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[  Sunday, February 01, 2009  ]

::   A short happy visit to Vanuatu  

Except to Australians looking for a quick island vacation Vanuatu is largely off the radar of most western tourists. It had ample advantage to become a prime South Pacific destination for North Americans and Europeans - Vanuatu was a major US military staging ground during WWII and jointly administered by the UK and France until its independence in 1980. The US though granted statehood to the much closer tropical island chain of Hawaii, France had its eponymous collectivity in Polynesia and a de facto département d'outre-mer in New Caledonia, and the second half of the 20th century saw the UK divest itself of colonies and territories like a hot air balloon with an embarrassment of ballast. The vacationers went elsewhere.

So Vanuatu sits astride the Tropic of Capricorn, a chain of 82 diverse islands free from the taint of tourism except for a few towns and the eco-adventure mecca of Tanna island. Some of the younger generation have learned to hustle a bit for the foreigners' dollars but in typical Melanesian nature they do so gently.

Vanuatu is not some lost kingdom however. The familiar sounds of T.I. and 80's-era Madonna fill the radio waves, and the infrastructure is there to support any traveler not too finicky about exact timetables or electricity. Of special note is the custom of family-owned beach and village bungalows being rented out to and meals prepared for guests. For around US $30 per day one can get a beach-side hut and three tasty square meals. That's what I did, and I liked it, despite my having to in turn provide hundreds of tasty square meals for mosquitoes.

If you're in the region with time on your hands, check it out. It's one of the most relaxing places I've ever been as evidenced by these pictures.

Posted by morland @ 04:39 PM [Link]  [Comments (1)]

[  Monday, January 26, 2009  ]

::   Expedition to the Top End  

Darwin bills itself as the "multicultural capital of Australia" and that may well be true - I certainly saw a diverse range of ethnic representation. My dinner one night was a fried crocodile burger with pineapple on a pier overlooking the Timor sea from a Korean-run joint called "Schnitzel Magic". Lunch the next day was an Indian roti wrap with mango lassi, Malaysian chicken laksa, and a side of Thai coconut rice from the local street market.

Saturday morning the only non-cartoon on television was a political news hour in Italian directly from Rome, followed directly by the Greek equivalent (then by a Nickleback video which, in its level of intelligibility, might as well have been Greco-Roman). These shows aired on one of the four local terrestrial stations, not a foreign satellite package.

But all of that said, as a tourist you don't normally come to Darwin for the rainbow coalition. You come for Kakadu, Australia's largest national park. That's why I went, and that's, with two exceptions, what I took pictures of.

Kakadu's the size of a small country and contains within its borders rock plateaus, swamps, monsoon forests, grass wetlands, waterfalls, billabongs, a huge gamut of fauna (including wallaroos and more small lizards than I knew existed), and some prominent examples of aboriginal art. When the sun sets you can drive for half an hour in the twilight without seeing another pair of headlights, the up-tempo metronomic tick of panicked jumping toads hitting the car's front grill the only reminder that while you may be the only person for miles you're far from alone. I did it a great injustice by only spending a few days there.

Posted by morland @ 11:24 PM [Link]  [Comments (4)]

[  Saturday, January 24, 2009  ]

::   Sydney in summer  

While I only got a transient's view of it Sydney reminded me more of the sunnier parts of America than anywhere else I've been outside of the US, especially in its internal sense of organization and scale. The differences are there of course - thanks to its harbor I'd be hard pressed to think of any urban setting setting that provides as many bays, beaches, peninsulas, and vistas in such a compact space, and the locals even thank the bus driver when they alight - but overall it felt familiar and comfortable. Whether those are preferable attributes in a travel destination is a matter of taste and timing.

Preferences for or aversions to adventure notwithstanding it's a marvelously picturesque place (but be forewarned: the pictures I took are also marvelously monotonous if you don't like cityscapes and sunsets).

Posted by morland @ 09:01 PM [Link]  [Comments (0)]

[  Friday, January 16, 2009  ]

::   Cities of unusual autonomy  

This was my third time visiting Hong Kong, but seeing as I had three scheduled layovers there and some classmates from LBS on exchange it seemed a waste not to drop in and spend a day or two. The weather turned out to be perfect for a little back-island touring and a walk up to Victoria Peak. The city still gives me the same small-but-huge sense I had when I first visited, something hard to convey in pictures.

Hong Kong book-ended a three-day trip to Singapore, which I expected to be completely sterile and engineered. Parts were - zoning laws seemingly keep all residences separated from noise-generating commerce and nightlife, and I did notice a lack of chewing gum on sale at convenience stores - but others I found to be surprisingly organic and raw (Little India and the food hawker stands are prime examples). Plus being a visitor one gets to enjoy all the convenience and modernity of the city-state without suffering the lack of press and speech freedoms, or worrying that it's a democracy only as much as the Lee family defines it. On that note, I once wrote the following in response to the mention of how Singapore represented Rovian political theory at its most extreme.

If Karl Rove is a student of political manipulation and will to power, Harry Lee is a tenured dual-degree Ph.D professor emeritus with a lifetime campus parking spot. I'm still dumbstruck that a privileged Cambridge-educated lawyer initially aligned with a conservative, almost reactionary, British-sympathizing political group could so cleanly and quickly defect to a communist-populist ideology (though ostensibly socialist, since communism was outlawed - staying within the letter of the law while blithely ignoring the spirit is a Lee hallmark). And how expedient it was that he did so, and founded the PAP, the same year the British started letting poor people vote.

His eldest son is the current Prime Minister, the other is CEO of Singapore's largest company, the majority of which is owned by a holding company ($55 billion in assets and growing) with his daughter-in-law at the head. He drove almost every erstwhile ally into exile and/or disrepute (and why stop at a smear campaign: Devan Nair even claimed to have been drugged). He restructured the judicial appeals process after a ruling didn't go his way. In 1969, perhaps overtaken by the free-loving flower power zeitgeist, he abolished trial by jury completely. He effectively outlawed every Chinese dialect save Mandarin.

He's Bush's breeding (i.e. flair for nepotism) and Rove's brain rolled into one. And he couldn't be more popular, for exactly the reasons you mentioned: the people are safe, healthy, and rich. It seems the demand elasticity for freedom and self governance is greater than some of us would like to believe (and that affluence can be a partial substitute thereof).

Any democracy that permits a head of state to maintain power for 30 years (and promote his/her son to the post a decade later) is a nominal one, blind at best, and temerarious at worst, to Acton's maxim. Benevolent dictatorships are groovy until you take away the benevolence. Wait and see if Lee Hsien Loong abdicates if he can't keep pace with pops.

Having now been there I would still agree with most of this (albeit a less self-important version - invoking "Acton's maxim"? wow.) and add, in addition, that the food is ridiculously delicious. Photos.

Posted by morland @ 08:43 PM [Link]  [Comments (1)]

[  Tuesday, January 13, 2009  ]

::   Thailand, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mobs  

Thailand is a country blessed with warm weather, warmer citizens, lush mountains, endless beaches, arable land, delicious cuisine, millennia of rich history, a healthy economy, and the best infrastructure in its region. It's affordable, exotic, bustling, and bucolic. As a travel destination it's nearly flawless. Which is why I've never wanted to go.

I'd always imagined Thailand to have a hard-pulsing, all-consuming tourist circuit, with the key traps pooling hordes of sweaty pink-faced foreigners. Granted they might consider themselves a diverse lot, some there for eco-tourism, others for an unending series of massage and spa treatments, and still more with no purpose beyond simply proving to the world that ambling through crowded streets wearing open-toed footwear and a brightly-colored shoulder-harnessed 80-liter life-support unit constitutes a life fully examined. There might even be that rare breed of party animal who's less eco-tourist than alco-tourist, who gazes upon a proud civilization's monumental splendor at sunrise and thinks in awe "it's beer thirty!" - the type of person I saw wearing a t-shirt to the less-than-festive War Remnants Museum in Saigon that read "Angkor What? Pub, Cambodia: promoting irresponsible drinking since 1998." Somewhere, I assume, is a list on a whiteboard entitled "UNESCO World Heritage Sites on which I have personally vomited," and it is growing.

Of course in Thailand there are also the sex tourists, but that's a touchy subject (zing!).

Regardless of their self-identification they're all there to take advantage of a choice array of benefits from the people, culture, and land, and reciprocate in turn only money. They reduce the entirety of human engagement to a single dimension, and the more of them I see the less I can pretend I'm not one too.

So when I found out that a friend was living on a farm a couple hours outside of Chiang Mai I jumped at the chance to visit her but balked slightly at the need to thereafter spend time in the northern region's capital of tourism. I expected it to be overrun by exactly the types I just spent so much self-rightous time whining about - and it is.

Even on an absolute basis I saw many more foreign tourists in Chiang Mai than in Ho Chi Minh City, to say nothing of the relative effect of the greater numbers on a city nine times smaller. Entire districts, like the Night Bazar area, are designed to do nothing but (effectively, judging by what I saw) syphon away money. There are several resorts where the cost of a five-night stay will equal the total annual income of the average Thai citizen (though my perfectly adequate room cost a more reasonable $20/night). The stands at the local neighborhood Muay Thai boxing match I saw were 3/4 tourists. I even swear I saw Corey Worthington.

But despite everything it's a great place to visit, and visit alone for the foreseeable future, as it lacks the economic magnetism that makes Bangkok a more desirable place to domicile. Between the temples, elephants, and khao soi, not to mention the rest of that long list of Thailand's desirable qualities, it's hard to walk around blaming the tourist throngs for flocking here, and there are better things to do in the sunshine than scowl. At least they came here for valid existing things to see and do - it's not some mega-resort created from reclaimed land or indoor ski slope in the desert.

Of course a few days eschewing them all on a farm didn't hurt either.

Photos in the usual spot.

Posted by morland @ 10:52 PM [Link]  [Comments (0)]

[  Saturday, January 03, 2009  ]

::   Vietnam (Banh Mi casa es su casa)  

Of all the "developing" countries I've been to, Vietnam seems to fit the description the most literally, as opposed to a euphemism sometimes employed to mean "stuck in poverty; please send money". Signs of development are rife, from the new skyscrapers and conspicuous luxury signaling that it's well underway to the ox carts and spaghetti infrastructure eliminating any doubt that it's unfinished. The long-term trend is obvious though, and I imagine if I revisit in a decade or two it will be a startlingly different place (standard caveats about political stability and macroeconomic meltdowns apply of course).

One trait it certainly shares with other developing countries is the tourist apparatus designed to separate the full brunt of local culture from visitors, exhibit it instead in a controlled environment, and in the process suck out disposable currency like the juice from the coconuts they so readily peddle with a smile and straw. Thankfully though this is confined to well-defined and escapable tourist ghettos, beyond whose walls lies a generally friendly populace, albeit occasionally guilty of aggressive salesmanship (but I am not one to discourage entrepreneurship).

There is one inescapable tourist marker, however, in the case of mix CDs used to appease foreigners during the long, but dirt-cheap, taxi rides. There seem to be two of these circulating around the entire country, featuring a haphazard bouquet of artists assumed to entertain the occidental ear. Upon the third or fourth time cruising past a row of rice paddies or a phalanx of motorscooters and hearing the exact same three opening tracks from Britney Spear (sic), Belinda Carlisle, and George Benson, one starts to wonder just who is being exhibited.

All in all though, not a bad way to ring in 2009. I took some pictures.

Posted by morland @ 05:58 AM [Link]  [Comments (4)]

[  Thursday, December 18, 2008  ]

::   Approximately four degrees of longitude per day  

I'll be leaving Christmas day for a three-month vacation. I'll probably get into the whys and wherefores later - after all I'll have plenty of time for explanations - but suffice it to say I had the free time and the southern hemisphere is warm right now. I know a real round-the-world trip deserves far more time than I've giving this one, but not knowing when I'll have 18 months to do it properly I'll take what I can get.

I drew a rough map of the trip to kick it off. You may be wondering, "why is the starfish not happy?" The truth is that the starfish is the happiest of all the ocean critters depicted here, but cannot show it as starfish are notoriously uncomfortable expressing emotion.

If you have advice and tips for the locations where I'll be (excluding those in the US), please let me know. Destinations include, but are not limited to:

  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Mui Ne
  • Can Tho
  • Chiang Mai
  • Pun Pun
  • Hong Kong
  • Sydney
  • Darwin / Kakadu National Park
  • Brisbane
  • Vanuatu (various)
  • New Zealand (various)
  • Los Angeles
  • Crooked River State Park, Georgia
  • New York City
  • Washington, DC

I'm also going to try and squeeze in another SE Asian trip, so any suggestions within a reasonably short flight of Hong Kong are welcome. I also know a couple of you have done this in a much more hardcore fashion so general RTW backpacking tips are appreciated.

There will be photos.

Posted by morland @ 04:23 PM [Link]  [Comments (6)]