Sunday, 30 June 2013

The last mile of the way

The countdown is on.

This weekend I completed my last "long run" before next Sunday's Gold Coast Marathon.

At this stage of the game, there's nothing further to be done to prepare for the 42km run, except perhaps stretch and stay healthy.

In many respects next Sunday's race has already been run - it's just the final result which remains uncertain.

The past 16 weeks of training have involved long three-hour runs, series of sprints and hill repetitions.   At the peak of the training, about four weeks ago, I was running 70km a week.    It's been a tiring and sometimes onerous journey, but also quite rewarding (though this tends to be felt after the run rather than during the run).

Like many runners, I have a routine to prepare myself for the start line.   Part of this is practical, but for the most part I think it is more for mental readiness.

Here's my top five race checklist:

1.  Wash my running shoes
Probably not something advised by the manufacturer but there is something about sparkling clean runners which makes you want to... run.   I realise clean shoes won't make me run any faster; that's the job of my new neon green running shirt!

Clean and bright and ready to run

2.  Pick an outfit
This year, I'm going all neon.  I've got blue, orange and green.   There's no doubt people will see me coming (and they'll probably think I'm running away from good taste).  Again, there something about a snazzy race outfit that makes you feel like it's time to run.

Don't pretend you didn't see me running towards you in this
3.  Roll around
I used to have a foam roller to "tenderise" my legs, in particular my ITBs.   But I started to feel like the foam was yielding too much so I've gone for a plastic pipe from Bunnings.  It is unrelenting, but I feel like it is doing the job.  In the week ahead I will be spending a lot of time rolling around on the floor.

4.  Needles, stretches and rubs
Last week I had some dry needling done on my ITBs.  It's not a particularly fun experience, but can be strangely satisfying when your tense leg muscle violently and involuntarily contracts as the acupuncture needle goes in.  On one occasion the spasm was so strong it bent the needle!  On the cards this week is a final massage to iron out the remaining muscular creases!

5.  Pre-race routine
I like to get up three hours before a race - enough time to have some breakfast, a cup of tea and do some stretching.   I also like to have a shower, irrigate the sinuses, brush my teeth, apply lip balm, and tape down the nipples if it is cold.   It's quite an extensive list.  I might have to get up four hours before the race!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Perfect travel husband material

I've been married more times than I care to remember.

Sometimes my marriages only lasted for a few hours, while others have lasted a few weeks.

Proudly, all of my marriages have ended very amicably and without the need for divorce lawyers.

You see after all these years, it seems I am perfect "travel husband" material.

What makes a good "travel husband"?   Well, really there's only a few criteria: be a guy and be around.

Italy: home to one of my first "travel marriages"

 My first "travel marriage" was to some female travelling companions in Italy and Turkey where it was easier for them to say I was their partner (separately mind you, we weren't pushing a polygamy angle) to ward off unwanted advances from male strangers.

Then in China when I was on a small group tour, one of the single female travellers said they were married to me rather than face interrogation from locals as to how she could possibly be single and over the age of 25.

In the years that have followed, I've had a different "wife" in exotic places like Mongolia, Russia, Egypt, Cambodia, India and Vietnam.

I'm more than happy to play along.  It can be quite fun playing the married couple, describing our imaginary wedding, children and lives.

But upon reflection, it has also struck me as how sad and unfortunate it is that single female travellers sometimes cannot travel unharassed without a man (and it seems any man will do) by their side.

China: Another trip, another travel marriage
As a single male, I've never felt uncomfortable wandering through markets, catching trains or staying in hotels by myself.  Yet I've seen that single female travellers sometimes can't enjoy the same "luxuries".

It seems even stranger that simple acts like slipping a ring onto their finger or enlisting the help of a "travel husband" like myself can cause an immediate change of attitude in other men (and women) and make their travel so much easier and enjoyable.

I would like to think that some day single women could feel comfortable travelling where they want to without the need for such ruses.

But until then, this "travel husband" will happily walk down the aisle once again.  Just don't expect any wedding night action.

Turkey: no hanky panky in the harem

Sunday, 23 June 2013

What are you packin'?

Forget the Tower of London, Colosseum or Roman ruins, one of the real attractions for me when travelling overseas is the local supermarket and pharmacy.

If I see one, I want to go in.

Why?  Because I just know they're probably packing better stuff compared to what I can get at home.

Take Spain.    One supermarket there had almost a dozen different types of Special K.  

Do I eat Special K?   No.  But the point is, what if I was a Special K lover and didn't realise a smorgasbord of Special K existed in the world?

Spain: Land of Special K varieties

And then there are pharmacies.  Last year on a trip to France I was stockpiling cold and flu medication like I was operating a drug lab.   To be fair, I did have a cold to start with, but then I continued to buy the tablets after the cold disappeared.

Am I planning on cooking up some speed?   No.  But unlike in Australian pharmacies, it was quarter of the price (even in Euro), and didn't require my driver's licence and usual cross-examination by a 12-year old pharmacy assistant.   I'm still working through my stockpile now when I get the occasional cold.
France: land of cheaper cold and flu tablets

It's no surprise that shopping in a foreign land is a big appeal for many travellers.  But for me the exciting part is not about designer labels and high-end goods, but the discovery of what else is out there at even the most basic grocery end of the scale.  

To be honest, I'm not sure I will ever again experience the sheer thrill I had in the US buying a $7 tub of 500 ibuprofen tablets.

All this supermarket aisle wandering has made me realise what a shallow pool we Australian shoppers are swimming in.

Perhaps that's why we've embraced internet shopping with such gusto?  

Instead of distributors deciding which limited range to introduce to Australia, suddenly we are standing in the supermarket equivalent of Aladdin's Cave.

What's been your best overseas supermarket discovery?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Going with the Ganges flow

The haggling starts well before sunrise on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

I've joined forces with a group of backpackers from all around the world to negotiate with some rowing boat owners.  

The scene is mirrored dozens of times over along the river bank: groups of tourists trying to get the hire price down and boat owners determined not to budge.

As the sky begins to lighten, we become desperate that we won't make it onto the river in time for sunrise, something we're assured will be stunning.  

The boat owners also become worried that they might miss out on a deal if they hold out too long.

The sun makes an entrance at Varanasi

We're not alone: a flotilla of boats cruise down the Ganges
Eventually our mutual greed sees a deal struck and we embark onto the Ganges on a large row boat big enough to seat eight.

Amid the crush of boats on the river, we first head upstream as the sun begins to peek over the horizon.  

Could all of this really be worth it?

It seems both locals and tourists of all persuasions think it is.   Nearby, boatloads of nuns with shaved heads cruise by, cameras at the ready.

A group of nuns who had travelled to Varanasi
Those tourists who haven't made it onto boats join locals on the river bank waiting for the sun's show.

And while I wasn't keen to let any of the river's water touch my shoe let alone my skin, some locals have begun having a wash in the murkywater.

Why let a good sunrise get in the way of the washing?
Not too far from the bathers, piles of wood are smouldering at the cremation ghats, reminding me that some people's journey will finish here this morning when their ashes are swept into the river.

Heading towards one of the cremation ghats at Varanasi
Our rower finally decides to stop fighting the flow and sits back.    

It almost feels like we're in some kind of limbo as we begin to gently float down the river; the sunrise is on our right, the crowded Varanasi river bank on our left, and we're in the middle.   

For possibly the first time since stepping foot in the polluted, crowded and crazy city of Varanasi, there is peace and quiet.

Sunrise illuminates the Ganges river bank
Hive of activity on the Ganges river bank
The colourful Ganges river bank
Ganges river bank scene
Everyone has their eyes fixed on the sun as it is climbs into the sky.

And it is spectacular.

Sure you can watch the sunrise anywhere in the world, but for some reason it does feel especially special here. 

It's not hard to see why the Hindu devout regard the river as such a holy place.  

Perhaps something as natural, fresh and beautiful as the sunrise appears even more so when viewed amid the surrounding chaos and cremation.  
Looking east on the Ganges

Saturday, 15 June 2013

What fresh hell is this?

So just what does happen to us after we die?

It's a question that seems to have consumed our imaginations for centuries.

In his 14th-century poem Divine Comedy, Dante imagined nine circles of hell.

In Florence's Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Vasari and Zuccari graphically depicted Capital Sins and Hell (complete with pitch forks, fire, man-eating beasts and torture).

But in Singapore, the Haw Par Villa theme park has taken the depiction of hell to a whole new level with 3D dioramas showing human figures being beheaded, amputated and spiked.

If you've got a wayward child, a visit place is your best chance to scare them straight.

Entrance to Haw Par Villa

Originally known as the Tiger Balm Gardens (as it was built by the original creators of Tiger Balm), it showcases about 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas representing Chinese mythology and Confucianism.

It's an overwhelming and confusing cross between family parkland, gaudy exhibition, and sadistic showcase.   And it's well worth the visit if you tire of traipsing Singapore's traditional shopping and food haunts.

The "highlight" is a walk through The Ten Courts of Hell, which documents the torments awaiting sinners in the underworld according to Chinese mythology and Buddhism.

The Ten Courts of Hell: you've been warned
Here it's all about impaling, amputation, fire, blood and gore.   It's really embraced the strategy of "don't just tell them, show them" for maximum impact.

Given the range of legless, armless and headless dolls on display, you sometimes wonder if you've just stumbled across the secret playground of a demonic child.  I can only imagine there's a stockpile of "spare parts" lying out back somewhere.

In between the fake blood and torture scenes, I also can't help but reflect on how different beliefs have imagined a fairly similar fate for those of us who choose a life of sin.

If it turns out to be true, it isn't pretty.

The Ten Courts of Hell: you've got to admire the dedication to detail

Highlighting the park's bipolar nature, a few steps away is the laughing Buddha who watches over the rest of Haw Par Villa's brightly-coloured menagerie.

Buddha keeping an eye over Haw Par Villa
A "fun day out for the whole family"?   I'm not sure.

But with enough gory visuals to guarantee nightmares after you visit, it's one theme park they won't forget.

The more sedate side to the park

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Food for thought

You can tell when an Australian man is feeling threatened by a woman; the first thing he'll do is attack her appearance.

Today's Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail menu debacle, which talks about "small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box", is just another example of this.

Like female councillors, mayors, MPs, premiers and others before her, much of the commentary about Julia's tenure has focused on how she looks.

Other female politicians have had to deal with commentary about their weight, use of botox, being a "bitch" or "witch", looking "too manly" or "like a lesbian", or dismissed for just being pretty with no brains.

In the movies, they say female characters can only play one of handful of roles: the mother, the virgin, the love interest and the slut.  It seems some Australians can only see a similarly limited number of roles for our female politicians.

It's hard to imagine a male politician attracting quite the same level of treatment.

Did Bob Hawke have a small penis?   

Was John Howard "rootable" enough?   

These questions never seemed to be asked when they were in power.

Criticise the policies and behaviour of our politicians, but cheap and venomous attacks focussed on how they look seems to be a new nasty low.

Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, and whoever was responsible or knew about the menu, the fact that such a description was produced at all is a pretty sad reflection of the quality of political debate.  

It also serves to highlight that Australian women often still don't receive the respect or treatment a man in the same position would receive.

But if it makes you feel like a "big man" to act this way, you need to watch out.  We've all got rulers and we're ready to see if you really measure up or not.  

Monday, 10 June 2013

Older, wiser travel?

On my first big trip overseas, I packed just three t-shirts and a litre of Pert shampoo/conditioner for the two-month odyssey.

When I returned home I never wanted to see those three shirts again and I had about 750ml of Pert remaining.   Who knew Europe had shampoo as well?

In the more than decade since that first trip, I feel as though my travel habits have radically changed.

But am I a wiser and better traveller for it?   Mmmm, maybe.

Here are eight ways my travel habits have changed with... ahem... age:

1. Planning
I have no idea how anyone ever found themselves anywhere before the internet, and more specifically Google Earth and Google Maps.  On my very first trip to the UK, I was dropped at a London tube station.   I had no idea where I was or how to get where I was going.  Today, I not only know where the hotel is, but how I'm getting from the airport, when the train/bus leaves, how much it costs, and backup options.   Surprises while travelling are all very well and good, but I don't want to waste time on the nitty gritty logistics.

Following the highlighted road around Scotland

2. The flight kit
I've always admired people who can just wander onto a plane in shorts and a t-shirt bound for Europe with just a book and their ticket as the bookmark.  I just can't do it.   If I'm in economy (which is 100% of the time), I need to import some comfort for the 25-plus hour trip from Australia to Europe.   My dedicated flight kit has the essentials: eye mask, ear plugs, neck cushion, foot cushion, sleeping tablets, lip balm, eye drops etc.  I know it sounds precious, but let's face it, it's a long way.

3. Flashpacking
It strikes me how so many of us use a backpack, but also how little time this pack actually spends on our back.   While my backpack can go on my back, it also has wheels, which get more of workout than me.  Inside, I'm packing a little more than three t-shirts.   It's not a massive wardrobe, but something that could better accommodate anything that is thrown at me.  To be fair, I was never a hardcore backpacker and I'm unlikely to ever be.   Instead, I'm a probably more of a "flashpacker" who has an outfit of (almost) all occasions.

An outfit for (almost) all occasions: Madrid
An outfit for (almost) all occasions: Vienna

4. The slower road
My first trips were like sprints, trying to cram as much in as possible in a short amount of time.  Why spend three days in a city when if you rush around like crazy you could "knock it over" in two and "tick another city off" on the way.   Today, I still cram a bit in.   But I've also taken to self-guided cycling trips that force me to take it slower and appreciate what I'm doing a bit more.

Taking the slow road in the Loire Valley, France

5. Travel break
It sounds crazy.  After all, isn't the entire trip a break?  While it's great to be on holidays, there can be a "constantly on the go" feeling, so I like to incorporate a mid-holiday break.  Ideally, I'm in some self-contained accommodation for a few days where I can do some washing, have a meal at home, flop around in my pjs in the morning while I have breakfast, and not "have to" rush and see or do anything.   Funnily enough, some of these breaks have proven to be the most rewarding, relaxing and memorable.

Soaking up the sights in Budapest

6.  Clothes that will never see home again
I use travel to cleanse my wardrobe.  I take clothes that I know will never come home.  This includes undies, socks, t-shirts, shirts and jumpers that are close to the end of their lives.   Along the way I start jettisoning items - often resulting in cleaning staff running after me thinking I've mistakenly left them behind.   In my mind, this also creates space for potential new purchases.

Washing by the Ganges at Varanasi, India
7. If it seems too good to be true...
That guy rushing at you at the train station with "bargain" accommodation and that girl who "just wants to practise her English" with you?   Chances are whatever they're offering is going to cost you more than you think.  I don't rush at tourists when I'm at home, so I'm wary of the motivations of people who rush at me when I'm playing tourist.

Sometimes you really stand out as a tourist... and sometimes you make the front page of an Indian newspaper because of it

8. Homeward-bound stopover
The days of maximising the "time on the ground" and catching the latest possible flight home are gone. I find I can travel from Australia to Europe direct and happily wake up the next day to go sightseeing.   I can't fly straight home and then go to work.   It's all just too hard; the jetlag, combined with post-holiday depression, is overwhelming and debilitating.  This makes a Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur stopover essential.   A few days to just sleep in, catch up on time zones and brace yourself for a return to reality.

A Singapore stopover

Thursday, 6 June 2013

God save our Queen (and others like her)

Blame Downton Abbey or call it "old age", but like my grandmother before me (and possibly hers before her) I'm becoming more engrossed with the Royals with each passing year.

And not just the British Royals.   

Why limit myself to just one royal family, when there's a whole royal world out there to explore?

The Royal Palace at Fez, Morocco
Of course there's the Danish Royals with "our" Princess Mary, but in recent years I've discovered the Swedish Royals, the Norwegian Royals and the Dutch Royals.  They've even got some tucked away in Morocco, Thailand, Japan and Jordan!

Why, I feel like I "see" some of these royal families more often them some members of my own family.

Interestingly, I've never actually met any member of any royal family,  though I've wandered through a fair few of their palaces and have seen quite a few boats named after them.

The Lady Diana at Chester

What's disturbing about this royal love affair is that I used to be staunchly anti-monarchy.

Bizarrely, I still am.   

I think Australia does need to become a republic, but I also see a role for the Royals... just not here in Australia.

At our primary school in the early 1980s, we still sang God Save The Queen as the national anthem, before Advance Australia Fair decided we were "girt by sea".

Then I thought it was preposterous that we should be singing about some lady who lived on the other side of the world.  What did she know about my life?   Did she play handball under the classrooms during the lunch break?

But with the passing years, I've come to appreciate the history associated with royal families.

"Our" Princess Mary

They represent a history unique to their land stretching back centuries that impacted generations, and people who have played integral roles, both good and bad, in shaping their respective countries.

Where once I saw classism and the unequal distribution of wealth, I now see important national icons (and some pretty impressive clothes, castles and jewels).

While sometimes I think it would be nice to be a royal, I'm not naive to think it's all garden parties and masquerade balls.  Instead, it seems being born a royal today means, whether they wanted it or not, a life filled with hospital wing openings, shaking hands with strangers, and trying to inspire the uninspired.
The Swedish Royal Family's summer palace, Drottningholm Palace
There's also something appealing about having an apolitical national figurehead and the pomp and ceremony that comes with it.  

Someone that is a country's constant and not just warming a seat that's up for grabs every election cycle.  

While the British Queen is meant to fulfil that job description in Australia, it's fair to say she rarely turns up to her "Australian office". 

Royal Palace in Copenhagen
And given Australians' fondness for felling "tall poppies", it seems unlikely that we would ever be able to single out a replacement royal family from our own ranks.  Who would we appoint?  The Packers?  The Rineharts?  The Murdochs?

No.  Whether it is years or decades away, it seems inevitable that Australia will eventually be a republic.

In the meantime, the Queen's gift to us is this Queen's Birthday long weekend.

And I love her for it!

Buckingham Palace gates: as close as I'll probably get

Sunday, 2 June 2013

There's a bear in there

Home owners certainly have a lot of options when it comes to household security.

There's window bars, sensor lights, alarms... oh and bears.

Bears were the option the occupants of Cesky Krumlov Castle, in the Czech Republic, opted for when looking to bolster their peace of mind.

At first I thought I must be seeing things when I sighted the brown shaggy shadow lurking in the waterless castle moat.

But sure enough, it was a bear.  And it's not alone.  There are a few of them down there apparently.

Yes.  It's a bear
A bear in the bear moat

It seems bears were the animal motif of the noble Rosenberg family, who once had their seat here.  So I guess bear moats make sense... sort of.

As home entrances go, a bear moat certainly beats a potted topiary plant any day.

Apart from verging on animal cruelty, it also seems the bear moat is an unnecessary way for the castle to try and stand out from the European castle crowd; the castle itself is already one of the most striking you will see.

Entering Cesky Krumlov Castle
The castle keeping an eye on the town below

As soon as we left the Cesky Krumlov train station we spotted castle towering above.

Perched on a rock cliff above the Vlatava River and the town, Cesky Krumlov Castle demands attention because of its size and its colourful paint job.  

Colourful wall murals trick the eye with the illusion of carved detail
Deploying the 3D painting technique trompe l'oeil, it seems almost every wall and ceiling is covered in detailed murals that "trick the eye".   From a distance it looks as though the castle is brimming with alcoves, statues, intricate carvings and brickwork, but in fact they've just been painted on the flat walls with an expert hand.

The castle is also quite a sprawling complex (one of the largest in Europe) as different generations have made their own additions and extensions over the centuries.

The castle lit by sunset

Wandering around the UNESCO World Heritage Listed old town, we thought we had stepped back into the Middle Ages.

We had made our way to Cesky Krumlov from Salzburg in Austria and were surprised to find an even prettier and more charming old town.

From the expansive town square, a network of cobblestone streets lined with colourful buildings (no doubt inspired by the castle) spread out around the river.  While others chose to paddle their canoes in the water, we were more than happy to just relax in the riverside cafes.  It's just one of those places where the best thing to do, is do nothing at all.

The Vltava River snakes its way below the castle
Rolling green hills fit for Medieval knights on horses flank the town, completing the picture perfect view.

Sadly, a view the moat bears will never get to see.

View from the castle's gardens