Monday, 29 December 2008

The weekend

Tourists take over London on a weekend. Every Saturday, a new Armada of Spaniards, Italians and Frenchmen invades Central London, turning every street into a queue, every corner a waiting room. Camera in hand, Ryanair or Easyjet tag on their luggage, bewildered look on their faces, they patiently queue up to take the same picture as everybody else, with everybody else in it, to buy the same t-shirt and key chain, walk the same streets, eat the same glazed nuts, get into the same cafeteria.

London iswarming tourists

The London Eye is a wheel of glittering sparkles out of a fairy tale, with a thousand flashes from inside the cabins. I stand in awe and amazement; I wonder at how widespread technology is among the masses, yet how scarce are those savvy enough to extract any value out of it. Flashing the Houses of Parliament, in full daylight, 1km away, from behind a glass?

The city grows out of the swarming biomass like a termite mound. Westminster, Victoria, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Trafalgar, Tower Bridge, Hyde Park, Fuckingham Falace, all teeming with the unsynchronized swinging of tens of thousands of limbs, the dissonant chatter of thousands of voices, the glitter of thousands of flashes.

Winter Wonderland in Hyde ParkWinter Wonderland in Hyde Park

Many would hate this. I love it. I love being in it, moving in it, smelling it, tasting it, swimming my way through the conglomeration of bodies and shouts and sweat and excitement and surprise and joy.

Camden Town MarketCamden Town Market

Most of all, I love the Sunday market in Camden Town. Memories of Thailand keep rolling in. The market is not that big and the prices are 6 to 7 times higher, yet the sellers are very frequently Indians or Arabs, which means prices are, also here, "flexible". You don't even need to haggle, just stare at something for 3 minutes while insisting you're just looking, thanks, and the price plummets like the British Pound.

The weekend in London is sparkling, spectacular, magic, a numbing kaleidoscope of colour and sound, a ride on a roller-coaster. I can't wait for the weekend to begin.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Go Central

When the never-ending sprawling labyrinths of silent streets lined with crumbling brown-faced victorian houses by the railway bridges of Lewisham get my spirits too low for the fried chicken/kebab shops and off-licence Kwik-e-Marts of New Cross to raise, I jump on board a wheeled red cocktail-shaker and go on a pilgrimage to London Central.

I walk the shushed back streets of Westminster and the chilly banks of the Thames, then I hop on the first bus to anywhere. I climb the hills of Hampstead Heath, where foxes howl at night. I tread on the crackling rustling of dry leaves in Green and St James' parks, then get a free UV session by standing outlined against the squall of colour and light in Piccadilly Circus. I take a tour of spicy SoHo, watching dealers and strip clubs, among the ringing and squeaking of rickshaws and the calls of alcohol-marinated chavs.

In the day, I plunge into the avalanche of shoppers in Oxford Street and raging hordes of tourists elsewhere, having my body bumped against a thousand bodies, and my ears caressed by a thousand different languages, both familiar and exotic.



In the night, I walk alone through soulless streets, the sleeping city my good company. I watch the orangey silhouette of Big Ben ghostly rising from the silent mist, propped up by a ray of orange light. Dancing on the dark Thames I find the surprised O of the London Eye, the moon its written accent. I lose myself in the labyrinth of glass and light of the Docklands, my sights on the tip of One Canada Square, hypnotized by its rhythmic lightning bolt electrocuting the speeding clouds.



Hammersmith to Islington, Camden to Victoria, I zigzag through London in the night. I make my way back in the ambiguous hours when early risers go jogging and hordes of hooker-dressed clubbers dizzystep their giggly way back wherever they call home, wearing their high heels in their hands. Refreshed and uplifted, I go back to my current residence in London's Bronx, knowing that Central is the place to be, dreaming of the day I can finally Go Central for real.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Send me an angel

I woke up to an overflowing bladder and the worst hangover in a decade. I pinballed my wretched body wall-to-wall all the way to my crappy latrine. As I watched several litres of yellow excretion flee my body and transfer to the London sewage system, recollection dawned.

Or it should have. It actually didn't. Doing my best to piece together the shards of my shattered memory, this is what I think happened. I ingested vast quantities of alcohol in the shape of an amber flowing fluid, at a handy measure of one pound sterling per every half-litre container. I talked to people. I queued for more half-litre containers. I danced. I danced?? I danced! At one point, I looked at the bar and they had just stopped serving drinks.

Then there's suddenly no more information. A black screen. Cut to the next scene, where I am trying to make my way home. Apparently an earthquake is in process, for I have difficulty walking straight and in an upright position. Sudden cut to the next scene, where I am puking my guts out, then I fall down and pass out.

Then a big black emptiness. Then, sudden cut to mid-action, where I am talking to someone. I look up. Under a blinding light, a pale-faced, ginger-haired young man dressed in bright white is helping me to my feet and talking me back to my senses.

I don't know what we're talking about, but I guess I'm giving him my life-story rant: where I'm from, where I'm now, why I'm in the gutter. He follows attentively and encouragingly. He's being very nice to me. The fumes of alcohol clouding my vision clear up a bit and I take a better look at him. He's dressed in white, yes: white trainers, white sneakers, a white cap. He has a shabby beard of 4 hairs and crooked, unpaired teeth.

We talk on for a while, but now we're walking. Somehow now I'm managing to walk in a straight line, so, his mission fulfilled, he sees me off. Over my shoulder, I thank him somehow, but I can't remember any words, just connotative goodwill and friendliness, which he graciously acknowledges. Here recollection stops: a damp smell and the sound of pouring urine bring back the now.

Suddenly alarmed, I pinball back to my room and check that I came back with all my stuff: money, check; mobile, check; glasses, check. I hit the hay again with such a feeling of gratitude as I haven't felt in ages. Thank you, guardian angel with crooked teeth.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nothing

My glasses decided today that they had had enough and were not going to put up with my abuse anymore. After sleeping on them again, and twitching them into something worthy of the Guggenheim, I tried to give them their true shape back. The right arm snapped like a twig in my guilty hand. Luckily, over the last decades a handsome bit of technology has been applied to the idea of "glue". I applied the idea, the technology and the product.

Today I've also kicked goodbye the preposterous salmon coating of my room. I've splashed and sloshed and worked and sweated and sworn quite a bit, but now I'm the happy paint-spotted tenant of an empty room glowing in glorious white.

Why am I telling these stories? Because they're all I've got. That's how interesting my life has become. That's how full of magic and surprise and ecstatic amazement my everyday is. Right, I once more go out, do stuff, meet people and drink more than a reasonable amount. But it's not the same. Something's changed. Something's missing. There's a big black hole sucking away the sparks, and it's deep inside me.

I wish I could tell you of euphoria and ecstasy, of epiphanic insights into the clockwork of the universe, of lives other than my own and places other than this. But that would be pure artifice. The feeling is gone. The Childlike Empress must be ill: the Nothing is here.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

1st Round

I've managed to bullshit my way to over 2000 words in one essay and more than 3000 in another, through unknown & hostile postmodernist territory. I've mastered the technique of using 200 words to say what could be conveyed in 20, and repeating the same idea in different words till exhausting all possible synonyms. I've extended, inserted, lengthened, dilated, broadened, widened, swollen the text, injected its flesh with rapid-growth hormones and water.

I have earned my Black Belt 3rd Dan in the martial art of bullshitting.

I have also earned my freedom. Now the future lies ahead of me like a naked virgin's warm lascivious body, like a newly opened all-u-can-eat candy store, like a theme park glittering in the sun. What next? Where to go? What to do? Seemingly endless possibilities swarm my eager disposition, leaving me adrift in a hazy rotating kaleidoscope of desires.

The bell's ringing the end of the 1st round, and I'm still on my feet. Now for some time off before tackling the 2nd one.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

House arrest

I'm a hermit. A prisoner. A castaway. For the past... --what? 16? 17 days? I've lost count-- few people have caught sight of me. I picture myself scratching a count of passing days on my cell wall.

I've measured my room and hallway so many times and with such precision, I could draw it to scale eyes closed. 4 and a half steps from my door to the opposing wall. Turn on my heels, 4 & 1/2 to the door, 7 to reach the fridge, 7 back and start again, book in my hand, a black cloud hovering over my head.

I've munched enough BS in the last days to last me two lifetimes. Scholarly literary criticism on modern fiction is full of manure so concentrated that, sparingly used, every page could fertilize half an acre for a year. One important lesson I've learned, I can share with you: when you reach the third use of the word "postmodernism", it's time to drop the book & chuck it in the bin.

Nothing coming after that will make the meagrest sense or be of any remote value whatsoever, to you or anyone else on this planet, with the one exception of the skunkhead dimwit who wrote it and will make a name for himself in the academia through an impressive pages-of-bullshit-in-print (POBSIP) figure. The more you read, the less you will understand. Learn from my mistake, spare yourself the pain and confusion.

Ok, the break is over. Now I'm going back to my cell, but I feel the first rays of hope playfully glittering in my eyes. In 4 days it will all be over. See you on the 27th.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Show me the money

£380 per month keep me out of the cold and the rain, and provide me with a latrine, a kitchen, broadband internet and two flatmates

£9.10 per week give me access to being shaken to senselessness in any amount of picturesque yet infernal red double-decker buses, for one week. They won't buy me access to the dreary rat tunnels under London, though

£5.00-£10.00 will furnish me with a jacket, pair of pants, shirt or indeed pretty much any other item of clothing at Primark

£2.20-£3.50 are the brackets for the usual amount I'm forced to fork out for a pint of lager in any pub/club

£1 is a pint of Carlsberg at the Goldsmiths Student Union pub on Tuesdays, or any 500ml can at an off-license store after 10pm

£1.10 gets me more pasta than I can eat in a week

£0.70 I can swap for a half-kilo jar of yummy pasta sauce

£0.30 provides me with 800gr of Tesco Value sliced bread

£0.10 I get subtracted for each minute of senseless mobile gossip and every 160 chars of text

£0.07 will buy me a sachet of Instant Noodles. (Sainsbury's Basics or ASDA SmartPrice. No relation to James Bond movies)

£0.01 I find on the ground every now and then. Nobody bothers to pick up pennies except me

£0.00 is what I pay for the fireworks I see every single night

£priceless living in London is.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Unhomeless. Homeful?

Exactly 30 days after arriving in London, I took possession of my room in a shared flat. I am no longer a hostel inmate.

I changed this:



For this:


No more girls going bonkers, throwing bottles at people, painting swastikas on the walls and being arrested by the police. No more rumbling earthquaking snoring from room-mates. No more Swedish nutcases stealing people's shoes and food. No more foot-and-ass massage from the thundering boom of the loudspeakers in the pub downstairs. No more drunken people snoring sprawled on the sofa. No more sharing everything, no more lack of privacy.

I wouldn't have thought I would miss hostel life. Yet I do. I miss meeting a different bunch people every day, the long legendary conversations into the morning, the instant improvised parties, the precious nuggets of experience I found in everyone.

It's good, having my own place. My own desk, my own bed, my own space. But the time I've spent in hostels, I cherish.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Overbooked

Two weeks of no news is good news. Too busy to bother is good.

My agenda overflows, brims over with appointments, like a girl's suitcase would with clothes. I run from place to place like a madman with his hair on fire. I have a hard time finding time to fart in.

Many of those appointments are academic in nature, with classes every day, sometimes interspersed, and a weird scattered patchy timetable.

Then there's the social aspect. Societies take quite a lot of time, and I'm only in two of them! I can't imagine joining another one at this time.

Yet I must confess that the reasons for which my days end at 6am are more of a cheery beerful nature. I down a 44cl sixpack a night on average, in the best atmosphere and the company of some the most amazing guys on this planet. Most of my calorie intake is probably from fermented barley.

As I already said once upon a time, please stay tuned through yet another commercial break.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Snow in October

"Is it always foggy here?"
"Oh, not at all! Only when it's not raining..."
-- from Asterix chez les Bretons
There's supposed to be nothing more British than talking about the weather. No surprise, as there's so much of it going on all the time. As "the Eskimos have 100 words for snow", the British certainly have quite a few words for rain.

I've had drizzles and spits and showers. I've seen it mizzling and sprinkling and pouring down. And I know more downpours and deluges and squalls are on the way. I've had rain and fog enough to last me one year, and I've only been here 45 days.

Today, I woke up to a grey new day. I walked out into a cloud. As soon as I was engulfed in it, this sentence came to my mind:

"Fog so thick you can't see your dick"


Wearing glasses is bad enough. Wearing glasses in the mist is pointless. Half a minute and I can't see where I'm stepping. It's just as well if I don't wear them.

When it's not misty it's because it's too windy for the water to stay suspended in the air for too long. Sometimes it's windy and dry and so cold it feels like you're walking through a cloud of razorblades. A few days ago, it snowed. It was quick and didn't last long on the ground. But it snowed. In October.

And in the midst of all this, while I wear two wool caps and shiver my way to and fro like a wet mole, semi-naked loonies in reflective vests jog on the streets, zigzagging among the chaotic traffic and the crowds of commuters, huffing and puffing and steaming away into the all-engulfing grey haziness. Tic-tic-tic, ils sont fous, ces Bretons.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

101 Dalmatian posts

Popp!! Fssschssshhhhh...

That was the merry uncorking of a king-sized bottle of Champagne, celebrating Island Hopping's 100th post.

Long and short, dense and watered-down, of all shapes and sizes, locations and subjects, pure texts or images, these one hundred (and one) posts give this blog a nice, uniquely spotted Dalmatian coat.

Disclaimer: no dogs were harmed during the making of this blog.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Who's afraid of the big bad essay?

You might be wondering what the hell it is I'm actually studying here in London. I have 4 subjects/modules this year:

1. Shakespeare. A full year of Shakespeare. Just Shakespeare. That should be time enough for studying in minute detail every single last napkin he ever cared to scribble on, every single one of his shopping lists and love letters. But here there is just a one-hour lecture per week, so we're concentrating on a few plays. It's potentially both interesting and boring. Yet, as of now, it's just plain scary.

Essays. The very word makes me want to do the Homer: yell, throw my hands in the air, run, slam the door, start the engine & vanish with a screech of burning tyres.

2. Modern American Fiction. Got it just in time, exchanging it for a much nastier and boring subject (Approaches to Text, shudder). Looks awfully promising. When I saw, at last, Science Fiction treated as literature, I knew I had to get this one. On the downside, assessment is also by scary essays (shudder, shudder)

3. Translation for Professional Purposes. Two way translation between English and Spanish, with specialized topics (legal, environmental, IT, etc). Very, very interesting, and quite easy for me on the Eng-Sp front. Sp-Eng might prove trickier. Still a walk in the park in comparison to the above.

4. Writing Fiction - Advanced. Creative Writing, that is. Yes. Ohh yes. Yes, yes, yes. I can't believe it's a subject as such, one that I can even get credits for. It's such a pleasure that it's difficult to believe, it feels quite out of place.

And as of now, apart from these courses, I'm attending tutorials and a course on essay writing. The big bad essay is coming. He'll huff, and he'll puff and he'll want to blow my house in. I'm gathering bricks as fast as I can.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Sordid details

At Dover Castle Hostel, mice ate my cheese. I left my food in a plastic bag under the bed. During the night, I heard noises and cursed my room-mates for it. In the morning, I ate my food and was surprised that I had eaten so much of the cheese already. Then I realized the whole wrapper was gnawed through and the plastic bag had huge holes in it. Then I saw the mouse in the kitchen. It stopped, looked at me and went as close to laughing his contempt at me as a mouse can ever do: he wrinkled his nose, moved his whiskers twice, then scurried away.

On my first night in London, and during my first party, my much-loved black jumper burned to ashes. Bloody decorative candles on tables. I suddenly saw it on the floor while a girl was energetically stamping on it as if on a very stoic cockroach. This isn't funny at all, I thought. Turns out it was in flames and she was trying to save it from complete combustion. Too late.

I found a room in a shared flat I really liked. I loved the area, the room and the views. The two girls seemed good company, and the price was affordable. Everything seemed quite perfect. But they decided to "go with someone else". Take that, ego.

London weather got me. I caught a nasty cold on the 4th day. Living in hostels is definitely tough on my health. In summer, they'll have the air conditioning on and I'll freeze while some guys sleep naked. In winter, some guys will continue to sleep naked and keep the window open, while I shiver inside my cocoon of thick fabric. In the morning, I will emerge from my cocoon, not as a butterfly, but still as a coughing pneumoniac caterpillar.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Interesting Times

Let's have a party. Do you know these people? No? Well, this is Jamaica. See Poland talking to India? Oh, hello Greece. Oh, and Bulgaria, of course, how are you? Sri Lanka, great to see you! How's it goin', Barbados? Have you seen Taiwan? Oh, talking to Ghana, is she? Hey there Japan! Oh, Italy, meet Luxembourg and Switzerland. France, these are Spain and Norway. Australia's over there, talking to The States. Here come Brazil and Chile, and trailing them is born-in-Germany-half-Ghana-half-Lebanon. She speaks Mandarin too. Zambia, Korea, Finland, Mexico, Philippines, Denmark... Right. Ok, now we're all together. Let's have some beers. And then some more. And more.

Now, tell me. Tell me what it's like to work on the oil rigs in Nigeria and on the fields of Kazakhstan, tell me about running down the slope of an active volcano, tell me about politics in India and what it feels like to be a radio star in Asia. Tell me what you saw in Zanzibar, how you cruised the Caribbean and sailed through the storm in New Caledonia, survived pneumonia in China and civil war in South America, got rich at a casino in Yemen and spent it all in Djibouti to arrive penniless in Alaska. But let's change the subject. You could tell me about writing scripts and articles and books and about animation and design and sculpture and drama and sociology and psychology. And about working and living and studying and breathing and seeing and learning and tasting and loving and sharing. Tell me about you.

Tell me about courage and pride and the need to survive, about pleasure ecstatic and pain mortifying. Tell me of friendship and love, of magic and awe, of the beauty within every living thing. Now tell me of tragedy and misery, of pain and suffering, and tell me how you rebelled and fought and broke out, how you grew over it and then brushed it off, flapped your wings and flew away in the sky over the sea towards the setting sun.

May you live in interesting times. They say it's a curse. For the one chopping and mixing the stories, so far it's been a blessing.

Note: This is all true. In the same sense that a fruit salad is all fruit. Ingredients: some of the people I've met in the last 10 days, and a few of their stories. Chop into small pieces and mix. Decorate. Serve cold. Allergy advice: Contains nuts.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Stranger in a strange land

A calendar impossibility confirms it: I've fallen into a time warp tunnel. I'm positive I've been here for two weeks: I know it, I feel it in my bones. But out there in the real world, the planet has only spun three times. On the plus side, that means I've only had to pay for 3 nights' accommodation.

I'm in London. Should everything turn out right, I'll be based here for the next 10 months, enjoying (slash suffering) an Erasmus scholarship at Goldsmiths College, University of London.


This is a strange land, and I am a stranger here. Fortunately, so is everybody else.

For the next 10 months, I will probably be living, studying, working and breathing in this unbelievably dense spicy boiling soup of a million mysterious exotic ingredients. This might well turn out to be my most challenging adventure yet.

Wish me luck.

Downunder - Best of

The biggest adventure ever told (by yours truly)

15 flights, 5 rental cars, 1 truck, 1 4WD, 5 ferries, 2 cruises, 4 trains, 3 coaches, 3 taxis, 1 motorcycle, 2 bikes, 1 surf board, 1 kayak, 1 parachute, 1 bungy cord, 23 hostels, 70,000km and many, many litres of beer were required for the living of this adventure.

Many stories, many photos, many memories. This is my pick from the lot.

Here are, in no particular order, my favourite posts:
A taste of Thailand (I)
A taste of Thailand (II)
In a place called Alice Springs
Nullarbor
When (a poem)
The Wet
Fraser Island
The Other Side
Whitsundays
Queenstown
Homesick
Thailand Hopping
Kangaroos
Out of Rottnest
The Pinnacles trip
I made it (from Townsville to Airlie Beach through floods)
Tassie is an island's name

And here's the all-time popular favourite:
I survived cyclone Helen

And finally the best photo-centered posts:
Wildlife
Bungy
The Ghan
The Rocks (Uluru, Kata Tjuta, King's Canyon)
Croc country
2008: New Year

Downunder - The gallery

Thousands of words.

Downunder - The map

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Big Brother

Passing through Britain, I never fail to feel like I've been kidnapped and teleported to an alternative reality where, had 1984 ever been written, it would have been a realistic novel. You can see this on the streets, but London Luton Airport is just a textbook case:

A long queue. A maze of queues. People shuffling along with their belongings, reminiscent of Auschwitz inmates. Signs everywhere: Warning: CCTV in operation. Smile, you're on camera. No liquids. No photography. Warning against verbal or physical assault to our staff, law provides strong penalties, including imprisonment. Guys in flashy costumes barking commands, herding: move on, this queue, over here, come forward. Over the PA system, continuously: THIS IS A SECURITY ANNOUNCEMENT. Don't leave your baggage unattended, it will be destroyed. Take off your coats and belts now. Have your ID ready for inspection. You can't carry more than one piece of hand luggage, or you will be denied boarding. Stand in line.

I take off my coat and belt, put everything in the scanner, step through the gate and get bipped. I had my phone in my pocket. Guy comes over, starts putting his hands all over my body, while reciting the mantra “You're all right mate, you haven't done anything wrong”.

I don't need you to tell me that, I know perfectly well, says I, I know that better than you. It's all right mate, it's just a security procedure.

No, it's not. This goes way beyond security. This is for display. It's a show. It's propaganda. It's brainwash. It's mind control. This I think but I don't get to say, 'cause now they want me to open my laptop and take off my shoes, to scan them. I've been wearing them for 48 hours non-stop now, so the smell that comes out qualifies as a biological weapon.

Now half naked and ready for a fight I wait while they also scan my laptop 3 times, intrigued as to whether after 3 chunks of radiation it will experience spontaneous combustion or not, one would imagine. In awe that it doesn't, they hand it back to me.

“You know the movie Brazil? Don't you feel like you're in it?”, I ask the guy. He doesn't know the movie. “Have you read 1984?” He hasn't. “Well mate, welcome to Airstrip One then”, I say as I leave.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Pit stop

So here I am. Landed in Madrid for a pit stop, or, as it were, a stop in the pit. Hopefully not grounded for too long.

I´ll keep my engines running, hoping the runway will be clear soon.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

A taste of Thailand (II)

Thailand is hot, wet and spicy, and it's not just the weather and the food. Sexual tourism is huge in Thailand, and Bangkok is very justly famous for that. Heaps of old, fat and predominantly failed white men with heavy pockets snake their way to the City of Angels*, with the smell of cheap easy juicy exotic sex dragging them by their noses. And they find what they come looking for, judging by the couples I see on the street.

Massage parlours are pretty much everywhere: Thai massage, oil massage, and maybe something else, which goes unwritten but understood. At first I though it was easy to differentiate the places that offered just-massage from massage-with-happy-ending, but I've heard first-person accounts of the contrary. Even in just-massage places, where girls are not lined outside in revealing outfits and call you out, chances are sex is still an optional extra. Quoting Matt, prostitution in Asia has a full range of shades of gray.

The practical totality of the Thais I've met were disarmingly nice and polite, all smiles and bows. Smile, nod, prayer, bow, in the traditional Thai way. You might find the very occasional asshole, but it's the exception to the rule. But the one rule without exception, the one thing no Thai will ever fail to do, whatever the circumstances, is trying to rip you off. With a big smile and a nod, of course. Every single one I've had any commercial exchange with has tried to rip me off, even when I had already booked for a fixed price, even when the price was clearly tagged. The street vendors, the taxi drivers, at the hotel, the tour operators, practically everyone. Even the immigration official at the Airport wanted a 100 Baht "tip" because I didn't fill out my departure card and he did it for me. You are in their eyes, as I say, an ATM on legs.

It goes much farther than this. In Thailand, most prices are "flexible", that is, they're a rip-off and you're not expected to be so stupid as to accept them, so every purchase implies some haggling. In my personal experience, it's easy and fast to get a third off any quoted price, even if it's clearly tagged in big bold numbers. This still leaves the seller quite happy, so my guess is that real prices should be less than half the first one they give you. The only exceptions I know of are public buses and "serious" shops, supermarkets and 7-elevens. You're not expected to bargain for food either, but I can testify it's feasible and easy. At first it's heaps of fun, trying to outsmart the locals (which you very seldom achieve, believe me) and getting a real bargain, but, as Makura already reported, you do get fed up eventually, and at some point wish for fixed and reasonable prices.

And this brings me to the shops. The green-and-orange seven of 7-eleven is even more ubiquitous here than the Coca-Cola billboards. Every corner and intersection has at least one 7-eleven, open 24h, providing emergency food, soft drinks and beers at convenient convenience prices. I am absolutely thrilled by this. Here is a place where you can live and be active 24 hours a day! Wooo-hooo! There are even night markets, with some stalls open 24h (the owners take turns to sleep right there).

I absolutely adore the markets. They're so full of exotic colours and smells, of life, activity and excitement. They're so authentic and defining, so big and busy, and of course so cheap. I can spend as many dehydrating hours browsing through the stalls as the owners will have them open. The ubiquitous legions of guys calling you out can get annoying at times, though.

[indian accent:] "Hello my frien, com see my shup", "How are you ser, nice to meet you" (while he´s in your way and his hand is fishing out for yours), and of course "Hey where you go?", "Where you from?", "Taxi, tuk-tuk, chip-chip! Twenty Baht!". I´ve tried several tactics but soon discovered that the best way to deal with it is to completely ignore them. At first I pretended I didn´t see or hear them, but at the end I really didn´t hear them anymore. I´ve filtered them out. Now they´re just background noise, a constant buzz you get when you walk certain streets.

I've already pointed this out before, but my reporting wouldn't be complete without making it explicit: Thailand is cheap as shit. A daily budget of 20-25€ (including all local expenses and all regional travel) makes you the king here: restaurants, hotels, taxis, flights, and quite a few whims fit in there. You can go much cheaper than that: on a budget and with time to spare, 10€ per day should do the trick.

I ended my sneak-peek at Thailand with a visit to Phuket and Phi Phi. I loved the fine beaches and the warm sea, the views and the atmosphere. I don´t usually favour lazying on the beach, but here I indulged and enjoyed it very much. These were very touristy areas (Phi Phi horribly so), full of chunks of white wobbly Western walking ATMs, so prices are enormous by Thai standards (still "flexible" though). Even so, they´re less than a third what you would expect on a beach on, say, the Spanish coast.

Phi Phi is where they filmed the beach from The Beach. Luckily Koh Phi Phi Leh (the South, smaller island) is a National Park, so it´s not rotten with hotels, resorts and shops like Koh Phi Phi Don (the North one) is. The bay was, though, at the time I visited, full of one-day-tour boats, and the beach was so crowded you couldn´t see the sand. Phuket, on the other hand, has much more to it than sights and beaches; the towns are vibrant and quite exciting by themselves. Architecture, culture, history, life and nightlife, all around. Not Bangkok, something different, but equally thrilling.

This is getting to an end, so I wish to declare myself before it´s too late:

I'm in sincere, heartfelt, desperate love with Asia. I want to see it all, spend more time here, and Thailand is first on the list. But now I have little choice but to go.

Hopefully an Eastward wind will bring me here again soon, with pockets full and time aplenty. See you soon, Siam.


* The shorthand name of Bangkok in Thai reads "Krungthep", meaning City of Angels.

A taste of Thailand (I)

In Bangkok there are no streets; there are only markets. The street is not a place you just pass through on your way to somewhere else, the street is where you live: where you buy and sell, where you eat and drink, where you meet people, where you spend your days munching the polluted air in the humid heat.

Bangkok is an amazing, mind-blowing mixture, shaken not stirred, of the old with the new, of traditional generic Asia and global modern Brandland. Rickshaws still squeak and asthmatic tuk-tuks still cough beside brand new shining luxury cars on multi-level motorways. At the base of huge glittering skyscrapers topped by logos of Gucci and Prada, old wrinkled women with conic straw hats keep hawking goods to and fro in the dreamy tropical mist. At the market, among the fog of vapours and the smell of meat sizzling over shining embers, throngs move through the stalls, pushing wheelbarrows, chatting, talking on last-gen mobile phones or struggling to chopstick into their mouths some red-hot spicy combination of meat and rice.

Mostly everywhere you go will be thronged, except for the very modern and horribly trendy malls for hardcore fashionistas, where all big international fashion brands flash big billboards. The throngs are, against all expectation, quite ok. It's easy (though slow) to move with them and through them, and people are generally very mindful of letting you through, not bumping into you and not stepping on your foot. They also seem to purposefully make more space for me, as I am, by their standards, big and bulky. Now that's a good joke. I've been a dwarf all my life, but now I'm in the land of the gnomes.

Amazed as I was at the beginning at the way circulation is carried out here (amazed that it worked at all and accidents were not happening constantly), now I find it thrilling and very inspiring. All this time I've spent in places where they not only drive on the wrong side of the road but also walk on it, I've been having those embarassing face-to-face encounters. You know, when you pass someone on the sidewalk and you lean right and he leans to his left, so you both stop face-to-face with a screech and do a silly dance for a while. That hasn't happened to me in Thailand once. People don't walk on the left or on the right, they just walk and avoid each other without bothering to stop to think about it. I think it's something to do with Personal Distance: that thing we have and they don't. We're used to avoid invading someone else's PD and to enforce our own, except when we're in a crowded public transport and we feel uncomfortable about it. Brushing against each other doesn't seem to bother anyone here. With so little space and so many people in it, I guess optimization is essential.

They do the same while driving. Throngs of motorcycles pack the street using all available space. Overtakings are usually carried out within 10cm of an accident. Though you're supposed to drive on the left, it's quite common to have motorcycles driving on the right, avoiding the cars that come head first, if that suits their destination better or their lane is full. All other traffic rules are flexible as well. Traffic lights are only green and red. Green light means "go on, avoiding the guys who jump their red light", and red means yellow. U-turns are feasible anywhere, anytime, whenever suits you better or makes you happier. The other vehicles will just avoid you or very patiently stop and wait. Pedestrian crossings are few and just for show. In practice, when you want to cross the road, you just do, blending in very naturally with the incoming traffic (and inwardly hoping Ganesh liked your last floral offer).

You can't walk 50m without seeing a very decorated shrine to one god or another. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, as the song would have it. A god with spillover in the arms department, if I'm any judge. Buddhism here is huge. There are big wats* all over and orange-clad monks are a common sight on the streets.

But even bigger than Buddhism is The King. I already knew this from my stopover here three months ago, but it keeps surprising me. It's just too much. I've seen his face so much already that I feel I know him personally.

Most often it's just a giant billboard of the king saluting and wearing the trademark Thai impassive face, and the queen smiling a lot and being very nice about something. But sometimes you find pearls like: the King impassively examining construction plans (tovarisch King and the working class), the King impassively playing the saxophone (!!!) or (my favourite) the King impassively trying to figure out how the hell a digital SLR camera works. Keep in mind that these are all huge billboards, sometimes covering whole buildings 30 stories high. The photos are always professional and somehow artistic, apparently trying to emphasize the impassivity of his face, the size of his glasses, or how high he can raise his hand while (impassively) saluting. Long live the Impassive King!
The funniest thing is that people seem to genuinely worship the guy. Even if you could avoid the street propaganda, the guy's face is still on clocks, calendars, and of course, on every respectable desk. Tic-tic, ils sont fous, ces thailandais.


* wat = Buddhist monastery

Monday, 18 February 2008

I have decided

I am not going back.

Ever.

I am not going back to bloody Madrid, and much less to the scumpit satellite settlement that's coated so many years of my short life with its sticky stinking mud of stale insipid mediocrity.

Life is too short to waste it watching your days spilling away into a reeking sinkhole. I am never, ever going back to that.

That said, I'm stopping there for a while. But I'm not going back. I'm going forward, this is just a stopover. A 6-month stopover, possibly. I need to refuel my pockets and maybe get some academic stuff done.

At some point, when my planets are in the right order, I will fly away, wherever the winds will land me.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Thailand Hopping

Flight from Singapore to Bangkok: 19 €
Taxi from the Airport (rip-off!): 2.20 €
Two-room flat with private bathroom: 5.55 €
One meal: 0.60 €
One beer at convenience store: 0.55 €

Spending One Night in Bangkok: priceless

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Road trippin'

Just as I saw Tasmania, I've seen New Zealand from behind the wheel. But I have not seen the same. I expected to. I was wrong.

I expected Kiwiland to be a "bigger, better, uncut" version of Tassie, with LOTR seasoning. I expected more nature, higher mountains, bigger lakes, wider rivers, higher waterfalls, greener landscapes, denser, thicker, lusher forests.

I kept comparing what I saw with what I was expecting to see, and everything kept looking so wrong and out of place. I finally had to surrender and accept the overwhelming visual evidence: Kiwiland is different.

Southland is mountainous, but mostly barren and dressed in yellow, ochre and khaki. Fiordland (the southwesternmost chunk) is the only part where mountain meets forest, and meets my expectations of "more". That is not to say Southland is not beautiful as well. When a new dawn dips the mountaintops in molten gold and soft waves wash the shores of a lake of pure aquamarine, no comparison can be had.

Northland is really beautiful in itself and closer to what I expected. And still, everything feels so... European-ish. Most forests I've been through, on both islands, were pine trees, and blackberries were easy to find. Roads are, just as in Tasmania, lined with roadkill, but it's still such a European sort. Rabbits, possums and the occasional bird or cat. No wallabies, no wombats, no pademelons in NZ. No marsupials at all, originally, until the introduction of the possum.

Most of the land I passed through was Cattle Country. On the golden hills, from behind fences on both sides of the road, paranoid sheep spring away and cows look at you with chewy apathy. Most of the northern part of Northland is Volcanic Country, which means that everywhere you go it smells like badly rotten eggs. There are a thousand "Volcanic Wonderland" parks along the road, where you can amble through the sulphuric fumes and take your pictures with the mud pools.

When you spend so long "on the road", you can't fail to have an opinion on the quality of the roads you travel. Kiwi roads are also narrow and frequently winding, with no sealed shoulders and less overtaking lanes than necessary. The speed limit is officially topped at an annoying 100km/h, but fortunately there are no speed cameras anywhere, so doing 140 is pretty common, when the slow trucks and sharp curves allow it.

The best thing about driving in Kiwi is that camping is such a big thing here. There are many free campgrounds in the most touristed areas, and on most stretches of main roads, "picnic" areas where you can stop to rest or to pass the night are plentiful, often every 10km or so. Sleeping in my car was so easy here.

This has been my longest road trip so far, incorporating the most nights in a row sleeping in a car. It was a good drive. But a long one as well. I've had enough for now. I'm tired.

The Other Side

I started my pilgrimage in Christchurch, after randomly bumping into Mark (mate from Fraser Island) and picking up my ridiculously cheap relo car to Auckland (5 kiwibucks a day!). I started the engine much later than planned, which meant flooring the gas all the way to Picton to get in time for the ferry to the North island. I did get there in time, after lots of speeding and crazy overtakings on winding coastal roads, but for the record the ABS kicked in just two times and I only bumped the car once (and, ahem, later sort of repaired it).


I enjoyed the ferry, probably the most scenic ferry crossing ever, just as they advertise. Really windy though. Too short anyway, I felt sorry when we arrived. As a sidenote, on the boat I met one of the guys who worked animating Gollum in the LOTR trilogy, a really cool geek I'll have to look up in the credits one day.

I stopped in Wellington as I arrived for a few hours to get supplies, fuel and information. I pinpointed the Other Side on Google Maps, noted down the exact GPS coordinates and familiarised with the map of the area. Later walked through the backpacker district in W and fell in love with the atmosphere. Gotta come back someday, I thought as I zoomed out of town.

I didn't want to spend the night anywhere fancy, just somewhere in Nowhereland, but ended up in this uber-cool place with palm trees and free showers, which enabled me to start the following day clean, happy and ready to rumble.

The GPS I rented for an extra $5 a day proved to be essential for negotiating the labyrinth of secondary roads dotted with nothing but farms. The drive was quite long, and I looked at the Distance To Destination on the GPS every 5km. I felt the wonderful thrill of anticipation.

Finally made it to the point where the roads became too secondary for Navman to bother having them mapped. There I discovered that Google Maps was wrong: there was nothing at all where a gravel road was supposed to be. So I stalked the area for a while and found a no doubt somehow private dirt track that went up a hill. I hesitated not and slowly drove up it. From up the hill I could make out approximately where the point I was looking for was, some 2km away. I surveyed the area and it quickly became evident that I wouldn't be getting much closer. Not on unmapped dirt tracks, being, as it was, 7pm, with the clouds rolling in and the rain getting stronger.

So, This Was It. The endpoint of my pilgrimage. My destination. The End.

I Made It. This was There, or rather, Here. The Other Side of the World. The Antipode. Almost as far away as the surface of the Earth would ever allow me to get from where I've been living for the last 17 years. The place where I would pop my head out after digging over 12700km in a straight line and brushing off the lava.


I sat and mused for a while, taking in the view and the bellows from the cows in the valley, while thinking I Made It, I Am Here... and now what?

At this point a big herd of sheep avalanched into the scene, closely followed by 3 dogs and a shepherd riding an offroad quad bike.

He stopped and we chatted for a while. Where are you from, he asked at one point.

I grinned a big grin, swung my arm in a big arc, solemnly thrust my finger downwards, and said "there". I was so happy.

I explained my mission to him. He listened politely, with the expression of someone who, while not having a clue, is observing a particularly abstract piece of modern art involving colorful vaginas.

His house was a few hundred metres away. So we're neighbours of a sort, I said. Yeah, the farthest sort there is, he said. Good point. He was, though, happy to learn that Madrid, Spain lays exactly on the other side of this hilly, sheepy planet.

I was extatic to learn that on this side of the world, my neighbour shepherd herds his sheep every day through a valley flooded by mist among golden hilltops.

Kiwiland

It was during the Aussie leg of my journey when I learned that New Zealanders are more commonly known as "kiwis". The explanation for this, however, has remained elusive until now.
I have at last found out why. In much the same way that the kangaroo is the symbol of Australia, the symbol of New Zealand is the Kiwi: a flightless nocturnal bird that looks like... well, like a kiwi would look if it had two stubby legs and a long thin beak. In order to differenciate national symbol and food, the fruit is called, in an explosion of creativity, a "kiwifruit".

As for the symbolism of the national symbol, you could argue for the nocturnality of the New Zealanders, but the one thing they're not is flightless. The kiwiest thing there is is to throw yourself off any number of heights, using any number of sophisticated devices for keeping you alive after the fall. Any mountain, bridge or tower you see, chances are you can jump off it for a reasonable sum. Jump down caves, into the rivers, or from any number of planes, over mountains, lakes and cities.

As for the bird itself, for all you see statues and pictures of it, it's practically impossible to see it in the wild and very difficult even in captivity. You can, however, be lucky and spot it on a road sign:

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Queenstown


Queenstown is, to all effects, a tourist resort. It's widely known as the place to go for all your physical, adrenaline-rush activities on the South island. Bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, hanggliding, parasailing, white water rafting, jetboating, jetski, abseiling, and of course ski and snowboarding in winter are all just a few hundred kiwibucks away.

Swimming against the current as usual, I came here to rest. And I managed to, again against the strong current that wanted to drag me out for drinks.

I loved Queenstown. Wonderful place, lovely scenery, great atmosphere, vibrant nightlife, and very well situated. Who wouldn't?

From the range of outdoors activities available, I only did the bungy jumping (the highest jump in the southern hemisphere, blablabla, and certainly the most expensive), the louge* and hiked up the mountain. I had a brief night out and loved it, spent the remainder of my 5 days stay just chilling out. Ooohh... I needed that.

I was sad to leave, and promised myself: I'll be back .

* louge: It consists in rolling down a winding circuit on a small bike-kart. Funnier than you would imagine!

Homesick

Just as Australia was sinking under the horizon behind me and the stars were starting to pierce the night sky, my spirits took a dive down into the deep dark pit of utmost misery. I was a wreck. I felt what I never expected to.

I was homesick.

I was stunned. I couldn't explain it, it made no sense. Why would I miss a place I don't even call home, a place I've only been wanting to get as far away as possible of for as long as I can remember.

I skimmed Christchurch quickly on the surface. It's not a bad place at all, but I was tired beyond description, dazed and confused, jetlagged and on a tight schedule.

But most importantly, I was bonjovied out of the city. Bloody Bon Jovi was in town, so every single hostel was tightly packed. Not a single bed available. I had no time to recover and no choice but to move on. Was lucky to get a relo* to Queenstown, which secured me transport and accommodation for the next days. Slept the first decent night's sleep in a long, long, long time, ironically, in a car. And a bad one for sleeping in, come that.

But I got half my mind back and managed to understand my unexplainable homesickness. For the past 16 days I had not had many a chance of sleeping more than 6 hours in a row, and that was in cars, overnight buses, a boat and 4 different hostels. I had been diving, snorkelling, hiking, walking, climbing, drinking heavily, surfing and kayaking, and repeatedly stressed out of my mind.

I was knuckered. Dead tired. I got to the point where I could no longer understand: why am I doing this to myself?

It's no great mystery then that my subconscious conjured up images of home, a place where you always have a bed on which to rest as much as you need, where you don't have to worry and plan constantly, where a day spent on not doing anything much doesn't feel like a day lost. And sure, a place where the comfort and protection of your family is close at hand.

I understood what I needed, so I made up my mind, lowered gear, revved up the engine, veered and swished over the winding roads all the way home.

For a few days, my home was Queenstown, New Zealand.

*relo=relocation deal. When a car rental company needs to move a car to another depot, they rent it at a much lower rate, usually ridiculously cheap. Not in this particular case though.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Bungy



I jumped the Nevis. Here's the proof:

Fraser Island

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Ah, so beautiful it hurts. So beautiful it makes me sad.

You want to see all of it, but you don't have the time, so you have to choose. You're surrounded by such beauty you can't capture it in a photo. It's something you can't really share, no matter how nice your pics may turn out. You need to go there to know.

I went to Fraser in the standard backpacker way: squeezed into a 4WD Toyota with 9 other people, in a "self-drive safari" as they call it. Ten people + all guys + 3 days + lots of beers = great fun. It was a super cool group with really great guys, if I may say so myself, and a great dynamic overall.

We were lucky to have "Mamma" Tom with us to take care of the cooking and change our nappies. We had great food: sandy macaroni, sandy tuna, sandy-flavoured potatoes and even sandy salad. Yummy and crunchy. Let's not forget that Fraser is "the biggest sand island in the world". Just sand. Sand is everywhere, and eventually gets into everything.

The car we got was possibly older than myself, a rusty piece of sssscrap that was falling to pieces. Just as Bluey* ("hey goyz,goyz") was telling us not to mind the rust, the disfunctionality of a safety belt, the handbrake not working and the fuel gauge being whimsy, the rear view mirror cartoonishly fell off. Kudos to the guy for continuing his speech as if it was the most common thing, not even a muscle twitching on his face.

Nevertheless, the drive was good. And bumpy, thus loads of fun. We got sort of stranded in the morning of the last day, because of an unusually high tide (on Fraser, the beach is the highway. And the landing strip), but we made it to Indian Head, and it was oh so much worth it. All of Fraser was: the lakes, the rainforests, the dunes, the other lakes, the cliffs and the sea, the birds, the sunrises, the whole of it. I could go on about it for a long while, but this post is getting too long already. Just check the pics.


As a side note, you're not likely to find a toilet on Fraser. So, we had to carry our own with us.This is my artistic impression of it:


*Bluey = Aussie-speak for "redhead". In this particular case, the nickname of the complete asshole we had to deal with.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Get your motor running

I'm about to set out on yet another road trip, now through the North island of New Zealand.

I still carry many stories in my sack. I can feel their weight, I can see them piling up, impatient to be written. I still have to tell you about surfing and kayaking, Fraser Island and New Zealand, Queenstown and bungy jumping. And many other things, too.

But for now, I cannot. With a bit of luck, in a few days, so please hold on through yet another commercial break. Now, it is the time to accomplish my mission, to finish my quest. I'm going to try and get as far away from Ascobendas-Safghanistan as the Earth will allow me.

Onwards, to the Antipode.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Bloob-blub-blubloob



Diving, that is. I dived twice during my Whitsundays trip, and I loved it, loved it, loved it.

It's so much fun, and so much easier than I expected. Here go the basics:
1. Keep breathing. Remember Darth Vader*? If you sound just like him, you're doing it right.
2. When your ears are in pain, pinch your nose and blow air into them.
3. If you don't move, you sink.
4. Keep your legs straight when you swim. Pedaling doesn't get you anywhere.

And that's it, you're ready to go down there, to fly over the corals, through the caves, if the throngs of colorful fish let you through.

A few of the things I saw:


Yes, it was great. But going in with a group is, still, a pain in the arse. More so when the other members of your group are clumsier than a koala on roller skates and have the same swimming ability as a 300kg block of lard. Diving certification goes on my to-do list.

* Star Wars. Dude in black, oversized helmet, shortage of facial expression. Can't miss him.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Whitsundays

After the recent weather and events, I was expecting to label this post either "Shitsundays" of "Wetsundays". But against all forecast, I had great weather almost all the time.

So I sailed. And I ab-so-lute-ly loved it. All through this trip I've been rediscovering that I love being at sea, and this has been the final confirmation. I didn't get seasick (though one night I did get goon-sick*) and I loved the bobbing, the waves and the wind.



And so I dived. And I ab-so-lute-ly loved it. More on diving in a future post. And I snorkeled, and I swam, and I hiked in the forest and walked the white sands.



And I stood on deck, while I cruised over the waves, through the wind, under the burning sun, watching the rugged green hills rise from a sea of colours.

I keep saying "I", but all this time, of course, I was not alone. That was perhaps the worst part of the trip: the company. Mostly couples, and a few Paddies* who drank all day and spoke with the heaviest accent I've ever heard. Except for two of them who were nice guys, I spent most of the trip in undesirable company. I don't mind being alone, I'm fine with that, but I hate being alone with people around me. And it's difficult to get away on a boat, you can't get farther than a very few meters.

In a nutshell, I love the sea, I hate organized trips, I want my own boat.

* goon=Cheapest alcoholic beverage in Australia. Apparently a sort of box wine, with fish and eggs somehere in the manufacturing process. Guaranteed to get you badly pissed in no time, and to give you a serious headache and hangover the next morning.
* Paddy=person from Ireland

Thursday, 24 January 2008

I made it

On my last night on Magnetic Island, by pure chance and at the very convenient* time of 7pm, I learned that the roads leading South along the coast were closed due to flooding. That in itself wouldn't have meant anything in other circumstances, but in this particular situation I needed to get to Airlie Beach the following day, for my boat was sailing in the morning.

That marked the beginning of some frenetic hours of useless phone calls, quick internet research and heavy thinking under pressure. I was stressed as ever, but it was great fun. I learned that both the Greyhound and the Premier had cancelled their services, that the trains weren't running either, and there was no direct or indirect flight from Townsville to the Whitsundays.

I felt a bit like Phileas Fogg, stranded and running against time. Short of riding an elephant through the jungle and flying in a baloon, I did think of:

1. Hitchiking. Some guy must have been bold slash crazy enough to drive through the water. I had heard that 4WDs with snorkels had made it through, which gave me hope.
2. Sailing. Someone must have been headed in that direction, or would have been happy to take me there for a heavy sum. It was 270km over water, possibly sailable on the same day, even on a rough sea.
3. Renting a car. Same as #1, with me in the role of the bold slash crazy guy. Same as #2, though, I needed someone to share the costs.

The next morning I woke up early to the sound of the gale blowing and breaking branches. Made some more useless phone calls from a payphone and ended up completely soaked in the process. Left the island through the storm, with zero visibility, on a ferry that doubled as a rollercoaster, jumping two meters in the air with every crashing wave.

Once on shore, I teamed up with six other castaways, camped in front of the Greyhound counter to make pressure on them, and meanwhile tried to rent a couple of cars. After much research and many phone calls, the only guys who had cars available decided at the last moment that they wouldn't allow us to drive to Airlie Beach because it was "cut off". Just when I was about to set off, first to try my luck at the Marina, then to get a taxi to the highway and stick out my thumb, the woman at Greyhound came to us and announced that they would charter a bus just for us.

We celebrated. No confetti or crazy party tweeters, but the same feeling pumping into our hearts.

The journey was quite uneventful, except for two spots where the flooding was more serious. And even there, the water on the road reached 25cm at its highest, which is ridiculous. Admittedly, a few overturned trucks and some stranded cars in the middle of a sugar cane plantation hinted that, at some previous point, the flooding was severe.

The bottom line is, I made it. I wasn't able to put into practice any of my fancy schemes, but it was fun fantasizing anyhow. Next time I know my range of options will be broader from start.

*Completely inconvenient. There was no way to contact anyone, everything was closed.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Maggie

Magnetic Island, that is. Great place for diving certification, apparently, as well as wreck diving, with the SS Yongala nearby. That's what most people go to Maggie for, anyway.

Not me. I came here looking for an island paradise like Rottnest. Well, it isn't. It does have nature to spare, and it is still quite a small island, but it's nowhere as nice. Less than a third of the island is accesible by any kind of road, even dirt track. Cycling is masochism, the hills are brutal. Most of the island is uninhabited, but there's no way of getting to those parts, short of a boat.

The place is teeming with life, though. Every day I would walk to my cabin, by the wading birds and stresed possums, brushing off butterflies, kicking frogs out of the way, trying not to step on the scarabs, open the door, turn on the light to see the geckos scurrying away, then try to get my place free of ants and termites for the night. In the morning the wallabies and the birds would be at the door.

I walked most of what's walkable, most of it through water falling from the sky. It was beautiful and rewarding, but I couldn't brush off the feeling that something was wrong. According to my Let's Go Australia guide, Maggie averages 320 sunny days per year. Bloody freakishly awesome timing of mine, coming right in the remaining 45 days of pissing wetness.

When I headed South from Cairns, I thought I was leaving the bloody Wet behind once and for all, but, alas, it's following me. And not only that. It's also ahead of me, behind me, over me, all around me, and all the way down the coast. Also, this is apparently the wettest Wet in a long, long time. Lucky me, I could say.

Cairns

I had fun in Cairns*, though mostly of the indoors, beerful variety. Difficult to have any other under the bloody rain.

I quite liked Cairns, for the very reason most people wouldn't. It's touristy. Big big time. Every section of a building that could conceivably be a shop, is a shop. And every shop caters for tourists (and especially backpackers) in some way. Either it's a souvenir shop, a travel agency/dive tour operator, a restaurant or a bottle shop. I love that. It makes me feel that I'm in a theme park. Which is, in a way, correct. Cairns is the Great Barrier Reef Theme Park. All the expensive snorkelling/diving daytrips you never wanted are just a few hundreds of dollars away. I would have thought about it, had the weather behaved more correctly.

Most of what I did was hang around with some great folks. Folks, you know who you are. Tobias loves to see his name written down, so hello Tobias! Hay goin' mate? Goodonya! Por la republica!

We spent what I now recall as one endless night of beer drinking at The Woolshed, but it must have surely spanned several days. Free meals, free drinks, lots of people to meet and a wet t-shirt contest. Everything but the sex, all in one place.

Taking advantage of a short daylight pause in the endless Woolshed Night, I jumped on board Sebastian's 4WD "Pajero" on a day trip to Daintree National Park. Saw it, loved it. Didn't go to Cape Tribulation though, which is a pity, but I must say we were tired and it was not the best weather for it.

I also missed Kuranda. I would have liked to take the "scenic railway", but in the end, all I could think of was that it would feel so good to be out of the rain. So I booked a crammed up package of adventure down the coast for the next 2 weeks, had a fair dinkum* Aussie barbie* with the mates on the last day, said goodbye to Cairns and jumped on my early morning bus with a feeling of expectation for the new horizons.

* Cairns is, against all logic and common sense, pronounced "cans". As in, "cairns" of beer.
* Fair dinkum=true, 100%, completely
* Barbie = barbecue

Scenic flight

The Great Barrier Reef from the air.


Thank you for your cooperation

Indeed. My most sincere and deepest thanks go to all those of you who leave your comments here. You provide me with that extra bit of motivation that I need so many times.

Keep in mind that without your comments, this blog would be nothing. Ok, it's nothing much anyway, but it would be nothing at all. So thank you all again.

And now, all you who read this and never leave a comment, please do. I know you're out there anyway (I've been watching you, muhahaha) but it would be nice to also know who you are and what you think. It doesn't have to be literature, long, juicy or spicy. Don't think this is a private club. Everybody's welcome (well, most people anyway). So come on in! Just say hello, here I am. That will make me happier and this blog less boring. C'mon, let this be that extra bit of motivation you need.

Kakadu

Being stranded in Litchfield left me one day short for my intended itinerary, so I had to shoot through Kakadu like a stray bullet. I couldn't see much, for I was in a hurry and most of the park was flooded anyway. But what I saw, I liked.

I loved the night, watching the lightning make a display of fireworks in the clouds over the horizon and the fireflies flashing on the ground, as if echoing the message of the twinkling stars in the sky.

I liked the swamps of the wetlands and the swarms of birds flying over the sunset. It all looked so much like a documentary on the BBC that I found I missed David Attenborough speaking in the background.

It was brief and limited, but well worth the 500km drive(even if just for the photos).

Croc country



Estuarine crocodiles, known in these lands as saltwater crocs or "salties", are one of the main highlights of the Top End. I couldn't miss seeing them in the wild, so I jumped on board one of the myriad of "jumping croc" cruises on the Adelaide river. This is what I saw:




Something about Darwin

I have so little to say about Darwin that I would just play the lazy card and post some pictures. It happens, however, that I couldn't get a single worthy pic either, so I'll have to tell a small adventure story.

I arrived in Darwin on the 1st of January of 2008. I was disgustingly ill and low on spirits. I had a nasty infection in my ear/throat that barely allowed me to speak and made any attempt at swallowing pure torture. I got it, I guess, while "sleeping under the stars" and "swimming in a billabong" in the Red Centre.

I made my way to my far away and, as it turns out, lousy hostel, then dropped my bags and went to the Hospital. Took a slow bus there (it's far away from the centre) and when I arrived I discovered that just seeing a doctor would cost me $140. I needed one though, for I knew I needed antibiotics and there's no other way of getting them. I also knew that my travel insurance would most probably pay for that, but just in case I preferred to pay as little as possible and skip the 4hr queue at the Hospital. So I walked the half hour back to Casuarina under the rain, and tried my luck at buying antibiotics over the counter with a negative outcome.
After a bit of musing in the rain, I abandoned the mission and as there were no more buses, with some trying I managed to hitch a ride back to the hostel, where I had a lousy night and survived on paracetamol and ibuprofen. The next day I found a doctor, paid $65 for a murky piece of paper and lots more for the pills.

But oh, was I happy.

Oh, and about Darwin... it's nice. Not big, not flashy, not beautiful, not impressive, not anything much. Just nice.

Missing In Action

And lots of action. The last you heard/read of me was 12 days ago, and there is good reason for that.

These 12 days I've been blazing down the East Coast, packing my days and hours with as much action as I could. I've literally had no time to stop for a wee. Magnetic Island, Airlie Beach, Whitsundays, Rainbow Beach, Fraser Island, all in one go.

This is just to say, I have eaten the plums that were in the iceb... I mean, this is just to say I'm alive and well, and no lazier than usual, but indeed really really busy.

And tomorrow I'm supposed to get a bus to Brisbane, jump off the bus onto the train, and off the train onto the plane, destination Christchurch, New Zealand.

So please bear with me while I try to live, travel and blog at the same time.

The Rocks

Words fail me, so I'll make two brief lists and let the photos speak for themselves.

I liked:
- Kata Tjuta, Uluru and King's Canyon, in this order
- The colours, the shapes, the shades, the wrinkles of Uluru
- The desert on a starry night
- The nice company

I disliked:
- Going with an organized trip. It was a great trip though, but I still hated the come-on-move-on-take-your-pictures-lets-go-hurry-upishness.
- The abo crap you get shoveled into your face from every plaque, poster and signpost. More on this in a future rant.



Friday, 11 January 2008

I survived cyclone Helen

Once I was positive that staying in Darwin any longer would not add much substance to my trip, I rented a car with the idea of attacking Kakadu & Litchfield National Parks. I learned about incoming cyclone Helen just as I was leaving.

An overheard conversation:
A guy: "Helen? Why do they always give them girls' names?"
A girl: "Because we're bitches!"

I had good provisions of food and water for 4 days, so I said "no worries" to all those who were worried, and set off. Drove to Litchfield through the thick rain, saw as much of the park as I could, stopped at Florence Falls at nightfall. All the while I had the radio on, and in between songs, all they talked about was the cyclone. Warning, warning, a cyclone is approaching, blablabla, stay indoors, blablabla.

Then Helen came. Nothing much, I guess. The gale blowing, hectolitres in freefall, uprooted trees, branches flying about, gusts shaking the car. This is all a reconstruction of events, for at the time I couldn't see a thing. The sounds filtering through my earplugs hinted at what was going on around, though. I slept like a baby all through it.



At the break of dawn, I awoke, stretched and yawned, and found myself in the middle of the crime scene. I also found that the battery was drained, so the car wouldn't start. Good on me to have foreseen this event and parked just by the "Emergency Call Device". I struggled with the walkie and managed to call the rangers. They took their time to get where I was. This very nice guy gave me a hand with the car and informed me that, just as it appeared, I was the only guy in the park at that time. He also hinted that they were not exactly happy about me being there.

Follow me, he said. I followed him. He certainly floored the gas. It was a fun drive, zigzagging between the fallen trees blocking the road, crushing branches and raising clouds of green leaves. It was, however, somewhat short. We soon arrived at "Aida creek", a place where the road was flooded to a depth of 60cm. My ute wouldn't pass over water higher than 40 cm, Nathan explained. I didn't know that, of course. That's when two heavy coins fell into my pay phone. The first one said clink, if I hadn't run out of battery I would have probably also been stuck, but in the middle of the river in water up to my waist. The second one said clink, now I understand why the snorkel. Lucky of me, I could say.

But that still left me stranded in Litchfield for an indeterminate and unforeseeable amount of time, with some 30 km of road to move in, cut off at both sides. So I idled, and went to the one attraction that was open, the Magnetic Termite Mounds.

I was mostly "Alone in the Park" the whole day, except for a very few lucky owners of big 4WDs with snorkels. Two guys passing by in a monster-truck ute gave me a deja-vu. They seemed jolly good chaps, but I couldn't help thinking of the passenger as Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yonkel from The Simpsons, and the driver as Butthead, both on a night out. I instantly knew that if this was USA, a confederate flag would have decorated the back of the truck. They stopped and we sort of chatted a brief while. It looked so much like a scene from one of so many identical Hollywood movies that a big smile came to my lips while I was unsuccessfully trying to decipher their impossible Territorian dialect. Eventually Cletus and Butthead drove off, which left me in my own good company for the rest of the day.

Everybody opens big eyes when they learn I was alone in Litchfield when Helen said hello. I suppose that in times of danger, the usual, and thus supposedly sensible, thing to do is to seek the company of your fellow hominids. I say that's cattle instinct. In this situation I was much safer and happier away from hanging power lines, wobbly buildings and opportunistic thieves.

So, to sum up, I survived cyclone Helen. Admittedly, so did everyone else, but I had more fun.

The Wet

In Darwin and the Top End of OZ, only two seasons are generally recognized: "the Dry", with plenty of sun and no rain, and "the Wet", when the area is flooded by the tropical monsoons.

Against all common sense and general practice, I've come during the Wet.

Now, whatever you might be thinking, I can assure you that during the monsoons, it does not rain. No, seriously.

Rain is a meticulously organized, finely crafted, well tuned, orderly process, involving proportions, quantities and statistics. The process that gently gets those tiny droplets that form a cloud to the ground safely and efficiently is nothing like what you experience in the Wet. This is not rain. It's just water falling from the sky. Spontaneous vertical waterfalls. Bulk water, in industrial quantities. Bucketfuls of soggy moisty goo just splashing chaotically about.

The water's all right. But at some point, the gale kicks in and starts blowing punches erratically, sweeping it all with jets of water, and giving the impression that the God of Rain in this parts uses a particularly big hose and, like a lazy gardener, just shakes it about. He uses a particularly big hairdryer, too.

The good thing is that during the Wet, you never get wet. Never ever. You are, of course, constantly humid and moisty and sticky and smelly, and, well, now and then you're terminally soaked to your bones. But you're never wet. Being wet requires a difference in temperature, and the water falling from the sky here is just as hot as your skin. And then again, it's sill 30º outside, so being soggy lasts next to nothing. You sort of dry instantly, but never completely, so it's back to the natural state of constant uncomfortable humidity.

It doesn't sound like the best climate on Earth, but I can't say I dislike it especially. Temperatures very rarely drop below 20º, be it sunny or rainy, day or night, which is a big plus for me. It does make you swear under your breath when you hang your clothes to dry and after a while they're soggier than before. But apart from that, and a general feeling of unpleasantness at times, it's all right. I could handle this for a while, no worries.

Friday, 4 January 2008

2008

Happy New Year, and all the best for 2008, to all you who read this.


I don’t have much to say, just an image on my mind. Let me share it with you.





These were the last colours of 2007, as the sun sank beneath the horizons of the great central Australian desert.

In a place called Alice Springs

It took Einstein quite a while, one might think, to postulate his theory that time is relative. But then, he never set foot in Alice Springs. Had he done so, he would've known from start.

In Alice Springs, days don't pass. Instead, they either drag along lazily, like an overfed blue-tongued lizard, or buzz by like a fat drone through a golden wheatfield. Sometimes they surreptitiously morph and merge and pleasurably become another day, without anyone noticing. It is not unheard of the sun rising twice in the same day, or the stars lazily twinkling while lunch is served.

You hear all sorts of stories about Alice Springs. All sorts of stories of the bad sort, that is. Someone recently told me: "you'll hate Alice, but you'll love the hostel". He was half right. I did love the hostel (Annie's Place), and so does everyone else. But I didn't find much to hate about Alice.

The user's guide for Alice Springs is one sentence long and it goes like this:

"Drop your stuff, climb ANZAC Hill, get into a pub and don't get out until you leave town". Sounds like sound advice. Alice is, quite surprisingly, full of amazing people from all over the world, who prove to be great company for as many beers as the bar will serve. Alice is in the middle of Nowhere, and as such, it's just on the way to Anywhere. So everybody is, of course, just passing by. But some stay for a longer while, some weeks say, to make some money while they enjoy a gentle bobbing on the soft and soothing waves of Alice Springs time.

Most residents of Alice are apparently quite wealthy, but still, it's the travelers that make for good company, not the local yobbos. I might be biased, for I've met just a few of the locals, and even fewer of the locals. When you pronounce the italics, "locals" means aborigines, "abos" for short. They account for roughly a fifth of the population of Alice, but for over 60 percent of all people you see on the street. They certainly give the town a special feel and... ehm... "fragrance".

Maybe that's what those who dislike Alice dislike. I can't say I like it myself, but I find it adds some spice. In case the orange McDonnell Ranges in the near distance, the scorched red sand under your feet and the dry riverbed of the Todd are not reminders enough, that presence recalls that this is a border land, a frontier world, a small outpost of civilization forced into the timeless desert. It reminds you that the real, authentic, wild, untameable, ungraspable Outback is just out there, all around you, burning and buzzing, just a 15 minutes walk away in any direction, if minutes had any meaning here.

In what concerns me, I can say that all my time in Alice was pure joy and bliss. Maybe I was just lucky enough, got the best without the rest, and left just in time. But still, wherever I may go from now on, I know part of me will, in some way, always be in Alice Springs.

The Last Continent

When it was so late at night in Ankh-Morpork that it was early in the morning, elsewhere it was......

but there were no hours here. There was dawn and dusk, morning and afternoon, and presumably there was midnight and midday, but mainly there was heat. And redness. Something as artificial and human as an hour wouldn't last five minutes here. It would be dried out and shrivelled up in seconds.Above all, there was silence. It was not the chilly, bleak silence of endless space, but the burning organic silence you get when, across a thousand miles of shimmering red horizons, everything is too tired to make a sound.


Rincewind's journal went:

Probably Tuesday: hot, flies. Dinner: honey ants. Attacked by honey ants. Fell into waterhole.

Wednesday, with any luck: hot, flies. Dinner: either bush raisins or kangaroo droppings. Chased by hunters, don't know why. Fell into waterhole.

Thursday (could be): hot, flies. Dinner: blue-tongued lizard. Savaged by blue-tongued lizard. Chased by different hunters. Fell off cliff, bounced into tree, pissed on by small grey incontinent teddy bear, landed in a waterhole.

Friday: hot, flies. Dinner: some kind of roots which tasted like sick. This saved time.

Saturday: hotter than yesterday, extra flies. V. thirsty.

Sunday: hot. Delirious with thirst and flies. Nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see, with bushes in it. Decided to die, collapsed, fell down sand dune into waterhole.

He wrote very carefully and as small as possible:
'Monday: hot, flies. Dinner: moth grubs.'

He stared at the writing. It said it all, really.


-- shamelessly copied without permission from Discworld 22 - The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett. This says all I want to say, only he does it much, much better.

The Ghan

A dream come true.