Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vote Early, Vote Often

Pipi was just in Eureka, California, on business. While filling up the rental car at the Bigfoot Gas Station in nearby McKinleyville, she was struck by a sign so odd that she submitted it to the Signspotting web site. You can see it—and rate it—here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time

My cable company likes me so much (and why shouldn’t they—I just started giving them five dollars extra a month so that I can watch soccer games filmed with what appears to be the original Zapruder camera) that they gave me a voucher for a free on-demand movie.

I knew I had to use this windfall wisely. It occurred to me that I should probably order a long movie, to maximize the value of the gift. If it were something I’d been meaning to see, obviously that would be a good thing, and if I could claim it were educational, or even work-related, so much the better.

This is how I came to watch the entire movie Australia by myself this evening, while Pipi was away on a business trip. It was kind of fun, and romantic, and full of really pretty things, like outback scenery and Hugh Jackman. Unfortunately, it was also full of really bad special effects, alcoholic Ocker characters, and magical aborigines. I almost always like Australian films in general, and those by Baz Luhrmann in particular. But this was no Strictly Ballroom. It wasn’t horrible; it just proves that Australians can have their sweeping epics fall flat, too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Underwater Photography

I’m rough on cameras. The last film camera I bought was purchased in Hong Kong when I was studying abroad, an acquisition that was necessary because I had taken its instamatic predecessor with me on an unscheduled dip in the Formosa Strait. And my first digital camera is, as far as I know, at the bottom of China’s West Lake, the victim of a boating accident. So if I ever ask to borrow your camera, please gently but firmly tell me to get lost. Especially if I’m going to Asia. (Or swimming.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dude, Where’s My Charger?

I was talking to my father about travel inconveniences, and he brought up an excellent point: Technology can make some things about traveling easier, but it does introduce a whole new set of headaches. Chief among them is the seemingly constant need to charge gadgets. I remember my friend John and I desperately trying to keep our cameras, computers, telephones, and iPods charged up using one single outlet in a tent in Mongolia. It’s not really a fond memory. The cell phones and music players we obviously could have done without, but I was trying to blog and John is a professional photographer, so we really needed our big battery-powered toys to work.

This new need to charge things kept me from moving into digital photography for a good year. When Pipi and I went to Cuba in 2002, we were told that the island ran on the same voltage as the United States. What we didn’t realize, however, was that our hotel in Havana was a Dutch-run establishment that attracted mostly Europeans, and the plugs all fit continental-style power cords.

The front desk had a few adapters available for guests to borrow, and I remember lively negotiations for them among the members of our group who had brought digital cameras. I watched this drama from a smug distance, and hung onto my film camera until it came to the end of its natural lifespan in Hawaii the following summer. If I hadn’t had to replace that camera then, who knows how long I would have resisted moving into the digital age.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gone Digital

Film is another thing Rick Steves says he has stopped discussing in his books, because he feels that most tourists have gone digital.

Although I still love the idea of art photography on film, and do own a film camera, I don’t really miss the practice of worrying about film while traveling. Hustling up multiple rolls before departure, keeping them separate from the exposed film, trying to find camera shops in strange cities when I inevitably ran out, worrying about the airport x-ray machines ruining my photos….none of these rituals is one I am nostalgic about.

I know a lot of things about travel used to be easier in the old days. You used to be able to wear shoes, pack nail clippers, and carry an oil drum full of shampoo if you wanted to, as long as it fit in the overhead bin and you could demonstrate that it wouldn’t ignite as you chain-smoked in your seat.

Travel has obviously acquired some inconveniences in recent years. But I find it helpful to remember that it has shed some, too. Modern technology means we never have to worry about leaving the airplane tickets at home, or running out of film just as the Loch Ness Monster is ready for its close-up.

Those thoughts don’t entirely take the sting out of having children laugh at you as you get jets of air shot at you in a little glass cage and strangers root through your luggage, but they help a little.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Another Travel Ritual I Won’t Miss

As I was reading through this week’s travel section, an item in an article by Rick Steves caught my eye. While listing what’s new in Europe this year, he mentions, almost in passing, that he has taken information about traveler’s checks out of his newest guidebook editions, because his feeling is that modern ATM networks have rendered traveler’s checks obsolete.

This comes as a relief to me. I haven’t used traveler’s checks in a long time, and it just dawned on me that maybe I never will again. I won’t miss them. Losing a wad of checks while traveling is another disaster I somehow managed to avoid, which is remarkable, because that kind of thing is right up my alley. It’s a relief to know that I may never again have to worry about keeping track of serial numbers or finding a bank that’s open on whatever saint’s day it happens to be.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Armchair Travel

I just finished reading a fantastic book called The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper. It paints a picture of a place, Liberia, that I don’t think I’ll be visiting any time soon, but the picture is vivid.

The author grew up a privileged child in Liberia during the 1970s. In 1980, when she was 14, there was a coup and her family had to flee. An adopted sister was left behind to finish high school.

The author’s search for forgiveness from her sister reminded me a little bit of the movie The Killing Fields, and her journey from spoiled child to refugee reminded me of Empire of the Sun--although Helene’s own mother insisted that they were not technically refugees because they paid for their own plane tickets out of Africa.

Much of the book takes place outside of Liberia, but I still learned a lot about the country and its incongruous history. This taste will have to do until Liberia calms down enough to sustain a tourist industry. (I’m not holding my breath—even Lonely Planet recommends against going anywhere in the country outside of Monrovia.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Little Things Seem Big to Nicole

Coin collecting is not a glamorous hobby. I know that. Shaking out my piggy bank and poring over handfuls of change looking for wheat pennies did not help my playground popularity as a child, and as an adult, fewer people than you might expect think that being able to tell if a coin came from Philadelphia or Denver is a good party trick.

But, getting excited about things that most people could care less about does have its advantages. For instance, something happened to me today that would be an annoyance at best to normal people, but which made my whole afternoon.

I went to buy flowers in a neighborhood where you pay for your parking at a machine that gives you a receipt to put on your dashboard. I have noticed that these contraptions often reject perfectly good coins, letting them fall through to the change return box, so I always check the box both before and after I put my own money in.

This time when I checked, I found an unexpected treat. It wasn’t a bent nickel, or a slug, or even a quarter with something stuck to it, but something even odder: an English 20-pence piece.

Okay, it’s not really that big of a deal, but I do love the idea that a machine designed to give me parking validation instead spat out a little piece of Europe.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paper Tickets Are Dead

I also read an article that included a quote by a travel expert who declared paper tickets “technically obsolete.” What a relief. I’ve made a lot of dumb travel goofs in my day, but I never actually managed to lose a plane ticket. Now, I can safely say that I never will.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Armchair Travel

The tidbit about banking in Maui is just one of many facts I gleaned from a recent travel-section binge. I had a number of Chronicles stacked up, and finally worked my way through them.

Speaking of banking, one other interesting thing I learned is that the dollar is surprisingly strong against foreign currencies these days. About a year ago, for example, one U.S. dollar was buying about one and a quarter New Zealand dollars. But now one dollar is worth almost two Kiwi dollars. This is about the rate I remember from my visit five years ago. The news about Australia is also pretty good for Americans. A year ago the currencies were very close to equal. Now a U.S. dollar is worth about half again the value of an Australian dollar. That will help considerably down under.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fun Fact

The bank in Hana, on the island of Maui, is open only ninety minutes a day.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I’m Just Saying

A partial list of places gay couples can get married:
South Africa

A partial list of places they can’t:
Fire Island
Key West
Palm Springs
Buenos Aires
Los Cabos
Las Vegas

It occurs to me that a trip where a couple gets married in every country where it’s legal would be an odd but interesting adventure.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Vermont! I did not see this coming.

How does this make me feel? Surprisingly sad. Sad because as good as the news is, it led me to notice that in one important way, California falls short of the example set by states to the east.

We have no maple candy here.

I learned this because I could think of no better tribute to Vermont than a spontaneous mid-afternoon maple sugar candy binge. First I tried Walgreens, then an upscale grocery store with lots of imported candy and cookies, and finally a candy store in a swanky neighborhood. No luck. The lady at the candy store said they sometimes get maple candy at Christmas. I told her that spring is maple syrup season and she smiled at me in a way that I thought was reserved for people who offer useless information. I left empty-handed and still unsure how to honor the Green Mountain State in a way that doesn’t involve a trip to Ben & Jerry’s.

I guess I can boil up some corn on the cob while I thinking that over. (Thanks to you, too, Iowa!)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Reading Material

It’s a looooong flight to Australia. We have a non-stop flight from Los Angeles that will take just under 15 hours. Much of that will be at what seems like nighttime to us, but I don’t sleep all that well on planes so I need something to do. We will also be taking two long train trips in Australia, and of course, there’s always the trip back.

This means that I need a lot of reading material. Luckily, I have a number of books stacked up at home. I do feel, though, that I should stock up on some destination-specific reading.

I have a guidebook, a Frommer’s guide to the whole country that I’ve been flipping through. I’ve also already read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country.

If I’m feeling like something light, I might re-read The Thorn Birds. I read that once when I was quite young—probably too young, actually—and I remember having crushes on several characters and the whole southern continent as well. It seemed like a place with enough drama to satisfy a young teenager, which is a lot of drama indeed.

I also want to read Jan Morris’ Sydney. Her last book took me several months to get through, so that may be enough, but if anyone else has some good Australia books to recommend, I would love to hear about it.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Making a List

Speaking of music, here’s my Australia playlist so far.

Land Down Under, by Men at Work. Vegemite? Chunder? If you lived in New Hampshire in 1982, this song made Australia seem like the most exotic place in the world.

Lady, by the Little River Band. From 1978; probably the first Australian song I ever heard. My Mom and I both used to get so excited when this came on the radio.

Jessie’s Girl, by Rick Springfield. No, he is! Who knew?

Humming a Tune, by Mental as Anything. From the Starstruck soundtrack.

Body and Soul, by Jo Kennedy. A remake of a Split Enz song, also from Starstruck.

That’s the Way, by Deckchairs Overboard. An oddly mesmerizing song featuring a pre-Crowded House Paul Hester as well as a bass player that I thought might be a drag queen but isn’t. You have to see the video for this one.

Before Too Long, by Paul Kelly and the Messengers.

Something So Strong, by Crowded House. I saw this video so many times in the eighties that I only recently realized how well the song stands the test of time.

New Sensation, by INXS.

What’s My Scene, by the Hoodoo Gurus.

Dream World, by Midnight Oil.

Take it In, by the Waifs. I love this band!

Let Me Be, by Xavier Rudd. From 2004. See, I’m not entirely trapped in the eighties.

Throw Your Arms Around Me, by Hunters and Collectors. Okay, yes I am.

I know there some big omissions. No Olivia Newton John or Bee Gees, for one thing. I don’t think I own any songs by these artists. I guess don’t love everything Australian.