Thursday, 13 January 2011

Mr Grimaldi, you give me the ships!

Trains are fun. Way more fun than planes. Trains make you comfy and relaxed. And comfy, relaxed people are more interesting to talk to than stressed out, cramped and rushed people. Planes take you away from reality for a few hours, make you uncomfortable, stressed, and stop you from sleeping, and then they spit you out, disoriented and tired at the other end.
Flying is like a really slow, uncomfortable teleporting process. Or maybe more like the digestive process (you enter the mouth looking and feeling great, spend the entire trip in horrible cramped conditions in the gut, and then, well you know how it ends).
Trains on the other hand take you on a real journey, an adventure! They don't try to trick you by defying gravity or making you breathe fake air, they don't even need attractive hostesses or an in-flight movie to distract you from your discomfort because the view out the window is always interesting. Also it seems real humans catch trains, while boring suits catch planes. Sucked in.
But when I left Finland bound for Germany I discovered that ships could be even more fun than trains! Even more comfy, even more relaxing, and everyone has all the time in the world and wants a chat.
I had such a good trip across the Baltic Sea with Tallink ferries that I was determined to get on at least one more overnight ferry during this trip, and when I saw the chance to sail from Spain to Italy with Grimaldi Lines, my eyes lit up.

But unfortunately it turns out that not all ships are fun. Some ships are a bit dodgy, charge like a wounded bull for barely edible food, have broken internet, make strange irregular banging noises all through the night that make sleep impossible, carry disease that instantly makes you sick, and then arrive in port close to midnight instead of 7pm, making me miss all connecting trains to my booked hotel in Florence that night 100km away. Some ships need a punch in their shippy faces!

So what does one do when sick and stranded in an Italian port in the middle of nowhere at 11pm? Well it turns out that one takes a very expensive taxi ride to Pisa and then hangs out in the freezing cold with a bunch of homeless people outside the railway station for a few hours until the 2am night-bus arrives to eventually get me to Florence around 4am. Well that's what I did anyway. The only highlight was a surprisingly good kebab from the kebab shop near the railway station.
And then of course when I awoke the next day I had a full-blown flu, which kept me in bed for the next 4 days before I could even think of going out for a walk, wasting a heap of my time in Florence.
So thanks Mr Grimaldi. You suck. I'm going to stick to trains.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, 10 January 2011

Keep Clear of The Closing Doors!

Wow, what a fantastic surprise Barcelona has been!
I had only ever heard good things about it, but for some reason I didn't imagine it to be this beautiful.
And not just a beautiful city architecturally, although the Moderniste architecture of Gaudi and his mates is absolutely a highlight and a lot more widespread than I was expecting. But everything about Barcelona is just so... livable! The weather is fantastic (winter here seems slightly milder than a Perth winter).. the food is great.. the Spanish people are lovely (but of course every culture has exceptions - in this case a particular slimy, low-life Spaniard currently residing in France).. the shops are full of style and quality.. the traffic is bearable.. the metro is great.. the nightlife is great.. the history is fascinating, the contemporary culture is also humming along.. it has an energy and momentum that few cities seem to have.. the cost of living is affordable.. the surrounding countryside is gorgeous.. It's on the coast of the Medditeranean.. What's not to love?
Coming from Paris, the difference couldn't be more stark. It's like a weight being lifted. Paris seems depressing, serious, conservative, heavy in comparison. Barcelona does it all with heaps of style, but doesn't seem to take itself too seriously in doing so. It just seems effortless. It feels like it was built to live in, not just built to look at.

If you asked me which city I've been to that I would recommend people go for a quick holiday, it would be a tough choice between about half a dozen cities. If you asked me which city I would consider moving to permanently, Barcelona would be right at the top of the list.

Having said that, I had my first big near-disaster of the trip when arriving in Barcelona. While getting off the train with my luggage, I had the train door close on me while I was halfway in and halfway out! It's not like a lift door that just re-opens, it just keeps pressing closed. Not enough to crush or bruise, but enough that it won't let you leverage it open at all.
The door closed on my shoulder with one arm outside the train, and although pulling that arm into the carriage wasn't a huge problem, the problem was that at the end of that arm I was holding a bag with my passport, iPad, and about $5k of camera gear in it! And it was now bouncing against the glass on the outside of the door as the train gathered speed and left the station into the pitch black dark.
I managed to pull the shoulder strap in through the door gap so I could hold the bag tight against the outside of the door from the inside of the train, but it was still bulging about a foot out the side of the train, bouncing around just waiting for a pole, a tunnel, or another train to scream past and rip it out of my hands. I instinctively wrapped the strap tight around my wrist and then realized that was a stupid thing to do... If the bag caught on something outside the train, the webbing strap would probably pull my entire arm off with it.
So I just stood there holding it tight but ready to let it get ripped free from my hands and ready to pounce on the train's emergency brake alarm if it did. I was already trying to work out how to explain all this on my travel insurance claim form.
Although the train had been packed just 15 minutes ago, I was the only person left in the carriage at the time.
The ten minute ride to the next station was the most tense ten minutes I've ever spent in a train.
When we got there and the door opened, I was relieved beyond belief! I quickly grabbed my other bag and jumped off, looking around with adrenaline pumping through my veins. There was just one person on the platform, waiting and smoking a cigarette. He looked at me unimpressed.. He hadn't even noticed my near-death experience!
And then I had the humiliation of having to find another train going in the opposite direction to travel the one stop back to where I was trying to get off originally.
The moral of the story. DO NOT TRUST AUTOMATIC DOORS. No matter how friendly they seem or how long they look like they'll stay open for. It's the one time you let your guard down that they will pounce on you.

Thankfully no photos, lenses, blog posts, angry birds, plants, zombies, limbs or passports were harmed in the making of this story.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Travel Thoughts... Plan B

So off I head into the next part of my adventure. Plan B.

On the one hand I feel much more prepared for travel than I did when I left Australia at the beginning of Plan A. I'm not stepping into the unknown as much as I was, and it doesn't worry me that I have no fixed plan. I'm not sure if I'd consider myself a "seasoned traveller" yet, but I can slip into a nice travel routine pretty easily these days. I don't need to go hunting through my bags to find anything any more, everything has it's own place and I can find anything in 2 seconds in the dark. I even have about 5 different pre-set packing layouts depending on the mode of transport (plane, train, or ship) and whether it's an overnight trip and if photography is a priority along the way.
But constantly being on the move is also wearing me down. Both physically and metaphorically.  I've been living out of a suitcase for so long now, I'm beginning to miss many things about home. I miss the convenience of having everything at hand, of course my friends and family, the familiarity of knowing where to go to get stuff done, being able to communicate easily and effectively, my pets, bikes, home cooking, and a bunch of other things. But most of all I crave the space Australia has. All these tightly-packed cities are making me claustrophobic.
I know I vented in a previous post about how Australia needs to combat the urban sprawl and adopt to high-density living, and I still believe that.
But I can't wait to walk back into my house in Australia and spread as much junk out in the spare bedrooms as I like, then sprawl out in the lounge room, walk out into the big sandpit I call a back yard, build stuff in my shed, then jump on my motorbike and leave everyone and everything behind and get somewhere without a sign of human existence in sight. Australia, and especially Western Australia is big. Huge. And after spending this long in crowded cities and tiny hotel rooms, and fitting my entire life into a suitcase, I find myself fantasizing about being back in my kombi in the middle of the Nullabor plain, or lost in the Kimberley, or maybe just chilling somewhere on the Tasman Peninsula or riding on some great Tassie roads.

I know my dad is going to roll his eyes and sigh at this, but I've been toying without the idea of coming back to Perth a bit early, buying a cheap-but-reliable motorbike and then spending a couple of weeks riding it to Tassie with the intention of leaving it there when I fly back to Perth. Then I'd have my own transport whenever I came to Tasmania in the future. And Dad, if you're reading this, think of how much easier that would make life for you, and how a bike would take up a lot less space than, say, an old HR Panel Van! It only takes up about as much room as a wheelbarrow. And it would give me another reason to come visit you in Tassie more often. I've already mentioned most of this plan to him, but I never got to the part of the plan which involves me leaving the bike when I go back to Perth.. So.. umm.. yeah...

Of course it depends a lot on the bike. Something old and cheap enough so I won't care much about leaving it for long periods, but it still needs to be reliable enough to get across the country and then be ridden very infrequency after that. Something resembling what used to be just a standard motorcycle. A balance of comfort, practicality, and handling, and I'm thinking a V-twin would be nice as I already have an inline-4 sports bike in Perth. A naked would be cool, but fairings give better weather protection... So maybe a bikini fairing. It doesn't need to be fast, but I still want some fun on twisty Tassie roads.
So far a Suzuki SV-650S is on top of my list. It ticks all the right boxes and can be found cheaply second-hand. But it's not the only choice, so I'll just keep an eye on the classifieds.

Just a thought... Stay tuned, you might hear more about a Plan C.
But in the meantime, Plan B will continue as per normal.  TRAVEL EUROPE AND ASIA!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Barcelona, Spain

None of the photos shown in this post are from my current trip, but all are photos I've taken in either Western Australia or Tasmania.

Friday, 31 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way."
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

I was reminded of this opening passage from A Tale of Two Cities the other day and it struck me as being somehow appropriate to my circumstances both right now and for about the last six months of 2010.

I've had the absolute time of my life on this trip. But it hasn't all been fun and excitement. There have been a few big spanners thrown in the works along the way with significant implications both here and back in Australia. In fact the reason I've been so quiet lately is because I've been working through some personal issues for the last few weeks that will have a big effect on the remainder of this trip for me.
No matter who you are, things happen in life from time to time. They don't choose a convenient time to happen, they just do.  This is one such time for me.
But this is a travel blog, not a personal diary or a gossip magazine.

Being the start of a new year, it's also a time for reflection on 2010. I'm left feeling many things all at once. But strangely, despite being in such a difficult time, bitterness isn't one of those things. I've had my share of dark moments, especially recently, but I'm now slowly turning that negativity into a strong determination to get back into my travel and really make the most of it before I return to Australia, and then be ready to hit the ground running with momentum when I do return.
All my old travel plans are now tossed out the window though, and I'm in the process of making new plans.

For the first time in a long time, the rest of my life is a blank canvas waiting for me to make my mark. It's daunting to think how much work I have ahead of me, but the infinite possibilities are also very exciting.
And it all starts right now.
I don't know what country I'll be in this time next week, but I doubt it will be France.

The last time I felt this liberated was when I was sitting in my Kombi van in Devonport in 1997, waiting to drive onto the ferry to Melbourne. I had $1000 in the bank and all my worldly possessions in the kombi, with no plans except to drive around Australia until I found somewhere I wanted to live. It was an incredible sense of freedom leaving Tasmania with no real destination in mind.
Six months and many adventures later I arrived in Perth with a couple of old friends I'd picked up along the way (a big hi to Kath and Chrispy if you're reading this). We were to stay in Perth to earn some money and then head north up Australia's west coast, but 13 years later I still find myself living in Perth. I guess I found that place I wanted to live.

My current situation isn't exactly the same, as I do have a few responsibilities back in Australia (property, vehicles, cats), and there is of course some sadness about what I'm leaving behind, but on the positive side I have the opportunity and means to do things I couldn't do back then.
But in both cases I have the excitement of a completely unwritten destiny, the means to travel, and the luxury of time.
Let's hope I can do something worthwhile with that.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Paris, France

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Vive la Catastrophe!

Ahhhh.. France! What can I say. It's a beautiful place. No matter how hard the French try to screw it up, it still manages somehow to maintain it's elegant cities and gorgeous countryside. Somehow..
They've managed to turn inefficiency, dysfunction and beurocracy into art forms. Nothing is ever simple or straightforward in France it seems.

But it still has an appeal. It's like a cantankerous old man that's constantly grumpy but is still somehow lovable. And wow... the food is amazing.
But I honestly do not understand how *anything* ever gets done here though. I think there must be government departments set up specifically to prevent people from achieving their goals. Maybe they offer government incentives for unnecessarily complicated procedures, or for introducing delays, or organizing strikes? They do love their industrial action.

French people tend to have a bit of a reputation for being rude, and I paid particular attention to this, especially in Paris.
I'm happy to say I don't think it's true. Well, kind of.
I don't think French people are rude as a whole. I met many very polite, kind and friendly locals, just as I would anywhere. I mean, you find a certain number of rude people everywhere (except Finland it seems), and France didn't seem to have lots more than other places I've been to.
But here's the thing. One thing I noticed is that when French people get angry about something, they aren't afraid to let the whole world know about it. If they're having a bad day then they don't hide it. No matter who they are or who you are, and it doesn't matter if their problem has nothing to do with you at all. Customer service be damned.
So I can see why they get this reputation as being rude. It can be confronting to walk into a restaurant and almost get abused by the waiter, simply because another patron has knocked over a jug of water and annoyed him. Those things stick in your mind, despite the thirty other waiters who were very helpful and patient and kind.
So don't judge an entire race by this. As I said, I met some wonderful French people who were incredibly helpful, polite, friendly, and generous. Stereotyping can be fun, but only when you don't take it seriously I guess.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Paris, France