Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The dingo ate my homework

Alright so there had to be something done, we're this far down the coast and the reasons to laugh haven't been legitimate for most of that time. Don't get me wrong I like laughing for the wrong reasons almost more than for the right ones but still, one expects to be having some traditional fun in places like these, on trips like these. So we're in the quiet retirement-esque hamlet of Hervey Bay and what do people come here to see? Fraser Island. Great, let's go and see what it's about... Oh there aren't any roads? Oh right, it's all sand tracks, and you have to rent and learn to drive a Land Cruiser to get around. A lot of people get hurt, sometimes fatally, doing this do they? Oh right, cool. Dingoes? Wild ones? Right so, and what do you.... You just back away with your arms folded maintaining eye contact, is that it? Grand so. Four hundred and fifty dollars? And we have it back to you by six with no scratches? Fine. Hang on what's that about man eating sharks on the north beach? And was there something about pits on the beach that kill and maim a not insignificant number of people each year? Forget it, sign me up!

Seriously that's it, we're really that interested in having some good old standard fun. You wouldn't believe how bumpy the roads got and how intimidated I initially felt as we, the two of us, rented a 9 seater 4 wheel drive to knock around this island. It's one of the only all sand islands in the world and the only one that has a rainforest on it. It also houses more than half the worlds perched lakes. Don't ask me about the ecology but they look beautiful as you can see if you continue reading and scrolling. There are somewhere in the region of 200 wild and potentially dangerous dingoes out there too and lizards you wouldn't dare shake a stick at so the rules are, don't feed the animals. A kid bought the farm out here a couple of years back which confirmed the whole dingoes do eat babies thing. Poor Lindy. I should watch that film. If only I'd had the foresight before I left home I'd have watched The Beach, The Killing Fields, Tomb Raider, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and that one in which a woman claims the eating of her baby was the gastronomic doing of a Ding-diddly-ingo.

Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island, a perched lake of infinite beauty but very clearly finite size.

Me at another perched lake. Lake Wobby. The astute viewer will quip that this perched lake looks parched. And they'd quip like they view, astutely. Note: I love the T-shirt I'm wearing there and have overworn it since it's purchase in Chiang Mai. It's Ronald McDonald looking drunk with two topless ladies. A Banksy image I think which raises it's banality to the level of high art. At least that's my rationale.

A monitor, neither flatscreen nor cathode ray, but lizard. A massive one at that.

This wasn't even a tourist attraction. Seriously I just stopped because I reckoned that knobbly tree there looked like a moose's head. And the braches coming out look like antlers. Seriously. If you can't see it let me know and I'll be happy to provide a higher res image that proves it.

The flippant captaincy of this monstrous vehicle began with more reverence for the terrain than is seen here, I swear.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Negative Magnetism

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step according to Confucius but a journey of a thousand kilometres, I'm here to tell you, starts with one diligent early riser eschewing sleep and general bodily happiness in favour of sliding open a Hiace door and driving his camper off it's site. It continues then, in two hour shifts, for our diligent starter of long journeys (aka: me) of alternately driving and sleeping. It's a long old drive from Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay but one we were both happy to sacrafice our comfort and safety to make. This apparent lack of concern for ourselves can be viewed as a result of a couple of factors but the only one that matters is that every place since and including Cairns seemed unreasonably quiet and joyless. Perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement and we're being misled by authors of a lonely planet guide that's too busy greasing it's pages with lies to keep the constant flow of backhanders coming in but Townsville had two or three clubs all of which we hit one night in search of fun to no avail. You can add to that list Magnetic Island and Airlie Beach (which was admittedly a little better but not by much) but Hervey Bay, a heretofore unreached bastion of livliness and debauchery, turns out on visitation to be a village favoured by retired people and sports two pubs worth visiting both of whom have a piece of wood that sinisterly resembled a closed door barring entry after 10pm. And who said the nightlife in Laos was unreasonable?

I will say this though, the Whitsunday Islands were lovely. We took a Catamaran out on rough seas to go Diving off Pearl Bay on the northern most island. The water was cold and the visibility wasn't great but snorkelling on the beach was really surprising; the proliferation of fish was actually jarring, right around your feet there are parrot fish the size of watermelons happily munching into coral unperturbed by your gallumphing legs coming down around them. And the beaches in the Whitsunday national park are perhaps the most beautiful we've seen so far. Stingrays come right up to the dying of the waves (don't mention the war, Steve Irwin's zoo is only two hours down the road; next on the list!) and the beach seems to die away in so shallow an angle that before it's two feet deep it's rising on the shore of the next island. Truly stunning and made all the more ethereal since I didn't bring my camera and you'll just have to take my awkward words for it.

And the captain of the ship, Joseph, from San Fernando in California looked really like Dustin Hoffman, overweight and with a beanie cap and a goatee. Really funny guy who openly chastised his new and only crew member in front of us. He worked him like a dog and laughed as the boat rocked twenty feet up a wave, insisting conditions were not that dissimilar from a swimming pool and continued as such as his long suffering colleague puked overboard behind him. A real character with the real character hallmark: he was probably a total bastard. Don't believe that's a good enough measure? See Basil Fawlty.

The most Magnetic of islands, Magnetic Island.

An actual, if you can believe this, Koala bear. Apparently they get stoned from eating Eucalyptus leaves. This one was wading in up to his neck. I'd say he was trolleyed by the time we arrived: he took no notice of us.

The view west from (almost) the tip top of Magnetic Island.

The soonafter sunset at same (almost) tip top. Note: I did get a little worried that walking a two hour trail back in the dark through not just snake infested forests but 'Death Adder' infested forests. (I know, I thought he was just the bad guy from Golden Axe, but he did get his name from somewhere. I think that fact alone made an already dangerous sounding name sound dangerous-er)

The Grand Tour of Chez Paul and Adam.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tease and Seize; A Moving Bedsit; Once more into the drink, dear friends

An arty shot taken through a hail of bubbles only feet above the greatest of barrier reeves.

So we did it: organisational hump cleared with no faults and through to the next round. There was always going to be a bit to achieve in this town:

Find a place to stay that would neither break the bank nor put either of us in a room that had more than 2 beds and hence people.

Go diving on the great barrier reef.

Find a campervan to rent to take us down to Sydney that we didn’t perform intestinal somersaults of revulsion at the sight of.

And, of course, indulge in a reunion with my good friend the boy Derek and his missus Saranne.

Cairns turned out to be, now that I’m fit to say my piece about it, writing as I am, on my shiny new 9 inch laptop in the back of the above foreshadowed camper, a serviceable port of entry but somehow a little like listowel during the races. Forgive me those of you lucky people who don’t know what I mean by that: what I’m trying to say is it all seemed a little 18th birthday party on the streets. An 18th birthday party where a couple of older cousins and uncles turned up, the ones who weren’t invited because they tend to remove the garment that covers their nethers when drunk or start/threaten to start fights. It may not be all that bad in reality, we didn’t get the full perspective that a resident of the town might but that we didn’t want to was enough for us.

Anyway yesterday, on quite choppy seas we took a large and luxurious boat to the large and equally (from a diver’s point of view - and we are them now, okay?) luxurious reef known to the world as the Great Barrier. Actually on our connecting flight from Brisbane to Cairns we could see said reef from the plane such is it’s scope. It looks from the sky like green patches of water, inviting enough but from a well equipped diving boat it looks like a water slide during a heat wave. One wants to be in it, so to speak. And in it we were as succeeding photographic evidence will attest.

Having made a couple of calls and sent a few emails we found a vehicle that could sleep us both in a non together fashion. As it stands we have double bunk beds in the van at night time which is nicely in line with our penchant for comfort. I was told on the way to collect said vehicle by Adam that we ought to review the T’s and C’s before committing. Unaccustomed as I am to the 5th Dan level ways of the force in matters Management Speak I didn’t know this was a short hand for Terms and Conditions. Imagine my disappointment when I found out there was no Tease and Seize to be reviewed. Sounded like a spicy little pursuit altogether. Ah Well.

So campervan arranged we stocked up the vehicle with a moveable feast from the Dunnes down under and so it was with a full up fridge that mere hours after waking on our last day in Cairns (annoyingly over pronounced by the locals (Caaaaaannes) said he, with monumental impertinence) we were barrelling down the Bruce Highway towards Townsville. A spectacularly shit name for any town. Townsville. Towntown. Villageville. Placeplace. Give me a break.

Addendum: The opening to the above was written on the road towards Townsville. This is a note from the future, now on Magnetic island: If only the worst thing about that place was it’s name!

This dude was one of many and wasn't as scary as he looks here, mind you I'm not one of the fish he was eyeing so it's easy talk.

There's something really weird and cool about seeing goldfish that aren't in a bowl. Mind you given the open ocean available to them they might as well have been, this little mushroom of coral was pretty much the only place they'd go.

In a vulgar display of power I became upside down for a photo.

However my natural distate for having my picture taken quickly took over.

And the content of subsequent photos deteriorated in quality.

As you can see.

Friday, August 15, 2008

To the Gizzard of Oz via Chinese New York

Hong Kong: the city so good that naming it twice would just cheapen the whole affair.

So maybe in we did Viet Nam a little fast. It's what happens, you're on the road for a number of weeks and you stay too long in the first place you visit (Thailand in our case) and you find out the clock, as has become it's habit, kept ticking. So we gave ourselves an extra week which meant we stopped in Saigon, Na Thrang, Hoi An then flew to Hanoi only to catch another flight to Hong Kong which was, before we arrived just a hub to get to where we are right now (Cairns, Austrailia), and is in fact the most fun city in South East Asia. It's so developed that it's almost unfair to consider it as a contender amongst the rest and so expensive that it's probably immoral to recommend a trip there to backpackers who actually look at the bill for things before they pay but whatever.

It's weird I suppose that from Bangkok to Hong Kong, the first leg or our trip, it seems the further east you go the more west things get. And HK is definitely the clincher. We stayed, after some cursory research in a swanky hotel in an area that was allegedly (and after real-life experience confirmed to be) kicking.

Lan Kwai Fong. It's near Soho and close to the financial district and is made of skyscrapers, taxis and streets called Gloucester and Aberdeen and is positioned against a cloudy tipped mountain overlooking one of the largest ports in the world. I can't tell you (and am under too much pressure for time to indulge in the poetic hunt for the sort of metaphors and synonyms that look good together) how nice it was to drive around those streets in a clean taxi with a driver who spoke fluent english and agreed to, and subsequently (this is the important bit) actually succeeded in, taking us to our hotel with no fuss. And then we get there and have our bags brought to a lovely and quaint (read: miniscule) but well appointed and ultimately luxurious hotel room on the 27th Floor. (See below for the view from the room.)

The twin beds were close together (almost in such a proximity that one might mistake them at a certain angle for one large king size) which would have made for interesting dissection of how we both entered them: (seperately I would like to make clear) with groans of rapacious pleasure. You see, the sheets were clean, the blankets had that lank heaviness that good ones do, the air was conditioned enough to make them necessary and the shower, Oh the shower, I have never been so gently and pleasurably beaten into awareness of how wonderful western civilisation can be as I was during the oppulent pummeling I was given under that shower head.

Note: I am aware of the giggling misinterpretation that is wide open within the above but was so moved by the experience that it's a price I'm happy to pay.

Anyway not to descend into a Keatsian lament just take my many words for it, amazing experience and all as it was in South East Asia, realised in the first couple of hours: I am a westerner to the core.

Even in Viet Nam you can't really get a drink late, though we made a good attempt after a dingy little club in Hanoi left us down, in a place called Hair of the Dog. Herein at 2am we were ushered beyond a shuttered shopfront only at 3am to be reversely compelled by a band of Vietnamese police (whose uniforms I made a point of complimenting as I drunkenly and brazenly shook their hands) who departed not ten minutes later as we transparently waited on the streets outside only to repeat our previous clandestine entrance. That notwithstanding, you usually can't stay out late in any of the countries we visited except Thailand, and certainly not in places that are pumping. But Hong Kong does not sleep. Really, anytime day or night, forget it, it's awake. The first of our two nights saw us scramble back to the hotel in broad daylight. The second was not much different. Too much happened to delve into specifics but there were and are plenty to savour over the coming days. There were some excellent restaurants (one that professed on it's menu to have been considered as one of the best in the world) and some really nice clubs but to be honest some of the things I enjoyed the most about the place were things you could enjoy at home. The same could be said of Adam who, to his credit, did submit to my reply to his (only half joking) suggestion that we eat in McDonalds since there were plenty: "With only two nights in Hong Kong? Fuck that," and savoured all the more our last day's pilgrimage to the long lost Big Mac before our flight to the land down under.

The above promised and here delivered view (there is a video but it would take longer to upload on this connection that it would to raise a couple of children) from our Lan Kwai Fong Hotel's glorious window. (Un-openable it was too: Lest the tourist find this city too beautiful to endure and the business traveller find himself too endurable to see the beauty and both be impelled to leap into it's breast.)

The man himself locked in a lover's embrace with his long lost sweetheart.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Tailor of Hoi An

The perceptive reader will discount this post as a thinly veiled attempt to balance the severe inelegance of my previous post with something (comparatively) elegant but he can perform a lewd act on himself because I'm posting this anyway.

We're in Hoi An, (yes, almost a spoonerism of Hanoi) half way up the coast of Viet Nam. It's famous for a couple of local dishes - one called a cao lau which apparently isn't done right unless it's prepared with water from a local well - and it's abundance of tailors. Of course I've been diving headlong into the small restaurants dotted around the quaint French colonial streets but just today we picked up a couple of suits we had custom (ahm ) tailed (?) and it's this that is the thrust of what I'm excited about. It's pretty surreal actually, they measured us up at 4pm one afternoon and the next day it's made, just awaiting small adjustments like leg length etc. One more visit and everything is ready to go. There're actually plenty of cobblers (insert your own puerile joke here) in this town too so we thought we may as well go the whole hog and have some shoes cobbled also. The results are below but really it feels great sliding into a shirt and suit that have been sewn by the hands of local tailors just for you. It's a bad analogy for such delicate work but the girls here are going at it like the hammers of hell. There are embroiderers who's hands flash above and below fabric wound tightly in front of them creating flowers, birds and abstract patterns each time hitting, with amazing accuracy considering the speed at which they work, the perfect point in the cloth. The particular two who took care of us in Yaly's worked all but one day a month and get 5 days holidays every year. And a days work means opening til closing; at least 11 hours.

That's pretty much Hoi An for you, excellent tailors who'll custom make anything you like even from a photo for a quarter of nothing at all, and some transcendant local food. Don't come here for the night life: there isn't one, which is almost more of a pity since you'll really want an excuse to road test the new threads. Ah well, as Adam says, there's always the Melbourne races. (vomit)

Adam didn't want to let Hana know that she'd accidentally thrust the marking pin into his pancreas.

Hana from Yaly's, who took the kind of care of two men that all of them need, telling us if a tie or shirt would just look stupid in the colours we'd chosen.

The sewing rooms in which the dinner-wear fairies of Hoi An perform their magic.

A stolen glimpse of the above mentioned embroiderers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Major Catalogue of Minor Mishaps

Alright after Laos I said I wouldn't bother doing this but just when you think you've reached the pinnacle of suffering one event trumps another.

Before I say this I should first apologise to my mother (and yes, you did tell me) but I got a little bit too drunk (accidentally and by stealth of course; but too drunk nonetheless) in Nha Trang a couple of days ago. There was a beach party going on and since we'd booked a dive for not the next morning but the one after this was our only chance to get good and sauced in this town. And by God did we grab it with both hands. I didn't mean to though, we went and had a nice dinner waiting for this beach party to get moving and had a couple of beers, and I really mean a couple, not an Irish couple of beers, which means at least four, a genuine couple: two. And I was perfectly in control of myself. But then we arrive at this party and the entrance fee comes with a Jagerbomb. Fine, it's just one. Then we order a bucket. Vodka I think this time, half filled with ice and juice but with a serious and undectable amount of hard liquor within. I had two of those rather quickly just delighted to be listening to good music (the first since we came to this part of the world and the only since; we're in Hoi An at the moment and a club last night was DJed by a short Asian dude who smoked to help the tension of picking out the single least enjoyable songs to play to a club of people from the computer's library. He approached the task like it was something of serious medical importance and I developed a still burning hatred for him since he played La Bamba with this expression on his face closely followed - I wish I was joking - by Galway Girl) and suddenly I was terribly drunk. Too drunk. Dangerously drunk.

I wish the scars I'm healing from at the moment could have been from some valiant encouter with a thief or doer of wrongs wherein I countered some malfeasence with raw heroism but alas I tripped off a step on the beach like the drunk tit I was, cutting my face. Later I would trip again spraining my ankle so badly as to have it swell beyond walking size. It would swell to the point that I was prompted to attend a local medical clinic (which ended up being quite professional and reassuring and where I procured much to my delight xray proof of an unbroken but depressingly badly sprained ankle). However the worst it seemed was to come when, walking a friend home - in fact I think it was her walking me home such was my ultra tipsiness - when a gaggle of the worst type of bastard (a thief trying using the cover of trying to sell you things) surrounded us. It was seriously intimidating in retrospect but I was weirdly cognisant of what was happening mad as it seems to me now. Anyway they swiped my friends camera and emptied her wallet. When she started crying at the idea of so many lost pictures the promise of a reward had it produced to me immediately. We managed to hobble away and make it to bed proper upset with the locals of Nha Trang (and probably wrongly so since only a small minority actually pull this type of shit, still it's hard not to paint a few backgrounders with the same colour when you're smearing it on so thick on the main subjects). This wasn't all, Adam's wallet and watch were thieved from his person also. I can't speak for his level of inebriation but it can't have been shallow enough that he'd have no problem operating heavy machinery anyway.

So here we are in Hoi An (a small but nice town with excellent local foods and plenty of restaurants all trying to outdo each other with their own versions) taking stock of our major catalogue of minor mishaps, and it looks thus:

Paul: A mildly (compared to this one) sprained ankle in Kanchanaburi.

Adam: A badly upset stomach that lasted a week, compliments of a roadside diner in Bangkok.

Paul: An almost majestic fall from a breaking balcony into the gushing river in VangVieng.

Adam: A (very funny) fall, potentially more serious than it turned out to be, into what had looked like a path but turned out to be a 4 foot deep open sewer in Luang Prabang.

Both: Badly cut feet with wounds that wouldn't heal from 7 days of consecutive diving in deep and aggravating (to wounds) seawater in Ko Tao.

Paul: A funny but smarting fall right on my ass after leaving the half moon party and travelling 4 hours direct to our old island home. Fell right on the base of my spine which went numb a little. In that state I almost wanted to cry, now I can't do anything but laugh.

Adam: The reappearance after years of dormancy of his wisdom teeth which it seems have decided to check out what all this eating things is about. They're keeping quiet lately but for a while there the desperate thought of using a south east asian dentist reared it's ugly head.

Paul: As explained above a very badly sprained ankle resulting in my currently swollen a bruised left foot and some hideous scaring on my face which has thus been rendered more hideous.

Again, Mom if you're reading this I didn't write any of the above to make you worry (which you shouldn't) just to let you (and whoever else is reading) know that I'm okay despite it all.

I'll hobble off to dinner now but one of the lovely things about this town: I just had a suit tailored along with 3 cotton/silk shirts. I came from the first fitting today and I felt like a million Dong!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The South East Asian Microchip

The ubiquitous golden calf of this part of the world is the petrol engine. Really it's like the pinnacle of development and sophistication. People in possession of one are part of the upper tier of society over here, just a motorbike with a trailer translates to a livelihood for many people. And nothing about any trip is wasted. We've been transported in the back of pick up trucks, tuk tuks, buses and boats and not a single area of space in one of them wasn't put to use. In Kho Pha Ngan for example our pick up truck from the pier to our hotel stopped three or four times to pick up bird cages or electric fans or chickens from some local shopkeeper or farmer and stack them on our bags or us and transport them down the road. Well we're making the trip anyway, they're thinking, I'm sure, we might as well make as much money as possible. What do you mean the people who agreed to pay us to take them somewhere might not fancy driving miles out of the way or being lumbered with random bric-a-brac?

The thing is though, it's so ingrained in the culture over here that it's completely normal to see vans filled to the brim with people thundering along with the back doors open, legs hanging out inches above the dirt road beneath, and every space between the people inside filled with boxes or tightly wrapped packages of black plastic and duct tape. And that's just the inside, of course the roof has a rack with more luggage and at least two people sitting there, their faces conspicuously devoid of the hey-look-no-hands expression that anyone in a situation as dangerous as that ought to wear. In Bangkok they have motorcycle taxis that people use to get to work. In eight lanes of traffic at rush hour I've seen a woman sitting, side saddle, on the back of one using both her hands to rummage through her handbag; find her compact and apply makeup with an infuriating calmness on her face. Why, I thought, isn't she freaking right out? But they don't care. Adam remarked to me in a taxi in that city a couple of weeks ago that even though the traffic is 100% insane while still managing to be more sane than the people driving in it, we hadn't seen a car with any dents in it. I presumed he was implying that they mustn't have that many accidents to which my response was 'You know why? cos if anyone has an accident on these roads at this speed it's goodnight Irene.' There wouldn't be anything left to be dented.

Even on the islands the long tail taxi boats all have huge exposed petrol engines powering what looks like a table fan on a pole. I swear to God they'd put petrol engines on toothbrushes if they could.

Still this thought was in my head waiting to be kicked into life and that kick came in the form of the buzzing and weirdly magnetic city of Saigon (I hate calling it Ho Chi Minh city). I have NEVER seen more vehicles in one place moving. The ratio of scooters and bikes to cars is about 1000:1 and they roar and beep their way around the city like torrents of water gushing from a burst dam. If a car or pick-up stops on the road they flow around it, every space is filled just as it's created with a trickle of scooter traffic. Crossing the road became, after the initial terror, a bit like a game. You just have to walk out into it maintaining pace and trust them to judge your position and avoid you. My first attempt had a bit of a false start where I got separated from Adam who was laughing from the relative safety of the pavement opposite but a local who saw me dancing back and forth just slapped me on the elbow and walked out into it mumbling what I presume translated as 'come on, you coward'. Not a bother to her. After that one it was hard not to fall into paroxysms of laughter at the willful stupidity of walking onto one of those roads and hoping it would all work out.

Also no discussion on the transportation around this part of the world would be complete without a short diatribe on the proliferate misuse of the horn. We've had a six and a half and a twelve hour bus journey in the last week and for the duration of both the driver honked (though honk is too light a word for the aural rape that is perpetrated on passengers by this demon device; the sound seems to be custom engineered to commit maximum damage to a human's well being) relentlessly. He leaned on it whenever he passed someone (and there are bikes everywhere so he's always passing someone), drove along a bend or saw someone he wanted to show off his horn to. The short video above is just a snapshot, a single minute and is representative of the whole trip. Not to sound reactionary but I still HATE the driver of that bus.

The tiny little beds we had in a train from Saigon to Nha Thrang from where I'm tapping out this post, wounded and hungover, unable to walk properly and still reeling from a triple dose of mugging. Tune in next time to find out what I'm talking about.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Final Countdown

So we're in Vientiane and someone tells us there's live music around the corner. We head there thinking, cool. And when we get inside and are flanked on all fronts by some seriously 80s decor and see a band comprised of two singers (one taking a time out), 5 guitarists (no less), a bassist and a keyboard player all backed by a drummer who was kept inexplicably behind a pentagonal perspex wall. They all look sombrely towards the floor until the bass line kicks in and belt into what you wouldn't believe unless I'd procured video evidence, the Final Countdown. The music was absolutely roaring but I'd swear you could hear me laughing above it. Brilliant.