Gentlemen of Leisure

Nov 29, 2010


Gentlemen of Leisure: False starts

In my defence I was very drunk. The fact that I was at a karaoke bar singing Africa by Toto will testify to this point. I am also compelled to reiterate that it came as an extreme shock and surprise to wake up and realise I had missed my flight to Johannesburg.

In my defence — and it is not much of a defence I admit — I was very drunk. The fact that I was at a karaoke bar singing Africa by Toto will testify to this point. Also in my defence — and it is not much of defence I admit — I was not the first one to take off their shirt. And the $412 debit on my credit card, it must be pointed out, was at least partially due to a complicated splitting of bills. I am also compelled to reiterate that it came as an extreme shock and surprise to wake up and realise I had missed my flight to Johannesburg.

There are people who miss planes and people who don’t. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I am not the guy who misses the plane. I am not even the guy who almost misses the plane. I am the one who takes the airlines literally when they advise that you should check in three hours before your flight. And then adds an extra hour just in case. And then leaves early to avoid the traffic. I am that guy. So as you can imagine, waking up on my friend’s couch, still drunk, twenty-five minutes before my flight, was a rather distressing experience.

So in order to avoid further hardship on my part we will leave aside for the moment memories of me running around the house in my underpants, swearing LOUDLY, waking up various housemates, demanding immediate lifts to the airport and calling up my wife in the middle of the night in Nairobi to beg for forgiveness. The less said about any of that the better. Let’s focus on the positive side of things. Let’s talk about Ian from the Qantas call centre.

Qantas have been getting quite a lot of bad press lately, but Ian at least deserves some very major shout-outs on my part. Ian is my hero. When you call an airline at 7:10am to tell them that you have missed your 7:30am flight you don’t expect a great deal of sympathy. Especially when you are travelling on frequent flyer points on the last day of an off-peak period. Continue reading “Gentlemen of Leisure: False starts”


Nov 26, 2010


Binoy Kampmark writes: A public is aptly reflected in its libraries. The State Library in Melbourne was encouraged by the judicially severe character of Redmond Barry to soothe and iron out savage minds in colonial Australia.

Admission can either be free or through the provision of an annual fee. In the British Library in London, an enormous array of bookish sorts gather at neat desks to peruse the texts of civilization. The only noise one hears, apart from the sterile announcements about closing times and last requests for books, is the mechanical shuffling of papers, the hypnotic leafing through publications. Talk is inconceivable in such surrounds. Dissenting and contrary patrons are ejected swiftly as violators of a monkish code of learning.

In the San Francisco Public Library, the emphasis is reversed. Law, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is merely a memorandum. Towards that, the rules of the library against conversation are pieces of papers to be shredded. A memorandum, as a former US Secretary State explained, is written to protect the writer rather than explain anything. The writing on the wall informs us for what it does not say. The librarians know they must keep up appearances. That says little about the patrons, who breach the rules with breathtaking, and at times entertaining regularity. Books are mere props in a zoo of exaggerated behaviour.


A Korean is screaming on the ground floor, sounding vengeful and mouthing obscenities. A lady in a corner of the fourth floor receives a call on her mobile phone from an old friend talking about the passing of her father. “Jeez honey, shit happens.” A social worker is berated as condescending by a homeless Jamaican on the third floor for his insistence that he find better shelter. “I may not have a roof over me head, man, but I have a home.” Continue reading “Warriors against silence: reading at the San Francisco public library”


Nov 25, 2010


Travel writer Jay Martin writes: Australia is a Big Place. I’m not talking landmass, although we’ve got plenty of that. But rather, our Thing for Big Things. The Big Avocado of Durinbah. Sarina’s Big Cane Toad. The Big Poo of Kiama (a show of community support for recycled water). To name just a few.

We build Very Large Objects. And having built them, we duly perform pilgrimages to them, often in the course of family driving holidays. Who wouldn’t recognise some variation on the theme, “First the Big Banana Educational Presentation, then the beach”, barked by dad in the front seat, as an inescapable part of the Australian summer holiday experience?

So I like to think it was some innate cultural legacy calling to me when I heard that the World’s Biggest Jesus was being officially opened in Swiebodzin, western Poland, last Sunday, and I immediately knew I’d be there. If not, then it means it’s just me. And that’s a bit worrying. But regardless, the five hour drive each way from my current home in Warsaw certainly wasn’t enough to stop me.


For hundreds of years the town of Swiebodzin (population about 21,000) has been remarkable probably for being largely unremarkable. Lying about 60 kms from the German border, between Warsaw and Berlin but without great connections to either, it’s been going about its business largely undisturbed. Yet a single priest with an idea that was ‘just so crazy it might work’ has changed all that. Move over, Rio de Janeiro. Stand aside, Bolivia and your Cristo de la Concordia. Swiebodzin (‘shvye-BOD-jin’) is now the official home of the World’s Biggest Jesus. Continue reading “Poland says: my Jesus is bigger than yours”

Talkin' Travel

Nov 23, 2010


Martin Lane writes: Let me tell you a tale of two travel brands…

Pontin’s and Butlins holiday camps both provided the UK’s post-war generation with everything they needed in a week away — bingo, knobbly knees contests and donkey rides on the beach. They weren’t the most sophisticated consumers in the world, but they had fought and won a war so let’s not begrudge them their week in the, erm, British sun.

Anyway, the two holiday giants reached their heyday in the 1960s, before air travel was widely affordable, with Pontin’s Blue Coats and Butlins Red coats providing the entertainment – a few of them even managed to make it on to the telly.

But it was largely downhill once charters started flying to Spain in the 1970s and the masses turned previously unspoilt resorts like Benidorm into a sunny version of Margate.

In the 1980s, no-one would dare admit to going to a holiday camp and the whole concept became something of a joke. Continue reading “A tale of two travel strategies”


Nov 22, 2010


Sarah Baker writes: When someone says “let’s go for a hike,” I immediately think of big Kathmandu boots and hours of breathlessness in a mountainous environment where you definitely can’t get iPhone reception.

Being a city girl, I can’t say I’ve hiked much in my day, more like ‘extended walks’ during childhood trips to the Blue Mountains, Dandenong Ranges and Mt Kosciuszko. However, there really isn’t anything like escaping the city sounds of trains, car alarms and ambulances and replacing it with the echoes of birds, mountain winds and your own footsteps as you concentrate on taking one step after the other.

On a recent trip to Norway, I had the chance to re visit my theory of hiking. Travelling on a six hour road trip from Kristiansand to Stavanger, the western side of Norway, I knew little about the adventure to come, only that I was going to see a famous Norwegian rock called Preikestolen and that any pain my legs would soon endure would be worth it.

The scenic drive was a highlight in itself, weaving through the Nordic coast line where the roads were windy, the cliffs were steep and houses were painted a compulsory white. I encountered a multitude of quaint villages, luscious green hills and rocky shores. Road signs read “give way to moose” and “slippery when snow.” And the mountains were like passing sheep, just one after another.


Once I arrived at Preikestolen, my mind turned to the task at hand. With a backpack full of bottled water and cameras, I started the climb that would lead me to one of the most spectacular and profound natural rock formations in Norway, if not the world.

The hike takes about two hours by foot each way and it’s a close debate as to which is harder, going up or back down again. With the steep vertical gains and uneven rocky paths, the walk is at times challenging as you listen to your breathing get heavier and the back of your shirt start to sweat. In the distance I could hear the sound of bells clanging as mountain goats came out of hiding and the natural trickle of water as it flowed down from the mountain peak. I stared blankly at the signpost with the arrow pointing in the direction to the rock and a chart showing I still have another 1.5 kilometres to go. Continue reading “Living on the Norwegian edge”


Nov 19, 2010



My name is Allan and I’m an AYAD.

spiderPhoto by Anthony Rae

It stands for Australian Youth Ambassador for Development. Please don’t turn away when you read this. I swear it isn’t a political party or fanatic religious group. Sit down and let me explain.

AYAD is an AusAid funded program that allows young Australians between the ages of 18 and 30 to travel and work in developing countries. It is designed for people with high energy levels and bodies void of arthritis. It is designed to nurture regional relations. It is designed for adventure and learning.

To my utter disbelief I was chosen for such an adventure. I have been shipped to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I am here for a year.

cambodia orientation 037

cambodia orientation 022

My AYAD assignment is a Web Developer role with Friends International. Friends is an international NGO that works with street children. My main role will be to utilise social media networks to reach supporters and donors around the world. It is a little more involved than that but you get the gist. I’m not going to bore you specifics here. There will be plenty of time for that.

To my amazement Penh is full of excitement, bars, cafes (all with free wifi), rapid development and thousands of expats. It is such a lovely time of year. There is a pleasant breeze sweeping through the city from the north rounding the edge off the languishing heat. The people are warm and friendly. Only a smile is required to get by. Some Khmer would be good but at this early stage my pearly whites and bowing head seem to be working fine. Continue reading “Climb aboard my sweaty, slum-filled Cambodian ride”


Nov 18, 2010


Crikey intern Cat Wall writes: There’s often a lot you don’t appreciate about a city until you see it from a tourist’s perspective and, being Perth born and bred, I imagine that applies to Melbourne too. I ventured over here last week to complete a fortnight-long internship at Crikey. Having been here twice before, I had no hesitations in returning for a third visit and each time it’s proven worthy of the journey. I’ve covered a fair bit of the world for a 20-year-old, but Melbourne is still one of my favourite cities.

There’s something about its charisma which engulfs a young traveller. It could just be the tacky charm of 7/11s — the novelty of 24 hour access to something other than dirty kebab stores or the equally greasy McDonald’s chain hasn’t worn off yet given that Perth stores have only recently negotiated staying open past six. This isn’t really helped by a penchant for iced confectionery (I believe they’re called Slurpees here and a tendency to wake up with glucose-induced hangovers.

But I’d say it’s more to do with a relentless sense of curiosity, a fascination with finding the allure of ordinarily overlooked surroundings, and the belief that some things are better expressed through pictures. While office hours and dreary weather have limited levels of intimate exploring, I did get chance to set foot around the city on Sunday.  What was it this time that captured the attention span of an outsider looking in?

A life-sized game of chess.

BIAB - Chess

Continue reading “This Charming Town: An outsider looking in”


Nov 15, 2010


Nicola Heath writes: Flying into Bordeaux on our way to the French Atlantic coast, I hadn’t considered the city much beyond the airport and a cheap hotel. It won’t surprise those who have visited the city before, or those who are better researchers than me, but Bordeaux was a revelation.

We walked from our hotel, cheap and cheerful and near the Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean, to the centre of town via the churches of Sainte-Croix and St Michel, eventually arriving at the Cathedrale Saint-Andre de Bordeaux. At first the streets were shabby but still elegant, and the open doorways we passed emitted faint wafts of mustiness. We passed through a Turkish neighbourhood filled with shops selling fruit and veg and eventually down to a pedestrian mall thronged with Saturday afternoon shoppers. At the bottom of the mall runs a main thoroughfare, where we ran into a protest march. Blocks of demonstrators wearing their union colours marched alongside vehicles blaring music and presumable political slogans and chants through tinny speakers, like raucous, gaudy parade floats. We couldn’t read the banners but realised pretty quickly the people were marching against French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62. There were probably similar protests happening all over France that afternoon.

bordeaux Continue reading “The revelation of Bordeaux, the quiet Paris”


Nov 11, 2010


One Spanish November weekend: Gaudi vs the Pope

The topic of the day for the good citizens of Barcelona last weekend was the visit by the Pope to officially open the completed interior of Gaudí's Sagrada Família, an event 128 years in the making. The weekend was shaping up as a contest between a celebration of either religion and faith or of architecture. Would the primary focus be the Pope or the building?

Dr Terry Cutler writes: The topic of the day for the good citizens of Barcelona last weekend was the visit by the Pope to officially open the completed interior of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, an event 128 years in the making. The weekend was shaping up as a contest between a celebration of either religion and faith or of architecture. Would the primary focus be the Pope or the building? Both have been contentious in Catalonia. For Gaudí himself, an intensely devout Catholic, his architecture was the servant of his faith.

Last Friday, as I was taking a desultory walk around the local district, I came across houses sporting Vatican flags in anticipation of the Pope’s visit while others flaunted a curiously ambiguously banner expressing indifference to the whole drama of the week.  The design is quite arresting.


This literally translates as “I’m not waiting for you”.  The locals I asked about whether there was some hidden punch in this seemingly soft slogan said this was not so much about a protest rally as a public statement of indifference, and could be rendered as “it means nothing to me”.  Over dinner that night we discussed how quickly secularisation had taken hold of Spain. It is amazing how topics like abortion and gay marriage which are almost undiscussable in Australian politics are now totally unexceptional here. In less than a generation church attendance and affiliation has dropped to less than a fifth of the population. How ironic in a country whose imperial past saw the State as the heavy handed bovver boy for the conversion of the Americas. Continue reading “One Spanish November weekend: Gaudi vs the Pope”


Nov 5, 2010


David Keetch writes: After spending seven days in Phuket and Bangkok, hubs of hedonism and cauldrons of commercialism, the first steps through Myanmar’s former capital provided me with the perfect antidote to the previous week’s mind-numbing indulgences.

Driving from the airport through outer Yangon in a beat up early-model Corolla cum taxi you’ll fly past the immense and irrefutably symbolic Shwedagon Pagoda; gloriously golden, but whose splendor is contradictory to the rest of Yangon that awaits you.

Downtown Yangon

At first glance, downtown Yangon appears like a city that time forgot. Crumbling colonial buildings dominate the streets closest to Yangon’s port and cracked pavement lends itself to a variety of hawkers selling everything from second-hand buckles for backpack straps to bowls of tasty Shan noodles. Ancient buses lurch through the traffic, passengers spilling into the isles as they are ferried from one side of the city to the other. You won’t find ATMs here and you’ll have to search high and low for anyone selling Coke.

After one night in Yangon we were heading north for Myanmar’s biggest tourist attractions, but not before having a good chat with our only dorm-mate. He’d been travelling through Central Asia for a few months and was almost at the end of his trip. Travel-weary and tired of always being on the move he’d chosen Yangon to anchor down for his final week before flying home. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but said there was something about the city that appealed to his need to stay put and reflect.

Shwedagon Pagoda

It wasn’t until returning to Yangon, after our jaunt up north, that I began to understand where he was probably coming from. Days in Yangon are colorful and alive, but without the cheesiness and hassle of other major cities across SE Asia. The nights are calm, absent of neon and in-your-face seediness. The people are interminably friendly and unobtrusive. The best part, however, is that while most tourists leave the city and head north for Myanmar’s “Big Three”, you can walk Yangon’s streets and feel like you’re the only traveller in town.

And when children stare like you’re the first white person they’ve seen you can perhaps even delude yourself that you’re the first tourist to step foot here for some time.


Nov 3, 2010


David Blair writes: Syria — a small country near Iraq and Israel, a totalitarian rogue state, member of the axis of evil along with North Korea and Iran. That summarises what many of us know about Syria.

I wanted to know more and spent a month travelling this ancient Biblical land. My first impressions were of thriving vibrant cities, vast barren landscapes, valiant efforts at reafforestation, struggling plantations of olives and pomegranates carved out of the desert, and astonishing, fabulous ruins of ancient civilisations. Friendliness, kindness and hospitality are overwhelming. Time after time people smile and say “welcome to Syria”. They really make you feel welcome with innumerable invitations, gifts and smiles. Australians seem to be especially welcome.


But aspects of Syria are disturbing. The first is the desperate state of the environment.  Roadsides are mulched with deep drifts of plastic bags. Building rubble and other debris covers the landscape. Rivers are clogged with plastic floating on stagnant ponds. You wonder if anyone cares for this country. Looking up from this ugliness, often what you see is a grand presidential portrait. The face of President Assad is everywhere.

Continue reading “Finding the hidden side of Syria”