Sunday, 26 December 2010

Canberra: On Christmas Day (in the Morning)

If serenity and tranquillity are what you crave at Xmas, rather than the chaos of ringing cash registers and surging shopping crowds, you could do worse than hang around the Canberra city centre on the morning of Christmas Day itself.

We're in Australia's national capital to spend Xmas with my wife Narrelle's family, which includes a multitude of her nephews, nieces, brothers and her Mum, along with the various in-laws.

As we had time to kill before we met up with them on the 25th, we wandered the deserted streets of downtown Canberra City (formerly known as Civic) and took photos of architecture and street art.

Using images taken from Narrelle's iPhone, here's a quick tour:

1. The colonnade along the side of the Melbourne Building, whose facade has a vaguely Spanish Mission feel. This was one of the very first buildings erected in the new city in 1927, along with its mirror-image counterpart across the road, the Sydney Building.

On a wall inside the colonnade is interpretive signage which bears a pic of the building in 1927, then standing in open fields. Apparently people used to trap rabbits nearby at the time.

2. An old-fashioned mall called Petrie Plaza is nearby, and this is some of the art painted onto its concrete planters. Can you recognise any of these famous faces? (he said, feeling a bit clueless... though, er, I think that's Kylie Minogue on the lower right...)

3. Another fragment of the art. Note the clever juxtaposition of image and adjacent surface.

4. A merry-go-round (or carousel) in the middle of the Plaza; Narrelle tells me it's been there for ages, at least since she lived in Canberra in the 1980s.

5. This is a piece of street art entitled On the Staircase. According to the notation, the artist was reflecting on the notion: "The more I read, the smaller I feel". Interesting.

6. Fascinating pair of missile-like pieces of art further on. No signage to be seen, but it was fun trying to take photos of them without catching our own reflections.

7. Later in the day, we had Xmas dinner with the extended Harris family. The festivities concluded with the destruction of a piñata in the shape of Santa Claus. A little weird, but fun.

I love this photo of our niece Keziah - it looks like a publicity shot for a challenging new arthouse movie by a talented but edgy young director. Could be big at Cannes!

And with that, we come to the end of my 50th blog posting for 2010. I’m taking a short break, but will post again in mid-January 2011. See you then... and happy travels in the meantime!

This post was sponsored by HotelClub. Check out its site for deals on Canberra hotels, including hotels in the Canberra city centre.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Unpublished 9: Dreaming of a Hot Xmas

A few years ago I had a go at selling a seasonal story on Australia's Christmas traditions to a bunch of US publications. 

No-one took up the offer, but in the spirit of the season I'd now like to share my Down Under festive musings with you. Merry Xmas!

Something’s wrong here. It’s the holiday season, and I can see Christmas trees, tinsel, and greeting cards with Santa and snow.

But outside, the thermometer is heading towards the 90s [the 30s in Celcius], the hot sun beats down and there’s not a reindeer to be seen.

Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? You won’t find it in Australia. As the land Down Under has opposite seasons to countries in the Northern Hemisphere, its holiday season falls right in the middle of its hot, dry summer.

Tinsel in the sunshine

But this meteorological fact opens the door to a Christmas with a difference. Many Australian families still celebrate the day with the traditional roast dinner, but an outdoor barbecue and salads are just as likely. Then it’s off to a swim at the local beach after lunch. The majority of people live near beaches of the white-sand variety, so they’re an essential component of summer.

The most famous beach is Bondi, located on Sydney’s Pacific coast. This is where the beach volleyball took place at the 2000 Olympics. Bondi is the classic Aussie beach, with surf lifesavers patrolling an area between two flags, ready to pluck weak swimmers from the waves at the first sign of trouble.

The holiday season contrasts don’t end there. The usual images of a fur-bedecked Santa and his reindeer are to be seen on greeting cards, but he also gets into the beach act, with a team of kangaroos pulling his sleigh, or surfing on a beach in his hat and a pair of bright red shorts. Likewise, snow-like tinsel hangs shimmering above shopping strips in the bright sunlight.

Sporting fixtures

But if you want to experience the full Aussie Christmas, there’s more to it than beaches. Aussies are sports-crazy, and some major events on the sporting calendar take place at the end of the year. Starting on the day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day), the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race pits sailors against dangerous seas, with festivities at either end of the 628 nautical mile route.

If you’ve ever wondered about the mysteries of the game of cricket, Melbourne is the place to find out. Each year, the Boxing Day Test takes place at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, a stadium located just outside the city centre. It’s an international match, with Australia playing an opponent in a game that takes several days to resolve.

It doesn’t matter too much if you find the rules incomprehensible - sitting in the sunshine with a drink and a traditional meat pie is a pleasant way to pass the day. Just cheer whenever the Aussies do.

Outdoor performance

Culture isn’t neglected in Australia’s cities, with Sydney’s annual festival of the arts taking place in January. Many of its events are free and held outdoors. Outdoor theater also takes place in parks in all major cities, including light-hearted productions of Shakespeare, and children’s classics like The Wind in the Willows.

Crowds also gather for outdoor carol-singing events by candlelight. In Melbourne, thousands sing along with local musicians, performing both modern and traditional Christmas carols in the Kings Domain park. The carol-singing tradition, begun in the 1930s, has spread throughout Australia, with even small towns staging their own event.

There are even Australian Christmas carols, including an Aussie version of The Twelve Days of Xmas in which “My true love sent to me, A kookaburra in a gum tree”. And The Three Drovers puts an Aussie spin on the more traditional shepherds (drovers are local versions of cowboys).

Chilled out, festive style

And New Year’s Eve is spectacular when viewed across Sydney Harbor on a balmy evening with a beer in hand, while watching fireworks explode over the famous Opera House.

The sort of relaxed, friendly mood you’d expect at holiday time is present, amplified by the benefits of Australia’s warm, dry summers: sandy beaches, barbecues, beer gardens outside local pubs, fresh seafood, good wine and life lived in the open.

But in the end, the holiday season is the same Down Under as in the rest of the world. People ease off from their office work, chill out, spend time with their families and celebrate the hope of a brand new year.

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Eat, Write, Win 2: Peru

Earlier this month I ran a competition in which I asked my readers to relate their most memorable food/drink experiences while travelling. 

The prize, generously donated by Lonely Planet, is a copy of Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011.

While there were some fine entries which I ran last week, the winner is this week's evocative account of a day in Peru, walking through ruins and feasting on alpaca. 

Congratulations to winning writer Rosanne Bersten, and to all who entered! 

4. Alpaca for Afters, from Rosanne Bersten

It had been a long, long day. We were in Pisac, a lovely, tiny town of only 2000 souls in the sacred valley between Cusco and Macchu Piccu in Peru. The main square was entirely taken up by a colourful market selling everything from jewellery to backpacks and more.

It started to pour so we bought some rain gear from the nearby gear shop and I bought an alpaca wool backpack from a man wearing camposino traditional clothing.

In the afternoon, as the sun came out, we went to walk up the mountain to las ruinas, but a man we had bought a wall hanging from asked us where we were going and told us it was too far to walk.

He said we needed to get a taxi from near the bridge back through the town, but then a woman from the next stall said, “Taxi?” and he explained what we wanted and she said her husband drove a taxi.

They knocked on the door of the house we were in front of, and a guy came out. They asked him about the taxi, he named a price, we bartered down a bit because we only wanted a lift up not there and back and we walked 100 metres to his cab and were on our way.

As we wound our way around about 20 switchbacks we started to understand and appreciate the kindness of our stallholder. The ruins are at around 3200 metres above sea level and we were starting right at the river floor.

They are stunning feats of architecture: terracing down the mountainside for agriculture, enormous stones dragged into position for housing and a temple of the sun, tunnels in the mountainside.

After climbing one very steep staircase and coming over a hill, we encountered an incredible astronomical observatory, doorways carefully placed at 15 degree angles to withstand earthquakes and stones placed with amazing precision.

As we were marvelling at the Incan ingenuity, a schoolboy came up the hill from Pisac. “Hola,” he said. “Hola,” I responded. And still in Spanish, “Do you live up here?” “Yes, but higher.” “Is it good?” “Yes.”

He kept going. We soon encountered another. The same conversation, but then:
“How many people live up there?”
“In my village? 200.”
“And do you walk up this hill every day?”
“Yes, every day I go down and I return.” (This is a 4km walk he was talking about!)
“Do you like it here?”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m from Australia and I live near the sea. This is very high for me.”
“Ah,” he said. “Do you know much about this place?”
“A little,” I said. “I know that this is the temple of the sun and I think it was built around the 15th century.”
“Could be,” he said.
“And I think that building there is older.”
“Yes,” he said. “I think it’s from around the 12th century.”
“Could be,” he said.
“Well, have a good day,” I said.
Ciao!” and he was off, climbing the way we had come.

We wended our way down the mountain, another hour or so down. The sun had set by the time we got to the bottom and we were happy and tired. This was bliss.

We definitely felt like we were on a honeymoon adventure now. We had learnt how to say we were newlyweds in Spanish and that this was our luna de miel and we were starting to get “Felicitations!” from the locals.

Back in Pisac, we wanted a drink for our tired muscles. I suggested we investigate Mullu, an alternative cafe recommended by our Lonely Planet bible. On the front of the building was a knotted snake eating its tail. We could hear the chill out music wafting down the stairs.

The room we were in was airy but cosy because of the dimmed lights and the rugs. It was hard to choose from the menu but I had a commitment to eating local meats, and I’d already had the guinea pig in Lima.

The food was amazing! For me, the most incredible alpaca ribs in sauco berry and red wine sauce, with mash and alpaca ravioli, with passionfruit dressing for my partner.

The alpaca was rich and soft, with every bite delectable. I never wanted the meal to end. As a cleanser, I had mandarin and lime juice with ginger and honey - mmm!

And then we went back to our gorgeous little hostel and snuggled in for the night, ready to wake early and catch the bus to Ollantaytambo. A wonderful, wonderful day.

Read Rosanne's blog.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Eat, Write, Win 1: USA, Italy & Croatia

Earlier this month I ran a competition in which I asked my readers to relate their most memorable food/drink experiences while travelling. 

The prize, generously donated by Lonely Planet, is a copy of Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011.

Here are a selection of the entries, with more (and the winner!) to be announced next week...

1. Instant Omelette, from Jude Dodd

Not me, but a friend touring USA... was appalled by the food. One morning in a good hotel they offered to freshly cook her anything she wanted.

Thinking an omelette would be hard to ruin, she sat and watched them make it.

First, yellow powder into a plastic bag, followed by UHT milk. Shake. Into microwave, in the bag. Onto plate with a "tadaah" flourish, then covered with orange squeezy-tube cheese.

She asked for one with real eggs, twice, both times with the same response: "Sorry ma'am?"

Follow Jude's Twitter feed.

2. Microwave Madness, from Lynne Kelly

I have always loved Italian food. Although I was looking forward to a convention in Padua, the stopover in Venice beforehand was planned as three days of gastronomical overindulgence.

On the first day, we walked into the glorious Piazza San Marco for my first genuine Italian meal. We choose a table in the sun, and sipped the red wine. At the little booth nearby, we ordered focaccia, thick with lettuce and cheese.

They heated it - lettuce and all - in the microwave. 

Read Lynne's spider blog. 

3. Go Eat It on the Mountain, from Karen Graham

In 2007, I travelled to Croatia to spend two weeks volunteering at a brown bear refuge in the tiny village of Kuterevo [pictured above right]. The work included upgrading a pathway from the village to the mountaintop (known as Kopija). But there was also plenty of time for enjoying food and drink.

Kopija is a traditional place for the villagers to celebrate and we had a couple of memorable occasions atop the mountain. The first was a picnic for St Rok Day, where we dined on a feast of lamb and chicken cooked on a spit in the fire. Our camp leader tried to tempt us with the sheep’s head and one brave volunteer actually ate the eye.

While I passed on this delicacy, I did eat a traditional dish made with sheep’s heart and lungs (but only because the ingredients weren’t revealed until after we’d eaten). I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food!

The second occasion on Kopija was the farewell celebration of a long-term volunteer from Germany and her family treated us to a concert. It wasn’t just the food that was memorable; it was one of those surreal moments you sometimes have while travelling.

There I was, sitting with a group of volunteers (from various parts of the world) on a mountaintop in Croatia - where bears and wolves roam - listening to a German brass band. Simply unforgettable!

Read Karen's travel writing blog

Next week: Alpaca ribs in the High Andes of Peru... and I announce the winner. Be here! 

[Photo credit: by Roberta F. (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Monday, 6 December 2010

Melbourne Anthropomorphic

Melbourne, Australia is famous for its busy events calendar, a never-ending annual succession of events that range from the big (the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for example) to the boutique (such as the Scarf Festival - no, really).

One of its least-known annual events, and one of its most intriguing, is Midfur. Taking place each December, it’s Australia’s premier “furry” convention.

And before you let your imagination run away with you, let me explain - “furries” are fans of anthropomorphic art.

Anthro-what? It’s art which mixes human personalities and animal forms - the most famous of which would be animated characters such as Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also fit the mould, as does the rabbit samurai comic book character Usagi Yojimbo.

It’s a popular form, but its fandom has a lower profile. At an event like Midfur, attendees meet other fans, buy comic books starring animal-based characters, attend panels that relate to their interests, and meet special guests. And some of them wear fursuits, amazing human-sized costumes that resemble an animal in humanoid form (more of these later).

Last Saturday I spent the day at Midfur. I’ve been to the odd science fiction convention in my time, and on the surface this event was similar, with panels taking place in various function rooms, and a dealers’ area selling a range of merchandise.

What made it different from SF events was also what made it most interesting. For a start, the crowd was younger than that at the average science fiction convention, and it was notably friendly and mellow.

The most interesting panel I attended was presented by a University of Melbourne lecturer. He took the ‘heroes and villains’ theme of the convention and applied it to the animal world, discussing parasites such as cuckoos, and the fascinating cooperation of the honey-guide bird and the badger-like ratel.

I was also fascinated by the fursuits. Some of these were extraordinary creations; one guy I spoke to was wearing a fox costume whose mouth moved when he spoke, and whose vulpine eyes hid minute indentations that allowed his human eyes to see through them. There was a photo call of costumes in the afternoon, and they were a remarkable collection when seen en masse.

It was interesting to note the variation in colours in these suits. Some were modelled on realistic hues, such as a fox fursuit I encountered with a convincing russet tone. Others drew on animated characters, choosing bright reds or blues. I even saw one who was a super-hero animal, neatly combining two great comic book traditions.

Kermit the frog famously said it wasn’t easy being green, and it probably isn’t easy being furry either, with all the potential for misunderstanding and ridicule by the wider world. But if you’re in Melbourne one December, and you’re a fan of anthropomorphic art, you could do worse than don a pair of rabbit ears and join the menagerie.

Midfur happens each December in Melbourne, Australia. For more details, visit

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Lights! Camera! St Kilda!

I spend yesterday afternoon in Melbourne's bayside suburb of St Kilda, being an unpaid extra.

Myself and dozens of other volunteers were taking part in crowd scenes for an episode of the upcoming Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV sitcom Outland.

Written by my brother John Richards and featuring the members of a gay science fiction fan club, it's a story about belonging, no matter who you are (according to the ABC's blurb).

The episodes mostly take place in characters' homes, but the final episode includes sequences played to the backdrop of a gay pride march in St Kilda.

So there we were in Catani Gardens, a beautiful stretch of parkland by the sea which was decked out with multi-coloured banners. Many volunteers had put in an effort to look fabulous, wearing an assortment of feathers, leather, PVC and/or nun's habits.

The ABC's art department had produced a fascinating array of placards for extras to carry, bearing slogans from the topical ("Gay Marriage Rights Now") to the slightly surreal ("Adam and Steve in the Garden of Even"). I was at first carrying a placard adorned with a rainbow-coloured heart, then later a placard with a mystifying symbol. Maybe it'll all make sense on screen.

While we milled and mimed, the paid actors (including singer Christine Anu) performed scenes in lurid purple sci-fi uniforms. They looked lovey. Well, lovely-ish. As lovely as one can look in a purple knee-length frock.

The interesting thing is that this isn't the only time I've seen a TV episode filmed in St Kilda. A few years ago I was walking along the Esplanade above the iconic Luna Park and Palais Theatre, to see a collection of characters dressed in 1920s gear being filmed, along with period cars. I realised years later that they were filming an episode of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

St Kilda is also famous of course as the setting for the popular TV drama series The Secret Life of Us which screened a few years ago. It seemed as if an episode of Secret Life was incomplete if the characters didn't play a casual game of soccer in Catani Gardens.

And I also once stumbled across a film set in Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne's downtown area, which turned out to be part of Ghost Rider, starring Nicholas Cage.

In fact, with big movie studios located in Melbourne's Docklands, you have a decent chance of bumping into exterior scenes of a movie or TV series being shot in the city's streets - and you can read more about that in this posting at at John Richards' Outland Institute blog.

But remember to present your best side to the cameras. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnd - action!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Streetscapes of Sydney's West

Another month, another conference in Sydney - at least, my second in three months. And as I usually do on these occasions, I've been wandering around interesting bits of the city's inner suburbs.

Here are some photos of the streets of Pyrmont and Glebe, former working class suburbs (now thoroughly gentrified) just west of Sydney's downtown area...

1. I liked the look of this stretch of Harris Street, Pyrmont. It tells you so much about the suburb's trajectory, from the derelict corner shop to the cool modern cafe just a few doors on. Out of shot is the Terminus Hotel, a pub which has been closed since the 1980s and bears period signage on its ivy-covered facade.

2. This is Glebe Point Road in Glebe. I love the building on the right, now housing a Thai restaurant; it's markedly grander than its neighbours.

3. This pic just speaks "gentrified suburb" to me: the old building, the playful use of the word "junk", the flower baskets hanging in front of it...

4. Spotted this attractive mural referencing Aboriginal legends on the side of a shopfront...

5. This bar brightens up the street with an non-traditional colour on a traditional facade...

 6. This greengrocer's obviously survived the transition from a working class clientele to the organic-aware residents of today. Either that, or the owner is a clever marketer - it looks exactly like the sort of Stuff White People Like.

7. Finally, the Pudding Shop. How could you go pass a sign like that?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Shakespeare Untranslated: To See, or Not to See?

To be, or not to be? To see, or not see a Shakespeare play in a foreign language? Now, that really is the question.

When travelling in a country with a different language from your own, a lot of its culture is still open to you.

Music and dance are no problem, opera is OK, and films might have subtitles. However, theatre is a problem, so reliant it is upon language.

But I love theatre, so I've always been keen to see it when travelling, if I can.

A few years ago, I hit on a solution to the language barrier - choose a Shakespeare play you're familiar with that's being performed in a foreign language, so at least you know the plot.

That frees you to focus on the acting, intonation, costumes, set design, direction and other elements without feeling bemused by the storyline. And if you know a little of the local language, you can still pick up something of what's being said.

Here's some of the foreign-language Shakespeare I've caught over the years:

The Merchant of Venice in Japanese

I caught this production in 2001 at The Other Place, which was then a secondary venue used by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, the Bard's hometown. To be precise, it was a Japanese production with a Romanian director, staged by the Euro-Japan Theatre Organisation.

It was great - the costumes were particularly memorable, an eye-catching mix of traditional and modern (eg Lorenzo in Japanese robes with a biker's jacket on top). 

Antony and Cleopatra in Italian

Well, it's a perfect fit, isn't it? Saw this in 2001 in a magnificent horseshoe-shaped old theatre in Rome - the sort of place you imagine opera being performed. It was done in a striking modern style on a candlelit stage - the men in Zegna suits, the women in classy black dresses.

The Tempest in Lithuanian

When I saw the poster for Burza in the Polish city of Toruń, with Shakespeare's name attached, I was puzzled as to which play it was. A look at my Polish dictionary produced the translation "storm" - of course, it's The Tempest! It was being staged in 2008 as part of the city's annual Kontakt festival (see the cool poster above). Kontakt started in 1991, and primarily aims to bring together great theatre work from Western and Eastern Europe.

To aid comprehension, patrons hired little radio-pickup boxes with headphones, which played live translation of the Lithuanian delivery into Polish, Russian and English. I did occasionally dip into the Russian, just because it sounded so portentous.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in Polish

All that time in Poland, and I finally got to see a Shakespeare work in Polish in 2007, courtesy of the much-respected Stary Teatr. It was magnificent. Working from a fresh translation (a luxury we English-speakers don't have), the company produced an edgy work in upmarket contemporary costumes and settings, laced with black humour.

The company managed the impressive feat of turning Shakespeare's famous comedy into something dark and uncomfortable. The scene directly after the four lovers are released from their magical enchantments was pricelessly awkward, and reminded the viewer that the characters had just been drugged and psychologically manipulated in the most humiliating way. Not really a laughing matter, when you think about it. 

There was also a nod to the original text - of the Rude Mechanicals, Snug (the one who plays the lion) could only speak in English. So we did get to hear some of Shakespeare's text, along with his attempt at a roar. That was fun.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Capel Secrets

The following article, written by me, was published in The West Australian newspaper in 2004; but why not spread the knowledge of this pleasant little town? Read on...

“Not just a one horse town”.

That’s what the local business directory says about Capel, in the southwest of Western Australia. But at first glance, you’d be doubtful.

The one horse is in fact Rogan Josh, winner of the 1999 Melbourne Cup. He lives in a paddock on the main street next to the local pub, with a big sign pointing out his identity.

It’s a generous space, and the thoroughbred seems quite comfortable in retirement, grazing contentedly with his pony companion. Capel may not have many famous locals, but it knows how to look after them.

The town started as nothing more than a 19th century rest stop on the stagecoach route between Bunbury and Busselton, which explains Capel’s position exactly halfway between the two busy regional cities.

It doesn’t look much more than a slumbering hamlet, and most traffic speeds by on the recently built bypass. Travel guides have little to say about it. But there are some interesting features to the area which make it worth a visit.

The first is wine. Capel sits at the northern edge of the wine-growing zone which stretches southward through Margaret River and beyond. From humble beginnings, viticulture has become a thriving industry. The local success story is Capel Vale, a winery situated two kilometres from the township on the other side of the highway.

It certainly impresses the visitor. A two-storey building hosts tastings, sales and an upmarket restaurant, with sweeping views of the vineyard below.

It’s easy to forget that the industry is relatively new to the southwest. Keith Warrick, Capel Vale’s sales manager, says its principal vineyard was a stonefruit farm 30 years ago. “The first vines were planted in 1974. They were a combination of merlot and chardonnay, which produce our two reserve wines today.”

However, Capel’s hidden jewel must be its beach coast. There are 29 kilometres of white sand beaches in the local shire, stretching along the Indian Ocean.

The best is Peppermint Grove Beach, eight kilometres from the town. Once a sleepy holiday village with fibro shacks, Peppermint Grove is fast evolving into a small coastal town. But don’t be put off. On a weekday, you can often be the only person on the sand.

Facilities are simple: toilets, a children’s playground and a few shelters on the sand. To the south is fast-growing Busselton and the curve of Cape Naturaliste, to the north is Bunbury and its busy port. But in the middle there’s nothing much to do except lie on the sand and relax.

If even this is too much like the big smoke, try Forrest Beach, Peppermint Grove’s sister beach a few kilometres south. It’s accessible by road, through flat, dry cattle pastures that reach right to the dunes. At the beach there’s nothing but some basic toilets, a bin and a couple of shelters. You can’t get more “away from it all” than this.

Capel may seem overlooked at present, but there’s a whiff of change in the air. Its proximity to rapidly gentrifying Bunbury and improvements in local infrastructure point to future development, and already land prices are rising. For the moment, however, it’s a sleepy town just off the tourist highway, with some interesting surprises on offer.

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current wine/beach/retired horse situation before travelling to Capel.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Unpublished 8: Sham El Nessim, Egypt’s Rite of Spring

As it's spring here in the southern hemisphere, I was reminded of this piece about a memorable Egyptian rite of spring I wrote some years ago, though it was never published. Enjoy...

Many cultures have a way of welcoming the coming of spring. After the long cold nights of winter, the light and growth of the new season feels like something that should be celebrated.

In many countries, Easter has supplanted older rites of spring. Though it is now a solemn Christian commemoration of Christ’s death, it has retained the eggs that symbolise new life.

The word “Easter” originally came from the festival of Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, fertility and new life.

Rabbits and eggs have always been seen as symbols of fertility and rebirth, so it’s not surprising that they have remained the main symbols of Easter.

Of course, Australian Easter falls at the beginning of autumn, which removes the direct link with spring. We are, however, keeping up a tradition which dates back thousands of years.

Back to the Pharaohs

Egypt has an even older way of welcoming spring, a day of celebration as old as the Pharaohs. On the Monday after Coptic Easter (celebrated later in the year than our Easter), Egyptians take to the outdoors to celebrate Sham El Nessim.

Literally “sniffing the breeze”, it's a day of welcome to spring that has been observed for almost 5000 years. The ancient Egyptian harvest season was called “Shemu”, so there is another link in the name.

Sham El Nessim is a picnic day. People swarm outdoors, to settle down on any piece of grass they can find. In a city like Cairo, this is no easy task. Over the last few decades, the city has exploded in size, increasing to over 17 million inhabitants in a densely-packed area.

Green space has given way to housing, and very few public parks remain. This doesn’t stop Cairenes from enjoying Sham El Nessim. Every grassy area right down to highway median strips is occupied by family picnics.

Lettuce, eggs and fish: symbols of life

The traditional foods eaten on the day - lettuce, eggs and fish - also reflect the coming of spring. The green lettuce suggests new life, the eggs suggest renewal and the fish are a symbol of fertility.

A fascinating echo of Easter is the practice of dying eggs in beautiful colours, believed to have also been done by the ancient Egyptians. Children are also given new clothes on the day, another recognition of the “newness” and change of spring.

Egypt has a way of reminding you how ancient a civilisation it is. The crumbling stone monuments of the Pharaohs are one example of this, but Sham El Nessim is, quietly, more impressive.

It’s a living connection to the people of 50 centuries ago, a good-natured testament to human optimism. And a reminder that the world’s diverse cultures are not all that different in what they find worthy of celebration.

Sham El Nessim next falls on Monday, 25 April 2011.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Tonight: Tomorrow, in a Year

One of the biggest attractions of Melbourne, Australia, is its lively cultural scene, which includes a rolling series of arts festivals throughout the year. 

The flagship culture fest, the Melbourne Festival, takes place each spring, and is always certain to produce at least one work that polarises the public. 

This year's Exhibit A was the modern Danish opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, which I saw tonight...

There are some live shows for which it's best to abandon all expectations of a straightforward linear narrative, and instead sit back, approach the thing holistically and let it wash over you. Such a show is Tomorrow, in a Year.

The premise is promising, even intriguing: an opera based on the life and work of Charles Darwin, created for the 150th anniversary of his landmark On the Origin of Species.

Its creators haven't made it particularly easy to ease into. For the first 20 minutes or so, mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin sings in a flowing red gown atop a giant glowing green brick wall, while dancers describe animalistic moves at floor level as an intense green light draws outlines in the air.

So far, so arty. But as the production moves along, the scenes open up and become more accessible. The large-scale audiovisual treatment continues, but in the lyrics and images there are references to Darwin's daughter Annie, who died when she was ten, and to his famous book; and text from his notes are projected in bright green cursive script.

The final passage is distinctly moving, referencing the diversity of life through the lyrics and glowing outlines of creatures superimposed on their images behind the performers.

To me the finale is a reminder that Darwin's theory is more than dry scientific fact; that it's the key to understanding the elegant process that has created the multitude of creatures with whom we share the planet.

It's strange, really, that the theory of evolution so threatens some people. How small they make themselves appear, by insisting they are so big.

The Melbourne Festival takes place in October each year. You can find out more at its website,

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Unicycle Diaries 5: An Imperfect Grasp of the French

A fragment taken from my travel diaries written in French Polynesia, in October 2005...

Passage at patisserie this morning:

"Comment dis 'receipt' a français?"

Blank look.

"The bill... l'edition?"

Glimmer of understanding.

"Ah! Le ticket!"

Hands receipt over.

Vaguely remembered schoolboy French is a dangerous thing (especially if, like me, you never actually studied it at school). A receipt in English is a recipe in French, a French 'ticket' is our receipt, an English ticket is a 'bilet', and our billet is... oh, never mind.

Overnight, the previously perfectly sunny weather gave a hint of the coming wet season, pouring down in the wee small hours. We later went swimming in a steady light shower, experimenting with the waterproof casing of Narrelle's camera by taking pics of the hotel from the sea.

Preconceptions of paradise

The aquamarine shade of the ocean is so distinctive and somehow instantly relaxing; it makes me wonder whether it's a case of chicken and egg. Is aqua an instinctively relaxing colour, or have we been brainwashed by decades of travel brochures and tropical movies into finding it so?

It's the same with the holiday destination; we're attracted by what we know about it, what's entered our consciousness through media coverage and fiction. Polynesia immediately conjures up images of Bligh and Mutiny on the Bounty, along with an 18th century focus on free love and sensuous women.

Add to that Paul Gauguin's paintings and the tropical cliches like palm trees and pineapples, and you have a simple compelling picture. But how valuable is it? Westerners know a fair bit about Japan and nearly nothing about neighbouring Korea, yet presumably both of them have just as much to offer the traveller.

Pacific pacification

Either way, there's something extraordinarily relaxing about Mo'orea. It has the air of a quiet beachside town par excellence; akin to holiday locations on the Red Sea or the quieter islands of Fiji. The medium-priced hotels here have the best of both worlds - comfort and informality.

At night there's nothing much to do, no TV in the room and nothing but the stars and the quietly undulating surf to watch. To anyone living and working in a city nowadays, that's all it takes to qualify as paradise.

We combined breakfast with experiments involving French, and some clever deductive work by the patisserie proprietor ("You are Australian? Your chapeau is like Crocodile Dundee"). Yes, that's the choice you make when you consider the hot sun of the Pacific: risk sunstroke or risk constant identification as an Aussie on vacation.

The local shops are refreshingly un-mall-like, with wooden verandahs enclosing a green quadrangle. There's a bank, newsagency, Internet access and  a little supermarket selling fresh baguettes, limited vegetables, and some local fruit such as pineapple and grapefruit.

Even supermarket prices are breathtaking in French Polynesia, but it's cheaper than eating out all the time. For 20 cents you can even buy a sac de pain, a long narrow plastic bag for putting your baguette in - does your supermarket at home offer that?

The French connection

Back at the hotel we met Michael, a stocky tattooed Tahitian who will take us for a tour of Mo'orea on Wednesday. Turning our back on the obvious attractions of the sea (local aquatic activities include swimming with sharks and stingrays), we want to turn inland and see more of the interior landscape and local culture.

After setting up the tour, we chatted for a while about French Polynesia. He's dismissive of the push for independence, basically on economic grounds; Tahiti and its neighbours have become deeply reliant on imports and French spending over the years, especially while French nuclear testing was operating in the area.

I suggested the French would have to compensate the territory either way if the testing proves to have dangerous long-term consequences, as are already hinted at in scientific investigations of damage on Moruroa.

But Michael had done well out of Tahiti's French connection, living in Paris and travelling across Europe and Asia. He's the modern face of a once-remote people who are now connected to the world, like it or not. The advantages of this connectedness no doubt help maintain this region's vestiges of colonialism, decades after it became a dirty word and vanished elsewhere.

Propping up le bar

At night I sat in the bar for a while, reading the Wodehouse biography and half-hoping to strike up a conversation with someone. But it was one of those nights when there were no English speakers around.

Coco said hello when I arrived and I had a brief chat with him and two gorgeous Tahitian women exuding Parisian chic in strapless tops; but conversation would be too hard to sustain with our limited grasp of each other's languages, so I took a seat inside and ordered a Hinano beer.

Not for the first time, I felt frustrated by my lack of the local lingo; but there was something pleasingly exotic about sitting with a beer, reading about the quintessential English humorist, while listening to the gentle flow of French around me. As has been frequently noted, it really is a beautiful language to listen to.

The Unicycle Diaries is a random series of excerpts from my travel diaries. For previous instalments, click on the Unicycle Diaries Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Japan & the Parable of the Bad Son

My father-in-law Stan Harris went to Japan recently to visit his son Bryce, daughter-in-law Megumi and her family. 

There he learned the lesson that sometimes you need to follow local customs, or you might make your son look bad…

Bryce and I visited a lot of temples in Kyoto, including the Gold and Silver Temples, and also an Imperial Palace, which is rarely used now but still gave a good indication of how royalty lived.

Japanese people were very helpful and friendly; one woman chased after us after giving us directions and invited us to come and see her 130 year old home.

Her husband was a University professor who had travelled overseas, and she was quite fluent in English. Her home had a very small yard but it was beautiful inside. There was one room dedicated to a shrine for the ancestors. 

Train travel

We did quite a bit of travelling by train and found it a good way to get around. We had no difficulty whatsoever with their card system. However, we boarded one train which was crowded and seats were few in our carriage.

Bryce was carrying a fair sized backpack, so I told him to sit down at the vacant seat nearby. He instead told me to take the seat.

I’m in my early 70s, but I felt fine and could swing on one of the straps hanging down from above. I told him to sit down, as he was the one carrying the heavy item. 

Bad son

Bryce said he couldn’t - that if he sat down and left me standing, he would be seen to be a bad son.

He explained that Japanese trains have marked seats and areas intended for people who needed to sit down while travelling. This covered people who had different types of difficulties in standing for long periods, including older people.

If he were seen to sit while I stood he would be a “bad son”.

The rules

On looking around from then on I noticed at times specific seats would have signs near them advising that they were set aside for that purpose. On occasion, floor areas were painted a different colour to signify the same thing.

People who didn't meet the seating criteria could use the seats if they were vacant. However, they were supposed to stand and offer their seat if someone who met the criteria got on board and there were no seats available for them.

From then on my grey headed old body sat down on the trains when we travelled.   

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Unpublished 7: Melaka Melange

Occasionally I'll write a sidebar, a short article that sheds light on the main feature article it accompanies. And occasionally these sidebars get junked by the editor if space is short. 

Such was the fate of this short item accompanying a feature on Melaka, the famous historic spice port of Malaysia.

The sidebar added a bit of history regarding the Peranakan, the distinctive Chinese-Malay ethnic group of Melaka, well known for its distinctive Nyonya cuisine. Now the back story can be told...

It was a match made in heaven. In the mid-15th century, a wedding was arranged between the Sultan of Malacca, Mansur Shah, and Princess Hang Li Po, the great-granddaughter of the Emperor of China.

The marriage was intended to cement friendly ties between the two rulers, but it also had the effect of expanding the diversity of Melaka’s population.

For the princess brought with her some 500 loyal followers, who settled down in the port city and became the forebears of the Peranakan culture which fused Chinese and Malay traditions and exists to this day.

The new Chinese population of Melaka settled on a hill which became known to Malays as Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill). Nowadays it’s the location of the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, containing 12,000 graves set along its slopes, each contained within an elegantly curved low wall.

The hill’s slopes were a favoured place to be buried, as it was thought they maximised the positive effects of feng shui.

The hilly cemetery is open to visitors, who can admire the attractive greenery and the plentiful tombs, some of which date back to the Ming Dynasty.

At the foot of the hill, there are also two other interesting sights: an 18th century Taoist temple, and a 16th century well which supplied the population of Melaka even in times of war.

Legend has it that the well has never dried up, even in droughts. Cast a coin into its depths for similar good fortune. 

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Montréal en Anglais

I'm back from Canada - and I have to say, I ♥ Montreal. What fascinated me most about it was how its French heritage meshes with its British history, creating a Francophone city with dashes of Anglophone place names and culture. For example, my hotel (the excellent Hotel St Paul) was on Rue McGill, named after a successful Scottish fur trader, and my nearest Metro station was named after a British monarch.

Here are some examples of the British elements I found scattered through the otherwise French-speaking landscape...

1. This grand building in what was once the commercial hub of Old Montreal was built by the Grand Trunk company in 1900. Grand Trunk was a British-owned railway company which built and operated lines in both Canada and the USA, and this was its North American headquarters. A historical curiosity is the death of the company's president Charles Hays on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912.

2. Here's a sign on a famous bagel shop on the distinctly Anglo-sounding Avenue Fairmount, in the attractive district of Mile End:

3. The nearest Metro stop to my hotel was Square-Victoria, named after the first Queen of Canada. Here she is in the middle of the square:

4. I went on a walk through Montreal's extensive underground pedestrian route one day, and crossed through the Gare Centrale (Central Station) on the way. Above one end of the station concourse I encountered a vast post-art deco bas-relief frieze created in 1943 by Charles Comfort. It was scattered with English words, including those of the Canadian national anthem...

5. ... which made me think there must be a French-language version somewhere, for balance. And sure enough, here it was at the other end of the concourse (with a McDonald's sign placed for ironic impact):

6. Most unexpected of all was this statue I discovered towering above Place Jacques Cartier, on my way from the Champ-de-Mars Metro Station. Right in the heart of Old Montreal, in a prominent public position opposite the former Palais de Justice, is a statue of Napoleonic war hero Lord Horatio Nelson. A war hero, that is, to the British, and famous for defeating the French fleet at Trafalgar. How cheeky is that?

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Canadian 2: Melville to Toronto

Here are some images from the second part of my 4,466 km train journey from Vancouver to Toronto on VIA Rail's flagship service, The Canadian...

1. Heading east from Alberta, we crossed into the next province, Saskatchewan. Usually each day we stopped somewhere for half an hour or so for train maintenance purposes, often just a small town. 

It was a brief opportunity to walk in another direction other than simply forward and backward, so most passengers got out for some fresh air and a photo opportunity. Here's me at the front of our mighty engine during our stop on day three in Melville, Saskatchewan:

2. It's amazing the things you see from the vantage point of a railway line rather than a main road. This car junkyard next to Melville Station was filled with ancient but photogenic wrecks.

3. It was rare to catch the dining car in such a pristine empty state, so I had to take a snapshot of this scene. The food was very good considering the tight space the catering staff had to work with.

Communal dining isn't for everyone, but I enjoyed the changing company each meal. At one sitting a young rail maintenance worker going on leave joined our table, so we were able to hear some interesting stories of life on the railroad.

4. The impressively grand Union Station in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city had the common sense to keep its train station located in the middle of town, unlike other cities we had passed through on the way (I'm looking at you, Edmonton and Saskatoon). This grand edifice was created by the same architects who built Grand Central in New York:

5. I'd tapped into my Canadian tourism contacts to ask the pressing question, "What the hell do I do in Winnipeg for three hours on a Thursday night?". Emails flew back and forth between my iPhone, Sydney and Winnipeg.

As a result I found myself in the Times Changed High and Lonesome Club, a friendly local blues bar just two blocks from the station (if you knew where to look for it). It was 'Campfire Night' at the bar, so a bunch of musicians formed a circle of chairs and played some good music while I sipped a bourbon on the rocks. When it hit 10.30pm, I pulled a Cinderella routine and vanished back to the train.

6. Each day on the train was characterised by a distinctly different landscape. We spent the entirety of day four passing through an attractive but apparently deserted section of northwest Ontario, full of greenery and scattered lakes. And there was no mobile phone signal for THE ENTIRE DAY (quelle horreur!).

7. We made our only and very welcome stop for the day around 5pm. By this stage I think most of us were getting a little stir-crazy and were looking forward to reaching Toronto, as enjoyable as the journey had been.

The tiny town, Hornepayne, was a no-nonsense hamlet full of timber and railway workers. I strolled to the general store, then had a look around the few public buildings near the train station. This fire brigade sign rather caught my eye:

8. Finally on the Saturday morning, journey's end - Union Station, Toronto. The main hall seemed a suitably grand place in which to finish the epic trip from the Pacific; and from which to commence the next stage of my mission, an exploration of the urban delights of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal...

[read the first instalment (Vancouver to Jasper) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of VIA Rail.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Canadian 1: Vancouver to Jasper

To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, Canada is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

At least, you won't if you cross it by plane. Taking the train from Vancouver to Toronto, however, is another matter. I've just completed a rail journey between those two cities. On the way east was 4,466 km of Rocky Mountains, plains and lake country, and it took over three days for VIA Rail's flagship service The Canadian to make the journey.

In a cabin in Sleeper Class, with all meals included and access to raised viewing areas, it was a comfortable journey, and the simpler berths (like couchettes) looked reasonably comfortable too. Even the sit-up Economy Class seemed to have decent width to the seats and lots of legroom.

However, I must admit that after three days of travel I was looking forward to journey's end. 

Don't get me wrong - it was an enjoyable period of life in a long narrow steel-encased town that was in constant forward motion, as we passengers ate and socialised and made the odd stop in towns and cities along the way. 

But all good things must come to an end, and by day three I had seen my fill of the Canadian countryside and was looking forward to Toronto's urban action.

Here are some pictorial highlights of the journey...

1. Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, a grand place at which to begin this epic journey on a Tuesday evening. Curiously, the statue in the foreground is a copy of one I'd seen in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2008. 

2. The interior of my cabin. There was a stainless steel sink and a mirror inset in the wall on the left, and at night the car attendant made the armchairs magically disappear (I still have no idea how) and lowered the bunk beds which were otherwise locked away into the nearest wall and the ceiling.

3. This was our first stop on day two, Wednesday morning. The town is Blue River, and the building is British Columbia's oldest general store.

4. As we approached the province of Alberta, we were starting to get glimpses of the Rocky Mountains.

5. We passed this beautiful lake en route to Jasper.

6. With the train at rest at Jasper Railway Station, we had a spectacular view of the Rockies as a backdrop.

7. Jasper was definitely the most picturesque of the small towns we stopped at along the way, with a harmonious architecture that suited its mountainous location. Here's the local firehall.

8. And here's a new friend I made, outside a gift shop opposite the train station. I think we make a beautiful couple, n'est-ce pas?

Next week: My marathon rail journey continues, with fine dining, a rust bucket graveyard, a bourbon 'n' blues bar, lots of lakes, and a fire-fighting dog...

[read the second instalment (Melville to Toronto) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of VIA Rail.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Streets of Newtown

In Sydney for a media conference three weeks ago, I spent an afternoon walking along King Street in the inner suburb of Newtown. Although this once industrial suburb has been gentrified in recent years, there's still a dash of grunge that keeps it interesting. Fancy joining me for a pictorial stroll?

1. This is the interior of Luxe Bakery (just off King Street at 195 Missenden Road), which was recommended to me as a good new Newtown cafe. It was indeed a great place, with a cool industrial look, good food and a lively crowd. 

2. There are some great facades along King Street. I particularly liked this duo, with its contrasts of eras and colours:

3. A bit further along, these businesses' names (especially Dirty Girl Hair and Moo Gourmet Burgers) presented an amusing contrast with the old-fashioned facades above:

4. Speaking of business names, this one also caught my eye. No idea whether it's based on two exotic ethnic surnames, or is just owned by a guy called Noonan...

5. Here's the Old Fish Shop Cafe (at 239a King Street), a hold-out from King Street's edgier days...

6. I liked the retro look of this sign outside the Newtown Mission Chapel:

7. This building on a triangular plot of land resembles the prow of a ship. I love odd accidental buildings like this, they remind us that roads are artificial lines drawn by humans in the first place...

8. An intriguing statue near the Newtown Town Hall:

9. Finally, in the more upmarket southern end of King Street, I passed this boutique selling arty gifts from Latin America. Personally I think this layout would make a great set-up for an Agatha Christie novel, or maybe an international version of Cluedo: "Mr Panama was killed in the chess room with a strange ceramic animal"...