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The State We’re In » Culture

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Civil War

Tuesday, July 5th, 2005

As long as John is intent on starting a war, I should point out that, as with Iraq II, the motives for John’s have been misrepresented. In my defense, the conversation at the Opera House went more like:

“Matt, wanna get a picture here?”
“Nah, there are a ton of people swarming the steps now, it’s ok.”
“You sure? How will you remember Sydney without a picture of you at the Opera House.”
“I don’t need a picture to prove I was here, that’s not really why I travel.”

If that still makes me an arrogant ass or a travel snob, oh well, I stand by it. And I still don’t think it justified John cutting me out of all the group photos for the rest of the day.

Secondly, John’s actions at the bar occured on the night of the 3rd, so if John was infused with anything prompting him to make <i>extremely</i> questionable decisions concerning the locals, it certainly wasn’t “the domineering spirit of The Fourth Of July.” Whatever it was, at least it didn’t stop him from demanding to see this poor girl’s license. If she hadn’t proven to him that she was indeed 20, I think Joe and I would have had an apoplectic John on our hands when the girl’s father came to pick her up at midnight. (Louis had gone home earlier, after John’s girl attempted to hook him up with her 15 year old friend. Seriously, 15 year olds at bars, not cool) As it was, I think it still may have scared some sense into the kid. On second thought, probably not.

On a less antagonistic note: We’d all like to see some more comments up here. We’d love to know who’s actually reading this.

Bats are Bugs

Monday, July 4th, 2005

Joe has called dibs on the Sydney post, but I am exercising sovereignty over my birthday and recounting the festivities here:

After enjoying our first opportunity to sleep in since Fiji, we headed to tour downtown and see the opera house, which is much less white than it always seems in pictures. John and I agreed that it looks like a jumble of conquistador helmets left behind by a race of 250ft tall Spaniards. From the opera house we spotted a battleship coming into the harbor that we thought was flying the stars and stripes, but wasn’t. We debated its nationality for a good 30 minutes before deciding to follow the coastline through the botanical gardens towards the naval yard to get a better look. After a bit, we rounded a point and found not only the battleship, but an aircraft carrier bristling in the slanted tails of F/A-18s. We are the only country that flies F/A-18s, so that settled it. All told, there were 4 American ships in harbor. It looked like Bush may have been planning to make Australia the next US colony for a big Independence Day surprise.

On the walk back through the gardens, Joe regaled us with tales of giant bats terrorizing the skies of the gardens. Of course, none of us believed him until suddenly, there was a terrible roar all around us, and the sky was full with what looked like huge bats. (EDIT: “and the sky was full of what looked like giant bats.” Venerable Hunter S. Thompson didn’t blowhis brains out in front of his kids to be misquoted by some punk-ass twenty-somethings. -JF-) One nearly carried off Louis’s head. It weighed at least 20 pounds. Louis was a bit shaken up after that and wouldn’t even let Joe and I suspend him upside down in front of a tree full of hundreds of them for a photo op.

In the evening we went out to dinner in an area that Joe neglected to tell us was essentially Sydney’s red light district, and was crawling with sailors on shore leave. After dinner we were a little unnerved by the whole scene and all for heading back downtown on the double. All of us, that is, except Louis who suggested we “hook up with some Navy guys.” (Disclaimer: That quote is woefully out of context, but that hasn’t stopped us from making fun of Louis for his poor word choice all the same.) After getting back downtown we finished the evening with some barhopping that produced some spectacular stories I am not at liberty to put down here. The paragon of virtue I am, none of these stories involved me, I assure you. All in all, Sydney is a great place to kick off my 22nd year.

Happy 4th, and here’s to hoping Bush doesn’t replace O’Connor with a Tomas de Torquemada.

“I must uneasy make lest too light winning/make the prize light.” -The Tempest I.ii

Saturday, July 2nd, 2005

Frustration is such a dastardly word. It is not nearly as bad as, say, disappointment, anger, misery or failure, but a dastardly word all the same. Frustration is the feeling which creeps up on you from behind when you realize that sometimes there is a far better solution to your problems than can be readily offered to you because your achievement of your goals is blocked by stupidity, callousness, inefficiency, or in our case, a seven hundred acre glacier.

While our time in New Zealand has been flecked with myriad trivial frustrations, finding that your hostel offers free internet access only during their busiest hours of the day, that a particularly desirable rafting excursion carries a $450 price tag, that a lone police-man with a radar gun and a ticket pad waits on the country’s single stretch of straight-to-the-horizon desert road, that your booking for a private four bed hostel room has been “lost” by management who, instead, have placed you in a six-person room with a mute Japanese student and a Consumptive Dutch work-transfer applicant, these trifles seem to be mere ripples in the calm teal waters of Milford Sound. Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a falsity. The Sound itself is one of the great natural gems of the earth, but, like Prospero in the quote above, God has clearly seen fit to assure that the travelers who venture out to seek it appreciate it that much more for the journey. Frustration then, is embodied by the ten-hour 600km trip out and back, only to look at a map realizing that you have traveled no more than 50 km as the crow flies.

The onerous task of getting to the Sound was allayed only by the professed natural and unique beauty of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, a jagged and wrinkly frosting of glaciers and mountains coating the west coast of South Island. And this came to be true. Words and pictures can do little to do the Park justice. Mile-high peaks jut forth from pristinely calm, cold waters. Milford Sound, originally called Milford Haven by its discoverer (I only have “Vasco da Milford ????” written down in my notes. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his name), was named because it offered respite from a hellacious rainstorm out in the Tasman Sea in 1780-something. And to this day that remains true. A large mountainous outcropping called Abel’s Rock protects the sound from the sea, and has since created several fascinating phenomena within. The preternaturally calm waters have created a 3m deep reservoir of fresh water which rests upon the sea in the Sound for many days following any rain shower. Rare black-speckled bottle nosed dolphins have migrated from out in the open seas to the calmer fresh waters in the Sound, and following them have come intrepid sea-kayakers who, drawn by the chance to play with the dolphins, all too often take their rickety fiberglass and plastic contraptions out beyond Abel’s Rock and into the 3-5m swells of the furious Tasman Sea beyond. It should come as no surprise that the voracious sea has developed quite an appetite for petulant sea-kayakers to the tune of several per year. Finally, there are the tourists who sally forth from lumbering coach buses onto the waiting sight-seeing cruises.

Meanwhile they were discussing the pressing philosophical issues of the day: the shocking differences between the McDonald’s restaurants in Auckland and Topeka, the quaint and floral characteristics of New Zealand’s plastic currency, and comparisons of their greenstone faux-Maori tribal necklaces. The four of us gushed at the 80m high glacial waterfalls (they gushed about the free coffee and tea below-decks), and asked one of our crew-members about the likelihood of spotting any yellow-banded penguins–the 2nd most rare species of bird in the world.

The views were spectacular, and the trip was once-in-a-lifetime. Can any one of us say that we regretted the trip? I doubt it. Despite its frustrations, our journey was such a success that we completely forgot about our 5 hour trip home. And that we had almost completely run out of gasoline.

Queenstown, NZ

…Maybe you’ve heard of us. We’re kind of a big deal around here

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

New Zealand is an odd cookie to say the least. Strange welcomings seem to be our par for the course though.

This country is at the moment playing host to the National Rugby team of the United Kingdom. The Lions of England, Ireland, Scottland and Wales as I am told share a bond of mutual disgust akin only to the blood-feud fought lo these past hundred years by the Sox and the Bronx Bombers. While there seems to be no local sland to rival the jeers of “A-Rod has AIDS” and “Jeter blows” to say that there is a tension betweent he two countries’ rugby teams is an understatement of epic proportions.

For this very reason we were shocked to see the Lions’ banner plastered on every surface in Auckland Int’l airport. Not only that, but the unwary passenger was more likely than not to bump into signs of “New Zealand welcomes the British Lions and their fans” posted every twelve feet along the baggage retrieval corridors. Call me a pessimist, but my first reaction was to envision the first event which necessitated these signs. It went something like this…
Lions fans walks off the plane fresh from a 20+ hour plane trip dressed keenly in his British reds jersey and scarf. Two minutes later an audaciously young Kiwi janitor or ticket agent sneaks up behind him and knocks him out cold.

Could this actually have happened? I mean, come on. That being said, some day, just some day, I’d love to see signs of “Welcome Red
Sox fans. Your first central park Hot dog and handsome cab ride is on me. kisses, George Steinbrenner.”
I. Don’t. Think. So.

We watched the game from a backpackers bar below our hostel. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the ex-pat and GI’s bar from the Hanoi scene of Full Metal Jacket. The applause for the home team was lackluster at best. Disappointing considering that the All Blacks were playing in a tempestuous HAIL STORM. Even the most die-hard Vikings fan can’t relate to that.

As a Point of order, I’d like to wish my father a happy father’s day for what I thought was tomorrow’s father’s day. Looks like I blew it again. and I can’t even blame the time difference on this one.

Dad, hope things are well at home.

Pictures are still forthcoming. We can’t find anywhere willing to kick some free wireless down to my laptop.
Sit Tight and be resourceful. I know you’re up to it.

As for everyone else, hope the summer is all you hoped for. Keep the four of us posted.

Auckland, NZ


Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

We arrived in Nadi early (the only city in Fiji with an international airport) in the morning and quickly travelled to the main street. We took the local bus and it was packed. It was full and we had to stand. I swear that every eye on the bus was looking at us. Anyway, we got to the main street and there wasn’t too much to do there. We walked across the length of it in 10 minutes.

The highlight of Nadi was the Hindu tremple, which we promptly desecrated in our ignorance. About a 1/3 of the population is Hindu (Indians from India), 1/3 is christian, and 1/3 is Fijian. The walls and celiings of the hindu temple were hand painted and the architecture was beautifual especially compared to the other buildings in the main street. The worshippers we saw were carrying food to the altars, and all were respectfully dressed and barefoot. We didn’t realize that our dress and sandles were desecrating the temple until the manager came over to us. But I guess that would explain the dirty looks we got. We walked through to the tourist entrance for a tour(we came in through the local entrance) and were told it would cost us money to see what we just saw. So we left.

At the beach house there are several daily activities–making coconut jewelery, Bula massages, snorkeling, horse back riding, afternoon tea, kaykaing, and jungle treks. I liked the jungle trek best. It started through the village with crooked bamboo uprights for the rugby goalposts. I saw some plants whose leaves contract when you touch them just like a Venus fly trap does. The guide, nephew to the village chief, also pointed out several herbal medicines that the villagers regularly use. We followed the river past the swinging vinews (like tarzan!), past the bamboo groves, past the natural fish poison leaves, to a small waterfall. WE climbed alongside it to the top,c areful to avoid the snakes, spiders, and long centipedes. I’ve also seen some other cool wildlife on the coral reef. There was a royal blue starfish, a bright, neon-blue fish, and a yellow-striped fish that zoomed by.

Yesterday the four of us had our first taste of kava–a native Fijian drink that acts as a local anasthetic. Drink enough of it and your whole mouth will grow numb. I had my first kava before I saw how it was prepared. Kava leaves our tossed into a permeable bag which is submerged in a large bowl of water. The leaves are then squeezed as if they were a towel to be rung out. Soon the water turns a murky brown color; it looks like dirty water. If you come to Fiji though, you have to drink it–the native Fijians do so religiously. Anyway, this is the first non-cloudy night in Fiji. I’m looking forward to seeing the southern stars for the first time.

Navola, Fiji

The Beachouse

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

I would never presume to attempt a post as entertaining as John’s, but the task of relating the wonders of Fiji has fallen upon me, so I will do my best.

I began composing this update lounging in a hammock on the beach of our second residence in Fiji, a “luxury backpacker’s resort” called The Beachouse. As I swing here bathed in the glow of the setting sun and cooled by a gentle island breeze, the only blemish on an otherwise perfect moment is the incessant barking of Molly, the local dog. Compared to our first hotel, near the Nadi airport, this place is paradise, and I suspect it will compare favorably to everywhere else we visit on this trip as well.

For F$25/night (approx $15US) we are sleeping in a 5 person room in a little beachfront bungalow. The Ritz this isn’t, but it has decent beds and a private beach. The resort is packed, so we are sharing our room with a kid from Colorado on his way back from study abroad in New Zealand. Everyone here is under 30, and the environment is that of a perpetual, but incredibly laid back, spring break. That kind of thinking is certainly fostered by the F$2.75 (~$1.25US) beers during happy hour.

We have spent the majority of our time during the day basking in the sun, reading, and throwing a frisbee around on the beach. At night (the sun goes down around 6pm) we move to the Coconut Cafe (the social hub of the resort) for dinner, drinks, card games, and conversation with the Aussies, Kiwis and Brits who have us far outnumbered here. Surprisingly, we have not been made pariahs, and apart from two unprovoked attacks on John and I on two separate occasions for “bastardizing the English language,” it has been great to spend time with non-Americans and get inundated with advice from fellow travelers on what we need to do for the rest of our journey. For more on that, see John’s earlier post about advice… It’s all the same.

Highlights of The Beachouse so far:
1) I am finally (for the second time) a certified diver! The diving here is not as good as in Hawaii or the Bahamas, but I did see a pod of dolphins today, which was great.
2) The other guys went on a hike to a waterfall further inland that they really enjoyed, but I was diving so I missed out.
3) For the first time in the lifetime of our friendship, I have seen John actually apalled by something. For any of you who may need to upset him in the future, just bring up the use of dead babies in drug smuggling, he was on the verge of tears. (Disclaimer: This conversation was initiated and perpetuated by a group of Brits sitting near us at the bar. I swear it did not originate in any of our imaginations.)

Honorable Mention: Kava was a disappointment, but I feel like I should mention it. Imagine drinking muddy water mixed with lidocaine out of half a coconut and you have a good idea what kava was like.

Pictures will follow as soon as we get to Auckland. Fiji (the entire country) is only allocated 6Mbits of throughput (probably less than that of Ketchum, ID), so internet here is painfully slow and makes even checking email an arduous task, and posting any sort of pictures an impossibility.

Fiji Time

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

There is certainly something to be said for living life at one’s own pace.  The entire island of Fiji is not only enamored of this concept, but is, more accurately tied to it in profound and existential ways.
To wit: jet lag, such as it is found me up and out of bed at 5:30 this morning.  In the dead of winter, in a country with no Daylight Savings time, meant that it was of course, still in the dead of night.
I sat on the beach to watch the sun rise, and was shocked to see it hang on the horizon line for what was no fewer than 45 minutes.  Maybe the Sun was spending some leisure time in yesterday, uninterested, just as the Fijians seem to be about the pressing concerns of the near and distant future.
Kava, the natural and indigenous Narcotic beverage may be partially to blame.  The Four of us are being welcomed into a local village for an intricate, and unsurprisingly legthy Kava ceremony complete with ceremonial tribal gifts to boot.  More details after the jump.
I used my precious four hours of pre-day today to finish <i> High Fidelity</i>, nick Horby’s masterwork of over-wrought prose. Over-wrought prose. ha, who am I kidding.  Anyway, I spent the better part of today putting together my Top Ten Songs to Travel Around the World.  Here they are in no particular order:
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers - around the World
2. The doors - People Are Strange
3. The offspring - Gone Away
4. Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
5. Jackson Browne - Stay/ The Road
6. Simon and Garfunkle - Homeward Bound
7. Grateful Dead - Truckin’
8. 311 - Don’t Stay Home
9. They Might Be Giants - The World’s Address
10. Social Distortion - So Far away.

With a special Mention going to Pink Floyd - Us and Them, and <i> On the Road Again </i> by…Johnny Cash? Someone correct me on that one.  Feel free to add your own.  Matt, Joe and Louis are putting their lists together.

We have a ton of pictures but, surprise surprise, Fiji has yet to meet the high-speed internet Revolution.  Pictures to follow when we hit Auckland.

Kava not all it was cracked up to be.  Think of waiting all afternoon to ride Batman: The Ride at Six Flags, and coming to the front only to find yourself on line for the spinning swing-set on the cover of that awful DMB album.

As far as travel songs go, Mikey seems to be spot-on.

I should have known better than to have brought the music thing up, but my mother makes a good point, and PP&M does belong on the list. Whether it takes spot eleven or knocks an incumbent out is anyone’s guess.

Defining Moments

Friday, June 17th, 2005

There’s a moment on every trip when you recognize the tone that your travels will take. Fortunately (unfortunately?) we’ve been on the ground in Fiji for no more than five hours and already we’ve had 4.

Number One:
As you disembark from a Boeing 747-400, an airplane that could easily and comfortably house your entire freshman-year dorm, their families and their pets, you are greeted first not by immigration and customs agents, not by airline personnel, not by baggage handlers, but by a non-sectarian, yet vaguely religious string and kettle drum quartet singing songs of what we are convinced is the only native Fijian word necessary to become a citizen, or indeed to hold public office. “Bula,” the catch-all phrase for hello, goodbye, well wishes and “of course I’ll marry your daughter” has so pervaded society and street life here that it has sprouted its own cult of personality religion.

Number Two: Well against the judgement of our collective common sense, we four Ivy League graduates sought a trip into town on board island Viti Levu’s jewel of public transportation Fleet, The Westbus.

When pressed for comment, Joe could only use the words “ramshackle, death trap, like a one-way rocketship to Purgatory” to describe this heap. Bear in mind that Joe has an ScB in Mechanical Engineering. He’s an expert. Naught but by the grace of God did we bustle into Cosmopolitan downtown Nadi, the transportation capital of the Fiji islands.

Number Three:
Flights which touch down at 5:30 AM (2PM yesterday in body-time) have a naughty habit of playing havok with one’s appetite. We marched the main drag of Nadi-Town, willing to embrace anything that we could embrace as Fijian (pronounced Fee-GENE) national cuisine. Alas, we were bested by our hunger and stumbled into an unnamed curry shop. [[NB: There is a very strong Indian influence in Fiji and much of the South Pacific accounting for the pervasive cuisine and Bhangra radio programming.]]

We later found out that the courtyard which housed our curry shop was also the HQ for Fiji’s Surgeon General. Go figure.
$7 and four 9AM curry dinners later we looked at eachother and said “welcome.”

Number Four:
At the bottom of some unnamed alley we crouched up next to a fence of razor-wire to watch a Fijian pick-up soccer match. Somehow, the city-dwellers have mastered the subtle art of the silent walk, because from directly behind us came a hale and hearty “BULA! Yu like to watch football?”
A lesser man would have turned-tail and fled.
He was a teacher. It turns out that we were watching his students practice. Before long he was leading us along a rotting drainage ditch to an unmended hole in the razor-wire, and with it field level access. As we walked out to the field it was all that the players could have done to keep from stoppign their game to welcome us into the stands.

It is now quarter to Twelve in the morning. We have been here for five Hours. My ATM card doesn’t work, and the weather is going to top 100 degrees today.


Saturday, June 11th, 2005

It’s amazing. If you tell someone, anyone, a relative, friend, taxi driver, meter reader or supermarket stock boy, that you’re taking a trip around the world, they will invariably hear that as “please give me some unsolicited advice. I’ll bet I could use some.”
I have received suggestions ranging from the spectacular to the sublime.
As per all of your suggestions I am packing the following:
*Pepto-Bismol (because it’s illegal in W. Europe…thanks Laura)
*toilet paper (because you’ll never know where you need it)
*condoms (because once you leave the country, the indigenous prophylactics are good at leaving behind a trail of illegitimate and marginally legitimate offspring. Most of whom will not support you in your old age. They probably won’t even call on Father’s Day)
I have over the counter remedies for all of the following:
*nose allergies
*eye allergies
*bee allergies
*dry eyes
*athlete’s foot

In all likelihood I won’t even use half of them.
Thanks to all the advice, I have 80% expecation of getting mugged in 3 continents, 8 countries, 15 cities, and at least as many languages.

I have to beware of Indian street beggars (in child and elderly persuasions), Fijian sword vendors, Malayan drug dealers, Algerian ex-commandos, and unlicensed Thai cab drivers.

I have been told that Bangkok is simultaneously a “gem of the orient” and “the armpit of Southeast Asia.”

I have been told that plane travel will be “an absolute delight” and “an abject nightmare.”

The only piece of advice that I think will stick was related to me by our family friends, “John…be safe.”
Overshadowed only by “John, have you even been to a Turkish Prison?”

—Vasco Da Gama
—Day -2


Friday, June 10th, 2005

The easiest place to begin with, I guess, would be at the beginning. Six months ago.

I am pretty damn sure that I was not involved in the original decision, but Matt, Joe and I (John) found ourselves staring down the barrel of a combined sixty ounces of Ketchum, Idaho Prime Rib discussing the finer points of global travel in the year 2005. A motion had been made to follow this through to the end and see just where it would take us.

I am pretty damn sure that we each got a sick thrill from pointing at the world maps on the GCB walls knowing that in months, weeks and days we would be facing their tourist cities and fetid backwaters with what? The added gravity of a college diploma.

But origins are trite, and our itinerary is - umm, ambitious? Follow our travels and our exploits.

Equal parts Magellan, Cortes and Hunter S. Thompson, our journey will be marked with certain exploration, excitement, wonder, and terror.

These experiences we relate to you, here.

—Day -5