Friday, 25 September 2009

North Dakota: History Rides Again

As intensely as I might have tried to peer through the mists of time, I would never have dreamed that one day I’d be having an up close and personal encounter with the original headdress of Sitting Bull.

But here I was a few days ago, in Medora, North Dakota, inside the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, eyeballing the handsome historical artefact in its tall display case. A display case it was about to part company with.

Medora is a cowboy town in the infamous Badlands. It was once a thriving ranching settlement, founded in 1883 by French aristocrat the Marquis de Mores, and today it’s an entertaining jumble of restored shopfronts, tourist attractions, and bars and restaurants done out in Wild West decor.

With much of the place owned by a foundation, Medora is part tourist attraction and part real town, with a vibrant, compact centre.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame is about more than ranching and rodeo; it also celebrates the Native American culture of the region. As a sparsely settled place, North Dakota has a higher Native American proportion of its population than most other US states, and it was this connection which drew our attention today.

Coincidentally, the day our group of travel writers hit town was the day that the headdress of the victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn was to be returned to his descendants, via a college of the Sioux people within the Standing Rock Reservation to the south.

Since we were there, we were invited to attend a short ceremony conducted by Phil Baird, board president of the Hall of Fame and a Native American himself, to send the headdress on its way. The display case was opened and, as we stood looking on, Baird undertook a ‘smudging ceremony’, wafting the smoke from a smouldering feather along the length of the headdress.

As part of the ceremony, Baird spoke both English and Native American words, addressed the four points of the compass, and asked us to add our own silent thoughts to the occasion. Then, the event completed, the headdress was taken from the case, lain carefully on an indigenous star quilt, and transferred to a van for an escort from an officer of the local sheriff’s department.

It was a moving ceremony, undertaken with great conviction and emotion by Baird. As there were only ten people present, including we four Australian journalists, we felt greatly honoured at being included at such a significant event at the last moment. Especially, I suppose, as we were cultural outsiders; although, as I mentioned in last week's post about Montana, there are often similarities between Australia and the USA. The smudging ceremony, for example, reminded me of Aboriginal smoking ceremonies that I've witnessed.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame has, of course, now lost an important exhibit, along with a gun that once belonged to ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who had a working relationship with Sitting Bull in the post-Little Bighorn days (both items had been held in trust on behalf of the rightful owners). But it seemed fitting that the headdress should be back with the chief’s people, and hopefully visitors will eventually be able to view it in its new home.

But the institution still has plenty of excellent exhibits tracing the cultures of Native Americans, ranching and rodeos - the horse being the common factor of all three. And Medora itself is a lot of fun, with cowboy bars serving huge steaks; shops and hotels that look like they’ve dropped in from the 1800s; and the neighbouring Theodore Roosevelt National Park, packed with distinctive Badlands scenery and roaming wildlife from prairie dogs to bison.

The Wild West is long gone, of course; but its echoes linger in North Dakota.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of North Dakota Tourism, and V Australia.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Same Same But Montana

I’m in the USA for the first time, travelling with a media group through the lesser-known states of Montana and North Dakota... lesser-known to Australian tourists, in any case.

What’s fascinating about finally visiting the States after all these years is my uncanny feeling of familiarity with everything around me; I suppose all those American movies and TV shows have preconditioned me to US environs.

But in Montana there’s another kind of familiarity. In this low-population state with cattle farming, wide open spaces and small country towns, there’s a lot of congruence with country Australia.

A few minutes ago we passed through Chester, a small town in a flat dry landscape with big wheat silos by a railyard; it could pass for any wheatbelt town east of Perth in rural Western Australia, where I grew up.

But there are also, of course, differences. After a few days in the Big Sky state, here are some Australian impressions of Montana’s similarities and differences with Oz...

Open Roads. We’re currently heading along the Highline, Montanans’ nickname for Highway 2 as it passes through the northern part of their state, parallelling the Canadian border. It’s a straight, long, two-lane highway framed on one side by power poles, that could be a highway in any Australian state.

Different: On our first day, driving from Missoula to Whitefish along Highway 93, we passed through the reservation of the Flathead Native American people. Aside from catching a glimpse of a couple of bison in a wildlife reserve, the roadside signs tantalisingly bore two languages - English and the original local tongue.

Hearty Meals. Last night we ate at the Dixie Inn in the farming town of Shelby. Its dining room reminded me of every Australian country pub dining room I’ve ever eaten in - slightly gloomy lighting, plain old furniture, rustic architecture and enormous portions. The steak was huge and particularly good, obviously the product of a cattle state.

Different: Though the dishes on the menu were mostly familiar, the various ordering complexities were not. Mains came with a dizzying choice of carbs: baked potato, rice pilaf, mashed garlic, French fries and hash browns. And a pass at the salad bar, and a bowl of thick soup (clam chowder or chicken). Conveniently, those intimidated by the huge portions could split a single main over two plates, and both still get soup and salad, for a mere $10 for the second person.

Roadkill. Just like in Australia, the highways of Montana are dotted with dead animals.

Different: A couple of days ago we passed a dead skunk on the side of the highway. It must have released its scent before it expired, for our van was briefly filled with a pungent and unpleasant odour, even though the windows were up and the AC on.

National Parks. As does Australia, Montana has vast and magnificent national parks with imposing features. Yesterday we spent the day at Glacier National Park, named for its (currently fast-melting) glaciers. It’s also full of stunning mountain scenery.

Different: We toured the park in the iconic Red Bus, an open-topped red car which has taken visitors on tours through Glacier in place of the usual bland coaches for 75 years. Tons more style. The park’s features are often connected to intriguing Native American legends and, as a bonus, Glacier is also part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a US-Canadian joint initiative with an international border running right through the middle.

Hotel Breakfasts. I went down to the breakfast room of Shelby’s Comfort Inn this morning, and the spread was pretty familiar. Cereal, juice, and bread items to toast.

Different: But... was that a waffle machine? Yep, a big pair of heavy circular plates with handles which opened to reveal a teflon grid, with plastic cups of waffle mix nearby. All you had to do was fill the grid with the mixture, close it and rotate the plates so a timer would start counting down while the waffle cooked. Could I achieve the rotation? Not to save my life. Happily I was rescued by American breakfasters, one of whom said “Don’t you have waffle machines in Australia?”, then told me he’d travelled from Sydney to Cairns a few years ago.

Which is a step up in nationality recognition compared to most of his countrymen, who usually start with “What accent is that?!”, then follow it with a friendly chat. That’s another distinctive thing about Montana - it’s very easy to talk to the locals, especially when you have an Australian accent.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism, and V Australia.

Friday, 11 September 2009

B&Bs: Quaint or Frustrating?

I've stayed in a lot of bed and breakfast accommodation in my time, most of it in the countryside within a day's drive from Melbourne. Much of it has been very pleasant, with friendly owners and atmospheric decor.

But there are some undoubted quirks - you could even call them frustrations - which pop up again and again in B&B accommodation. Here are ten perennial B&B problems I could live without:

1. Hard Pillows. With a minimum of four pillows being provided at the average B&B, why must they all be rock hard? It'd make more sense to provide four pillows of completely different softness levels.

2. Hidden Kettle. Why is the electric kettle always hidden away at the back of the lowest cupboard? Leave it out so we don't have to crawl around on the kitchen floor, looking for it.

3. No Footstools. There's rarely anything to put your feet on in the living room while reading or watching TV. Don't the owners have footstools in their own homes?

4. Inaccessible Power Points. C'mon folks, you must know that people nowadays travel with multiple items that require recharging - camera batteries, MP3 players, PDAs etc. Why are there hardly any power points, and why is it so hard to get at them?

5. Kitschy Decor. OK it's a cottage, that's great, but does it absolutely need rickety wooden furniture and bright floral curtains before we'll accept it as our home from home?

6. Crazy Light Switches. You can spend ages at night trying to figure out how to turn off (and on) various lights before heading to bed. Also, bedside lamps are often those little shaded types that cast a minimal pool of light that's almost impossible to read by.

7. Too Many Towels. OK, those are regular bath towels, and those must be hand towels, and I guess that's a bath mat - so what the hell are all those other towels of varying shapes and sizes for?

8. Redundant Bed Cushions. Those multitudinous cushions scattered across the bed certainly look decorative during the day - but where are you supposed to put them at night? Onto the floor they go again (sigh).

9. Audiovisual Gear with Incorrect Settings. If you've provided a 16:9 ratio widescreen TV, make sure the various connected devices (DVD player, set-top box etc) are also set to that screen ratio.

10. Tiny Bathroom Ledge. Has it occurred to you that I might have more than a toothbrush to lay out in the bathroom?

Like I said, I enjoy most B&B accommodation, but there are times I wish owners would ask themselves the simple question "If I lived here, what would I want in the place?". It'd make country breaks a lot less quirky but a lot more comfortable.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Signs and Portents: Poland 2

This week, more odd, crazy and downright strange signs that I've spotted on my travels. Here are some more from my journey through Poland for Lonely Planet in the frosty winter of 2006...

It was a killer costume, but Anna couldn't help wondering how she would actually get to the fancy dress party while wearing that tail.

This gracious lady greets the stranger labouring up the stairs to reach the Oki Doki backpacker hostel in Warsaw (okey dokey... get it?). She's actually an irreverent reinterpretation of the city's coat of arms, a mermaid bearing a sword and shield. In true Central European fashion, no-one has any idea where the emblem came from, but there are some beguiling legends concerning its origin.

Warsaw prided itself on its diversity of shopping outlets.

I saw this sign as I walked down into an underpass that leads past a set of shops to a tram platform. On the left, of course, is an ad for a sex shop; on the right, an ad advertising natural food for diabetics, vegetarians, and the gluten-intolerant. Kind of a yin and yang of the sinful and healthy.

Marcin was actually a vegetarian, but was in it for the funny hats.

I like to see a man who enjoys his work! This guy on a giant poster in Wrocław enjoys his luncheon meat so much, he dresses up to get into the right spirit. The slogan beneath the ham says something like "tasty life", or "life is tasty", though both my own knowledge of Polish and online translators are having trouble with the word Mościpaństwo. I suspect it means something like "gentlemen". Help from Polish speakers welcome!

If one more person mentioned Monty Python, Agata was going to scream.

This curious poster was spotted outside PRL, a "communist nostalgia" bar in Wrocław, an attractive city in the southwest. The pub is very much a tongue-in-cheek take on the bad old days, and its interior is festooned with authentic communist memorabilia taken from people's attics, with waiters wandering by in red tracksuits, and stirring socialist anthems playing over the sound system. All very amusing.

PRL, by the way, stands for Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, the communist-era People's Republic of Poland. And śledzik is a little herring, eaten as an appetiser with vodka.

Leo couldn't wait to get off work and go bowling.

A lion above the door of a pharmacy in Toruń, my favourite city in Poland, a charming middle-sized burg in Pomerania with a vast collection of Gothic architecture. None of this airy-fairy Renaissance architecture for Toruń, no sir; if a church doesn't look like a red-brick fortress, you just aren't trying.

Anyhow, the pod in this sign means "beneath", as in "The Pharmacy Beneath the Lion". You can have lots of fun in the older areas of Polish cities by spotting business names involving pod (there are a lot of them), then looking upward to see if you can spot what object the business is actually beneath.

My absolute favourite, in Kraków, is Apteka Pod Złotym Tygrysem: Pharmacy Beneath the Golden Tiger!

To be continued...