Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Zealand Catch Up

Just a quick update of my time in New Zealand so far.

From Piha, I spent one night in Auckland, taking in the fine Auckland Art Gallery and not much more due to the awful rain that pelted down all day long. Early rising to take a bus to Napier.

Napier is a small resort town on the east coast of the North Island that suffered a horrible earthquake in 1931 and decided to rebuild with an Art Deco theme. They hold two Art Deco weekends each year where people come from all over the country to dress up in period costumes and ride around in vintage cars. There are several stores in town that cater to those looking for unique and authentic garb and accessories. There's also an arts community in Napier and several galleries highlight local artists. I rented a bike and took a long ride along the low roads of the town, as opposed to trying to ride up the steep inclines to the posh neighborhoods with the best seaside views. In the afternoon I rented a towel and parked myself at the local spa that had both cool and heated pools, plus a sauna. Delicious. Why a spa and not the sea? The local beach is far too rocky and there is a sudden drop off that means you are swimming in quite deep water and the guy at my hostel warned of dire consequences.

Next, a long bus ride to Wellington. Here, I was picked up by my couch surfing hosts, Sarah and Guy. After getting acquainted, they mistakenly decided I was super-fit so they took me out for a long, steep climb over the hill and back into the city. We rambled around a used book store and picked up some fresh vegetables and a bottle of wine for dinner. Guy and Sarah are vegan and very into experimenting with raw food recipes so I was treated to two days of wonderful healthy food. We talked into the night about all sorts of subjects and looked forward to the next day of touring. The next morning they drove me up the coast to see more of the beautiful bays around Wellington and then we ventured back into the city to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa and more fun around the harbor area. More amazing food that night and then I quietly caught a cab to the ferry early next morning.

The ferry between the two major islands of New Zealand takes about three hours, only about half of that is in the open sea. Then you wind into an amazingly beautiful sound with aqua green water and wooded or bare hills on both sides. Since I wasn't staying in Picton, where the ferries come in, I was whisked away to the bus station and awaited my bus to Kaikoura.

Several people told me to drop by Kaikoura for a few days and I'm glad I took their advice. It's laid back, small, and has incredible shoreline views. Many people take whale watches or swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura. I chilled out and enjoyed the gorgeous weather, rented a bike again to get around and had my first fish dinner in New Zealand. Yum! I don't even remember the name of the fish but it was flaky and had a tangy coriander ginger sauce. Accompanied by a kiwi white wine and a starter of calamari, which looked nothing like you'd get in Boston. Even having to do the mundane task of laundry in Kaikoura was a delight with such a view off the patio of the hostel.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Healing Place

The magnificence of Piha was not dimmed by the low clouds and pissing down rain that followed us from Auckland to the coast. As Peter, the shuttle driver,  maneuvered his car down the windy roads out of the rainforest, the majesty of Lion's Rock came into view and I had a feeling of deja vu, knowing this was the right place to be right now.

I had found the women's retreat, Te Wahi Ora, online and from its description as a place for women to rest and rejuvenate I hoped it would be a peaceful place for me to land in New Zealand for a few days and get off the hostel circuit. Indeed, it was.

Bev, the woman who conceived and created the retreat 21 years ago, put me in her nicest room at the top of the A-frame that faced the beach. After weeks in hostels, the queen bed, ensuite bathroom, and a door to create privacy felt so luxurious. My private time -- whether it was walking the beach, or lolling in bed in the morning, or reading on my little deck -- was truly a chance to recharge. Yet, I enjoyed the communal lunches and dinners as well with the other women who were from Australia and New Zealand.

In the morning, I got my first walk in the rain on the beach, and when the skies cleared I got in another walk and climbed Lion's Rock for the spectacular view of the inlet. I walked into Piha's center and sipped a coffee while observing the small-town gatherings across the street at the post office. I read, I walked, and I had a massage. Plus, Bev's wonderful vegetarian and organic food made every meal worth savoring. At dinner, we had delicious New Zealand wine to relax into as well.

The sea was always there, whether it was the crisp smell or the roar of the surf, or catching a glimpse out my window. I was there just shy of 48 hours, but they were truly some of my best hours spent so far.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On the Road Alone

I had wondered what it would be like to travel for so long on my own. I am not a solitary person; I enjoy making connections and sharing impressions and feelings with others. Yet, I also need time to recharge, to be quiet and not interact with others. So, what would my hosteling experience feel like, always being in spaces with other, often nameless, people?

I’ve had a lot of interactions with people, but many of them are fleeting. You may exchange itineraries very quickly -- where you were last, where you are going next -- and you may identify your nationality and length of travel, but all of that often gets communicated without even exchanging names. 

Occasionally, I’ve make a genuine connection with someone -- like with Jean in Sydney or with David in Melbourne -- and that is what adds the depth to the traveling experience for me. Making a friend on the road lifts that anonymous quality of so many of your interactions: someone sees who you are so you still have a shape and character that isn’t defined by your itinerary. 

You get into a traveler’s trance. You are open enough so that you can share time with others during meals and tours and while bedding down for the night at the hostel, but you already know what you are doing and what you want so you can’t latch onto someone else too deeply. I found this especially true of people my age or older. We have agendas and plans -- perhaps long-held dreams and pent-up aspirations -- and we won’t let other people interfere with them. I see some of the younger travelers mesh up a bit more and combine plans.

One downside to traveling alone is not having pictures of you in these amazing places you are visiting. You end up taking strange-angled, arms-extended poses of your head. Or you rely on someone else to compose a shot of the scene in a pleasing way. Or, my favorites, you take photos in reflective surfaces or use the self-timer. Of course, as soon as you set up the self-timer someone runs in and offers to take your photo, but I usually prefer my own composition.

I think traveling alone has made me assess my options better. I have to make all of the decisions and provide all of the energy for any given plan. I get to veto things I just don’t want to do or just can’t manage to do, and I’m not disappointing anyone else with those choices. As you travel around it’s amazing how many people are willing to tell you what you should do, but when you are alone you can smile and nod and do what you really want to do. 

There are definitely times I have been lonely and wanted to share something with other people. It’s never lasted that long, but it passes through me and I acknowledge it. More often, I just have a heightened understanding that I am alone and that’s a different and less depressing feeling. It reminds me to enjoy what I am doing at that moment. That I only have myself to please, so get to it!

(Sorry about the way this post looks. No matter what I do I can't get it to do what I ask it to.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tasting the Barossa Valley Wines

I'm no wine snob, but I do like to find great tasting bottles that I can share with friends and bring to social occasions. I know what I like when I taste it, but I certainly haven't refined my vocabulary to the connoisseur level. That said, I've been looking forward to venturing into some Australian wine territory to do one of their fun winery tours and when I arrived in Adelaide I knew this would be the perfect opportunity.

The area is well-known for several of its wine-making regions: the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley, and the McClaren Vale. After a little investigation into different options, I chose a small group tour called Taste the Barossa that would take us to four different wineries, provide lunch, and pick me up and drop me off directly at the hostel I was staying.

That morning as we made our way across Adelaide, the 20-person bus filled up quickly with visitors from many parts of the globe -- the UK, Chile, New Zealand, and Brazil -- plus a few Aussies. While everyone seemed friendly, the level of frivolity and conversations seemed to go up a notch after each stop. People were making plans to meet up and a friendly couple from Sydney offered me dinner if I stopped by their lovely city again.

Our guide, Dallas, had a humorous and knowledgeable patter throughout the day in the bus in between visits and often encouraged people to ask questions. As someone who had grown up in the area and had worked in the wine trade, Dallas had a lot of interesting stories about the communities, the wineries, and the region generally.

I had a wonderful time sampling the many different styles of wine and was feeling tipsy after two wineries before we got to our lunch. Our second stop was at Peter Lehmann and it was there that we were treated to some truly special red wines plus a delicious port. We also had our lunch there so were able to choose what to accompany our meal after the tasting.

After lunch we definitely needed a little exercise and fresh air to clear the head, so we walked between vineyards under a gorgeous sun and got a closer look at some of the vines. The third winery, Langmeil Winery, had some of the old wine-making equipment they formerly used on display for visitors to peruse. The pourers at this vineyard were intent on taking you along for quite a tasting expedition. There was a long list of possible selections on offer and their task was to make sure you tried them in the best possible order. For me, the finest tastes here were the 10-year and 20-year-old ports, especially the latter.

Unfortunately for me (and for the vineyards too, I presume), I didn't feel I could purchase bottles of wine to carry with me during my travels. I'm keeping pretty lean on my luggage content and so could not bring home the bounty of the afternoon. Still, I've got the info about which wines I enjoyed and I know I can track some of them down when I'm back in the U.S.

Dallas shared a few more stories as the rest of us sat back contended and full. And a very good sign of the quality of the wines tasted that day -- no headache!

Friday, March 16, 2012

In and Out of Melbourne

There is a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, much like the one between New York and Boston. And much like that rivalry there is no comparison between the two cities; they are quite different so there's no reason people should have to choose.

I was really looking forward to seeing Melbourne because of hearing people say it was more relaxed and more multicultural than Sydney, and that it has more interesting older architecture. One of the things I noticed right away in Melbourne was there are a lot of visible inter-racial relationships. Sydney has a lot of diversity but I didn't see many mixed couples there. The weekend I was in Melbourne was the Moomba Festival which I thought was going to be an ethnic festival with lots of different music and food, etc. To be honest, I was disappointed. It was mostly a carnival with lots of rides and games and water skiing on the river. I did see some live music but it was kind of Aussie-country and it didn't really grab me. I did take a ride on the river, however, that was lots of fun and got to see another perspective of the city.

The art museums of Melbourne were wonderful. I got a one-on-one tour of the National Gallery of Victoria, with the docent showing me some of the most treasured pieces of their collection. They are very proud of the work they've been able to bring together and the docent emphasized that it was the largesse of one main donor who left his fortune to the museum that has allowed them to purchase some very valuable pieces.

Yet it was the modern Aboriginal art that really excited me. These traditional shields were painted with images of superheroes, turning their iconic symbols into modern commentary.

I was also very impressed by the number of women artists that were included in the collection, and found that true in several galleries around Australia. The painting here of Sydney Harbor Bridge is by Grace Cossington-Smith. I'll highlight a few others women artists in other posts.

But it was on Saturday that I got away from all the museums and city hubbub and took a day trip with friends David and Laura out to Phillip Island. When they picked me up we were all a bit doubtful about the weather for the day. Raincoats and umbrellas were thrown in the back, just in case. First we took a detour out to a rain forest park outside the city. We took a stroll amongst the overhanging vegetation and the huge trees that compare with the redwoods of California.

Then we headed for Phillip Island and spent the rest of the day touring the various beaches. Some were rocky and some were silken smooth. There was  gorgeous surf at many of them and wet-suited surfers following the curls. Laura wanted to show me her favorite spot, a sand dune where kids and adults take boogie boards to the top and slide down the hill directly into the water below. Done well, it is a smooth and graceful endeavor but there were several wipeouts and some that petered out before reaching the water's edge.

Last on the water spots was The Nobbies, at the very end of the island. It is a nesting ground for the fairy penguins but we only saw one little fellow flittering around in his burrow. They usually come in after dark. The Nobbies was an amazing experience because of the tremendous surf and the sheer power and beauty of the ocean. Flashes of aqua and green and white froth.

We stopped on the way back to Melbourne for Indian food and ice cream, another of Laura's favorites. The full moon was high in the sky and led us homeward during the couple hour's drive back to the city. The raincoats and umbrellas were unneeded, thankfully, and I even had a tan line when I removed my watch that night. After all that rain in Sydney, I felt grateful for this special day of sun and surf.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Canberra Couch Surfing

Kat, my Canberra host!

Whenever I mentioned to people in Sydney that I was heading to Canberra next they invariably asked "Why?" I thought it was kind of rude to challenge a traveler's choice of stop, but it seems to be a national joke to make fun of their capital city. After two nights there, I honestly don't know what they are joking about. I had an awesome time in Canberra.

Yes, it's a planned city and the layout feels precise and geometric, unlike how cities usually sprawl and surge with awkward corners. But the avenues are broad and the vistas are quite pretty, especially along the manmade lakefront. My couch surfing host, Kat, very kindly lent me her bicycle so I was able to toddle around from the war memorial at one end over to the museums along the lake and back through the city center very easily. They allow you to ride on the sidewalks in Canberra so even at rush hour you don't have to compete with the car traffic on the main roads.

The dome of the Australian War Memorial can been seen from several spots around the city. One of the large avenues leads you from the memorial towards the lake, with individual memorials to the various wars of the last two centuries all along the path. The Australians take their wars and service people's sacrifice very seriously and often combine theirs and New Zealand's together as ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The Canberra Memorial is beautifully designed and every day people still bring their poppies to place near the names of loved ones who sacrificed for their country. The memorial to the unknown soldier lies within a stain glass decorated tomb. Riding past the individual war memorials I noticed several groups of fatigue-clad military heading up the avenue to pay their respects.

Cycling along the lake reminded me a bit of the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, with the scores of runners and cyclists out for their daily routines weaving in between the families with strollers. The National Carillon played its tunes at appointed times and they could be heard all along the waterfront.

I really loved the National Gallery of Australia and spent several hours surveying their aboriginal art galleries as well as other contemporary Australian art. The aboriginal sections had both traditional and contemporary political art, which I found the most compelling. The treatment of aboriginal people in Australia has not been one to be very proud of and these artists made strong statements through their work. Though they had a large Renaissance exhibit on while I was there, I wanted to spend the time viewing things I can't normally see, which was well worth it.

The National Gallery's sculpture park was particularly well-designed. Instead of being able to see everything laid out before you as some urban parks do, you could wander among the trees and suddenly discover a new piece to admire. Particularly eerie is a gathering of heads jutting out just above the waterline. They all stare straight ahead, some in varied directions. It's near one of the museum restaurants and I can imagine it being very strange to be eating your lunch or dinner while this small army of heads observes you.

Enough about culture, the real fun of Canberra was being with Kat and her boyfriend, Ed, in their lovely home. Each night Kat would serve up something healthy and hot and we'd sip red wine while getting to know one another. Bouma, the Hungarian pointer, would nose around occasionally and give us a good excuse for some walks. One morning Kat led me up a hill to see the city, but I was more excited to see the wild kangaroos and wallabies. We saw mothers and small ones ambling about. Plus a couple of rather tall male roos off on their own. They weren't scared of the humans, but Bouma scattered them a bit when he started lumbering around.

On my last morning the sky was clear and we had a bit of time before I flew to Melbourne, so Ed started up the Model A he had rebuilt and gave me a guided tour of the rest of Canberra. The car was sputtering and backfiring a bit, but running around with no roof on a fine day was just splendid. Ed has a penchant for old machines and showed off his unique Italian coffee maker and the double-decker bus and he drove me to the airport in their Citroen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mardi Gras Australian Style

I do love a pride parade. Usually I'm involved with organizing people for such events -- herding cats, as we say. So it was with some glee that I was attending Sydney Mardi Gras without any responsibilities. And it was fortunate that I met up with Jean Kropper earlier that day and had a tenured Mardi Gras attendee to show me the ropes. 

Sydney has decided to manage the parade in such a way that I have never seen, even in NYC or San Francisco. There are barricades all along where the marchers are gathering and only people who are officially in the parade are allowed within their confines. Also, the parade route itself is tightly controlled and you had better get yourself to the side of the street you want to be on as early as possible or you've missed your opportunity. There are a lot of fun sights to be seen, however, before it all begins. Many people and groups along the route are dressed up in outrageous costumes and are happy to pose for you. In fact, they'd be insulted if you don't ask for a photo.

Jean and I fortified ourselves with a glass of red wine and then we donned our raincoats and found ourselves an indentation in the crowd to fit ourselves into. The dykes on bikes roared around the streets for a while psyching the crowds up with their bravado. Then there was a lull...and the crowd began to get restless. The rain kept coming. We looked up at the tall apartment building across from us and saw partiers in every single room. That's where I wanted to watch this parade from, at least while it was pissing down on us. 

And then the frivolity began! Music, dance routines, cheeky revelers, partial nudity, political statements --they had them all. Pride spirit is universal and people were hooting and hollering and cheering each other along. 

Sydney knows how to create a spectacle, that is for sure, yet I did feel all the control mechanisms did create a distance between the participants and the spectators that I haven't felt at other prides. If I had wanted to pay $100 I could have bought a seat at the glamstand and had a great view of everything, but that just feels so against my own idea of what a pride parade is about. If you have money you get a better view of this fabulously diverse community? That doesn't jive with me. 

In the end, Jean and I saw our fill and actually left our post before the parade ended to make our way across town before the throngs would impede us. It was still raining and we could hear the celebrations from blocks away. The next afternoon I ventured back to Oxford Street and you would never have known there had been a million people screaming and dancing and littering the main streets of Sydney. As I passed a couple of young men, another guy called to them from across the street. The couple stopped and cajoled him, "Are you still out? You are a naughty boy!" 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Soggy Sydney

So here it is Monday morning and it is gorgeous in Sydney...and I'm leaving for Canberra. Sigh. Mind you, I've had a wonderful time in this fair city in spite of the rain, but it just would have been a whole lot more cheery with the sun shining.

Flash back to Saturday. Yet another overcast and wet day, but by far the best day here. I had moved over to another hostel on Glebe Point Rd for two nights and Jean Kropper picked me up from there in the morning and whisked me off over the Harbor Bridge to see parts north of here. With rain jackets at the ready, we drove off into one of the National Parks for some beautiful views. Stopping for a hot lunch at a marina cafe, we strolled the docks and pondered how a huge boat had gotten there from Belfast, Ireland. (Probably some tax dodge.) I'm always amazed at how many boats there are in the world because I know so few people who own boats. There must be another universe of boat people that doesn't often overlap with non-boat people.

Up into the hills some more, we stopped at a beautiful lookout with views of the northern beaches and beyond. Indeed, the haunting mistiness of the scene had its charm, but I imagined that view on a sunny, clear day would be exhilarating. 

There were these amazing looking trees which Jean said were some sort of gum tree. Trees are things that you just get so used to in your ordinary day-to-day life, but when you see someone else's trees they come alive again in a new way. I have found the trees of Australia already very fun to look at, so be prepared for more photos of them. 

It was great getting to know Jean's story. Several people who had known her in Boston had mentioned her so it was a nice connection. Originally exploring Australia as a backpacker over 20 years ago, she fell in love with an Aussie and eventually transplanted here and had a son. Now on her own again, raising a teenager, Jean's finding new strengths as a single mom starting a new business. Very inspiring.

After our day's trip, we crashed for a few hours back at Jean's before we readied ourselves for Sydney's Mardi Gras Parade that night. More on that later.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sunny Sydney

Arriving in Sydney on Tuesday morning, I didn't know how lucky I would be to have a dry day of getting familiar with the harbor area. Locking my luggage up at the hostel that morning -- too early to check in yet -- I took off to walk around the Opera House area. I slathered on sunscreen and cracked out the REI sunhat, for it was a brilliant summer's day.

Enjoyed the stroll and lunch in The Rocks area, which is one of the older parts of the city. The Sydney Harbor YHA is built on top of an archeological dig that is linked to an educational center that studies the past inhabitants of the area. The hostel is one of the newest in the city and it has a fabulous roof deck that looks across at the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. That day the view of the Opera House was obstructed by the huge Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, but after QE moved out the next day I returned for a better view.

I took it easy that first day and really felt zapped by the hot and sticky weather. People all around were commenting on how hot it was so I know I wasn't the only one finding it difficult. And yet when I did get checked into my hostel room I found that one of my roommates hadn't put the air conditioner on. Urgh! Off I went to the reception to get that taken care of and I was able to take a quick nap that afternoon in a cool space. I was to find out over the next few days that this young woman kept tripping the switch of the air conditioning by opening the windows, even when it was desperately hot and humid.

Relaxing send-off in Oakland

Lots to fill you in on already from Australia, but I'm going to take a moment to post about my brief and lovely stop in Oakland visiting old and dear friends. Their hospitality really allowed me to chill out and prepare me for the long flight to Sydney.

Annie and Amos hosted me the first night. Annie walked me up the Oakland hills for some views of San Fran and the bridges. We caught up on life as we know it, and I can see how her decision of whether to stay in Cali or return to Boston will truly be a difficult one.

And then Debian whisked me off to her lovely home with Gigi and treated me to a fabulous dinner and conversational interludes interrupted by occasional kennel uprisings--two senior dogs and two new pups. We commiserated about the natural losses that pile up through middle-age, but also celebrated the joys and gifts we cherish.

Debian and Gigi warmly sent me off at SFO and after a quick one-hour jump to LAX (short phone call to Jonathan to catch up on his Hollywood dream), it would be over 15 hours of life in a large metal tube. Saving grace: empty seat in the middle where I could roll out to sleep a bit.