Friday, November 19, 2010

italian farewell

Florence is a culture lover's dream. The Uffizi Gallery offers an afternoon's worth of museum fatigue and Michaelangelo's David is captivating (seriously). I think I spent over an hour transfixed by its perfection. I'll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about art. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Rembrant or a Van Gogh or a Goya. But I could tell David was special. It was amazing to me that an inanimate object could have such a presence.

After Florence I took my own private tour of Tuscan towns. I went to Siena, home to the biannual horse races around its Piazza del Campo, San Gimignano, where all buildings are made from red brick and towers and churchs are 700 years old, and Lucca, which is completely enclosed in an ancient city wall. I also stopped in Pisa for a couple hours to take that famous photo before moving on to Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre was recommended to me by just about everyone I know who has visited Italy, and it didn't disappoint. It's comprised of five fishing villages along the Western Coast of Italy and boasts a world famous 9km hike from the first to the fifth. I had three nights there, so I did the hike twice with both of my full days. One of the sections between two villages was closed because of an avalanche, but the detour (which added an extra hour) was actually a surprising highlight. It was largely empty since most people opted for the train, and took me through vineyards and lemon groves hundreds of feet above the standard trail. The views were spectacular, the weather was perfect, and I even had a room to myself back at my hostel. Life was good.

After Cinque Terre I went to Bologna for two nights where I stayed with my friend Dinah who is studying there. I took my one full day to explore the city, but really Bologna isn't as much of a sight to see as much as it is a place in which to indulge. On my first night Dinah took me to a bar for 'Apertivo,' which is a Bolognese tradition where you pay for a drink and then get to dig into a full Italian buffet. I soon discovered I could get along pretty well in Bologna. On my second night we cooked up some handmade tortellini with Bolognese sauce we made from scratch.

From Bologna I took a train into Venice where I would spend my last two nights in Italy. Venice is the only place in the world where a map is utterly useless. Shoulder-width, cobblestone alleys snake through the city and render efficient navigation impossible. But that's the essence of Venice. To be there is to be wandering and truly lost. I used my time there to take a boat ride along the Grand Canal, visit St. Mark's Basilica, and see where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed. Standard fare, really.

I spent just over three weeks in Italy, by far the longest amount of time I've been in any country. Well worth it, too. Up next is the French Riviera, the Spain, and finally Portugal, where I will run out of European real estate and return home. But such thoughts are not for today. Not while there is still life in my shoes, wine in my glass, and a ticket in my hand.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

roman carnival

I set out from Switzerland at 6am to take full advantage of a Travel Day on my pass. I got all the way down to Naples, Itlay by 4 and spent the night there. Didn´t do much in Naples. It was the only place I´ve ever been where I truly didn´t feel comfortable. Italian police squads lined the streets near my hostel adorned with bullet proof vests and submachine guns. I saw a guy in a business suit knocked unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street. So I decided to just grab a pizza and call it a day.

In the morning I took a short train ride down to the Amalfi Coast and stayed two nights in a little fishing village called Atrani. When I got there the first thing I did was jump headlong into the Mediterranean. The water was as warm and azure as I had hoped. At night I sat on a bench overlooking the sea and watching a lightning storm. I ate a ham and cheese sub my Aunt and Uncle had packed for me while watching waves crash over the breakwater and lighting flash across the dark Tyrrhenian water.

On my second and only full day on the Amalfi Coast I hiked to Positano. It was about 9km up to Bomerano, then another 7km along the famous "Pathway of the Gods" into Positano. It was probably the single most tiring day of my trip, not as much from the length but the constant climbs and descents. The towns on the Amalfi Coast are built on cliffs, so walking from one to the next simulates an epic stairmaster workout. Got some good workout out of my headband at least. It was worth it though. The sun-filled panoramic view unfolded in front of me on my way down to Positano and I immediately knew I was going to love Italy. I took the bus back to Atrani though....

The next day I hiked up to Ravello and an ancient castle atop Atrani for panoramic views of Amalfi and Atrani. Then I took a bus to Pompei to explore the ruins wrought by Mt Vesuvius 2000 years ago. After a few hours I caught a train up to Rome where I would be spending four nights.

Like a fool I didn´t book a hostel in Rome and was left wandering the sketchy streets around the train station while managing to find nearly every full hostel around. But eventually I ran into a Persian guy at the station who ran a B&B nearby that was cheaper than all the hostels.

If you´ve ever been to Rome, your visit probably closely resembles mine. For your first visit, there isn´t much variation in what you want to see. The Colloseum, the Roman Forum, The Vatican Museums, St. Peter´s Basillica, the Pantheon, Palantine Hill, Campodoglio, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain.... and so on.

Rome is a gigantic, well-oiled tourist machine. Buy the ticket, wait in line, take the picture. Rinse and repeat.

But what a great city. Centuries of history around every corner, heaps of religious relics, and gelato galore. I used my three days to walk through the city, and Rome is a walker´s paradise. Every street boasts authentic cafe´s, chintzy tourist traps, pizzerias, shamless street performers, gelaterias, and people from every corner of the world. Rome is the ultimate tourist retailer. Whatever you´re after, they have it in stock, and available in bulk.

After four nights and three full days I felt used up and laid-out, like a 10-year old who spent his weeks allowance at a carnival on the dizzy-rides and too much cotton candy.

After Rome I stayed in Assisi for a night which was a welcome down-shift. I saw St. Francis´ Basillica, the crucifix that supposedly inspired St. Francis, and had a day wandering the cobble stone streets where you can find all variations of religous knick-knacks imaginable.

Next on the menu is Tuscanny, where I expect to meet Michaelangelo´s David, the Leaning Tower, and more wine from a box.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

victory #9

Sorry for the delay between posts. I haven't been at an actual computer in a good while. This one comes all the way back from mid-Oct. Right now I'm in Barcelona, and have quite the stockpile of backed-up posts which I'll have to take care of. Anyway, I think I last left off in Austria.

I caught a night train in Vienna and arrived in Zurich by 7:00am. After a couple train changes, I was in Interlaken, then Lauterbrunnen, and a Gondola lift and train ride later I was in Murren, Switzerland.

My first impression of Switzerland was the efficiency of their trains. There's nothing a traveler appreciates more than dependability. Two minutes after pulling into the Zurich station I was on my way to Bern. Another two minute layover and I was enroute to Interlaken. Their arrivals and departures were spot on to the minute. I felt like I was on another Colby road trip with old head coach Tom Austin. His travel itineraries were always planned to the minute. "9:52 -- Arrive at Williams. 12:05 -- Specialists depart. 3:42 -- Victory #1!"

Murren is a genuine Swiss village halfway up the Alps. It caters to skiiers during the winter and hikers in the summer, so mid-Oct was a great time to arrive. I knew I needed to see the Swiss Alps, but the reason I chose Murren was because my Aunt and Uncle were staying there for a week. They had an apartment that they rent annually and I was thrilled to be able to check it out for a few nights. Three nights in the Swiss Alps, catching up with relatives, some of the most picturesque hikes in the world.... life was good.

Of course my Aunt and Uncle spoiled me rotten while I was there. Weisswurst, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken and potatos, and some killer lentil soup.... I was in Heaven. The way my Aunt cooks, I was better off with them than at a restaurant.

My first day they took me on the Northface Trail, their favorite, which took us across the rolling countryside with spectacular views of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch peaks.

The next day I hiked up the Shilthorn. It's summit is at about 10,000 ft, but Murren lies at about half that, so it was only a two hour climb to the top. The building at the summit was built especially for the James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and it offered incredible panoramic views.

I decided to take a different route back down to Murren, and the hike down took longer than the ascent. Well worth the effort, however. One of the best days of my trip.

My third day we hiked from Grutshalp to Murren, and then to Grimmelwald and back. Once again, I was spoiled with the scenery, weather, and company.

My time in Switzerland felt brief but well spent. A definite placement on the Mt. Rushmore of my trip. Next I have a travel day on my Eurail Pass to get all the way down to Naples, Italy, the ninth country on my trip. Pizzas, pasta, gelato and cheap wine await....

Thursday, October 21, 2010

midnight train to vienna

I caught a train from Berlin to Prague and was able to meet up with my friend Brendan, who I met in Ireland. Brendan had a place in the city where I could crash, which was an immediate bonus. If ever you can find a place to stay for free while traveling, the rest is cream cheese.

Brendan took me around the city at night and showed me all it had to offer on a Tuesday night. I drank cheap beer, ate a greasy sausage, and played a drinking game at a bar where you have to pound a nail into a giant tree stump with the chisel end of a hammer. As I drove the head of my nail home to narrowly avoid a first-time loss, I remembered what my grandfather always told me, "Conor, wherever you go, always leave your mark..."

I spent the next day exploring Prague. I cruised through the Old Town Square, Mala Strana, the Castle District, Charles Bridge, New Town, and Wenceslas Square. That night I was catching the night train to Vienna, so I managed to sneak in a few Pilsner Urquells before leaving to help me sleep on the train.

I got in to Vienna at six and caught the next train to Budapest. I would be back in Vienna later that night, but I wanted to see Budapest and with my Eurail Pass it made sense (I have 10 "travel days" within 2 months when I can catch any train and ride for free). So for one of my travel days I went from Prague to Vienna to Budapest, and then back to Vienna. Three cities in 24 hours. At least I got my money's worth. Backpacking is all about value....

I rushed through Budapest in seven hours but I feel like I did right by it. I walked through Heroes Square, City Park, and then saw Parliament, St. Stephen's Basillica, and the Opera House. Then it was on to Buda. I saw Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and hiked up Gallert Hill to see the Citadell along with a stunning view of both Buda and Pest. After that I rushed back to the train station to catch the 5:10 back to Vienna.

My friend Kyra (who I met in NZ) picked me up at the train station in Vienna and gave me a walking tour of the city after catching up over a beer. Vienna has a perfect blend of old-school architecture, progressive social values, and an unassuming, casual attitude among its people that could only be attained through genuine contentment.

After checking out the typical tourist spots (Stephen's Dom, Hofsburg Palace, Karl's Church, Museum Quarter) I made my way down to the Central Cemetary and visited the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss. Then I sought out the much smaller St. Marx Cemetary where Mozart was buried somewhere in a mass grave along with other victims of the Black Plague.

I don't have strong feelings for any of those people, nor do I listen to any of their music, but there's something strangely intriguing about discovering someone's final resting place. I think it says a lot about the person. And besides, it's both peaceful and captivating to walk through a plot of land where there are thousands of decomposing bodies under the ground, and as many beautiful flowers and trees protruding from the same soil. There's got to be some metaphor to be gleamed there... a ying and a yang. Growth and decay. But mostly I think that so many artistic geniuses chose to forever reside in Vienna says more about the quality of its earth than it does for those who lie beneath it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

whirlwind tourist polka

Oktoberfest. The world's most prolific celebration of consumption. It's basically Coney Island on steroids, plus beer by the liter. There were amusement park rides, a Ferris Wheel, Fun-Houses, carnival games, food vendors, sweet shops, and souvenir huts. But the main draws were the beer halls.

People travel thousands of miles, pay hundreds of dollars, and sometimes wait for hours outside just to sit at a table and drink beer. The beauty is in the simplicity. There is literally nothing else to do in a beer hall but sit, drink, sing, and talk with strangers.

I learned very early that a table is a precious commodity. If you arrive early in the day, or reserve a table, you can walk right in , sit down and order a €10 liter jug of beer. If your table is not already full, it soon will be. It is best to position your bulkiest, most intimidating members at the end of the table to fend off the standing-room crowd when others get up to use the bathroom. When the brass band on stage starts playing the Beer Barrel Polka, or a traditional German song, you stand and shout with everyone else, pretending to know the words. Also important to note: after toasting with everyone at your table, be sure to bang the bottom of your jug against the table before taking a drink or the next round is on you. I learned this technicality very quickly, as a slip-up would have been catastrophic for my Oktoberfest finances.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I spent two full days biking along the Rhine River, stopping at Boppard, St. Goar, Bacharach, Bingen, Rudesheim, and Eltville. The biking trail was easy to follow, as it hugged the riverbank from Koblenz all the way to Mainz. I took my time since my pack was heavy and the scenery was straight out of a classical painting, but also because my bike had probably been around since before the Berlin Wall was built. It might as well have been one of those bikes with the enormous rear wheel and handlebars that wrap around your waist. Nonetheless, I made it into Mainz, grinding gears, bald tires and all. My friend Matthias picked me up and drove me to his house in Trebur.

I stayed with Matthias and his wife, Katja, for three nights. I had met them in Australia while touring the Red Center. They showed me the meaning of German hospitality. I was introduced to proper German beer, authentic Schnitzel, Rhine Valley apple wine, and an unbelievable homemade onion cake. I feel like I learned more about German culture there in three days than in any of the cities I visited. It was difficult to leave, but Oktoberfest beckoned....

I stayed in Munich two nights, spending nearly all my time in the Oktoberfest grounds. I was able to meet up with my friend Evi, who I also met in Australia, and she let me tag along with her group of friends at the festivities.

After Munich I caught a train to Berlin, spending three nights in the nation's capital. With such little time to spend in a playground of tourist attractions, I thought a whilrlwind tour would be appropriate. I visited the Reichstag, seven museums, Brandenburger Tor, Olympic Stadium, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall Memorial, The Jewish Memorial, the Berliner Dom, Gendarme Market, Hitler's bunker (which is now nothing more than a hotel parking lot), and the Tiergarten.

Now I exhale on a train on the way to Prague. Future stops include Budapest, Vienna, and Murren, Switzerland. As I leave Germany after staying only ten nights, I feel like I've only taken the first few sips from a deep, frothy stein. There was so much I missed. But the train doors abruptly close and the carriage rolls forward, inching south along the rails for the former Soviet bloc and another whirlwind sampling.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

american flyer

Dim are the prospects for a backpacker in Koblenz, Germany. The only hostel in town is closed for renovation. Hotels cater to older travelers looking for a romantic getaway on the Rhine. Winebars far outnumber the pubs. I had as much business there as Bill Murray at Bushwoods. Yet there I was. All because when I was sitting on a beach in Rye I thought it would be fun to bike from Koblenz to Mainz, a route that is considered to be the most scenic in the Rhine Valley. Like most of my hare-brained, half-baked plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the tourist center I was told there were rooms at an out-of-the-way hotel for 25 euro, but after a 3km hike, I found they were about twice that. The walk back into town felt much longer.

I decided to go back to the train station and see if it was open all night. The man behind the ticket counter squinted back at me and said, "Eez open, ya."

"Is it OK to sleep here?"

He shook his head and said, "Because zee cops..."

My first night in Germany was beginning to look fitful and cold. But it was a Saturday night, and hope springs eternal. "Where's a good pub?"

Sugar Ray's was the kind of place where an ex-pat in Germany might go to feel at home. Boxing promos and posters lined the walls and the bar was adorned with American beer cans. I thought it was as good a place as any to find someone willing to put me up for the night.

I left my backpack with the bouncer and went to get a beer, armed with about four words of German I learned from Indiana Jones movies. The odds weren't with me.

As it turned out the owner of the bar saw me walk in and sit by myself, and somehow pegged me as American. He sent a beer over, on the house. Then another. And another. Soon I was behind the bar, talking to him about Las Vegas, national parks, and German beer. That's how I learned how friendly small-town Germans are. Before I knew it I had more German friends that I knew what to do with. They couldn't have been nicer to me. I ended up following them to a club and staying out until five in the morning. Unfortunately none of them actually lived in Koblenz, and I didn't feel like driving 50km back home with them, so that left me without a place to stay.

So I picked up my bag and headed down to the Rhine. I slept under a tree by the edge of the river. I laid down my poncho because the ground was a little wet and bundled up in several layers. I woke up after only a couple hours from the cold and moved to the train station. The police didn't bother me and I got another couple hours of sleep. It was surprisingly peaceful sleeping among the comings and goings of trains and travellers. Say what you will about passing up a bed for 50 euro, a backpacker's got to have his principles....

I woke up when a bum asked me for a lighter. It was 9:00am. I got four hours of sleep after a long night out, and I desperately needed a bike within the next few hours or my much anticipated journey down the Rhine would be experienced through a train window. This was the definitive low point of my trip. To compound my problems, it was a Sunday, and both bike shops in town were closed. But Goonies never say die.

After walking through the city center for a few hours and propositioning strangers on bikes for an impromptu sale, I decided to hang out at the bike stand at the train station. Within ten minutes I had a bike for 40 euro from an Arab who didn't speak a word of English.

Suddenly, with two wheels and a pair of pedals, my whole world changed. I left Koblenz behind. The bike trail hugged the river for 70km, cutting through the flat, green vineyards of the Rhine Valley. I pedalled slow. Ahead was open road, unfolding upstream, leading to new places that might have cheap beds, a hot shower, and fully-baked ideas. But maybe not. It just felt good to move again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the little things

I'm expecting imminent disaster. Seriously. Things have been going too perfectly. I was worried about how I would get from England to Belgium, but my train ticket from London to Brussels was fairly cheap and allowed one free transfer to any Belgian station. Score.

Brussels was a good first stop. The market square was impressive, and on the day I arrived there was some kind of festival going on and the square was hopping with all sorts of people singing, dancing, drinking, eating and taking pictures. I tried my first Belgian waffle, which quickly resulted in a second. Both smothered in chocolate. Then I tried a Belgian beer, which also necessitated additional samples. And so I quickly learned that Belgians have life pretty well figured out. Enjoy the little things.

While Brussels was nice for a night, Bruges is a dream. The best beers in the world are less than 3 euro. There's free chocolate samples at dozens of shops (I swear Bruges must have the highest number of chocolate shops per capita in the world). The architecture is straight out of a Disney movie. The weather has been great.... If you never hear from me again, you'll know why.

I spent three days in Bruges. I walked along cobble stone streets and canals by day, and medicated my weary legs at the pubs by night. I think what I liked most about Bruges was that there was literally nothing to do but eat, drink, and walk around. It was a little touristy, but since I only added to the problem I couldn't complain. To get a good feel for what Bruges is like, check out In Bruges, not a bad movie.

It was tough to leave, but I was looking forward to Ghent. I have two friends living in Ghent, Mieke and Lien, who I met in New Zealand. They were very generous in showing me around the city and letting me crash at their place for the night. They took me out to dinner, walked me around the city at night, and introduced me to a Belgian late-night delicacy: french fries with gravy and mayonnaise. It might not sound appetizing but man, it beat the hell out of salt and ketchup.

After Belgium, I took a train up to the Netherlands where I spent two nights. I was fortunate enough that my friend Sabrina was able to put me up for a night, and afterwards I toured Amsterdam. But that, as they say, is a different story all together.

One thing about Belgium and the Netherlands is that the area is completely overrun with bicycles. It's out of control. Scads of frantic peddlers descend upon the streets like biblical locusts. They recklessly whip past pedestrians with inches to spare. Walking along sidewalks sometimes feels like driving on the intersate with a vespa.

Next up is Germany, just in time for Oktoberfest. First stop is Cologne, then I'll swing through the Rhine Valley on my way to Frankfurt before my two longest stops in Munich and Berlin. Very glad to hear from some of you guys. Check back in next week....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

london calling

London. The bookend of my trip. An inconvenient place to start, really, since travel to and from the UK isn't covered by my Eurail Pass (or cheap). But this is where I know the most people and I've been lucky enough to stay with my friends Mindy and Jay.

Getting to their place from the train station remains the biggest challenge of the trip so far. I forgot to print out a Google map before I left and had to rely on public city maps and support from locals. Neither were all that helpful. The street I was looking for, Sandwich Street, wasn't really a street but one of a million tiny alleys in London. I even approached an elderly couple who claimed to be lifelong neighborhood locals and they never heard of the place. The old woman squinted up at me and repeated what she had heard with trepidation, "The... Sandwich House... on... Sandwich Street?" She turned to her husband, who shrugged, and looked back at me as if I were trying to sell her magic beans. "Is this some sort of joke, love?" I don't know what she thought I might do. There aren't too many punchlines I can think of, but the British are terribly wary of being embarrassed. Maybe she thought any sort of response would trigger me to pull a foot-long grinder out of my backpack, whack her across the jaw with it, and yell, "You just got SANDWICH HOUSED!!!" I don't know. I think it would have to really be toasted well to be effective.

Anyway, I made it. I stayed at Mindy and Jay's flat for four nights. They had just moved from Portsmouth a couple weeks ago, so I slept on the floor among empty suitcases and unpacked coats. It was perfect. I felt bad intruding for so long, but I was out walking around the majority of the time. I didn't want to waste money on public transportation since I had enough time to see all the tourist attractions, so I took to London on foot. After three full days, my legs are singing....

On the first day I walked through Regent's Park, Hyde Park, SoHo, Piccadilly Circus, and The Mall, and saw Royal Albert Hall, The Albert Memorial, and Buckingham Palace. Day Two was Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Covent Gardens, The National Gallery, and Trafalgar Square. On my last full day I spent five hours in the British Museum, then walked along the Thames for a few miles, crossed the Tower Bridge as it was getting dark, and on the way back I passed by St. Paul's Cathedral, The Bank of England, and The London Tower.

A trip highlight was on Friday. On my way back from the National Gallery I saw dozens of policemen (in their funny tophats and reflector vests) closing down city streets and setting up metal barricades. Turns out the Pope was in town. Probably stopping by for fish and chips and a warm beer, maybe saying a prayer or two.

So I hung around Westminster Abbey for a couple hours waiting for the Popemobile to roll in. The Popemobile, I soon discovered, is nothing more than a European SUV with a glass, bazooka-proof shower stall attached to the back. Only the Pope and his select entourage are privilidged to ride in there. I have to imagine that farting in the back of the Popemobile must be seriously frowned upon. Can you imagine letting one rip in front of the pope while you're sitting in a tiny air-tight cubicle? The remainder of the unpleasant trip will most likely be your last ride with the Pope, bazookas be damned. Excommunication has got to be a very real possibility.

When he arrived the Pope got out, waved his hands, and shuffled his way up the steps of Westminster Abbey as only an 83 year old man can. Most people cheered. Others booed and waved a sign that quoted some fanatical Bible passage. The Pope certainly can bring out the crazies. But some people, like me, just smiled because they were in London and had seen the Pope instead of walking home.

On Sunday I take a train into Brussels. After one night, I go to Bruges for two nights, then I visit my friends Mieke and Lien in Ghent (which is where I post this from a very difficult keyboard). Four nights in Belgium, proud purveyor of the best beer in the world. Do I plan on enjoying myself? Well... after all, the Pope is Catholic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

park to drive

I leave for London on Tuesday after being home for over three months. It definitely felt good to take a few deep breaths and let life's pulse return to normal. I had a steady dose of family time, good food, and the beach. But the world can only turn so slow until you feel like you have to quicken your pace like a gerbil on a spinning wheel. So I'm leaving again. For the next ten weeks I'll be tramping through Europe like a fat kid cut loose in a chocolate shop.

Here's my itinerary as of today:

Belgium (Brussels, Brugge)
Germany (Cologne, Rhine Valley, Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin)
Switzerland (Interlaken, Murren)
Italy (Amalfi Coast, Naples, Rome, Cinque Terra, Florence, Venice)
French Riviera
Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, ?)
Portugal (Lisbon, ?)

But who knows. Backpacking trips have a tendency to make unexpected stops and turns. We'll see where this one takes me.

Right now I'm enjoying my last beach day. Early September is prime time for it. The tourists have left and school is back in session. But as summer winds down, the beach slowly loses its allure. The gentle ocean breeze that once gave relief from the summer sun now burrows deep into my skin. The shadow from my beach chair reaches out further across the sand. Tiny waves roll under my chair as the tide creeps in. It's time to leave.

So pack the bag. Park to drive. Climb the crest and ride the swell. My chocolate shop awaits.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

sing me back home

Well I've been home for two weeks now. Back to seeing SUVs, one-cent coins, and Rascals sputtering under obese butt-cheeks. The jet lag aside, it's taken some time to get acclimated to living at home again. Eating home cooked meals, watching Boston sports, sleeping in my own bed, and catching up with family/friends have been the welcome adjustments. Waking up to the same scenery has been the hard part. Life is more interesting when you don't know what's around the next corner.

My experience in Australia and New Zealand can't really be expressed in a few paragraphs. All the parts of my trip can't be summed up into one grand truth revealed. But I will say that my favorite part of travelling is inevitably linked with my biggest regret. Throughout seven months I got to know hundreds of different people and places, but none of them as well as I would have liked. The faces and places flash before your eyes in an instant, like stains on the pages of a flip-book. Maybe I flipped the pages too fast.

Looking back, I think getting from A to B was a lot more fun than the destination itself. I travelled by foot, car, plane, bus, train, subway, ferry, 4WD, sailboat, 18-wheeler, bicycle, pontoon, RV, catamaran, and motorized rickshaw. By the end, I learned that dependability comes at a premium, and rickshaw travel is underrated.

I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my updates and random thoughts. It's definitely been a good experience for me. I'm not going to shut the site down yet. I plan on taking off again in the not-too-distant future. I'd like to spend the summer at home and plan a trip around Europe during the fall. We'll see how that works out.

I'll be making the rounds this summer so give me a shout, I'd love to catch up. Until then, take care, and keep the compass spinning.

Monday, May 3, 2010

my dear watson

I'm back in Queenstown after taking the southern loop through Milford Sound, Invercargill, and Dunedin. Traveling by bus has allowed me to see most all of NZ, but without much of a stopover at any one spot. In the past three weeks I've toured the North island from Auckland to Wellington, and have seen the western side of the South island. On Thursday I leave Queenstown for Christchurch and the return to Auckland.

Highlights so far have been a 20k hike over volcanoes, taking a cruise through Milford Sound in squall-like conditions, a 5hr mountain bike trip around Queenstown, hiking up Franz-Josef Glacier, surfing at the world's prominent left-breaking beach in Raglan, and having the best burger of my life at Fergburger in Queenstown.

I fly out of Auckland on May 17th. I'll spend a couple days in L.A. before heading back for the East Coast on the 19th. That gives me about two weeks of traveling left. Hard to believe it's come to an end. It's almost time for the day-after-Christmas hangover.

For the past seven months I've been mostly out of touch with the rest of the world. I couldn't tell you how the economy is doing, which teams are in the NBA playoffs, or who's doing the Late Show now. I guess that's to be expected when you live on an island.

There was one news story that caught my eye in Melbourne one morning while I was enjoying a bowl of soggy corn flakes. It was the story of Jessica Watson. Maybe you've heard of her. She's a sixteen-year-old Australian who is about to become the youngest person to complete a solo sailing trip around the world. She set out from Sydney Harbour in mid-October and is set to return in early May.

Her journey was met with a good deal of controversy. Many Australians were outraged that her parents let her set out on her own at such a young age with nothing to protect her from the cruel sea but a bit of fibreglass and a set of canvas sails. They think the ocean is too vast and dangerous for a girl who's not even old enough to see an R rated movie by herself. They think her parents are irresponsible for encouraging her. They think they know what's best for her after watching the news from an armchair with a warm cup of coffee. Of course it didn't help when she T-boned a 63 ton freighter shortly after setting out. So maybe they're right. But I doubt she even cares.

Somethings I think of her when I settle down under a think blanket in a bed that doesn't sway through the night. I think of her curled up in her little pink sailboat, riding out a storm while the black swells and salty gusts carry her further into the deep. I think of her waking up every morning, sometimes thousands of kilometers from another human being, and planning how she will use the elements to bring her closer to her dream.

I heard a fifteen-year-old recently embarked on a trip that would set a new record. If Jessica does make it home, her record would only stand for a few months. Australians feel a sense of disappointment for her. They must assume she set out for bragging rights and a TV spot. The real disappointment is the majority of people think she's just chasing a record.

I think I've been caught up in her story because despite never having met her, I feel like I understand her better than most of an entire continent. Not that the circumstances of our travels are similar. They don't compare at all. But I know what drives her. The pull of the unknown is a powerful force, and the feeling of success over it is a drug.

But while I think I understand her, I can only imagine what it feels like to live truly alone for seven months, at the mercy of all the elements, under a map of stars with nothing but your own thoughts and the constant rhythm of waves lapping against your home to keep you company. I imagine it's more exhilarating than watching TV from an armchair, or digging into soggy corn flakes.

She's due to arrive home any day now. She'll sail into Sydney to a warm welcoming party and the family and friends she's had to live without since October. Pretty impressive when you figure the average sixteen-year-old can't survive a full day without unlimited texting, YouTube, and The Bachelor.

I hope she found whatever she was after out there across a whole planet of ocean. I hope Sydney Harbour is calm when she ties up her pink sailboat and steps onto solid ground for the first time in over half a year. When she does, I'll be smiling. Most likely from a comfortable living room couch.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

damn right i got the blues

A couple years ago I as sitting in a pub in Bridgton, enjoying a Red Stripe, and I heard a local woman sin, "Angel From Montgomery." I'd never heard the song before, but it blew me away. It stuck in my head for weeks. I poured through iTunes looking for the song, and probably downloaded seven or eight different versions. None compared the one I heard live.

I asked a friend of mine who as there with me that night (and who knows a great deal more about music than I do) if she had a favorite version of the song. She told me, "I think we heard the best version." I new the moment she said it that she was right.

I think that's why we love live music. Nothing compares. No matter how many times you cook, you can never duplicate grandma's recipe. Live music is the unforgettable experience, and music on your iPod is the photograph.

The Byron Bay Blues Festival was a five day celebration of popular, up and coming, and legendary musicians. Six different stages ran from noon to midnight every day. It featured the blues, folk, country, rock, pop, Cuban dance, tribal beats, and even a Freak Show. With six different live acts going on at once, there was something for everyone.

And it certainly drew a wide variety of people. I heard they sold somewhere around 10,000 tickets. There were hippies, backpackers, families, college students, retired couples, musicians, and the elderly. There were Dead Heads, Acid-heads, Parrot Heads, yahoos, chronic trippers and white Rastas. I think the Freak Show would have been wise to do some active recruiting.

The Festival was a place where there weren't many rules to live by, and even fewer were enforced, yet most everyone got along. There were drug-sniffing dogs at the entrance every day, but I think they may have all had a cold. I also fear I may have been exposed to enough Petchuli to ruin my sense of smell forever.

It was a place where you might see a twelve-year old with a can of beer, a grandmother smoking a joint, and little toddlers running around with their parents' phone numbers scrawled down their forearms. Bad parenting and self-awareness together at last.

To accommodate such a crowd, the festival provided three bars with a stock of drinks that could have safely carried the city of Boston through Prohibition, dozens of portable toilets, an extensive merchandise tent, a food court with every style of cuisine imaginable, handfuls of little stands selling jewelry, hats, and even guitars, a 20 meter Ferris Wheel, First-Aid huts, a day care center, a massage station, and a tent set aside for your friendly Jim Beam retailer.

They were prepared for everything. Even the rain. Every stage and stand was covered by circus-style tents. They shipped in truckloads of woodchips to battle the fields of mud. It only rained for one night and the mud lasted all week. Every night I had to hose down my sandals and feet.

The headliners were Jack Johnson, The Fray, The John Butler Trio, and Crowded House. After that, the most popular shows were Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett, Jeff Beck, Bela Fleck, ALO, and the Buena Vista Orchestra. Highlights for me were hearing Justin Townes Earle sing Atlantic City, The Swell Season (the duo who won an Oscar for Falling Slowly), and The Old Crow Medicine Show's entire act. Anything with a banjo and a fiddle is enough to keep me riveted.

Well that's the full report on Blues Fest. Not as comprehensive or timely as I would've liked but internet access is more of a rarity while touring NZ and my material for more entries is getting backed up. Right now I'm on a bus tour and traveling south through the North island. Will check in again soon.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

whirlwinds and tours

Back on the East Coast. Back to bustling cities, temperate weather and XXXX Beer. Another ride on the backpacker superhighway. This time, though, I'll be a passenger. A lowly dependent. Completely at the mercy of bus timetables, train stations, and airport ETDs.

Brisbane is now the only place in Australia I've visited twice. It's comfortably familiar. I'm even staying at the same hostel. There's a definite advantage to traveling somewhere you've already been. I know where and when to get free internet, the cheapest food, a bus ticket, and a refreshing swim (the only inner-city beach in Australia). I was even able to score free breakfast the past two days from my hostel's communal food shelf. Scrambled eggs with cheese and peppers, and two egg and cheese sandwiches on toast. True rarities in the world of hostel free-food shelves. Nothing like glorious triumph before most people have woken up.

I left Darwin late Monday night. My flight left at two in the morning amid rainstorms and lightning. Par for the course up there. Darwin was a nice little tropical city. I would've liked to have spent more than two nights there, but not much longer than that. It reminded me of Cairns, but with a few more stories on its buildings and a higher local-to-backpacker ratio.

Darwin has the unique distinction of being one of the few cities in the world to be destroyed twice. Not an attribute most cities would revel in, but Australia is a funny place, and the Northern Territory is certainly the crazy uncle of all the Australian states. It's like the deep south in the US, except without all the religion.

The first time was in 1942 when a surprise Japanese bombing pulled Australia into WWII. The number of bombs dropped and the resulting damage was far greater than that at Pearl Harbour. It happened just a few days after Valentine's Day. Darwin was destroyed again in 1974 when Cyclone Tracy ripped through the city with winds strong enough to break all the wind-force gauges. According to the damage, they likely reached over 250 km/h. The Cyclone hit during the early hours of Christmas morning. If ever there was a people wary of their holidays, it would be Darwinians. I have to imagine that New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and Easter are tenuous mixtures of cautious celebration and nervous glances skyward.

I leave Brisbane tomorrow for Byron Bay and the Blues Festival, which I can only be disappointed by since every Australian I've met has told me it's the single most epic event in Australia. Perhaps the world. Anything short of an End of Days celebration will be a letdown. Some good music would be nice, too.

The past ten days have been a major highlight of my time here. I toured around the Red Center (Uluru NP, Kata Tjuta NP, King's Canyon), Kakadu and Litchfield NPs, and everywhere between (Devils Marbles, Katherine Gorge). The three trips were separate tours with groups ranging from 11-18 people. Each group was made up of different people each time, but there were usually a few familiar faces from the previous tour. We slept in tents every night, and always woke up early enough to see the sun rise. There were even two nights where I got to sleep outside under the stars in a sleeping bag. That was a great experience, even though massive spiders were constantly crawling through my thoughts.

Highlights were a sunrise and sunset at Ayers Rock, a crocodile boat tour where we saw a 4-5 meter giant (it rocked the boat with its tail and gave us all a scare), and too many waterfalls and swimming holes to remember. I've posted two hefty photo albums on facebook for anyone interested in perusing.

Another notable highlight was the food: it was inclusive, all-you-can-eat, and damn good cookin. Every night we were treated to a BBQ of Kangaroo steaks, Buffalo sausages, or beef schnitzels. My physique has taken a bit of a hit, but it was well worth it. Now back to whatever is on sale at Coles.

I'll check back in when I get to Sydney after the Blues Fest. I'll spend two nights there before flying out for New Zealand. After five weeks in New Zealand, I make a brief stop in LA and then it's back home on May 19th. Crazy to think my time in Australia is almost over. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the family and catching up with everyone, but not so much excited about leaving this place.

In more disappointing news, I'll almost certainly miss Opening Day and the first Sox-Yanks series of the season. As far as bummers go, that ranks pretty high. At least the baseball season is long.

My prediction: Sox 27, Yanks 0. Scutaro hits three home runs and Beckett strikes out 22.

Go Sox.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"small world, dr. jones"

The other day I was hanging out by the pool at my hostel and I heard someone say to me, "Dude, are those Bridgton Academy shorts?" Turns out the guy (Dave) was from Danvers, MA, and has a summer home up in Bridgton (by Bear Pond, for BA readers). I couldn't believe that halfway around the world, on the farthest possible continent, I met someone familiar with my little world of the past three years. He's only the fourth person I've met so far from New England, and the other three were a family from Milton, MA. It was great to finally talk Sox and Pats again. Then we got to talking about BHOP, The Village Tie-Up, Long Lake, and of course, Bray's. It was a welcome trip to a place that had seemed so far away.

We went on commiserating about the lack of Americans down here, how the place is overrun by Germans (sometimes I feel like I'm in an Indiana Jones movie), and everything else we miss about home. In the spirit of my brother's new blog featuring movie lists, I've decided to give a top-5 list of what I miss most (as I said before, family, home, and individual people are exempt).

5. Having my own room to sleep in. I'm sure you can use your imagination and picture the many frustrating scenarios that might arise from sharing a room with seven other people. But in case you can't, here are a few: relentless snoring, loud/obnoxious people at ungodly hours of the morning, thievery, people trying to quietly have sex in the bunk below you, people having loud sex in the bunk below you, sleeping with the lights on, bedbugs, and non-believers in modern hygiene. Since Cairns I've spent 2 nights in a proper bed with the room to myself. Those were two incredible nights.

4. Good, cheap beer. I'd give anything for a PBR. There is some good beer here (James Squire, Fat Yak, Beez Neez, Little Creatures) but it's all pretty expensive. Even the "cheap" stuff is pricey ($50 for a 30-rack) and it tastes like crap. Not that I've ever had a beer I didn't agree with, but in the US at least bad beer is cheap. There's really nothing like savoring a Tallboy you paid $2 for. At a bar here, you pay seven dollars for a pint of soda-water and boot polish. You heard it here first: Australian beer is garbage.

3. Working out. I'm slowing and quietly wasting away. I haven't gone to the gym since October. I'm experiencing the frustration of gradual atrophe, and it's not pleasant. Daily pushups only go so far. On the plus side I'm not eating too much, so at least I'm not getting fat. That brings me to my next item...

2. Food. Where do I start? I've been in Perth nearly 6 weeks. I'm pretty sure I've cooked pasta for dinner for all but 6 of those nights. Breakfast is always cereal, maybe some toast. When I'm on the road sometimes I only eat Granola bars all day. I haven't had a hot breakfast since November. I really shouldn't complain though. I could eat better, but a small dinner starts at around $20. Dave and I agreed that the foods we miss most are pizza (Oz doesn't do pizza right), a good burger, steak, and chicken wings. I can't wait to get home and order out from Joe's, have a family BBQ, and of course get back to Mom's cookin'.

1. Sports. I've managed to somewhat keep up with baseball and football by downloading the PTI and Mike and Mike podcasts in the public library, but it doesn't compare to falling asleep and waking up to Sportscenter. I missed most of the NFL season, last year's MLB postseason (for the best, it turns out), the Olympics, and I will miss March Madness and the first two months of baseball this year. I think I now know what it must feel like to go into rehab. My withdrawal is reaching the edges of sanity...

So there you have it. A few that almost made it were: snow during Christmas, access to a DVD collection, laying down on a couch and watching TV, taking a nap, a private bathroom, and wearing un-wrinkled clothes.

I finally managed to secure my way out of Perth. I've actually got all my traveling plans worked out for the rest of my time in Australia. On Friday I fly out to Alice Springs, where I'll take a 3-day camping tour of Uluru and its surroundings, then I'll take a bus up to Darwin where I'll take another 3-day camping tour of Kakadu National Park. I'll fly out from Darwin on the 30th for Brisbane, where I can catch a quick bus to Byron Bay for the Blues Fest. It's not the dirt-cheap means of travel I had hoped for, but I think the group tours with other backpackers should be fun.

I'm excited for this Blues Festival. When I bought my ticket, I figured it was just a 5-day concert with local bands and people I've never heard of. Turns out Jack Johnson, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, The Fray, The John Butler Trio, Bela Fleck, The Gipsy Kings, 10cc, and Matisyahu will be there. Plus a bunch of people I've never heard of. I can't say I'm a big fan of all of them, but at least I'll recognize a few of the playlists.

I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have from Friday until April, but I'm hoping to write again after my trips to Uluru and Kakadu.

Enjoy a Guinness, everyone.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

a grounded olympian

My departure from Perth has reached desperation-level. DEF-CON 5.

My shifts at work end this week, as does my stay in my hostel. I have a ticket for the Blues Festival in Byron Bay (roughly 4300km east of Perth) which starts April 1st. Before that I'd like to see Ayers Rock and Darwin. A trip to Alice Springs, Darwin, then Byron Bay spans the full length and width of Australia. April 1st gives me less than 3 weeks.

As of today I have no plans for escape.

I've been counting on acquiring a relocation car (a car that needs to be moved from one city to another, free of charge) but so far nothing has come available. I called in to add my name to the waiting list and the following is a rough transcript of my conversation with the woman I spoke with:

"Yes, hi, my name is Conor Sullivan, I'm currently in Perth and looking to go to Darwin.

--"And your phone number, Conor?"

(I give my number)

--"OK and when would you like to leave?"

"As soon as humanly possible."

--"OK we don't have anything available at the moment, but I'll add your name to the waiting list. Would you be able to drive from Darwin to Perth?"

"Um.... (a long pause) I'm sorry, I don't understand, I'm in Perth and I'm trying to get to Darwin."

--"It's a very simple question. Would you be able to drive from Darwin to Perth?"

"Um... I guess in that case, no I wouldn't be physically able to do that."

--"Do you have a physical disability that limits your driving abilities, sir?"

"No, but my physical presence in Perth at the moment limits my ability to drive anywhere from Darwin."

--"I see. If anything comes available we'll call you."

She won't call.

Trains and buses are expensive and uncomfortable. I'm still looking for last-minute flight deals, but it's looking like I've been grounded.

I could think of worse places in the world to be stuck than Perth, though. It's a laid-back city. Small. Perfect weather. Not a drop of rain in 5 weeks and usually in the 80s. Plenty of beaches for lazy afternoons.

Come to think of it, I've been spending a lot of lazy afternoons here. My hostel has a pool, which gives me a great excuse to do some reading. I spend Tuesdays at the movies, hopping around from theatre to theatre all day. Last week I saw Alice in Wonderland, Shutter Island, and Men Who Stare at Goats. The week before it was Invictus, Wolfman, Crazy Heart, The Road, Up in the Air (again) and The Hurt Locker (again).

I spent one day visiting Fremantle, a cozy suburb right on the beach where Perth residents love to spend a free day. It's easy to see why. Beaches, fresh-food markets, an open air mall, no tall buildings. It's a perfect little town.

Tomorrow I'll go to an Australian Rules Football game, and on Sunday I'll take a ferry over to Rottnest Island. Looking forward to both.

Nights I either go out for a few drinks or work at the Mustang Bar. I've had a great time there. It's one of those places where the work sucks, but the people you work with make it worthwhile.

I'm part of the glassie crew who are responsible for maintaining the bar and clean-up duties. The monotony of picking up bottles and cleaning up broken glass does take its toll on us though. So we started the Glassie Olympics. We compete in various events throughout the night, showcasing the skills necessary for a competent glassie. Sometimes those skills involve balancing on a keg on one leg while holding two 5-Liter jugs of juice. Other times we see who can climb up the hole to the attic without a ladder, or who can tolerate a mouthful of ice the longest. It's all a very serious business. We glassies are a competitive sort.

All right, that's all for now. Sorry for the long post, but it's been a while. I got called out on that from a couple different people, so thank you, you got me motivated again. I'm planning on posting a top 5 list for things I miss from home (things like "home" and "family" will be excluded on grounds that they are obvious choices).

Someone please give George Clooney a hug.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

between penguin suits and peanut shells

I had to buy a uniform for work for the first time the other day. White, non-patterned button-down shirt. Black pair of front-pleat pants. Pair of leather business shoes, black. All to be returned at Target within 28 days for a full refund. Save that receipt.

I was hired, through casual employment, by a company that allocates experienced food and beverage personnel to various public events or social gatherings.

In addition to the penguin costume, I also have to adhere to strict grooming standards. This would be a tall order for most backpackers, but as someone who has not been completely clean shaven since college, I found it especially difficult. (Actually, that's not true, but it is strange looking in the mirror now).

The formal uniform and grooming regulations had me a little nervous about what sort of clientele I would be serving. I mean I can mix a rum and coke like a champ, but as for Mojitos, Cosmopolitans and Manhattans.... Well, let's just say that to me, a Highball is either a hanging curve or a decidedly unfortunate anatomical deformity. But my misgivings turned out to be a non-issue on my first day when I ended up pouring beer for four hours at a rugby match. It was actually quite a spectacle.

There were dozens of us, all dressed like piano keys, milling around under a circus tent at the beginning of our shift. We were completely clueless. Our manager barked instructions to us. She told us who would be doing what, but not how to do it. I suppose it didn't matter anyway. Only half of us knew English. It was a gong show. I loved it.

The next day I found another job as a barback at a spot called The Mustang Bar. I watched the Super Bowl there and it's just down the road from my hostel. It's sloppy, loud, and a real hot-spot for Perth's younger crowd. It's basically like Coyote Ugly, except without all the hot girls dancing on tables, or the gratuitous pitchers of water.

So three or four nights a week, I wander around the place for six hours collecting empty glasses and tapping kegs. I don't have to worry about mixing drinks, cutting people off, checking IDs, breaking up fights, or throwing people out. Gotta love a a steady wage with no responsibility.

Towards the end of my first shift, one of the more experienced barbacks came up to me while I was sweeping up broken glass in the middle of the dance floor. "Well," he said with a knowing smile, "how do you like it so far?"

I looked up at him, sweat dripping from my face, my fingers sticky with dried beer and wet peanut shells clinging to my shorts.

"It's perfect."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

a selfish child jumps ship

I arrived in Perth three nights ago. A trucker traveling from Melbourne dropped me off in front of a hostel I hoped had an empty bed. He drove me over 700km from Norseman, where I was left by a group of surfers on their way to find the perfect wave in Esperence. They had picked me up in Cocklebiddy, where I spent the night and the better part of the previous day. If you ever find yourself spending more than a few passing moments in Cocklebiddy, Western Australia, you have either been horribly misinformed of the town's attractions, which consist entirely of a gas station and motel, or your car has broken down in the middle of the Nullabor Plain.

Maybe it was the 100 degree heat, or the endless onslaught of hills. Maybe it was the marathon-style driving that was supposed to take me from Ceduna to Perth in one day. Maybe it was because of my tendency to push things a little too hard. For whatever reason, probably a combination of all of the above, Pearl died in a violent climax of boiling coolant and a geyser of steam. Her engine overheated and likely seized, never to turn over again.

The Nullabor Plain, I soon discovered, is a very lonely place for one without transport. It is a 1100km stretch of empty land. The "towns" along the highway literally have more gas pumps than residents. Cell phones only function as clocks and paper weights. Low lying bushes and stunted trees, which survive on 7 inches of rainfall a year, are all that populate the 200,00 sq kilometers of barren desert. It is home to the longest dead-straight roadway in Australia: 90 miles. It is not a place where you want to be standing by the side of the road, with a towel wrapped around your head and neck, waiting for the chance to flag down a car.

Luckily, I was able to get a ride into Cocklebiddy, the nearest town. Soon after I found myself behind Pearl's wheel once more, this time at the mercy of a length of rope fastened beneath a license plate that read: "Cockles" which belonged to a pick-up truck driven by a gas station attendant with several self-administered tattoos. This was not the future I envisioned for my beloved antipodean chariot. You get what you pay for, I guess.

I spent the rest of the day fiddling under her hood, generally clueless, but occasionally investing in the help and opinions of other more mechanically minded people, including the trio of surfers who would eventually allow me brief passage on their quest for an endless summer Down Under. There wasn't much to be done. A tow to the nearest mechanic would run over a thousand dollars. Repairs from there weren't a certainty. It would hardly be worth the chance.

The decision to abandon. It flashed through my head the first time I turned the key to no effect, and gradually became more of an inevitability throughout the night. By the time I had my bag packed the following morning, I felt unburdened. Almost relieved. Once again, as so many times before, I would be relying on the kindness of strangers.

So here I am, comfortably lying on a futon in a hostel in Perth, two nights removed from being dropped off in style by a brand new Mercedes Benz 18-wheeler and a trucker who is back in Melbourne by now. The job hunt starts tomorrow. If I find something I'll likely stay a while.

Pearl still rests in Cocklebiddy, facing East towards friendlier stretches of road and the coast we got to know so well. I left her unlocked, so no one would have to break a window in order to peruse among the supplies inside.

I did keep the keys though. They're now buried somewhere at the bottom of my backpack. Possibly a half-hearted attempt at sentimentality, I suppose. But not entirely. They remind me of a poem by Shel Silversteen:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use 'em.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

small victories

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this whole tennis scene. I spent the 26th, Australia Day, at the Australian Open. Halfway through Andy Roddick's swan song, on a whim, I got a ticket for the next day as well. Sitting in 80 degree heat, wrapped in a towel, hat, and sunglasses, and doing lateral neck exercises all day is more exciting than one might initially think. Besides, Federer was playing.

His match against Davydenko was the hi-light of my two days at Rod Laver, but I also got to see Marin Cilic take down Roddick, Justin Henin defeat Nadia Petrova, Venus Williams lose to Li Na (quick Guinness check on world's simplest name?) and Serena steal a match from Victoria Azarenka.

Tennis is, over all else, a game of contradiction. For one, the players are noisier (and more vulgar) than the fans. Fans aren't allowed to cheer during play, make any kind of derogatory comment, or even leave their seats between games. I swear, there were moments I was afraid to cut a fart loose. This is a far cry from football, baseball, and basketball fans who regularly belittle players' names, physical appearances, personal lives, pets, and female family members. Tennis players, on the other hand, curse, whine, shout, whine, grunt, cry, whine, and in Andy Roddick's case, act like an absolute turd towards the official. Then in their post-match interviews, the winners smile, laugh, joke with Jim Courier as if they just finished watching a bad movie, and never fail to compliment themselves. I say this sport needs some hecklers, if only to instill some humility.

One thing I admire about tennis is how it is rooted in sportsmanship and respect. Players actually apologize if they win a point after hitting the net, or wind up to serve and stop. They shake hands with each other and the official after every match (which is something American sports could take a cue from). But these acts of good faith are really just for show. So let's look at sportsmanship in tennis. Did you see the Nadal/Murray hi-lights? Murray was mopping the court with Nadal. It really wasn't a contest. Nadal had a few good shots in there that he got pretty excited about, but his success was short lived. When he was down two sets, and it was clear he would lose the third, he suddenly succumbed to a knee injury. It was vintage Dangerfield, "Oh, my arm! I think it's broken!" For Nadal, it looked much better to lose because of an injury than to get swept in straight sets. Sportsmanship indeed.

Roddick seemed ready to employ the same strategy in his match before he started gaining ground. When it was clear he would lose the second set, he called the trainer out for a shoulder injury, and only returned after a lengthy massage. He won the next two sets, balky shoulder and all, but not without several patented Happy Gilmore "rotate your shoulder while grimacing" displays. So he set the stage for a bow out, but decided to keep going while he was winning.

This made me realize something unique to tennis, and other net sports, which is that your successes or failures aren't necessarily cumulative. You could hit the four most spectacular shots in your life and still lose a game. You could spend the first 2 sets at the hot dog stand and come back to win match. I could have subbed in for Federer for the first half-hour of play, and it wouldn't have had an impact on the outcome of the match. It's so much different than baseball, or football, where one play can end up winning or losing a game. So in a sport where every point doesn't count, especially when it's obvious a player will easily win or lose a set, it's pretty funny to watch both players essentially throw in the towel and go through the motions until the set is over. I've never seen anything like it in professional sports.

Just one more observation before moving on. Tennis is known as a gentleman's game, as most sports of British origin are considered to be. That's fine. It's rather civil and tame, a game of strategy and good manners, play for your country and whatnot. But let's spend an afternoon with an Australian Open ballboy. A coveted position, to be sure, but one that is not all privilege and glory. You spend an entire match standing behind the court, waiting for a nearly imperceptible head-nod or finger twitch before you pass on a tennis ball. The player asks for as many balls as he likes, keeps two, and with his back turned to you, slings the remainder in your general direction while you scramble to collect them before he is ready to serve. If you attempt to speak to a player, you will most likely be fired before the next match and disgraced within the ballboy community. Also, eye contact is right out. God help you if you look a player in the eyes.

But delivering tennis balls is a walk in the park compared to the kid who relays a player's towel to and from the court. Once again, looking for the nearly imperceptible hand signal, no eye contact, deliver the towel, wait while he dries himself and throws the towel in your hand, at your feet, or on the ground. If he hits you in the face with the towel, don't panic. Run back to your post before wiping his sweat and spit off your face. And of course, above all else, pray for a cool day.

OK, that's enough for now. I just realized I spent pretty much this whole post ripping on tennis, which isn't really fair because I don't know the sport all that well and I really did have a great time. Definitely the most memorable time I had in Melbourne. Maybe I just needed to vent a bit because Peyton is in the Super Bowl again, or because the Jets made it farther in the playoffs than the Pats, or because Ted Kennedy's seat was taken over by someone who is against his health care bill, or any other number of things that I would be more worked up about if I was back home, but seem so distantly trivial down here.

On the plus side, I filled up my car yesterday with the cheapest fuel I've seen so far in Australia, and I finally found a beer that reminds me of PBR. Things are looking up.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

recharging the batteries

It's always depressing when your team loses in the playoffs, but when you have to suffer through a near-apocalyptic first quarter while already feeling queasy from waking up at 4am to a horrid McDonalds breakfast and power-walking to the casino to catch the opening kickoff, it adds immeasurable misery to the experience. What's equally as torturous is that next week I may have to root for the Jets. At least I picked the right year to leave the country.

Melbourne has been a welcome resting place after a week of constant travel and a tiring stay in Sydney. It's a big city, but laid back. Not in as much of a rush as Sydney is. Apparently Melbourne and Sydney are engaged in a sort of sibling rivalry for the reputation of Australia's most prominent city. While it lacks the animosity of the Boston/NY rivalry, much more is at stake than mere athletic championships. After staying in both cities for over a week, I will say this of Melbourne: while it's nice to be in a relaxed metropolitan setting, it lacks the star power of Sydney. As you walk around the city limits, there are no monuments, landmarks, or buildings that make you draw in your breath and remark, "Wow, I'm in Melbourne!" (Not that any self-respecting traveler would allow himself such an outburst, but you know what I mean). Melbourne is a place to shop, eat (or dine as the guidebooks say), and catch a sporting event. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but I didn't travel halfway around the world for a nice steak and a new pair of aviators. I'm looking forward to the Australian Open though. I have tickets for the quarterfinals on the 26th.

One of the nicest things about being in Melbourne after Sydney is that crossing the street is no longer a life-threatening experience. Drivers in Sydney seem to think a red light is more of a suggestion than a traffic law, so if you don't walk around with your head on a swivel you may end up being pried loose from the pavement with a spatula. Melbourne drivers, on the other hand, occasionally even stop for jaywalkers. Anyway, it's nice to walk a city block without being reminded of my own mortality.

I really haven't done a whole lot here. Pretty much just walking around and recharging all my electronic equipment. I've done laundry, downloaded some ESPN podcasts in the local library for the upcoming drive to Perth (which is exciting since this is the second place in all of Australia with an internet connection strong enough to access iTunes), checked out several museums, caught some of the qualifying matches for the Australian Open, and found a place to get my car serviced and inspected. Gotta keep Pearl happy.

I'll be leaving Melbourne on the 27th and will try to check in before that. Until then, go.... Saints?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

a clean, good-natured place

I'm on a beach in Mallacoota right now, trying to finish this before the sun goes down. Mallacoota is on the Southeast tip of Victoria, about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. I've been driving now for the past few days, stopping only at National Parks, beaches, supermarkets and gas stations. I'm planning on getting to Melbourne sometime on the 6th, which is probably around the time I'll post this.

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday break. I spent both Christmas and New Year's Day on Bondi Beach. As I mentioned earlier, there's nothing like a dip in the ocean to clear the head.

As you might guess, NYE was the purpose of my trip to Sydney, as it was for every other backpacker in the free world. For good reason, though. Here are a few fast facts on Sydney's NYE celebration:
-- 1.5 million people surrounded Sydney Harbour to take in the fireworks
-- The fireworks lasted 12 minutes and cost $5 million dollars
-- The fireworks were launched from the Harbour Bridge, six barges, and nine city buildings
-- It cost $160 thousand dollars to clean up the mess everyone left behind
-- 130 people were arrested

(Rest assured, I was among the 1,499,870 souls with the good fortune of waking up unshackled.)

I thought it would be a good idea to watch the fireworks from a park called Observatory Hill. It was close to the bridge and provided an elevated view of the harbour. Also, it was one of the few vantage points that allowed alcohol. Minor detail, really. When I arrived early in the afternoon, I found the hill swarming with thousands of people, drinking, dancing, cheering, chanting, some dressed in costumes that would barely pass as normal on Halloween. Yes... minor detail, indeed. Lucky for me a group of friends had already staked claim to some prime real estate and fortunately they were happy to let me crash their party.

NYE on Observatory Hill is like spring break for twenty-somethings out of college. It's one big party, but the Wild 'n' Crazy element isn't turned up to 11. You can't rev your engine full throttle all day and expect to see the fireworks. In the end, that's was the day was all about.

They were worth every second of sitting atop that hill. It was a spectacle. I recorded the first two minutes, but my camera ran out of batteries. Poor foresight on my part. In any event, I'll post the video on facebook soon. Anyone with a flip comment on my video-recording skills should try steadying a camera on NYE at midnight.

My stay in the city itself was an unexpected highlight. Sydney has a wealth of neighborhoods, each with their own personality. Much like the New York boroughs, except without the attitude. Actually, with a good attitude. You'd find it hard to frown too if you lived on a world-famous harbour where it's never too hot or cold, and the sun never goes on vacation. I'm no city slicker, but I definitely could have spent more than ten days there.

Some of the standout moments for me were: walking through Olympic Park and exploring the massive grounds of the 2000 summer games; spending a rainy day in the Australian Museum and Queen Victoria Building; buying a discount-Tuesday ticket to Sherlock Holmes, bringing in 16 chocolate chip cookies and a litre of milk, and theatre-hopping to Where the Wild Things Are and Avatar; and aimlessly walking through the city with a big, stupid grin on my face until my legs got tired. I've gotten quite good at that. A walk around the Opera House and across the Harbour Bridge was a perfect way to spend my last night.

My stay in Sydney not only represented the halfway point of my time in Australia, but also the last of my scheduled stops. I can pick up and go wherever I want. It's a good feeling, like stepping off the school bus in late June and having the whole summer in front of you.

I can't help but think, as the Tasman Tide creeps up to my toes, and a long highway waits through miles of the green Victoria bush, that my trip has only begun.

Friday, January 1, 2010

happy festivus

it's been a couple weeks since i last checked in, and it's taken some effort to retrace my steps all the way back to brisbane. i really should update this more often, and go for shorter posts. never been on-the-ball with that sort of thing though.

first i stopped at surfer's paradise for two nights. it was an impressive place. the beach is gorgeous. miles of postcard-worthy coastline. but inland the scene really is atrocious. it's all skyscrapers, mega-malls, ritzy hotels, and nightclubs with dresscodes designed to keep people like me out. this place would be so much nicer if it never got discovered. it's a beautiful woman with too much make-up and jewelry.

after surfer's i make a few stops at coff's harbour, southwest rocks, and crescent head. these were easily my favorite places in australia, probably because they were a few paces off the beaten track. they had their share of tourists, but i got the feeling that there were more australians visiting than foreigners (like me). they seemed to be australia's marthas vineyard and cape rod, as opposed to orlando or las vegas. i wish i had spent more time there. especially crescent head. but my hostel in sydney was booked for the next day. pictures on those places coming shortly.

now sydney. that's a different story all together. i've been here 10 days now and im about to leave and check out the blue mountains, then it's on to melbourne. i posted a few picutes on facebook from a couple weeks back. i'll have an xmas/nye post coming in a couple days. until then, i hope everyone is laying around watching bowl games and recovering from last night. i've found there's nothing better than a dip in the ocean. let me know how that works out for you.