Category Archives: ‘mind the gap’ journey 08-09

Gritters, stoats, and nature’s Prozac

There was something deliciously ironic about the situation. After 14 months of sauntering through the world with surprising ease and few time pressures, I found myself stuck in a Ford Transit somewhere outside East Croydon, late for dinner with a friend. I had covered two miles in the past hour. Continue reading

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Minding the Gap – a life’s work

It was on the way out of Washington DC when I first saw the ad looming up from the side of the Freeway.

“MARRIED PEOPLE EARN MORE MONEY.
Marriageworksusa.com.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to think – the barefaced appeal to commercial self interest was, I have to admit, a little shocking. Middle America is surprisingly full of (often privately-funded) adverts for organisations like this (often torn apart on the internet by well-argued pieces like this).

I was tickled, therefore, when we finally arrived in New York City later that day, to meet two sassy urban girls who sheepishly told us that there are plenty of people in New York that are living proof that married people really do earn more money. The going rate for helping someone to procure a Green Card through a sham marriage is, apparently, 10,000 dollars.

And not uncommon.

Oy vey Oy vey… New York, New York

It’s in the nature of big cities to detach themselves from their host country and establish an identity of their own. None does this better than New York.

Our drive across middle America, for instance, had proved that the central states can be a little sleepy – even soporific at times. In sharp contrast New York, meanwhile, truly is the city that never sleeps.

But there are other differences – as we sat having one last drink with a middle-aged woman in SoHo’s amazing Balthazar bar, conversation turned to the nature of this global city.

“Oh yeah, six months in New York, and you’re an honorary Jew,” our garrulous acquaintance told us in her classic New York Jewish accent. “Come owan! The Empire State’s even lit up blue and white for Chanukah…”

And it’s true – Jewish influence pervades the city. Michael Bloomberg, mayor since 2001, even renamed one of the ten avenues that slice the city top to bottom as “Yitzhak Rabin Avenue”.

Given that this journey has enabled me to experience a number of the world’s faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism (Tibetan and Chan), Sikhism – it seemed apt that the second last night of my trip should be spent in a deeply celebrating Hanukkah in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family, friends of Justin’s cousins. The sense of a tight, family-based community was palpable.

The contrast with the middle states couldn’t be more stark, where we had heard all kind of subtle and insidious slights directed at Judaism – and indeed any other non-Christian religion – with an alarming frequency. The pervasive nature of Christianity here over four weeks has been one of the surprises of the trip, way beyond expectations.

“Return”

I’m now back in London, 13 months after arriving in Bombay. The last month driving across the US has been a fantastic way to set in context some of the changes I’ve seen across the world in the last year. That will take a while to process.

It has been a privilege to share the road-trip with someone else – Justin and I met briefly in India in late 2008, stayed in touch by email, and it happened to work out that we both had the time for this journey. That’s travelling for you. The month has been packed with experiences that many would give their right arm for.

* * * *

A few years ago, someone said to me “Mind the gap between the life you’re leading and the one you want to lead.” This year has been all about closing that gap. In that sense I feel I’m at the start, not the end, of a journey.

Lots has changed. Nothing has changed. But one thing’s for sure – what I’ve done and seen in 2009 is now part of me. And that’s a Good Thing.

A blogging intermission is now definitely in order. So, for the last time for a while…

Toodle pip!

Andy

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The pros and cons of roadtripping

“I hate being late. It’s just one of my things…” said  Justin.

Drive 5000 miles across America with someone on a road-trip and you get to know them pretty well. Speed, I had discerned, most definitely was one of Justin’s “things”. Our encounter with the Texan judge had done nothing to deter him from his desire to live life in the fastest lane. We were now in North Carolina, and still travelling at speeds that even Jensen Button would baulk at.

As the familiar flashing lights and siren appeared out of nowhere, I had a strange sense of déjà vu…. 

“D’y’all know the laws in this state?”

The politeness card was played again. “No officer, we’re from England and I know I was driving too fast, I‘m terribly sorry…”

And trumped. “I gotta tell ya, at that speed, y’all’re goin’ t’jail.”

Gulp. There was something worryingly serious about this guy. Pause. Long pause. There was only one thing for it. Justin pulled out the Ace in the pack – the “School play” defence.

“Umm, officer, I’m so sorry, but we were heading to a school play at the Nags Head Elementary… I know we were driving too fast, but we woke up a bit late, and we’re really sorry…”

Bizarrely, this was in fact legitimate. The night before we had indeed met a troupe of childrens’ actors and actresses and really were heading for their performance at a local school.

None of this however cut the mustard with the officer involved, who played his Joker – a pair of handcuffs. 
The rest of the tale is too long and convoluted for this blog; suffice to say it involved a trip to the Dare County Detention Center, a bail bond, a 24-hour wait for the court case, a friendly magistrate, another reduced fine, and much wiping of brows.

And no school play. 

The pros and cons of Road tripping (with apologies to Roger Waters)

If encounters with the legal system of the USA have constituted one part of the road-trip experience, the people who we’ve met have played no less a part.

Anger has brewed up in lots of different ways – since the last post, we’ve come across Scott from Alabama who was ready to use his fifty stock-piled AK47s to take the battle to those he thinks are destroying his country by backing off from continual confrontation; and East-coasters Ted and Tony in North Carolina who were more sanguine, but no less depressed about the future here. It’s really not at all clear what comes next. But it’s unlikely to be pretty for quite a while. Lots to think about.

Travel brings its own rewards though, and the kindness we’ve encountered along the way will live long in the memory – sleeping in sofas in Venice Beach LA, staying four days on a yacht in Charleston courtesy of Cap’n Will at the local yacht school, scoring great deals in great hotels. (No jail cells, despite Justin’s best efforts).

5.500 miles on the road has allowed for aural pleasure (please be careful at this point if reading this blog aloud), with music ranging from classic Americana to Indian Kirtan to African beats to bizarre Scottish eighties underground bands. We’ve even heard and made friends with a musical star of the future – you heard it here first – John W Lee is going to be BIG. Click here for his music.

The prize for soundtrack to the trip though goes to Johnny Cash – click here for “I’ve been everywhere”.

I write this from Washington DC, and head tomorrow for New York, the last stop before hopping over the Atlantic to check on the UK, 400 days after I left heading East in November last year. Should be interesting.

Toodle pip!

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Texan stereotypes – and light and dark in the Big Easy

It was what you might call a Texan stand-off. Justin, my partner on this trip of trips had just turned into my partner-in-crime. Lulled into a meditative state by the endless grasslands by the side of the open road, he had failed to notice the needle creep up to 97 mph.

The blue and red flashing lights of a black and white saloon appeared in Justin’s rear-view mirror. He eased the car onto the hard shoulder, trying to calm my fraying nerves.

The driver-side window framed State Trooper Roberts’ impassive face perfectly. The Texan sun glinted menacingly off his Rayban sunglasses. Images from “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV series flickered through my mind. Trooper Roberts made us aware of the error of our ways in that familiar Texan drawl, but it was impossible to detect any hint of emotion in his official words. Might the God of leniency be on our side?

“Suuur, you were doing nahnty sehven maaahles an haaaahr. We gotta take you to see the JUUUUDGE.”

I was alarmed. This was alarming. There were alarm bells ringing. “Juust follow me, Okaaay?“

Two fraught miles later, we pulled in outside the Judge’s office in Clarendon, Donley County, TX. My alarm dissipated, as the judge put her own Texan drawl to work. While keen to impress on us the severity of the crime, she also turned out to be just as interested in discussing the challenges of cotton farming, and getting back to the washing from which she’d been rudely dragged away.

“What d’ya think, Trooper? Should we give these guys a break?”

Thankfully, Trooper Roberts took our side, explaining in effusive terms how polite we (well Justin, really) had been. In an admirable display of Texan kindness, the fine was halved and we were on our way.

Those Stetson Stereotypes

It was Jeremy Paxman in his book “The English” who pointed out that, uncomfortable as it may seem,  stereotypes tend to exist for a reason. Namely that there’s more than an element of truth to them.

Texas is a state that can’t help but live up to its stereotype.

From real cowboys in the Amarillo Stockyard auctions to state Trooper Roberts and his generosity the image of a rough tough people with big hearts has been splendidly confirmed. Even at Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk in Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards district (which given the gratuitous use of the word “Historic” you might expect to be a touristy mush), we were confronted with delightfully intense Stetson-clad couples indulging in a spot of line dancing. I briefly considered starting a conversation with  one of the tougher-looking cowboys with the line “Has anyone told you that you look like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain?”, but decided against it. I would like to see my family in Scotland at least once more before I die.

For Thanksgiving, we had another dose of the legendary hospitality that is Texas. In Colorado, we had crossed paths with a young couple from Dallas. I mentioned that we were going to be in the area for the day of Thanksgiving. In no time, we had an invitation to spend it with his evangelical preacher father and his 15-strong family.   There are places where Americans worry about the heritage of Thanksgiving. Not in Texas. It was a dinner which gave us a real insight into how far the Church permeates the lives of many families here.

Freedom Fries

With a history which includes a period of independence in the early 19th century, the locals in the huge state of Texas are proud of what they see as hard-won freedoms.

And right now, there’s a bunch of them that think they may have to fight for those freedoms again.

Take Greg for instance. We met him in a bar in Fort Worth, a former cowboy town now hardly distinguishable from the urban sprawl of Dallas.

Greg was angry.

Having lost his engineering job with Halliburton, he had managed to ease the pain by indulging in a three-week Ollie-Reed-style bender, and a quickfire affair with a 19-year-old girl whose fiancee was overseas with the army (yes, it was complicated). Strangely, Halliburton wasn’t the object of his anger. The anger was reserved for the politicians.

“We waana buury our politicians in our backYAAARDS!” he told us with piercing eyes. “Haver you heard of the noo Tea Party guys? Ah’m one of ’em! We was on the streets with fifteen thousand others laaast week!” Given the speed at which we were careering along Fort Worth main Street in his pick-up truck, I felt rather as if I might end up in a backyard.

With Steve Earle‘s “Copperhead Road“ (an anthem for disaffection) still booming in my ears the following morning, I jumped onto google. All was confirmed. There’s an undeniably fundamentalist streak to their manifesto, which echoed another movement that I’d seen on the streets of Denver – “End the Fed”. They’re arranging events on the streets inspired by the former Republican candidate Ron Paul’s recent book calling for the re-establishment of “sound money for America”. In Denver, the leafleteers walked the pedestrian malls with faces covered behind bandanas.

Even the quiet, kind Christian family that hosted us for Thanksgiving in Dallas talked of the potential for “civil disobedience” (when things “go against God’s law”) and a coming Cultural Civil war. It would be fair to say that Obama is “unloved” in these parts.

While these are all isolated examples, they are not unique. Part of the purpose behind this roadtrip was to get away from the easy attitudes of the East and West coasts and see the deep interior of America. And since leaving the sea a fortnight ago, we have rarely got into a taxi or met someone in a bar who hasn’t swung the conversation round to the disgruntlement they feel at what they see as the government’s interventionist agenda.

How mainstream Americans come to terms with the shifting sands at the top of the global pecking order will be fascinating to watch. It’s hard not to contrast American bewilderment with the growing confidence I saw in China earlier in the year. More on that in due course.

N’Orleans – a tonic for the Soul

Eight hours after leaving Dallas, we arrived in New Orleans, the Big Easy. Armed with recommendations for how to make the most of this incredibly vibrant city, 48 hours here have whizzed by. The contrast with Texas and Colorado has been stark. The sense of energy permeating the streets is infectious – the idea of sleeping suddenly seems faintly ridiculous.

I was lucky enough to join one of the huge parades here yesterday, venturing into areas of the town where the positivity of the bands and the thousands of people dancing on the streets obscures the occasional dilapidated building that serves as a dark reminder of the tragedy of Katrina in 2005. (A journalist I met on the parade published these fabulous pictures).

Justin didn’t quite make the parade – his mega-metabolism sustained him through to 9.30am imbibing with the Nowhere chapter of the freak/mutant/punk Black Label Bike Club. New Orleans being a village, we bumped into them again last night. Their incredible Tall Bikes and activist attitude are imbued with a strange mix of hope and despair. The BLBC (see this video) represent a dark, but somehow more creative, response to America’s dilemma here. Words just ain’t their style.

We are now in Alabama, where we’ve already met the archetypal large-scary-man-who’s-stockpiled-50-AK47s. Another fascinating experience. But that can wait for another day.

Toodle pip!

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LA stories, Arizona space, and Songs of the Open Road

After 367 days on the right side of the world map (Euro-centric ones at least), I returned to the left side aboard a flight from Auckland to Los Angeles last week.

Since the flight conveniently coincided with my birthday, I had a total of 44 hours to contemplate the transition into my 39th year – the first sixteen hours with friends in Auckland, twelve turning back time on the plane, and seventeen in Los Angeles and San Diego. It has been a remarkable twelve months.

The last 33 days of this journey will take me – and a friend, Justin, who I met in India two weeks into my trip – on a Road trip from Los Angeles in the West to New York in the East. Our route (click here for a map) will take us through 16 states, mostly in the South.

It wasn’t long after leaving LA that we came across the first mammoth trains and huge trucks that criss-cross this country on a daily basis, a sharp reminder of the obsession with overland travel and transport here. Like many people, my experience of the US has been shaped until now by the Eastern and western seaboards, but the interior is where it’s at. Seeing the beating heart of America – a year on from the financial disasters of October 2008 and Obama’s triumph the following month – should be fascinating.

LA, baby

Leaving Los Angeles was harder than expected. It is one of those cities that has a habit of consistently living up to the its popular mythic image, and over a couple of nights in hip Venice Beach, the city of Angels didn’t disappoint. There was the girl who was enjoying being out of work because “I can catch up on all those things I didn’t have time for – like my divorce…”; the guy struggling to see his kids because his ex-wife “is tryin’ to make out I’m a drug addict, man – I mean I’m recreational, but…”; the tale of another guy whose marriage broke down because “Marty’s kinda into rough sex man… he’s sorta a fan of the chokehold, you know what I’m sayin’?”- and too many other fantastically LA stories to mention.

Despite the allure of this far from angelic beacon of naughtiness, we finally dragged ourselves onto Route 66 on Monday, after picking up a third member of the Big Mama Roadtrip, another Andy, who flew out from Scotland to join us for the first week.

We broke the journey out of California with a night at the beautiful Joshua Tree national park, a place that lives deep in the psyche of any westerner in their thirties, thanks to the eponymous 1987 album by U2. Immediately some of the contrasts in this vast continent became apparent – it was wonderful to experience the beauty and open serenity of the park, and instructive to see the ordinariness of the people of the local town, a million miles from the urban swagger and self-consciousness of the LA set.

On the open road

This is a roadtrip, and already the time on the road has been as memorable as the time off it. The awe-inspiring size of the vistas over the deserts of Northern Arizona; magnificent natural structures carved out under the sea 570 million years ago in Monument Valley on the way to Utah; spectacular stone bridges created by the pressure of the Colorado river system; and views over to the early snows of the mountainous West. Above all, it is the space and size of the landscape that has struck all three of us.

In the conversations that I have managed to have so far, the ongoing challenge of reviving the economy has vied with proposed changes to the Healthcare system for number one gripe. I never expected to be talking about the NHS in a hot tub in Utah, but that’s where the debate’s at right now. This in turn has led to the amazing Google-ish revelation that the British NHS is in the top five employers in the world. The top five are:

1.  Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), China, 2,300,000
2.  Wal-Mart Stores, United States, 1,800,000 employees
3.  Indian State Railways, India, 1,400,000
4.  National Health Service (NHS), UK, 1,300,000
5.  Deutsche Post, Germany, 502,545

With the healthy scepticism that Americans have for government and bureaucracy, I suspect that kind of statistic is enough to scare most Americans stiff and scupper the chances of any bill. But we shall see.

We are now in Moab, known as the adventure sports capital of the USA, a stunningly located town with two more massive national parks on its doorstep. Tomorrow we enter our third state Colorado heading via Aspen to Denver, from where we will start a different adventure – down through the heartlands of Texas to New Orleans. 

To close, the opening lines of a poem that I was sent nearly a year ago as I set out on my trip. Walt Whitman is the poet who captured better than anyone the free spirit of America and its land. These are the opening lines of his “Song of the Open Road”:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

Toodlepip!

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The hitch-hikers’ guide to whitebaiting and thermal pools

A chance encounter with a hitch-hiker leads to a true dose of Kiwiana… [go to http://luddo.com for version with pictures]

The hitch-hiker’s jaunty thumb loomed out of the gathering gloom and drizzle of a spring evening as I drove into the small west coast New Zealand town of Haast.

I took a snap decision. I had been driving for four hours. A bit of company couldn’t hurt. There’s only so much stunningly distracting scenery one man can take driving on his own.

“Pop your bag in the boot,” I said trying my best to appear nonchalant and an experienced picker-upper of hitch-hikers, and blocking out the images of knife-wielding Hollywood psychos swirling around in my head.

My only previous experience of hitch-hiking had been from the other side of the kerb in 1992 – on a charity hitch-hike from St Andrews to Paris. I had managed to persuade a pretty blonde to accompany me. I vividly remember her rugby-playing boyfriend sitting in my room the night before we left, fixing me with a piercing stare while toying with a dangerous looking metal cosh. He asked me, somewhat menacingly, whether I wanted to take it. I declined, but took the hint and returned said blonde in tacta – after we had won the race. (I like to think the victory was all down to my brilliantly devised strategy. It probably had more to do with the pretty blonde.)

With a distinct absence of pretty blondes hitching on the West Coast of New Zealand, I had to make do with Tim (pronounced “Tum”), a bearded and bandana-ed 22-year-old Kiwi.

As we gingerly edged our way towards a friendship, my paranoia faded away. I asked where he was heading; Tim told me that he was on his way to the family hut further up the coast to help his cousin with some whitebaiting.

My ears pricked up. Whitebaiting? I had been told by more than one person that this strange, lonesome form of fishing was a quintessential part of West coast New Zealand life. As I was travelling without a plan, it felt like another of those no-brainer opportunities for me to chance my arm.

“Errr… I tell you what. I’ll drive you there if there’s a spare bed in your hut?”

Within moments, the deal was sealed, both parties convinced they had the better rub of the green. We headed north…

Petrol? Or Petrol?

… only to head south again moments later. Oops. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to check the fuel gauge. Return to Haast without passing Go.

It didn’t take long to discover that Haast is one of those villages where the locals delight in obstinacy, doing their level best to make any visitor feel very unwelcome. The local garage owner commenced proceedings, taking great delight in telling me to go forth and procrastinate (despite the prominent “24 hour garage” sign).

Next stop the local pub, one of those dingy open plan establishments clearly dedicated to hardened drinking where the bar staff seem, miraculously, to be pulling more pints per minute than there are people in the pub.

“Any chance of some petrol?” I asked tentatively at the bar. A likely lad sidled over. “How much d’ya need?“ I told him I needed about ten litres. He looked puzzled. “Aw, mate, I don’t have REAL petrol, I thought you meant weed…”

This wasn’t going too well.

Despite his insistence that we’d be better off forgoing the petrol and sharing some “petrol” with him in the local hotel, we resumed the search, eventually procuring enough to see us up the road from a petrol station down the road that any one of our interlocutors could have told us about in the first place.

We headed north once more.

A ba(t)ch, a spot of whitebaiting, and some hot pools

A few hours of night-driving along roads of diminishing size and quality, and we arrived in deepest darkest west coast New Zealand, near the wonderfully named Hari Hari (though not before witnessing a typically stunning sunset).

I collapsed into bed, still unsure what the following day would bring.

As I dragged myself from the halls of slumber the next morning, I found myself in a small two room hut.

One of the cousins was making tea in the tiny kitchen. “Welcome to our Bach!“ he said as I accepted his offer of Fisherman-strength Tea.

The “Bach”, (pronounced “Batch”) is an institution in New Zealand. Originally short for “Bachelor pad”, baches are small holiday homes (most often basic huts) and normally in a remote corner of the country, presumably to encourage suitably bach-like activities.

Which in New Zealand includes whitebaiting.

It works like this – juvenile whitebait, having been conceived in the river, are then born out in the ocean, before heading back up the rivers to start the cycle of mating once again. They aren’t the smartest fish in the river, so catching them involves positioning a net in the right part of the stream, and watching them swim in. Prized for their delicate taste, New Zealand whitebait fetch as much as NZ$120 (about 50 quid) per kilo.

As a result, a fierce tradition of whitebait fishing during a short (Southern Hemisphere) spring season has developed here, with ramshackle “stands” (jetties) on the best stretches at the mouth of some rivers.

A quick introduction to the three cousins – Ryan, Jazz and Jeff – and we were off to the river to indulge in this wonderfully passive form of fishing. The cousins were helping out on “Ivan’s Stand”, a highly sought-after spot on the river owned by 70-year-old Ivan Orlowski.

I had lucked out again. Ivan was a living goldmine of New Zealand culture. After 40 years in the whitebaiting game, he happily watched as the cousins and I pulled in over 5 kilograms of whitebait during the day, an average daily haul for the season. Over more strong tea, Ivan delighted in having an ear to chew off with his stories. Once he had established that I wasn’t with the Inland Revenue (cash sales), he opened up with tales of the rough timber-milling past, the challenges of the holiday-home fuelled present, and pondering on the future of these remote west coast communities. There is such a strong sense of tradition here that it is hard to see it changing that much.

It had been a great day – but the best was yet to come.

A well-earned therma-rest

As we returned to the bach, the cousins gleefully packed shovels, a frying pan, some beer and some sausages into the car, and we headed further up the Whanganui river, tramping across fields to reach our next destination.

Small pools gave off tell-tale whisps of steam at the side of the glacial stream, evidence of untouched thermal springs.

Suddenly it was clear what the shovels were for. Half an hour’s digging in the hot sand and we had our pools.  We slipped into the wonderful warm water as the drizzle fell around us, jumping into the freezing stream (with the aptly bone-chilling name of “Amethyst”) at one point before returning to the thermal haven.

There have been so many other wonderful experiences in New Zealand – catching up with friends from India in Dunedin, watching dolphins off the Catlin coast, seeing rare bird and marine life up close on the Milford Track, spending time on a Maori dairy farm in the North Island.

But sitting in a natural hot spring in the midnight rain beats them all. It was truly one of the most memorable moments of 12 months of travelling.

So go on. Next time you see a hitch-hiker, pick him (or her) up. You never know where you might end up.

Toodle pip!

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(Not quite) on the other side of the third rock from the sun

Most Australians were horrified to hear that I would only be giving their country a fortnight, and utterly flabbergasted when they heard of my plans to spend more time in neighbouring New Zealand than in the fair land Down Under.

Needs must, however, and I made plans to skim across the surface of the Eastern Australian seaboard, using unsuspecting friends in the major cities as reference points and refuge stops.

Blossoming Brisbane, Sassy Sydney, Mellow Melbourne

It was my Melbourne host, Howard who summed up the Australian dilemma most succinctly, responding to my inquisitive probing with a straightforward explanation as we sat in one of the city‘s many trendy coffee bars.

“Mate. You have to understand – the real economy here is based on a couple of things. One, we dig some bloody big holes which make us money by keeping our Asian cousins happy, and Two, we’ve realised that actual building work – labouring – is about the only thing that can’t get outsourced to China…”

It was a typically laconic Australian analysis, and backed up some of what I had been seeing over the past fortnight as I worked my way down the coast.

First stop, Brisbane. Unwittingly, I timed my arrival with the blossoming of the beautiful lavender blue jacaranda trees along the tree-lined cul-de-sacs of this emerging city. Over a wonderful family dinner in the city’s Highgate Hill area, I started to understand that Brisbane is a city (and Australia is a country) still very much in formation as power shifts East. Brisbane itself is attracting migrants from within and without Australia by the bucket-load, an estimated 1800 a week, as the city adjusts to the opportunities that the Chinese economic juggernaut presents. I suspect that, hand-in-hand with this economic gold (coal) mine there will also be political challenges over the next couple of decades as cultures rub up against each other, but all that can wait. Today, the money is flowing.

It is one of the beauties of travelling that brief encounters on the road can lead to life-long friendships. In Sydney, I spent three days catching up with someone I met 15 years ago in Northern Pakistan. Despite four children in the interim, we slipped into easy conversation as if we were still sipping chai by the river in Gilgit.

I arrived late, and took a bus up to the Northern beaches, an area known as the “Insular Peninsula”. This meant that I had the privilege to approach Sydney proper in the best possible manner – by boat, on the ferry from Manly. As we rounded the headland into the magnificent natural harbour, the Opera-house and the Bridge swung into view. Sydney it is a city with a swagger – a see-and-be-seen city still basking in the reflected glory of the 2000 Olympics. Despite the never-ending traffic problems, it wasn’t hard to see why this is a city consistently in the lists of those with the highest standards of living. The relaxed atmosphere of the Northern beaches so close to the city give it a unique feel.

And so to Melbourne. With the heritage of free settlers and the Victorian Gold Rush in the 19th century, Melbourne feels more international than either Brisbane or Sydney. 20th century migrants from Europe – Greeks and Italians in particular – have retained many elements of their national identities, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the streets. Add to this a proliferation of achingly cool hipsters hanging out in cafés and you have a mellow, earthy city glorying in its distinction from Sassy Sydney.

2 weeks was never going to be enough time for the Australian continent. But it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what’s going on here. I’ll be back.

“You poor bastard…”

A flight across the Tasman sea, and I was in Christchurch New Zealand.

I arrived after midnight, so it wasn’t until breakfast at the Globe Café on the following morning that I managed a coherent conversation with a Kiwi for the first time. I told the café owner proudly that this was my first meal in New Zealand, and that I was here for three weeks.

“You poor bastard”, the café owner responded.

You have to have a fair amount of confidence in your country to be that self-deprecating.

Within a few hours, I was driving through fresh snow and slate-grey skies on my way into the mountains. A few more hours and I was sitting in a hot spring watching the clouds roll in for the evening over the mountains. Within another day I had been running up a 1000m peak and kayaking on a placid, incredibly beautiful Lake Tekapo. The view from my kayak will remain with me a long time. It’s like Scotland on steroids here.

I’m now in Dunedin on the (not quite diametrically) opposite side of the planet from its namesake, my birthplace. With my hosts here, the intergalactically named Mars and Clouds who I met in India, I’ve been busy aggravating sea-lions on the Otago peninsula, visiting Farmers’ markets in town, and watching dolphins off New Zealand’s John O’Groats (Slope Point). With George Street, Princes Street, Dundas Street, Hanover Street and even Royal Terrace, I could be on the (not quite) other side of the world. My slow transition out of Asia and back into Western life continues.

I head back into the mountains tonight and will do the world-famous Milford Track hut-to-hut for four days, before travelling up the West Coast and on to the North Island in my NZ $1-a-day hire car (20 days for the equivalent of 8 quid). What’s not to love about the Global Financial Crisis?

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