Travel, Art & Photography

USA & Mexico Part 3

St Cristobal is a charming place with the pedestrian-only streets in the centre and endless cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. From there, a couple of us went on a half-day excursion to the local villages and Chamula, a town which is mostly famous for its most unusual church. Unfortunately you couldn’t take any photos inside – a fact which was stressed to us over and over – and the descriptions don’t do it justice. Let’s just say that the church is a very bizarre blend of the pre-conquest Mayan and Christian traditions, and involves pine needles on the floor, hundreds of candles, and a chicken sacrifice.

It’s often the case when travelling that moving around from A to B is the worst part of the trip, so it wasn’t a surprise that the night bus from Oaxaca to St Cristobal was the low point for me. To my notions of hell, I can now add a bus which loops on winding mountain roads for hours, leaving me in nauseous misery. Also, five hours away from St Cristobal, some locals barricaded the road in a protest or other, and we got stuck in a giant traffic queue for 11 hours. At the very least, if you’re going to be trapped on a bus, this was a very comfortable bus to be stuck on, no complaints there. Plenty of leg room and seats that lean back so far you’re practically lying down.

Next up was Palenque, in the tropical part of Mexico, where we visited two beautiful waterfalls and saw the impressive Mayan ruins, in a lush and green setting that was strikingly different to the other sites. Our local guide there was a total star and told us heaps of interesting things about the Mayan culture (Mayan royalty for instance had their skulls deliberately elongated in childhood, to make them look more corn-shaped). By the end of the excursion, we got drenched in an epic rain which turned the ordinary steps into a cascading waterfall.

When in Merida, another day trip took us to a cenote, probably my favourite swimming spot on the trip, a relaxing cruise on the river spotting birds and crocodiles, and a pink lake near the salt mines (yep, it’s pink). Merida itself I probably just didn’t see enough of to appreciate; my most memorable experience there was trying blue cheese ice-cream on a blind pick.

After that, it was sadly the last day travelling to Playa del Carmen via the famous Chichen Itza site. I really appreciated how relatively quiet the other sites were; at Chichen Itza it was boom, dozens of giant buses, hundreds of tourists and hat sellers everywhere. The site however is beautiful and genuinely impressive, and its sheer area absorbs the large crowds quite well. Playa del Carmen… not really my kind of place. Super-touristy, loud, and overpriced. I was sorry to say goodbye to our group, but not that sorry about not staying longer in Playa.

USA & Mexico Part 2

Mexico trip was a blast; I loved the places we visited and while I almost never had a bad group on my organised trips, our group in Mexico was probably the most fun one and just a great bunch of people. We started in Mexico City, which I wished I could have spent more time in as it felt like I only scratched the surface. Or maybe not, because, as I realised only a few days before, Mexico City is 2,250 m above the sea level, which means altitude sickness and its lovely symptoms like increased motion sickness and feeling bloated. Anyway, the highlight for me was visiting Casa Azul, The Frida Kahlo Museum, where she and Diego Rivera lived and which is dedicated to her life and works. There weren’t that many actual Frida Kahlo paintings, but it’s still a must-visit for any Frida fan (and I so want her colourful kitchen).

In Puebla, I got to see Mexican wrestling, which was awesome and super-cheesy, and one of the most ornate churches I’ve ever seen (gold, gold, and more gold). The bright-coloured buildings in the town centre are just gorgeous, and while in the Artist Quarter I dared to taste crunchy and spicy fried crickets. This and the cactus were some of the more exotic food things I tried in Mexico.

Oaxaca was probably my favourite city; I loved exploring the big covered local market and the central pedestrian-only street has nice cafes, art/craft galleries and boutiques. While in Oaxaca, we also had a long day trip, going to the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Alban and getting acquainted with the several varieties of mezcal. The hike to Hierve el Agua, the petrified waterfalls, was a bit of a killer for an unfit person like myself, but totally worth it as the rock formations are just amazing. We also had a chance to swim in the natural infinity pools nearby, but I chickened out on the account of late chilly evening and just enjoyed the stunning scenery. On the way back, our local guide serenaded us on the mike with traditional Mexican songs, and a few people including myself had a go as well – I sang what I could remember of Dark Eyes, which is probably the most famous traditional Russian romance song.

I studied Spanish for a few months about eight years ago and this trip might inspire me to take it up again. As it was, I could understand a few stray phrases and words here and there, but my vocabulary is just too limited to get by.

USA & Mexico Part 1

This whole trip happened because of a very special event: the 25th Anniversary Bash for the Ultima Dragons, the internet fan club devoted to the Ultima role-playing game series whose member I’ve been for close to 20 years. I travelled to Vietnam last year and I didn’t anticipate another trip overseas so soon after, but when I heard that a celebration was to be held in Anaheim, I decided almost instantly that I wanted to come. Flying to USA and back again from Australia is quite an ordeal, so to make the most of it I also tacked on an organised trip to Mexico; I’ve never been to Central or South America so I thought I’d start with USA’s closest neighbour.

The Anniversary Bash was one of the most memorable and incredible things I’ve been to in my life and I’m so happy I made it. I had so much fun hanging around with the fellow Dragons, most of whom I met face-to-face for the first time, and celebrating our passion for all things Ultima. It felt surreal, having a long-time hobby that you couldn’t really talk about to anyone in real life, and then be surrounded by people who totally get it and are happy to discuss the most obscure Ultima things.

Another part of the fun was visiting Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks. Because of my acute motion sickness I could only watch other people scream in terror as they spun and plunged on their rides, but even walking around the parks was good fun. Disneyland changed a lot since I’ve been there last, and of course Star Wars stuff is now everywhere. Why they kept the It’s a Small World ride is anyone’s guess, I still have nightmares about it 16 years on.

I also had a few days to myself in LA, which I spent in a relaxed manner without cramming in much sightseeing. The one exception was a very busy organised day trip to see the countryside (very lush and green at this time of year), and visit Santa Barbara, Solvang and Hearst Castle. Other than myself there were only two other passengers, and our guide had a huge wealth of knowledge about LA and California. I got a taste of the everyday LA traffic, which is frankly insane.

Solvang is a touristy but cute-as-a-button town originally settled by the Danish, with the quaint architecture and a bakery on every corner (I had a Danish, naturally). Hearst Castle is the former estate of William Randolph Hearst, whose life story was the main inspiration for Citizen Kane, and is basically a testament to what millions of dollars can buy. Our excellent guide there had an amusing habit of referring to Hearst in a present tense. After the castle, we made an unscheduled stop at the beach where elephant seals hang around after the mating season, which was very cool.

While in LA, I stumbled on a unique museum called the Museum of Broken Relationships, which was too weird not to investigate. It turned out to be a pretty moving experience – it exhibited personal items donated by the people from around the world, accompanied by a story about a broken relationship. Mostly romantic ones, but also familial, friendships, breaking away from their religion, all laid out in a clean and elegant space completely at odds with the trashy Hollywood Boulevard. I could have done without a collection of pubic hair and navel lint, but having the objects next to the stories really made the memories feel more tangible.

The Broad art museum in Downtown LA was worth spending 45 minutes in a queue for, and had an excellent collection of mostly American contemporary art – Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein.

Townsville

Spent four days up in Queensland, in a place where every day was reliably hot and sunny without crazy temperature drops we have to endure here in Melbourne. Though on the plus side, we don’t have to worry about crocodiles and six varieties of stingers. It was rather weird to see beautiful palm-fringed beaches with beautiful warm water… except you couldn’t swim anywhere outside of the official netted areas.

Townsville is a nice place, with gorgeous old colonial buildings in the town centre and lovely sea promenade with lush tropical greenery. Honestly, palm trees just make everything look 200% better. We however also spent some time exploring the surrounds, including the Magnetic Island just across from Townsville, Paluma Range National Park, and a 3-hour drive further up north to the Paronella Park and Mission Beach in the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

Things seen on the road: lots and lots of army trucks and vehicles (there’s a military base near the town), endless sugar cane fields, and one stupid big lizard we almost ran over.

Vietnam Week 2

We stayed in Hoi An for three nights, and it was totally worth it: it’s an incredibly pretty place, especially enchanting at night. We did another countryside excursion on the second day, this time on a mountain bike. By the end of the trip, I felt like some parts of me might never be the same again, but it was a fun day out. Among other things, we got to make our own rice noodles for lunch.

I’ve never heard of Nha Trang before, and it turned out to be a coastal resorty place, full of Russian tourists. It was bizarre seeing Russian signage and menus everywhere. We had a full day boat trip on the bay, including snorkelling which unfortunately I didn’t get to do since I can’t see much without my glasses. The water however was lovely and warm, and I really tried to squeeze in as much sunbathing and swimming as possible before coming back to Melbourne and the impending winter.

Once in Ho Chi Minh City (our group leader never called it so, preferring the old name of Saigon), I finally gathered enough courage to try the frog. It tasted kinda like chicken and caused many Kermit jokes around the table. I really liked the city and its wide shaded boulevards, even if the street traffic here was at its most intimidating to cross.

Vietnam Week 1

I’m back from my two-week trip to Vietnam, and it’s amazing how quickly the rubber band snaps right back and the whole thing feels like a dream. Thankfully, there are photos to remind of all the good times had. It was a big success all-around: great group and leader, a wide variety of experiences, yummy food. The weather was humid and got progressively hotter as we went further south, but other than sweating like a piggie I bore it surprisingly well. The only real low point came when I ate something dodgy couple of hours before boarding the overnight train. Food poisoning and bumpy Vietnamese train and me with my motion sickness… let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. It’s probably a karma payback for all those times in Egypt and India when I was almost the only person in the group without tummy troubles.

Hanoi is not the prettiest of cities, to be honest, and the pollution level was the worst of the entire trip, but the Old Quarter is rather exciting and chaotic to walk around, with good food places and people watching. We spent half a day getting a crash course in the history of Ho Chi Minh, who I didn’t even realise was a real person (yes, my knowledge of Vietnam’s history was non-existent). Also got a crash course in crossing the streets lorded by the mopeds, cars and bikes with no traffic lights in sight. Hint: really can’t afford to be timid. Avoid the fast-moving vehicles and stop the slower ones with the power of your hand.

Ha Long Bay is as beautiful and impressive as the travel brochures suggest, even with the occasional pieces of garbage floating by. We had an overnight stay there on a junk boat, and a kayak expedition in the morning, enjoying the peace and quiet and the eerie misty beauty.

Had a motorbike tour of the countryside in Hue. I was a bit nervous beforehand, as I’ve been at the back of the motorbike once before and found it terrifying, mostly because of lack of control. I’m obviously more chilled with age now – after about a minute of trepidation the ride was enormous fun.

Going through the Hai Van Pass was an interesting experience. On the way up, the weather was overcast and the fog was as thick as milk, but as soon as we went down towards Da Nang, it was as if someone installed some kind of cloud stopper: perfect visibility and blue skies.