Thursday, January 27, 2005

Uluru

What kind of idiot goes on a 2-day outdoor camping trip to the Australian outback (which is code for desert, by the way... the technical name for that landscape is "semi arid") in the height of summer while suffering from sunburns and an increasingly bad case of bronchitis?

Ok, not exactly a rhetorical question. I still can't explain what possessed me to spend a bunch of money on last-minute flights into and out of Alice Springs and a bunch more on a two-day camping trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta... I think I thought it sounded like fun or something. And it was. When you strip off the fact that I had to wear a flynet and gardening gloves--out in public, for the record--to defend myself from masses of the most tenacious flies in existence and the 100+ degree sunlight, respectively; that I failed to bring a book or music on a two-day trip that included about 1000 miles of driving; that I had to live without soap for 48 hours; that I had to get up earlier than 5 a.m. on both days; did I mention the 100+ degree heat? When you take away all that, yeah, it was fun. The tour was full--21 people--and those I talked to were really nice. Plus we had three guides instead of the usual one, because 2 were trainees and one was, I dunno, not, and he was teaching and evaluating them. He was awesome, too: he'd been doing these tours for five years and knew everything about everything in the Northern Territory and quite a bit outside of that, as well. One of those people who can (and did) talk for hours and be enthralling for every minute of it. I walked along the base of Kings Canyon, I saw Uluru and Kata Tjuta (which looks like Homer Simpson in profile) at sunset, and then walked around Uluru at sunrise. I got to sleep out under the stars in the quietest place I've ever been to: I woke in the middle of the night and didn't hear people, or cars, or animals, or even the wind. The full moon was so bright that it looked more like a street light. I drove across miles and miles of the greenest desert I've ever seen: instead of cactus, there are bushes and even trees covering the ground in all directions, and it doesn't even closely resemble the scrub that one sees in California and the southwest. And while it was hot, the weather was gorgeous because there wasn't a cloud in the sky on the first day, and just the right amount on the second: puffy Rene Magritte clouds stretching as far as the eye could see. I saw emus and dingos. Even the reading material problem worked out pretty well: on the return trip I borrowed a book called first they killed my father from a guy who'd just finished it, and it was excellent and something I never would have read otherwise. In all, I had a great trip.

There better be s'mores next time, though.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Perth

I realize my complete lack of common sense wasn't really in dispute, but there was less evidence regarding my inability to learn from my mistakes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have that evidence. My hands are sunburnt again. They match the burns on my toes and the backs of my heels (note: not the tops of my feet, which are the obvious choice) rather well.

Some of you may have heard me talk about the Great Hand Sunburns (AKA The Fucking Painful as Shit Third Degree Burns that Happened to Be Inflicted by the Sun) of my summer in France '03. While no one else really takes note when I talk about this (I should've taken pictures), you'd think at least I would. That was too predictable, though. So here I am, my last day in Perth, which I'd planned to spend cycling around Rottnest Island, sitting in one of the few air-conditioned rooms of my hostel listening to some horrible Nickelodeon-style kids show because of sunburns. My only forays outside have been to the laundry room and back, a destination which is not covered in my Lonely Planet, and for good reason.

Not all my days here have been wasted, though. My first day, Thursday, was spent walking around the city of Perth (not getting lost, I might add): I saw Kings Park & Botanical Garden, which is gorgeous in and of itself but has the additional feature of being on a hill above the city and has beautiful views of it and the river. I took a tour of the Mint, which was really cool: I got to pick up a gold brick (that shit's heavy) and, even cooler, saw one being poured. They turn out the lights so you can see it glowing from the heat, and the amazing thing is how quickly it went from 1300 degrees Celsius (it melts at 1100) to about 20. Less than 3 minutes. It's the only time I've ever visited a mint, but can't imagine how it could have been any better. They had Australian gold rush history exhibits, coins, examples of gold bricks from all over the world, and gold nuggets from all over too, showing the different forms it comes in. After the Mint I headed to Fremantle, which is on the coast, and had a look around the town and some fish and chips, and made the discovery with the latter that these people charge for ketchup. Which they call tomato sauce. It ruined my dinner, mostly because I ran out of ketchup and after spending $2 on it it would've been kind of embarassing to go back again. Bastards.

Day 2 I went to Scarborough Beach with some people from my hostel. It was beautiful. The water was such a lovely bright blue, in several different shades... I only hope it comes out in my pictures. It was hot out, but really windy at the beach, so we never really got hot enough to feel like we had to take a swim. I buried my feet in the sand and wore a t-shirt half the time, but was still feeling burnt by the time I left (and yes, I was wearing sunscreen: 45 SPF). That night we went out to celebrate one girl's birthday at bar nearby and much fun was had listening to the live music. I had to be up at 6:30 the next morning, though, so left early. I needn't have bothered, as I didn't sleep anyway: my feet hurt. I've learned that aloe vera only has a cooling sensation if you are in fact in a place that's cool. My unairconditioned room at the hostel didn't qualify, so I got up every couple hours to put on aloe and hope that maybe this time it'll work. Next day I wore shoes all day, taking them off every few hours to put on more aloe. My toes were green by the end of it. I spent most of the day in a tour bus (I took a day trip to see the nearby Pinnacles Desert) and the old Asian lady sitting next to me didn't really care for this habit. I felt bad for her until she stepped on foot by accident. She redeemed herself by killing mosquitoes and flies on the window with her bare hands. I need to learn how to do that.

The trip itself was pretty cool. We stopped at Yanchep National Park in the morning, where I saw my first kangaroos (the name of which, I learned today in my Captain Cook book, was derived from a miscommunication between Captain Cook and the first Aborigines they talked with, so we'll never know what Aborigines actually called them) and koalas, an experience that is much cooler when you're not separated by the wall and 10-foot moat at the LA Zoo. Then we visited the Pinnacles (really cool picture here). It was really hot, the sun was directly overhead, and there was no bathroom. Unfortunately that last bit was the most relevant. There's a memory I'm gonna cherish. After that we visited Hangover Bay, had lunch in Cervantes, and then drove to some living sand dunes about an hour back south, and ran into (not literally) another couple kangaroos and a joey while driving through bush to get there. At the dunes we went driving around, up and down dunes at 45+ degree angles, and ran into this tourbus there. I wonder if kids would be happier about getting on the schoolbus if that was what it looked like? After the driving we did some sandboarding, which was pretty cool until you had to hike back to the top of the dune. And got sand everywhere. Ugh. Not a fun way to spend the remaining hour and a half drive back to Perth.

And today is being spent indoors. Thankfully the TV is now showing Supersize Me instead of the kids show. Tomorrow I'm off to Alice Springs and leave at 5:30 the following morning on a 2-day camping trip to Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, which I'm really looking forward to. I was afraid of the heat until I found out that it's hotter out here now than it is there. Not that it's pleasant, but at least I know it won't be any worse. And after hearing about U.S. weather reports (11 degrees in Chicago, aaaaah!), I'm pretty sure I have nothing to complain about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Bali

I think more Americans would come to the southern hemisphere if they knew it was like this. Also if Hawaii and the Caribbean weren't, like, right there. This is the actual vacation-y part of my vacation. I don't see how Bali could really help being anything else. It's bloody hot, there are palm trees everywhere, and my hotel is 5 minutes from the beach. And everything is cheap. Really cheap. Bottled water goes for about 20 cents. Cocktails (the fancy ones with umbrellas) are less than four dollars, and can be gotten for much less at places other than my hotel bar, which is where I've spent a fair amount of my drinking time, largely because because it's next to a rather nice pool. The hotel is the best part: for the price of a Motel 6, I have my own room--with a nice, soft, king-sized bed, which stands in stark contrast to the last place I stayed--complete with TV, minibar, and a bathroom with a decent showerhead. This room is in a hotel that has two pools, both with swim-up bars, one of which is open 24 hours. My quest for the 24-hour bar ends right here in Kuta Beach.

Since being here I haven't strayed too far from the hotel, or at all from Kuta and Legian. Not that things have been dull. My first night here was spent at said 24-hour bar, where I decided to work my way through the table top cocktail menu, a total of 9 cheesily-named tropical drinks. By the time I finished around 3, I'd made the acquaintance of a fair number of Aussies (I've only met one visitor here who wasn't Australian) staying there. The following day I explored the Kuta-Legian area, seeing what shopping was like and looking for the beach. I got lost. I think this will prove to be a common thread in my travel stories. I made it back to the hotel a few hours later with a newly-acquired tank top-shaped sunburn. I spent the rest of the day hanging out by the pool, hoping for the sun to come back out so I could try and even it out, with no luck. Weather has been the same each day: sunny in the morning, overcast in the afternoon and then rainy at night. I took a walk along the beach that night hoping for a nice sunset, again no luck. Then that night I met up with some of the guys I'd met the night before and we hung out at the hotel for a bit before heading out to Paddy's, where there was an open mic night that ran a lot like a karaoke bar. One of the guys I was with is a singer in a cover band at home in Melbourne, so he spent a bit of time up there. The one time they convinced me to go up he'd chosen an Australian song that I didn't know. That was fun.

I don't really remember the rest of the night, but I do know what the aftereffects were the following day. I was woken up by the phone at 11 by someone who'd come by to pick me up for the surfing lesson I'd signed up for. I still wasn't, um, thinking clearly and made the (poor) decision to actually go. Needless to say, I didn't really come away with much surfing know-how, though I did acquire a couple of really bad bruises and a tan line from my board shorts, which was the result of trying to take a nap during a "break" that extended to the end of my lesson. Yep, money well-spent. After that, I hung out all afternoon with a Canadian I'd met there, walking around looking for the internet cafe I'd visited the day before because I'd left my passport there. We got lost, of course--all the streets here look the same, and they curve around so you're heading in a completely different direction than you thought you were!--and the entire venture lasted several hours. I was eventually reunited with my passport, which had been taken home by the guy who'd worked there the night before. He dropped it off at the hotel and demanded 150,000 Rupiahs (17 or 18 US$) for it. A small price to pay really, considering. Oops. It has to be the stupidest way to lose a passport ever, too. I took it out and used it as a fan because it was so frickin' hot.

I've spent most of my time since reading and watching movies. Tomorrow night I fly to Perth and will have to reacclimate myself to a backpacker lifestyle (or at least my version of it). And as for being able to confirm or deny reports that water swirls the other way when you flush the toilet in this hemisphere, my hotel toilet isn't the swirly kind. Better luck in Perth, I guess. Assuming I remember which way it's supposed to go in the first place.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Singapore Airport

Admittedly, less known as a tourist destination than as a tourist thoroughfare, but still. I've never seen anything like it. This is the airport all the other airports are jealous of. Every gate has its own security checkpoint, so lines are more manageable. There is free internet access at a few points throughout, not to mention free wireless available everywhere. The shops are nice. There's a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. The whole place is quiet because it's carpeted. There are plants and fountains everywhere. It feels more like a hotel lobby than an airport. And the icing on the cake:

There's a rooftop pool. Accompanied by a bar and a beautiful heliconia garden. Remember, this is an airport.

I took pictures just so I'd have photographic proof later on. My favorite one is of the "Poolside Bar" sign, which has a little cocktail as the icon that apparently universally represents 'poolside bar.'

I only had about an hour there, but I know that if I ever have to choose an Asian city in which to have a long layover, this is it.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Chiang Mai

So after a few lovely days in Bangkok, wherein I did a bit of sightseeing and a lot more nothing (dude, a one hour foot massage for $5? You'd do the same), I decided to head up to Chiang Mai for a few days, because it's the next place in Thailand about which I've heard the most, after Phuket. People I met in Bangkok who had been recently raved about it, and compared to Bangkok, they're right. I grew up a city girl, but Bangkok is just an unintelligible chaos, all the time. Not being able to fend for myself there isn't a feeling I cared for much, and while I'm doing about as well in Chaing Mai (I got lost finding my way back to my hostel yesterday and had to ask three different people for directions), it's a far more limited place and I'm not really worried. I'm staying in a really cool area full of guesthouses and restaurants, all divided by streets that can barely fit a car going one way, and there are travelers everywhere. Maybe that means it's overrun with tourists, but to me, seeing Western faces means that I'm on the right track. At least I have some hope of being able to communicate with them, whereas I still have problems trusting Thais after my initial experience in Bangkok.

I haven't been a whole lot more active about my tourism here. Yesterday I had my aforementioned walk around the main part of the city (it used to be completely contained by a square wall and moat, but as you can imagine it overran those some time ago), seeing what temples I could, getting lost, and being somewhat disappointed that the character of the city inside the walls isn't too different from that outside. The main distinction appears to be oneway streets. I say I'm disappointed simply because I remember my visit to Carcassonne a few years ago, where the walled city (well, village, more like) seemed like it had been pretty well preserved from hundreds of years ago, at least in look and feel (thankfully not in cleanliness and plumbing), and then where the town had grown too big, the village was down below and distinct. I suppose that's rare though; Avignon isn't too different from what's going on here. Anyway, I did my walk around, then enjoyed my sense of accomplishment in even finding the guest house where I'm staying again (it's across the street from the place I really wanted to stay at that was fully booked, which I've now decided was a good thing: I have my own room and bathroom here for 150 baht per night, which is half of what the other place was... so I'm saving almost $10!), and simply stayed here for the remainder of the day. I didn't go see whatever wat is on the hill that overlooks the city that's simply spectacular (didn't really know how to get there), nor did I go to the night bazaar that's supposed to be so great. I hung out in the lounge area watching Congo and Risky Business (I didn't choose them, but whatever--Congo was hilarious because I forgot that Laura Linney was in it and the other scientist was played by Sean from Nip/Tuck...I didn't know he had a career before that show) and reading The Beach. Dunno about the movies, but The Beach is friggin' fantastic. I plan to spend tonight reading it as well, and can't wait.

Just so it doesn't sound like I'm wasting all my time (which is exactly what I plan to do when I get to Bali...Kuta here I come!), today I rode an elephant (felt like glorified horseback riding), hiked up to see a couple of random hill tribes and a waterfall (not at the same time), and went bamboo rafting. Tomorrow I'm heading north to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet, and which is an area known for its easily-available opium), seeing a couple more hill tribes and going on a boat trip. I'm most looking forward to the boat trip. That'll be another nice thing about Bali: cheap boat rentals. Surf lessons, too. If water is involved, I'm there. Reading The Beach, I definitely feel like I'm in the wrong place. Of course, I haven't finished it yet. Gonna go rectify that.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Bangkok

Bangkok is hot. And smelly. And totally not the place to get lost. And how do I know this? Well, uh, cuz I got lost. It was all my fault too. I'm totally following directions to the letter next time (you'd think I'd have internalized this lesson years ago, but clearly it still needs teaching).

So here's what happened: I was supposed to meet a friend from my class at a designated place at noon to go with her to a weekend market. My flight landed at 11, and I thought an hour was reasonable. Of course, that was assuming everything went smoothly, which was major overconfidence in Thai infrastructure, as it turns out. Bangkok airport is reminiscent of a very run-down LAX, which was quite a shock after the absolute dream of Hong Kong airport, which has to be the most beautiful and well-run airport I've ever been through, with its massive glass walls stretching up to arched ceilings in the manner of airplane hangars. I actually feel wistful. Anyway, that heaven is not Bangkok airport. I stood in line for customs for about half an hour. I opted to take a shuttle into the city in hopes of avoiding the long queue for taxis and thus getting there faster.

This was a very bad decision. First I was screwed out of an extra hundred baht (all of $2.50) because I was sold two tickets for no reason. Then this was pointed out to me publicly in front of the entire bus (there were no seats left and I was perched on a raised platform right behind the driver, facing back), causing a commotion with the ticket taker who discovered it, who I wish had simply ignored it; $2.50 is a small price to pay for avoiding that kind of embarrassment. Then I was dropped off by the bus driver near Siam Square (which, incidentally, was not where everyone else was going, so I got to manage the rest of this alone), which is near where I'm staying. I thought I'd just catch a taxi there and they'd take me to where I needed to go, which is a fine plan when the majority of taxi drivers know where the hell it is you're going. None that I spoke with did, so I ended up tramping around for about half an hour with my heavy-ass backpack in the hot sun, looking for street numbers, crossing the street (no small feat, you usually have to use stairs), crossing back, turning around, and generally being about as miserable as I can recall being in awhile. Knowing that this was my own fault was not consoling.

Thankfully I finally found where it was I was supposed to go, and spent the rest of the day lying out next to a pool, then going out for some good Thai food and mai tais that night to a place called Condoms and Cabbages. (Seriously. The place supports safe sex, and each of us got a condom when we paid the bill.) It was also very beautifully decorated, with lights hanging everywhere and up in the trees above us. A much nicer end to the day than I'd envisioned some hours earlier.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Hong Kong

Ok, so I've been a bit quiet on here lately. I made it back to LA, did Christmas and the seeing old friends thing, worked the Tournament of Roses again, read books, watched USC kick the sh*t out of an overrated midwestern team in the Orange Bowl (I can't decide if I felt more triumphant when we took the first turnover back for a touchdown or the second... or when I heard the TMB playing Tribute in the background of Stoops' post-game interview). You know, the usual.

But right now, I'm finding it hard to believe that I'm sitting in a coffee shop with "free" (as long as you buy something, you can camp out forever) high-speed internet access listening to "Unforgettable" (just one example of the stellar music selection they play here) in the middle of Hong Kong. Well, technically I'm on the Kowloon peninsula in the middle of the Tsin Tsai something shopping district, but whatever.

My flight got in at a quarter to six in the morning, and the drive into the city has to be the most surreal half-hour I've ever experienced. I was led to a bus, on which I which I was the only passenger, and driven through the dark along well-lit roads, surrounded by nothing but lit-up skyscrapers, and saw almost no one. It looked like all this civilization was just empty. Then we passed the harbor, and you couldn't make out anything but the random patterns of lights on shipmasts, not the ships themselves, and that didn't really help to bring me back down to earth.

I got to my hotel around 7 a.m. and, not surprisingly, my room wasn't ready. So I stowed my backpack there and started walking around the city, up through Kowloon park, where I passed through the occasional plaza full of old people doing tai chi (or is it kung fu?). There was the occasional runner, and lots of people walking through on the way to work.

Now I always want to arrive in a city at the crack of dawn. But I'd like to shower first... I've got till 9 a.m. to chill and wait to check into my room.

Whole27: Recap

So we didn't quite make it 30 days. On Thursday, we looked at the prospect of a dry Memorial Day weekend (and the Friday leading up to i...