Friday 26 February 2016

Melbourne on a White Night 2016 (Part 1)

Last weekend, Narrelle and once again I ventured out onto Melbourne's streets after dark for White Night.

It wasn't that dark, of course. The key aspect of this overnight arts event is its big illuminated art projected onto the sides of buildings. 

Though these works were less clustered than last year (leading to reports of disappointment), there were some spectacular sights for those who checked the event map and sought them out.

In previous years we'd focused on the south side of the event across the Yarra River, so this year we thought we'd head north for a change.

We were to determined to finally see some illuminations inside the State Library of Victoria, as we'd missed out before due to the length of the entry queue.

A bit after 9pm the queue was indeed long, but moved surprisingly quickly. As we reached the front of the library, we were treated to these external projections:

Pretty, but far surpassed by the very impressive Ideation inside the domed Reading Room. Running on a loop, it was inspired by the ideas and art within the books on the library's shelves.

Images from science and art shifted around the enormous interior while the audience sat on chairs or lay on the floor. As someone who has often used that amazing chamber to sit and write in, it was impressive to see it used in such a different way.

And here's a brief clip I filmed of the work:

Further up Swanston Street, we joined another queue for the City Baths. It moved fairly quickly both inside and outside, though this meant we didn't have much time to view the work within before being hustled to the exit.

It was intriguing though; Incubator lived up to its name. On the floor of the mostly-drained main pool, a projection showed dozens of colourful eggs and an enormous eel-like creature which swam among them, apparently hatched into the shallow waters.

It had been a great start to the night. Nearing midnight, we paused on Franklin Street for supper from a food truck. I had a serve of Ethiopian lentils and injera bread, and it was very good (must find out how to make it myself).

Something we noticed this year was the lack of crowding, at least in this northern sector. There were plenty of people around, but no sense of crush.

Refreshed, it was time to get moving again. The best was yet to come...

Next: Seasons shift across a World Heritage site...

Friday 19 February 2016

LAX to Downtown Los Angeles by Public Transport

I stayed in LA as a guest of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, and paid for my own airfare to/from the USA.

When I visited Los Angeles in October last year, I had an experiment in mind. I wanted to see what it was like to travel from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to the city's Downtown by public transport.

I'm not talking about the official LAX FlyAway bus, which will take you from the airport to Union Station for US$9. I wanted to use 'real' public transport, ie the city's Metro system.

This is how it's done.

1. Free shuttle bus to Aviation/LAX Station.

Exiting the international terminal, you head right to catch a shuttle bus departing from a blue sign marked "LAX Shuttle & Airline Connections".

As I reached it, I was lucky enough to score Shuttle Bus "G" (for "Green Line") immediately. The "G" bus is the one which takes you to the nearest Metro station.

2. Train from Aviation/LAX Station along the Green Line in the direction of Norwalk.

At the base of the station is a ticket machine, where you can buy one of the city's electronic TAP cards, or add credit to an existing card (I had one from a previous trip). Then catch the elevator up to the island platform - note the cool quote from Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl:

Be careful here, as it's easy to get on a train going the wrong way; signage is not all it could be. I managed to get on a train heading the opposite direction, toward Redondo Beach, but it was an easy mistake to fix by switching to the other side of the platform at a later station.

3. Transfer to the Blue Line at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station.

When you get to Willowbrook/Rosa Parks, take the escalator or elevator down to the ground level Blue Line platforms.

Note that you must tap your TAP card again, and the validators aren't in that logical a position - they're off to the side, away from the escalators.

Once on the island platform, wait on the side marked "Downtown LA" rather than "Long Beach". When a train pulls in, get aboard.

The day I caught the train was - unknown to me - a public holiday. So the trains on the Blue Line, which pass through the hip hop hubs of Compton and Watts, were pretty lively.

People chatted with groups of friends and played music, and (I assume unlicensed) vendors made their way through the carriages selling cold drinks and, for some reason, earbuds draped in large numbers around their necks.

4. Alight at 7th Street/Metro Center Station.

This is the final stop on the Blue Line. Congratulations! You're in Downtown LA.

You can leave the system here, or transfer again to the Red Line (Union Station-North Hollywood), Purple Line (Union Station-Koreatown) or Expo Line (7th St/Metro Center-Culver City) to travel farther afield.

I was heading to the excellent Hotel Normandie in Koreatown, but as I was only carrying cabin luggage I had a look around Downtown first - visiting an Aussie pie shop on the way.

And how much did this journey cost me? A mere US$1.75, which is LA Metro's standard one-way fare, but includes transfers to other lines for up to two hours.

It's not necessarily a fast way to get away from LAX; but it is colourful, and it is cheap.

Friday 12 February 2016

My Pretty Woman Moment: Trouser Shopping in LA

Pretty woman, walking down the street
Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet
Pretty woman
Roy Orbison clearly wasn't singing about me, nor did Julia Roberts base her performance as Vivian Ward in the movie Pretty Woman on my life.

But aside from me not being pretty, nor a woman, nor a high-class prostitute, our shopping experiences in Los Angeles are uncannily similar.

Let me explain.

On my recent trip to the USA, I did something I never usually do - I packed an old pair of casual trousers (cargo pants, in fact).

Because I travel so light, I'm usually very disciplined about this. I'll make a point of buying a brand-new pair of casual trousers to be packed alongside one more formal pair, because I don't want to deal with them falling apart while I'm on the road.

This is for two main reasons:
  1. I'm usually travelling on a packed itinerary, making it hard to carve out shopping time;
  2. I'm a big guy who usually needs to buy clothing from specialised larger-size clothing stores.
So. On my second day in LA, I lent over to do up my shoelaces and heard an ominous rip. The cargo pants had reached their use-by date. Now what?

I put on the more formal pair of "good" trousers, of course, but I couldn't go the entire three-week trip wearing those. From time to time I'd need to do laundry, and the thought of standing in a laundromat wearing bathers (my only other option) while the trousers were in the machine was not appealing.

I'd have to buy new trousers. But where? The only free time I had was after visiting a new Australian-run cafe in the Fairfax district near West Hollywood, so I needed a shop in that part of the city. And it had to be one that definitely stocked large sizes.

I searched Google Maps, and it came up with one obvious option: a specialist menswear store in Beverly Hills.

Gulp. Beverly Hills?

For those not aware, Beverly Hills is home to Rodeo Drive, one of LA's most expensive and exclusive shopping areas.

So I inspected the cafe, then caught an Uber car to Beverly Hills.

This is where it started to go Julia Roberts. The efficient attendant at the menswear store, alerted to my preference for simple casual trousers, started bringing out jeans. Simple jeans. Faded jeans. Jeans pushing $200.

So I swallowed my pride and asked for a pair of the least expensive casual trousers in the shop. I swear the temperature in the shop dropped a distinct number of degrees at that point.

It was sort of a reverse Julia Roberts, now I think of it, as my initial rating as a wealthy customer had now been downgraded a few notches.

The attendant followed my bidding, however, and I ended up with a comfortable pair of black cotton Ralph Lauren trousers for a bit over $100.

That was way more than I'd usually pay for casual wear. But I must say though, you get what you pay for. They are extremely comfy.

So that was my Pretty Woman moment. May you ever be spared a similar ordeal.

Take it away, Roy:

Disclosure: I stayed in LA as a guest of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, though I paid for my own airfare to the USA.

Friday 5 February 2016

A Travel Writer's Reading Holiday in Lorne, Australia

In mid-December I took a short holiday in Lorne, an attractive coastal town on Victoria's Great Ocean Road.

The eccentric timing was the result of something I'd noticed a couple of years before - two weeks before Christmas Day, accommodation prices at the Mantra Lorne hotel drop to very reasonable levels.

I assume that represents the lull before the storm: for that brief period, business travel has ceased for the year, and the summer wave of vacationers hasn't yet hit.

Whatever the reason, I decided I'd take advantage of it to take a reading holiday. It was also largely a technology detox as well.

Aside from a little social media in the mornings at the Swing Bridge Cafe (pictured above), I placed the phone and tablet in a drawer while I read a number of books in print, and on my unconnected Kindle device.

For some reason I'd decided to go on a travelogue jag. Well, not entirely without reason. I often work at the Docklands Library in Melbourne, and pass through the travel section on the first floor.

On doing so recently my eye had been caught by a book about a trip to Timbuktu, and I'd started reading it in installments once I'd finished my work each day.

So I took it with me to Lorne, along with a number of other interesting works. Here's what I thought of them (with an Amazon link for each if you'd like to buy them or learn more). 

1. To Timbuktu for a Haircut; by Rick Antonson

This was a fun read. The author is a travel industry professional from Canada, who becomes obsessed with travelling to Timbuktu in the west African country of Mali.

This is not a journey made casually; part of his complex preparations involve liaison with a Malian 'fixer' who turns out to present his own challenges. Antonson does a good job of placing us in his shoes, dealing with the inevitable difficulties while relating the fun and the interesting characters he meets on the road.

I appreciated him being the sort of travel writer who's happy in the company of others, both Malian and foreigner, rather than the Theroux-type who shuns all Westerners; it's a more relatable kind of travel.

2. Stranger on a Train; by Jenny Diski

I loved this book, echoing as it did my recent long-distance train journey up the west coast of the USA. In it, British writer Jenny Diski decides to circumnavigate the USA aboard Amtrak trains.

Because she's a smoker, she finds herself frequently exiled to grim grey smoking rooms within each train. There she meets the most extraordinary collection of fellow travellers, each with their own eccentricity or outright psychological problem.

She's had her own experience of mental illness, and comes to find the long-distance train - with its strange sensation of existing outside the normal world of time and space - as a kind of refuge which allows her to forget the problems of the 'real world' and open up to strangers. A great read, as much memoir as travelogue.

3. Against the Flow; by Tom Fort

In 1990, this British writer and keen fisherman decided to drive across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, fishing and meeting locals along the way. Two decades later, he returns to fish some more and see how the region has changed.

It's a well-written 'then and now' account which I could relate to strongly, having lived in Poland in 1994 and then revisiting it regularly from 2006 onwards. I'm not much interested in the angling detail, but Fort does a good job of painting the people he meets, and it's good to see what happened to them after that first encounter.

The only sour note for me is the writer often striking a note of 'it was simpler and better back in 1990', when of course it was actually poorer and more deprived for the locals. He does redeem himself by acknowledging this contradiction later in the book, however.

4. This Other London; by John Rogers

I'm always interested in books promising to uncover secrets of London. It's such an old, layered and complex city that there's always something more to learn about it.

In this book, the writer stages a series of 'expeditions' to outer London, exploring areas that were generally towns and countryside outside London before the Industrial Revolution. Walking from Gunnersbury to Hounslow Heath, or from Lewisham to Tulse Hill, he passes stately homes, converted factories, lost sacred wells, Roman roads and buried rivers.

I find him frustratingly reticent to talk to locals; so it's more about his own thoughts and reactions than those of people he meets along the way. However it's all fascinating material, almost completely through parts of London off the tourist map, which I haven't visited at all.

5. Reckoning; by Magda Szubanski

Though it's not a travelogue, this autobiography by Australian comedian Magda Szubanski contains a fair bit of travel.

As part of her account of growing up as the daughter of a Polish father and Scottish mother, she explores her father's past and his activities as part of the Polish resistance against the German military during World War II.

Visiting Poland several times, during communist rule and after the fall of the regime, the author gradually unravels those dark times and comes to understand her father better as a result.

It's an excellent read, both for Szubanski's natural, honest turn of phrase, and for an insight into the complexities of family life and its tensions.

Getting so much read in such a short time has partially turned me back toward the pleasure of reading print books to escape from the endless short-focus demands of social media and email (though I do still love my Kindle).

There's always next year's reading vacation to look forward to...