Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Welcome to the 21st Century," "Tastes Like Cheesecake," and "No, monkey, no"


We spent our final few days in Sydney relaxing, walking, going to the beach and pickup up some last minute necessities.

Sydney is a beautiful city, and we spent the extra money to stay downtown, which was more convenient for us. It was hard to adjust to relying on other people and public transport to get around after two months of freedom on bikes, but we walked all over the very dense downtown and took a train and bus out to famous Bondi Beach, which I was pleased to see had a relaxed attitude toward topless sunbathing.


Each morning we'd wake up and first thing would go out for a walk/jog (I walk, Laura jogs). I'd do a loop across Darling Harbor, thick with swanky restaurants and sailing yachts, and through the fringes of Chinatown. Alongt the way I'd listed on headphones to some of Sydney's fantastic radio stations -- JJJ, 3M and FBI. Australia has a great music scene and the stations play a refreshing mix of music. They are also pretty casual about words that would in the US get you kicked off the air. More than once the DJ would say, "Now I got to warn you this next song has some adult language" and then the song, played at 8 a.m. on nonpublic radio, would delve into some very adult language.

We stocked up on last minute provisions. One of the most important was sunscreen. As I learned from my first trip to Africa, it can be hard and expensive to get sunscreen in countries where the locals don't burn. We got three bottles.

We also decided we really needed to buy a new water filter. My old filter was an MSR pump I got before our first RTW trip in 2002. Costing about $70, it was a simple and reliable machine. To make it work I'd cut the top off a plastic bottle and fill it up with local water. Then a tube runs into that reservoir and you pump a lever to bring water into the filter. The pump forces water through a ceramic filter and the cleaned water goes direcly into a Nalgene bottle. Though the filter kills most germs, we'd usually drop a little chlorine in at the end to make sure everything was dead. A water filter is a necessity when traveling in the third world unless you want to buy bottled water every day. It saved us a lot of money and saved local landfills from hundreds of plastic bottles.

The great thing about the filter is that it's easy to clean. What you do is unscrew the various parts and let them dry. The most important thing to clean is the ceramic filter itself, which you scrub with a rough pad. Then you lube up the other parts, like rings. I used Chapstik for this.

We used the MSR filter for about nine months on our last trip, occasionally in the intervening years, and for four months in South America on this trip. Towards the end we began to have problems keeping the filter clean. You know you need to clean it when you can no longer pump at the rate of one pump per second. In South America we were cleaning the ceramic part every week or more, which is pretty frequent when you are already using tap water. We had to use it several times in Australia and it was really slow. Once, in Tasmania, I cleaned it and got a good liter out -- about 4 minutes of pumping -- but by the second liter we were back to 10 minutes of slow pumping to get a clean liter.

I wished we had gotten a new filter on our layover in Altanta, because one look at the stores in Australia told me we were in for a punishing experience. The same MSR pump we had -- only this year's model -- cost in excess of $200, and Katadyn pumps cost more than $300.

I went into one local store and told the guy what I was looking for and he said "We don't have filters like that." I said thanks and started to walk out and he added, "Welcome to the 21st Century." He showed me a newish device called the SteriPEN. Now, I'd looked into the SteriPEN before but ruled it out, I guess, because I'm a 20th Century kind of guy. But a tutorial from this guy had me sold. The SteriPEN looks like a big pen, only instead of an ink ball at the end there is a lamp. It runs on four AA batteries. You sort of flip the thing on, then dip the lamp into water and shake it around. The lamp emits UV rays which kill more germs even than the old hand pumps did. A liter is filtered in 90 seconds with next to no effort. The only drawbacks are that the pen is slightly delicate and while water may be clean, it can still taste bad. It's hard to complain, though, when what used to take 10 minutes now takes a bit more than a minute. Yes, welcome to the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, the 21st Century does not always work. We've had several problems with the pen and while we have not yet been left without clean water we have had to spend a lot of time trying to get the pen's UV light to come on and stay on. Hopefully we can get that solved.


We flew from Sydney to Denpasar, Bali on JetStar. JetStar is one of these new discout airlines that basically gives flights away but makes their money by charging you for everything, from pillows and blankets to peanuts and headphones and checked bags. I was sure we'd never make it onto the plane without forking over hundreds of dollars in penalties and blanket fees but somehow we got out without spending an extra penny. Once past checkin Sydney's airport was full of 747s and A380s (the doubledecker planes) headed to all corners of the globe.

Our flight took us over much of Australia, a country almost as big as the US, only once we passed Sydney's sprawl we barely saw even another road. Bali appeared as dusky lights, crowded roads and lots of puddles. At the airport something happened that has never happened to me before: someone was waiting to pick us up. After two months of camping we figured we were due a decent place to stay. I had prebooked a room at the semiswanky Harmony Bali, a $30 a night boutiqueish place in Seminyak. A driver was at the airport with a card which said "Mr. Jeff" and in 30 minutes we were in our room, a/c and tv on. We went out for a late dinner.


One of Laura's favorite phrases is, "tastes like cheesecake." She originally used it when she ate things that tasted, however remotely, like cheesecake, but of late she'd been using it for almost anything which tastes good. I've heard the phrase a lot since we've been here. We've had pancakes rolled around sauteeed bananas and bananas dipped in batter then fried and served with local honey. Gado-gado has been a great dish -- steamed vegetables like spinach and watercress and string beans in a light broth.n Cap cuy is awesome -- chunks of chicken in a thick sauce with sliced carrots and beans. Also very good is lumpia -- spring rolls in a heavy garlic sauce. We've just about had our body weight in pineapple juice shakes, and the beer, Bintang, is tasty. Cheesecake? It's all cheesecake.

"No, monkey, no"

We're in Ubud now, a small town a bit back from the coast. The cliches are all true: Bali is an incredible and beautiful place. It's also a little hard to understand. It's got all the oddities of the third world -- stray dogs crapping in the streets, people riding motorcycles on the sidewalks, cheap beer -- but is well set up for tourists and has all the mod cons. Bali is Indonesia's one Hindu area, and is full of amazing architecture which is part India, part Nepal, part Thailand.


We took a bemo -- small bus -- to Ubud and had lunch, then walked around. We spent $30 to stay at Sania's Homestay in a -- well, how do you describe the place we are staying? It looks like the ground floor of a Hindu temple, and is adorned with fantastically carved wood, carved stone, a pool with koi, fountains, and statues of naked women holding urns on their head with long devilish tongues and fiery devilish eyes.

This morning we went to the monkey forest. It's a forest just out of town full of temples and massive trees and monkeys. I could probably watch monkeys every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of it. These guys did no disappoint. They swim, steal food, pull on each other's tails, push each other out of trees, scream, whine, cry, eat spikey fruits, jump into pools, pick bugs out of each other's hair and lay back real languid while people like me stand there staring at them. And usually while you are staring at one another is sneaking up behind you to get in your backpack. I actually found myself saying at one point, "No, monkey, no" to a litle one which was about to climb up my leg. Have I ever said that before? What happens in Bali ...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So Long, Malvern

I don't know if I mentionned this already or not, but my bike through our two month trip here in Australia was a Malvern Star. I had never heard of a Malvern before I bought it new for less than $300 at Brunswick Street Cycles in Melbourne, but it turned out to be an interesting choice.

Malvern was to Australia what Schwinn is to the US -- an iconic bike that has grown through the years. The company was founded around 1902 and faithfully made quality bikes for decades before falling into a bit of a slump. A few years ago they relaunched the brand with higher quality bikes aimed at the low-price bracket. Many people stopped me on sidewalks and in campgrounds to tell me they recalled fondly their Malverns from growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.


The Malvern served me well through the rest of our ride in Tasmania. After riding into Hobart, the state capital, we made a loop, pedalling along the Derwent River upstream into the Southern Highlands. Wanting to get away from the shore crowds, we headed up to Mt. Field National Park, which turned out to be a real gem.

Mt. Field, at about 4,500 feet, is one of the highest peaks in Tasmania. At the base of the mountain is a visitor center, short walks to waterfalls, a cafe and a campground, where we spent two nights communing with, and later fending off, wallabies.

From the campground, at 600 feet above sea level, a road climbs 10 miles to a chain of alpine lakes and through four distinct forest types, from continental at the base -- which was home to 300 foot tall swamp gums -- to tundra.

At the top of the mountain was a ski area, alternately known as Mt. Field and Mt. Mawson (the ski area actually is on Mt. Mawson). This was one of just two ski areas in Tasmania, and the only one I have ever been to where you could not drive to the base -- you drive to a parking lot and hike uphill for about half an hour to get to the lifts. The area has two parts ... the main part has a few very simple cabins and three rope tows. One tow was purely beginner while the other two ran parallel roughly 200 vertical feet uphill to more difficult terrain. One of the tows went to the summit of Mawson, which is really a broad plateau. It's hard to imagine this area getting enough snow to ski, as it's entirely above treeline and is little more than a jumble of boulders and a tangle of sharp shrubs. I boulder hopped to the summit for the view north over miles and miles of jagged peaks. From the summit I could see the ski area's other 'area' -- a much steeper rope tow about a mile away, also accessed only by hiking. The mountains around had some small patches of snow on them.

From Field we pedalled across the mountains headed north but got shut down by one of Tasmania's rare hot days -- 90 degrees with a stiff wind. While not hot by American standards we were not used to the heat or the dry winds and stopped up short in a very small town. The next day we pedalled back to the Derwent, to New Norfolk, and the day after went to Hobart. Officially we pedalled 2,203 km and climbed 74,565 vertical feet.


When we were in Hobart the week before we amazingly ran into Ben and Meg, whom we shared a LandCruiser with in Bolivia. We were walking through the botanical gardens when Meg shounted Laura? Jeff? They were in town for Meg's sister's wedding. Once we had pedalled back they picked us up in a brand new Citroen and took us to Port Arthur for the day, a 50-mile trip which was our first time in a car since being dropped off at the Atlanta airport months ago. Port Arthur was an interesting trip, and one which would have taken days if we'd gone on bikes. Now a world heritage site candidate, it was once one of the primary prisons for convicts brought to Australia from the UK.

That brought to an end our biking trip and began a weird retracing of our steps back to Sydney. The next day we took a bus to Devonport, traversing the center of the island. It was fun to see bits and pieces of where our bike trip had crossed this bus trip over the past four weeks. The next morning we boarded the Spirit of Tasmania for the crossing of Bass Strait. We pedalled of the big boat on a bucolic Sunday afternoon. Melbourne is one of the world's beautiful cities and cycling along the beach, through the CBD and into the burbs was a magnificent close to this portion of the trip. We cycled out to Danielle and Josh's house, two bikers we had met in Tasmania and offered us a place to crash. Monday we pedalled back to Brunswick Street and I sold the Malvern and Laura sold her Giant. Both bikes were pretty well used by this point. I got about 60 percent of what I paid for mine and Laura about 30 percent for hers. We then posted home a giant package with our tent, sleeping pads and panniers and then jumped on a Greyhound for the journey back across Victoria and New South Wales to Sydney, where we are now.

Sydney is a grand city and a suitable setting off point for part two of our trip -- Bali.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

1,800 Kilometers -- Can I Get A Hell Ya?

We just pedaled into Hobart, the waterbound capital of Tasmania, and in doing crossed the 1,800km threshold. So far in Tasmania we've pedaled about 950km, making a big S across the state, from Devonport west to Wynyard, south to Cradle Mountain, east to St. Helens, and now south and southwest to Hobart.


Things have gone well in the past three weeks -- no flat tires, no lost belongings, and no nights spent out in the open. We've pedaled a total of 54,700 vertical feet uphill and been on the bikes for 147 hours.

We have now camped for some 45 days straight, more or less. Boxing Day we spent in a nice hotel in Launceston, and the night before our ferry was in a hotel in Melbourne, but other than that it's been our tiny two-person Mountain Hardware tent.


We've actually slacked off biking the past week or so. I think we've both lost our drive for it. I don't want to say we don't like Tasmania, but certain aspects here are pretty tiring. The weather is bad, the drivers mean, the shoulders nonexistent, the crowds pressing, the campgrounds fairly low quality and the main attractions Disneyesque. (I.e., we declined the ferry ride to Maria Island National Park as they wanted $50 for a round trip ticket -- it's a 45 minute boat trip!)

Arrival in Hobart does not mean an end to the trip however -- just an end to major combat operations, I'd say. We still plan to pedal for another 10 days or so, but from here it will be just two and three day loops. We've sort of run out of road to pedal.

We are also, incidentally, at nearly the halfway point -- six month mark -- of our trip. On Jan. 23 we fly from Sydney to Bali and begin six months in Asian and Africa.

We are now in the final stages of buying the remaining portions of our around the world plane tickets. We are using Airtreks, and the process has been frustratingly slow. But so far, the package goes something like this: Bangkok -- Mauritius -- Madagascar -- Dubai -- Tunis -- Malta -- London -- Atlanta, arriving in ATL July 15. Total cost is about $3600 per person.


I took Steven Hatcher's advice and we've splurged on a few bottles of wine. Tasmania has the best pinot noirs I've ever had, and they are fairly priced, too. Yesterday, Laura took me to the Tasmanian Wine Centre, an odd sort of retail store/warehouse in Hobart where they have most Tassie wines and all sorts of single bottle closeouts and cellared wines at original prices.

Tasmania has about 50 producers spread across five main grape growing areas. Two standouts so far include:

Orani Tasmania 2004 Pinot Noir: Sorrell, Tas., $14, 12.2% alcohol. Many wines here have surprisingly low alcohol ratings, but that has not hurt the taste at all.

Bream Creak 2004 Tasmania Pinot Noir: Bream Creek, Tas., $15, 13.8% alcohol. Another small producer from the south end of the island, in the Coal Valley appellation area.

Others tastings:

Rothburg Estate South East Australia Shiraz Cabernet -- made in Victoria
Windy Peak 2008 Victoria Pinot Noir -- from the De Bortroli family mini-empire
Five Judges 2007 Shiraz -- from New South Wales

Laura and I both just finished Maria Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat. Breathtaking.

Other reads include:
Cat's Crade, by Kurt Vonnegut
Washington Square, by Henry James
Below Another Sky, by Rick Ridgeway (nothing like a whining hyprcrite to put everything in perspective)
and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner -- beautiful and incomprehensible