June 30, 2007

It is 0430 in the morning. In this part of the world the sky is light and on this particular morning surprisingly clear. Frank has roused me from bed with the promise of a farmer’s breakfast . He won’t tell me where. “Just get going boy, we need to beat the crowds.” Crowds lining up for a farmer’s breakfast in England?! I have to see this. He grinned as he went out to warm up the Antichrist, the nickname for his treasured VW Combi. We drove into a clear day, clattering down lanes and between hedgerows wide enough only for the AntiChrist. In some places so narrow the oaks and hawthorns gave us a firm brushing clean. Pity help us if anyone was coming the other way. But at this time of the morning no one was about. Which was Frank’s point all along – there were no crowds at Stonehenge. Only the two of us. No traffic humming past. No ignorant commentary around us. Just the silence, a clear sky, a couple of unseen larks, and a warm sun. And none to see us jump the fence (access is normally via a steep fee and through a tunnel under the road from a car park a few hundred metres away) in order to get a decent photo. Then off to that breakfast. Well earned by the time we got there. And no crowds in the diner either.
May 1995

Hotel Reservation Resource

June 29, 2007

The online reservation game is a pretty competitive one but that is to the advantage of those of us who travel. Hotels usually offer blocks of discounts to companies who promote their businesses across the web. Like plenty of others before me I have found the online booking is a brilliant way to get a discount, and often in hotels that might otherwise claim there is no room at the inn. The group at seem to have caught up a useful round of resources for the traveler, especially if you are US based.

But the real test on these sort of sites is what sort of results you get from the search engine on hotels. So I try a search on the home town, Sydney, and all the mid to top tier pubs are featured, with cheap hotel rates that I know are pretty good. Push it a bit harder. Try Sanaa. Where? The capital of Yemen, part of the old city shown in this photo. Worth a visit if you have a spare couple of weeks. It is a veritable museum of old Russian stuff – and some new Russian jets (Mig-29s) beating up the airport kept me distracted for …. OK, it seemed like hours. There are two “top end” pubs in Sanaa. The Sheraton will be disappointed it did not come up on the list but I was VERY impressed that Sanaa returned a result at all. Including the other, local hotel, so they will be very happy with that result. So try something a bit more obscure – let’s try Ballarat.

All the regular motor inns even we Aussies try and avoid are there – but you have no choice in Ballarat unless you have a relative living there. But not everyone wants to admit to a flannel-shirt wearing, mullet haired, ugg-boot shod relative in Ballarat. If you do, and therefore need to book some accommodation, this site will do it for you. Especially if you don’t want to “top and tail” with said relative. Push the site a bit further and search on Yakandandah. That is a bit unfair. Most Aussies would have no idea where this one horse, three fly town is either. And I am not even sure if there is accommodation there. Or if anyone would want to stay there. Unless they are on their way to Ballarat perhaps, and need to get themselves mentally conditioned to stay with that relative. So no return from the search engine on Yankandandah. But that is OK, it passed the Sanaa and Ballarat stress test with flying colours.

So too the airline bookings that will get me from Sydney to Sanaa and back with a choice of just about any airline in the region. And some. In fact the one stop shop nature of this site is a bit deceptive – the site name suggests hotel reservations only but it turns up car, flight and holiday deals as well. Might not be backpacker material but if you are traveling closer to the front of the plane these days than you did when you were a student, and you are the ones keeping us awake 9 hours across the Pacific with your toddlers with inner ears not yet adjusted to the pressure differential, then this site is worth a bookmark.

Beijing Street Barber

June 28, 2007

There are places you visit that catch the eye and you marvel at something different. Or places that engage the mind and you enjoy the way things are done differently, ingeniously and innovatively. China is NOT one of those places. It does not catch the eye. Or engage the mind. It grabs your heart. The eye and mind then follow. And it grabs your heart because their people do. There is something about their communal living, community spirit and the way they interact with each other that is missing in our western communities but to which I respond. That community mindedness means they do not really care too much about what others think about what one is doing. (What you are saying is another matter in this still Communist, centrally controlled state).

In a lane off one of Beijing’s boulevards this street barber was chatting away to the two by the wall, in her shop that was a piece of the sidewalk. Her tools are hung in a leather satchel on the pole beside her. The conversation was staccato fast, with everyone talking and no one listening. Did anyone care about the way the hair cut was progressing? I don’t think so. I loved the normalcy about the whole scene. People walked around them. Customers lined up in the street, patiently waiting their turn. Everyone knew everyone else, chatted and joked together. China is an extended family after all.

October 2004

Advantages of Spending a Night with THE Paris Hilton

June 27, 2007

A night with her will not be breaking any moral code.

Most people are wearing underwear – at least that you can tell if you need to.

No one has a dog on a short leash.

This one does not pretend to be something she is not.

You don’t need permission from her mother to stay here.

Your own mother does not care if you stay here.

The foyer is not crowded with press thinking they are covering a real story.

If you have sex here it won’t be taped (other than by security).

If taped, your sex activity won’t find its way onto the Internet.

You can have a drink here without being picked up for DUI.

Your trash won’t find its way onto eBay – unless you want it to.

You can have a conversation that does not include the word “like”.

You can use the hotel car park.

The morning after will be a cultural experience – take short walk to the Eiffel.

The collective IQ in this place will exceed 75.

There is a (Gideons) Bible in the top drawer. That is, there actually IS something in the top drawer.

After a night here a doctors visit is probably not required.

The real thing is at 18 Avenue de Suffren, Paris, France 75015
Tel: 33-1-44385600 Fax: 33-1-44385610

Nicole Kidman – Possessive Tendencies

June 27, 2007

I am always intrigued by our tendency to claim something that can never be ours. We often do so under a national, collective grab. Especially when it is a celebrity, sports star, or someone who has excelled in some way. And if that person has demonstrated an especially fine and unique trait, resulting in a Nobel Prize, Academy Award, or other acknowledgment on a global scale we are especially prone to claim them as ours. We even do it to flora and fauna – we talk about “our” unique marsupials in a very possessive way, as if somehow we had some say in how they came to be to unique and striking. We claim them as “ours” as if their uniqueness makes us stand out from the rest of humanity in some sort of dramatic and better way.

Guilty, I admit to thinking “ah, our Nic” as I turned a corner in Brussels and saw the fine features of Nicole being washed in the early morning rain. On a poster at a bicycle rack promoting Chanel No5. By now my impressions of Brussels were thawing a little but I remained perplexed by the amount of rubbish lying on the sidewalks. Does anyone ever pick this stuff up? My next thought was to apologise to Nic for the rubbish piled up under her nose. Somehow it did not seem right, this beauty having to preside over this mess. Then I gave myself a quick slap, took the photo, popped the umbrella and got myself off to work.

CIA Family Jewels

June 23, 2007

So the CIA is revealing its family jewels? Apparently, according to the Washington Post, though not the CIA website. Let’s see what actually happens but the prospect of revelations about CIA alleged, apparent, imagined or real misdeeds seems to have a whole lot of people in slavering anticipation. OK, given the mystique around these organisations fueled by fiction (some laughably outlandish) in print or film and the occasional piece of sanitised revelation from former employees I can understand the interest. Like sex, espionage is a subject everyone seems to want to know about even when they can’t know about it. Or is that, “because” they can’t know about it? Mind you, the CIA divulges a surprising amount about itself, although with the vast array of organisations conducting intelligence collection and analysis (collection is always the more sensitive part of the intelligence cycle) it does not hurt for one of them to be the media foil, and the remainder to quietly get on and do their thing. Despite their openness there is an expectation that everything that is happening behind closed doors is wrong, evil, unwarranted and unjustified.
The interest in the material to be released, and the expectations that everything is dirty and dark are the source of slight irritation for they contain an element of the hypocritical. Unions, business (big and small), private and public organisations, law enforcement agencies, lobby groups and any other number of institutions collect information on each other, and us, for competitive, sometimes dishonest, Machiavellian ends. Using whatever means they can get away with. But except for the occasional slip up when these activities are revealed to the world the public interest in these activities is almost non existent. We want to pay attention to alleged illegal activities of the CIA and their sister organisations yet forget they are designed to function with our welfare in mind. I will concede they slip up here and there (and in many countries they operate without independent checks and balances – another (serious) story) but with mandates and charters to look out for the welfare of a nation, the activities of these organisations have more sympathy from me than say a bank that collects data on me in order to garner more profit from me.

CIA, headquartered in Washington D.C. at Langley, is difficult to spot, nestled as it is nicely into a hollow in the ground on the banks of the Potomac. You can’t see it from the front gate or any of the surrounding roads. It is of course the stuff of ordinary civil service offices, not the glow-in-the-dark electronic centres Hollywood wants to show us. Sorry to disappoint you. If you can’t get a tour of the place (a tongue-in-cheek proposition) the next best view is via Google Earth (cut and paste these coordinates to be taken straight there “lat=38.9512483192, lon=-77.1450623562) or via the CIA virtual tours on their web site.

Sneaking a Kiss in Paris

June 22, 2007

Having dropped the pack in the (tiny) room (described a little more here) and negotiated my way down a set of winding stairs wide enough for one set of shoulders at a time – and even each of those was pressed against the flowered wallpaper on each side – I stepped out into a classic Parisian scene. It was a warm spring evening and the lowering sun was still in the sky, highlighting the new foliage and adding a warm yellow to the stonework and concrete. The smell of coffee, the sound of conversations of those on the side walk taking their leisure and the wide boulevards nicely reinforced just where I was. I legged it for about 17 kilometres that evening and covered a lot of Paris, from checking out the Notre Dame, walking a few kilometers along the Champ Elysees, wandering the art along the Seine and sadly being forced to avoid the queue at the Eiffel which stretched forever, and seemed to be made up mainly of rowdy American teenage school students. That deterrence proved a boon as I discovered a number of parks and gardens in which I was able to slow down – I was running out of steam and drifting in the general direction of the hotel. In so doing I stumbled over this statue of Joffre with the reclining couple having a quiet pash on its base. I grinned to myself and snapped the picture. Marshal of France. Hero even, for stopping the German armies in 1914. Symbol of all things French and martial, nicely counterpointed by symbols of indolent love, careless encounters, and Paris in the spring. It was for me a nice vignette of all the clichés, and realities of Paris and France.


June 19, 2007

Bruce Elder, a journalist writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, has I think, the best job in the world – reporting on anything obscure, fun, intriguing, captivating or otherwise whatever takes his fancy as he travels around New Zealand. Those following his travels are occasionally invited to suggest places to go or to see, and I recently suggested he drop in and have a look at Akaroa (Google Earth lat=-43.8032578797, lon=172.967248723). Which in turn prodded a flood of memories.

It’s a small village on Banks Peninsula. My grandparents retired there, and as kids we used to gratefully lose two weeks of our summer holidays somewhere and everywhere in the village. I am pleased to add that thirty years later I revisited the place and, unlike some other places of my childhood memories, it was as delicious as I remembered it. Even if we were a couple of months off summer.

It is an interesting place, in part because it is the only French colonial settlement in New Zealand. Perhaps in all Australasia – I am not sure about that. The local legend we heard as kids had the French emigrants, heading up Akaroa harbour, beaten by hours to their settlement “claim” by a British runner sent with a flag from the other side of the peninsula. Whatever the truth of that, the French set up home here and as kids we ran around streets named Rue this and Rue that.

And summer at Akaroa was about running around. Eating apricots from the large tree that grew behind the post office. Nicking purple plums from off trees hanging over someones fence. Spending hours in the water. Jumping off Daleys Wharf. Fishing of the main wharf. Eating crayfish – thanks to my grandfather’s part time job at the small fish processing plant on the main wharf, before he gave that away for his bowls. Digging pipis out of the beach and cooking then up in a billy fired by driftwood. Picking our way down to the beach from the camping ground on soft bitumen melting in the heat. Damming the creek that ran out across the beach. Swimming to the diving platform anchored off the beach. Collecting shells among the rocks. Lying under canvas (you can still smell it) in stifling heat and listening to people walking past late at night. Scones and cream (and raspberry jam) at Nanas. Kiwifruit vines growing wild over the powerlines and there for the taking. The sweet smell of passionfruit. Running all day. No parents – they were around somewhere. We usually caught up with them at meal times! Otherwise we ran loose. Huck Finn, eat your heart out. Another lifetime. Another place. A world away.

Casey Serin: Worlds Most Hated Blogger

June 18, 2007

Well, here he is. Apparently. I am not sure how you get a reputation like this from a few dodgy business moves. There are worse business results out there from so called professionals than this young chap has perpetrated. Whatever those moves, he has generated a phalanx of detractors who seem hell bent on getting a pound of flesh out of him. Worlds Most Hated Blogger? That is a tall order to fill.

Do I feel sorry for him? It’s a week for the underdogs perhaps. Paul Potts goes his winning way and I am cheering him on, then Casey emerges with a hard luck story, slipping down here in Australia, hiding from his detractors and trying to get his life back on track. Sounds like he should get a sympathy vote as well. Then you discover he is attracting not insignificant traffic to his blog (300,000 + visits per month), the advertisers are doing OK out of that and you wonder if marketing is his skill even if real estate is not. And that this “worlds most hated blogger” tag is a clever promotional effort. You can be anyone and anything on the web (even a pickled eel), so who knows?

Then you figure that whatever the claims, and whatever his faults, and whatever the merits of the business plan, he deserves his shot at winning, just as much as the rest of us. After all, the Pickled Eel opened his business account ten years ago with nine dollars in loose change (and we have a long way to go yet). So there is a strong sympathy vote from me for a guy trying to make something out of nothing. Casey, the secret is “don’t blink.”

Casey’s website is here(looks like it is melting down this evening). And Sydney Morning Herald coverage here. And to whom I acknowledge the source of the photo.

Nessun Dorma

June 17, 2007

What on earth is the Nessun Dorma? We all associate it with the 1990 World Cup when Pavarotti sang it. But with Paul Potts singing it last week to get our attention I wondered what the story behind it really was. There you go, my Opera roots revealed to be as shallow as those of a stream side willow!

Turns out it is an aria from a Puccini opera titled Turandot. The “Classical Music: The Rough Guide” tells me it is a “disturbing example of Puccini’s affection for violence against women.”

Turandot is an evil Princess. Resident of Peking no less. During legendary times (that is such a cute piece of authorial licence aimed at defusing offence). She announces she will marry the first man who can answer three riddles. Fail the Q&A session and its off with your head. A besotted Calaf, who does not reveal he is a prince, is in the crowd watching the execution of one of the unfortunate quiz contestants. He thinks he is up for the quiz and answers the questions which puts Turandot’s nose out of joint. Calaf is a gentleman, even if a stupid one, and suggests he will submit to execution if Turandot can guess his name by dawn (shades of Rumplestiltskin).

Turandot puts the wheels of government into motion overnight and starts mass executions to tempt someone to give up Calaf’s name. Turns out Calaf has a lady admirer who kills herself rather than give up Calaf’s name. Calaf gives up and confesses not only his name but his love for Turandot, who then falls in love with Calaf. Go figure.

Convinced? No, I am not either really. Nor is my Rough Guide which advises “the sadism of the opera might leave you with a bitter aftertaste”. I think I will stick with travel. Enough sadism in the design and layout of cattle class seats at the back of the plane for me to sate any idle interest I might have in that subject.

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