Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rush Hour on the Mekong Delta

In stark contrast to the chaotic streets of Saigon, the Mekong Delta provided plenty of opportunity for cycling through rice paddies and little villages.  Oh, and meeting new friends, too...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City

Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Perth anymore...

Gone are the wide open spaces - beaches without another soul and roads without another vehicle.  The laid back attitude of Western Australia is long behind me.

In its place - the semi-chaotic world that is Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to pretty well everyone who lives here).  There are over 10 million people in HCMC, and as far as I can tell over 20 million scooters and motorbikes.  It has taken a while to become comfortable with some of even the most basic tasks that I normally take for granted, like crossing the street, for instance.  More thoughts later, but for now, a short video clip just to give you a taste of the sights and sounds involved with getting to the other side of the street...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Who The Hell Did Australia Piss-off?

Australia is indeed a magnificent country, not only because of its sheer magnitude but its incredible variety as well.  I’ve managed to see a lot of it over the last 7 weeks, traveling many miles, meeting lots of people and taking heaps of photos. 

My schedule has been pretty wide open, which is just how I like it, but for this journey it simply couldn’t have been any other way.  No matter where I’ve visited, I’ve ended up fleeing floods or evacuating before cyclones or running from bush fires.  It would appear that Australia is under siege, beset by plagues of biblical proportions, leading an ex-workmate of mine to quite aptly ask “Who the hell did Australia piss off, ‘cause they’re sure getting their ass kicked?!?”

Melbourne was a great way to get the trip started; visiting good friends, watching the tennis and keeping a relatively slow pace accented by many “flat white” coffees and a few beers.  I also threw in a long weekend in Sydney to visit some of the sights and compare the two cities.  The weather was “unseasonably unstable” as my friend liked to say, leading to our cancelling a drive along the
Great Ocean Road
where sections were washed out due to heavy rain.

I lingered longer than planned in the south because next on my agenda was Queensland, which as far as I could tell from the news was completely under water.  The floods weren’t directly affecting the Great Barrier Reef, which was my destination, however the cyclones that were bringing all the water most certainly were.  So I watched the weather forecast carefully and when about a week long window of sunshine finally appeared between deluges, I flew straight to Airlie Beach.

About a week was all mother nature granted.  My signal to fly had been when Cyclone Anthony weakened and headed out to sea.  Unfortunately, it sat about 700 kms offshore, brooded for a while, then decided to grow and turn back on Australia.  So, while I was on a delightful 3 day / 3 night sailing trip to the outer reef, the captain was carefully monitoring the radar.  Not only was Anthony on its way, but just behind was Yasi, promising to be much, much larger.

Even so, the sailing trip was superb, offering awesome snorkeling and breathtaking views of the Whitsunday Islands.  One of the highlights was a visit to pristine Whitehaven Beach, an uninhabited coastline with miles of white sand and meandering estuaries.  The ripple patterns in the sand were the stuff of impressionist paintings, with schools of rays hanging about to make the whole thing that much more magical.  Luckily our group arrived first, because in no time boatloads of backpackers arrived, shattering the picture postcard and turning it into Coney Island.  Some Aussie boys even started a game of Australian Rules Football, a rough and tumble bastardization of rugby sure to ruin any good stroll along a deserted beach.

Snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t bad either, as I swam with turtles, marvelled at brightly coloured corals and fish, and came face to face with a white tipped shark.  Yet, as soon as our sailing vessel returned to Airlie Beach I had to make plans to flee.  Anthony was less than 36 hours away.

It was earlier than I had planned to leave the reef.  Next up on my agenda was the coastline of Western Australia, starting with a visit with friends in Perth, but I had a few days before they were expecting me.  So I looked at a map and drew a line between Airlie Beach and Perth to see what was in between.  It turned out to be about 4000 km of absolutely nothing.  Nothing, that is, except for one rather famous large rock sticking out of the desert in what can only be described as literally the middle of nowhere.  I booked a flight to Ayers Rock. 

(Like in many parts of the world, the name for a location given by European explorers has been changed to the name used by the indigenous people of the area.  We see this in my hometown of Vancouver as the signs from the city to the Whistler ski resort are now full of unpronounceable native Indian words, often including the number 7.  Today, Ayers Rock is known by its Aboriginal name Uluru.  I’m not sure how to pronounce the underlined letter, but when I call it Ayers Rock, travellers look at me like I’m swearing and Australians look at me like family.  Strangely, the local airport is still called Ayers Rock, so when someone accuses me of being insensitive to Aboriginals by not saying Uluru, I simply claim to be referring to where my plane landed.)

Uluru is everything you’ve heard and expected, but so much more.  It’s an icon that we’ve all seen in pictures, but they just don’t do it justice.  It’s magical in its dimensions, colors, and more importantly, its presence. 

At the same time, you don’t get labelled as one of the wonders of the world without attracting the odd tourist, and attract them Uluru does – in droves.  Sunset and sunrise “viewings” are standing room only, with every language imaginable chattering away in the background.  Yet somehow Uluru manages to hold your focus, even when annoying tourists from England are trying to convince the Germans they’ve just met that Wimbledon is so much better than the Australian Open because, “well, it’s just more British, isn’t it?”. 

(Sometimes I’m glad I only speak one language.  I’m not sure I could handle overhearing any additional inane chatter.  Even conversations about Lady Gaga’s nail polish sound exotic in a foreign tongue.)

The desert around Uluru had been receiving much more rain than usual, so the landscape was considerably greener than normal for the season, leading to some stunning photo ops.  The rain had also brought an unseasonal explosion of insects and bugs.  My ridiculously overpriced room was a bit of an entomologist’s wet dream, especially when turning on the light to head for a late night pee.  I eventually decided it was better to just wander about in the dark and not think about the crunching noises under foot.

My wallet couldn’t handle another night at the Ayers Rock resort, so I carried on to Perth.  My timing couldn’t have been better.  According to the news in Perth, Alice Springs (the closest town to Uluru at a mere 5 hours to the north) and environs had been hit with massive rains.  Alice Springs itself had become a swimming pool, complete with unhappy, newly homeless, poisonous snakes.

Perth brought a welcome reprise from the traveling life, as I stayed with friends in the city’s northern suburbs.  Mind you, suburbia in Perth isn’t what you might expect.  Our days were spent riding bikes to the local beach and having a dip before the surf came up.  We’d watch the surfers in the calm of the morning and kite surfers in the afternoon winds.  In the evenings we’d barbeque and listen to the various exotic birds sing song overhead.  Yup, it was pretty good and not a cyclone in sight.

On the weekend we did what any city folk would, we drove out into wine country and watched polo.  Now isn’t that the life - sitting on blankets sipping Sauvignon Blanc and cheering on the ponies? 

There was just one small complication.  As we looked back over the horse prep area, we couldn’t help but notice large billows of smoke.  In fact, we could occasionally smell the smoke over all the horse sweat and shit.  We inquired and the landowner informed us that large sections of the Swan Valley were beset by out of control bush fires!  Some were quite close, he mentioned in a typically understated Australian fashion, but we were protected by “The River”.  Further prying resulted in us realizing that said river was a creek at best, and was located about 100 meters away.  We decided that it didn’t look like a very good bush fire barrier to us, and high tailed it out of there.

All told, more than 90 homes were lost to the Perth bush fires, and with polo playing types living in the area, you can imagine the scale of the homes.  The premier had declared the area a state of emergency, a concept that seemed lost on our polo pals at the time.

I could tell an omen when I saw one, and decided that was my indication to leave the comforts of the ‘burbs and head out on a road trip.  This time my destination was north up the Western Australia coastline, a region resplendent with white sand beaches and turquoise water.  I had a rental car, credit card and about 11 days to kill.

I’ll spare you the details as I don’t have the time to write them all down and I know you don’t have the patience to slog through them.  However, there were certainly some highlights worth mention:
-          the Pinnacles: curious limestone features poking out of sand dunes, absolutely stunning at sunset
-          Kalbarri: home to the Murchison River gorge where I joined a canoe trip deep into the canyon to observe the brilliant red cliffs
-          Monkey Mia/Shark Bay: a world heritage site boasting some of the only stromatolites remaining on earth (exciting to geologists and no one else) and dolphins that swim into the bay every morning to show off and to be fed (exciting to everyone else)
-          Coral Bay/Ningaloo Reef: the world’s largest fringing reef, meaning some of the most spectacular snorkeling and diving in the world is only 30 to 40 meters off shore

Coral Bay actually deserves some elaboration.  The town is so small as to not even be incorporated, consisting of some accommodation and minimal services, but it serves as a great access point to the reef.  I snorkeled with manta rays, watched sharks get their teeth cleaned by small fish that I dubbed “dental hygienists”, and marvelled at some of the brightest coral I have ever seen. 

I planned to spend my last days in Australia at Coral Bay, snorkeling every morning and relaxing in the afternoons when the winds came up.  There was just one small problem.  On the drive up from Monkey Mia there had been major flooding, with water flowing over the highway in many locations.  Each evening I was in Coral Bay, thunderstorms provided brilliant light shows, but also dumped huge amounts of water on the region.  Rumours began to circulate that the road, the only connection back to Perth, would soon be closed.

So, rather than be stuck in the North when my non-refundable flight to Vietnam left Perth, I again changed my plans and left Coral Bay a day early.  There weren’t as many river crossings on the return trip, but there was one pretty hairy spot.  The flood indicator on the side of the road showed a water depth of 0.4 meters and the current was strong.  At one point while crossing I could feel the car begin to lose grip and shimmy sideways with the flow.  I envisioned my little compact being washed away into the Outback (and me with it), but it managed to find traction and I was on my way.

That’s the benefit of being flexible with travel plans. I had an extra day on my hands, so did a quick flip through the Lonely Planet and decided to drive past Perth to Rockingham, home to about 180 wild dolphins.  The attraction to this location is that the dolphins love to play with humans, providing an opportunity to swim with them.  It was a glorious way to spend my last day in Australia.  The dolphins whirled around us as we swam, squealing all the while (us and the dolphins).  As our boat sped back to the dock, they swam along with us, performing acrobatics in our wake.  Afterwards, I made a quick stop to visit an island with rare little penguins and then headed for the airport, confident that I had squeezed everything I possibly could out of my last hours in Australia.

While driving to the airport, I heard a weather warning on the radio.  Coral Bay was bracing for a cyclone.  The community, and many others in the region, were on alert and expected to be evacuated within days.  “It figures” I thought to myself.  “This country is surely cursed!  Everywhere I go there’s been storms, flooding, fires…”  And then it hit me – I wasn’t happy to be leaving Australia, but then again, perhaps Australia wasn’t too sorry to be seeing the last of my ass?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

You Turn, I Turn, We All Turn!

Driving in Australia ain’t easy.  Trust me.  I had to make five u-turns today while driving through Perth.  And it isn’t just because they drive on the left side of the road here.  That’s actually the least of your worries.  Let me explain by means of a few “lessons learned” from my last 11 days on the road in WA.

They hide the road signs.  It’s not that they hide all the road signs, only the ones you need.  You’ll be driving along the freeway, merrily counting off the kms until the town you want to visit, when suddenly you realize your destination is no longer listed on any of the recent road signs.  It turns out that to get to your destination you wanted to exit on Thomas Road.  The only problem is, there is no sign to tell you that you need to exit on Thomas Road!  It’s only when you’ve already exited and are at the top of the offramp that, if you’re lucky, there’s an arrow pointing you in the right direction.  That’s gotta be worth at least a couple u-turns a day.

The road signs are pretty well useless.  Even if you are lucky enough to see a road sign, chances are it’s of no use to you.  This is because Australian road signs don’t use helpful notations like direction (i.e. North, or South).  Instead, they just list off random town names that happen to be in that general direction, and point.  The road you’re about to take may not even go to any of those towns! 

Even worse, they seem to choose which towns to post in a frustratingly haphazard manner.  Your destination may have been good enough to make the previous sign, but what to do at a roundabout where lots of towns you’ve never heard of and can’t see on a map are listed, yet yours isn’t?  You eventually make a u-turn.  That’s what.

Road numbers don’t matter.  You would think that once you are on a road major enough to warrant a road number that you’re pretty safe.  However, you would be wrong.  Australia assigns lots of numbers to lots of roads.  But Australia also reserves the right to remove that number at any time and without warning.  It’s not that you missed a turn or anything, the number just ceases to exist.  Even more exasperating, half way across the city the number simply reappears!  No explanations are given, no excuses made.  You simply curse the numbers and make yet another u-turn.

How about street names?  See road numbers, but assume even more randomness.  Turn around.

You can’t turn left on a red light.  Who knew?  The officer won’t be very sympathetic either when you tell him that at home in your country you are free to do the equivalent, a right turn, on a red light.  This doesn’t necessarily result in a u-turn, but it certainly adds to the frustration.

So there you have it, the main reasons for me having to complete six u-turns today.  I know I said five earlier, but I missed my turn driving home from dinner and had to make another one.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Sydney vs. Melbourne

Sydney and Melbourne: it’s hard to imagine how two cities in the same country, located reasonably close together and in similar geographic settings, can be so different.  But alas, how different they are!  The causes are numerous, and include history and politics.  Yet these are well documented and a little dull, so rather than analyze the why, what follows are my observations as to how.

If Sydney was a high school kid, she’d be the good looking one who excels at everything, from scholastic pursuits to varsity sports. She’s brash, confident and bound to succeed.  As if in direct response to Sydney’s clean-cut image, Melbourne has decided to be one of the cool kids hanging out by the smoking doors.  With her edgy personality and self-assured funkiness she turns out just fine too, thank you very much.

Opera House

Sydney has the harbour, and oh what a harbour it is!  As the saying goes it’s all about location, location, location.  Sydney has more waterfront than I’ve ever seen.  A tour guide alleged that there’s 56 km of it within the city.  Whether true or not (this particular operator regaled us with Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, and Billy Ocean as we toured the harbour, which to me discredits anything they had to say),  there’s enough to provide ample opportunity for stunning vistas and seaside activities.  And as if the harbour isn’t enough on its own, Sydney has thrown in The Bridge and The Opera House just so there’s absolutely no debate as to who is the fairest of them all.

Melbourne Skyline over the Yarra River

Melbourne has waterfront, too, with much of it quite beautiful.  But the city isn’t centered on the ocean; rather the CBD (central business district) has built up around the winding Yarra River.  The Eureka Tower is the obvious landmark.  Standing 297 m above the banks of the Yarra, it is visible from many miles away and is easily the tallest "inhabitable" building in the southern hemisphere?  (A tower in Queensland is taller by means of a radio antenna on the roof.  Hardly comparable.)  It is the centerpiece of a very pleasant, modern central core where skyscrapers meet bike paths and cafĂ© culture.  Still, no matter what Melbourne’s best efforts could be, as far as location and natural beauty are concerned, Sydney gets the nod.

Central Quay is the hub of Sydney harbour, teaming with charming yellow and green ferries connecting many of the outlying neighbourhoods to Sydney’s CBD.  The harbour is a constant coming and going of ferries of all sizes, with the odd cruise ship added to the mix for good measure.  The quay is alive every day of the week, with tourists and business types alike, creating the perfect location for street performers and mini-marts that charge exorbitant amounts of money for a 0.5 l bottle of water.
Harbour Bridge from Central Quay

Melbourne’s alternative to the ferries is trams.  The entire city is connected by a network of trams that run on tracks down the center of most major roads in Melbourne.  Some of the trams are modern, while others date back to the days of wooden slat seats.  It’s a comprehensive, if not painfully slow, means of getting about town.  The trams have a certain aesthetic appeal, yet my vote would likely be for the ferries - save for one peculiarity resulting from the trams that is completely unique to Melbourne:  Hook Turns.

Now remember that Australians drive on the left side of the road, so a right hand turn crosses the path of oncoming traffic.  Anywhere else in the world, a right hand turn would be done by pulling into the right lane, or right turn lane, and yielding until it’s safe to turn.  But in Melbourne the trams take up the middle of the main roads and they have the right of way.  Thus on these roads (and to complicate matters, only on these roads) an alternative had to be devised. 

Enter the Hook Turn.  Instead of occupying the right lane when they want to turn right, Melbourne drivers pull over to the curb lane and wait until the light turns yellow.  At this point, once they determine it’s safe to do so, they crank the wheel to the right and dart through the intersection across all the lanes of traffic.  I don’t think I’ve got the nerve to do this as it seems to me there would never be a safe time to dart across 4 to 6 lanes of traffic, not to mention two tram lines, in the middle of an intersection.  I would probably either keep driving straight and go somewhere else, or opt for the “three lefts make a right” strategy. 

Regardless, because of the funky Melbourne Hook Turn, I call ferries vs. trams a tie.

Eating and drinking in Sydney is done on a large scale.  Restaurants tend to be of a very expansive open area style.  They’re modern, busy, loud and expensive.  It’s that brash confidence coming out.  Drinking establishments tend to be the same way.  Everything’s a big beer garden.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because when it’s on, it’s on!

Melbourne is all about cool.  Restaurants trend towards small bistros, as opposed to Sydney’s sprawling brasseries.  Likewise, the pubs and bars in Melbourne are just that, pubs and bars.  Large beer gardens are present, but not the norm.  Thus, Melbourne’s numerous eating and drinking establishments are generally small and free to try whatever they please.  In fact, they need to be unique and creative to attract patrons.  This breeds creativity and style, something those kids at the smoking doors seemed to possess in abundance.  The result is something that, in my opinion, Sydney lacks; variety.  And after all, variety is the spice of dining and boozing.  Melbourne is my choice for a meal or libation.

So far we’ve established that both Sydney and Melbourne have their own distinct personalities and inclinations.   So who wins, and why? 

For me, the winner needs to possess something completely unique that sets them apart, from not only the competitor in this little tilt, but other cities around the world.  And for me that thing is Melbourne’s laneways.  I don’t know what substance they were smoking at the smoking doors, but it inspired Melbourne to reclaim most of its CBD alleyways and convert them into a maze of pedestrian walkways, lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.  Some are posh, others are covered in graffiti, but it all seems to work in a way that brings vitality and energy to the city’s core.
Laneway Art

I’m not saying that Sydney doesn’t have an energy and vitality of its own.  It possesses ample individuality amongst its myriad neighbourhoods.  Still, so do many other great cities.  What none of them have is the laneways.  Sydney vs. Melbourne?  I say Melbourne. 

(Oh, and I almost forgot.  Another area that sets Melbourne apart is the live music scene.  It’s no secret that I love live music, and Melbourne is full of live music venues.  It’s got heaps of small clubs and bigger venues.  What do you think the kids at the smoking doors were doing while the other kids played sports?  They were in a dark basement somewhere learning how to play guitar.  So it only makes sense that Melbourne would have dingy places down grimy alleyways for the bands to play.  Melbourne has had a vibrant music scene for years, something that has been strangely absent from Sydney.  Nick Cave over the Opera House?  In my books, absolutely!)

Full disclosure: Before you think this was a completely unbiased comparison, I must admit to having a number of good friends who live in Melbourne (with whom I’ve stayed with on more than one occasion) while I don’t know a soul in Sydney.  If I had chosen Sydney, I’d have never heard the end of it, and would probably have been banned from ever setting foot in Melbourne again!  My hands are tied…