Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A hopeful 2014

I don't really have new year's resolutions.  I feel that if there's something I really want to do or change, then I should do so at any time of the year.

I also find the new year period a bit disheartening.  I've made it through a full 365 days only to be rewarded with... another year.

I'd like there would be some kind of prize for passing 31 December, like bonus FlyBuys points, a lucky bamboo plant or something like that.

So while I haven't scribbled out a list of resolutions, I do have six hopes for the year ahead.

Some of these hopes are things I can make a reality, while others are in the hands of the universe (or people much further up the food chain than me!).

1.  I hope for inspiring leaders
The recent passing of Nelson Mandela made me reflect on that fact that there seems to be a shrinking list of inspirational world leaders.  People who make you feel as though they are fighting for the greater good and someone you might actually put your faith and trust in.   It could just be the aftertaste of the Australian federal election in 2013, but it seems like the more recent crop of leaders are really just bookkeepers who don't have much vision to offer.   After all, aren't good leaders supposed to unite rather than divide?

2.  I hope not to see Miley Cyrus' pubic mound or bum anymore
We get it Miley, if you flash a bit more flesh, you'll sell a few more downloads.  You're not the first and you won't be the last to try this trick.   Some of us remember Madonna's Sex book - something even she's not too proud of these days.   I don't mind Miley's music, but that really took a back seat in 2013 while she showed us her backside.   To me she is simply the latest representation of the uber trivial (but which seems to gain so much media space and demand so much of our attention).   Meanwhile, Keeping Up With the Kardashians Season Eight is now available on DVD.   There seems to be about seven things wrong with that last sentence.

Not a picture of Miley

3.  I hope for more work/life balance
The start of the new year can feel like the worst time.  After the "honeymoon" of January, I sometimes feel as though there's a big, long year staring back at me.  It can seem equally overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.  I'm sure we could all do with some more work/life balance, but how do we actually do that?  For me, travel, running and even this blog are some of the ways I steal a bit of time for myself, but I'm always open to new ideas!

Everyone needs to take time out

4.  I hope to meet a nice car salesperson
No, this isn't my EHarmony dating request.  After 15 years, I'm contemplating replacing my Hyundai Excel.  While the car still hums along (a little bit louder humming these days), I have been eyeing off a few of the newer models.  These ones don't have a tape player like the Excel, but do come with remote locking, electric windows and all the other dodads.  I've encountered a few car sales people of late and it makes me want to keep driving the Excel for another 15 years.  The lies, games and theatrics they go on with make it all seem too hard.
Calling on all divine powers to point me to an honest car salesperson

5.  I hope for a bit more empathy, equality and progression
I've never been massively political, but the global moment towards marriage equality is a source of hope and frustration.   In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to parliament.  As a young nation we seemed to have started strongly with a bold statement about freedom, equality and rights, but have since lost our way.  Our stance on marriage equality, Aboriginal recognition and rights, immigration and refugees isn't one that's exactly something to boast about.  Politicians say there are more "pressing matters" to focus on, such as debt reduction and taxation reform.  Really?  Does living with a surplus trump equality and fairness every time?
Stepping forward rather than backwards in 2014

6.  I hope for health and happiness for me and for you
If none of the above comes to pass during the next 12 months, it will still be a great year if we have health and happiness on our side.  Strap yourself in, 2014 is about to begin!

Like Mickey says

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Desert heat

It feels like the Sahara has followed me home.

With the mercury on the rise in Brisbane town, everything is starting to adopt a shade of brown.  

This, coupled with the usual holiday exodus to the coast, means the city is looking like a desert in more ways than one.
The Sahara (or is it Brisbane this summer?)
But at least when I visited the Sahara in Morocco the temperature fell below 20 degrees Celsius at night for a bit of cool relief.

In fact, it was almost a little chilly in our desert tents (complete with double mattresses - I think you'd call it "glamping"!).

To reach our camp among the seemingly endless Sahara sand dunes, we had headed out on camels from our base hotel about an hour before sunset.  

Despite the ride being a little uncomfortable, I was happy to be sitting on a camel rather than in a car; it had been a hot, dusty and bumpy drive on a dirt road to get here.

Heading out into the desert on camels
As we were approaching the Sahara we could see its sand dunes looming on the horizon.  It was as if an invisible barrier was keeping the dunes at bay as they just rose out of the flat, stony plain.

The colours and shadows of the Sahara
Our base hotel was literally in the middle of nowhere, but we weren't staying here the night.  Instead we headed off on camels in search of our desert camp for the night.

Sunset shadows in the Sahara
Our guide, comfortable in his flip flops, led our camel train off into the dunes.  

Among the undulations of the sand dunes I quickly lost my sense of direction and distance.  Things that looked only a few steps away were in fact quite far across across a valley of sand.

A rare green sighting
Apart form the occasional tuft of grass or tree, it was sand as far as the eye could see.   

But with the fading sun, the dunes were taking on different shades of yellow and orange.  Deep shadows were also being cast by the wind-formed peaks.

The peak of a dune formed by the wind
We reached our desert camp before sunset, but then trekked up a large sand dune to watch the sunset from the top.  

With the dune collapsing under each footstep, getting to the top was a mammoth task where two steps forward usually meant one step back.  But we were rewarded with not only a vibrant sunset, but also the arrival of a full moon.

The full moon peaking up in the distance and our little desert camp in the foreground
Without the sun, the heat quickly evaporated and we headed back down to our camp for the night.   

The camp was cosy and comfortable.  Needless to say, if camping had been like this as a kid perhaps I would have enjoyed it more.   

And in contrast to the heat of the day, a cool night breeze meant I even had to pull up the blanket on my bed.

Our desert camp in the morning
Camels ready to head home in the early morning
We were awoken before sunrise to watch the sun make it's grand entrance for the day.   

In a blaze of glory, the sun was back and so was the heat.

Here comes the sun

The patterns of the Sahara

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Get ready to fight at the Boxing Day sales

With gifts unwrapped, food eaten and Christmas festivities complete for another year, it's time to turn our attention to Boxing Day.

While online shopping has taken some of the appeal out of the Boxing Day sales, it can still be a treasure trove if you know what you want.

For me, it's all about sheets and towels. 

As a veteran of many Boxing Day sales, including lining up before the stores open, I have 10 Boxing Day sales tips for successfully navigating this melting pot of humanity.  

1.   Get in and get out quickly.  It's a sprint, not a marathon.  

2.  Go early or don't go at all.  It only gets busier as the day progresses.

3.  Check online Boxing Day catalogues first to narrow down your shopping list.  This isn't the time to wander and browse.   Stores make it really clear through their online catalogues (available now) what their specials are so you can pre-plan.  This also helps to also reduce impulse buys that you'll only regret.

4.  Check store opening times.   Some department stores like Target and Kmart open before Myer so plan where you're going to head first to efficiently use your time.

5.  Take a big blue Ikea bag.   These scrunch up but can be unfurled to accommodate a plethora of purchases.   This means instead of many little plastic bags cutting into your hands, you just have one over-the-shoulder bag.  You'll be the envy of other shoppers.

6.  Leave kids, partners, friends and family at home.   This isn't a family fun day out.   

7.  Be prepared to see the ugly side of humanity.   Some people react to a sales bin as if it was a Red Cross food van in a disaster zone; there's a lot of pushing, shoving and a bit of scratching.

9.  Know your size.  Assume that the dressing rooms will be a no-go zone.  At the very least, wear clothes and footwear that enable quick changes or trying on over the top of what you're wearing.

10. Be nice to the staff.  By the end of Boxing Day they will have dealt with hundreds of rude idiots.   Expect delays, waiting, confusion and disappointment; this is the price you pay for discounted goods.

Boxing Day sales may not be pretty, but they can be rewarding if you're smart about it!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Christmas break list

This Christmas I've got grand plans.

Not so much for the day itself, but for the days that follow.  You see I've made a list (checked it twice) of things I want to get done around the home this Christmas break.

Some of these things have been sitting on the list for a while now (years even), but sometimes it feels the only time you actually have the time to get things done is the period after Christmas before heading back to work for the new year.

Will my home look like this by the end of the Christmas break? Probably not.
I'm off to a strong start and have already repainted two set of stairs at my unit block.   It's something that I've been wanting to do for a while to help protect the wooden stairs.   Surprisingly it didn't take long to do at all.  

Though I think seeing me slave away with a paint brush this weekend made the other owners and tenants feel uncomfortable... so they all got in their cars and headed out for the two days.

I'm also tackling the common gardens.   This has been a work-in-progress for about five years but it feels like it's finally getting some momentum.  

Taming / poisoning the garden is also on the list

When I bought my unit here the gardens were heavily overgrown and there were parts out the back that I'm pretty sure hadn't seen a human since the first European settlers.  

So with a trusty pruning saw and heaps of tree poison, it's starting to take shape.   I'm not ashamed to admit this has taken a bit of a toll on me.  I've got a fair few scratches and I seem to have a unique knack of dropping things on my feet - from tools to tree trunks and most things in between.

A water feature perhaps?
When other owners see me fell large branches and labouriously chop them up into small pieces to fit into the green wheelie bin, they sometimes say I should leave all this gardening business to the gardener.  

That sounds like a great idea!  Except we don't have a gardener.  I'm not sure who else they've seen pottering around the garden but I'm pretty sure it's just been me, my saw and poison for the past five years.
Should I put a moat in? It would certainly help keep people away

But it isn't just outside areas that are on the to-do list this Christmas (and yes, there is a daily list).  I've decided (foolishly?) to repaint my interior walls.   It's only a two-bedroom unit so how hard could it be? 

Yes.  Well.   Let's say it's taking longer than I expected.  Probably because I'm trying to still live in the unit while this happens.   I've almost done one coat of my bedroom walls and the end result is not looking too bad.  

To be honest I'm a bit like Mr Bean painting - a clumsy comedy of errors where I often step on the paint tin lid, lean on painted walls, drip paint on the carpet etc.

Picking the right colour.   Always hard to find the right shade for you.

The real winner from all these endeavours is my local Bunnings store, which I now seem to visit more than I do the supermarket.  I'm now on "knowing smile" terms with the checkout lady.  She's used to seeing me pop in several times a day picking up something else I had forgotten to pick up earlier.  And thanks to the lovely lady at the paint counter I confirmed that Lexicon Quarter, not White on White or Peplin, was the right white for me.

I'm guessing I may be spilling a bit of paint and a few tears during the next two weeks, but with a bit of luck and co-ordination my home will be looking refreshed... even if I don't. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Get f...estive!

While children wait for Santa, it seems everyone else is impatiently waiting to finish work for the year.

Whether they're wrapping up this Friday or on Christmas Eve itself, many people are exuding a frantic energy as they try to "tidy loose ends" for 2013.

This means all those things that have been sitting on their list of "Things To Do in 2013" since January are now urgently being ticked off - no matter what!

It's as though people forget that it's pretty much guaranteed that there will be another year after this one (and let's face it, if there isn't we're screwed and it doesn't matter what was left undone on your list).

It's not as though we're starring in a reality television show that may or may not be renewed for another season, depending on how much is achieved during the last few episodes of the current season.

It's so easy to get caught up in all of this, but I'm trying to stay festive (thanks to a good helping of Christmas carols and Christmas-themed movies).

Last Sunday, some friends and I watched the Christmas Parade through Brisbane's Queen Street Mall, before catching the light show on Brisbane City Hall.  Forget a few stray fairy lights and a winking Rudolph, the Gold Lotto City Hall Light Spectacular is a 3D animated show that's pretty stunning.

The vibrant projections, complete with sound, show a fantasy toy factory; adding a magical quality not usually seen around this part of the city.

Here are some samples of what it looks like and I hope it helps you get festive!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

A gent in Ghent

Ghent is hardly a secret spot for tourists, but at the same time I can't help feel that it's a little overlooked in favour of its "Hollywood" neighbour Bruges.

Bruges was catapulted even further into the tourist spotlight by the film "In Bruges".

To redress the balance, today I'm sending a little bit of love Ghent's way.

Ghent and Bruges share quite a few things in common, including waterways, belfries and the fact that they go by multiple spellings (Ghent, Gent / Bruges, Brugge).

Ghent is a little bit larger, but its old town is a wonderful network of old buildings, waterways, squares and some pedestrianised streets.  

Easily explored on foot, you feel like you have a little more room to move in Ghent compared to Bruges, especially when the day-trippers have hit town.

View from the belfry
Ghent's Belfry
Dragon on top of the Belfry
The River Leie that winds its way through the city is the focal point for old town, with especially pretty rows of buildings on the Korenlei and Graslei.

Graslei along the River Lys

Another view of the Graslei

And another of the Graslei

On the opposite side, the Korenlei

Further along the river is Gravensteen Castle.  Originally built in 1180 it was used as a seat of the Counts of Flanders, and then a courthouse, prison and even factory.   It's crumbling remains were then heavily restored during the past 100 years.

Gravensteen Castle

View from the top of the castle
One of the more curious sites is the Great Butcher's Hall.   Also on the river, here large legs of ham hang from wooden ceiling trusses.

Great Butcher's Hall in the early morning mist
Hams hanging from the roof of the Great Butcher's Hall

Riverside room

Ghent homes

Veerleplein - where a street lamp lights up when a baby is born at a Ghent maternity ward
Bridge over the River Leie 
St Michael's Church - is that the parish boat?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Castle fit for a hermit

It's hitting that time of year again when becoming a hermit is looking like a viable career move for 2014.

I've often fantasised about retreating to a far-flung destination - out of reach of phones, people and work emails.  

But where is the perfect home for a hermit these days?

I've come across a few lighthouses that tick a lot of the boxes, but you've got to think anything that has a big light on top is bound to invite attention and send the wrong message to passersby.  And then there's the electricity bills to consider.

Scotland's Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle on Scotland's north-east coast has firmed as a favourite in my mind since I visited it a few years ago.

Sure it's a medieval fortress in ruins, but I'd prefer to think of it as a long-term home renovation project.

A feature wall here, a pagoda there and I'm sure it would be a slice of paradise.   Somewhere to escape it all and watch the mist come rolling in from the North Sea.

Buying property is all about compromise
Some say ruins, I say worst house on best coastline

As with all property, it's all about location, location, location.

Dunnottar Castle is ideal as it sits on a rocky outcrop with high cliffs.  It is only connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land - something that could easily be defended against invaders or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Nice high cliffs to deter visitors
And a sea view!
It's seen a fair bit of action over the years; it's been raided, invaded, ruined and rebuilt during the centuries.   But surely that just shows what a desirable little spot it is.

Interestingly, Dunnottar Castle where the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels, were hidden from Oliver Cromwell's army in the 1600s.  Perhaps there's a chance I might stumble across a jewel or two that someone hid here but later forgot?

Maybe some left over jewels lying around?

There's only two downsides to my escape plan that I can see.  Firstly, it's currently open to the public.  This clearly would need to stop once I move in.  

Secondly, it's not as remote as I would like as it's just three kilometres from the village of Stonehaven and not too far south of Aberdeen.  Still, I guess I would have to get my groceries from somewhere.

A view from one of the defences
So depending on how the next few weeks pan out as the silly season hits high gear, perhaps you'll find me at Dunnottar Castle next Christmas (but naturally I would strongly urge you not to come looking).

Future home?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Colorado's youngest rescuers

I hope I never have to be rescued from an avalanche of snow and ice.

But in the unfortunate event that I do, I want Recco to be the one who does it.

Recco ready for action

She's a Golden Retriever and an integral part of Copper Mountain's rescue team.  I met her last year on a sunny winter's day in Colorado while she and her handler were performing one of their regular training sessions.

Recco is one of the youngest dogs to be Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD)-certified; something that took her about two years of training and testing.   During this time, handler and dog learnt to work as a team and to conduct quick, methodical searches.

As dogs have a much better sense of smell, they can almost always find people buried in the snow faster than us, even if we're using technical equipment.

Once these dogs find the person, they offer an "alert".  This depends on individual dogs, but for Recco it is aggressive digging.

Despite being a little over two years of age when I met her, Recco had already been involved in a number of search and rescue operations.

While I'm sure she loves saving lives, her other reward for her hard work is playing with a tennis ball, stuffed toy or anything that squeaks.

She's clearly a natural-born snow lover.

Here I was rugged up and with boot warmer settings on high while she's rolling in the snow like she's frolicking on a tropical beach.