Friday, February 4, 2011

Homeward bound...

In just a few hours we'll be driving to San Francisco Airport for our flight home to Sydney. A little over 10 months ago, on 29 March 2010, we boarded our first flight, from Melbourne to Bangkok and set off on our 'Beeg' adventure.
Twenty-three countries later, countless capital cities, small towns and villages, hotels, hostels (and a few guest bedrooms) our pockets are nearly empty, but we are rich with experiences and wonderful memories.
For both of us the highlight of our trip was our month in that cultural extravaganza and melting pot called India with Mexico, Morocco and Turkey close behind. Traversing the countryside of Europe in spring and summer by train was marvellous. I can still taste the flakey roti canai in Kuala Lumpar, the 40 rupee ($1) veg thalis in Mumbai, bread dumplings in Prague and the fresh alpine water I sipped in an icey river in Rueun, Switzerland.

The gods have smiled down on us: we avoided revolution in Egypt and Thailand (just), the big freeze in Manhattan, mad taxi drivers, pushy carpet salesmen and dangling powerlines. The ash cloud may have delayed our visit to Europe, but it gave us the opportunity to detour and savour Malaysia.

We have sipped mint tea in the Moroccan desert, spicey garam chai on the train from Mumbai to Goa and sweet apple tea overlooking the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, Turkey. We have lingered in cafes in Delhi, Cairo, Budapest, Paris and New York and watched the locals pass by on foot, in rickshaws, on bicycles, on camels, horses, donkeys and in long, black limousines. We have seen the most wonderful old and ancient architecture - the pyramids in Cairo, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the leaning tower of Pisa and the Mayan ruins of Palenque, Tulum and Chichen Itza; and modern concrete, glass and steel landscapes of Manhattan and Mexico City. We have passed through dramatic snow covered mountain ranges in the Swiss alps and hiked through the green hills of Mount Abu in Rajastan.
It has been mostly wonderful, sweet and charming to dip our toes in the world; at times, scary and depressing.

In all though it has been the greatest of privileges to set out on this adventure. To all my friends and family who took the time out to read this blog, I hope you enjoyed reading it. It was a delight to write it.

Till the next beeg adventure....

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Smors by the fire, wine tasting in Napa valley

We spent the last couple of days in Sebastopol, where my cousin Ruth, daughter Lily and her fiancee Ross have a home. It is a beautiful part of the world, about 60 miles North of San Francisco, in wine country. Sebastopol got its name following a prolonged bar room brawl in the 1850s, which locals at the time (who were of Russian origin) likened to a British siege of the then-Russian seaport of 'Sevastopol' during the Crimean War.
Today you are more likely to slip on an organic apple peel than get into a bar fight. The town is full of organic groceries, bookstores and cosy places to eat. Very tranquil and homely.

My cousins shares their house with two goats, about twenty chickens and three cats. On Saturday night we roasted hotdogs and veggie kebabs over the wood-burning fireplace in the lounge and for dessert made "Smors". For those of you uninitiated, Smors are a great American campfire tradition where you toast marshmallows over the fire and make a sandwich with chocolate, marshmallow and two sweet plain biscuits called "Graham Crackers". A winning combination! We had a really wonderful night sitting around the fireplace, throwing the occasional log into the fire to keep it burning, exchanging stories and eating smors.

On Sunday my cousin Lily celebrated her sixth birthday with her friends. The highlight for them was smashing the rainbow shaped pinata. Those little kids held nothing back as they smashed at the pinata with a wooden pole, yelling with delight...all the adults kept a safe distance. When the pinata finally felt apart there was a mad dash and scramble among the kids to collect as many sweets as possible. I should say that while most kids seem to go a little psychotic when it comes to sweets, Lily and her friends were very happy to swap with each other so that everyone had a fair share.

Today we drove out to Napa valley to sample some of its famous wines and to have lunch at a French bistro. In took only 40 minutes to travel to green hills with rocky outcrops and endless rows of grape vines. While the vines were bare (it's winter here), in between the vines and sprinkled across many fields and hills were bright yellow wild mustard flowers, painting a canvas of Van Gogh yellow - Napa's answer to Provence's fields of purple lavender perhaps.

We stopped for a wine tasting at the Silverado Vineyard. An nteresting piece of trivia - the winery was established by Diane Miller and her husband. Diane Miller's maiden name was Disney and she was in fact the oldest daughter of Walt Disney. From the balcony overlooking the vineyards we could just make out the little house where the wife of the famous animator once lived. The highlight though of our visit (beside the tasting) was being given a personal tour of the winery by the winemaker himself Jon Emmerich and sampling a Merlot straight out of the vat.

We ate lunch at a fantastic french restaurant called Bistro Jeanty in the historic town of Yountville. Without a doubt the best meal I have eaten in the US. Delicious French cuisine cooked perfectly - I had steak entricote with bernaise sauce, Larna had mussels. For dessert, we shared what we both agreed was a very fine bread and rum pudding, perhaps the finest known to humanity, which I washed down with a glass of Amaretto. We all (bar my uncle Colin who was driving) dozed off on the drive back to San Francisco.

Well just two days to go until we head home. Ten months of travelling and it's all nearly all over. The real world approaches rapidly!

Friday, January 28, 2011

A racoon, two deer and a Coyote

Well, we're back from two days and two nights in Yosemite National Park. It's a legendary place and for good reason as its simply spectacular. It took us four hours to drive from San Francisco passing through countryside reminiscint of England - rolling green hills, cows in the meadow etc - before the hills became snowy mountains and the mountains the mighty Sierra Nevada range.
We got our first sighting of "half-dome", the iconic semi-circular chunk of rock rising up from the valley floor about 2o minutes after passing into the park. Next to it was 3,000+ feet of rising sheer granite known as "El Capitan". As I said, simply spectacular. Driving down to the valley floor we passed meadows and hills deep in snow and forests of enormous oak and redwood trees.
At night and in the morning it was freezing. Yesterday, we did a mile-long walk to a place called "Mirror Lake" (named so for its perfect reflections of the mountains and countryside, when not frozen over) and it was like walking across an enormous ice-cube. But it was worth slipping and sliding for the panoramic views of the mountains, the streams racing over snow-covered rocks and the hope that perhaps a bear or mountain lion might, peacefully, cross our path. We were definitely in mountain lion country as one sign gave specific instructions what to do if confronted by one including: make yourself as big as possible, if necessary, pick up stones to throw at it, but what ever you do, don't turn your back and start running. Interestingly, in the 120 year history of the park (it became a national park in 1890) the only animal to have killed anyone was a deer of all things, which sadly gorged a child to death in the 1970s.

As for the animals, we were lucky enough to spot two male mule deer, a racoon that stood on its hindlegs when we approached and the highlight for me, a coyote roaming across a snowy field in search of food. We did see other "animals" courtesy of the park ranger who led us on a nature tour. But I should be more specific, she hauled an assortment of wild rodents, a mole, an ermine, a grey fox and finally a mountain lion (or puma) from her backpack. Ok so it was just the heads and hides of dearly departed animals, but it was cool to see them up close, feel their fur and get a sense of their size. I was of course waiting for her to haul out a bear as the final animal (she was moving up in size with each one she pulled out) but had to be satisfied with photographs of these.
On the subject of bears, there are very big bears in the park, black bears, and one of the things we had to sign upon checking into the lodge was a declaration that we were "bear aware". Primarily this means that we acknowledge that we know not to leave any food in our cars as bears continually break in and destroy cars when they scent food inside. In the lobby of the hotel they played a video on loop of a bear jumping through a side door of a car and exiting a short while later with a bundle of food in its mouth. As for the car, it looked like its insides had been ripped out.
Even though we did not see any bears or mountain lions it was a wonderful two days and two nights in Yosemite. We stayed deep within the valley, surrounded by snow, forests of oaks and redwood trees, soaring granite cliffs and majestic waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet into enormous clouds of mist. I could not stop taking photos. Speaking of photos, all of these were taken by my aunt Cecile.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A special tour of San Francisco Bay

Well, after 9 and a half months of hard travelling (well mostly) we are finally kicking off our shoes and having a wonderful and well deserved holiday in San Francisco with my uncle and aunt. We have been here since Thursday evening and over the last four days we have divided our time between the city (about a 45 min drive west) and the East Bay region, more particurlarly Alamo, where they live. Their home rests in green, hilly countryside, below Mount Diablo, rising some 3,000 Feet. It feels part New Zealand North Island (but not as green), part Cape Town (but not as rocky).
Today we did a rather special sight-seeing tour, special because our tour guide was my uncle (Colin) who is full of interesting facts and trivia about the city. We started off in downtown San Francisco. Here there is nothing like the hustle and bustle of New York. Downtown Frisco is quiet and easy to navigate with little traffic congestion. We started off at Coit Tower, a white column sitting on top of Telegraph Hill and dedicated to the city firefighters who battled the blazes caused by the 1906 Great San Francisco earthquake. From here you could see infamous Alactraz nestled in the bay (Could there ever have been a better or more bitter view for a prisoner?) and the steep streets leading up to exclusive Pacific Heights. From here we took a drive down the top of Lombard Street, the 'windiest road in the world' (built surely just for tourist value, as it could have been, and much more easily, a bog standard straight road). Local residents must get awfully tired of people driving slowly down the zig-zag strip or just stopping completely to take photos. We then popped into Ghiradelli Square (near Fisherman's Wharf), the site of the SF chocolate company of the same name dating back 150 years. Here you could watch the original machinery turning cocoa beans into smoothy, creamy decadence.

The highlight of the day though was driving out to the Golden Gate Bridge and walking some of the way across. It is a beautiful red beacon to engineering brilliance, suspended above the pacific ocean, with the main cables made up of 27,000 individual pieces, lifting the bridge up in a gentle arch. A plaque said over 1,100 petitions were filed agains the building of the bridge. Why? Over fears it would not withstand the turbulent currents, that it would ruin the view and somewhat bizarrely, that it would deflate property prices. My uncle told me that for the Golden Gate's fiftieth anniversary in 1987, the bridge was closed to traffic allowing only pedestrians to walk across. Such was the sheer number of those who walked over on the day (they were packed in shoulder to shoulder) that the curve in the middle actually flattened out, scaring the living daylights out of engineers over fears it may break. Thankfully, the bridge lived up to the word of its creater, Joseph Strauss, who said it would last forever.
We crossed over the bridge (by car) and had lunch in Sausalito, an artists enclave slash upwardly mobile fishing village on the North side of the bay. I ate a bowl of thick, creamy clam chowder while Larna munched on a Reuben sandwich stuffed with corned beef, mustard and sauerkraut. Two all American culinary traditions. Our table was right out on the water. Of all things, a flag of a kangaroo in yellow boxing gloves hung from a window above the deck where we ate, reminding me that, soon, in Oz, my temporary "retirement" must soon come to an end.

Tomorrow morning we are driving out to Yosemite National Park, about 4 hours from San Francisco, where we are spending two nights. It is famous for itse dramatic waterfalls, canyon, towering rockfaces and overall scenic beauty. Another iconic place in the American landscape.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Farewell to Mexico

It's our last day in Mexico. We are in Guadalajara, full of glorious, colonial stone palaces and cathedrals. The market across from our hotel sells everything from tacos and milk desserts to jars of honey, sugar topped freshly baked bread, rattlesnake skins (with rattle) and bunches of dried herbs. There are many stalls just selling a huge variety of scented candles, (some to improve your libido) as well as the usual array of skeletons, skulls, religous figures, coffins and baby jesuses.

Tomorrow we fly out to San Francisco and we will both be sad to say goodbye.

Mexico is definitely one of the best places in the world to visit. It is full of colour on every corner, music plays out from every nook and cranny, the old colonial towns are more beautiful than many in Europe and the people are kind, honest and very warm.

Before we left, a lot of people warned us that Mexico is not safe and I think this statement really needs to be qualified. Mexico is a very, very big country (stretching almost the length of the USA along its Northern border) so to say the entire country is unsafe is ridiculous. Much of the trouble appears to be gang-related and located around border towns.

We have travelled all the way from the Carribbean, coast, heading thousands of miles West to Mexico City and now Guadalajara and never felt anything other than very, very safe, relaxed and most importantly, welcome. The small colonial towns (San Cristobel, Oaxaca, Guanajauto) are probably the best places in the world to sit on a park bench and watch the daily parade go by before grabbing a taco from a stand on the corner and sipping a Sol.

Even the biggest of cities, Mexico City, felt incredibly safe and relaxed to walk around. You can really explore at your leisure, unlike say Cairo where when ever you haul out your guide book some local appears to try and scam you. In Mexico i have never encountered such honest people. Many times I have not understood how much something costs and the taxi driver or street vendor has always given me the correct change. Lastly, most of Mexico is incredibly clean. They are constantly sweeping things up over here. I swear you could eat your lunch off the floor of any subway station in Mexico City.

So we bid Mexico farewell with a big, warm smile. Talk next from San Francisco or as my friend Jonny likes to call it San Francheesy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The ghoulish and the grand

As I wrote yesterday we are now in the beautiful town of Guanajuato, a former mining town that has lost none of its grandeur, oozing charm out of every cobbled street and colourful square. It´s packed with museums, but being a Monday, most were shut except for the ¨Museo de las Momias¨ (Museum of the Mummies) where this guy has a home.
It is definitely the most ghoulish museum I have ever been to. Unlike the ancient Egyptian mummies we saw in Cairo, these mummies are relatively new (or fresh), some are less than 100 years old and are displayed with facial hair, genitals dangling and still wearing the clothes they were buried in. Nearly all were mummified naturally in crypts. Among the more than 100 mummies were young children and one of a mother and her foetus, very disturbing.
Aside from looking at leathery mummified faces (most appeared, like the guy above, to be screaming with mouths open) we explored the town this morning after enjoying a delicious traditional breakfast of Eggs Rancheros with beans. We ate in a cafe packed with old radios and wirelesses and other bits of nostalgia, paintings and postcards. Mexicans know an awful lot about colour, art, composition and style. The picture on the right is of the main basilica with the manicured gardens in front. There is colour everywhere in Guanajuato. Hardly anything is painted white.
The main square, which is actually triangular in shape, is lovely beyond words, covered with a matching triangular hedge made out of trees and dominated by another Baroque church and grand theatre fronted with roman columns and black figures above.
You can see the triangular hedge in this panoramic view of Guanajuato as well as the main cathedral and the university, which is the big whiteish building behind with all the windows.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A vote for Mexico City (and lots of photos too)

The lady on the right is making fresh tacos in a great little Mexican diner where we ate a huge ¨comida corrida¨(meal of the day) for about 40 pesos on Thursday. Lunch is a big thing over here, dinner more for tourists and you really score if you find one of these fine establishments. We could hardly walk after we finished eating.

We left Mexico City this morning after a fabulous four days in what must be one of the world's great BEEG cities. Seriously, I find it hard to fathom how people can have such a negative perception of Mexico City, when it is so cultured, full to the brim of fantastic architecture, a rich and astonishing history, friendly people, wide boulevards, diverse museums and the world's cheapest and most efficient metro (just 25c a ride with trains coming every three minutes). OK Mexico City, if you want to give me a PR job, I am definitely interested.

We are now in an equally wonderful but totally different part of the world, the town of Guanatuajo, about 5 hours North West of Mexico City, set in the hills with the town rising up from a ravine (which runs under the town). It is simply beautiful with grand honey and orange coloured Baroque churches, windy, cobblestone streets lined with cafes, museums and colonial squares. It was once the site of silver and gold mining and Mexico's richest city, back in its pioneering days, and oozes charm and old money. We had a brief wander around this evening and will explore proper tomorrow.

Below Mexico City in pictures: