Mar 30, 2011


It was the sort of moment that could only seem normal on the Malecόn. There we were: people watching on Havana’s famous esplanade. It was a miserable day. The threat of rain hung in the air and the angry surge of the ocean cascaded over the sea wall, almost pushing Cuba’s jaunty egg taxis off the road.

The Malecόn was all but deserted, as the usual parade of swooning lovers and cheeky teenagers sought refuge from the weather.

It was our last few hours in Havana and after days of torrential rain, we were willing to brave a few clouds.

The Malecόn stretches for more than 8km along the coast of Havana, from the Bay of Havana to Vedado. The renowned walkway, one of the most famous locations in Cuba’s capital city, is a sight of romance and recreation, a place where both locals and tourists come to while away the hours gazing out to sea.

My boyfriend and I sought a dry spot as we watched the sea deal a punishing blow to passersby, drenching them with barely a moment’s notice.

It was then that the two women emerged. Dressed in what we had begun to recognise as the Havana uniform — vividly coloured spandex, at least two sizes too small — the women stood overlooking the water, just out of range of the waves. They were both middle aged, one blonde, one brunette, and laden with shopping bags. Let’s call them Maria and Sophia.

As we watched, Maria pulled an assortment of herbs and branches, and a live bird from a bag. I couldn’t quite work out what type of bird it was, but it looked like a dove. Clutching the limp bird by the feet, Maria began to chant. Continue reading “A Cuban voodoo ritual: dying birds and a guitar soundtrack”


Mar 28, 2011


Crikey reader Venise Alstergren writes: After two years of legal hell, I took my neuroses to Kerala in south west India and climbed aboard a converted rice barge to meander along The Backwaters.

Kerala is unique in that it was the first state in the world to democratically elect a communist government back in 1957. And it still regularly returns one to power. The most literate state of India, Kerala has excellent creds with healthcare, education, and literacy — with rates currently at 91% for men and 88% for women. What it lacks is a lot of business capital invested in it. My natural cynicism leads me to wonder if Big Business is wary of such a politicised workforce?

What with coconut palms, laughter from passing boats, and too many water hyacinth plants, this beautiful place was so hypnotic that I had an early night and woke up three days later. Continue reading “The hypnotic nature of south west India”

New Zealand

Mar 23, 2011


Australians don’t deal well with hitchhikers. It’s generally accepted wisdom in this country that hitchhiking is for people who are either a) missing a few screws or b) keen to wind up in someone else’s car boot.

It’s fair enough really. Australia is a big country, it takes days to cross and hitchhiking can mean long stints in cars with complete strangers. Plus the whole Ivan Milat thing wasn’t exactly good PR for standing on the side of a highway with nothing but an outstretched thumb for protection.

Regardless, it’s a shame that hitchhiking is looked down on here. One of my favourite travel experiences in South America was hitchhiking between Punta Del Diablo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Of course I didn’t tell my mum at the time, but it resulted in heaps of enjoyable adventures. Despite a distinct lack of conversational Spanish, my friend and I were invited to eat Parilla (grilled meats) on a beach, smoke cigarettes and chat rugby with a suave Argentine and (bizarrely) inspect real estate with some prospective buyers.

But if Australia has closed its doors to this wonderful pastime, then New Zealand has very much kept them open. Hitchhiking is common practice for many travellers in New Zealand, including locals and the international visitors.

On my recent trip to the land of the long white cloud, I preferred to play the enabler to the drifter’s form of transport. I hired a car — a ’98 Nissan Sunny — to drive around the South Island over the period of a couple of weeks. My planned route was to do a complete loop of the island while checking out some of the sights and sounds.

My first trip took me north from Christchurch to the whale-watching town of Kaikoura. It was there that I encountered my first hitchhiker. Continue reading “A hitchhiker’s guide to the New Zealand galaxy”


Mar 21, 2011


PART 1: Preparation is overrated

Freelance journalist Laura Burgoine writes: This time last year I left Melbourne, bound for Chile, with my laptop and very little else. I had no contacts, zero Spanish skills, no mobile phone, and no real accommodation at the other end. I was armed with a Macbook and the foolish delusion that this might just work.

I had graduated with a degree in journalism, early in 2009, inspired by my University’s motto “Ancora Imparo”: I am still learning. A year later I was using my degree as a coaster, and realised: I am still bartending.

An overseas hiatus beckoned. After stumbling across a newspaper internship in Santiago I gladly accepted the editor’s invitation to sleep on the office couch for my first few nights.

In my haste I certainly overlooked a few things, adequate preparation being one factor, a winter coat being another. However, with seven pairs of high-heels and an un-read copy of Spanish Step-by-Step, I departed ready to conquer the world, or at the very least pay homage to some of its airports.

Admittedly I packed pretty foolishly for this venture but I did take with me the best tool any person can have: a laptop. It took moving to a foreign country for me to fully appreciate the Internet as the pivotal survival tool that it is. Continue reading “How to light a gas stove, survive an earthquake, and other Chilean dilemmas”


Mar 18, 2011


Carolyne Lee  writes: A friend from London says she often hears her compatriots complaining (presumably after visiting France), “Why can’t France be more capitalist? You have to go to about five different shops to buy your headache tablets, your newspaper, your fish, your groceries, and your bread. It’s so inconvenient.”

The people who say this must be taking as their benchmark a place like Asda, or similar superstores where you can buy absolutely everything in the one shop — food, books and newspapers, pharmaceuticals, clothes, and even furniture and household goods. I did go into one of those places once when there was absolutely no alternative, and it’s not something I want to repeat.

Maybe such places do make a country more ‘capitalist’ which presumably means more profit-oriented. But profit for whom? For the owners or bosses on their obscenely high salaries, and probably also for those gamblers we call ‘shareholders’.

But the sort of capital I am more interested in is ‘social capital’, a concept well known to those such as sociologists and social workers who care more about the quality of the lives of individuals, rather than the quantities of material gain, or profits. Social capital refers to our daily interactions, our conversations, our recognition of each other, if not by name, certainly by face. Continue reading “Escaping capitalism (juste un peu) in France”

An Expat Opinion

Mar 17, 2011


I’ve decided Andrew, a man in his early sixties, belongs in the ‘in denial’ category of trainspotters. “I’m not a trainspotter, of course,” he opens our conversation, before going on to tell me about the webcam he’s got set up outside his house in northern England pointing up the train line, so he can grab his camera and get outside in time to catch anything interesting coming by.

Not that I’m a trainspotter, of course. You can tell that because technically, Andrew and the 26 others he’s with are train photographers, not trainspotters. If I were a trainspotter, I’d think that was an important distinction.

I meet Andrew when I come to Wolsztyn, in Poland’s west, for an article I’m writing about the upcoming nineteenth annual Steam Train Parade. I’d never heard of Wolsztyn (population 14,000) before. This is another way you know I’m not a trainspotter. Because in trainspotting circles, it’s world famous: the last place anywhere in the world with a regular commuter train service pulled by steam trains.

“In the 1990s, there were still lots of steam locos in remote places,” Howard Jones, the doyen of all things train-related in this town, had told me over a beer earlier in the day. “By 1997, when I arrived here, this was the last one.” Being a long term steam train enthusiast (“I don’t say trainspotter,” he notes, smiling wryly. Howard smiles wryly a lot), he decided to see if he could preserve it.

I momentarily wonder if it really matters — I mean, there are plenty of steam trains still running tourist routes, right? It’s like Howard can read my mind. “You can go and see a lion in the zoo. Or you can go to Africa. This is Africa,” he explains. I decide Howard is the ‘quotable quote’ kind of trainspotter. As a journalist, I like them very much. Continue reading “An Expat Opinion: ‘I’m not a trainspotter, but…’”

New York

Mar 15, 2011


Crikey intern Samantha Kodila writes: The French are snobby and smelly, the Italians are mafia gangsters who consume pizza and pasta all day long, and Americans are fat because they eat too much of… well, everything. Or are they?

I had my preconceived notions of what New York — the city famous for Broadway and aspiring super stardom — would be like before I went. I’ll admit, I was fairly esconsoned in the typical American stereotype, expecting overweight and sloppy cab drivers with greasy bags of McDonald’s meals littering their front seats, a Starbucks situated on every street corner, every meal to be like a scene from doco Super Size Me, and general rudeness all round.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the stereotypes didn’t quite stack up. Here were my favourite New York travel surprises:

  • The smell of donuts is in the air… everywhere. Well, churros, to use the correct term. It took me — and my eager nose — by surprise. I remember it quite vividly. It did not take long for me to establish that, when in New York, it does not matter where you go, there is always at least a light breeze floating down the street. And it is on this breeze that the delectable scent of this Spanish breakfast treat suddenly hits you in all its sweet and sugary glory. With a vendor on almost every corner, the temptation of churros and other greasy goodies such as chili dogs, pretzels and falafels is never far from one’s mind.
  • Same meaning, different word. Of course different countries use different words for the same things, think “ketchup” instead of “sauce”, and “soda” instead of “soft drink”. We hear them so often in films that we don’t even notice their presence. Yet I still had instances when I would ask for something and the sales assistant would give me a blank stare. My favourite was when my brother asked a waiter for a bowl of “chips”. After the waiter explained they did not serve chips, he finished up our order with “Would you like a bowl of fries with that?” The look on my brother’s face was somewhat priceless. Continue reading “Telling your nickels from your New York nonsense”


Mar 8, 2011


Freelance writer and photographer Inga Ting writes: With it’s labyrinthine streets, hidden plazas and winding subterranean tunnels, the city of Guanajuato in central Mexico may well be one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, this charming colonial city owes much of its charm to its unique location, nestled in the narrow valleys of the Sierra de Guanajuato. Candy-coloured houses cascade down sun-soaked mountains, whose rich silver veins once supplied up to two-thirds of the world’s silver. Beneath the city, a maze of tunnels built to divert floodwaters from the Guanajuato River now serve as throughfares in one of the world’s only road systems built almost completely underground

Sunset in the valleys of the Sierra de Guanajuato

Hundreds gather in Plaza de la Paz to celebrate Semana Santa or Holy Week. Continue reading “PHOTO GALLERY: Is this the most beautiful city in the world?”


Mar 4, 2011


Like all great ideas, it was conceived as on a night out. My mate Rory and I had spent the night at a rock & roll bar called Zeppelins, famous for its temperamental Taiwanese DJ who surrounds himself with vinyl behind a low brick wall. He plays 70s rock and if he really likes you he’ll greet you with a salute as you enter the bar. You can make requests, but if he is not in the mood you’ll definitely know about it — “Eagles? Don’t think so. Sit down.”

He is the soup Nazi of DJs.

Anyway, as the Tuk-Tuk bounced us home, Rory, the Tuk-Tuk driver and I began belting out a rendition of The Beatles’ classic Two of Us. The three of us couldn’t stop smiling. It was in between verses that Rory suggested beginning a Tuk-Tuk Sessions much like the infamous Black Cab Sessions. A couple of guys, sitting in a tuk-tuk, driving the streets of Phnom Penh, singing some tunes. We immediately glanced at each with excitement.

It wasn’t until the next day that sober heads took control. Would we offend anyone? Would it be uncouth? Would we be just another pair of awkward pale men in embarrassing shorts? We decided to proceed with caution. One song, one take. If it proved to be ok we’d continue. If not, we’d never tell a soul. We’d burn the tapes and move somewhere far north with an average snow fall of 12 feet. We’d effectively go off the grid and live beneath kerosene light. The street level reaction would determine all.

Our fears were put to rest as we organised our first Tuk-Tuk Session. Continue reading “Introducing the Tuk-Tuk Sessions”

Former Busabout tour leader Ben Oliver writes: My body screams for sleep, my mind is a scattered mess and I’m well past the point of breathing without my eyes closing of their own accord. In a never-ending effort to stay conscious, I pinch my leg — harder this time — sending a bolt of adrenaline through my system.

I scan the coach, a 51-seat Greyhound, for a distraction. The faces of my fellow trainees look similarly haggard, like we’ve all aged 10 years in 20 days. My eyes rest on Jill. Seated a few seats back, Jill is one of my favourites. The time is 5am, and she is yammering away at top speed, a feat for someone of even her prodigious talking skills. I like Jill, but right now I just wish she would just shut up.

I barely remember which city we are departing this morning, or our destination. We are in Spain, right? Or is France? Did we leave Tours this morning? Are we in Amsterdam tonight? I scarcely remember. The battle between mind and body is being won by the latter and my eyelids begin closing, like curtains on a feature film.

A hand suddenly rests on my shoulders, perhaps a little too forcefully. ”Don’t you even think about it, Ben” is the stern warning from my trainer. I smack my lips and mutter something along the lines of ”never, never” although I’m sure it comes out as gibberish. I shake my head in an attempt to rid myself of the aura of exhaustion now obvious to everyone.

Sleeping on the coach is strictly forbidden and guides caught napping are punished in a variety of ways. Cleaning the coach was a favourite penalty among our trainers and the bus drivers, particularly the latter who got 15 minutes of their life back while we struggled to clean the windows to a factory-grade level of cleanliness.

Sleeping on a real tour also poses a real safety risk, although by the time you reach your second year, most guides will sneak in a cheeky powernap, provided the driver approves.
What you don’t want is powernaps turning into full blown kips; a tour guide once got so drunk the night before departure in Munich, he slept on the coach’s back seat for an entire morning, only waking after the driver drenched him with a bucket of water.

Of course, like the other less-than-sacred rules of tour guiding, the rule of no sleep is only enforceable if you get caught. Much like the supposedly sacrosanct rule of never fraternising with the passengers, a rule bent by some, stretched by others, twisted by most and entirely smashed by a few. In short, it was a rule no one followed to the letter of the law.

I can still hear Jill talking in the background. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I feel like Edward Norton in Fight Club; I’m having odd daydreams of Tyler Durden appearing on the coach and instructing me to remove my teeth with a pair of pliers; I am Ben’s distorted sense of rage. Continue reading “Trials and tribulations of a trainee tour guide”