Monday, September 12, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #21

Messages From Myanmar #21
Australian Vacation Special - Part 6 of 6
14 September 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Day 16 - Tues., 08/30 - Hobart

The agenda called for yet another leisurely drive, this time to the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, via the coast road. We stopped for a photo break (also, post cards and Glucojels) in Swansea and a lunch break in Sorell (great fish & chips, restroom at the McDonald’s across the road) before arriving at Lenna of Hobart, a fabulous hotel set in an 1874 sandstone mansion, as well as a more modern annex. It was very deluxe and a short walk from the harbour, and we spent the evening just poking around the ‘hood.

Day 17 - Weds., 08/31 - Sydney

It was our last day in Tasmania, but we had plenty of time before the flight to Sydney, so we took a walk up the hill to Battery Point and then decided to embark on a short harbour cruise; which, much to our chagrin, doesn’t operate on Wednesday. Instead, we went to the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, a small gem located in the Carnegie Building (the same Carnegie, alright) and packed with interesting displays and artifacts. Hobart has a complex and fascinating maritime history.

We took lunch at Mures Lower Deck, a sprawling and obviously very successful family-owned operation on Victoria Dock at the harbour. Anne and I agreed: The crumble-battered scallops were the best we’ve ever had. And then it was time to go.

We drove to the Hobart International Airport, home of the easiest rental car gas fill-up on the planet, turned in our excellent vehicle, and caught the plane to Sydney. Our hotel, conveniently located near the Sydney Airport, had an early morning shuttle, so there was plenty of time for last minute repacking.

We ate our final meal of this epic adventure at one of the hotel restaurants. It’s called “La Boca” and bills itself as “Vibrant - Unique - Argentinian.” It even has an asado. Lo prometo, esta es la verdad.

Day 18 - Thurs., 09/01 - Yangon

No surprises today. We arose well before the sun, caught the shuttle, did the standard airport security kabuki, and got on the plane. We had decided to spring for exit row seats and the added legroom made it easier to face an eight-hour flight to Singapore. Good movie flight, too - caught up on two big, dumb “Marvel Universe” flicks. From Singapore, it was three hours to Yangon, where an Embassy motorpool vehicle was waiting (a most convenient feature of R&R). Then, heavy rain and massive traffic backups. Welcome home.

Anne and I find ourselves in a line of work that affords wonderful opportunities for travel. We have served on four continents (counting North America) and, by my count, have traveled together to nineteen different countries in the past ten years. This is not what I expected to be doing at this stage of life and I am grateful every day for the opportunity to see so much of the world. It is something that we never take for granted.

Thanks for letting us share our journey with you. Next stop: Angkor Wat.



Messages From Myanmar #20

Messages From Myanmar #20
Australian Vacation Special - Part 5 of 6
13 September 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Day 13 - Sat., 08/27 - An Epic Drive

We spent the morning in Lonny, seeing the sights. After purchasing some homemade beef jerky and more Glucojels (because you just never know), we departed Launcetown and, without getting lost, thank you, headed west to Cradle Mountain.

It was a beautiful day for a drive and the scenery featured rolling hills and more sheep than we’ve ever seen. Our directions were clear and our fuel level decent, but we decided to top off the tank at Mole Creek. Which is just as big as you think it is. This turned out to be the best decision we made all day.

Aussies are (generally) very friendly, chatty people, and I got into a conversation with a fellow who had been spending a lot of time helping his neighbors recover from the disastrous floods that tore up northern Tasmania this past June. We learned that one of the main roads to Cradle Mountain was still closed and a significant detour was in our future.

No worries. The drive was awesome, with beautiful landscapes, lots of mountain curves, and not a hell of a lot of room for error. Our revised directions were perfect and we arrived at Pepper’s Cradle Mountain Lodge, in a windy drizzle, well before nightfall. The lodge, adjacent to a national park, is an enormous operation, and our cabin was quite a schlep by foot.

Since we were booked for only one night (insane, I know), we immediately put on our hiking gear and hit the “King Billy Trail,” named for a local variety of pine tree. They grow up to 40 m in height and the forest is loaded with ‘em. The hike itself was pretty moderate and kind of mysterious; the forest being full of ferns and fallen trees covered in moss. It was an excellent walk for a cold and wet afternoon.

That evening: Dinner, build a fire, take a hot bath, go to bed. Big day coming up.

Day 14 - Sun., 08/28 - Freycinet

The drive from Cradle Mountain southeast to Freycinet Lodge, located in the Freycinet National Park on the east coast, is roughly 350 km (218 mi), some of it on the same mountain roads we traveled the day before. But a sunny day (and noticeable improvement on the head cold front) made for a beautiful journey through eucalyptus forests and past bucolic fields full of sheep and, occasionally, a flock of foraging white cockatoos. After a magnificent morning’s drive, we had lunch in Bicheno, a small village on the coast.

From there, it was on to the Freycinet National Park, where we learned that our prepaid park entrance fee was superfluous, seeing as how it was the 100th anniversary of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and entry was gratis the next two days. OK. Once we got our (free) park pass, we arrived at Freycinet Lodge in time for sunset and dinner.

Day 15 - Mon., 08/29 - Wineglass Bay

By this time, we were up for some more serious walking around. So, we elected to hike to the Wineglass Bay Lookout, a journey supposedly 40 minutes in length. For those of us approaching geezertude, a more relaxed pace was appropriate, nay, unavoidable. Once there, it was picture postcard time again. But the most sublime moment came when A.J. spied a small whale lollygagging near the shore of the bay, a very rare sighting at this time of year.

Our next, less strenuous walk was an easy stroll to the Cape Tourville Lighthouse, featuring a gorgeous, if considerably more distant view of Wineglass Bay. And 1000 km to the east? New Zealand. To finish off the day, we had ice cream at the only store in the town of Cole’s Bay and then meandered around Honeymoon Bay, near the lodge, where we watched sea birds perch and Japanese kids take selfies.

[Gustatory Sidebar - The eating on this trip was generally very good, especially aboard The Ghan, where they fed us three squares a day. But the single most spectacular dish was the seafood bouillabaisse at Freycinet Lodge. Scallops, prawns, fish, clams, and mussels in a creamy tomato concoction… oh, my.]

To be continued...


Friday, September 9, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #19

Messages From Myanmar #19
Australian Vacation Special - Part 4 of 6
11 September 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Day 10 - Weds., 08/24 - Terror on the Motorway

The Blue Mountains area is spectacular, popular, and about a two-hour drive from Sydney. We arranged with our travel agent to pick up a rental car downtown, drive to the mountains, and return it at Sydney Airport on our way to Tasmania. What could go wrong?

It started drizzling as we checked out of our hotel, but the taxi (whose driver was from Ghana, of all places) took us to the rental office, where we (a) got a car and (b) received explicit directions on how to get out of town. I had two years’ experience driving in South Africa (Look right, keep left. Dummy.), and was reasonably confident about the actual driving thing. So, off we went.

This happened: (1) The street that we were to turn on, the street that was to lead us straight out of town, the street on which we pinned our tourist hopes and dreams… was blocked due to tram construction. (2) It began to rain. Very. Seriously. (3) Traffic was a nightmare, compounded by the fact that we knew fuck all about Sydney’s mean streets. We did eventually get squared away, with no permanent damage to our relationship, thanks to A.J.’s grace-under-pressure navigating and my desperately fearless driving.

By the time we stopped for lunch and provisions in the charming village of Leura, the rain had turned to fog, and we were deep in the soup when we finally arrived at Lilianfels Resort & Spa. We checked in and… the power went out. Repeatedly. No worries. Equipped with a torch, a Swiss Army knife, and our bag of comestibles (including Glucojels), we had a romantic picnic in our room and turned in early.

Day 11 - Thurs., 08/25 - The Blue Mountains

Clearing skies were the order of the day, so we walked out to Echo Point to view the Blue Mountains and the Three Sisters rock formation. After a properly scenic and chilly interlude, we dropped by the nearby Waradah Aboriginal Center, which features a gallery, gift shoppe, and small theatre where, several times a day, a group of performers present a program designed to introduce aspects of Aboriginal culture to gringos.

As usual, we were the first customers of the day, but the cast graciously put on the performance, which was quite good, for just the two of us. We chatted a bit afterward, but since a busload of (I believe) Chinese tourists had pulled up, our seats were needed.

Piling into the trusty rental, we headed up the road to Katoomba, a very picturesque burg, where we discovered a classic place called The Paragon Café, a fabulous and venerable Art Deco confection equipped with a banquet hall and small theatre space, perfect for the next album release party.

From Katoomba (c’mon, how can you say “Katoomba” and not feel better?), we drove to Scenic World, where we joined a few hundred fellow (mostly Oriental) tourists, taking in the views from the Scenic Railway (the steepest funicular railway in the world), the Scenic Cableway, the Scenic Skyway, and the Scenic Walkway. Word.

Then, back to the hotel to pack and get ready for the drive to Sydney and the flight to… Tasmania.

Day 12 - Fri., 08/26 - Launcetown

The drive back to Sydney featured lots of traffic and the usual trauma of finding a place near the airport to fill up the gas tank, but it could have been worse. The flight from Sydney to Launceton, located in the north of Tasmania, was packed, but short. Good thing, too, because by this time I was nursing a vicious head cold. The ankle, on the other hand, was improving.

Intrepidly, we rented a car at the airport and headed into Launcetown where… we promptly got lost. Fortunately, “Lonny” (as the locals call it) is not Sydney, so we quickly recovered. After checking in, we walked into town, stopping for a bite at a hole-in-the-wall called King of Kebobs, where the King himself made us a special order pizza: Lamb gyro meat and tomatoes. We were all pleased with the result.

To be continued...


Messages From Myanmar #18

Messages From Myanmar #18
Australian Vacation Special - Part 3 of 6
10 September 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Day 7 - Sun., 08/21 - Adelaide (and my 69th Birthday)

Our flight to Sydney being scheduled for late afternoon, we had time to visit the Cleland Wildlife Park, near Mount Lofty. The day was clear and cool, and we had a lovely time visiting with the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, emus, dingos, and koalas. The kangaroos are especially friendly and keen to eat the animal food purchased at the visitors center. I can also testify that at least one of the roos enjoyed having his back rubbed and chin skritched like a cat.

After lunch, our exemplary host gave us a lift to the Adelaide Airport, where we caught our flight to Sydney. Prearranged transport took us to the Harbour Rocks Hotel, a boutique establishment located in “The Rocks,” where the first English convict ships dropped anchor in 1788. We had supper in a trendy and noisy eatery located near the Harbour Bridge. The walk up the steps was tenuous and the food was average, but the view was outstanding.

Day 8 - Mon., 08/22 - Sydney

Sydney is a scenic, sprawling, and very expensive city. It is also convenient to navigate once you suss out the excellent public transportation system. We started our day by walking out onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge to take in the view. Deciding that halfway across was about right, we returned to Circular Quay and boarded a ferry to the Australian Maritime Museum. As a former sailor, this was a primo destination.

It is a great museum, comparable, in my opinion, to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. We toured a submarine, a destroyer, and a replica of the HMB Endeavor, Lt. (later Capt.) James Cook’s first command. (A.J. and I had serious issues with the lack of overhead on both the sub and the Endeavor.) In addition to the regular exhibits, we also took in a special exhibition titled “Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude.” We know something of this history and find it utterly fascinating.

After a visit to the extensive gift shoppe (gotta visit the gift shoppe), we decided to take the ferry back to the hotel and make arrangements to meet some friends of ours, newly relocated to Sydney from London, for dinner the next night. And as the rain settled in, so, too, did we.

Day 9 - Tues., 08/23 - Sydney Opera House

I try to resist rhapsodizing, but the Sydney Opera House is one of those works of humankind that lives up to the hype. Controversial, and completed years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, it has become an architectural embodiment of one of the most overused words in the English language: Icon. Sydney is defined by it and, should you ever have an opportunity to visit, GO!

We arrived for the first tour of the day and were taken in hand by Bruce, a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide. We visited the Concert Hall, where we listened to a youth orchestra warm up. (The sound is quite big.) We sneaked into the Joan Sutherland Theatre just before they closed it for rehearsals of “My Fair Lady,” directed by Dame Julie Andrews. (Dame Julie was not in evidence.) We learned about personal drama and political intrigue, as well as the brilliance of Danish engineering. It was a marvelous morning.

That afternoon, we took a ferry to Watson’s Bay, “Australia’s oldest fishing village,” ate fish & chips at a local joint, and strolled along the coastal walk, taking in views of Sydney on one side and the South Pacific on the other. Very pleasant; then, back on the boat.

By this time, we were savvy enough to catch a train from Circular Quay to Bondi Junction, where our aforementioned friends met us for dinner. We had last seen them when they stayed at our apartment in Buenos Aires and were still planning their move from England to Australia. They are lovely, talented, artistic people and it was very special to visit with them again.

To be continued...


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #17

Messages From Myanmar #17
Australian Vacation Special - Part 2 of 6
08 September 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Day 4 - Thurs., 08/18 - Alice Springs

After a somewhat restless night (it takes a while to get use to sleeping on a train), we arrived in Alice Springs, a city that has always seemed impossibly romantic to me. Sitting in the middle of the continent, in the outback, on the frontier… we had a fine day there touring the local attractions:

School of the Air - Established in 1951 and covering an area of 1.3 million sq km (808,000 sq mi), this is the first of a series of correspondence schools serving the primary and early secondary educational needs for children living in the outback. Classes were traditionally taught by radio, but are moving to the Internet.

Royal Flying Doctor Service Alice Springs Tourist Facility - The RFDS has been providing medical care to remote corners of Australia since 1928. It is funded by public and private donations, and an amazing gift shoppe.

Alice Springs Reptile Centre - 100+ reptiles: Lizards, snakes (including the most poisonous on the planet), and an actual saltwater crocodile named “Terry.” What’s not to like?

National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame - Founded in 1993 and located in the former HM Gaol and Labour Prison. It doesn’t get said enough: Women. Are. Awesome.

Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve - Established in 1871 to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide, this is the original site of the first European settlement in Alice Springs. We had a wonderful “Outback Pioneer Dinner” (the best steak since Buenos Aires) and watched the full moon and the Southern Cross rise at the same time. Perfection.

Day 5 - Fri., 08/19 - Coober Pedy

After a more restful night on The Ghan (I took the upper berth, which suited me surprisingly well.), we awoke to the setting full moon and a day visiting Coober Pedy, a place almost impossible to describe. It is the “Opal Capital of the World” and has (reputedly) 4 million holes in the opal fields to prove it. The population is roughly 3,500, consists of over 45 nationalities, and many of them live in below-ground residences called “dugouts” in order to escape the scorching summer heat.

We took a tour of a mine, ate lunch, hit the gift shoppe, and visited a church… all underground. But the highlight for me was the 70 km round trip to The Breakaways, yet another geologic marvel. The Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara people regard this as a holy place and I’m inclined to agree. It’s extraordinarily picturesque and has been used as a backdrop for many movies. (Think “Mad Max.”) I must also note the dog fence; 2 m high, stretching for 5,300 km (3,293 mi), designed to keep the sheep to the south and the dingos to the north. The outback is an overwhelming place.

Day 6 - Sat., 08/20 - Adelaide

Our third and final night on The Ghan was pretty peaceful (we’d gotten use to the “clikety-clack”) and we awoke to a landscape transitioning from red to green as we made our way to Adelaide. Anne had arranged for us to stay overnight with an old friend from her Peace Corps days and, indeed, he was waiting for us at the station. After the not-entirely unpredictable cluster of baggage claim, we bid a fond farewell to The Ghan. This was our first great train journey and we consider ourselves very lucky to have had such an opportunity.

Our friend took us on a driving tour of Adelaide, a really beautiful small city, and then we made for the hills and Mount Lofty (no, really) to see the panoramic view. Which, sadly, was fogged out. So, we went to his place, did some laundry, took him and his wife out for Indian food, and watched some “footy” (Australian football) on the tube. A pretty entertaining sport, I must admit.

[Medical Update - On our way, we stopped by a pharmacy where I made two important purchases: (1) An elastic ankle brace (Yes!) and (2) a package of Glucojel Jelly Beans, made with 30% glucose syrup. Pharmaceutical-grade jelly beans? What a great country.]

To be continued...


Messages From Myanmar #16

Messages From Myanmar #16
Australian Vacation Special - Part 1 of 6
07 September 2016

Hello there, Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

It is DoS SOP for diplomats assigned to certain overseas posts to receive at least one R&R (“Rest & Recuperation”) during their tour. It’s a pretty good deal; State picks up the tab for airfares (economy, of course), and you’re on your own for the rest. Most folks choose to go back to the States, but since A.J. had only recently returned from a conference in DC, we decided to split the difference and go to Australia. I had never visited the place (she was there thirty years ago), so this was a grand opportunity. It was an epic trip.

[Tourist Pro Tip - Since there were a lot of moving parts to coordinate, we engaged the services of an Australian travel agent to pull it all together. He did a great job and saved us a boatload of stress.]

Ready? Alrighty, then…

Day 1 - Mon., 08/15

Flew from Yangon to Darwin via the excellent Singapore Changi Airport…

Day 2 - Tues., 08/16 - Darwin

…arriving in Darwin at 03:00. Got a surly taxi driver and overpaid in USD, but made it to the hotel in good order. After a bit of sleep, we went for a swim and then headed out in search of seafood. Coming out of the hotel, I made the mistake of trying to do two things at once and side-stepped a curb, twisting my right ankle 90 degrees and crashing to the pavement. I’ve been through this kind of dumbass pain before, and so, ascertaining that nothing was broken, I elected to walk it off. And the barramundi (Asian sea bass) was delicious.

While waiting for a taxi from the waterfront back to the hotel, I engaged in a conversation with one of the locals. It was the first of many, most of which went something like this:

Aussie: Where you from?
Yank: The States.
Aussie: How do you like Australia?
Yank: Very much indeed.
Aussie: What about Donald Trump?
Yank: On behalf of America, we apologize. But he’s an idiot and is not going to win the election.
Aussie: Hope not. Right, mate; have a great trip.

Day 3 - Weds., 08/17 - The Ghan

The Ghan Expedition is a train operated by Great Southern Rail. It plies a route from Darwin to Adelaide, some 2979 km (1851 mi), with passengers spending three nights onboard. Over half a mile long, 2 locomotives, 38 cars, 40 crew, 300+ passengers… this is a major league operation and, pardon the lapse into clichĂ©, “a trip of a lifetime.”

The train was packed, primarily with retired Australians, and after a period of the staff herding old cats, we settled in our stateroom. Think of a walk-in closet with an adjoining closet bathroom/shower. Very functional and very cozy.

The Ghan pulled out from Darwin, rolling past a landscape of scrub brush, small trees, and a zillion termite mounds. We made a tourist stop in the Nitmiluk National Park and did a bit of sightseeing in the Katherine Gorge from a boat on the Katherine River. This included a short walk (the ankle was most grateful) to see ancient Jawoyn paintings on the rock face. Regrettably, none of my photoz of these turned out well.

[Cultural Sensitivity Note - I know not much about Australian Aboriginal culture and freely acknowledge that, being a gringo, I cannot help but view Australia to some extent through the lens of my particular preconceptions. But Europeans, wherever they have immigrated, have treated indigenous people heinously, and I think it’s important to hold that thought.]

To be continued...