Saturday, 27 July 2013

What would the neighbours say?

Given the storm it has created in Australia, I was surprised to discover this week on a visit to Papua New Guinea that many PNG residents seem relatively unfazed by the plan to send Australia’s asylum seekers there.

While it continues to dominate the headlines of Australian newspapers, in PNG the story has been bumped to a minor story on page 3 or 4 while the royal birth occupies more important space.

Though talking to a few residents, this is probably more a reflection of the local laid-back style than acceptance of the plan as a fantastic idea.   They’re also fairly used to their politicians doing questionable things in open and behind closed doors.

I had expected some people to be outraged that their country had suddenly become Australia’s “asylum seeking dumping ground”, or concerned about the long-term impact on the country’s infrastructure and communities from the influx.

But, and the Australian Government obviously recognised and capitalised on this, for this developing country, money talks.

For many PNG residents I spoke to, they believe if asylum seekers know they will end up in PNG that will be a sufficient deterrent to those heading to Australia in the first place.   Not sure what that says about their own perception of their home, but I’m presuming these residents don’t work for PNG Tourism.

In fact some reckon they won’t end up getting any, but more importantly, still be able to pocket the money Australia’s put on the table to fund desperately-needed infrastructure.

And if there is a massive influx, some locals joke that Manus Island will blossom into some cosmopolitan metropolis as a result of Australia’s infrastructure spending on the island.

Still, just like PNG can sometimes be “out of sight, out of mind” for many Australians, so too is Manus Island to many Papua New Guineans.

Strangely, the detail of how or if any asylum seekers would ultimately be settled in PNG has yet to really be determined.   It’s clear this is the Australian Government’s intention, but not necessarily the PNG Government’s.

And in amongst all the scheming and dreaming are the actual asylum seekers, presumably making the perilous journey in the first place to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The three faces of the Little Mermaid

Small on size, but big on visitor numbers, The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen is surprisingly... well... little.

She sits quietly on a rock in the city's harbour, wistfully looking out to sea.

The original Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen harbour 

Chances are most people who visit the Danish capital have taken the pretty stroll along the harbour to visit her.

Based on the 1837 fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and immortalised in the Disney animated film, she represents the young mermaid willing to give up her identify to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince.
Hans Christian Andersen

Created by sculptor Edward Eriksen and unveiled in 1913, this small statue has seen more than its fair share of real-life drama having been vandalised several times over the decades.

But there are two other faces to the Little Mermaid some Copenhagen visitors may not see.  It turns out this Little Mermaid (let's call her "Demure"), who adorns the city's postcards, is just one member of a set of triplets.

Nearby, just where the cruise ships pull in, is another more "enhanced" version of the Little Mermaid.   Let's call her "Busty".

Another version of The Little Mermaid that's not so little

As perky as a Miss America contestant and not shy about putting her best assets forward, this Little Mermaid is bigger in almost every facet compared to her sibling and no doubt quite the crowd pleaser.   
Not too far away, but attracting far few visitors, is the final member of the sisterhood and the strangest of creations.  Let's call her "Special".

Called The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid, this "post-modern" effort believes the Little Mermaid would have looked more like this when she decided to use sorcery to tamper with her genetic form to become a human.

Made by Danish artist Bjorn Norgaard, The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid looks a little sad and unloved.

Out of the three sisters - Demure, Busty and Special -  it's probably no surprise why Disney decided to base the character of Ariel on the more child-friendly version for its film.

Genetically Modified Little Mermaid 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Comfort's in the bag

Some travellers can wander onto the plane for a 30-hour journey to Europe with just their boarding pass and a smile.

I don't know how they do it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who try to smuggle aboard massive carry-on bags that threaten to crush fellow passengers while it is crammed into the overhead locker.

Call me what you like but I like to be comfortable

But I do like to go prepared.

While my "flight essentials pack" has grown over the years, I feel my flight kit means I'm ready for all eventualities.  I even pack all my bits and bobs in a tote bag I keep inside my daypack so that when I get on board I can pull it all out in one go rather than faff around during boarding and clog the aisle.

For me it's about making the flight as relaxing and as conducive to sleep as possible.  Sure I've got the eye mask and ear plugs, but I'm always on the lookout for what else can help.   I figure you tend to be disturbed by three things while on a plane: cabin noise, the cold or general discomfort.

Here's five important parts of my flight kit:

1.  Puffy vest:  a portable doona
I discovered the power of a puffy vest by accident.  I wore it on a flight to Canada for skiing and was anticipating a chilly arrival.  I noticed wearing the puffy vest not only kept me warm on the plane when the cabin got chilly, but also gave me a nice cushioned lining against the hard plane seat.

On a flight you're just looking for a comfy ride
2.  Foot cushion:  a pillow for the feet
Ok.  So this sounds precious, but I found I was much more comfortable with a cushion under my feet.   There's something about the plane floor's vibration on my feet for a long period of time that makes them start to ache.   With this trick I can almost imagine I'm sleeping somewhere much more comfortable.  Almost.

3.  Food:  snacks on the move
While taking food sounds like I'm preparing for a series of Survivor, I like to be able to have a snack when I want to.  Some rice crackers or muesli bars are just the ticket when delays or slack inflight service hit.   On one eight-hour flight to Singapore (after a two hour delay sitting on the tarmac awaiting take-off), I was served just a light lunch at the start and then nothing else.   People literally ran off the plane in Singapore in search of food.  Oh and some mints wouldn't be a bad idea either if you're planning on striking up conversation with anyone else on the plane.  

I like to pretend I'm here, not there

4.  Noise-cancelling headphones:  a sweet slice of shhhhhhh...
A bit of a luxury, but their ability to tune out the plane's engine and hundreds of other people is pretty remarkable.   Not the most comfortable to sleep in as you invariably end up crushing one ear, but for a moment you can almost imagine you have the plane to yourself or that you're really sitting in the pointy end of the plane.  After a lengthy trip from Sydney to Athens some years ago when the crew had "forgotten" to pack the headphones for the entertainment system, I resolved to always bring my own headphones.

Sometimes it's all about sensory deprivation
5.  Sleeping tablets:  the post-meal snack
No doubt frowned upon by the medical fraternity, but a sleeping tablet washed down with a white wine means I can gain a good four hours of sleep.   I can still be easily woken, as demonstrated when the hostess once rammed her trolley into my legs, but it gives a nice "detachment" that helps you stay relaxed or asleep a little longer.

What's in your flight kit?   Care to share?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Why travel should be a tax deduction

It's tax time once again.

Normally I don't mind my annual visit to accountant Greg (such an accountant name) to have my tax done as I usually get a little bit back.  Though I always enter his office with the slight concern that I might have to pay even more tax.

This was the case a few years ago when some capital gains left me with a nasty surprise to pay.   Judging by his complete lack of reaction, Greg had seen tearful taxpayers before.

And it is about this time each year I feel like my travel really should be classed as a tax-deductable education expense.

A class in Hue, Vietnam, but the kids teach travellers a lesson
After all, is there any better teacher of history, culture, places, geography and human behaviour than travel?   And I'd like to think that travel helps make us all slightly better and more useful global citizens who can look a little further than the back fence.

I'm happily a student of travel with hopefully a long way to go before "graduation".  To prove it, here are 10 sometimes contradictory things I've learnt so far from travel:

1.  Same same, but different
Regardless of whether you're in a village in Cambodia, city in India or hamlet in England, it's pretty amazing how when we get together in groups and communities we tend to do the same things: talk, eat, laugh, play, hope, cry, share and create.

2.  Life's a lottery and it's a matter of geography
Chances are your religion, what you wear, what you eat and even your life expectancy have all been shaped by your geography rather than any conscious decision on your part.  Be grateful for what you have as you could probably be a whole lot worse off.  

3.  There are a lot of us
I'm usually reminded of this fact when I'm boarding a plane to some unusual destination and I've convinced myself I will have the plane to myself as who else would be heading there?   Needless to say, the plane is packed and clearly there are a lot of people in the world.   Visits to some Asian, Indian and European cities also confirm this.

4.  It 'ain't easy being vegetarian
Travelling with a vegetarian friend through Germany (possibly one of the most carnivorous countries) made me realise how difficult it can be to meet different dietary requirements when travelling.  Thankfully I'll eat most things - which is just as well as often you don't have a lot of choice when travelling.

A classroom in rural India
5.  My travel experiences would have been different if I wasn't a white, male Australian  
I've come to realise that being a white male from Australia  has allowed me the freedom to have fairly untroubled travel experiences so far.   I'm reminded that in some destinations, women and people from other countries or ethic backgrounds might not have such a great time or receive the same treatment.

6.  Some people shouldn't travel
At a Moroccan hotel last year, I began talking to a group of Australian and New Zealand travellers.  Surprisingly, not only could they not tell me where they had just been in Morocco or where their next destination was, but they also had no intention of leaving the pool to discover the beautiful town they were currently in.   It begged the question why they left home in the first place.   Cheap beer is less cheap when a European airfare is added in.

Learning new things while travelling

7.  You're nowhere without a map
On one of my first trips overseas I was unexpectedly left in Bangkok for the day without a map.   I had absolutely no idea where I was or what I really saw, though I know there was an Emerald Buddha and Reclining Buddha in there somewhere.  I learnt my lesson.

8.  Small fish, very big ocean
Sometimes I get anxious before going on holidays, feeling I'm leaving others in the lurch or that maybe "everything" will collapse in my absence.  But the world does keep turning and life goes on well after I've boarded the plane.   This reminds us me that we are all small fish in a very big ocean and that very few things in life are worth worrying about.

Mahatma Gandhi, just one of the world's many teachers

9.  No one cares what your food looks like so stop posting pictures on Facebook
This one speaks for itself.

10.  Australia isn't the best place in the world...
... but it isn't the worst either.  People who claim Australia is the best place in the world have usually never left it, or have travelled with tainted perceptions and a hint of arrogance.  Most countries have their positives and their negatives.

What have you learnt from travel?

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Paris' underground beauty

Given its reputation, you expect Paris to always be looking its best: beautiful boulevards lined with fancy facades alongside well-tended gardens and streets.

But it seems the city's decorative order is more than just skin deep.

Welcome to the Paris Catacombs
After stepping down 130 steps (20 metres) from a city street, my friend and I descend into the Paris Catacombs, one of the most ordered collections of skulls and bones you're ever likely to find (should you ever actually be looking for such a thing).

Walls of neatly stacked bones and skulls

This is the final resting place for the remains of about six million Parisians that were gradually transferred here from 1780s onwards as the graveyards above were being closed because of public health concerns.

During the French Revolution, which began just a few years after the Paris Catacombs became an ossuary, some Parisians were buried directly in the catacombs.

The disused quarry tunnels became an underground ossuary in the 1780s
Over the centuries many cities have struggled with what to do with their dead at some point or another.  For Paris, the kilometres of disused quarry tunnels under the city provided an ideal storage space.

With the remains of six million Parisians you are never really alone down here

The Paris Catacombs is a maze of long, dark and narrow passageways, with a two kilometre section open to the public.  Though this can feel slightly longer when strolling along in semi-darkness.

Walls of femurs with a decorative line of skulls
Illuminated in the low light are neatly stacked piles of femurs and skulls, forming decorative walls along the passageways.

Occasionally we pass a locked steel gate, behind which were further tunnels of bones stretching off into the darkness.

Decoratively macabre
Paris' "dead centres" (sorry, dad joke), like Pere Lachaise cemetery, are renown for their peaceful beauty.   It seems this philosophy has been extended underground too.

Paris is not alone in deploying bones for decoration, with Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic probably taking the gold medal in this category.

But the Paris Catacombs aren't too far behind.  Apparently it was a few decades after the first remains were brought here that someone decided to arrange the in bones in a more decorative fashion.   It's a striking, if not a little macabre, result.

More walls of skulls
Some arrangements are more "artistic" than others, with one wall featuring a heart shape formed from skulls.   I note this home decor trend has yet to catch on.  

Every bone has its place
At the end of the trek through the catacombs, we emerge back into daylight on an ordinary Paris street.

Strangely, it's not the street from which we first entered.  Much like when we were in the tunnels below, we have no idea where we are.

We leave the Paris Catacombs a little disturbed and a little lost, but also a little appreciative of Paris' underground beauty.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Strangers are just people you haven't run with yet

A day after running the Gold Coast Airport Marathon and it's fair to say I'm still walking a little bit like a 70-year old man.

Still, I can't complain as I seem to have recovered better than many others who ran the 42km.

Immediately after the finish line there was a shaded grass area and yesterday it resembled a war zone with prostate bodies writhing in pain.

Some managed to hobble away, while others needed the assistance of loved ones to make it anywhere.

My stiff knees and tight muscles will probably hang around for a few more days yet, which begs the question: "was it worth all it?".

Strangely, it really was.

There's something about events like these that give me a real buzz.  Just finishing the race gave me a sense of accomplishment I don't often get; life rarely seems to consist of discrete "projects", but more a blurred series of events that roll into each other.   Yet this was the culmination of my 16-week running project.

Interestingly, the physical act of running is just one part of why events like these give me a great kick.  Without getting too warm and fuzzy, you actually end up sharing some nice little moments with complete strangers who make you think, smile and admire.

Here are five little vignettes from yesterday:

1.  Cerebral palsy sufferer Daryl Howe and amputee Michael Milton
I only briefly saw Run Happy Daz (this was the name on Daryl's bib) and amputee Michael Milton briefly as I looped back on the running pack, but the Herculean effort they showed almost stopped me in my tracks.   Daryl has C6 cerebral palsy, the highest form of physical disability for the condition, and was told he would never run.   More than a dozen marathons later (including New York and London), he, along with Paralympian skier Michael, really prove there are no excuses not to get off the couch.

Daryl Howe sets off

Michael Milton crosses the line

2.  The encouraging grunter
Sometime around the 39km mark I was really hurting and desperately willing the finish line to be brought forward a few kilometres.   That's when a man in a red shirt ran up alongside me and gave me an encouraging pat on the back.   In between grunting from his own discomfort, he started urging me on with words of encouragement.   He was clearly in pain, yet somehow found the energy to spur on a complete stranger.  Thank you!

3.  British lady in the toilet queue
There is nothing like the universal need to pee to bring people together.  I chatted with this lady while we were both waiting in line for the port-o-loos.   She was out from the UK and was a little bit nervous about running on the Gold Coast for the first time. We chatted for quite a while before newly-vacant toilets beckoned us, and this helped settle both our pre-race nerves.  I hope she enjoyed the run!

4.  Little Bo Peep pace runner & friends
Just when there was a danger of taking the event too seriously (we're not all aspiring Olympians after all) you come across the crazy characters.  Yesterday there was a guy running with/in a tuba, a male pace runner dressed like Little Bo Peep and a host of other colourful costumes.   It reminds you why you started running in the first place and that running can indeed be fun.

Some runners use ipods, other use tubas

5.  Everyone who yelled "Go Matty"
When someone first yelled my name, I looked to see if it was someone I knew.   Then I remembered my name was on my bib.   Along the 42km path, I heard my name quite a few times (but only a few of those were from people I actually knew) and each time it made keep going and momentarily forget my aching legs.   I've never stood on the side of the road on a sunny Sunday morning to encourage and clap at complete strangers, but perhaps I should.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Vietnamese hat trick

Like many visitors to Vietnam, I thought it was a good idea at the time.

But buying the traditional conical straw hat was the easy part.

Getting it home intact was considerably more difficult.

It certainly couldn't be packed, which meant carrying it through numerous airports and past customs officials in several countries on the way home.

It also meant never resting on the plane.  Instead, I needed to keep an eye out for other passengers seemingly keen to put their duty-free bottles on top of it.

My conical hat - home safe and sound

Thankfully, the hat survived the journey home as several years on it has become one of my most treasured travel souvenirs. 

It sits on top of a lamp, thereby illuminating one of its hidden secrets.

It was made by a lady our little travel group visited in the city of Hue.

She's something of a local celebrity, not just because of the quality of her hats, but because she makes them with only one hand.

The hat maker from Hue
A legacy of the chemical warfare used in the country, the hat maker has one five-fingered hand and a stump with one finger on the other arm.

Despite this, she spends her days making conical hats with considerable skill.  This is how she supports her family.

Assembling the hat from scratch
Her decorative flourish can be seem when you hold the hat up to the light.

Thanks for stencils cut from newspaper and inserted between the layers of straw, a range of silhouettes appear when the hat is backlit.

A boat on a lake

A pagoda reflected in a lake

Lovers hidden in the hat