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Asia

Sep 30, 2010

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Crikey intern Nick Johns-Wickberg writes: It’s a typically freezing day in Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar and my travelling companion Mike and I, wrapped up in our knock-off Indian jackets and two dollar beanies (mine has the ear flaps, his says “Free Tibet”) are having a nice afternoon stroll. We’re probably on the main street of the city but, like everywhere else in India, the grid looks like something designed by a drunk five year-old, so it’s hard to be sure.

As we walk we discuss all the issues of importance in our life at the moment: how much we’d have to pay for a shisha pipe ($3, as it turns out – absolute bargain!), where we have to turn off to get to the Jama Masjid (main mosque), whether we should go to the ski slopes or the national park tomorrow. Occasionally, one of us mentions the assistant boy working on our houseboat and we dissolve into giggles. His name is Ashit.

The street is peaceful and, save for the occasional “where you from my friend?” coming from shopkeepers on the side of the road, everyone seems content going about their own business and leaving the two white boys to meander undisturbed.

A Kashmiri street bazaar
A Kashmiri street bazaar

After a few false turns and a few cheekily misleading directions from bored locals, the tip of what must surely be the mosque pokes itself above the canopy of roofs to our left. Excited, I whip my camera out, eager to put it to use on something big and historical. The road curves to the left, and, hoping for some kind of inspirational shot to jump out at me, I turn the corner with camera held up in dumb tourist position: at head height and about a foot away from me face.

200 soldiers in full riot gear fill the screen. Continue reading “Another peaceful day in Kashmir with 200 soldiers in riot gear”

Asia

Sep 27, 2010

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Rebecca Arnold writes: Digital photography has never been so exciting.

I look up from my book to find a young mother pushing her two children toward me and eagerly pointing at the camera beside me. The shy kids obediently pose as I click away, then cover their mouths, giggling, as I show them the images on the camera screen.

All of a sudden I am surrounded by 20 kids who appear to have emerged from the ocean, some naked, some clutching homemade boogie boards, and one with an old, coloured feather duster on his head as a makeshift Mohawk.

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They’re bouncing around in front of the camera, flexing non-existent muscles and pulling cheesy grins, all in an attempt to star in my travel snaps.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself in this position in Timor-Leste (East Timor). It seems that all Timorese people, while extremely shy, are verging on narcissism when it comes to a camera, and love to see their face on the screen.

This openness and curiosity is seen throughout Timor-Leste, and perhaps jars with the perception one might have of a people who have faced persecution and the horrors  of violent colonialism for over 200 years. Continue reading “Timor-Leste: mohawks and a touch of the untouched”

Morocco

Sep 24, 2010

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Dave Keetch writes: The French version of Al Jazeera was on the television so I was only half paying attention to it as I sat with Hajar’s family in their home at Tiznit, Morocco. It was the news ticker that caught my eye though. “Mauritanie” scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I then caught the word “touriste” and finally “mort”. My grasp of the language was far from being fluent, but I knew enough for it to send an alarm bell ringing.

After abruptly interrupting the conversation to have it translated for me on its next appearance, I later scoured the internet in search of finer details. As with the visa debacle, it didn’t take long for word to get around various cyber fora. One particular forum, indispensable for anything related to crossing the Sahara, held a vigorous discussion for days. Was it still safe to travel in Mauritania? I filtered in any reasoning that favoured my burning desire to cross the Sahara via the Atlantic Coast and reassuringly relayed it to my partner. With her mind at relative ease, we could press on.

It was a long and mostly uncomfortable overnight bus ride into the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, made worse after being placed on broken seats at the very back of the bus (note would-be Saharan overlanders — get on the bus to Layounne at Agadir, not Tiznit!). On the positive side of things, we arrived in Layounne not long after sunrise, which would give me the entire day to explore the city before catching up on sleep. As it turned out, I probably only needed an hour as there wasn’t really that much to see in Layounne, just a whole lot of concrete and many UN-marked vehicles.

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The following morning we found ourselves back at the station and looking to get on a bus that was only going as far as Dakhla (once there we’d have to find a car and a driver to take us over the border). It was slightly chaotic — you couldn’t actually buy tickets in advance, they had another ‘system’. I noted the queue of personal paraphernalia lined up on the counter and added my own item to the end of it. Every time a bus rolled up, if people disembarked then those whose item was at the front of the queue would be first in line to get on the departing bus. As my mind grappled with this unfamiliar concept I noticed a young Anglo woman (I later told her I firstly thought she was someone’’s child, given her small stature and tiny frame) amongst the sea of people and realised I hadn’t seen a fellow tourist for several days.

Lily was from England and, in a rather fortuitous circumstance, was also overlanding through West Africa on her way to Ghana. The harmony was instant and once Lily and my partner found common ground in homeopathy (much to the chagrin of this science graduate and stickler for rigorous statistical evidence) the bond was sealed. The three of us would end up travelling together through West Africa at various stages, parting ways and meeting again several times, until somehow winding up in her family’s home in Totnes, eating a loving home-cooked meal by an open fire. But I digress.

Lily wasn’t the only tourist catching a ride to Dakhla and onward. We also met two Swedish fellas who had done a fair bit of travelling in their time. We’d decided to group together and look for a ride to and across the border. Once in Dakhla I figured it was a good time to tell them about that recent event and, in a sadistic kind of way, I was curious to see how the’’d react. None of them had heard the news that three Spanish NGO workers had just been kidnapped by the African branch of Al Qaeda on the Nouadhibou-Nouakchott road and then been whisked off to remote northern Mali to be used as leverage in some sort of ransom bid. Continue reading “A Saharan crossing”

On travel

Sep 21, 2010

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Why travel agents take the joy out of travelling

Martin Lane writes: I'm the sort of person mainstream travel agents should love. Once a backpacker, I now have two kids aged 10 and 14 and, while the old spirit of adventure remains undimmed, my first priority is to make sure they’re going to be safe and that flights, accommodation and probably transfers are all booked in advance.

agentMartin Lane writes: I’m the sort of person mainstream travel agents should love. Once a backpacker, I now have two kids aged 10 and 14 and, while the old spirit of adventure remains undimmed, my first priority is to make sure they’re going to be safe and that flights, accommodation and probably transfers are all booked in advance. The days of throwing on a backpack or jumping in the campervan and making the rest up as I went along disappeared around the time I first heard the words “are we there yet?” emanating from the back seat.

So my plan to book a two-week, twin-centre holiday in Thailand in January should have been a godsend for my much-put upon high street travel retailer. Especially as I’m willing to pay for good advice if it means my son won’t spend the entire time shouting “this is the worst holiday ever, I hate you” because his iPhone can’t get a signal in the golden triangle.

I haven’t actually been inside a travel agent since I stopped editing Travel Weekly UK in 2005. Back then, I used to write editorials confidently predicting there will always be a place for experienced consultants who can add value, especially for customers booking complicated — read expensive — itineraries. I’m not sure I believed it even then, but you’ve got to give the readers what they want haven’t you?

Anyway, fast forward five years and, as lunchtime approached today, I was faced with a choice; sit and listen to Thumbrella editor Alice Terlikowski drone on about her recent trip to Europe (“Oh my God, British traffic lights are rubbish”) or escape to the high street and book my own trip of a lifetime instead.

So I wandered into my travel agent — part of a major national chain — and was ushered forward by a disinterested looking consultant whose body language screamed “another bloody tyre kicker” and who, when told I could be flexible with dates as long as it was in the school holidays, threw me a calendar and said “well, give me SOME idea”. Continue reading “Why travel agents take the joy out of travelling”

KL1I feel like Maeve O’Meara (and if you don’t know the reference, shame on you). I’ve had my Food Lover’s Guide to Malaysia, and it was delicious. A wok toss away from the so-called Golden Triangle entertainment district around KL Tower, this food market is where the locals come to eat and shop. You just follow your nose to the best makan (food).

The menu: Nasi lemak, of course, virtually the national dish and heaped on most food market tables. It’s a serve of rice and a spiced vegetable mix snack-wrapped in a pyramid of banana leaf. Delicious. Crispy curry puffs, fried, like everything else, right there on the street. So tasty; I had to go back for more. Fresh vegetable spring roll-type things, I forget their name, covered with this sweet and sticky chilli jam. So spicy, so good. As parents take the cash — and not all that much of it; you won’t find much over RM2 (about 85 cents) — the kids are tossing noodles in woks half their size. Ladles of soy and oyster go in, garlic and chilli. And nuts, mine had nuts in it. Mmm noodles … Did I mention I like satay sticks? Best not to think about how many chickens were sacrificed, how many bamboo trees were felled, to make table upon table of hundreds of juicy, marinated satay sticks. They rotate them over hot coals (one inventive cook had a grill on the back of his motorbike) and serve them in plastic bags, pouring in that famous sweet and spicy peanut sauce. Oh boy, so many tasty, tasty satays … Oh, the Malaysian version of roti, like a hot dog roll with spiced meat and vegetables and sauce in the middle. Oh man that stuff was good. And the Laksa Penang, plastic bags and bowls of fresh bean shoots and vegetables and chilli with boiling broth from enormous vats ladled in to order. The smell alone … Wash it down with vats of iced fruit punch, soy drinks, coconut milk. And the sweets! More cakes and rolls and pastries and jellies and confectionary than your average school fete.

This tiny alleyway, block after block of stalls down each side this Saturday night and every night, is a sea of people and smells. And once you’re on the wave there’s no way to get off; certainly nowhere to stop and eat. You take your bag of food, quickly lay down some cash, and keep on walking. It’s food on the run; dirt cheap and disgustingly messy and veritably delicious. Continue reading “A fast food lovers’ guide to crazy KL, with added boom boom”

On travel

Sep 17, 2010

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In (partial) defence of me and my camera

My Back In A Bit colleague Kevin O'Faircheallaigh recently wrote a stinging piece about camera-wielding tourists – very much worth a read if you haven't already done so. While I agree with a lot that Kevin said I'd like to partially defend myself and other travelling photographers, says Scott Bridges.

My Back In A Bit colleague Kevin O’Faircheallaigh recently wrote a stinging piece about camera-wielding tourists – very much worth a read if you haven’t already done so. While I agree with a lot that Kevin said I’d like to partially defend myself and other travelling photographers.

The tourist author of this camera-wielding-tourist-bashing blog post hypocritically wielding a camera. In the background, Vali wields melons as Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei keep stern watch from atop the door.
The tourist author of this camera-wielding-tourist-bashing blog post hypocritically wielding a camera. In the background, Vali wields melons as Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei keep stern watch from atop the door.

Continue reading “In (partial) defence of me and my camera”

Africa

Sep 16, 2010

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Morocco: where the days are hot, and the camels delicious

I know a guy who insists that the only way to truly experience a country is to organise yourself a home stay. He feels that it's home stays alone that enable us to understand how the average citizen of any particular country lives, and anything else is really just shallow surface tourism. I think we can all agree that this idea is unadulterated horseshit.

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Creative Commons photo from Flickr

I know a guy who insists that the only way to truly experience a country is to organise yourself a homestay. He feels that it’s homestays alone that enable us to understand how the average citizen of any particular country lives, and anything else is really just shallow surface tourism. I think we can all agree that this idea is unadulterated horseshit.

I’ve experienced two types of homestays in my travelling life. The first was in Japan, and was the more traditional variety in which you live in an environment that is supposed to be reminiscent of Japanese life 100 years ago. Sleeping on mats, tea ceremonies and what was definitely an inordinate amount of pressure to dress up in a kimono. It would be remiss not to mention the few things that made this experience not quite accurate. There’s the highly packaged and processed breakfast and the sound of the Japanese owners TV blasting soap operas through the paper walls at you for a start. Hardly indicative of the experience of an average Japanese citizen from any time period I would venture.

The other type is when you go and stay with someone who is actually a modern citizen of the country and therefore should give you the perfect experience of life in your chosen destination. But obviously that doesn’t work either. Anyone who invites you to stay with them is going to be on far better behaviour while you’re around, and will probably show you the best of their home city, leaving out the tour of the outer suburbs and the unfortunate local skinhead population. Even if they do drop some truth bombs on you, it’s still just going to be the experience of one person. Just as no one actually has 2.5 children, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ citizen. My family/friends/co-workers/life partner have spent years telling me I’m distinctly average, but if someone were to stay with me for a week they’d leave our country thinking “My God, all these Australians do is watch Futurama reruns and eat Christmas puddings for dinner.” Not entirely representative I’m sure, but I do maintain we’d all be a lot happier if it was.

Two weeks in Morocco has thrown a spanner into the works however, for I have now experienced The Riad. Riad’s are basically traditional houses in Morocco built around a central courtyard. I say houses but in reality they are more like palaces, so referring to them as in any representative of the average would be woefully inaccurate. Covered in intricately painted tiles and artwork they would have to be my favourite type of accommodation we’ve encountered thus far.

We stayed in about four of them in total while we travelled around the country on Morocco’s surprisingly excellent train service. There is of course some discrepancy in the quality between riad’s but they all have some common traits that make them so wonderful. Straight off the bat, it’s just nice to have an open air courtyard in the middle of the house. You have all the benefits of being outside with zero of those pesky hassles like showering, or having to see other people. Continue reading “Morocco: where the days are hot, and the camels delicious”

Africa

Sep 14, 2010

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Rebecca Arnold writes: Arriving in South Africa just three days after the chaos and excitement of the World Cup final, an air of exhilaration still lingered. A lone Spaniard greeted me at Johannesburg airport with a long blow of his plastic vuvuzela — whose ear-splitting blast had been until then, for me at least, only heard on television — and a great cry of “Viva España!” from the balcony above.

Our first stop was Soweto, that most famous township. Avoiding the the bus tours full of gawking tourists, my good friend Alana and I opted to gawk in a different way: on an eight hour walking tour. We wanted a chance to see Soweto and meet the people who lived there and hopefully understand a bit of this place which has played a fairly significant role in the formation of the nation.

The first adventure on the way to Soweto was figuring out how to use the minibus taxis that black South Africans use (white South Africans very rarely — if ever — use this method of transport, and we received looks of horror whenever we told people we’d ridden on them).

Our guide Ntombi with us but it still took a while to get our heads around the complicated hand signals that passengers use to indicate to the driver which direction they’re going in, and the incredibly honest payment system which sees people passing their taxi fare from person to person to the front of the bus and change passed dutifully back.

In the enormous taxi rank we swapped from one minibus taxi to another, and received the first of several marriage proposals of the day. We felt quite safe there — save for the hundreds of buses driving haphazardly around, often without care for pedestrians — but knew that the taxi ranks are the scene of several violent muggings (and often murders) each year, so were on guard. Earlier this year the taxi drivers went on strike when new, modern bus services were introduced ahead of the World Cup, burning tyres and shooting at the new buses, according to some papers.

Driving past the now silent Soccer City on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where it sat like a giant red and beige mushroom cap on the barren landscape, we headed toward the bustle of Soweto. As we drew closer and entered the fringes of the township, houses past made of all types of materials: shacks thrown together with scavenged pieces of wood and cardboard, lean-tos hastily built with sheets of tin, bleak government houses of concrete and brick.

Soweto township
Soweto township

It was here that the stark inequalities that still exist between black and white in post-Apartheid South Africa were most apparent to me. Continue reading “Hand signals and Nobel Prize winners: Soweto by foot”

Europe

Sep 8, 2010

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Crikey intern Jasmin Pfefferkorn writes: Cinque Terre is a set of five World Heritage listed villages, linked by a trail that takes you through vineyards and olive orchards as you stop off in each town for sustenance (Read: gelato or wine. Or both.) The trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the most famous section of the track and is called the Via Dell’Amore, which translates as ‘Lover’s Walk’ or ‘Lovers Lane’.

I’ve been to Cinque Terre a couple of times now. The first time I went, I was convinced that I had stumbled across a relatively undiscovered Italian paradise.

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Looking down on Vernazza, the fourth village (going north) in Cinque Terre

When peers were coming back from over-crowded venues like Florence and Rome, I was basking on the quiet (concrete) shores of the Mediterranean.

It felt glorious to be the holder of this ‘secret’ place and I was understandably smug. Unfortunately, I always feel the need to proclaim my brilliance to those around me. Since I have blabbed on the source of my August tan, I have been forced to see photos of my private sanctuary plastered all over Facebook with tags like “thanks for the tip Jaz!” If that didn’t irk me enough, these are usually followed by the line “having the time of my life!” It’s like they’re squirting lemon juice on a cut housed on my retina. That’s how much my eyes burn when I read those taglines. Continue reading “It’s this secret place, you’ve probably never heard of it”

On travel

Sep 3, 2010

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Why I hate you and your camera

In this, the latest in a series I've been calling "In defense of hugely intrusive government regulation in order to eradicate behaviours in others that I find annoying", I'm going to explain why I feel that in order to purchase and operate a camera people should be forced to obtain a license.

camertaIn this, the latest in a series I’ve been calling In Defense of Hugely Intrusive Government Regulation in Order to Eradicate Behaviours in Others that I Find Annoying, I’m going to explain why I feel that in order to purchase and operate a camera people should be forced to obtain a license.

I’m relatively pro-licensing in many regards anyway, from people who want to have kids to people who want to keep goldfish, before you are allowed to do something that will impact on other living beings I feel you should have to prove you’re not completely stupid. Or an asshole. Considering the outcome of the federal election I feel pretty comfortable throwing voting into the mix there too.

The great thing about modern cameras is that they have become so affordable and easy to use that even a prize moron can take a half decent picture. The terrible thing about modern cameras is that it would seem that all the prize morons have got together and decided to do exactly that.

I should first explain that I am not against photography per se. I love Gursky and LaChapelle, I even have a fledgling friendship with the prodigiously talented newcomer and sometimes Back In A Bit contributer Dan Miller. My partner maintains a photoblog for family and friends, and I have had so many photos taken of me by relatives while eating out in restaurants that I now have a Pavlovian saliva response to the flash of a camera. So I love photography in and of itself, even when I have to stare longingly at the food on my plate while my girflfriend frames it right.

I have however, never owned a camera. I’ve always felt that moments of visual beauty or happiness should be enjoyed, then allowed to become memory. I feel like while the photo may provide a more accurate record of something, it then takes over and the memory itself becomes what you see in the photo. I like the self adjusting function of the brain that lets you remember an experience as it felt, not just how it looked. Others will disagree, and I can’t deny the warm sense of nostalgia that you can get looking back over old photos. Overall though, I think photos lessen an experience rather than enhance it. Continue reading “Why I hate you and your camera”