Thursday, November 30, 2006

Paradise, at last

It is now day six, Wednesday, and I am in Singapore. My last day in Darwin, I again took advantage of the fact that I had a rental car: for the third time, I set off down that road with the evocative destination of Alice Springs. This time, it was to check out Lichfield National Park, to the south west of Darwin. More bush driving, in fact it was hard to distinguish between the park and its neighbours, in terms of land usage. If there hadn't been a sign, I'd have never known the difference. The reason people go to Litchfield is that there are a number of waterfalls, an interesting rock arrangement called the Lost Town (not accessible to Toyota Corollas) and the Magnetic Ant/Termite Mounds. I was a bit dubious about these, as I'd seen lots as I drove around anyway, close enough to the road that you could go touch them, if you wanted. They kind of look like quarter walnuts, in a dusty brown colour, but getting to be quite a bit taller than the average walnut - maybe ten or a dozen feet high. The only thing special about the ones in the park were that there were quite a lot in one place and they were possibly made out of darker soil than others I had seen. I also went and saw the Fairy Falls and rock pools; of course, it is still dry there at the moment, so they'd be a lot more spectacular in the Wet. Coming back, I detoured to Adelaide River, had a couple of beers (light) and a Barra'n'chips. The Light beer wasn't by choice: the pub had all the Australian beers I like, but only in low alcohol versions. When I asked the bartender for advice on alternatives, he astonished me: he has not had a beer since he was a kid, so couldn't tell me anything helpful.

All in all, I didn't come away from Darwin thinking it was particularly special, or that its surroundings were, and I know there are plenty who rate them very highly. It was a nice enough town, and I think it had a spectacular Parliament, one I hope to photograph when I go back there, and I enjoyed driving around the place, but it didn't "speak" to me. You can't fall in love with everywhere you see when you travel, and there are still heaps of places in Australia I really do like, and others I am anxious to get to (Tasmania, for example).

Leaving Darwin, I had a nice surprise. I knew that one of my workmates was following a similar path to my own, on her way to India: we had carefully compared notes and found we'd be hitting the same spots as each other all the way from Dunedin to Darwin and back again, but not actually on the same flights. So, it was a surprise when she turned up on my plane: a family emergency had meant a shift in her plans. Thanks to the non-allocated seating Tiger Air uses, she was able to sit with me. Travelling with her was very interesting: unlike me, she actively engages those around her in conversation, so she got into a long chat with the other bloke in our row. Once in Singapore, another passenger she had chatted to somewhere along the way latched onto her and the three of us found ourselves in a taxi, heading for breakfast in the city. Of course, my friend started talking away to the taxi driver, and I was a little surprised he didn't come to breakfast and all. I envy that ability to just start talking with whoever is around; it must add a whole extra dimension to her life.

Anyway, my first impressions of Singapore have been rather a shock. It was just a place I was flying into, pretty much anyone I had talked to had said that 2 or 3 days would be enough, but for me it is a kind of paradise - I'm loving it. I could imagine doing what I did in Katmandhu, establishing a little pattern and not moving on for weeks. I'd simply wake up, read in the peace of my hotel for a bit, until it was time to forage for lunch, flip a coin to determine direction and go wandering, stopping every so often for a beer. Sometimes, I might have a particular thing to see, to give texture to my wandering. Or I might go shopping: there is no end of that here!

What with the overnight flight and difficulties in contorting myself into a sleeping position and failing to take down any information as to how to get to my hotel (the New Seventh Storey Hotel, which is odd because it is one of the oldest buildings in the area and has nine stories) and inability to find the internet to retrieve the details, I didn't really do a hell of a lot yesterday. Today, however, was Orchard Road day - on the way, I geeked out and went to the National Library of Singapore, which is a fantastic 15 storey ultra modern building next to my hotel. It is mostly a research library, so I didn't really go examine its collection, but it provided great views of Singapore. Orchard Road was exactly as billed - heaven for the consumerist. I got to the point I was sufering sensory overload, and since I can't exactly buy anything as it would mean carrying it all over SE Asia, I decided to find the railway station.

Of course, Singapore doesn't have a rail network, so doesn't need a railway station: it is actually the terminus of the Malaysian railway system. It is a grand old building, very much like a lot of stations I saw in India, with the same sort of admin structure, railway refreshment rooms and an onsite hotel (closed down, unfortunately) - a product of the shared legacy arising from British colonial efforts. By the time I had wandered around, had a meal in the refreshment room, looked at some trains and watched the world go by, it was too dark to take photos, but I will. The funny thing is, I walked for miles to get there so that I could book my train, only to find out that the train which best meets my needs doesn't take bookings. So, there goes my reason to leave Singapore on Friday.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Going bush

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
In cars...

Hehe - good old Gary Newman. I hadn't thought of him in years, and then he shows up twice in the same day - first in my book (Perfect Skin) and then on Territory FM. And this particular song was so apt, as I have spent a long time in my rental car while here in Darwin. On Sunday (Day 4), I drive for several hundred kilometres through the bush, found a town made entirely made from concrete and painted a drab brown, then drove for several hundred kilometres more. Thus was my obligatory trip to Kakadu - there's lots of bush, and its hot, and the town of Jabiru shows its origins as something built to accomodate mine workers. I am sure that if I had taken a tour, or even a four wheel drive, so that I could explore off the tarmac, I would have seen more, but my impression of Kakadu is that its main importance is spiritual, for the aboriginal inhabitants. To be honest, I'd rather leave them in privacy rather than be yet another ignorant tourist. Anyway, the driving was pleasant, although it would have been even more so had I had a vehicle a little more exciting than a late 90's Corolla.

After Kakadu, I took the Arnhem Highway for a change of scenery, and yes, it seemed to offer more in terms of tree varieties, actual hills for the road to pass over and curves requiring some attention. It left me less than an hour from Katherine, so in an exploratory frame of mind, I went south: it is not a pretty town, and I was too late for a Katherine Gorge trip. Lesson learned: don't be too proud to take a tour when they can get you further than you'll be able to get under your own steam. Coming back was a little bit nervewracking for a while: I have heard horror stories of hitting kangaroos and had seen a few bodies as I drove around. I believe they are most prone to come onto the road around dusk, and that was rapidly approaching, which left me with a dilemma. Do I drive really fast to keep the daylight but possibly not see any kangaroos lurking about, or do I drive slowly and find myself in the dark? As it happened, I drove fast, it was dark, but other vehicles were travelling and I never saw one kangaroo on that stretch, dead or alive.

One thing left puzzling me concerns the flies up here: what do they do between tourists? I can understand places where lots of people stop, they're kept pretty busy, but I was stopping where it was highly likely anyone else had, just randomly to have a smoke or answer a call, and instantly there'd be a couple of flies buzzing around. Why were they there? What were they doing? How did they even know to come annoy me? Mind you, I have developed a technique for making sure I don't end up with a car full of them. When I am about to leave, I open the car door, chuck in anything I might be carrying, back up ten foot or so, shake myself down to get all the flies off, then throw myself into the car. Perhaps it is just as well I am travelling by myself!

Speaking of travellers, I finally saw Borat on Saturday night. I don't know whether sales are still up there in the States, but the theatre in Darwin was maybe a third full. Those who were there were, however, deeply appreciative. The woman in front of me was shrieking within seconds of the thing starting. I had a lot of fun watching it, and really don't know which was my favourite bit - possibly the southern hostess's look of disgust when Borat shows himself to be not quite toilet trained. I think its one of those films that ought to be a cult classic, much more deserving of having people repeat taglines from it than, say, Team America.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 27, 2006

When you're lost in the woods

You can tell a lot about a place from its local newspaper. All the hot button issues are ventilated right on the front page and in the letters to the editor. In Darwin, of course, the big thing happening when I arrived was the impending final of Australian Idol; an event rendered bigger than Texas by having a local girl, Jess, reach it. And what did the Territorian have to say about this? Not much as it happens. The LEAD item was about a young boy, 14 or so, who was lucky to survive his major fall into a ... drain! A normal sort of drain, just a few feet deep. The only thing that saved him from his terror and certain death was the fact that a group of half a dozen kids saw him fall. One said "when we saw him go in, it was real funny and we just laughed. But then we thought, maybe he needs help."

And Jess? She is there, sort of. The other front page item is about a fellow who goes to one of the local schools who dared to think that the other Idol finalist was better. This created such shock and awe in the local community that he had to be shunned and avoided, and written about in the front page of the newspaper.

He must have been from the south: they don't like the South up here. One letter to the editor had opined that all the current (unspecified) troubles were caused by people coming up from the South and forgetting where they were. This pretty much forgets that nearly everyone up here is within a generation of being from the South (I'm not sure it is safe to mention Overseas). I went to the Northern Territory Museum on Saturday (day three), where there was a feature on Cyclone Tracy, which hit here in January 1975. It showed photos of Darwin pre World War II - the place was tiny, just a few lines of houses in the bush. What was here was pretty much blown up by the Japanese - to the point that the small group of four pre war houses are maintained by the National Trust. It was only after the war that a population boom started, attracted by the weather and local resources. By the time Tracy came along, there were maybe 50,000 people - half of whom had to be airlifted out. Some suburbs were completely destroyed, leading to pretty stringent building requirements to cyclone proof the town.

These days, it seems a cheerful place, not my sort of place, although it is growing on me as I walk its streets. Tourism is obviously big business here - all of Mitchell Street (from where I type) is devoted to it - people on holiday, people transitting, people here to get to the Outback. So there are lots of pubs, coffee shops, a 24 hour supermarket, travel operators and backpackers.Obviously, not everyone is cheerful: at night in particular, there are quite a large number of aboriginals wandering the streets, as well as some winos.

I took a bit of a tiki tour around the outer suburbs - someone in the tourism office suggested Cullen Bay, East Point and the like. The funny thing about doing this is that I got to a place called Nightcliffs and was a bit disoriented, didn't quite know how to get back to where I had been and saw things ahead of me that seemed interesting. And, in so doing, I found myself precisely back where I started, Mitchell Street, Darwin.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Time to get a haircut and ... take a long holiday

So, day two saw me leave Christchurch and make way, via Brisbane, to Darwin. Thanks to travelling cheaply, connections were not the smoothest. I mucked up my departure time from Christchurch so that I was out on the street with four hours to wait for check-in: what can you do but visit the mall? Once in the airport, still quite some time up my sleeve so I plucked up my courage, went into the airport hairdresser and said "see this hair that comes down so far it gets in my mouth as I eat? I want it cut to above the eyes." Quite a dramatic departure for me: I remember when I was going to India, I was wanting to be similarly severe, but when it came to it, I couldn't do it. And unlike most hairdressing experiences, this one was remarkably pleasnt, to the point I might officially appoint her the primary hair care giver.

The only interesting thing about my time in Christchurch was the way it coincided nicely with Bachelorette's gig at the Dux: I have seen her perform three times, and and she annoys me less every time. I adore her music, but it is the faux incompetence and "look at me, I'm a lush" that gets to me, because she's obviously a fairly serious musician. But I guess she needs some sort of stage persona, because I read somewhere about her anxieties about performing, and it is actually starting to get a little endearing. And she was really funny trying to sell her CD, cringing at the commercialism of it. I would have bought it had I any way to play it or transfer it to my mp3 player. Oh, yes, I succumbed, and bought a Creative Zen Micro - I might have bought an Ipod but three factors conspired against it. One local retailer has stopped selling them because of the high return rate; there are lots of sad-faced ipods on trademe and on the day I was looking to buy, a friend found that the Apple people were not interested in doing anything about the ipod of hers which simply stopped functioning. I guess there's a fourth factor - I saw an amazing Sony 6 gig player I wanted so much, in fact I thought I had bought one on trademe but took my eye off the auction just as it was closing and was pipped at the bost. In frustration, I just bought what was next on the watchlist - the Creative Zen Micro: so far, I j\have 1124 songs on it, which should keep me going.

The flights over to Darwin on Virgin Pacific/Virgin Blue (with RED planes!) were pretty straight-forward. I had several hours in Brisbane, but decided it wasn't worth it going into town. Instead, I picked up the first of my random disposable books and find I love it so much, I won't be abandoning it in some Asian book exchange. It is Brisbane writer Nick Earls' Perfect Skin. Jon and his friends are all in their mid thirties, mostly single, finding that life is simply not as they assumed it was going to be when in their early 20's. Jon, for example, did get married, found that he and his wife were not getting along at all. Then Mel died giving birth so Jon is suddenly transformed to a grieving single father - and relishes the role. You don't get much single father fiction at all, and it is nice to see someone presented as taking it on as a good thing to do. Then there is George, who has had to adjust to the same kind of reality I have, that in which any expectation of finding someone is long since gone. But George isn't a loser - he is a competent medical professional doing good work: he and Jon do lazer surgery, but not for cosmetic reasons but to cure cancer. But the two outstanding features of the book are its humour (I don't know how long it is since I've read something so funny - I was on th edge of my airplane seat with laughter) and its fidelity to the way that people actually do relationships. We have Kate and Jon: she seems to be setting her cap at him, they have several really uncomfortable social events (which George contextualises by providing commentary on what a mid-30's date looks like) but I am pretty sure the episode I have just read (which was hilarious) will finally be the end of that. Then there is Ash, a transferring honours student, who Jon just randomly meets running: the dialogue between these two is just perfect. I'm looking forward to reading more, but right now, since I have a rental car, I think I'll take a bit of a drive in the stunningly hot sun of Darwin.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 23, 2006

On the road again

So, I guess my trip has started: I left home this morning and caught the afternoon bus to Christchurch. The air conditioning was habving trouble keeping up with the unprecedented warm weather, so the bus driver made a joke about providing us with a taste of the tropics. Yikes! That is precisely where I will be as of tomorrow. It is still a bit hard to take this trip seriously as, despite all the planning I have done, it seems unreal. I also have this nagging feeling that I have forgotten something vital to the progress of my trip. Sure, I did leave my toothbrush, towel etc behind and have worked out that I didn't bring any of the foreign currency I have accumulated, but they're hardly irreplaceable. In fact I went into the Warehouse when we stopped for "refreshments" in Oamaru and really, what with electronic funds transfers and ticketless travel, very few things absolutely must be carried these days. Sure, you still need your passport, but I have mine: it is as keen as I am to put a few more exotic stamps in its pages.

Slightly perturbing is the fact that one of the places I will be going through, Sungai Kolok in Southern Thailand, had a bomb attack earlier this week in which three people were killed. Apparently, it is done by attaching a cellphone to the bomb and the dialling the number to trigger an explosion. It would be a bit of a bummer for the bomber if there was a wrong number at a strategic time! A "friend" has also been consoling me with the cheerful thought that if I am blown up, it will ensure my survival as a legendary member of Faculty for ever. I don't think anyone has been killed in a terrorist attack. Still, I don't think it is the sort of thing I need to share with my family (not that many of them seem to have noticed that I am going away).

At work, it has been a bit of a funny time, thanks to a couple of factors. First has been the need to mark several hundred scripts in a short period of time, along with a handful of research papers and the completion of my own modest effort. I don't really do the concentrated work thing very well, preferring to spread things out over seven days of the week. Then, suddenly, the work stopped. Results were in, my publication was in, no time really to start something fresh. The other factor is the presence, in vast numbers, of students and then their abrupt departure as exams finished. Some of these students I have been chattering to for years and will never see again, at least not drunk in a kareoke bar singing Bon Jovi. I always find the transition a bit hard, but this year, two people in particular stand out.

One has been working in my regular coffee shop ever since I arrived here, but she's finished her degree and will be gone when I get back. At least I managed to sit down with her yesterday and say goodbye. The other hasn't been around so long, but over the past few months, we've spent a lot of time together as we have discovered a lot of literary common ground as well as encouraging each other into our respective tastes. So, it is thanks to her that I have started a project of reading all of Terry Pratchet's works - I have now read the first two (the second was quite lame, but I read somewhere that in the third one, things improve dramatically). Thanks to me, she has come under the spell of Flann O'Brien and, when I saw her last, had quite a few of my book suggestions tucked away. The odd thing is that the last person with whom I would talk books in such a way is her sister, but she left last year and there are no more!

Hmmm - maybe it is a good thing I am taking off for a two month break. I have no idea how easy it will be to keep up my reading: I have an odd selection of serious books I have been wanting to read for a while and lighter things that, once read, I can cheerfully replace with whatever I might encounter on the road as well as an interesting selection of e-books on my newly acquired PDA. I think I will be OK.