Saturday, 27 April 2013

Eurovision 2013 First Listen Party

Hello Europe!

It's time for my annual Eurovision First Listen Party where I sit down and do an initial evaluation of this year's entries.

One invitee to the party and one attendee.

I listened to the songs in the random order on which they appeared on my iPod.  This means that I only have the song and the singers' voices to judge.   There's been no background research on the songs or singers either at this stage.  It's like my own version of The Voice (sans swivel chair).

However, past experience has shown that costumes, choreography and staging can go a long way to elevating an average song on the night itself.  Still, you have to start somewhere.

Apart from Bonnie Tyler's Believe in Me for the UK, this is the first time I've heard these songs.

General thoughts:
  • I used to think the UK entry was OK, but after listening to all the countries, I now re-grade the song as great.  
  • On first listen, it seems there are some pretty average / dull / forgettable songs this year (Europe's economic woes weighing everyone down?), but who knows what the Eurovision stage performances will bring.  That's the magic of Eurovision.
  • Key changes never die; there's plenty in this year's crop
  • There's a fair few boys with high voices (but nothing beats Romania in that regard though)
  • Electric guitars seem big this year giving an '80s flavour to some songs
  • There seems to be a few songs making social commentary about the planet, environment or society in general.  Always dangerous territory as they can come off a bit "preachy".

My top picks:

1.  Sweden (Robin Stjernberg's You)

2.  Belarus (Alyona Lanskaya's Solayoh)

3.  Finland  (Krista Siegfrids' Marry Me)

4.  Ireland (Ryan Dolan's Only Love Survives)

5.  Germany (Cascada's Glorious)

6.  UK (Bonnie Tyler's Believe in Me)

The "strong song, but may struggle at Eurovision" Award:

The Netherlands (Anouk's Birds)

The "Only at Eurovision" Award:

Romania (Cezar's It's My Life - more specifically about 40 seconds into the song)

My thoughts on all contenders as I was listening:
Full song titles and singers found here.

A pretty little tune.  Not sure what they're singing about.   Sounds like the kind of song usually played over the closing credits of a 1980s film.   I'm sure there's a electric keyboard and electric guitar.   I got visions of Top Gun when I listened to this.   The chorus of voices could come across quite well on stage.

After a slow start, the techno beat finally kicks in.  Not a terribly catchy tune I'm afraid.

A song with a conscience.   Appealing for humanity's sake, but sadly not overly appealing.   Nice message, not such a great song.   Features another electric guitar solo.  "Lonely planet, who has done it?  Who can save you?  Who can stop it?"

A simple, acoustic guitar-backed song.   Sounds like a song of yearning, but a little bit forgettable I'm afraid.

Often a wild card at Eurovision, it usually either goes for dance anthem or traditional.  This year a simple piano-backed ballad.  A pretty tune, but is that enough?

A strong, attractive voice.   Another pretty tune - will be interesting what a live performance does with this song.

Finland's answer to Katy Perry?  A really catchy song called "Marry Me".  This will be fun on stage I can tell.   "Oh oh a ding dong".   Do my ears deceive me or is she swearing?  The line "I do it for you, for you, for you" sounds like  "I do it for you, I fxck you, I fxck you".  Well, whatever you need to do to get Eurovision votes I guess.

Another country which either goes traditional or dancy.   This year they've got a bit of both.  Starts like a song straight from your local Greek taverna, but then before you know it's changed into a fast-paced ditty.

An unusual song and not bad, but as I was listening to it, it sort of lulled me into a trance a bit.  Not sure that's the secret to success on the live Eurovision stage.   It hums along, never demanding your attention.

Surprised how strongly you can really hear her accent coming through in this song.   Becomes quite dramatic and shows off her range quite well.   A break-up song with some obscure lines: "the Mayans were not so wrong, it's the end of the road, it's done, cause you were gone".

A techno dance track with thumping synth undercurrent.   Quite like this one.  Some of the synthesiser "bells and whistles" makes it sound familiar, but also maybe a little dated, like something from the late 1990s.

Could we back to Sweden next year?   Quite possibly.   I would have this song on my iPod even if it wasn't Eurovision.  A really listenable and catchy contemporary song.

Sounds like it is being sung by two elderly sisters.  Has an almost Indian / Hindi quality to it.  Don't thing it's going to fly.  And there's quite a long instrumental bit in the middle with them wailing over it.

I could imagine Jason Mraz singing this.   A pretty, light-hearted tune which tells a story of Jeremy "working in IT".

Almost heavy metal but lacking a catchy tune, just a heavy rift in the background.   A departure from the norm for Switzerland.  You'll probably either love or hate this one.

At the start, I kept thinking Bonny M's Rasputin.   I was waiting for the guy to say "Ohhh those Russians".   Otherwise a bit of a forgettable song.

Takes a while to get going and in Eurovision that's not a good thing as you've only got three minutes to impress.  Once it does get going it's not a bad tune.  Don't think it's a winner though.

FYR Macedonia
Seems to change tempo a few times during the song.  It starts simply but then quickens about a third of the way in before going back to a slower tempo.   A lot of wailing going on though which may lose people.

A simple little song.  Feels like I've heard this before from Israel.  At the end of the day, forgettable.

A funny song with the potential to be catchy. "Here we go!".    A chorus which is sung with some Eastern European rap as verses.  Never quite builds to the energy it's proclaiming.

Another song with a message, but less preachy and more musical than Armenia's.  Possibly not catchy enough to have any great impact.

This one has the potential to grow on me.  Sounds a little clunky at the start but the chorus is sufficient to put it above some of the others.   Could come across well on stage.

A welcome surprise!  A really strong and melodic chorus (with some questionable rhyming) makes this song more memorable than many others.   This will be a fun one a night.    Can it turn the Eurovision final into "a hot night!".

I think this is the first true duet I've come across this year.   The lyrics are about the joy of love, but the music is a bit pained, dramatic and drawn out.  We'll see what they do on stage.  I can see lots of opportunities for the wind machine.

WOOOOAAHHH!   What's going on here?  Cezar starts off with quite a deep voice and escalates into some sort of operatic flaseto.    I had to quickly Google whether Cezar was a boy or girl (a boy it turns out).  Quite a catchy tune and the potential to be the song everyone talks about.   But will the song just be second fiddle to some impressive vocal gymnastics?

An OK song.  It sounds like others you've heard before.   Though any song coming right after Romania will have tough job on their hands.

An unusual song - power vocals in the chorus, rap-style verse.   I found the changing tempo and background noises a bit overpowering.

The Netherlands
A really strong song, but actually quite sad and depressing / moving with its lyrics and tune.  Not sure that's going to help in Eurovision.   Sounds like something Lana Del Rey would sing.

The violin start makes it sound like it could be the entry from Ireland.  It then just plods along but is a little bit forgettable.

It's an OK song.  But I don't think there's anything which really elevates this song.

This song has potential thanks to a melodic chorus, though it makes me think of a sea shanty.  Not sure why.

I had high hopes for this song as I've liked Cascada's other songs.    And I wasn't disappointed.   A really strong contender and one of the few songs this year you can imagine actually getting traction outside of Eurovision.   It will just depend whether the song's club anthem feel can be conveyed on the stage.

It has a really harsh synth intro and continues to have this heavy and dramatic undercurrent.  Don't think it's going to make waves at Eurovision though.

Quite a strong contender from Azerbaijan.  They've got quite a track record now of having strong entries (which resulted in them hosting the event last year!).   This won't see Eurovision go back to Baku, but a good effort.

The great thing about France is you never know what they're going to put up.   Will it be crazy?  Club?  Artistic?  Soulful?     This seems like a good, playing-it-straight entry.   Don't think it will set the world on fire though.

I liked this one from the moment it started.  It's got a good pace, he's got a nice voice and let's face it, it's not Jedward!

One of those songs which plods along.  It feels like someone is just talking to me as the melody isn't anything special.

San Marino
I have to admit I'm a bit biased on this on.   The woman who sings this sang the dreadful Social Network Song at last year's Eurovision.   But here she is back again.  The song is fairly vanilla, but does show she does have a strong voice.  Perhaps she's trying to redeem herself?  I'm guessing she won't be wandering around the stage with a laptop this year?

Uniting Kingdom
This song has really grown on me.  To be fair, I've heard this on the radio a lot more times than the other songs.   Depending on how Bonnie delivers this in Sweden, it could be a real contender.

So bring on the Eurovision semi-finals and final in May!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The words of war

I'm pretty good at holding grudges.

Cut me off in traffic, jump ahead of me in a queue, or commit other "major" acts of provocation and you've pretty much made an enemy for life.

I'll say "no, that's fine".  But it's not.

So while I'm still struggling with acts of forgiveness for minor transgressions, it's pretty humbling and startling to come across true acts of forgiveness for what could almost be seen as unforgivable.

This is one of the things which struck me the most when I visited Anzac Cove.

ANZAC Cove and its harsh landscape

Near one of the many cemeteries for Australian and New Zealander soldiers, there's a memorial with a 1934 quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an officer in the First World War and later Turkey's first president.

Countries united by grief: a message from Ataturk

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...
You are now living in the soil of a friendly country.  Therefore rest in peace.  There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us when they lie side by side here in this country of ours...
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

Anzac Cove's Beach Cemetery

Looking at the harsh terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula, trying to comprehend the vast numbers of soldiers from both sides who lost their lives, this quote blew me away.

Mass graves for ANZAC soldiers looking out over the sea

That a country, which had faced an enemy invasion just two decades earlier, could not only forgive but embrace that same enemy seemed remarkable to say the least.


Perhaps it's indicative of the other great lesson a visit to Anzac Cove gives: there are no real, outright winners from war, only a side with less casualties than the other.

Beach Cemetery at Anzac Cove
The grave for World War I hero John Simpson (as in Simpson and his donkey)

Even after nearly a century, the Gallipoli Peninsula still tells the story of the 25 April 1915 and the months that followed:  the sheer cliffs ANZAC soldiers "held" for months in horrible conditions;  the trenches showing how close the two sides were; and the mass graves of soldiers from both sides.

Trenches at Gallipoli

There is no doubt about the determination, loyalty and bravery the ANZAC soldiers displayed at Gallipoli.
Now, those ANZAC soldiers who lost their lives so far away from family and friends lie side-by-side with Turkish soldiers who also never made it home.

Ataturk's sentiments acknowledges the unity that comes from sharing similar experiences, such as the profound grief and loss that occurred at Gallipoli.

Lest we forget.

Lone Pine Cemetery and Memorial

Saturday, 20 April 2013

An autumn Lithuanian surprise

Lying by the lake in the afternoon autumn sun under a fully-laden apple tree with Riccas the dog and and Magda the cat dozing beside me, it's hard to believe there is anywhere more idyllic or peaceful in the world.

And this is a national park in Lithuania?

Magda snoozes
Riccas takes it easy
Apples everywhere
My picture of Lithuania was coloured by Bond films, images of the former USSR and assumptions it would all be cold and grey concrete.

This little patch of paradise in Lithuania's Aukstaitija National Park (no, I can't pronounce it either) is a shock to the system.

As much as I love planning holidays, I've also come to appreciate that travel is all about the unexpected (preferably good unexpected) and challenging preconceived notions of what you'll find at your destination.

And given travel books, Google Earth, and online forums, it's especially nice to still be able to be surprised and delighted by a destination.

19th Century watermill at Ginuciai
Perhaps it helped that I had low expectations.   On paper, Aukstaitija National Park didn't have much "wow" factor.  While I appreciate its beauty and peacefulness, it's fair to say I'm not a massive nature lover.

I had expected a rural stopover between Lithuania's Vilnius and Poland's Warsaw as part of my small group tour of the Baltic countries (very small group as it turned out as there was just me, another traveller and our leader!).

I simply thought "OK. National park.  Trees".  Perhaps it would be a nice break before getting back to the "good stuff"?

But after just a few nights in the tiny village of Ginuciai, this stopover had entrenched itself as one of the most memorable experiences of the trip and of my travels so far.

The view from Ledakalnis Hill where you can see seven lakes in the 360 degree view

Featuring 126 lakes in between small villages, forests and hills, Aukstaitija sits about 100km north of Vilnius.    It's beautiful and wild, but not daunting or imposing.

Sunset in the small village of Ginuciai with Riccas the dog in the lead

We stayed with an local elderly couple, Regina and Vlad (with their dog Riccas and cat Magda), who had kindly relocated to a "granny flat" out back so we could enjoy the comforts of their home.

Vlad stocked the fireplace and wood-fired sauna, from which we would then jump off their jetty into the lake.  Regina cooked delicious meals that we washed down with vodka and apple juice.

Post-sauna splash into the lake

All the more mystifying as to why this place is so special is the fact that there are few "major tourist attractions" here: a 19th century watermill, a bee keeping museum, lakes, streams and forests.

But perhaps that is part of its appeal.  There's nothing to necessarily rush around and see.  It's just a place to be.  

More disturbingly, I started turning into an extra on the christian television commercial;  I was canoeing, swimming, going for walks in the forest, and looking for mushrooms and berries.   This place had really affected me.

Stream side in the Aukstaitija National Park

Canoeing down a stream near the village of Ginuciai

Canoe view on a lake in Aukstaitija National Park
Autumn was in full swing when I visited.  While the days were sunny and the evenings long, there was a growing chill in the air and we needed to light the fire at night as we sat around playing cards.

Unlike other national parks I had been to, this one felt very much "alive".

During the day, locals went about their daily business as you felt they had probably done for generations: harvesting crops, chopping wood and preparing for the approaching winter which would see snow once again blanket the region.

Houses in Ginuciai
Ginuciai local in the garden

But the little villages with brightly-coloured cottages occupied a fraction of the park's reach, with an expanse of ancient and untouched forests, lakes and streams on their doorstep.

While archaeological findings show people have lived in the area for the past 10,000 years, nature still holds the upper hand here.   Apart from those people who live here, there's a regular influx of visitors from Vilnius who come for a day of walking or wild mushroom and berry hunting.

Forest walk to the bee keeping museum

Mushroom spotting in the forest.  I didn't eat this.

Picking berries in the forest.  I did eat these.

Apples, apples everywhere.  I ate these too
The nearby village of Stripeikiai, about an hour's walk away through the forest, is the Lithuanian Museum of Ancient Beekeeping.  Again, probably not bowling you over with its name, but it actually features some pretty impressive and artistic hives carved out of old tree trunks.

Bee hives in tree trunks

Artistic bee hives
I'm still not sure why Aukstaitija was such a highlight for me.   It just seemed to have the "X" factor.

Whether it was the landscape, the people, the timing of my visit, or a combination of all these, this autumn Lithuanian surprise made me see the country in a whole new light.

The final sunrise shot on the morning we left to head back to Vilnius

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Australia on sale

International visitors passing through Australian airports must think we're a strange lot.

If the "quintessentially Australian" products on sale at our airport duty free shops are anything to go by, you would assume we're a bunch of crocodile jerky-eating, emu cream-smearing, macadamia nut-munching, and sheep placenta-downing folk with a love of all things wool and sheep skin.

There seems to be a whole world of Aussie products that I would wager most Aussies wouldn't know existed, let alone used.

Yet here they are being passed off as Australian as Alf Stewart himself.

Well cobber, check out the fair dinkum, corker stuff I spotted for your swag next time your head overseas!

Sheep called - they want their placenta back

I've always struggled to see the koala/macadamia nut connection.  Did the koalas make these?

How did they shove an entire kangaroo into one capsule?

Koalas again.  I assume they farmed these.

Nothing I love more at the end of hard day than enjoying a drink with some crocodile jerky.  Struth!

Emu oil doesn't seem to have made emus very attractive so not sure why it would do anything for us

I'm sure there are many more out there just waiting to be snapped up by visitors wanting to take home their own piece of Australia.

And perhaps there's scope for even more products.   Tassie Devil eye drops or Oil de Possum?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Everybody needs good neighbours

I think for many Australians, Papua New Guinea is a bit like most of the neighbours we have in our street.

We know they're there, we acknowledge them from time to time when we see them, but we don't really know much about them.
Welcome to PNG!

Historically, Australia as a country has always had close ties with PNG.   After all, it was an Australian colony before its independence in 1975 and there has been a history of co-operation and aid between the two.

But, compared to our other neighbours, like New Zealand, very few Australians have actually been to PNG (it probably doesn't help that a tourist or business visa is required).   And if they do go it's usually for work rather than a holiday.

Port Moresby, PNG's capital

I first started coming to PNG for work a year ago.  Firstly, I was surprised to learn it was only a three-hour flight away from Brisbane.   I had assumed it was "way up there somewhere", not "just right there".

I also realised I had a lot of other misconceptions about what I would see when I got off the plane in Port Moresby.  Like most countries, PNG usually only hits the headlines when there is some sort of trouble or political turmoil.

How much do you really know about PNG?

Having been a few times now, I'm often asked what it is like.  And that's proven a difficult one to answer.

It's hard to put labels on a place like PNG.  Just when you think you've got things figured out, you're surprised with something completely contrary.  And having only visited Port Moresby, I've only witnessed a fraction of what the country holds.

But here are a few things I've learnt so far.

PNG has a strong cultural heritage

"Only in PNG" moments
Locals and expats alike jokingly talk about things happening in "PNG time", which usually means it will happen eventually, but you're just not sure when.

That meeting you've arrived for at 9am may not actually happen until 10am or 11am or the next day or even next week.   People may turn up or not.  You never really know.  You could get frustrated with it, or you can just go with the flow.

Here internet access is slow and expensive, power fluctuations can plunge you into momentary darkness, and phones lines can suddenly go dead for weeks.

As a visitor to Port Moresby it's easy to spend your entire time just being driven between secure, gated compounds; from your hotel to a business or office or shop or restaurant   At first it's quite surreal and makes you feel a little ill at ease, but thankfully I've yet to actually witness anything untoward.

Port Moresby, a harbour city
Growing aspirations
PNG is a developing country, but that doesn't mean it is "backward".  If anything, it seems to be quite an aspirational country.

Like many other places in the world, the people value good education, employment, industry, infrastructure, security and government - possibly more than developed nations and probably because they don't have easy access to it yet.

There's a growing educated middle class craving decent government and infrastructure, and contemporary, high-tech lifestyles.  As a result there is a growing number of shops, night clubs, coffee shops, gyms, private schools and all the rest.   The relatively new multi-storey shopping centre in Port Moresby resembles those you would see in any Brisbane or Sydney suburb.  Called Vision City, it seems to be heralding the arrival of the city's future.

It's a hive of activity
There's no doubt PNG has a way to go in terms of development, but it is moving in the right direction... and fast.

Multinational companies are here because of the natural resources, which in turn has brought massive investment, jobs, construction, training and other benefits which have the potential to radically reshape the country's future.

Port Moresby seems more connected to Asia and neighbouring South Pacific countries than Australia is.  And while it seems very proud of its national identify and cultural heritage, it also has a surprisingly multi-dimensional feel to it as different people from across PNG and the world converge.

One of the local success stories of recent years is the mobile phone company Digicel.  Apart from being on almost every shop and billboard in Port Moresby, more importantly it has won the hearts of locals by actually offering affordable mobile phones and good coverage across the country for the first time.  It's a highly-professional operation and seems to have set the benchmark for other local companies to follow.

Watch out!  PNG is on the move

PNG's tourism industry seems to be in its infancy, though there is apparently growing interest in Kokoda Trail treks, PNG wildlife, and diving hotspots.  It doesn't help that flights to PNG and good hotel rooms in Port Moresby are quite pricy because of demand from resource companies.

So it might be a while before PNG becomes the next "must see destination", but watch out as this country is changing fast.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Monkey Not-So-Magic

To me monkeys are a little like certain family members; just because you're related doesn't meant you have to like them.

I can't claim to have a paranoid fear of them, I just don't like them.

This dislike has developed nicely following recent trips, particularly to India and Morocco.

When others were marvelling at a monkey's "cheeky" and "mischievous" nature, I was standing as far away as possible.

Every time I see a monkey, I'm reminded of the scene in the movie A Passage to India where the main character Adela is chased away from the temple by a terrifying pack of shrieking monkeys.

There's something about a monkey's "almost human" behaviour, boldness and intelligence which makes me wary.

And even when you try to scare them away, they don't flinch as if to say: "I know you're bluffing".

Monkey Not-So-Magic Moment Number 1:  Elephanta Island, Mumbai

Bold monkey who stole a tourist's Coke bottle from her hands
It was hot and humid.  I was trapped on an island.  And these monkeys seemed to sense my uneasiness... so pursued me.

Elephanta Island, located in Mumbai Harbour, contains a series of temples which have been caved into the rock.  However, to access these you must first pass a troop of local monkeys - the equivalent of a gang of young hoodlums.

For some reason, they seemed to ignore my travelling companions and honed in on me, lunging for my bag and water bottle.   I was outnumbered and attempts to scare them off with sudden moves and noise proved fruitless so I ran.

Thankfully another hapless tourist arrived and they decided to pick on her.   They stole her bottle of Coke straight from her hands.   Ahhh, but the joke's on you monkeys when you start getting cavities in their teeth.  Am I right?

Monkey Not-So-Magic Moment Number 2:  Marrakech, Morocco

Monkeys of Marrakech: coming soon to your back

Walking across Marrakech's main square is like traversing a mine field.  Apart from people trying to sell you things and pick your pockets, you also must contend with people trying to put monkeys on your back for photos (requiring later payment) without invitation.

"Free range" monkey in the Atlas Mountains.  Here they grow big on mountain air and tourists
On one hand I feel sorry for the monkeys who are on leashes and in nappies so they can spend the day being continuously thrown at tourists by their owners.   On the other hand, I don't want them anywhere near me.   Best advice?  Don't stand still here.

Another Atlas Mountain monkey: he's watching you
Morocco turned out to have quite a few more monkeys than I had bargained for.  In the Atlas Mountains, monkeys swing around the cedar forests just waiting for tourist buses to arrive.   They know their fellow primates usually come with food and other offerings.

Monkey Not-So-Magic Moment Number 3:  Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur

Just waiting for you at KL's Batu Caves

There are 272 steps up to the Batu Caves, a cavernous Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.   There are seemingly about ten times that many monkeys roaming the place, preying on tourists.

These monkeys have seen tourists like you before and know instinctively how to corner your group, distract you and run off with your camera or bag (To do what?  Take them to Cash Converters?).   Positioned strategically on the stairs, they know you have to pass them first if you're going to make it to the top.

He doesn't speak but his eyes say: "none shall pass here"

Are all monkeys evil?


But there have been some monkeys I've actually liked.  Not just because they haven't lunged at me or robbed me, but also because they've looked as though they weren't carrying the ebola virus.

Dare I say it but Japan's snow monkeys were cute

This one didn't try to rob me (maybe too cold to move?) so I liked him

Japan's snow monkeys are a chilled bunch spending their day soaking in thermal springs

This guy was playing the legendary character Monkey (later made famous in the TV series  of the same name) at a Peking opera performance.   Possibly the best monkey I've encountered during my travels.