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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Days 13-16: Yarra Valley to Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia

I get the impression that there is always another Australia under the surface, a parallel to what I can see and touch. In Bairnsdale, we saw signs for the Krowathunkoolong Keeping Place, but we did not get there when it was open. The Great Ocean Road is one of the most popular touring routes in Australia, but road work isn't done on it so it would be a nightmare to go this year, and anyway it's the school summer vacation so the roads would be jammed... In South Australia, the colony of little penguins on Kangaroo Island is closed to visitors, having been decimated by New Zealand fur seals. And Point Leo Beach has "excellent waves for surfing" but there weren't any to speak of when we went--no use for the bodyboards.

Everywhere we go, there is so much we don't see, so much more time we could spend. And then there are the Australians. Or rather, there aren't. I don't just mean indigenous Australians; I have met some people who seem to be natives of Australia, but not as many as I've met abroad. What I have met here are Canadian visitors, Greek immigrants, and English expatriates. I still don't know what Australians think of themselves, but I sure know what the expats think of them.

You see, cricket is big here, especially in Melbourne, where the Ashes have been going on. The Ashes are the burnt remains of bails (or is that biles?)--some piece of cricket gear from a long-ago match between England and Australia. The two nations play for these Ashes every two years. Right now the England team is so far behind that the match has already been won by Australia, but that doesn't mean they won't go on playing for days.

You may be familiar with the "cricket test" made famous by Norman Tebbit. Lord Tebbit held that a person could not truly belong in the U.K., specifically England, unless he supported England versus the country he or his parents had come from. This was Tebbit's way of saying that India or Pakistan supporters should go home, i.e., leave Britain.

Well, the expats here are comprehensively failing the cricket test. They are disappointed that "we" are losing--meaning England. The Australians in England, in turn, are doing exactly the same in supporting their country of origin. At least their team is winning.

As you can probably tell, cricket is not my sport, though I do know someone who plays on the Canadian national team.

We went down the Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne's playground, to Point Leo Foreshore Reserve. The peninsula itself is lovely, with vineyards, orchards, wineries--all the things we're used to driving past by now. At Point Leo Beach we swam in the Tasman Sea. For such a hot day, the water was as cold as I ever remember swimming in. It felt good once I was out and treading water, until my dogsledding toe went numb. My toes get cold more quickly than anything else, ever since I tried dogsledding four Januarys ago near Huntsville, Ontario. But that's another story.

This is Australia, where white cockatoos fly overhead during Christmas dinner and the kookaburras chatter like monkeys in the trees. Where we spotted kangaroos grazing in a field, as placidly as cattle. They were still there when we drove back, too, one bounding away from (wisely, not towards) the road.

The Christmas crackers were inexplicably Canadian and thus, instead of jokes, included printed trivia questions--in both French and English, bien sûr. If there were a Tebbit test for Canada, I'd pass it, with flying red and white.

Next stop Tasmania.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Days 10-12: Gippsland region to near Warrandyte, Victoria, Australia

"A vulgar flaunt is the flaring day,
The impudent, hot, unsparing day"
 --Sidney Lanier, 1880

Try reading poetry after some Christmas Day champagne in the sun. For that matter, try reading the Book of Revelation. The strange seems relevant and the relevant, strange, in a country where the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise and the stars appear upside-down. Of course, it is all relative. To penguins, people probably all look alike.

There are no penguins in the Gippsland Lakes, although I know there must be koalas because we smelled the eucalyptus trees all along the Lilly Pilly Gully trail. The hole in the ozone makes the sun burn the life out of you in Australia, and there are other serious environmental problems, but you'd never know it driving through, or past, one national park after another for hundreds of kilometers. I can understand why the first Europeans here, as in North America, must have thought there was no way they could ever ruin the land. They must have perceived its resources as infinite.

On our anniversary we were headed down the South Gippsland Highway towards Sale, which was nice, because we were civil-partnered at Sale Town Hall in Greater Manchester four years before. We had Christmas music playing, including "The Star Carol" which my family used to sing all together. That is the biggest thing missing, singing carols in harmony. Fortunately there were enough distractions in Victoria, "the place to be" according to the license plates. We passed through Stratford, on the Avon River, which doesn't much resemble its Shakespearean counterparts in either England or Ontario. Instead, the hay bales on hillsides reminded me at times of East Tennessee. But then, in the middle of the farm, there would be palm trees, and the spell would be broken again.

"Agnes Falls," said a place name sign. "I wish she'd stop doing that," T. said.

So we reached Wilsons Promontory, a huge national park which is the southernmost point of mainland Australia. It once was possible to walk from here to Tasmania, when the ancestors of the Kurnai and Boonwurung lived here; but did we see any of the middens (shell deposits) they've left behind on the beaches? In any case, "the Prom" made up for anything that may have gone wrong earlier in the trip, not least because now I can say T. and I finally went to the prom together. It is a 30-km drive just from the park entrance, and there the paved road ends and the trails go off in every direction. We took the Lilly Pilly Gully trail across the southern face of Mt. Bishop through stringy-bark forest. We saw evidence of living kangaroos, which was more than we'd seen so far, and an abundance of bird life, then walked through a stand of warm temperate rainforest, all in a few moderate miles.

We then took the access road to Squeaky Beach, so called because the sand is so fine that it squeaks under your feet. It had gotten a bit windy and cooler so I was wearing my Canadian Olympics sweatshirt, and so began chatting with a family from Ottawa, who are over here for five weeks before settling in New Zealand for two years. Good for them! I am sure I never exchanged "Merry Christmas" with Canadians on a beach before.

The woods were alive with birds, such as the laughing kookaburra and, among the nocturnal animals, the powerful owl. I liked the sound of that, and imagined T's David Attenborough narration: "Whatever shall we do, children? Let's ask Powerful Owl, who lives on the mountain." But it was only on our way out of the park that we stopped at a wildlife trail and came across bunches of kangaroos, placidly eating their dinner, then bounding away!

"Bah! don't hop!
Look at the owl, scarce seen, scarce heard,
O irritant, iterant, maddening bird!"

The Christmas decorations hanging on the lights in towns look just like those in my birthplace. Back in Tennessee, we used to joke that the possum didn't exist as a living animal, because we only ever saw the [nocturnal] species run over in the road. That is what I was beginning to think about 'roos!

Wilsons Prom is the nicest place I've seen in Australia, one of the nicest in the world. Down the road we saw signs for sheep shearing at the cricket club (!), four wineries on a single turnoff, and this gem right afterwards:
"If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot."

If we thought kangaroos were hard to find in their natural state, the lodge was an even greater challenge. It was worth it in the end, though, as the view was the most panoramic I have ever seen, and the woodsy smell reminded me of one of my favorite places on earth, Algonquin. The place was bought by a couple who farm on the adjacent fields, and didn't want the place overdeveloped. As we looked across field and down the waters breaking on the beach to the misty mountains, a beautiful rainbow burst into view, as elusive as it came. As were the rabbits, one moment munching peacefully outside our window, the next vanishing as a bird of prey soared into view.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Days 7-9: New South Wales to Victoria coastal road

The national parks all along the coast are home to Aboriginal lands and middens, wild kangaroos, and beaches. Unfortunately, I have seen only the last of these, unless you count roadkill. Part of it is the time of day but the other problem is lovingly detailed maps of the parks and park areas--which you only see having driven all the way into the park. At that point, you've invariably taken the wrong access road, and of course there's no way from here to there; it's coast. So although every beach is stunning in its own way, I would advise travelers who want to see something in particular to know which road they want to take off the Princes Highway before they get there--don't look for signs. You cannot have too big or detailed a map.

Or too much money. It should be no surprise for an international city but Sydney was *expensive*. And if you thought you'd stop hemorrhaging Australian dollars when you got out into the country, think again, because I have never been as comprehensively ripped off in my life as in Marlo, at the mouth of the Snowy River. Not only did I not meet "the man from," but the lady who sold us lunch (and down Snowy River) attempted to charge more for a postcard than it would cost to mail from Australia! Which is saying something. Did I mention that this estuary area is also brimming with flies? They don't seem to bite, like Canadian blackflies, and everyone in Marlo seemed inured to them all over their clothing, bodies, babies. T. summed up Marlo with a reference to Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo, Australia's version of Lassie: "What's that, Skippy? Someone charged $100 for a bowl of soup? Who would do such a wicked thing?"

The rest of the scenic route from NSW across the Victoria state line was more than worth it, with so many national parks along the way one couldn't possibly stop at them all. In fact, I wondered, not for the first time, where all the Australians are. Working in London, I expect. It takes a lot to make London seem inexpensive but this place is doing it for me, and no wonder, with no one here but us visitors. They can see us coming a kilometer away!

The bugs that were singing as we set off on our coastal drive were unbelievably loud, as they are again three nights later. I would call them cicadas in North America. We took our time on the Grand Pacific Drive out of Sydney, which is as breathtaking as it sounds, stopping at a little fishing spot called Audley and then down the road at Garie Beach. Further on to Coledale Beach and the delightful town of Kiama, which has a blow hole (that wasn't blowing). Vineyards vied with Christmas tree farms as we made our way along the Shoalhaven River, finishing in Jervis Bay for the night. We walked along Hyams Beach, which is apparently cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's whitest sand.

Trying to stay with the spirit of the holidays, I put on Ella Fitzgerald's "Christmas Island" which was as appropriate a carol as one could play in this climate. "Veni Emmanuel" was playing as we drove back from the beach, and the "fingers of God" were stretching down from the clouds. One of those moments a photograph cannot capture.

There are no photographs from Pebbly Beach in the Murramarang National Park either, but that is because it is a clothing optional beach (or we made it so). There was a roadblock just out of town where the police were stopping drivers and breathalyzing them. This is normal in Australia. It was 11:00 in the morning. I have never seen anyone stopped on a British motorway for any reason, at any time, no matter if they were going 100 miles an hour or weaving in and out of lanes. So it was kind of nice to see the police at work. There are so many cutesy signs along the Princes Highway warning (in rhyme) of the dangers of falling asleep that I started to tune them out after a while, so not sure how effective that is, but the focus on safety is admirable.

Perhaps appropriate, given my snake handling in the Singapore Zoo, we stayed our second night in Eden. Along the way we picked up some fresh fruit at a roadside stand, including what I have been made fun of for calling my all time favorite food, delicious fresh peaches straight off the tree. This was at Tabourie, or, as T. thought I'd said, "Tim Hortons"! Wishful thinking maybe.

There was also some good grub to be had at Milton Heritage Bakery, dating from 1870, which is old in modern Australian terms. Having scored our second lovely motel manager in a row (this one accompanied by a lovely dog called Maggie), we made our way to the Eden Fishermen's Club a.k.a. Fisho's, which had a view, seafood, and slot machines. Not being interested in the last of these, I found Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular on TV and was perfectly content.

The best stop in Victoria so far has been Betka Beach, with a gorgeous lookout and powerful surf. This was on a detour to Mallacoota, an inlet in Croajingolong National Park. Conran Coastal Park contains the only stand of native palms in Victoria, and the road there leads you to the aforementioned Snowy River.

I have noticed one thing advertised everywhere is Devonshire tea. Scones, that is. It seems odd at this end of the world, but then, the coast is not totally dissimilar to the southwest coast of England. Except the water is not freezing, and it is summer during the holiday season. Imagine my joy at listening to Woody Guthrie's "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" as we drove along the forested Princes Highway.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 4-6: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Lovely, yet different. That is TDT's thought on first setting foot on a new continent, Australia. The birds sing, but they sound different. Christmas carols drift up the hill, but the sun is hot and people are wearing shorts.

I can only imagine what the original inhabitants thought when Europeans first arrived in Sydney Harbour, the date now celebrated as Australia Day. On the one side, a penal colony, on the other, a people whose name, like that of the Inuit in northern Canada, simply means "people." After all they did not know there were any others. It seems that misunderstanding was mutual.

We crossed the equator and flew down the Java Sea, the majority of our flight being over Australia itself--the north coast, Alice Springs in the middle of the outback. It is a lesson in geography just to realize how near Australia is to Indonesia. The airport is at Botany Bay. Sydney is the major international gateway and seems to have the iconic places we associate with Australia--the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and Bondi Beach. The spectacular natural harbour, which so enticed Europeans, is best experienced by ferry, and features not only built-up shopping areas like Darling Harbour, but the freakishly classic Luna Park, a kind of Sydney Coney Island.

I emerged from the subway feeling like I was in Chicago--the cavernous streets and buildings were the same, but not the environment. The bright full moon is not the same angle of the moon that I see in the northern hemisphere. Imagine how far away this must have seemed in the days when ship was the only means of travel. Yet nowhere in the world now is more than a day or two apart by plane.

Just behind Luna Park is Kirribilli, where the governor apparently lives, although I will associate it more with fantastic al fresco dining. There are strange juxtapositions of culture everywhere. "Charing Cross Indian Delight takeaway"  and a didgeridoo player at Circular Quay, who seems to play the same perpetual role there as the bagpipe player does outside Edinburgh station.

From my first visit to the Pacific Ocean I knew that it is best experienced with a body board, but I didn't spend that long at Bondi Beach. Instead, we walked along the clifftops to Coogee, with spectacular views all the way from Icebergs swimming club, to Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach, Clovelly Bowling Club and beach, Gordons Bay where the shore divers were busy, and Dolphins Point, which memorializes Australians killed in the 2002 Bali bombing. (It seems weird that Australians would go anywhere for a holiday, given that they have Australia, but I wondered the same thing when I first met European tourists visiting places like the Grand Canyon. It's always the different place that appeals!)

At several stops along the way we dipped into rock pools that use the natural sea water--delightful if you don't like sticking to the sand. At Coogee Beach was what I was told was "an ocker Aussie pub," a real pub with a "Tab" for in-pub betting. Not like England at all. Nor was the open-top bus tour where basically, if you stood up and got decapitated by a tree branch, it was your own fault, mate! Very touristy and yet strangely liberating.

The Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point, named for an Aborigine who got to know the English language and civilization. Well-intended perhaps, although to his detriment. Next to this are the Royal Botanic Gardens and its sobering display "Cadi Jam Ora" ("I am in Cadi"). You walk through the gardens and a timeline about the Gadigal people who once used this as an initiation ground, finally learning about the Freedom Riders (a 1960s parallel to efforts in the U.S.A. for black citizens' equality). Then round Chinatown and the Anzac memorial, lest we forget the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand troops during the World Wars.

Given the history of North American Indians, I can't help being reminded along the way of the people who lived in Australia tens of thousands of years before smallpox and guns arrived. Despite this history, and that of the convicts transported here, it is a sunny, chilled-out land where people work to live and know how to enjoy family time and the great outdoors. This is a massive overgeneralization and I could be roundly criticized for it, but it's my first impression--and what do you expect from a free blog?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Day 2-3: Singapore

The Discreet Traveler normally starts exploring a new city by figuring out public transit and going as far as possible that way. But Singapore is so cheap by taxi--in fact the price of everything is bizarre: a taxi ride to the top of Mt. Faber cost less than a cup of coffee in the hotel. This, our second cab driver, played "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and other songs of that era on his radio, in contrast to the Asian station the previous driver had been listening to. One thing I don't see drivers do is talking on phones, or anything like they do in other countries. Singapore has so many stern warnings about not texting, drinking, etc., and of course everything's punishable by penalties up to death, depending on whether chewing gum or drugs are involved. At Currency House, where the Singapore dollars are stored, the symbol of "no trespassing" was literally a guy with his hands up and someone pointing a machine gun at him. I didn't dare photograph this, lest I too get shot!

Once at Mt. Faber we had brunch overlooking the South China Sea. Hokkien noodles and Singapore laksa, which is a spicy noodle soup with seafood. We then walked down the Southern Ridges, a series of trails through the rainforest environment right in the middle of the built-up city state. The Henderson Waves, a suspended walkway high above the forest floor, then the elevated walk to Hort Park, where we admired an orchid while "White Christmas" surreally played in the background. At Kent Ridge Park, we took the canopy walk and ended up at Reflections at Bukit Chandu. This commemorates the brave but ill-fated resistance of the Malay Regiment "C" Company in 1942. They were resisting the Japanese Empire on behalf of the British Empire, but all too soon, Singapore fell to Japan, with brutal consequences including a hospital massacre and the rounding up of Western civilians on the island.

We had seen many signs warning of what to do if we ran into wild monkeys, but never actually saw any on this walk. Got a second wind in the evening and walked over to Chinatown, where we had seafood congee (a kind of comfort food rice porridge) and bamboo curry rice in front of the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Mosque Street (all street signs with names in Mandarin as well) runs parallel to Pagoda Street, which in turn has Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.

An incessant loop of Kenny G Christmas songs had been playing in the hotel lobby since our arrival. We read in the news that snow covered Bethlehem, but "Winter Wonderland" and so on continued to sound surreal in the hot, clear weather of Singapore. We went to the zoo and ate breakfast in the company of orang-utans ("people of the forest" in Malay). I also spent some quality time with a corn snake and was able to see chimpanzees, busily getting at their fruit with tools, the activity which, when observed by Jane Goodall in Tanzania, caused Louis Leakey to remark that humanity was going to have to be redefined.

The Singapore Zoo is the greenest and most free-ranging I have ever seen. The orang-utans leap overhead and heaven help you if you are standing in the wrong place! It is sad to see white tigers in captivity (not that there'd be any left otherwise), although comforting that the exhibit is sponsored by Tiger beer, since we've been swilling it the whole trip. Including at the famous Long Bar of Raffles Hotel, where the less appetizing Singapore sling was invented. Other colonial remnants of Singapore's past include the cenotaph by the Singapore River, a memorial to the First World War dead when it was still the Straits Settlements.

This country is very green, not only in terms of plant life, but different recycling containers--more than many Western cities can manage. And what a pleasure it is ("loos I have known") to refresh oneself in what is usually a clean bathroom in a garden setting! Asia, and the rest of the world, have a long way to go in terms of the environment but at least Singapore is trying. Which reminds me, The Discreet Traveler needs to offset the carbon footprint of our long-haul air travel.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

As good as it gets

Of all the lines from films I have seen, the one I quote to myself most often--pretty much every morning when I get in to work--is from Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets. Nicholson's character walks into a waiting room of patients like himself, and asks aloud, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

It's a threat, but it's also a promise. This life that we have right now is as good as it gets. For me, travel is one way of making the most of it. I never thought, for example, that I would ever board a cruise ship; it seemed as far away as I could imagine from my style of independent traveling. But, after twelve days of everyone making me feel wonderful, all my fellow passengers being relaxed and friendly, and exploring wonderful new ports every day, I would do it again!

If you ever find, as I did, that there is a cruise going to a whole bunch of places you've always wanted to visit, there is probably no better way to visit them all. You will spend money on the trip but I've never gotten such value for money--there was not one thing I didn't enjoy. The one practical tip I have is to steer clear of the all-inclusive drinks packages (soft or otherwise)--waste of money. No one could, or should, drink enough to make them cost-effective, and cruise ships are cashless anyway, so where's the convenience?

I am not trying to convert, though. I am under no illusion of being on a missionary journey, like the apostle Paul. My attempts to shoehorn Paul into every stop of a pleasure cruise continued: I asked a gentleman I met on this trip, whose voice reminded me uncannily of my Grandpa's, if Paul had been to Rhodes, and Grandpa must have been up all night looking for the answer because the next day he told me: Acts 21:1. "Remember that!"

Happiness is sitting in the breezy shade of one's own back deck, sailing up the Ionian Sea. I have watched some spectacular sunsets in my life, but never before actually captured that elusive instant when the sun disappears behind the horizon. That night, I saw the red ball "drop" into the Adriatic. The next morning we sailed into Venice and began to explore.

The island of Murano is known for glassmaking, Burano for lace, but hardly any Burano women make lace anymore. In a generation even the one we saw (cameras snapping all around her; how can she work?) will probably not be there. The real beauty of that island is its wonderful little houses painted in bright primary colors. It was a contrast to Piazza San Marco and the famous basilica, not to mention the Palazzo Ducale (Doges' Palace), whose balcony looks out over the Grand Canal. This stunning view was roped off for some kind of special event, but we climbed over and pleaded ignorance long enough to see it for ourselves. It was Italy, after all, not the land of rule enforcement.

I had wanted to see the Ponte dei Sospiri for more than twenty years, ever since seeing Oxford's own Bridge of Sighs, which is over a road. Walking through it kind of defeats the point, though. Venice is a place I could spend a lot more time, a lot less rushed. The obligatory ripoff gondola ride barely shows you a bit of one canal, and there are so many.

Fireworks over the harbor of Venezia--what for? Who knows! It would have been the perfect end to the trip, except, of course, we had to get to Marco Polo Airport the next day. We went by way of Padova and its Basilica di Sant'Antonio. Having experienced Venice and Padua in summertime, I don't think people should be so put off by the climate of Canada in winter...

One more limone gelato for the road, or the sky. How I wished we were going by ship! Marco Polo Airport is not recommended, not least because one can't check in early and there is really nowhere indoors to wait at all, or anything to do. Not much of a complaint perhaps, but this after an entire trip of which I enjoyed every moment, on which absolutely nothing went wrong. I did get a kick out of the airplane pilot. Not only was "Captain Tracy" a woman--still unusual in my flying experience--but she made announcements in Italian as well as English. I was impressed.

Moments like these make up a journey, and, if we are blessed, a life too. I plead now, as I do every year, for us all not to miss these moments, the free ones as well as those that are money well spent. I am absolutely confident that we will not get to the end of our lives and care about our appraisals at work. What the people who loved us will share, then, will be pictures, memories of good times we spent together. And things that made them laugh.

I am not sure I am becoming a "hedonist," as T. would have it, but as Anne of Green Gables said, "I withheld not my heart from any joy" is biblical too. Don't miss a sunset; you never know when you'll get another one like it. Happy Holidays--every one of them!

Around the world in 50 days

The Discreet Traveler and companion are going around the world in 50 days. It would not normally be discreet of me to publish in advance that I’m going, but in this case, we have someone staying to look after our house (no, really) and you don't want to mess with her. Do you know the expression "shoot you soon as look at you"?

This is mainly a trip to Australia, which The Discreet Traveler has never visited before. It is Round-the-World in the sense that there are five main flight legs: from Europe to the Middle East (just changing planes), to southeast Asia, to Australia, to the west coast of North America, and finally back to Europe. It's a long way to go, which is partly why we're breaking it up; but don't be put off. Just in the past couple of weeks I've heard of two different women over 80 years old having a jaunt out to Australia, and that's from Britain, a brutal distance away. Let me remind you: If you have an opportunity, take it. Don't think you'll come back and get it later. Man, I'm still mourning a laptop case on that principle...

So: Day 0-1: London to Singapore via Dubai

This morning The Discreet Traveler was further east than I had ever been before. In British pronunciation Dubai sounds like "Jew-bai," which is ironic, because Jews are banned from the United Arab Emirates. Oh wait--so are homosexuals. We had to change planes there because Qantas, the Australian airline, has sold its soul to Emirates, so we got out of Dubai airport as fast as we could, consoling ourselves with the reputation of Emirates as a first-class airline. Nothing special about it at all, in fact. I haven't been served so little food and drink since the lately departed "Ted," United's "express" airline that would fly you three hours across the U.S.A. with nothing. There were metal utensils and real napkins, though, and an actual glass on Qantas, which did remind me of a more civilized era of air travel.

The flight from London was a reminder of just how small Europe is, as we crossed almost all of it in a couple of hours. Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, then across the Black Sea, Turkey and Iraq. Having made our connection, we breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed the Gulf of Oman and over to India, and down the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This is also TDT's first visit to Asia, and, while male homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore, female is not even acknowledged (both a British Empire legacy). It was a bit of a throwback to the 1980s coming out to the front desk clerk; fortunately, Singapore hoteliers are as discreet as the traveler!

I don't know about Judaism, either, but the other major world religions are well represented in Singapore, with mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and various churches all cheek by jowl (in fact I saw a Catholic church that could have been a mosque for its white minarets--you could only tell by the small crosses rather than crescents). I have never gotten through an airport so quickly and efficiently as at Changi, even much smaller ones; nor have I seen more Christmas decorations anywhere. Singapore is Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English, and the reindeer and ornaments together with palm trees and orchids make for a rather surreal tropical combination.

Could not complain about the trip, other than jet lag, but enjoyed a local meal at Pin Wei Xuan, involving chili crab and something called "God Bless You," which I think was a play on its three main ingredients in Chinese. Potato, capsicums, and what I only told T. later was eggplant (aubergine), once she'd safely enjoyed it!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The very old donkey, and other tales of Greek islands

There are two harbors in Rhodes: the commercial harbour (where you can easily walk on and off the ship) and Mandriki Harbor, which is where the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. In case it was not clear from my last post, I recommend Rhodes. If you want history, there is St. Paul’s Gate and the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs; if you want gelato, I had the best frozen yogurt of my life, with honey and nuts. If you want to be out on a boat, really feeling the waves and the cool sea breeze, 6 euros will get you a glass-bottomed boat tour (ignore the glass bottom) and half an hour around the harbors, with views of the best-preserved inhabited medieval city. Our boat guy was playing Bob Marley the whole time and rolling a cigarette; we half wondered if it was a spliff and he’d be passing it around!

Our next island was Santorini—named after St. Irene by the Italians, but called Thira by the Greeks. A funny thing happened waiting for the cable car at the top: we befriended a couple from Tasmania and, by the time we reached the harbor a couple of minutes later, we were invited to their pub at the end of the Sydney–Hobart boat race (a future post, perhaps?) The friendliness of people on this trip, in fact, is unrivaled in my recent experience; I lost track of all the places in Canada and the U.S.A. folks came from, but one woman had been, like me, a Paralympics volunteer—sledge hockey, Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Pointed across the Sea of Crete at Santorini, it occurred to me that every day I saw something more beautiful than the day before. Took a “pirate boat” to two uninhabited volcanic islands in the middle of the submerged caldera (collapsed volcano). We hiked the first, Nea Kameni, seeing the smoking sulfur holes and feeling the heat within. Then we sailed to Palia (Old) Kameni, where I had to fulfil a bet I’d made. I’d been working out, you see (delighted when some big man left a weight machine and I didn’t have to adjust the weight), and said that if T. came to the gym I would jump into the sea. So, at Palia Kameni I jumped off the boat and swam to the thermal springs area. 

Pretty much the entire journey, T. had been talking about how awful it was to ride a donkey up to the top of Santorini thirty years before. What do you suppose she wanted to do the moment we arrived at Fira? “If it’s good enough for the Holy Mother, it’s good enough for me,” T. said, and proceeded to clamber onto, she swore, the same donkey that had tried to throw her off all the way up in the 1980s! “You would have hated every minute of it!” she assured me joyfully.

I certainly recommend the clifftop town, which has truly breathtaking views, but I can testify that the cable car does just as well. And it’s much faster, so I waited at the top with a lady from West Virginia, whose granddaughters had made the donkey decision too. I saw her again…

If possible, an even more stunning view is the starry sky at night. I grew up in the country, yet have never seen stars so numerous and bright, ever.

The southern coast of Crete is as close to Libya as the northern coast is to mainland Greece. The history is sobering too: after more than two thousand years on the island, the Jewish community of Crete was finally obliterated when the last surviving Cretan Jews, some two hundred people, died on a German boat—sunk by the British. That’s war for you.

The Mediterranean was more peaceful where we were swimming, at Costa Costa Beach. I’ve never walked on such soft sand. The town, Hania on the northwest coast, has Byzantine buildings, a Venetian lighthouse, and a mosque that has been closed since the Turks were “relocated” in 1923. You can’t get away from history in this region. Even Paul had another cameo here, where, in the Acts of the Apostles, he warned his ship’s crew of the shipwreck to come on Malta.

What impressed me most about this journey was the cleanliness and friendliness of everyone, beginning from Rome. In the Mediterranean, we were treated like adults, instead of constantly being regulated. The contrast with life under the nanny state is hard to miss. We can choose to swim, dive, hike, etc. and take our own risks. Even ride an obstreperous donkey that should have long since retired.