THE UNITED STATES – October 2016

Please Note: I am currently editing the Travel Journal I started in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback.

Next Around the Bend: London

Birth-Month Festivities

The Pink Sombrero

They came from far and wide to celebrate my birthday,  though none had ventured as far from home as us.

Two-point-five hours from Sydney to Auckland and then nigh on another twelve to Los Angeles, before embarking on a two hour drive through Southern California to Mission Viejo where our dear friends, Ed and Susan, were awaiting our arrival.

We met Ed and Susan in 2009 whilst waiting to embark upon Diamond Princess for a cruise from Beijing to Bangkok. Given that neither Ed nor Huckleberry B had ever met a stranger in their lives, they hit it off immediately. Susan and I are cast in supporting roles whenever Ed and Huck B get together to engage in chat and banter. Ed’s a very funny man, delivering caustic barbs at every opportunity; followed by a wicked smile and the words “I’m terrible, I’m terrible.”

In any event, my birth-month festivities began almost immediately…but not before a much needed, much appreciated and well deserved long, deep sleep. Bliss!

Refreshed and restored, celebrations began in earnest on Saturday night when Huck B, our two gracious hosts and I sat down to smash some Mexican food, while the sun set over the man-made lake at Mission Viejo. Expecting to smash the food proved, however, to be optimistic given that the meals were immense; particularly Susan’s chicken salad. Ultimately, therefore, it was the Mexican food which smashed us!

I did, however, enjoy my chicken burritos and we all sampled Ed’s fajitas, which were excellent.

I made the mistake, however, of sitting with my back to the kitchen. This proved a critical error of judgment, on my part, because I neither saw nor did I hear the approach of the Mexican band carrying an immense pink sombrero accompanied by a tiny sundae adorned with a lone candle. The waiters were already by my side when the festive sombrero was planted on by balding head and raucous singing began.

Ed, Susan and my beloved all joined the chorus with gusto; causing the colour of my cheeks to match the sombrero.

Laguna Beach Surprise

The next day – though still afflicted by some nagging time zone asymmetry – we piled into Ed’s car and traversed the manageable distance to Laguna Beach. Though the journey was short, I still managed to fall into a deep sleep – replete with weird dreams making absolutely no sense – which represented a recurring pattern during the early days of my celebratory month.

And so it was – through sleepy eyes and a slumbering brain – that I tried to process the fact that although there were only four in our merry gang, nine seats were assembled around our table at the Laguna Beach Hotel seafood restaurant. To be honest, I assumed the seats would be occupied by friends of our hosts, if I managed to think about it at all…

Soon enough, however, a cheeky smile appeared on Ed’s lips as Huckleberry B looked over my shoulder and bounced happily out of her chair. I had, once more, foolishly placed myself with my back to the entrance, so I (still) had no idea what the hell was going on. Once out of my seat, however, I saw a joyous sight: our old friend, Irene, was toddling towards us with a grin bigger than her face, accompanied by her daughter Michelle and her son-in-law, Joe.

(When describing Irene as old, I do so deliberately because she is 89 years of age…in addition to being somebody we have known for many years).

When greeting Irene, I remarked that she had come a long away for my birthday. But Joe quickly reminded me that she had moved from San Mateo (near San Francisco) to Pasadena.

I was truly surprised by Huckleberry B’s conniving. Dumbfounded would be more accurate!

But there were still two seats unaccounted for. My brain instinctively conducted an audit of our catalogue of American friends to identify who else might live in Southern California. The results were inconclusive, primarily because my data on where most of our American friends actually lived was incomplete.

While conducting this mental exercise – and struggling to extract information from the deepest recesses of my quiescent mind – I felt an arm around my rounded shoulders and saw a grinning face dominating my field of vision. Wendy! Oh my Gosh!

Huckleberry B and I met Wendy as recently as last December when cruising the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. She was but one of the many Americans on that trip who assured us that the Trump phenomena was a joke which would soon be over…

In any event, I could scarcely believe my red eyes. Was I still in a jet-lag induced coma, or was this really happening!

In any event, Wendy explained that she lived in reasonable proximity, at Playa de Rey.

With our cast of carousing diners complete, festivities were renewed, culminating in another round of joyous singing and the biggest chocolate cake any of us had ever seen!

Amongst the Vines in Temecula

The next day – the joys of our Laguna Beach lunch still warming our souls – my birthday caravan rolled out of Mission Viejo and trundled, ninety minutes later, into the wine country of Temecula. Positioned in the rear passenger seat, my brain resolved that our journey represented a good time, once again, to descend into sleep. More senseless dreams punctuated by snoring so loud that it woke me up, before returning to my restless slumber.

Once in Temecula, however, I forced myself to wake up and digest the sights around me; beyond the Old Town, along the highway, amongst the rolling hills, where the grapevines grow…

The countryside reminded me more of the Barossa Valley in South Australia than the Hunter Valley, closer to home, in New South Wales. The majority of the vineyards appeared to be positioned either side of Rancho California Road, which meandered through the Valley like an untamed grapevine unfurling towards the horizon. Stately wineries, mostly in a Spanish style, sat in harmony with vines which migrated across the hills.

Ed told us that the Temecula wine region was looked down upon by the more established wineries in Napa and Sonoma, but I think the young challenger was charming and enjoys great potential.

Soon Ed turned his vehicle towards the right and, disembarking, we looked for Ponte Resturant. We experienced some mild, short-lived confusion, when the hotel staff pointed us towards the restroom, rather than the restaurant! But we found Ponte soon enough.

And when we did, more surprise guests lay in wait for my arrival; John and Noelene, whom we met on our epic journey to Antarctica during the Christmas / New Year period of 2009 / 2010. But whereas there were just two of them 6 years ago, now there were five and John and Noelene soon introduced us to their three children, Noah (5), Isla (3) and little Jema (9 months).

The family had travelled from Ventura to join us for my (ongoing) birthday celebrations.

We had a great time eating, drinking and generally carousing under the shade sails at Ponte. Young Noah and Isla proved, in particular, to be entertaining lunch companions. Huckleberry B gave them each a clip-on Koala as a present. Isla, for reasons which were not explained, named her Koala “Bunk” and repeatedly reminded me of this fact by thrusting her little Koala toward my face and proclaiming: “his name is Bunk!”.

Soon, little Bunk was the subject of a game of hide-and-seek where Bunk was hidden and we, after re-opening our eyes, had to find him. When my turn came, I clipped Bunk to my right ear. Whenever Noah and Isla pointed to my ear and screeched “he’s there“, I turned my head (temporarily obscuring Bunk from their view), looked searchingly behind me and asked plaintively “where?“, causing Noah and Isla to jump up and down, gesticulate wildly and scream “there!”.

Not since the Underlings were toddlers had I had so much fun playing games with young children.

Relaxing in Mission Viejo

After a night at the charming Europa Inn, we visited a couple of vineyards in Temecula, a few shops in the Old Town before heading back to Ed and Susan’s house in Mission Viejo.

Huckleberry B and I agree with Ed and Susan that they have a lovely little home in Southern California. Situated in a peaceful gated retirement community, Castor del Sol, the homely bungalow is surrounded by trees and looks out over a valley to some tall rolling hills beyond. Susan has named the cluster of houses which occupy the distant slopes as her Amalfi Coast.

We spent the days which followed chatting and enjoying each other’s company, although the peaceful environment was interrupted on the Wednesday night by the Presidential Debate, which caused much consternation.

I am enormously grateful to Ed and Susan for becoming very willing and hyper-enthusiastic partners-in-surprise-celebratory-crime with my beloved Huckleberry B. Not only did they research suitable venues, they even travelled to Laguna Beach and Temecula in advance of our visit to personally ensure the restaurants were up-to-scratch. Being relatively new to the area themselves, it was important not to take any reckless chances.

Never in the history of my birth-month celebrations had such a highly organised conspiracy been perpetrated!

Cruising Along the Barbary Coast

A Week of Unparalleled Non-Adventure

Allow me to get one thing straight at the outset; our weekend onboard Ruby Princess was never intended to be a week of adventure.

There was nothing akin to trekking in the Himalayas or wending our way between the icebergs of Antarctica. This was always going to be a week of relaxation when we did as little as possible.

Most days involved getting out of bed, having breakfast, doing nothing, attending the morning trivia quiz, doing nothing, attending the afternoon trivia quiz, doing nothing, meeting Ed and Susan for dinner and ending the day by doing nothing.

For the record, our cruise took us from San Pedro (near Los Angeles) north to San Francisco; before heading south again and visiting Santa Barbara, San Diego and the Mexican port of Ensenada. Then it was back north again to disembark at San Pedro.

Huckleberry B and I had a lovely week together; but we didn’t do very much!

One More Birth-MonthSurprise

There was, however, one surprise awaiting me in the celebratory month of Pete-Tober.

Huck B and I were hosting Ed and Susan in our suite at the aft of Ruby Princess – overlooking her tumultuous wake – when there was a knock at the door. Assuming it was our room steward coming to enquire whether there was anything we needed, I paid little attention. I was, therefore, flummoxed when, glancing over my shoulder, I saw Charlene’s grinning face walking towards me.

Huckleberry B and I first met Charlene in 2009 during our early morning transfer from Beijing to the port which lay some two hours away, preparatory to boarding Diamond Princess to sail south to Bangkok (serendipitiously the same cruise where we met Ed and Susan).

During that long drive from Beijing, we also met Charlene’s husband, Jerry. Sadly, Jerry passed away several years ago, a suspected victim of exposure to Agent Orange during his period of service in Vietnam.

It was great to see Charlene again. She had lost a lot of weight since we last saw her, a product, she says, of her mourning. But she looked happy and entertained us with her stories during our week onboard Ruby Princess. She explained that she had adjusted to the new phase in her life, although we noticed she became teary, from time to time, when telling a story about her deceased husband.

Eating-Out in San Francisco

After a lazy day at sea, Ruby Princess docked in San Francisco.

This was a day of animated anticipation for Ed and Susan because they had arranged a lunch with their old friends from Los Gatos, where they lived before moving to Mission Viejo. Huckleberry B and I were honoured to be included in the festivities.

So, mid-morning, we left the ship and started strolling along Embarcadero towards Market Street. Along the way we encountered a homeless man walking towards us wearing a heavy overcoat. He must have have felt hot, however, because he had unbuttoned his overcoat; thus exposing every swinging part of the body which lay beneath.

Welcome to San Francisco!

Before joining Ed and Susan for their reunion lunch, however, Huckleberry B had a cunning surprise in store…

Stopping off at the Blue Bottle Cafe at the ferry terminal for a takeaway coffee, Huck B and I walked the short distance to the Robert Half office on California Street. The young lady behind the desk looked a tad perplexed when my beloved announced that she had a coffee delivery for AL..and the coffee recipient looked astounded when she entered the reception area to find her aunt and uncle standing there!

Our niece knew we were in town – and dinner was arranged for the early evening – but she did not expect an office visit.

We chatted with AL for awhile – thus interrupting her working day – before heading off to Kuleto’s on Powell Street for the lunch. We had a lovely time with Ed & Susan’s friends whilst enjoying some lovely Italian food.

After a stroll through San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown (much celebrated in story and song) and a coffee at Starbucks (much maligned by bitter experience), we joined AL and her husband, M, for dinner at the Wayfarer’s Tavern, where we engaged in animated chat.

A stroll back to Ruby Princess capped off a lovely day in the City by the Bay.

Seafood Lunch in Santa Barbara

Another day another leisurely lunch.

Home of the rich and famous – and fleeting home for the idle and lazy – Santa Barbara is a charming city with a village atmosphere. We were told that the likes of Oprah, Ellen and Portia, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and Kirk Douglas live in the hills which arc around the town and sometimes venture down to the restaurants frequented by the common people.

I adopted the covert sharp eye of a secret agent, but failed to spot anybody famous. I would have loved to tell Mr Martin that I enjoyed his performance in movies like Parenthood and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And should I have stumbled across Kirk Douglas, I would have loved to tell him that I was always more a fan of his son, so it’s probably better that I didn’t.

Absent a chance encounter with a star of stage or screen, Huckleberry B and I settled for lunch with Ed and Susan!

(For the avoidance of doubt, the last paragraph was, of course, a cheap joke and offered in partial retaliation for Ed’s onslaught of teasing remarks we have endured over a two week period!)

 

When we located and entered the Enterprise Fish Company Restaurant on State Street, we found – to no surprise whatsoever – that Ed had befriended two random strangers seated adjacent to the table he and Susan were occupying. They looked, for all the world, like two locals enjoying a meal, dressed down in their activity wear and caps. It turned out, however, to be a fortuitous meeting. As it transpired, the female stranger Ed befriended was the general manager of the restaurant; enjoying a quick lunch with her brother after they had ascended and descended one of the nearby tall hills for fun and recreation.

And the result? Two bowls of complimentary lobster bisque, thank you very much!

The lunch at Enterprise Fish Company was delightful as we were joined by two more of Ed and Susan’s friends who had moved from Los Gatos.

We had a lovely time together.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Little Chopper and his Frisbees

Huckleberry B and I rounded out our journey to United States by flying from Los Angeles to Dallas Fort Worth where we were greeted by our dear friend Stephen.

We met Stephen and his cheeky wife, Sharon, in 2007 when enjoying our first river cruise through Eastern France to Avignon.

We were privileged, once again, to be invited into our friends’ home where we stayed for four nights.

Whilst we were looking forward to our time with Sharon and Stephen, neither Huckleberry B nor I anticipated that we would also make a new friend.

Whilst perhaps uncertain about at us at first, little Chopper – a Schnauzer Terrier – proved to be charming host. We both fell in love with him and will miss him when we leave.

Chopper’s favourite game is frisbee. Unfortunately, my frisbee skills were sub-standard at my first attempt and Chop Chop, clearly dissatisfied with my dismal performance, delivered a stinging rebuke and unilaterally terminated the game and headed back inside.

Appropriately chastened, I learned that I was required to stand in the middle of the yard with up to 10 frisbees in my hand. Chopper instructed me to toss one frisbee to one end of the large yard which he would chase and catch. He would then run back towards me, drop the frisbee from his mouth and hurtle towards the other end of the yard, reaching maximum velocity as he passed my stationary position. It was then my job to time my next frisbee throw so that Chopper could track the frisbee’s path over his shoulder and time his leap to catch it between his teeth.

Stephen laughed when he told me that Chopper ran faster, jumped higher and added a little dance at the end of his performance if the female dogs next door were watching him!

While Chopper was friendly once he accepted we were dog-people, he does not like people holding him and only truly trusts Sharon and Stephen. Huckleberry B was, therefore, greatly honoured – and our hosts were greatly surprised – when Chop Chop decided to leap up onto the lounge and snuggle up with my beloved. What a canine endorsement!

He’s a good boy, lil’ Chopper. And he’s a lucky boy too; he gets to go to work every day with his Daddy at his jewellery store. How much would our three girls love that!

Halloween in Fort Worth

As soon as we arrived at Sharon and Stephen’s house in Fort Worth, we knew it was Halloween!

Their front yard was dominated by a witch driving a pumpkin carriage through a cemetery! At the front door we were greeted by a six-foot tall Igor and the living room was dominated by pumpkins, vultures, ghosts and witches. Another creepy looking spectre with a puppet sat at the piano in the corner. How spooky!

In preparation for the trick or treat onslaught, Sharon’s grand-daughter had prepared sixty bags full of candy. When the night came, they were gone in 30 minutes! Huckleberry B and I had never seen anything like it. The doorbell rang constantly and we were greeted by gangs of ghouls of up to 12 in number.

To my observation, an implied contract was in operation. The kids dress up and they get candy. The trick in the trick OR treat equation appears to have been lost in time. Stephen said that ‘in his day’ the homeowner was entitled to request a trick, in which case the obligation to provide a treat no longer applied. But now, it seems, we live in more consumer-driven times!

The efforts of the marketing departments of major supermarkets back home notwithstanding, Halloween has never really taken off in Sydney. So we were excited to participate in a genuine Texan Halloween. It was great fun.

A Day in Fort Worth

After a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday evening when we had dinner with Sharon and Stephen, their daughter, Kim, and their son-in-law, Jim – before enjoying The Phantom of the Opera at Bass Hall – we spent Monday with Sharon’s general manager, Gracie, in Fort Worth.

The morning was occupied by a stroll around the Stockyards where we saw some Longhorns being herded down the road. Boy, those horns were long!

But the highlight was lunch at Joe T Garcia’s!

Joe T’s appears to be a Dallas Fort Worth institution! With capacity to seat 1,600 guests – most of them outside in the fabulous garden – the restaurant’s specialities are fajitas and enchiladas. Indeed, at dinner, that is all they serve. What a great business model!

Whilst their lunch menu is a little more expansive, Huckleberry B and I decided to stick with their specialities. I’ve never been a great fan of Mexican food, but Joe T’s was fantastic! We loved it.

A Day in Abilene

As readers may have gathered, this trip to America represented an opportunity to catch-up with the American friends we had met during our travels over the years.

The last couple we spent some time with – but one of the most anticipated – was Alice and Jim from Abilene. We met these crazy Texans during our week onboard Celebrity Xpedition as it sailed around the Galápagos Islands in 2008.

The small town of Abilene lies some 2 hours to the west of Fort Worth. As it happened, the day we headed in that direction – with much gratitude to Sharon and Stephen for lending their driver and Sharon’s car for the day – was our 22nd Anniversary.

Whilst visiting a working Ranch – where we saw a pump-jack and a wind farm – and whilst enjoying some Texan food (chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken), we joyfully reminisced about our time around the Galápagos Islands. Like the time Alice horrified our naturalist guide by politely enquiring whether the event of an animal attack would result in her producing a gun from her knapsack! Or like the time Jim expounded his theory that all the animals, birds and natural features were mechanically operated from a central control room.

We only got to spend 3 to 4 hours with Alice and Jim, but they were some special hours indeed.

Upon our return to Fort Worth, we enjoyed an exquisite meal with Sharon and Stephen at City Club to celebrate our anniversary! What a lovely way to end our American sojourn!

The Road Home

As I have intimated, we never intended doing much on this trip and we executed that plan with both precision and skill.

I therefore apologise with sincerity if my narrative has a `you had to be there’ quality about it.

What made this holiday special for us, however, was the time we spent catching up with a variety of American friends from our travelling past.

We are enormously grateful to Ed and Susan and Sharon and Stephen for allowing us to share their homes with them. So much so, that the words in the previous sentence seem wholly inadequate. We can not express how much we enjoyed chatting about everything and nothing across a number of meals and whilst doing nothing more than sitting around and passing time.

One topic which has, of course, dominated conversation during the last three weeks is the impending Presidential election. None of the Americans we have met have engaged in any full-throated, blue-faced advocacy in favour of either candidate. What we have experienced is reasonably polite, well-reasoned argument explaining why their antipathy for the opposing candidate outweighed the (sometimes profound) disappointment they felt in the candidate of their traditional party-affiliation.

Everybody has expressed concern for the what lies beyond November 8.

This evening, Huckleberry B and I embark on a 17 hour flight from DFW to SYD. It promises to be an epic journey. We leave late on 2 November and arrive early on 4 November. The day, 3 November 2016, will be erased from our lives!

Moonriver

All the best,

WESTERN AUSTRALIA – July 2016

Cape Lodge

Nestled within a Eucalyptus forest, north of Margaret River, not far from Yallingup – where grape vines glisten in the sun – lies Cape Lodge.

A distinctly Australian landscape notwithstanding, the grounds at Cape Lodge reminded us of England or, perhaps, France. A main lodge supplemented by conifer trees and roses, cream coloured cottages, a man-made lake featuring a family of ducks. An elegant dining room dominating the top of the lake (where we enjoyed some excellent dinners).

Very relaxing after the three hour drive from Perth Airport.

Our visit to Cape Lodge and the Margaret River region was intended as an entree to our main course; a full week at Berkeley River Lodge on the Kimberley Coast.

But if a mere entree, our visit to the south-western corner of Australia proved to be a tasty little morsel.

We spent the first day driving from Yallingup, through the Leeuwin State Forest – and its enchanted cluster of Karri eucalyptus trees – down to Augusta and Cape Leeuwin, where the Southern Ocean meets the Indian Ocean.

Our second day was devoted to wine tasting. During dinner, the previous night, Huckleberry B asked Charlie, our sommelier, to recommend five boutique cellar doors which produce wine not necessarily known in Sydney. And so we shunned major vineyards such as Vasse Felix, Voyager Estate, Moss Wood and Cape Mentelle in favour of those on Charlie’s list: Lenton Brae Estate, Femoy, Heydon Estate, Woodlands and Windance.

Charlie did well. We tasted some excellent wines. I think my vote for best tasting goes to Femoy’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

We spent the afternoon driving to the lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste, which lies to the north of Yallingup.

Our entree savoured and enjoyed, we looked forward to our main course in Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast in the far north.

Graceland

As we floated across the Kimberley in a Cessna six-seater – from Kununurra to Berkeley River Lodge – I was reminded of the opening words to Paul Simon’s Graceland, some of the most elegant and evocative lyrics in the American songbook:

The Mississippi Delta 

Was shining like a national guitar,

I am following the river,

Down the highway,

Through the cradle of the civil war.

I’m going to Graceland, 

Graceland,

In Memphis Tennessee,

I’m gong to Graceland,

Poor boys and pilgrims with families

And we are going to Graceland.

I recognise how objectionable it is to invoke an American songwriter to describe a very Australian scene. My apologies!

But the words sprung straight to mind as I drank in the glorious vista below us; the Ord River – its multiplying divided tentacles resembling a crazy octopus – sparkling in the late afternoon sun.

So let’s Aussie-fy those lyrics!

The Ord River Delta 

Was shining like a corrugated outhouse,

We are flying along the river,

Across the Kimberley,

Over the savannah of the Top End.

We’re going to Berkeley,

Berkeley,

Berkeley River Lodge,

We’re going to Berkeley,

Two weary pilgrims with ten kilo each,

And we are going to Berkeley.

 

(After that effort, I’m compelled to offer my profound apologies to my lyrical idol, Paul Simon!)

My meandering mind remained immersed in such musings as the sun continued its inexorable journey towards the horizon, casting the starkly beautiful landscape in intoxicating shades of orange and purple. This timeless land of rocks piled on top of one another and low bushes and stunted eucalyptus trees and stony gullies and the odd boab tree.

But Wesley, our pilot, was in a hurry.

Thanks to our flight from Perth landing slightly late compounded by delays at the baggage carousel, Wes calculated he only had a leeway of 10 minutes if he wanted to land at Berkeley River Lodge’s private airstrip, unload us and the precious provisions desired by the luxury traveller, before getting straight back into the sky in order to complete his return leg and land at Kununurra before last light. Given that he was flying a single engined aircraft, he was only permitted to fly whilst the sun remained above the horizon.

Soon the majesty of the Ord River was behind us and we were circling our home for the week to come. Twenty elegantly shaped stand-alone villas formed an arrow on a narrow sand dune promontory; the main lodge positioned at the apex, looking out over the confluence of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf and the Berkeley River. Beyond the buildings we could see a narrow landing strip of red dirt scraped out of the arid land.

Bumping to a smooth-ish landing, Wesley jumped out of the pilot’s seat and unloaded our bags whilst we unloaded ourselves. Mere moments later, we, our luggage (strictly limited to 10 kgs each) and the much desired provisions were all positioned on an open truck and Wes was back behind his controls, taxi-ing to the end of the runway. And then he was off; racing the sun back to Kununurra.

The short drive from the airstrip to the Lodge was more than sufficient for our driver – and Lodge manager – Steve, to impart some pertinent information.

Things we learned: (1) we were in a remote location; (2) the nearest road was 160 kilometres away at Wyndam; (3) on the left is a short path to the beach; (4) walking on the beach is fine; (5) probably best, however, to stay at least 5 metres from the waterline; (6) STAY OUT OF THE WATER (!); and (7) if the sharks don’t get you, the salt water crocs will!

We already knew the no swimming rules from our research, but Steve’s pronouncement – delivered with a devilish grin accentuated by his Freddie Mercury moustache and accent – certainly hit home!

Soon we were standing on the balcony of the Berkeley River Lodge, looking out across the river to the southern Kimberley Coast. The sandstone escarpment on the far side of the river was cast an alluring shade of pink as the sun hovered over the western horizon.

Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by way the waves approached the sandy point below us from two different directions. One front surged across the Timor Sea from the west, whilst a second front swept across the wide bay and assaulted the beach from the south. Intriguingly, the two fronts clashed at right angles at the sandy point below us, causing a fight of supremacy and considerable turmoil.

What a location! Remote, threatening, inviting and luxurious.

Heart in Mouth

My knees felt weak as a small clan of Kimberleyan butterflies played hide and seek in my stomach.

Our new friend, Mark (a plastic surgeon from Melbourne), was on his stomach crawling carefully across the barren rock ledge. Crawling next to him was our freakishly tall helicopter pilot and guide, Newman.

Soon Mark and Newman were in position and they simultaneously poked their heads over the edge of the King George Canyon. I could only imagine the sight which must have greeted them; 88 metres straight down to the water below.

The truth is I didn’t want to imagine it. Just the idea of that height gave me vertigo. So does writing about it several days later. Give me a moment whilst I regain my equilibrium….

Okay, I’m fine now and can return to my narrative…

Once Mark and Newman were done, they inched back, stood up casually and smiled at us. But my anxiety disorder was exacerbated when Newman casually plonked himself down with his legs over the ledge; nothing but vacant space between the soles of his boots and the water lapping far below. His boyish grin did nothing to make me feel more at ease. And then Mark joined him!

Okay, I need another moment….

Thanks for that indulgence.

Newman protested that what they were doing was perfectly safe. I mean, how many times have you fallen forward whilst sitting down in a chair? But still! One slip and you have an awful lot of time to embark upon a serious self-analysis of your idiocy before being puréed across the high tension water below.

Once their daredevilry was done, we all walked across the uneven rocks – stepping up and down, leaping sideways and treading carefully wherever we went – from the primary falls, past Newman’s chopper, towards the secondary falls. Even now, during the dry season, the scene was a majestic.

Once at the secondary fall site, Mark and Newman crawled to the edge again and looked over. So did Mark’s delightful wife, Linda (the nurse). And then Huckleberry B took her turn.

Oh, all right! I’ll do it too!

I removed my hat and lay on my stomach several metres from the edge and gingerly – nah, super gingerly – edged forward towards the precipice. Only at this point did I remember my sunglasses perched tenuously on my nose! Twisting awkwardly, I removed them and twisted further to place them on the ground behind me. Then I resumed my slow journey towards the abyss.

I peeked shyly over the edge.

Suddenly my head was spinning. I imagined myself somehow losing my balance from my prone position and falling to the water far, far and farther still below; like a portly crash test dummy, with thinning hair, in an uncontrolled tail-spin, plummeting to its terminal demise.

The headlines would have been merciless: Heels Over Head: Sydney Solicitor Falls Whilst Lying Down…OR…Royal Klutz: The Dizziness at King George!

Images of disaster banished from my mind, I managed to focus on the incredible view. Every inch of eighty eight metres below, I could see still water the colour of Kalamata olives complementing the burnt red of the sheer rock face.

What a sight! And certainly worth the trauma to see it.

But let me go back a step and describe the lead-up to these extraordinary events.

The Rock Painter’s Inspiration

Some 40,000 years ago, primitive inhabitants of the Kimberley stood at the sandstone walls of their habitat and depicted the world around them.

A rock wallaby; a dugong; a dingo; a turtle.

A Sharman; a group of men; a woman lying down (symbolising her death); something that looks an awful lot like a boat made from reeds.

Early on Saturday morning, Newman, the gregarious chopper pilot from Auckland, transported Mark and Linda – whom we met the night before – together with Huckleberry B and me to a remote location amongst the scrub. Landing confidently in a clearing between some piles of rock, Newman guided us to several sites where the ancient artists had applied their pigments.

As Newman said, times must have been good. When you’re starving and food is scarce, your day is spent trying to survive. Only an affluent society has time for art.

We walked through the timeless art gallery, for over an hour, viewing dozens of rock paintings, whilst Newman entertained us with intriguing theories and genuinely funny quips. He explained how the painting techniques had developed over time.

Whilst we inspected a large number of paintings and and even saw some human remains on a rock ledge burial site (perhaps 200 years old), one very large number dominated my thoughts; forty thousand years!

We were following the same path that an ancient man negotiated 40,000 years ago – a talented man who held an important position in his community; a story-teller or perhaps an historian or even an elder. An artist.

He carried his pigments and placed them by a sandstone wall with a pleasing aspect. Standing still, and ignoring any distractions around him, the man carefully painted an image on the wall. The image may have served any number of purposes; to record the sighting of an animal, to warn others about a danger or to claim the area as his own. Or, perhaps, he painted for his own pleasure.

But I have a more primal theory. Maybe the primitive man simply painted to impress the woman he adored. Why not? Artists throughout history have been inspired thus.

We’ll never know the true purpose. But what we do know is that whilst the climate may have changed and species may have developed, the image that the ancient artist produced still remains.

Forty-thousand years.

A Plunge Pool In the Wilderness

After viewing the rock art and after surviving our epic visit to King George Canyon – where I got a fright whilst lying still – Newman flew us to the top of a saltwater creek where a secluded rock pool awaited. Importantly, the water in the pool was fresh and the area was well out of reach of Rocky, a large saltwater crocodile who lived downstream.

Newman kindly set up some camp chairs and arranged our luncheon whilst the four of us had a leisurely swim amongst the natural water lilies and small fish. It was a lovely way to cap an incredible adventure.

What a great day!

Under the Banner of Heaven

I twisted the tap and stood back until something resembling hot water started falling from the shower nozzle. Stepping into the steam of water, I wet may hair and then cast my eyes upwards, towards the heavens, and embraced the glorious night sky. What a sight!

It was close to midnight and Huckleberry B and I had enjoyed a delightful dinner with Mark, Linda and the other guests at a communal table on the decking outside the main lodge. Exquisite food – particularly given the remote location – plentiful quaffing wine, engaging conversation and generalised carousing (followed by a friendly game of Scrabble back in our villa, otherwise known as the latest trouncing in Huckleberry B’s unbeaten run against her hapless husband, even though she Scrabbles in a second language…)

Now I was enjoying a shower in the outdoor bathroom attached to our villa.

With the lights off, the night sky was replete with stars. I could see the Pointers and the Southern Cross. Truth be told I don’t really know any other constellations. But the star dust of the Milky Way washed across the dark sky. The red tinge of Mars was clearly visible. I think I may have even seen a shooting star…

Wow!

Foot in Mouth

It was during one breakfast during our stay that Huckleberry B placed her foot in her mouth to supplement the delicious eggs and bacon prepared by the chef-on-duty.

We were breakfasting with Michael and Kate, who own a helicopter operation in Kununurra. Michael had generously arranged for his parents to join him at Berkeley River Lodge to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They, too, were at our breakfast table.

Given that the happy family were returning to Kununurra that day, Huck B asked whether they would be flying in one of their own choppers…

Michael: “Um…no.

Huck B:  “Why not? You own an aviation business. Wouldn’t it be cool to use one of your own choppers?

Kate:  “Yes, but all the choppers are occupied today.

Huck B: “Oh okay. So how are you getting back?

Michael:  “Ah, um, we’re catching a fixed wing plane at 2:30pm.

Huck B:  “2:30pm! Won’t you still be on the river cruise with us?

Michael:  “Um…we’re taking our packed bags with us on the boat so we can run for the plane when we get back. We’ll make it just in time.

Huck B:  “Oh? I thought the boat was getting back later than that…

Her cross-examination complete, Huck B removed her meta-tarsal and cuneiform bones from her mouth and normal conversation resumed. At the conclusion of breakfast, however, Kate hovered back after sending her parents-in-law back to their villa.

Kate:  “Sorry! We didn’t want to confuse you, but we are actually heading back to Kununurra on one of our choppers, but it’s a big surprise for Michael’s parents! One of our pilots is picking us up from the end of the river and we’re flying to El Questro for lunch.”

Huck B: “Oh...”

Berkeley River Cruise

Deep in the Berkeley River, sheer cliff faces rise on both sides some twenty to thirty metres towards the sky. It’s as though somebody has taken some immense sandstone building blocks and stacked them on top of one another along the river bank.

We began our Berkeley River Cruise from a wide beach of white sand in a small covered boat which seated twenty people. Our guides, Locky and Matt, steered the boat admirably, although they were ably assisted by Gabe (13) and Curtis (11), two suntanned boys on holiday with their parents, and young Angus (9) who was travelling with three generations of his family.

After negotiating the wide mouth to the river, we were soon traversing the tranquil waters of the Berkeley. Tranquil, that is, if you ignore the fact that hungry saltwater crocodiles basked amongst the mangroves or lurked below the surface. We were warned not to sit on the railings of the vessel in case a ravenous salty had developed a taste for Berkeley River Lodger in its slovenly mouth.

Most of the time, the crocs were out of sight. About half an hour into our journey, however, we drew close to the left bank and peered into the mangroves. Suddenly, a long object which resembled a large log came into focus and the scaled back and stubby legs confirmed our first crocodile sighting. Both appalling and compelling, we could not take our eyes off the savage creature.

Sometime later, we got an even better sighting. Rounding a bend in the river, we came across a small, conically shaped, sandy beach on the right. Locky was quick to spot the very large croc sleeping amongst some branches towards the top of the beach. We all marveled at its immense size.

Then something fortuitously remarkable occurred.

Remember Michael and Kate and the surprise chopper ride to El Questro for lunch?

Well, just as our boat started to recommence its journey upstream, the helicopter tuttle-tuttle-tuttled overhead, causing the huge croc to wake up and scutt-scutt-scuttle down the beach front into the safety of the water. What a sight!

Sixteen or so luxury travellers stood mesmerised as the ancient predator swam in the water.

Soon enough we left the croc alone and headed towards the top of the river. Once there, one of Michael’s employed chopper pilots was awaiting our arrival. His parents were genuinely perplexed. Even after they saw the helicopter perched on the rock expanse above the river, they collected their beach towels with everybody else and started heading over to the fresh water rock pools a short distance away for a swim.

Even after explaining the surprise chopper-taxi ride for lunch, Michael’s mother thought that one of the other guests was going to El Questro! Michael’s father shook his head ruefully and muttered, “she still doesn’t get it”!

Eventually, equilibrium was restored and Michael, Kate and Michael’s parents waved from the helicopter as they flew away. In the meantime, those who remained on the ground skipped carefully across the rocky outcrop and found a rock pool to cool down in.

After our dip, Locky and Matt ushered us back into the boat and traveled a short distance downstream to a secluded alcove in the river which would be dominated by a waterfall in the wet season. There we enjoyed a delightful lunch of salad, salami, prawns and cheese…supplemented by wine, beer or soft drink.

By now it was late in afternoon and we headed back to the BRL for the evening, dozing off as we headed downstream towards the sea.

Moonriver

 

JOHOR BAHRU – February 2016

Causeway Across the Straits of Johor

The delegation of our extended clan launched its co-ordinated homecoming attack on Johor Bahru on separate paths.

Uncle Y and his son, AM, flew into Kuala Lumpur in advance and drove south to JB. Meanwhile Aunty ML and her daughter, S, flew into Singapore early and awaited reinforcements.

Aunty Huckleberry B and I were the next to arrive in Singapore and soon made contact with Aunty ML and S. Meanwhile, Aunty ML’s son, J, was travelling to Singapore with Uncle L, arriving approximately one hour after B and I.

Soon enough, the seven of us entering JB from Singapore, were piled into a mini-van, heading at speed towards the Causeway across the Straits of Johor. That is, of course, until we arrived at the said Causeway, at which point we were met with such a swarm of motorcycles and such a crush of cars – all returning to JB – that swift progress was impossible.

For those not familiar, crossing the Causeway at peak hour is a South-East Asian phenomenon which must be experienced at least once in your life. The Straits of Johor are actually quite narrow and the Causeway is only two kilometres in length. What makes it so thoroughly hectic is that; (1) there are vastly more vehicles trying to occupy the Causeway than there are lanes; and (2) all occupants must proceed through passport control first on the Singaporean side and again on the Malaysian side.

In our case, it required the driver handing 8 passports through the driver’s side window and the immigration officer yelling out the names on each passport and the owner of that name putting his or her hand up and the immigration officer peering into the vehicle and satisfying himself that the photo on the passport depicted the same person smiling at him from the darkness of the vehicle.

The tedium after a long flight notwithstanding, the chatter in the van was animated and good-natured. We were all looking forward to the adventure ahead although I, for one, was not sure what to expect.

Soon enough we cleared passport control and Huckleberry B and I settled into the Tropical Inn for the night.

Touring the Old Hometown

It was morning in Johor Bahru and there was excitement in the mini-van.

The four elder members our party  were setting off on a tour of the hometown where they grew up. In Huckleberry B’s case, her first seventeen years were spent in JB.

The highlights of the day trip included:

  • A visit to the Hainanese Temple on the outskirts of town,
  • A brief stop outside one of the Johorian houses (“Melodies Garden”) where Huck B and her family lived,
  • Time at the Hainanese Association centre where we saw our Deity’s sedan,
  • A tour of a museum chronicling the Chinese experience in Johor Bahru,
  • Seeing the photo shop where Huckleberry B’s father first worked (which still operates, to this day, as a photography shop),
  • Lunch at a restaurant, Hua Mui, operated by Uncle L’s in-laws, where we collected the golden T-shirts which would allow us to participate in each of the processions over the following days), and
  • A leisurely chat over ice dessert at a hawker store.

These highlights were punctuated by funny stories from the past, cheeky remarks from the younger generation and generalised merriment. It was a lovely start to our Johorian adventure.

Zhao Da Yuan Shuai’s Journey

Leaving the Old Temple

Saturday, 26 February 2016 was an extraordinary day.

We left our hotel just after 10am – all wearing the golden Hainanese Association T-shirts we had collected the previous day – and walked the short distance to Jalan Trus. A carnival atmosphere already abounded and our little gang was excited once more.

Within the hour, five Deities representing each of the five major Chinese dialects spoken in Johor Bahru would pass this way – carried on sedans strapped to three long poles – on their journey from Kuil Kuno Johor (the Old Johor Bahru Temple) to Jalan Xing Gong (otherwise known as the Deities’ Depot) where devotees could pray prior to the Chingay Parade the following night.

Local Chinese were already gathered on Jalan Trus to watch the Deities pass. Lion dancers lay patiently, waiting for their time to perform. A series of dragon dancers snaked along the road towards the Old Temple, provoking both cheers and a multitude of selfies. Five immense banners rose, ever upwards, from the street before standing proudly at the centre of the joyous scene. A gaggle of Anak Patungs ran around causing mischief.

The eight of us, however, only paused momentarily to enjoy the festivities. There was a purpose to our collective stride as we marched towards the Old Temple, only pausing (occasionally) for photographs and a short chat with old friends from Johorian -times past.

Soon we were at the Temple gate where a large throng had gathered. The generalised excitement was palpable. Remarkably, our golden T-shirts permitted us to by-pass the waiting crowd and allowed us admittance to the Temple courtyard. Once inside, we found a tightly-packed crush in high animation.

From our vantage point, close to the main gate, we could see inside the temple where devotees were preparing the five Deities for their journey.

The Hainanese Deity, Zhao Da Yuan Shuai, being a General and the leader of the procession, was particularly active. Carried by up to fourteen people at a time, Zhao Da Yuan Shuai’s sedan was periodically rocked back and forth, left to right and right to left, almost to a horizontal level on each side, before coming back to rest in his commanding vertical position.

i would learn, later in the morning, how this rocking effect was achieved.

But now it was time for the five Deities to leave the Old Temple hall and begin their 90 minute journey to Jalan Xing Gong.

First out of the Old Temple was Zhao Da Yuan Shuai. With a black face and a beard, the Hainanese Deity brandished a nine-section chain whip. When our Deity left the main hall of the Old Temple he was met with raucous cheering and a multitude of cameras raised towards the sky. As the sedan was carried down the stops by muscular young men into the courtyard, the gathered throng yelled “Huat-ah” and “Heng-ah” (“prosperity-ho” and “fortune-ho”) whilst raising their arms above their heads with palms and fingers together.

Zhao Da Yuan Shuai made his way through the crowd towards the main gate of the Temple. The loudest cheer was reserved for the moment when the top of the sedan successfully cleared the low arch of the narrow gateway; an achievement only secured by the young bearers crouching as they traversed the threshold.

Similar adoration awaited the remaining four Deities as they passed through the Temple courtyard, out onto the street; Hua Guang Da Di (Cantonese dialect), Guan Tian Da Di (Hakka dialect), Hong Xian Da Di (Hokkien dialect) and, finally, Yuan Yian Shang Di (Teochew dialect).

We waited for all four Deities to pass before heading off – in the hottest of pursuits – to catch up with Zhao Da Yuan Shuai.

Rocking the Deity

Suddenly we were running down Jalan Trus!

At first our path was impeded by the other revellers, but we soon found shortcuts. I think it was AM who identified a car park on our left. And so J, AM and I, with Uncle Y not far behind, put on a burst of pace and sprinted between the rows of cars. Next there was a footpath which nobody was using because the crowd was occupying the road. More sprinting!

Whilst not mentioned in our pre-procession briefing, I found the short run through the streets of Johor Bahru on that humid Saturday morning quite exhilarating.

Soon we had overtaken several thousand people and found ourselves within sight of the Hainanese Deity on his sedan. Once there, we paused to assess the situation.

“Okay, so let me work this out”, I mumbled to myself, “There is Zhao Da Yuan Shaui perched proudly on his sedan. One main pole running through the centre of the sedan with two subsidiary poles on each side. Looks like three dudes on each main pole front and rear. Another two dudes on each subsidiary pole left and right and front and rear. Total of fourteen guys.”

The sedan was moving slowly and, it seems, too slowly for our Deity’s liking. Given that he was a General, he preferred to be active. But if he ran too fast ahead, the Deities behind him would not be able to keep up. The solution was to rock the sedan from side to side to simulate activity.

I watched on carefully.

“Okay”, I continued mumbling, “so the dudes on the outside stand facing inward and alternate between pushing their pole up and down whilst the dudes on the other side do the same; much like a see-saw. Wow! Look at the stain on the faces of those guys carrying the middle pole! Not only are they carrying all the weight of the sedan, they also have the pole rocking back and forth on their shoulders! Now I understand why so many young men have towels around their necks, underneath their T-shirts!”

The rocking completed, the sedan moved slowly forward for about sixty seconds, before pausing again for more rocking. Once the next round of rocking was completed, the young men on the outside  signalled that they were ready to change with one of the many other young man walking beside the sedan. At the next stop, the poor guys on the centre pole were given some relief and other robust young men took their places to endure their share of the suffering.

AM, J and I moved to a point ahead of the sedan and waiting for an opportunity. It was important to Huckleberry B that I take at least one turn carrying the sedan, so I was determined to push my way in.

Suddenly, one of the men who seemed to be in charge of the operation, glanced in my direction. The shock on his face was obvious! A white guy in a Hainanese T-shirt? Really? Thankfully his equilibrium was soon restored.

“You want a try?”

“Yes, if I may.”

Now I was being ushered into a position on the front right pole. We were at the rocking phase, so I did the best I could to replicate the technique I had seen earlier. Then the pole was on my shoulder and we started to walk. I distinctly remember thinking that it was much heavier than I expected, despite the assistance of thirteen other helpers.

I walked forward for a minute before it was time to rock the deity again. Now I was more confident in my technique, so I took another turn carrying the sedan forward before relinquishing my position.

AM immediately told me, his face flushed with excitement, that he heard somebody say, “wow, even a white guy does it”, in Hainanese when I took up my position. It was only hours later, when I saw some photographs that I discovered that J was carrying the sedan at the same time that I was, right behind me.

The procession continued for another hour and my two nephews and I each took another turn or two carrying the sedan. AM even found himself at the front of the central pole. He said that the pain of the pole rocking back and forth on his shoulder was excruciating and that if it lasted another ten seconds he would have started crying! There are photographs which attest to his suffering!

And so the procession continued along Jalan Trus to Jalan Xing Gong. In addition to the deities on their sedans, there were banners, drums (on wheels), dragon dancers and those five immense flags, standing so proudly in the breeze.

After ninety minutes, we all gathered on the large forecourt at Xing Gong. The Deities arrived, one by one, their carriers marching through the crowd in a wide arc, before stopping abruptly and reversing to the main hall of the temple, where they would remain in position overnight until the main Chingay Parade would begin in the evening.

Battle of the Performances

That night, wereturned to Jalan Xing Gong for two purposes.

One was to pray in the Temple, in the presence of Zhao Ha Yuan Shaui. The second was to watch some Hainanese Opera.

The first objective was a success, particularly when Huckleberry b was able to secure several wads of sacred prayer papers.

The second objective was declared an abject failure. Rather than give each Dialect Association alternating slots of, say, 20 minutes to perform, all five Dialect Associations performed simultaneously on small stages, side-by-side.

The poor Hainanese opera singers had no chance of competing with the techno-beat of “Uptown Funk” and “Gangnam Style”  thump-thumping from the stage to their right.

It was all slightly ridiculous!

The Chingay Parade

The procession which took place on Saturday morning was in preparation for the main parade which took place on Sunday night.

The Chingay Parade has been in operation for 144 years. Some say it all began after some local Chinese conducted an exorcism at a cemetery. Other sources suggest the original purpose was linked with a celebration of the harvest.

The modern purpose of the Parade is to allow the five Deities to bless the city with peace, prosperity and harmony. It has designated Malaysian National Heritage.

With thanks to a family friend from JB, we were the proud holders of VIP passes which allowed us to occupy seats in a raised section near the Royal Box where the Sultan of Johor Bahru and his entourage sat. Incidentally, this was the first Chingay Parade which a Sultan attended.

Two somewhat contradictory statements must be made here.

Firstly, the VIP Section is not as grand as the earlier paragraph sounds. The VIP section was constituted by plastic seats on the forecourt to a shopping centre. We couldn’t see much of the action on the street because we were not high enough to look over the hordes of people lining the narrow footpath, so we were reliant on the video screen attached to a construction site opposite where we sat.

Secondly, the VIP section would have been more of a privilege if entry to the section was better policed and if people at the front had any regard for the people behind them. It was pretty much every man, woman and child for themselves.

The parade itself was certainly an experience to remember. Each of the multiple associations linked to the five dialect groups – Hainanese, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Teochew – entered floats in the parade.

As before, the Hainanese led the way. After the floats entered by various Hainanese community groups passed by, Zhao Da Yuan Shaui’s illuminated sedan appeared, surrounded by hundreds of devotees. He paused in front of the Sultan’s Royal Box and rocked back and forth in violent but exhilarating fashion, as fireworks illuminated the Johorian Sky. What an epic sight!

After Zhao Da Yuan Shaui’s sedan marched on, community groups from the remaining four dialects followed, culminating with each of their deities on their sedans. We saw monkey warriors, lion dancers, Anak Patung, dragon dancers and those immense flags made a welcome return.

Each dialect group occupied around 45 minutes and it was not until 12.30am that we walked, on weary legs, back to our hotel.

Rocking the Deity One Last Time

The next morning, B and I – with B’s hometown friend MI – set off towards Jalan Xing Gong to accompany Zhao Da Yuan Shaui back to the Old Temple. The crowds were thinner than they were on Saturday, which is not surprising given that it was now a work day in JB.

And I missed my nephews (J and M), my brothers-in-law (Y and L) and my sister-in-law (ML) and lastly – but never least importantly – my niece (S). On that last morning, they all had other legitimate commitments.

As I walked beside the Deity’s sedan, I wasn’t as gung-ho as I was on Saturday. Without my wingmen, I was more conscious of being an outsider and was reluctant to intrude on what is a highly significant cultural and religious occasion for true devotees.  That said, I was also conscious of my obligation to Huckleberry B. As a female, she was not permitted touch the Deity’s sedan, so it was up to me to do so as her proxy.

I am grateful, therefore, that MI stepped forward and asked one of the leaders whether I could take a turn with the sedan support pole on my shoulder. The man was more than happy to acquiesce and I was honoured to help carry Zhao Da Yuan Shaui one last time.

With that task done, the three of us walked ahead and awaited the Deity’s arrival at the Old Temple. After a prolonged wait, Zhao Da Yuan Shaui arrived to more cheering and clapping. He was dramatically placed in the courtyard of the Temple where devotees encircled his sedan with locked arms to prevent intruders raiding the prayer papers ensconced within the Deity’s sedan. Meanwhile two devotees climbed the sedan and worked furiously first to carefully remove the Zhao Da Yuan Shaui from his seat, giving them access to the stacks of blessed prayer paper secreted below.

Now Huckleberry B was on a mission! She knew that these prayer papers – having travelled with Zhao Da Yuan Shaui during this three day journey – were more sacred than those she had previously collected at Jalan Xing Gong.

Whilst some of the prayer papers were dedicated to the Hainanese Association, other supporter groups and sponsors, a selection was available of those present in the Temple. Spying a devotee who had placed some prayer papers under his shirt for safe-keeping, B pursued him and asked whether she could have one. He agreed.

Then B saw that more prayer papers were being dispensed by a man from the Deity’s sedan. She scurried across to him and asked if she could have some for herself and her family. The man asked whether she had any in her bag. B answered honestly that she did. She was rewarded with another wad of prayer papers.

Before I arrived in JB, I had a basic understanding of what the Chingay Festival was about, but nothing more. I truly did not know what to expect.

As it transpired, it was one of the great experiences of my travelling life. Something I will never forget.

The Paparazzi 

Being a celebrity is such a burden. You stand out in the crowd. People stare at you through the corner of their eyes only to look away when you catch their gaze. Random people greet you with a knowing nod or a shake of your hand.

And then there are the demands of the media!

I carried this burden manfully throughout the Chingay festival of 2016 in Johor Bahru.

During one of the pauses which occurred on our way to the Old Temple on Saturday morning – caused by a Johorian face familiar to either Y or L emerging from the crowd with stories from the past – four young Chinese (three woman and one man) rushed towards me. They were armed with notepads and pens. Announcing that they were from the Chinese press, they requested an interview.

Thankfully, my Huckleberry B was not far away, so I beckoned for her to join me. Until the questions began, however, it simply did not occur to me that I might be the target of their fascination. Had I thought to look, I would have realised, much earlier, that I was, quite literally, the only white face in the vast crowd.

I met each rapid fire question with a considered answer, which was no easy task given that I could see AM and S, standing off to the side, with looks of profound amusement on their young faces. Not to mention Aunty ML looking like she was watching the funniest TV show of her life.

I, however, maintained my composure in the face of these provocations and the four journalists urgently scribbled down my answers to their questions on pads held at chin height. I explained that my wife was born in JB but now lived in Sydney and that we had returned for the Chingay parade. At the conclusion of the interview, one of the journalists asked whether I would come back next year. Thinking it was rude to leave any doubt on the subject, I replied that I would. The interview concluded with a photograph.

After much ‘omg-ing” and “lol-ing”, order was gradually restored to our merry little gang.

An article featuring both our interview and our photograph appeared in a Chinese language newspaper the next morning. I am told that the headline reads: “He will return next year”!

Later that same day, whilst enjoying the dragon dance at Xing Gong, another reporter evidently identified the only white guy in the crowd as an interview opportunity.

Armed with a microphone, this time, rather than a pen, the young Chinese reporter fired questions at me whilst her male accomplice filmed the interaction. The themes were similar. Where did I live? What brought me to the Chingay Parade in Johor Bahru?What did I think about the festival? I explained that my wife was Hainanese and grew up in JB. I said that I was able to help carry the Deity earlier in the day and the event was exciting.

That evening, AM messaged Huck B and told her that he had found my interview on the Facebook page of “JB Walker”. If you view the video and wonder why I am shouting, it’s because I could barely hear myself above the drums pounding and the cymbals clashing nearby even though my mouth is not located far from my ears!

The final interview I gave during my high profile – and highly successful – tour of Johor Bahru, was late on Sunday night towards the end of the formal Chingay Parade. Whilst seated in the VIP seats another journalist – yet another young female – approached me and asked if I would answer some questions.

By this stage, answering journalist’s questions was no longer a novelty, so I replied in words to the effect of, “oh, alright then…”

I gave similar answers to similar questions and look forward to being told that my description of Chingay as “exciting” was published in another Chinese language newspaper in JB.

As improbable and as ridiculous as it may seem, news of my celebrity has spread across JB. After I helped carry the deity back to the Old Temple on Monday morning, a member of the Hainanese Association pulled me aside and told Huckleberry B and I that the press had been looking for me the previous day; the mysterious white guy wearing a Hainanese Association T-shirt. Later, on our walk to the Old Temple, a random stranger said “you’re Australian” as I walked past.

Whilst the opening paragraph to this section of my journal may have sounded like absurdist hyperbole at my customary level, what I said is (somewhat unusually) not far away from the truth! Each of those things occurred at an unusually high frequency, particularly on the last morning of our visit.

 

The Road Home

Just as we made our way to Johor Bahru in separate groups, we disbanded in similar fashion.

We are looking forward to returning to Sydney, but leaving JB was a bitter-sweet experience. Doubtless we will all catch up again soon in our collective hometown, but there was certainly sweet sorrow to be found when we parted ways today.

The last four days have been such an adventure. I did not know what to expect – and I certainly did not anticipate giving three media interviews – but the experience will live in my heart forever.

Returning to her birthplace to participate in the Chingay Parade meant so much to Huckleberry B that it was easy to get swept up in her excitement.

I suspect that this will not be the last time that we attend Chingay, but we will never do it for the first time again. This time was special.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to the media scrum which awaits my arrival at Sydney International Airport tomorrow. The headlines will likely read “Random White Guy Declares Chingay ‘Exciting'”!

Okay, that last paragraph certainly was absurdist hyperbole. But, to quote Dale Kerrigan from The Castle, it’s funny how you’re not famous one day, then you are famous and then you’re not again!

Moonriver

INDONESIA – December 2015

Long Morning’s Journey to Telunas

After departing from RV Amadara for the last time, Huckleberry B and I embarked upon a long drive to Ho Chi Minh City Airport. The journey took the best part of two hours and, I am sorry to report, we were both afflicted by the urgent biological need described on the day we boarded RV Amadara.

Once relief was at hand, we flew to Singapore where we enjoyed a feast of hawker store food at the East Coast Centre with Huck B’s cousin and his wife.

The next morning we embarked upon another long journey. Indeed it was much longer than we expected.

First there was the taxi ride to the Harbour Front ferry terminal. Then there was the wait for the ferry. Next came the hour long ferry trip to Sekupang Island in Indonesia. Then the real drama started…

We were greeted at Sekupang by representatives of our new hosts, Telunas Private Island Resort. A young Indonesian lady told us that we were the first couple to make it through border control and she asked us to wait until the other guests arrived so she could deliver her briefing. She added that a 90 minute boat ride was in store, with no toilets, so now might me a good opportunity to visit the rest rooms located nearby.

Given the trauma my bladder had caused me during this holiday, I did not require a second invitation!

Once another two dozen people had gathered, including young children, we were told that our luggage would be transported by taxi to the jetty from whence our next boat would depart, whilst we would make the same journey by foot. So off we set, out of the ferry terminal car park and into an adjacent car park linked to some wharves.

The sight of our next floating conveyance caused some random members of our party to enter a state of mild panic.

Bobbing next to the jetty were two longboats which resembled oversized dragon boats with a narrow roof. Life jackets were slung over each row of chairs. Three outboard motors lazed at the back of the boat, ready for action.

Huck B and I could see the concern creased over the faces of those lining up next to us. Soon those concerns were given voice. How do we get in? There are thunder clouds looming! Are we going to get drenched? What about our bags? They can’t get wet!

Meanwhile, some of the luggage was yet to arrive and people were fretting. One man told the guide very firmly that if his belongings were stolen, he’d be blaming Telunas.

Before long the delayed luggage was wheeled onto the jetty and loaded onto the long boats. This was handled expertly by the Telunas staff as one dude placed one leg on the boat and the other on the jetty – forming the spread-eagle – whilst bags of all shapes and weights where slung to him over the railings and he on-slung them to two other men standing in the boat. They seemed to know what they were doing, but I did peek over the railing and wondered how deep the water might be. The conclusion of my investigation was if a bag should slip from spread-eagle-dude’s hand, that would be the last we saw of it!

Once the bags were safely loaded it was time for the passengers to follow. Some tension was eased when the long boats were moved to the end of the jetty and positioned alongside a landing platform. This made entry considerably easier, but did make me wonder why the luggage wasn’t loaded from the same position.

Huckleberry B and I immediately donned our life jackets and were surprised to see that this was not mandatory and that nobody else took up the option of their own accord. I figured that if circumstances presented themselves which required us to abandon ship, it would be far too late to scramble for one’s life jacket. It provided a nice cushioning effect between back and wooden bench, in any event.

And so we headed off on our 90 minute voyage to our remote private island nestled amongst the north-western islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The boat was much more comfortable than may have been evident on first glance. We had plenty of legroom under the seat in front of us. The staff periodically dropped the canopy on the left or the right to stop spray entering the vessel and wetting our clothes. The speed of the boat created a lovely cooling breeze.

And it was fun watching little mangrove dominated islands slip by. Which isn’t say that we weren’t pleased to see our destination eventually emerge around the bend.

Our Home Over the Sea

Telunas, whilst hard to get to, is an idyllic and tranquil place.

Other than the main hut, where meals are served, there are 14 villas erected over the water. There is no WIFI, no television and no air-conditioning. It may well be confirmation that I have become soft over the years, but the last item on that list of deprivations concerned me the most. WIFI, I could do without. Two days away from the Tender would do both me and my content good. I could have tried to access my email with 4G, but decided against it. The absence of TV was of no concern.

Ultimately, there was also no need to worry about there being no air conditioning . As I type this journal on my iPad, there is a beautiful sea breeze streaming through the open verandah doors, causing the curtains to sway rhythmically back and forth, with occasional stronger gusts sending some papers next to me flying across the room.  Last night, an incredible thunder storm was more of a threat to my sleep than the heat and humidity which I feared. Actually, I slept pretty well.

Standing on our verandah, we can see another island about (I am totally guessing) one kilometre away. The sister Telunas resort stands close to the shoreline, glistening in the afternoon sun. We can sometimes hear a plane fly overhead or a motorboat traversing the channel between the two islands. Otherwise, all we can hear is the breeze playing rough-and-tumble with our curtains and the gentle waves playing ring-a-ring-rosie with the poles of our villa.

The fact that I have written all of this journal yesterday afternoon and today, whilst at Telunas, is testament to how peaceful and calm the scene here is. It’s a perfect environment for creative writing.

Moonriver

 

CAMBODIA – December 2015

Hanging On

After two relaxing nights at the Sofitel, at Siem Reap, we looked forward to our seven day cruise on the Mekong River onboard RV Amadara. Our journey would see us travel from north-west Cambodia to south-east Vietnam, at a forty-five degree angle across Indochina.

During the rainy season, passengers boarding RV Amadara at Siem Reap enjoy a leisurely twenty-minute bus ride to Tonle Sap Lake before enjoying the perks of their vessel. We, however, were not boarding RV Amadara in the rainy season! Instead, we faced a six to seven hour bus ride –  along a mixture of one lane highways, corrugated dirt roads and tracks which may have been fit for a herd of Cambodian jungle goats – to a boarding point further downstream where the depth of the river could comfortably accommodate our boat.

It was about twenty-five minutes into our extended road trip when I knew I was in trouble.

I don’t wish to be too crude, here, in the description of my predicament. Let’s just say that I was faced with the universal biological function whereby water is eliminated from the human body and my need to eliminate said water became more acute with the passing of time.

And only with the passing of a significant amount of damned time would a significant amount of dammed water be allowed, finally, to pass!

Our Cambodian guide explained that the locals referred to rest breaks as ‘happy stops’. There would be just two such stops on our long journey and the first was some 2.5 hours away! So, until then, I was subjected to bus-bound purgatory, without relief.

So, I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and tried to think about something else. Anything but the Mekong River, or the Tonle Sap Lake…or waterfalls…or irritation systems…or dripping taps.

The violent shuddering of the bus over corrugations in the road did not help. Nor did the sight of several trucks spraying water onto dirt roads to settle the dust storm caused by the passing traffic. The offers of a water bottle to increase my fluid levels were akin to a cruel joke, which I swiftly rejected with an impatient wave of my hand.

Time passed slowly, like water seeping from a busted garden hose. I added that image to the list of things I really needed to stop thinking about. Together with water pistols and high pressure cleaners and washing machines.

I tried turning my attention to the scenery. It was typically Indochinese. There were open green fields, mango trees, occasional villages with houses on stilts to avoid the floods. Damn! ‘Floods’; another thing to add to the list of things not to think about.

As the time for our first ‘happy stop’ limped closer, I began to fret. Was the 2.5 hour estimated travel time accurate? It seemed remarkably precise. Were we running behind time? The bus was delayed at several road works.

Suddenly, as though by miracle, the bus began to slow and turn off the road, before coming to rest at a market area. Was this it? Were we really there? Oh! Blessed relief!

HeyIgottagotodamen’s“, I calmly said to Huckleberry B the moment the bus doors opened, clearly communicating my plight.

With that, I was out of the bus, darting across no man’s land and into the lavatory. Aaaaaahhhhh.

Stuck on a Tender

MV Amadara is a very nice riverboat. Only five months old, it is more spacious than the narrow vessels we have experienced in Europe. Perhaps the bigger river permitted a boat of broader width? But I am only guessing.

Whilst our itinerary looked engaging, I spent a lot of time on a Tender.

Unfortunately, I am not talking about a tender vessel which takes tourists from a mooring point to shore. Rather, the Tender I spent much time on, in our comfortable stateroom, was a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by one of my firm’s major clients.

To her credit, my understanding beloved allowed me to spend as much time as I needed and never once grizzled when I declared I had to stay onboard whilst she went on the organised tours. She understands the meaning of ‘bread and butter’.

I was fortunate to have a good WIFI connection for most of the journey. What I was even more grateful for was that the WIFI was complimentary, even in our suite.

Whilst I was able to venture out several times, my week onboard RV Amadara was typified by preparing drafts of our Tender response – iteration upon iteration – punctuated by leisurely lunches and dazzling dinners. It was actually quite a nice way to spend the week! Each period of creative thinking rewarded by bountiful food and alcohol; my business mind continuing to work sub-consciously whilst my holiday brain enjoyed the dining room banter.

Occasionally, whilst tapping away on my laptop – which I unhappily lugged from Sydney – I would hear a noisy motor outside my window. I am somewhat embarrassed to report that on more than a dozen occasions over the week, I forgot where I was and thought our neighbour back home had started mowing his lawn, and actually proceeded to make a mental note-to-self that I had better get my lawn mower out too, later in the afternoon. Then I would remember where I was and recognise that the motor I heard was, in fact, attached to a wooden longboat, hauling bags of rice or farm equipment to the next village down the Mekong River.

Then I would rise from my seat and stand by the window, drinking in the view. On the far side of the river I would see a row of dwellings rising upon stilts on the steep banks. I would hear children yelling out to us and waving. Others would be playing chasings with their friends. Meanwhile, the river would be busy with activity. In addition to the lawn-mower-motor powered longboats, I would see fisherman balancing on their shallow canoes, throwing nets into the water.  Another river boat might pass by, heading upstream towards Tonle Sap Lake.

Then I would return to my laptop with renewed vigour and a new idea.

Not a bad way to spend the week at all!

The Photogenic Monks, the Boy with a Sandal and the Oxen of Oudong

On the first morning of our river cruise, Huckleberry B enjoyed a visit to the Lakeside Wetlands on a motorboat. She did so, solo, whilst I continued working on the Tender.

The next day, we ventured out together to visit the Oudong Monastery. This was one of the highlights of our time in Cambodia.

Oudong is the former capital of Cambodia and lies just 35 kilometres north of the current capital Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, much of Oudong was destroyed by Khmer Rouge air strikes in the 1970’s. The largest Monastery in Udong, Vipassana Dhura, is a reasonably new structure and this was the focus of our morning tour.

We arrived at the Monastery after a short bus ride and were ushered efficiently to the main temple. A tall building with long white columns holding up an ornate golden roof, the main building is quite impressive. We had to climb several flights of stairs to get to the main hall. Once there, we enjoyed expansive views of the Cambodian countryside.

After removing our footwear – a subject to which I will return shortly – we entered the hall and were invited to sit, cross-legged, before three Buddhist Monks. The Monks proceeded to bless us through the medium of a 15 minute chant. It was quite an uplifting experience, rendered all the more enjoyable when the Monks invited us to pose for photographs behind them. I was fortunate to snap a shot of the Monks alone with Huckleberry B.

After leaving the Monastery, however, I did something stupid. As I was strapping on my right sandal, a little boy broke away from the group of local children who were hovering around and moved in swiftly to assist me with my left one. He was too fast for me and the job was done before I could decline his offer of assistance. Services having been rendered, albeit not upon my request, I felt compelled to give him some money. I had a dollar in my pocket which I decided was more valuable to him than to me.

When our guide found out, she was cranky. With me, not the boy. Whilst acknowledging that it is easy to feel sorry for the children because they are poor, the guide explained that if the children know they can come to the Monastery and tourists will give them money, then they will hang around the Monastery rather than go to school.

Damn! Did I feel dumb!

As we left the Oudong Monastery, I pondered how much that dollar note would cost the boy who helped me with my left sandal.

Soon, however, we were back on the bus and on our way to our next experience; an ox-cart ride through the rural streets of Kampong Tralach. When we arrived, the white oxen and their drivers were waiting for us. Each couple was assigned a pair of oxen and an accompanying cart. Entering the conveyance was no easy task. First I sat on the rear of the cart and gradually slid backwards on the warm embroidered matting, before placing my arms on the railings.  Then Huck B did the same until she was comfortable with her back against my chest, with her legs dangling over the rear edge of the cart.

Soon the ox-cart driver gave the command to his oxen and away we plodded. As instructed (more than once) I kept my hands away from the large wooden wheels as they slowly went round and round. We enjoyed the view as we bumped along the earth road.

After about twenty minutes the platoon of ox-carts gathered in a clearing and we were ushered, again efficiently, back onto the bus to return to RV Amadara, where lunch would be waiting.

The Tuk Tuks of Phnom Penh

That afternoon, I left our riverboat again and joined Huckleberry B on a Tuk Tuk adventure. Each Tuk Tuk featured a dude on a motorbike hauling a small carriage with four seats. I used the word ‘carriage’ in the last sentence, but realise that suggests a degree of majesty which is not warranted. Perhaps ‘small trailer with seats and a roof’ is a better description.

Seating arrangements were at random, so it was no surprise that we were joined by a couple we had not met before. To our delight, it transpired that they were Mexicans living in Sydney! We engaged in animated chatter as the streets of the Cambodian Capital flashed by.

A bunch of Western Tourists on a swarm of Tuk Tuks was quite a sight, as our drivers weaved through traffic and jumped ahead at every set of traffic lights. Our driver was a bit of a character. When we first arrived, he proudly wore a Chelsea FC cap, but when he heard we were from Sydney he reached into his bag and substituted a cap emblazoned with the Australian flag. Sometimes, as he drove, he would point out a local landmark and provide us with some running commentary. With the traffic noise combining with the sound of wind rushing by our ears, though, we never had any hope of hearing him.

Our Tuk Tuk journey took us to the centre of the city where we saw the President Hun Sen’s city dwelling and a monument to the former King Norodom Sihanouk. Then, as the sun set over the Mekong River, we zipped along the northern shore back to RV Amadara.

A Tourist’s Dilemma: To Tour or Not to Tour

Evergreen Island

Sometimes, when holidaying overseas you are faced with a difficult choice; should we indulge in macabre voyeurism or not.

On this trip there were two organised tours which made us face this conundrum. The less confronting dilemma (although still difficult) was posed after we crossed the border into Vietnam when we had an opportunity to visit to a local village on Evergreen Island.

I admit to having a fundamental problem with a tour which is based upon seeing how people far less fortunate than us live in poverty. We poke our noses around and then return to a temporary home onboard our river boat which is far more comfortable (and sanitary) than the permanent dwellings the villagers live in. Some fellow travellers even make ‘helpful’ observations about how the villagers could improve their living conditions, whilst totally ignoring the fact that the villagers are doing their best to merely produce sufficient food to sustain life.

When discussing whether to visit the village of not, Huckleberry B reminded me that she grew up in government housing in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. When she waited for her bus outside her school, she would wave at busloads of Western tourists travelling north from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, through her hometown, just as young Indochinese girls have been waving to us throughout this trip. Huck B is confident that her young, smiling, moon-face appears in dozens of photo albums around the world.

Then Huckleberry B raised her right arm and showed me a stigmata on the back of her hand.

You see this?” she said, “Between my diamond ring and my diamond bracelet, there’s this black mark. Do you remember how I got that? From the chickens in our coup pecking me whenever I took their eggs. For a couple of years, I used to collect left over food from the garbage bins in the wet market near our home. The inedible stuff was fed to the chickens and we ate the rest. I started working, with my siblings, when I was 6 years old, selling lottery tickets at the train station. I never forget where I came from. Been there, done that.”

Huckleberry B and I also recognised, however, that our visit to Evergreen Island was a source of income for the villagers, so there was a benefit to them. We ultimately decided to go on the tour and I am comfortable with our decision.

Throughout the walking tour, children would smile at us and wave and say ‘hello’. I thought of my wife, as a young girl, standing outside her school, waving at the buses that stopped so that the tourists could see how the locals lived.

The inhabitants of the Evergreen Island village seemed happy enough, though I remained uncomfortable when I compared the living conditions in their stilted houses with those onboard RV Amadara. Towards the end of the walk, the children were grouped together and they sang us a welcome song in Vietnamese. The wealthy Westerns, of whom we were two, responded with a rendition of “ABC”: not the Jackson 5 hit (that would have been ridiculous) but the children’s song which goes through the alphabet and ends with “now I know my ABC, won’t you come singalong with me“.

The Killing Fields

The far more difficult decision we were called upon to make, earlier in our voyage, whilst still in Cambodia, was whether to visit Pol Pot’s Tuel Sleng; otherwise known as the S21 Detention Centre or ‘The Killing Fields’.

I am happy to admit that part of me wanted to go. Just like I was tempted to accept an offer to visit the Treblinka Concentration Camp on our day trip from Prague to Dresden to Zagan and back to Prague in 2010. That said, the part of me which did not want to visit S21 acquired a louder voice when I heard that we would walk – not just on mass graves – but on bones and other physical remains.

Just as there was oscillation in my own mind, on the eve of the tour, whether to visit the Killing Fields or not, there were debates around the dinner tables onboard RV Amadara that night. Two schools of thought existed. Those who argued that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it and those who argued that they already knew enough about the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, without having to see the remaining evidence first-hand.

I was already leaning towards not visiting S21 when Huck B delivered two telling blows (at least for us).  Firstly, the date or our proposed visit, 24 December – in addition to being Christmas Eve – fell during the Winter Festival in the Chinese calendar. Stepping on somebody’s bones during this period may bring bad luck. Secondly, Huckleberry B grew up  in Malaysia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She and her family saw the Cultural Revolution in China, followed by the American War in Vietnam, followed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and lived in genuine fear that the ‘domino effect’, so heavily propagated by the USA, would soon reach her country. For B, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields were very close to home when she was a teenage girl. There was no need to relive it in order to remember it.

Those who did go to S21 came back ashen faced and sombre. The lunch time conversation was unusually subdued. We heard stories about the museum which depicted remarkably vivid images of executions and human remains. Some visitors left the museum in a state of distress.

Whilst a quietly spoken voice still argues with me that I should have gone, I am confident I made the right decision.

What a Fine Bunch of People

Our Cruise Director – an amiable young Vietnamese man named Son – commences every announcement he makes by warmly greeting his ‘Ama-waterways family’.

What I thought, at the outset, to be a bit over the top ended up becoming quite endearing. I believe he really viewed us that way.

With his fluent American English, his ever-attentive attitude and his willingness to joke about most things, including himself, Son was one of the best Cruise Directors we have met. He was certainly one of the most popular! Particularly with the young female passengers onboard.

We were fortunate to have picked a cruise with many very engaging and interesting people. In no particular order, there was a Jewish couple from Boston, an American couple living in Sharjah, a Canadian couple and their son who lives in Hanoi, two couples from LA who are friends, an African-American man who was onboard because he was ‘in the industry’, a man from Atlanta travelling alone because his son had pulled out, two female friends holidaying together, an American woman living in Bali and a couple originally form Iran who now live in the States. There were also two Mexican clans, travelling separately. We were the only Australians onboard! Which is a first of us and a little surprising given Australia’s proximity to the region.

At every meal, we had a variety of interesting people from whom we could choose to dine. And I have to say that my wife was very popular amongst all of them as she glided from group to group, chatting away happily.

And speaking of meals, the food onboard RV Amadara was excellent, from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. What we both really appreciated was that there was a genuine attempt to match the food with the region. As I have said before, it is jarring when you spend a day, for example, in Shanghai, and you pick up your menu in the ship’s dining room that evening to find that it’s Italian night again! Every meal onboard RV Amadara featured a local option – including at the breakfast ‘Action Station’ where a different variety of noodles was available each morning – and the quality was very good.

The dinners, where joyous carousing amongst new friends abounded, were particularly memorable.

On the last night of our Mekong Delta adventure, a conversation developed about World War II. Our table began debating when Hitler could have stopped his expansionism and said ‘thanks folks, that’s enough’ and got away with it. Don’t ask me how we arrived at that subject, because I can’t remember. Dinner conversations – fuelled by plentiful food and an enchanted wine glass which replenishes itself with every mouthful – are living organisms with multiple, tangled legs.

What I do remember, however, is that the conversation quickly morphed into a very spirited exchange of views on current American foreign policy. At this point, I recognised I was out of my depth and retreated. The discussion which followed, however, was fascinating!

There they were – a west coast African-American from LA, a northern Jew from Boston and a southern gentleman from Atlanta – battling it out; trying to persuade the others to their point of view. They each knew their facts and they were each passionate about their position. Some concessions were made, but not many. If you are wondering how there can be three sides to a debate, the answer is easy: the two extremes and the middle ground.

I went to sleep that night excited by the debate I had witnessed and truly sad that I might never meet these fine people ever again. Or the other new friends we had met during the week. It’s both one of the joys and one of the curses of cruising.

By the way, whilst no agreement was reached during that debate on our final night onboard RV Amadara, there is one political point every American we met during our trip agreed upon; Donald Trump is a joke and the joke ceased being funny a long time ago. Not that any of them liked Hilary much either.

The spare room in our house remains available, on a short term basis, whilst permanent accommodation is sourced, should anybody wish to emigrate.

Moonriver

THE CANARY ISLANDS – October 2015

 

The Little Big Boat

It has been some time since Huckleberry B and I have sailed on a big cruise ship. In recent times we have been biased toward smaller, more exclusive, vessels housing up to, say, 300 passengers.

By contrast, Celebrity Eclipse is massive! With 2850 passengers and over 1,200 crew, this is the biggest ship on which we have ever voyaged. Walking from one end to the other requires some effort. Climbing the stairs – whilst our virtuosity triumphed – from the restaurant on Deck 3 to our Stateroom on Deck 8 leaves us more breathless than it should!

Yet, despite its dimensions, we have enjoyed some of the perks we would expect on a much smaller vessel. As suite guests, we have access to an intimate restaurant named Luminae, where we (particularly my garrulous gal) have become well known amongst the staff and some of our fellow suite occupiers. The existence of this little oasis has also allowed us the luxury of avoiding the frenetic production line of the main restaurant, let alone the lawless bedlam and untold waste of the buffet.

So where will Celebrity Eclipse take us?

First stop is Vigo in northern Spain, followed by Lisbon, the Portuguese Capital. Then it’s down to Gran Caneria, Taneriffe and Madeira, before La Coruna in northern Spain and back to Southampton.

Segway to Heaven

We tried something new in Vigo.

Rather than slog it up a steep incline – followed by over 250 steps – to the top of La Guia Hill, high above the Spanish town, Huck B organized a Segway tour. So much for the triumph of virtuosity!

Controlling the Segway took a little getting used to; lean forward to propel the machine, lean back to brake, pivot the handlebars left and right to change direction. For about – I am guessing – 97 seconds, we considered handing the Segway operator his money and telling him to forget it! Memories of our abandoned ski lessons in Cervinia in 2007 made a most unwelcome re-appearance in our memories. By  the 98th second, however, we got the hang of it and soon we were zipping around with more confidence in the practice area. And then we were ready to go!

Entering the throng of passengers heading for the Old Town was a little daunting because now advanced Segway skills were required to avoid mowing down some slow moving senior citizens and causing an incident which might headline the Spanish evening news!

The first steep incline also presented a Segway challenge; lean back for some instinctive reason and suddenly you’re reversing down the hill at pace. If the first steep incline was daunting, the first steep decline was a little nerve-wracking. Leaning forward to position your Segway at the top of the hill, our vehicles reached the tipping point and suddenly gathered speed as gravity wrought its evil. Now we had to lean back in order to apply the brakes and slow our conveyance to a more comfortable pace.

While daunting at first, I was surprised how quickly instinct triumphed; the brain says slow down and, without conscious thought, you lean back. Remarkable!

Soon we were rolling along Calle Real, lined with traditional Galican houses, to Alameda Square. Next  we trundled along Calle de Los Cesteros – the Street of Basketmakers – and then we were climbing La Guia Hill to Castillo del Castro.

The view from the peak was lovely and reminded us of the view over Nagasaki. We temporarily abandoned our Segways, which called for an additional advanced Segway driving skill. Because the machine self-propels, we couldn’t simply step off. Instead a Segway enthusiast is required to find a wall or a tree and slowly advance until the handlebars of the otherwise unstoppable force meet the face of the immovable object.

Suddenly strolling around the Parque del Castro seemed boring by comparison. Where is the challenge in placing one foot in front of the other? The park was, however, very pleasant. But I was counting down the minutes until I and my Segway were re-united. I was looking forward to the adventure of the long descent back to sea level….

I estimate that we may have burned north of 500 calories had we marched to the peak above Vigo. And that would have been good! But I enjoyed our Segway ride and look forward to doing it again.

A Good Tart is Hard to Find…

Huckleberry B came to Portugal for one thing: Portuguese tarts!

“This is a private tour”,  Miguel the Guide said when we meet him outside the cruise terminal, “what are your objectives in Lisbon?”

“Portuguese tarts”, Huckleberry B responded instantly, “I want Portuguese tarts!”

“That is easy”, Miguel chuckled, “Anything else?”

“No, just tarts!”

After further discussion, we reached agreement with our extremely amiable host that he would take us on a tour of nearby Sintra, and the highlights of Lisbon, before launching an offensive on the tart store.

We made it clear that we had no interest in wandering aimlessly around a big old houses, so we were happy to see the Pena Palace from the outside. Yes to tarts, no to palaces!

The drive around Sintra was delightful. We stopped for a small cheese pastry, dominated by cinnamon, at a local cafe, before negotiating the narrow alleys and lanes of the mountain town.

Lunch by the sea was equally delightful; wonderfully succulent, freshly caught sea bream with a side of unnecessary boiled potatoes.

Sightseeing and lunch behind us, tart time had arrived!

The recipe for genuine Portuguese tarts was developed, Miguel informed us, by monks in Concento des Jeronimod, a Monastery standing a short distance from where the Vasgo de Garma monument now stands. When the Monastery was forced to move, the ancient tart recipe was given to a family who established Pasteis de Belem in 1837.

According to both legend and the marketing blurb on the side of Pasteis de Belem boxes, the secret recipe is recreated to produce 20,000 hand-made tarts every day, employing purely traditional methods.

When we arrived, the queue was long but the service was fast. Soon we were walking away with 24 Portuguese tarts, or a mere 0.005% of the day’s production. Huckleberry B gave most of the tarts away, to friends we had made onboard and, more importantly, some of the staff like our butler, cabin stewards and the staff in Luminae and Murano.

Truth be told, I have never been impressed with Portuguese tarts. I equate them with scrambled eggs in puff pastry…

But the tarts produced by Pasteis de Belem tarts were extraordinary!

A good tart, these days, is hard to find; custard, pastry, the scrumptious kind!

At least, now, I know where to find them!

The Butterflies of Tenerife

After a day at sea and a slow day in Gran Caneria (“The Land of the Dog”), we arrived in Tenerife, which lazes in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of the border between Morocco and Western Sahara.

Huckleberry B had a great plan for our day in Tenerife.

Being the day prior to my birthday, my beloved’s plan was to provoke an adrenalin rush and to remind us that – despite negotiating our way together through middle-age – there remain epic experiences waiting around the bend.

Her plan? Paragliding from 2,200 metres above sea level!

Oh my ever lovin’ God!

“Is it tandem…?” I politely enquired with a stony face and a quivering voice.

Upon confirmation that it was, I said “great” whilst a bunch of heavily intoxicated and highly excitable butterflies held a party in my stomach.

When we woke on the morning of the paragliding adventure, however, a quick glance out our stateroom window witnessed a wind-socket billowing parallel to the ground and straining to break free from its mast. Suddenly the butterflies in my abdomen started playing tug-o-war. On one side, the butterflies representing the wuss in me felt relieved that the paragliding adventure might be cancelled. Opposed to them were my dare-devil butterflies who could not wait to be strapped into the paraglider before embarking upon a half-hour journey, following the wind currents, back to the mundane ground.

We were having an early breakfast when an email arrived announcing that our paragliding was cancelled on account of adverse “air conditions”. The disappointment was profound! By this stage, my dare-devil butterflies were winning the tug-o-war and had even started sledging the wuss butterflies.

So what would we do with the rest of the day?

Our adventurous spirit crushed, we settled for wandering around Tenerife in search of reliable WIFI.

Oh my ever lovin’ God!

Which brings me to a tip for the unwary traveller; when a cafe owner touts coffee and free WIFI, check that the WIFI actually works as advertised before placing your coffee order! We didn’t and a disappointing day became even more dismal.

Throughout the day, I thanked Huck B for her meticulous planning and confirmed that her thinking was absolutely correct.  Whilst daunting, something like paragliding would have helped arrest my otherwise unrestrained gallop towards 50…in several years’ time.

A Beautiful Birthday in Beautiful Madeira

Huckleberry B and I agree that Madeira was the highlight of our trip. What a glorious island!

The early stages of our tour with Jeff – the half South African, half Madeiran guide – was dominated by the island’s most famous export, Christiano Ronaldo.

The was a life-size cut out of him at the cruise terminal and there was a statue of him next to the bay. We saw the village where we grew up and the football field where he played his first match. We felt that Christiano was everywhere.

But the true highlight of our tour was the majestic mountains which rise sharply from the North Atlantic ocean to peaks which soar over 2,000 metres above sea-level.

Jeff was at pains to take us on the roads less travelled. One such road was a mere track through a forest, which represented a “short-cut” between two roads. Other less travelled roads were very narrow lanes which separated houses in quaint little mountain villages. On at least one occasion, Jeff rejected a simple left hand turn in favour of navigating his way through an exceedingly narrow alley which gave him no advantage in getting from A to B.

Our delightful tour culminated with some Madeira wine tasting (and the purchase of four bottles) and lunch of some local fish and another plate of unnecessary boiled potatoes, a superfluous pile of roasted maize cubes and a peripheral bowl of garden salad. We were very surprised to receive a bill of only 39 euros for the three of us. Jeff ended up taking most of the extraneous extras home with him for dinner.

We loved our time in Madeira. The island was truly beautiful and a fitting venue to celebrate my birthday.

La Coruna Shenanigans

Our last port, before one final idyllic day at sea, was the Spanish town of La Coruna.

Three factors, however, conspired to prevent us stepping ashore.

Factor number one was travel fatigue. It happens on every holiday. There are some days when we cannot summon the energy to wander around, no matter how exotic the location.

Factor number two was the weather. Steady rain and travel fatigue combined to produce an insidious lethargy.

Factor number three may be attributed to the Spanish Government. After leaving Madeira, we returned to our our stateroom to find a note stating that we had been selected for a random passport check. The Spanish Government required us to surrender our passports until after we departed La Coruna.

What?

Did the Spanish Government really suspect that we might use the opportunity to abandon the comfort of Celebrity Eclipse, and shun our life at home, in favour of overstaying our welcome in Spain?

Seriously?

Well, we hope the Spanish authorities enjoyed studying our passports over a two day period. If they did, they might have counted the number of times we have resisted the temptation to start a new life in a multitude of countries around the world.

In any event, the Spanish need not worry. We are much more likely to relocate to Madeira!

Of Trivia Kings and Rugby Adversaries

On the first day of our voyage, we entered the Skyview Lounge in search of trivia quiz comrades.

After being summarily rejected and callously dismissed by a couple who claimed – falsely we believe – that they were waiting for friends, Huckleberry B approached a more inviting couple accompanied by a young man in a wheelchair. After the customary introductions and preliminary small-talk, we had soon befriended Lawrence, Karen and young Andy.

And so a formidable trivia team was formed.

As the days passed, the five of us triumphed regularly, either jointly with others or outright. Thanks to Andy’s freakish recognition of random songs from all eras, we won most of the music quizzes!

On the Sunday afternoon, however, the cohesion in our team was ripped asunder by a virulent rivalry.

It’s not Lawrence’s fault that he was born in Glasgow. We were, therefore, understanding when he joked – after another trivia triumph – that we should retire to separate staterooms to watch the Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final.

What a match! Every time I felt the Wallabies enjoyed a comfortable lead – and I could face Lawrence with the kind of gracious goodwill victors find easier to muster – the Scots came storming back.

Were the Wallabies lucky to win a (literally) last minute penalty? That seems to be the consensus. We heard from Karen that her stateroom was engulfed by animated yelling late in the game! Having suffered greatly when the Socceroos were on the other side of a dubious last gasp refereeing decision while battling bravely with Italy in the knockout stages of the 2006 Football World Cup, I tend to be more philosophical about such things these days. It’s all part of the theatre, ain’t it?

Not that we saw the end of the match! With 10 minutes to go, the feed on ESPN in our stateroom inexplicably switched to the build-up to a gridiron game. We wrongly assumed that all TVs onboard were similarly afflicted and resorted to watching Sky Sports News and waiting, breathlessly, for score updates. When we finally heard we had won, the relief was immense.

Whilst not, traditionally, a consistent watcher of Rugby Union, I’ve enjoyed this World Cup very much. I may have to watch more often. We’ll see…

Goodbye to the Eclipse

We shall miss life onboard the ship; the trivia quizzes, dinner in Luminae and time together with time to spare. Unusually, for us, we will even miss the onboard entertainment, which included a Freddie Mercury tribute and a Beatles show.

Special mention must be made of the staff in Luminae, particularly the maitre’d,  Linda, and our waiter, Rosario. Linda is a Scottish lass and one of the happiest people we have ever met. Rosario is from Goa in India. A thorough professional and a part-time comedian, he kept us well fed and entertained throughout our voyage.

The feedback we gave Celebrity was that, for the first time, we would consider another cruise on Eclipse for the dominant purpose of being re-united with Rosario and Linda. High praise!

We will also miss the little things; like the light streaming into our stateroom on a sunny afternoon and the view, through our window, of an impossibly blue ocean which stretches all the way to a distant horizon.

Moonriver

VIENNA – October 2015

 

IBA Cocktail Party Shenanigans

During our week in Vienna, Huck B and I enjoyed a number invigorating seminars on such diverse subjects as mediation schemes in different jurisdictions, privacy in the age of social media, liability for damage caused by drones and the promotion of diversity in the workplace.

Whilst the new learnings were invaluable, three incidents on the nightly cocktail circuit will also live in the memory.

Incident #1

Incident one occurred at the welcome dinner on the first night of the conference. The event was held in a grand concert hall in central Vienna. Over 4,000 lawyers from over 130 countries crammed into the ornate building. Each of four rooms, including the concert hall itself, featured different forms of local entertainment. For us, the concert hall was the highlight, where an orchestra played Viennese tunes and ballerinas danced on the stage.

We felt it was tragic, however, that the sublime music was accompanied by the rhythmical clatter of cutlery on crockery and the less rhythmical chatter of staccato voices in animated conversation.  That so few in the eclectic audience enjoyed the exquisite performance was very sad.

Incident #2

Incident number two took place the following evening when I ventured alone to a cocktail party at the Spanish Riding School new Stephenplatz in central Vienna. Unfortunately, Huckleberry B was not able to enjoy the evening because she had caught the severe chest infection which afflicted me in the week before our departure. All my fault!

I arrived at the  grand palace which housed the riding school to find a long line of lawyers awaiting entry to the event. As we waited in the cold, I chatted with Gunter, an impeccably dressed German lawyer from Munich, who was ahead of me in the line.

About 15 minutes into our vigil – and searching for things to talk about – I remarked that when I received the invitation to attend the function at the Spanish Riding School, I was expecting a venue in the country, rather than a former palace in the centre of Vienna. This prompted Gunter to give me a brief history of the Riding School – including an explanation that the Riding School was ‘Spanish’ because Spain was the origin of the riding techniques – before, most remarkably, embarking upon an unsolicited demonstration of some of the steps I should expect the horses to perform!

Suddenly Gunter – the dignified German lawyer from Munich – was prancing in front of me; left foot behind the right with knees bent; right foot behind the left with knees bent to the same angle;  marching on the spot with knees to the chest and, best of all, rearing up on his hind limbs whilst punching the sky with his upper limbs. He even demonstrated how the Spanish horses were taught to defend attackers approaching from behind by balancing on his right left and kicking backwards with the left.

It was an extraordinary performance!

Had I known that the actual Spanish horses would, after a long and tedious wait, only perform one five minute dance – with no greater precision than Gunter, the stately German lawyer – I would have thanked him and immediately returned to the hotel to join my ailing beloved.

Incident #3

Incident number three occurred on the second last night of the Conference. Huck B and I attended a cocktail reception, hosted by an Italian law firm, at the Grand Hotel Wien.

There, we were fortunate to bump into a Bolivian father and son. Whilst both lawyers, it soon emerged that the Bolivians moonlighted in the noble art of wine production. Suddenly we were immersed in an intriguing discussion about wine production at high altitude!

All the discussion about wine animated a desire to drink some. So I headed off to the bar to collect a glass of cheap, not very impressive, Italian chianti. Whilst there, I engaged in some spontaneous discussion with a Macedonian delegate; Alexander the Great and all that!

An exchange of business cards disclosed that I was a Partner in an Australian law firm and an accredited Mediator. The Macedonian’s eyes sparkled as he explained that he, too, was a Mediator but that he had encountered difficulty in his homeland because Mediation was not yet popular.

I was about to hear all about the Macedonian Mediation Malady when an attractive young woman tapped the Macedonian on the shoulder and said she and her gal pals were ready to proceed to the next cocktail function. The young Macedonian asked for five minutes so he could finish his story and the young lady reluctantly agreed…

Honouring the unspoken understanding which binds all men from Australia to Macedonia, I quickly told my friend of five minutes standing that his story could wait and that he should heed a deeper calling!

Rarely have I seen such a mixture of respect and gratitude on another man’s face. He placed a firm hand on my shoulder and said: “You understand, right?”

I assured him that understand I most certainly did and told him that he should go.

The invigorating exchange over even more quickly that it began, I returned to the high altitude wine production discussion with a glass of red in my hand and a cheeky smile on my face.

That said, I never did find out why Mediation in Macedonia was not popular…

Moonriver