Friday 26 September 2008

Tasmania, Mon Ami

It’s strange revisiting a place after 23 years.

I’ve been in Australia's island state Tasmania this week on a travel writing assignment, and I realised with some surprise that I was last here in 1985.

That was way back in the "Greed is Good" era, though recent economic shocks in the USA would suggest that sentiment is always with us.

In the last few days I’ve been to the cities of Launceston and Hobart, to the wilderness of Freycinet National Park, and to various wineries and breweries across the state.

What’s struck me is how much our travel experiences nowadays are connected to food and drink. Tasmania is famous for its beautiful landscapes and convict history, but it’s also producing some exceptional consumables.

Over the last few days I’ve sampled great beer, wine, whisky, salmon, oysters and other goodies. On reflection, I suppose it makes sense that a desire for natural beauty should mesh with a desire for fine natural produce.

But what was really enjoyable was catching up with two Tasmanian friends in Hobart, at a mellow bar called The Quarry on sandstone Salamanca Place.

There’s nothing quite like catching up with friends when you’re away from home – you get the benefits of a stimulating new environment combined with stimulating conversation all at once.

Which reminded me of the first Lonely Planet job I did back in 2006. In the last week I arrived back in Kraków, to meet up with two Australian friends who were flying in from two different locations: Claire from London, Ben from Paris.

For some reason, it's immensely cool to rendezvous with friends in a country where none of you are resident; it feels like you’re all sophisticated jetsetters.

Which just goes to prove, I suppose, travel’s inherent ability to make you see everyday relationships in a new light, to refresh old friendships and add a dash of the theatrical to your daily existence.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Disco'er Yer Inner Buccaneer

As ye may or may nay know, 19 Septembree each voyage be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

On this one tide each voyage, swabbies all o'er th' world pepper the'r speech wi' phrases like them ye're readin' here.

O' course, we're nay thinkin' o' real swashbucklers; if ye encounter them on th' high seas in th' 21st century, ye're unlikely t' be amused.

Nay, ITLP Day be based on swashbuckler talk as revealed by pop literature an' cinema o'er th' voyages.

I be a wee early, but I'd like t' join th' spirit o' silliness an' talk about pirate attractions ye can visit around th' world:

Pirate Soul. This museum in Key West, Florida displays a huge collection o' swashbuckler artifacts, includin' Blackbeard's blunderbuss an' Captain Tew's booty treasure chest. An' a real Jolly Roger from th' good old days.

Th' Pirates Museum. In Nassau, Th' Bahamas. Recreation o' life below decks, actors in swashbuckler costumes, an' a gift shop called Plunder! Arrrrrrrrrr.

New England Pirate Museum. Located in Salem, Massachusetts. Aye, witches weren't th' only popular inhabitants o' Salem in th' olden days. Celebrity swashbucklers like Kidd an' Blackbeard summered here when 't got too toasty in th' tropics. Includes a 25 metre long cave filled wi' booty.

Piracy Museum. This institution in Santiago de Cuba, unsurprisingly in Cuba, takes th' viewpoint o' one o' sweet trade's main victims: th' Spanish Empire. Fer many voyages Santiago be set upon by corsairs, semi-official swashbucklers gi'en licence by the'r homeport govenments. Th' museum be set in th' Morro Castle.

Murakami Suigun Museum. Found in Imbari, Japan. Nay, swashbucklers didna jus' hang around th' Caribbean. This museum details th' life an' exploits o' a local warlord whose swashbucklers ruled th' seas in th' 16th century.

Oudaya Kasbah. Rabat, th' capital o' Morocco, be often attacked by th' Andalusian swashbucklers o' Spain, who made lives hell fer locals in th' 12th century. Th' most prominent remnant o' the'r reign be this impressive fortress on a bluff above th' ocean. Ironically, 't later became th' base o' a pirate state.

So thar ye go. Thar's nothin' more stimulatin' than travellin' in pursuit o' a theme. Jus' reckon t' talk Pirate if ye're travellin' on 19 Septembree. Aye, e'en in th' passport queue when enterin' a new country!

(An' thanks t' Pirate Speak fer th' above translation – try 't on yer favourite site!)

Thursday 11 September 2008

Secure the Hatches

I've become an unwitting radio star in the last month or so. A interview on light packing on behalf of Lonely Planet led to me reprising the topic to several local ABC radio stations.

And today, I did an interview on ABC North West Queensland, which broadcasts out of the desert mining town of Mount Isa. The topic? How travel has changed since the events of 11 September 2001.

As you can imagine, I spent the majority of the time complaining about excessive air travel security measures.

Like anyone, I've no problem with security measures that are clearly making flying safer. What I do object to are security measures that appear to be designed to make it seem that authorities are Doing Something.

What's particularly annoying is the arbitrary ways these policies are implemented. Here are a few personal experiences:

Liquid Ban. I did the right thing the first time I travelled under the rule banning carry-on liquids over 100 millilitres. I made sure every item was less than that amount, put them in a clear plastic bag, even cadged a couple of 60ml sample packs of contact lens fluid from my optometrist.

However, my brand new tube of toothpaste was labelled by weight: 110 grams. Now clearly 110g of a thick, semi-solid paste is going to occupy less than 110ml in volume, so I put it in the bag. And it was pulled out and thrown away at airport security, because they'd belatedly decided to equate 100g with 100ml. And for good measure they also confiscated my 6ml shoe shine, because it somehow didn't qualify as OK to take aboard in cabin luggage. Yes, that's six millilitres of liquid.

Geographically Selective Procedures. The liquid ban applies to international flights from Australia, but not domestic flights within Australia. Surely if the liquid explosives threat is for real, it should apply to every flight. Or do liquid explosives only activate on crossing international borders?

Laptop Opening. In recent years, security has usually asked travellers to take out laptop computers for separate screening, and often to turn them on. But when I passed through London Heathrow outbound in June, there was a sign up saying that this was no longer required. A miraculous new development in screening technology? Or just a decision that it was slowing the queues too much?

Security Overkill. As I've mentioned once before, on my last two Melbourne-London flights transiting in Singapore, we were required to take all cabin luggage off the aircraft and have it re-screened before reboarding, even though it had all been screened in Melbourne and we weren't changing planes. Very unnecessary, and tough on the Changi Airport shops - with eight kilos of cabin luggage to lug around, most passengers just walked straight from the aircraft into the departure lounge to wait for reboarding.

Crazy Sequencing. On a recent flight from the regional city of Wollongong to Melbourne, we went through the metal detector after the plane had landed in Melbourne. By which point a suicide bomber could have already blown up the aircraft. Cheap and convenient for an airline operating infrequent flights from a small airport, but surely security is either applied properly, or not at all?

Part of the problem is the difficulty of getting rid of excessive security measures at a later date, as no one wants to make such a decision and them be proven wrong. What I'd like to see is a clear sunset clause to new security measures, having them last a set number of years, at which point they lapse unless their necessity is reexamined and proven.

Have any inconsistent security stories of your own? Do share...

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Passage to Sunshine

It has to be admitted - international travel gets all the sexy press. When it comes to leaving home, it seems, 'more distant' = 'more exotic'.

It's not strictly true, of course; there are many highly exotic and sensually vibrant countries located between myself and the English-speaking nations of the northern hemisphere. Some of them, like Indonesia, are on Australia's relative doorstep. But there is a tendency toward assuming that domestic is duller.

But on the weekend just past, I was reminded how you don't always have to travel far to encounter the exotic.

We'd agreed to meet our Sudanese-Australian friends Anas and Inas at a new Sudanese restaurant in Footscray, an inner-city district to the west. For some reason people always think Footscray is further away from the city centre than it actually is, but it only takes a few minutes to get there by train.

As we walked through the streets in the commercial centre there, I was struck by what an stimulating place Footscray is. Traditionally a working class area giving access to industrial jobs, for decades it's also been a thriving hub for refugees and other migrants, a place for newcomers to get their bearings and start out with a bit of support from earlier arrivals.

The result has been a startling diverse area; we walked past a dazzling array of shops selling goods from other countries. A street of Vietnamese restaurants and other businesses gave way to a street of African cafes and shops, a magnet for the many African migrants Australia has accepted since the 1990s.

The restaurant, El Khartoum Centre (145 Nicholson St) looked just like any eatery we'd been to when we lived in the Middle East, with fairly basic decor featuring simple furniture with the tables covered in plastic sheeting.

We ordered Sudanese-style coffee from the waiter, talked with him a bit about Cairo, where it turned out we'd both lived, and waited for our friends. The food, ordered from a wall menu of ten or so dishes, proved tasty and intriguing. It had much in common with the Mediterranean cuisine we were familiar with, but also many differences, including a greater use of both chili and peanuts.

After lunch, we checked out the shops, including an jewellery place where the owner sells attractive African-inspired pieces made on the premises. Then I found some of my favourite ajvar (a spicy Croatian vegetable spread) in the Footscray Markets. That's always a good day - it can be hard to locate.

Just standing for a moment in the pedestrian mall, watching people from across the world bustling between the diverse shops, reminded me that you don't always have to cover long distances to feel like you're travelling.

And in honour of that sentiment, here's a video my brother John Richards and I created a few months ago, as a try-out for a TV travel show. Melbourne's most famous suburbs may be Melbourne City (museums, bars, shopping), St Kilda (beaches, live music, dining) and Fitzroy (coffee, retro decor, funky fashion) - but today I'd like to welcome you to Sunshine!

Monday 1 September 2008

Intrepid is My Middle Name

Last Thursday I delivered another of my travel writing talks. This one was at the public library in Sunbury, a commuter town just outside Melbourne, Australia.

In my address, I talked about how the things that go wrong when travelling often make great travel writing material, finding their way into my published work.

There were over 40 people at the event, with lots of questions afterward, which gave me the chance to digress into other areas involving travel (just don't get me started on light packing, we'll be there all night!).

Some questions were related to writing, others to practical travel matters. Then one woman asked if I felt safe when travelling alone.

I didn't really know what to say. I nearly always feel safe; which is to say, I don't find myself thinking consciously about personal security very often.

My first instinct was to quote The Doctor's line: "Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me." And this led to a good discussion with another audience member about how showing confidence and purpose when walking through a foreign location is a sensible approach.

I also commented that I do have a 'train station protocol' when travelling overseas, in that I put my wallet in an inside pocket and make sure bags are all zipped and locked when I'm going to be hanging around a train or bus station. Just makes sense to not tempt thieves.

But as far as my personal security, I don't feel threatened very often. That's partly, I suppose, because I'm a big bearded male, and partly because of the 'own the place' approach. But frankly, I don't consider it much, and my sense of curiosity is too strong to stop me wandering wherever I feel like.

Does that make me intrepid or reckless? I have a feeling that these are mutually exclusive concepts, the correct one being identified by subsequent events. If you come back from the seedy part of town with nothing bad having happened, you've been intrepid. If you come back having been mugged and beaten, you were reckless.

So I went to laugh off the questioner's concern for my safety as a lone traveller, when I remembered a scary bus trip in Poland in March 2006. This was an occasion when I did feel a tad worried and the adrenaline was flowing.

I'd departed the city of Przemyśl in the country's southeast, on a bus across the mountains to the town of Sanok. Winter had been long and cold and showed no sign of concluding early, so the slopes and peaks on the way were covered with snow. It was a beautiful sight - what glimpses I had of it - though I was more focused on two of my fellow passengers.

It was the beer-drinking tough guy who spoke to me first, and it didn't take long for him to realise I didn't speak much Polish. Then his friend, calmer and sober, chipped in with a bit of English. It turned out he was accompanying his friend home to Sanok, as he'd just been released from prison. While we chatted about music, the ex-con kept drinking beer and occasionally wandered up the front to be obnoxious to the driver.

Then at one point the ex-con decided I should buy him beer (piwo in Polish).I wasn't sure when this was supposed to happen - presumably at one of the small villages we were stopping at along the way - but it sounded like a bad idea. So he kept demanding beer, and I kept saying "Dlaczego?" (Why?). Then he casually threatened violence, but his friend said not to worry about it, as he wasn't serious.

Nonetheless. When the bus pulled into Sanok bus station, just on sunset, I zipped through the terminal building, then crossed a pedestrian bridge to the train station while my new friends were probably still assembling their luggage.

Probably not the brightest move, in retrospect, as there are very few trains from Sanok, and the train station was dark and deserted. But at least I could walk into town from there, without being seen from the bus station. I never did see the duo again.

So I don't know what I learned from that incident. Catching a bus couldn't be seen as reckless; and not buying him beer might have been reckless, but not as much as actually buying him beer, in my judgement.

If you worried about everything that might go wrong when travelling, you'd never leave home. Your personal security, to be honest, depends on a mix of commonsense precautions and just plain chance. But that applies to life in general, doesn't it?