Apr 212015
 
 Posted by on April 21, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  2 Responses »

The Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) is a pilgrimage in Southern Europe that begins in a number of European countries like France, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal and ends in Santiago de Compostella in Spain. There are many different routes that pilgrims can take to walk the Camino and some of these routes are over a thousand kilometres long and may take many weeks to walk. It’s one of the oldest and most important pilgrimages in Christianity, dating to about 813 AD, and it meanders through some of the most cultutally rich parts of Southern Europe. Apart from all the churches, there are lots of pastries and cakes, expresso, beer and wine along the way (and the Portugués have a beer called Superbock that I have a spiritual relationship with that is growing day by day)

I had just two weeks to do the Camino, so decided on the Camino Portugués from Porto in Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain (a distance of about 240 KMS over 14 days). Anyone can do the Camino for whatever reason, you don’t have to be Christian, you can be a tourist, a health conscious person, or just curious like me (but do remember, this is a Christian pilgrimage). And if you are wondering what a pilgrimage is, I found this great definition in a book of maps of Camino Portugués by John Brierley.

All of us travel two paths simultaneously; the outer path along which we haul our body and the inner pathway of soul. We need to be mindful of both and take time to prepare ourselves accordingly. The traditional way of the pilgrim is to travel alone, by foot, carrying all the material possessions we might need for the journey ahead. This provides the first lesson form the pilgrim – to leave behind all that is superfluous and to travel with only the barest necessities. Preparation for the inner path is similar – we start by letting go of psychic waste accumulated over the years such as resentments, prejudices, and outmoded belief systems. With an open mind and open heart we will more readily assimilate the lessons to be found along the ancient Path of Enquiry.

Day one: Porto

image

The main train station in Porto

I started the Camino Portugués in Porto, which is the most popular place to start this particular route, but some pilgrims also start in Lisbon (but I am told that there is a lot of walking on roads from Lisbon to Porto). Porto is one of my favourite cities in Europe, built in a river valley with a old town centre of cobblestone alleyways and beautiful mosaic-decorated houses and public buildings, including the main train station (and I have a long, black Porto cape, similar to what the students wear, that I don on special occasions).

The first day of the Camino from Porto is pretty dull as it takes almost the entire day to get out of the city through the endless suburbs. It is best to get the Metro to Vilarinho and start the walking from there (but I didn’t know this at the time and I wish that I had have spent one more night in Porto at the Tattva Hostel instead as it is one of the best hostel I have ever stayed at. Hostels have come a very long way and Portugal has some of the best ones).

Day two: Mosterio de Vairao
image

After the endless walk out of Porto, and feeling a bit grim, I came across this big spooky monestery where I spent the first night. Pilgrims stay in places like this that are called Albegues and they are very affordable at only 5-6 Euros a night. There was only one other person staying at the monestery, an older Spanish man who spoke no English (and I have no Spanish nor Portugués language skills). And almost no one speaks English in this part of the world, so I reluctantly prepared for the inner journey of the Camino!

Day three: Barcelos

image

Following the little yellow arrows...

image

Barcelos

The Camino got alot more interesting after Mosterio de Vairao as the path wasn’t all ashfelt, suburban streets. The Camino trail is clearly marked with cool little yellow arrows that are painted on rocks, fences, houses, signs, and almost any inanimate object. In Spain yellow shells are used as well; the symbol of the Camino.

Day four: Lugar de Corgo (Casa de Fernanda)

image

Roman roads

The Camino today followed some original Roman roads that wound through many old school villages and wineries (and notably, the population is likewise, pretty old in this part of the world). I stayed in a private Alberque for the night which was basically a home stay run by a friendly lady called Fernanda who cooked fish and potatoes for dinner and provided some great Portugués port and conversion. This was excellent for my “inner Camino” because I hadn’t talked to anyone in four days, only pointed at pastries and bottles of Superbock in cafés.

Day five: Ponte de Lima
image

image

This is an idealic Portuguese town, built aroud a town square and a stone bridge. I got into Ponte de Lima in the early afternoon so had plenty of time for cakes and beer. All the town squares in Portugal have free Wi Fi so it is possible to check the dating apps to see what all the Christians are up too.

Day six: Pedreira
image

I stayed in a wonderful private Alberque this night called Quinta Estrada Romano, which was new and only had one other guest. In the private Alberque ‘s, dinner and breakfast is usually supplied and they are much better than the Association Alberque ‘s which tend to be a bit stern (and have 10PM curfews and no Superbock). Still, the Camino is all about walking and this day I walked 33 KMS. The physical walking isn’t that difficult, but geeze, I am doing some hard, lonely soul work).

Day seven: Valenca (Portugal) Tui (Spain)

image

Tui, the first town in Spain

image

Valenca old town

Today I only walked about 10 KMS because I stumbled across two of the most beautiful towns so far on the journey, Valanca in Portugal and Tui in Spain (that are close to each other, separated by a river and a national border). Valenca’s old town is within a fabulous fort, entered through long tunells in the fort’s wall. And Tui is built on a hill around a cathedral and square.

Tui was having a festival this day, so I sat in the town square and drank some Superbock, watched a paramilitary/religious parade, and saw a lot of Spanish dancing (the Spanish seem as though they want to break out and dance at any moment). I ate a hamburger because it was the only thing on the menu I could recognise and it turned out to be a foot in diameter. I will be the only person in the entire history of the Camino to put on weight!

Day eight: Mos

image

The path to Mos

Today I woke at 5 AM because for what ever reason, the psychopathic Alberque in Tui turns the lights on at this ungodly time. Thus, I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but at 5 Euros a night, who am I to complain. I stared to walk at 8 AM and forgot to go to a cafe for breakfast and couldn’t find one for a grumpy two hours. I had croissants and expresso, then continued on my journey. Spain is a lot different to Portugal, there are a lot more people and it has industrialised in an uglier way (I suppose we call this richer in the Modern world). At least this is the bit I saw today as there were a lot of industrial and commercial estates to walk through. After walking a respectable 20 KMS, I arrived at the Alberque in Mos at 2 PM and thankfully, there were no other annoying pilgrims there, which was good as it gave me the space to read and write, some of the best aspects of traveling (and I am just beginning to like my own company).

Continue reading »

Apr 072015
 
 Posted by on April 7, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

London is a city of contradictions, from a copious amount of public transport, to royal chariots for the Queen , from numerous homeless people, to lavish townhouses for Russian oligarchs, from one of the World’s most open and multicultural populations, to European -scepticism and a distaste for the mono-brow and excessively Modern (watch out Perth). London is a very unique and special city; it’s cultural fabric is rich and dense, it is a mature, humanistic, and ‘global city’ (without being crudely aspirational enough, like Melbourne, to need the term). And like all cities, it has a history and can’t be anything other than its history (and only a fool rebels against the past, especially those that believe they don’t have one). And London is within a country that never had a revolution, thus isn’t shackled to it like the Americans, that always must chase the ghost of Queen Victoria muttering “victory, victory, victory”, thus can never be free.

image

Queen Elizabeth, National Portrait Gallery, photo of waxwork dummy

Millions of people visit London each year so I am not sure what I can add. I have lived in London for more than 4 years altogether, and at key junctures of my life, thus it is my second city after Melbourne and I always return every opportunity I get (like now). I have squatted in the West End in the 1990s, lived in the East End and Bermondsey, worked in Covent Garden and Elephant and Castle, and admittedly had some of the lonliest and dismal times of my life in this city, but also some of the most fulfilling, challenging, and personal growth times.

image

Indian sculpture from Khajuraho (where I just visited)

During this very short trip (6 days) I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to see an architectural exhibition curated by my friend Rory Hyde. I also went to the National Portrait Museum, the National Gallery, and the British Museum.

And another contradiction of London is that although it was a great imperial power for a good deal of its history, thus alot of the stuff in the museums and galleries is plundered, it is absolutely free to see (and the museums are always packed full of tourists from everywhere).

image

Chinese Buddha, British Museum

I also went out in Vauxhall and Dalston, went to Oxford for dinner in one of the Colleges with my mate Luke , and did too much drinking and walking aroud Russell Square where I was staying (and drinking and walking are my favorite activities, not always at the same time).

London is a tough city to understand, and there are some pretty shitty lifestyles there, but then again, life is better than lifestyle and living is better than livability. London is an opt – in City not an opt – out one as the city isn’t very kind to dreamers.

Mar 302015
 
 Posted by on March 30, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  No Responses »

A good way to make the transition from South Asia back into the (over) developed countries of Europe and the New World is via a stopover in Thailand. This is because Thailand is an easy country to travel within and serves as a segue for other more challenging journeys (well, in reality, Thailand gets 14 Million tourists a year and I doubt most of them will ever get beyond the Singha Beer and cheap massages let alone undertake more challenging journeys).

After leaving Kolkata I flew inro Bangkok and like all the other times I have bèen to this exceedingly hot Asian city, I found myself, like a tired Bob Marley record, walking up Khoa San Road. Eating pineapple pieces and chicken, I ran into my old friend Sebastian who I met on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (2 weeks before). We sat down, had a Singha, and of course, discussed travel.  He was going to Ayutthaya the next day and asked if I wanted to come. I said I would think about it and that I would meet him at the bus stop.

I decided that I didn’t want to go to Ayutthaya, but saw Sebastian off anyhow. At the bus stop, a man with a strong Dickensian, English accent asked us if we were going to Pattaya. He wasn’t exactly a pleasant looking man, he had some sort of skin condition and problems with what remained of his hair. I said no we weren’t going to Pattaya, bid Sebastian farewell, and then I went to walk Khoa San and.get some more pinapple and chicken.

The next day I am on the bus to Pattaya. Its not far from Bangkok, a couple of hours via mini – mini – bus. I was curious, I had to see this place, and discover why people go there.  I check into my hotel (nice accomodation in Pattaya btw), and start walking around the city to get a feel of the place.

image

Russia in Thailand

The first thing I notice are all the bodies. Pattaya is a city of bodies, where bodies come to meet. There are old bodies and young bodies, overweight bodies and skinny bodies, white bodies and dark bodies, gay bodies and straight bodies (and some in between), hairey bodies and waxed bodies, short bodies and tall bodies, badly tattooed bodies, pieced bodies, pre-operation bodies, and post-op bodies. There are bodies from Russia and the Ukraine, from Germany and Poland, from China and India, and from North East Thailand and Cambodia. There are some huge industrial bodies from America and small village bodies from Laos and Bangladesh.

image

Restaurant in Pattaya

Pattaya is a city of bodies, it does not descriminate based on where your body comes from or even what condition it is in. So stop worrying about your body, grow old, drink and smoke and eat as much as you like, but do remember to keep topping up your pension scheme because there is one place in the world where you will always be welcome. Pattaya!

Mar 212015
 
 Posted by on March 21, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

Kolkata in West Bengal, India, is possible one of the most interesting and challenging cities that I have ever visited; nothing quite prepares you for it. I remember when I first came here in the mid 1990s how I felt a combination of fear, excitement, and horror, all at the same time, each emotion competing for my attention. I am not sure I liked it at first, but then I later learnt that travel is not necessary about likes or dislikes, travel is inductive and about the love of learning, and India will exist weather I choose to learn about it or not. I choose (if this is possible) to understand the most significant parts of the world, and this is perhaps the reason I have never been to (insert county here), but then again, I am a Tasmania and some lessons are hard earned!
image

Travel is about moments, about small descrete interactions between people in day to day contexts. Kolkata is wonderful in this sense as there are just so many people doing so many weird and wonderful things. I enjoy walking; stopping for a tea, having a chat about the cricket (and quickly getting out of my depth), eating chapatti and curry, sickly sweet lassi , and watching the TV through a shop window with all the other Bengalis. There is an old world charm and dignity to Kolkata, even though it is one of the world’s poorest cities. And there is room for the intellect, a reminder that wealth and intelligence aren’t always in harmony (I was going to say that there aren’t too many insipid utilitarian Modernists, but then I possibly would have lost you and maybe that’s my own particular Australian struggle anyhow).
image

Today I walked to Howragh Bridge, through the flower market next to the Ganga (and it’s good to walk because the hotel rooms are so dire). I remember seeing Howragh Bridge the first time I came here in the 1990s; the throng of humanity walking, driving, rushing to the other side of what is possibly the worlds busiest bridge. There are just so many people in this city, I could watch then for hours, get lost in it, and wonder what their individual stories are, although I’m a little afraid to ask. There are some big histories in this City, as big as they come, and it fills me with confidence that after 65 years India remains a vibrant democracy, there is hope for the world yet, and every other struggle seems to pale into insignificance.
image

Mar 162015
 
 Posted by on March 16, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with:  1 Response »

I spent the past week or so in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city after Kathmandu, a fairly relaxed city with a smallish population. It sits on a lake and has sporatic views of the Himilayas, most notably the scarey looking Machhapuchhre occasionally sneaks a peak between the clouds. Machhapuchhre, or Fishtail,  has never been climbed,  not because it is hard, which I am sure it is,  but because it is Shiva ‘s mountain and Shiva will get very angry with anyone who attempts to climb it.

image

Machhapuchhre

I have been to Pokhara before, many years ago, and I did the Jomson Trek downhill after flying there from Pokhara. The major difference since I was here last is that Pokhara is a lot bigger. Not that it has really developed, it is just there is a lot more of the same stuff. There are more hiking stores, more dodgy travellers bars, more bakeries, and more guest houses.  The backpacking scene can be quite dull in travellers ghettos like Pokhara, it is as though the scene got trapped somewhere between 1965-1975, and I am sure they were good years, but somehow I think I would prefer a large 21st Century Indian city with all its contradictions, than a backpacker ghetto with all its re-hashed predictability.

There is however, a bunch of stuff to do around Pokhara, such as hiking, paragliding, mountain bike riding, kayaking, and motorcycling. I have done a couple of these things;  motorcycling and mountain biking, a lot of fun, but the bike trails are mostly made for walking, not cycling, so imagination is required.

image

Minimalist travel

Also, I rode  to Tatopani on a motorcycle the other day, which is only 90 KMS away, but took too many hours. Tatopani is situated at the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit and the road to it is dusty, treturous, bumpy, and very, very slow. It is possible to ride all the way to Jomson on the new road (there was no road when I was last here way back in 1997), but the motorbikes and the road are crap and it is more hard work than fun.

The road in many ways has weakened the adventure of the Annaupurna Circuit, it is a pretty ugly road, especially on the Jomson side, and there are not many ponies and porters carrying goods up the mountain anymore  (only jeeps). Still, there are lots of other treks that compete with Annapurna and the Himilayas are a lot bigger than a dusty old road.

Mar 092015
 
 Posted by on March 9, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  2 Responses »

I spent the past 2 weeks hiking to Manang and back on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It is a spectacular trek; one of the world’s greatest high altitude treks. The village of Manang is at about 4000 meters, well above the snow line and yes, it snowed alot.

image

I had planned to go over the Thorung La Pass which is above 5000 meters, but Annapurna said no. The first few days were tough walking and it got a lot harder when it started to snow above 3000 meters. Walking in snow is hard work, especially with a pack as you have to be very sure footed otherwise the path gives way and you sink deeper into the snow. It snowed for about 5 days when I was in Manang, thus no one could leave the Tillcho Lodge where we were staying.  A few people got sick, so no less than 3 helicopters came and rescued everybody in the guest house and took them back to Kathmandu.

image

But 3 of us decided to stay, the other 2 are walking over the pass as we speak, but I walked back down again as the sun came out and the view was spectacular and I didn’t really want to spend any more time at the guest house waiting for the Pass to clear.  The walk back was pretty special and I walked for 2 days in the snow, or about 40 KMS, then got a jeep for the remaining 50 KMS. The jeep was way fun and took about 7 hours to traverse the last 50 KMS of steap cliffs, valleys, rocks and mud.

image

Whilst stuck in the guest house, which was freezing except for the common room with a roaring pot belly stove, I managed to read Ramachandra  Guha ‘s India after Gandhi, so it was an incredibly productive time as that history book is even tougher than the Annapurna Circuit.

image

I’m back in Pokora now and have a couple of more weeks in Nepal to go on some more adventures. I will go mountain bike riding tomorrow and the day after,  will hire a motorcycle and see how far I can make it up the other side of the trek. I might make it to Jomson but Tatopani has some pretty cool hot springs.

Feb 282015
 
 Posted by on February 28, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

At the moment I’m a place called Manang on the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himilayas. I hiked for 6 days to get here; it takes about 15-20 days to do the complete Circuit which involves hiking over the Thorung  La Pass which at 5400 metres, it perhaps the world’s highest. It has snowed pretty heavily over the past couple of days which means that the pass is inpassable for the next few days, which doesn’t really matter because Manang is pretty damn special. Manang is at 3500 metres and is in a valley surrounded by 5000-7000 metre mountains. The Annapurna Circuit is a cultural trek,  which makes it pretty easy as there are guest houses in Nepalese villages each night of the trek. And I have been enjoying the apple crumble! Many of the trekkers I have met treat the Circuit as some sort of endurance test, but I think I will take my time and explore the mountains a little more as I have all the time in the world.

image