on the road in order to get anywhere. These driving habits don’t translate well to American streets, hence the bad reputation.
- The Chinese love watermelons! The watermelons in China are delicious! Every restaurant has watermelon juice on the menu and it is always fresh and delicious.
- China has never had a dominant religion. Confucianism and Taoism are the two predominant philosophies, but neither is a religion with a god. Buddhism has been practiced here for centuries, but it is a religion without a god. As a result, the Chinese people are not dogmatic and not judgemental, at least not as much as many other cultures. Sure, they believe their culture is superior, but that’s because it probably is. Did you know, for instance, that chrome plating was invented by Germans and Americans separated about 80 and 70 years ago, respectively, but it was done in China 2200 years ago – I kid you not.
- Tibet isn’t just Tibet. The area today that is called Tibet is only a small part of what was Tibet up until 1950. Half of Sichuan, all of Qinghai and parts of Gansu and Xinjiang provinces belonged to Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover. Also, Tibetan culture is fairly stratified in its way. The monks study for decades, learning their fields in both Tibetan and Sanskrit, while some nomads are functionally illiterate. And the women seem to work all day long, while the men sit around drinking tea and looking at their phones.
In Xi’an we went to a restaurant where the food was perfectly nice but the english descriptions clearly demonstrated the pitfalls of Google Translator.
Langmusi – 1 Sept 2018-09-01
Greetings from the edge of the Tibetan Plateau! We arrived today in Langmusi, a small hill town in what was once the Amdo Province of Tibet, but is now on the border of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces of China.
We spent the last few days in Xiahe, also in the erstwhile Amdo province. Xiahe has a population of about 160,000, mostly Tibetans but also Hui and Han Chinese. Xiahe’s claim to fame is the Labrang Monastery, a vast school of Tibetan Buddhist learning founded in 1709 or thereabouts.
It’s a busy town, full of monks, pilgrims and tourists, mostly Han tourists but with a few westerners thrown in. The Tibetans seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them. People are especially drawn to Timo – they smile at him and say hello and pat him on the back while giving Glenn and I just a passing glance. The probably seldom see Western children here – nearly all the other western tourists we’ve seen in China are adults.
The monastery, which covers several acres, is surrounded on the outside by prayer wheels. There is a constant stream of pilgrims and monks turning the wheels and chanting. We joined in – we turned every prayer wheel, which must have amounted to a few hundred. A pair of old Tibetan nomad women greeted us as we walked the monastery perimeter. Pretty soon they had taken Timo by the arm, handed him a string of prayer beads and taught him to recite Om Mane Padme Hum. Soon we had a small group. Glenn and I and Timo and a handful of wizened brown skinned nomads all chanting together. Timo is a real charmer. I’m sure we burned off some bad karma there.
Despite it’s charms, we decided to leave Xiahe a day earlier than planned because the quiet of this mountain town was wrecked by construction – literally every street was being torn up and repaved simultaneously. The noise wore us down, and so we caught an early bus this morning and arrived in Langmusi around lunch time.
The four hour bus ride here was fascinating – the scenery looks a bit like eastern Oregon, but much greener, and dotted with nomad tents and herds of yaks. Broad river valleys surrounded by rounded hills with rugged peaks beyond. We are at about 10,000ft elevation, so the trees are few but the grasslands are expansive.
I’m looking forward to exploring the town, but the prosaic parts of travel sometimes interfere with the romance. I’m currently waiting for the water to warm up so that I can shower J. Xiahe was hot and dusty and the water was out yesterday due to road construction.
We plan to spend a day or two exploring the town of Langmusi and the two monasteries (we have a gorgeous view of one of them from our hotel room) and then go on a three-day horse trek to the nearby grasslands and mountains.
Hong Kong – 15 August 2018
After a week in Hong Kong, I still haven’t figured out which side of the sidewalk I’m supposed to walk on. The cars drive on the left side of the road, the up escalators are on the left, and in the Metro stations the signage directs pedestrians up the left side of the stairs. But the sidewalks are complete chaos. The only rule seems to be to fill whatever space is available as you move forward, like electrons filing holes. Is there supposed to be a convention? I absolutely cannot tell.
The first few days in Hong Kong I was missing the low-key friendliness of Taipei. Hong Kong is so much bigger and shinier and impersonal, I felt a little lost at first. I still like Taipei better, but I’m starting to warm up to HK. HK is spectacular, a conglomeration of tall shiny buildings against a backdrop of green mountains. But where in Seattle the mountains are an hour’s drive away, here the green mountains are literally within walking distance. I mean, they are right there. It is unreal, this band of skyscrapers hugging the edge of a green mountain island.
It’s been raining on and off the last few days and the hills and skyscrapers disappear into the clouds and reappear throughout the day. The sky and sea and mountain islands create a stunning tableau. One minute rain pours down in torrents, and the next minute, the sun is glinting through the clouds hovering over the bay.
The clouds and rain are a sweet blessing after the heat.
This city is bustling. The crowd is international, but mostly Asian, and mostly Chinese. This city oozes with fashionably dressed people, young and old, men and women. Despite the high fashion, I’ve seen high heels on only 2 or 3 women in the week I’ve been here. The Chinese are a practical people, apparently, who aren’t willing to waste time hobbling themselves for the sake of a look. Perhaps they figure they rejected footbinding decades ago, and aren’t willing to adopt the western version.
I love the practicality of this culture. Things work here. The subway is clean and easy to use. The trains run often and navigating through the system is unbelievably simple. There are public toilets everywhere; clean, and well stocked with toilet paper. Many public toilets have a choice of western toilets and squat pots, with the stall doors clearly marked using symbols that are perfectly understandable, even if you’ve never seen them before. Where are the public toilets in NYC, SF, Seattle? If Taipei and Hong Kong can do this, why can’t we? It feels so civilized.
Today is our last day in HK, and after that we enter into China proper for a month.
Here are some pictures from the Nan Lian Garden, a replica of a Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) garden. The garden was completed in 2006.
Hong Kong has a store that is all Miyazaki!
Hong Kong – 11 August 2018
On our first day in HK we visited a lovely park. Shady trees, pavilions, and a large pond populated with fish and turtles. Visitors are expected to follow a few rules:
Hong Kong is very hot, as evidenced by the multitude of AC units.
Taipei Notes– 8 August 2018
We had a great time in Taiwan (we flew in to Hong Kong today). In Taipei we visited two night markets, the Ningxia market fairly near our hostel, and the Huaxi Street night market in the Wanhua District. The Ningxia night market fills a couple of blocks and is mainly food – meat on a stick, sticky rice, noodles, fish balls, fruit, etc. The stalls are tiny and line up cheek-by-jowl along the center of the street, making a narrow aisle where people crowd through, shouldering each other to get to the tasty Taiwanese specialties. The Huaxi Street is more organized, an actual built arcade a few blocks long, with the vendors mostly in stalls or even air-conditioned storefronts.
Both markets have signs that say “Tourist Night Market” but the tourists are 99.9% Taiwanese as far as I could tell. And next to nothing is in English, which makes ordering food a bit challenging. One restaurant we tried had an indoor seating area, but to order we were directed to a cart across the alley that held a variety unidentifiable raw animal bits. We gave that one a miss.
The Wanhua district is one of the oldest areas of Taipei. We visited temples a flea market and two temples. The flea market was nothing special, mostly cheap Chinese clothing and battered tchotchkes. A few items captured our fancy (Timo got excited about a sword in an ornate scabbard), but nothing worth carrying around for a year. One stall had a box of pink rubbery things, each about the size of a large loaf of bread. We puzzled over these a while before realizing they were meant to be a vagina and anus, with a small bit of hair on top. A fun night out for the right type of guy, I suppose.
Taipei is teeming with cats, and Timo purchased a bag of tiny dried fish with the goal of wooing some feline friends. On an alley just off the flea market street we found a cat colony, and Timo set to work enticing the cats with his bag of fish. His efforts greatly amused the lovely ladies who shared the alley with the cats; Glenn and I stood by and watched, amused at the irony.
We visited two temples, the Longshan Temple and the Qingshui Temple. Both are beautifully ornate, both are Taoist temples, worshipping city gods. The Longshan Temple is quite large for a city temple, and very active. As the city was developed and temples were destroyed, many of the local gods were moved here. People bring offerings, mostly of flowers, but also fruit and bags of chips. Lighting of candles, burning of incense, praying. The worshippers were young and old. In the main hall was a service with people gathered in the courtyard singing along. The temple was crowded, the majority were there to worship their local folk gods. We interloping tourists were in the minority.
The Qingshui temple was much smaller, but just as ornate. This temple was not crowded, as we arrive just before closing time. Indeed it was just us, the door keeper and a woman who seemed to be a docent of sorts, if temples have docents. The woman greeted us in Mandarin and Timo spoke with her (I haven’t yet learned how to say “I don’t speak Mandarin.”). She explained to him the history of the temple and told him a bit about the gods. He understood a lot of it, and translated some for us. I regretted we didn’t have more time to look around, the painting and carving (stone and wood) was intricate and beautiful. Timo came away energized from this encounter. His discussion with her gave him a level of confidence that he hadn’t felt before. It is thrilling so see him develop his skills, and to be so excited by it.
On Monday we spent an afternoon in Hsinchu, a small city about an hour south of Taipei. Jane and William are colleagues of Glenn’s through the food forest- they flew him to Taipei a couple of years ago to give talks on urban food forestry. They took us to a park and showed us the food forest they had built with city support as a result of Glenn and Jacqueline Cramer’s efforts. The garden is great, a bit of nature in the city. Birds! Dragonflies! They are young and hard working and have a wonderful vision of sustainability and internationalism. I so enjoyed spending time with them. They gave me hope for the future. They also gave us two containers of “the best grass jelly in Taiwan” and they were right – it was exquisite! Grass jelly can be a bit strange, but this was subtle and almost creamy in texture.
I wish we had scheduled a longer stay in Taiwan. I didn’t know how much I would like the culture and the place. The food is great, the people are so nice. There is a practicality that is refreshing (the only women I saw in high heels were the prostitutes in the cat alley). The Taiwanese are very unpretentious, which is so nice.
The only downside to our stay in Taiwan was the immense heat and humidity. It was in the low-to-mid 30s the entire week, with high humidity. Next time I come, I will not come in August!!!
Taipei – First Impressions – August 4, 2018
We arrived in Taipei early in the early morning of Aug 2nd after an overnight flight that felt endless. I was nervous about customs and immigration, but we sailed through. Transport into town was easy to navigate. The hostel staff were happy to recommend a good breakfast spot. This all seems, so far, typical of Taiwan. The country operates with a practical efficiency. The people are helpful without being overly solicitous.
The city is a mix of shiny new highrises and narrow winding alleys of crumbing stone and concrete, patched in spots with bamboo leaves and corrugated metal. There are food vendors everywhere, from storefront carts with sidewalk seating to air-conditioned noodle shops, to hot pot restaurants, which somehow thrive in 34.3C weather. Loads of shops, kitchen shops, hardware stores, clothing shops, car parts. Yesterday we saw a shop that sells chemistry equipment- long spiral tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers etc. How many chemists does it take to support such a shop? Is the city full of hobbyists titrating chemicals in their basements?
Taipei manages to feel safe without being stodgy and sterile.
Today we went to the National Palace museum, where we saw a piece of jade carved to look like a cabbage. This is, according to the literature, the most popular piece in the museum. People crowded three and four deep to have a look at it. What does this say about the Taiwanese national character?
In an adjacent case was a piece of jade that looks like a chunk of braised pork. The label read “Meat Shaped Stone”. This appeared to be the second most popular item in the museum, judging by the size of the crowd.
My favorite items in the museum were 3000 year old bronze vessels: ornate, detailed, in no way primitive. There were also Neolithic jade axe heads. Jade blades – who would have thought?
The garden at the museum has an extensive water feature that includes three large ponds and a stream that wends its way through the trees. The fish in the pond are very fond of the food that comes from the vending machines. This lurid photo is fish swarming and gaping for the green pellets of fish food.
Less than 30 days now until we leave on the trip. After 3 years of planning, our departure is on the horizon. Tickets purchased, reservations made, checklists are checked off, new checklists created. I’m excited, but I haven’t allowed myself to get too dreamy about the trip; I’ve needed too much brain space for preparation.
The house is cleaner than it has ever been. 24 years worth of dust has been scrubbed away, giving the place a fresh new lease, figuratively and literally. (I understand now why people have a cleaning service. Dust is alive and has an exponential growth profile.)
It turns out –surprise! – that great effort is required to prepare for this trip. I can see now why more people don’t do it. With all the apparent glamour of a year of travel, there is also sacrifice involved. We’ve purged possessions we’ve had for decades, casting off the past like peeling off an expired exoskeleton, exposing a new tender layer. It is a paring down, a shedding off our 20, 30 and even 40 year old selves and making space not only for our immediate venture but also for 60s, 70s and perhaps 80s. At least Timo won’t have as much useless crap to get rid of when we die.
We all have those little treasures – little items where you don’t see a thing for years but every so often you stumble upon it accidently while searching for something else, and the sight of it hits your gut with an evocation of a time and place, when the world was different and so were you.
Well, I’ve chucked many of those in the trash. It’s been painful at times. My mode has been to ask myself “If I were dead and someone were sorting through my stuff, would they keep these?” and if the answer is No, it goes in the trash.
In some ways this purging has been like a little death. Hopefully we will get a rebirth experience to balance it out.