Saturday, December 1, 2012

Coming Home

On 1 December, after 630 days, 35 countries, 156,106 miles travelled by air, 37,154 photos, nearly a hundred shows, 281 posts, and one court appearance, I came home.

Paul and I at Auckland Airport, seconds after getting off the plane.

I was worried that little old Auckland would feel like a small pond after the crazy pace of London, and it does. But there are good things about that.

For starters, I can afford to live in a flat that's larger than a garden shed. And I've already found a job that I'm quite excited about starting in the new year. Though I may have to get over my allergy to exercise... I'm the new Marketing Manager for a very energetic fitness brand!

Mince and Cheese pies are also a great reason to be home. Plus sherbet fizz, Whittaker's chocolate, pineapple lumps, grapefruit frujus and being able to refer to someone's deck without people laughing.

But the best thing about coming home, perhaps predictably, was that first moment of reunion with family and friends. I felt dizzy looking at the back of the automatic doors at Arrivals after I'd passed through customs. That moment had been the subject of my thoughts and dreams for nearly two years... and now that it had arrived, it didn't seem real. It felt too easy - in my dreams something always went wrong.

My heart was pounding, and my legs felt like jelly as the doors started to open. Soon, I was running. I have no idea where my trolley ended up - all I wanted to do was catch up on nearly two years' worth of hugs.

When we got home, my sister had a surprise for me. She had painstakingly recreated one of my favourite travel photos - taken in Porto in July - and named it "Coming Home".

The original photo.
Hannah's incredible painting.

It's good to be back.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One Day in Yosemite (in Photos)

We intended to stay in Yosemite for two days, but, as fate would have it, impenetrable fog descended on our second day and we chose to leave the area rather than spend the day moping indoors. Luckily we had really made the most of it the day before, because it turned out to be our only day in Yosemite National Park.

And was it worth it? You bet.

Driving into Yosemite, one of the first things you see is the striking El Capitane. It may be foolish to rubber-neck at a cliff, but I nearly crashed doing just that.

Yosemite Falls may be drying up as winter approaches, but the Autumn colours make a walk around it completely worthwhile.

The unmistakeable shape of Half Dome is visible from nearly everywhere in the valley.

Bridalveil Falls.

El Capitane and Half Dome as seen from Tunnel View vista.

The Grizzly Giant, one of the largest giant sequoias in the world, stands proudly in Mariposa Grove.

If there was one single moment that made our trip to Yosemite worthwhile, it was this:

The Antipodean = speechless.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Killer San Francisco Itinerary

San Francisco is renowned for being one of the most liveable cities in America, and it has a respect for the arts and sustainable living that puts it on par with Europe’s most forward-thinking cultural hubs. There are so many exciting activities that the hardest part of putting together the killer itinerary is deciding what not to do!

But if I may be so bold, for our last hurrah on the way home from two years in Europe, I think we cracked the right balance of tourism vs. exploring, planned vs. spontaneous, cultural vs. just-for-fun, well-known vs. underground.

Here are The Antipodean’s 14 top recommendations for a killer week in San Francisco.

1. Visit the Beat Museum and City Lights Bookshop
If you've ever read the classic novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac, you simply have to visit the Beat Museum. We've been reading it aloud on every roadtrip, and his view on the pulsing, smoky, jazz heart of San Francisco has influenced my view of the city more than any other. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ll be amazed just how much the Beat Generation of artists and poets have influenced your own life through their carpe diem approach to life in the 50s – which is credited for spawning the hippie movement. Afterwards, pop across the road to City Lights bookshop. This is where Allen Ginsberg's incredible poem Howl was published – resulting in a trial for charges of obscenity that were thankfully overturned. Today it's still a beacon attracting off-beat poets from all over the world.
The upstairs reading room at City Lights bookshop.

2. See the seals at Pier 39
The epicentre of family-holiday San Francisco is undoubtedly Pier 39. Though some call it a tourist trap, the old-fashioned candy stores and amusement arcades are a fun way to spend an afternoon. Grab lunch at Boudin Bakery – their sourdough is some of the best in the Bay Area. And remember your camera – the tribe of seals right next to the pier can be quite mesmerising! It’s like watching a slightly more pungent soap opera.

3. Buy lunch at a Farmers Market
Locally sourced organic food is the pride of San Francisco. You can't visit the city without stumbling across a Farmers Market with dozens of stalls selling all kinds of delicious varieties. On our first day we ran into the Civic Centre one – right in front of City Hall (open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday). It's the best option in the city for delicious healthy food.

4. Ride a Cable Car and Streetcar
Cable cars are synonymous with San Francisco for most tourists. And consequently, the queues at the famous hand-operated turnaround can be an hour long. So long, in fact, that we saw the same rubbish bin foraged by nine different homeless people seeking pizza crusts. While the cable car is undeniably fun (especially on the steep parts!), I actually found the ‘F’ line to be more memorable. It’s the main line down Market Street towards Fisherman’s Wharf, and has returned retired streetcars from all over America – and even a few from Milan – to their former glory.

5. Take a sunset boat to Alcatraz
Of everything we did in San Francisco, I think Alcatraz was my favourite. The mysterious prison island has inspired writers of ghost stories for years – not least because of the mist that regularly surrounds it. I definitely recommend taking the sunset trip: it’s the only one that does a full loop of the island, plus the excellent 45 minute audio guide is included. This has been extremely well put together and really brings it to life.
Approaching Alcatraz Island
The setting sun casts the island into an eerie sillhouette.
A row of cells inside the prison.
The mist of Alcatraz makes the prison even spookier on the outside.

6. Hum the Full House theme tune at the Painted Ladies
If you can remember what John Stamos looked like with an 80s mullet, you’ll enjoy a trip down memory lane when you visit the Painted Ladies. Yes, this row of cutesy houses was the home of the Tanner Clan in Full House – along with about 70 other movies and TV shows.

7. Get a cracking good photo of Golden Gate bridge from Fort Point
If you have a clear day in San Francisco, head straight to Fort Point to check out the Golden Gate Bridge from its best point of view (as selected by Alfred Hitchcock to conclude his classic film Vertigo). Unfortunately the reason I can recommend you pick a clear day early in your trip is from my own failings… San Francisco’s famous fog can render this stellar view unrecognisable.
My best photo of the Golden Gate bridge...

8. Visit Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Fans of adrenaline-pumping roller coasters will be in their element at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Eight of the world’s craziest coasters are at your disposal. ‘Nuff said!

9. Check out the Palace of Fine Arts
The 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition left a lasting mark on San Francisco in the form of the Palace of Fine Arts. Don’t let the classical architecture fool you – this colossal construction serves absolutely no purpose except to look wonderful. And even the best Latin scholar will be unable to translate the carved writing… it’s gibberish!

10. Drive down Lombard Street
Often called the crookedest street in the world, the stretch of Lombard Street on Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is great fun in a car – consisting of eight sharp hairpin turns.

11. Have dinner at the Stinking Rose
This is by far the best restaurant we discovered in San Francisco – but there’s a twist: nobody will want to kiss you for days afterwards. The Stinking Rose is a garlic restaurant. My meal proudly announced in the menu that it included 30 cloves. However the chefs are true connoisseurs and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. Those with an adventurous streak can try Silence of the Lamb Shanks – served with fava beans and a Chianti glaze.

12. Sing or dance the night away in the Castro
If ‘fierce’ is an adjective you’d like to hear associated with your hair, you’ll definitely enjoy the Castro district. It features sing-a-long Sound of Music, an enormous rainbow flag, and a Judy Garland lookalike. In the evenings, The Mint karaoke bar has very well-thumbed Broadway section, along with pretty much everything Barbra has ever sung.
The giant rainbow flag has pride of place in the Castro.

13. Visit the DeYoung Gallery
This is my top pick for art in San Francisco, and it has the added bonus of being smack-bang in the middle of Golden Gate park. SF MoMA might get more foot traffic, but I thought the exhibitions here were more engaging and better curated.
Golden Gate park - enjoy a bit of fresh air after the gallery.

14. Go up Coit Tower
For a city known for its hills, San Francisco has surprisingly few high vantage points. Built with money from an eccentric woman who loved chasing fire engines, Coit Tower is one of the few. The view over the Golden Gate is hard to beat, and you can even get a culture injection before going up the lift, as the mural in the lobby area was the cause of serious controversy shortly before the tower opened because of its surprisingly open communist themes.

View from the top of Coit Tower - with the Golden Gate bridge in the distance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

600 Days in London

After 600 days in London (over a quarter spent elsewhere), it's time for this Antipodean to return to the Antipodes. That means the start of a new era for this blog - I'll have more time to write other kinds of travel content rather than focusing 99% on destination guides in order to keep up with the pace of my actual travels! Plus I'll be able to write more contributions for other cool websites and magazines.

As a parting gift, and to celebrate the launch of their new prepaid cards in the UK, Skype gave all my friends and readers in the UK the chance to win Skype Credit. Unfortunately, the game has now finished. Congratulations to everyone who played and won!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Israel: Guns and Moses

The main thing that struck me about the Jewish state was that everything important or interesting had a church built right on top of it. The shepherd's field? Church. The stable in Bethlehem? Church. The possible site of Jesus' crucifixion? Church. The sites where water was turned to wine, loaves and fishes were multiplied, and Jesus was baptised? All churches. There's even one where Mary supposedly breastfed her holy wee son.

I wasn't kidding... this is the church on the site of the holy breastfeeding.
The sheer number of churches was curious to me given Judaism's position on Christ, and the relative invisibility of synagogues by comparison. The realisation that the historical places I'd hoped to see had been completely bowled over and replaced with a hundred fairly typical churches - like seeing your childhood home flattened to build a mall - came quickly.

I guess with the amount of preconceptions I had about the holy land, I was bound to find 21st Century Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee somewhat less than divine. Disappointing, even.

So, I felt like I had no choice but to ignore my preconceived hopes and focus instead on the genuine experiences that were still possible, regardless of their historical significance or lack of.

There are five that stand out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them are churches.

1.  The Dead Sea
I've wanted to take this photo on the Dead Sea ever since I was a kid. And somehow I've always thought I'd be the first person who couldn't float in the Dead Sea. But, thankfully, I found the water so buoyant that it was difficult to sink - once the water passed chest height, I was unable to reach the bottom. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, so it's a bizarre feeling swimming there. And the water feels thicker - the extra salt and minerals are actually tangible. Just don't put your  head underwater... it stings like getting chilli sauce in your eye!

2.  The Via Dolorosa
The Via Dolorosa has been a bustling shopping street for millennia, and criminals being crucified had to carry their crosses up it. When we were there, it was a public holiday and most of the city was closed for business, including the Via Dolorosa. So what we were struck with was a kind of eerie calm - like an empty fairground. This was the only place in Jerusalem where it was really possible to comprehend what it would have been like 2,000 years ago.

3.  The Wall
The wall that divides Israel from the Gaza Strip is 7 - 9 metres high. And standing next to it on the Palestinian side, it was very clear to me that it was designed to keep me out rather than the other way around. I found it fascinating reading the messages of hope that had been spray painted on, much like in Berlin; e.g. "the Palestianian spirit is stronger than any wall" and "Make hummus, not walls". Visiting the Gaza Strip wasn't anywhere near as difficult or as scary as I'd been led to believe. I never felt unsafe. But it's a strange feeling writing this just two weeks later in light of the fresh conflict in the area.

4.  The Dome of the Rock
The mosque called the Dome of the Rock is undoubtedly the most beautiful building in Jerusalem. When the sun is out, the solid gold roof gleams like an expensive piece of jewellery. Because non-Muslims aren't allowed to enter, the best place to observe it is from the Temple Mount, where the panoramic view of old Jerusalem is extremely impressive.

5.  The Sea of Galilee
In the north, the only site we visited that hadn't been knocked over and turned into a church was the Sea of Galilee, which, for obvious reasons, is the one place to remain relatively unchanged for 2,000 years. Standing on the banks with my brother, we were finally able to get a spatial sense of where we were, relative to the stories that we were so familiar with.

In hindsight, I think my expectations of Israel were a little naive and unfair. I'm glad that I was able to put them aside and enjoy what the country could still offer, rather than feeling too short-changed. I doubt I'll ever return, because I found that Jordan and Egypt both had so much more to offer, but I have no regrets about going.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adventures in the Jordanian Desert

"The place on the planet with the most visible stars". That's what sold me on Wadi Rum, Jordan as the place to realise my goal of spending a night in the desert. And it turned out that the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia was special for a lot more than stars.

The newest tick on my T-shirt bucket list.

When we arrived, we were met by Atek, our pre-booked bedouin guide. It's surprisingly easy to book a night in the desert online.

The first thing we noticed walking towards the 4x4 was that the windscreen had a huge webbed smash . But Atek didn't seem to mind. We sat on fixed chairs on the tray in the back, and he would glance at us in the rear vision mirror with a huge grin, laughing as we became accustomed to the wild lurching motion of the vehicle moving. Every few minutes there'd be a loud grinding sound. Atek would turn around to face us and laugh "no clutch!"

Michael getting to grips with driving Jordianian desert style!

The scenery was undeniably breathtaking. Possibly the best I've ever seen. Definitely the most unexpected and least repeatable. I always imagined all deserts to resemble the Sahara - rolling banks of infinite golden dunes. But in Wadi Rum the sand is every shade between bronze, rust and red, and the rolling dunes are punctuated by enormous canyon-like rock faces rising from the sand.

Standing in Wadi Rum and looking around, you could well be on Mars. And indeed it has substituted for the red planet in more than one movie.

Conversely, the 'attractions' we'd actually heard of before coming, such as Lawrence's [of Arabia's] Springs turned out to be kind of anticlimactic. I've seen toddlers who can piddle faster than that spring. I guess being from New Zealand, I'm inclined to take water features for granted more than the average thirsty desert-dweller.

Lawrence's Springs aka the toddler's piddle spring.

After a few hours of wide-eyed driving, including a few short climbs to panoramic vistas, Atek pulled over and climbed a few metres up the rock face to a small shelf. With a cheeky look in his eye he asked if we knew why he'd brought us there, then said this was his favourite part of the day.

"How you say hello in New Zealand?"

"Kia ora", I replied.

"KIAARAAAAA", shrieked Atek, as if in response.

The sound of his cry reverberated around us in every direction, a supersized echo taking on its own shape and continuing for what felt like ages. I turned immediately to my brother Michael, who is profoundly deaf. He was astonished, having just heard his first echo.

We stayed put for ages, enjoying creating every echo we could think of. While we sat there, Atek made a small fire and began cooking lunch for us. Pita the size of a table cloth, a whole tomato and cucumber each, laughing cow cheese, canned tuna, and more mint tea than we could drink.

After lunch, we drove to the steepest dune I've ever seen. Atek took a snowboard out of the car.

I'm sure the gears turning in my head were visible as I realised what was about to happen. SAND BOARDING!

Having never been  snowboarding, I wasn't sure how I'd fare. But I discovered that not only was it relatively straightforward to stay on the board, falling off didn't hurt! After several goes, I had red sand in every bodily crevice. I was still washing it out of my hair, ears, and elsewhere days later in London.

Word to the wise: don't sand board with shoes on!

When planning the trip, I had worried that a whole day in the desert would be too much. Wouldn't sand, sand and more sand get boring? Nope.

My favourite moment of the day: climbing on to a rock bridge for the mother of all photos.

The full 360 view.

Before the sun went down, Atek drove us to the place he believes has the best sunsets in Wadi Rum. Understatement of the century: he was right!

After sunset, Atek drove us to his desert camp, where his wife Alia had already prepared a feast of epic proportions. She'd barbecued the chicken to perfection on an open fire, and served it with several kinds of Jordanian salad and rice.

The open fire provided our light, and we sat on thin cushions facing each other. Alia taught us a few words of Arabic, then challenged us to get up and dance while she plucked a small instrument and Atek sang. We couldn't quite shake the feeling of looking like a pair of headless chickens, but nonetheless obliged.

Afterwards, we walked out into the sand with bare feet, away from the light of the camp, and looked up to the stars. There weren't as many visible as we'd been hoping - it was a cloudy night and the moon was bright.

But after about 20 minutes, we saw a brilliant green flash in the distance, and something resembling a comet darted across the sky with immense speed. Trying to remain sane, we surmised that it could have been a flare or something less exciting. But without any kind of smoke trail, were unable to think up any other plausible explanations for the celestial occurrence.

Our beds were inside a large bedouin tent. They were extremely comfortable, and we fell asleep immediately.

When we woke, we discovered that we were right next to an enormous rock face. I guess that's the joy of Wadi Rum for you!