Amazon.com Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: November 2010 Archives

November 2010 Archives

Happy Thanksgiving!

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As you tuck into your dinner, be thankful for many things. Including the fact that you don't have to feed your children like this:

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A parent frigate bird feeds its child, virtually swallowing the chick's head to keep the food safe

(Of course, it's Friday here in Australia, but it's still Thanksgiving back home.)

Uncommonly grim news from New Zealand

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We caught word of the tragedy in the Pike River mine yesterday. We did not get as far north as the mine in our travels, making it only as far as the the Franz Josef Glacier. But ever since learning of the trapped miners we have been keeping watch on the news. I know that mine rescues are dangerous ventures unlikely to succeed, but I had irrationally expected this one to work out. Part of this was undoubtedly bias at having watched the Chilean miners be triumphantly rescued, but it also stemmed from the sense that this was New Zealand, and bad news didn't happen there.

In the middle of our van trip across the country, we'd had a rough day in Christchurch. The cooler in the van had failed, resulting in spoilt milk and a two hour delay at a Jucy Rentals location. But we were finally on the road and receiving an unusually strong radio signal from a station broadcasting a news program that sounded like NPR down under. The top two stories? An outbreak of disease had struck the nation's kiwi fruit crop, and a school bus driver had been shot. But this was not an American school yard shooting: the driver had been hit by a pellet gun, and, as the announcer sternly informed us, was receiving medical treatment.

I don't mean to say that these are not serious concerns. Agriculture makes up a large percentage of New Zealand's exports, and kiwi fruit are a major crop. The bus driver was doubtlessly traumatized and in pain. But after a few years of the crime, corruption and financial crisis that make up the nightly news in New York, New Zealand's reporting was comfortingly somber and calm.

We'd actually joked about this on the flight from Sydney to Cairns, when Pallavi was looking through a copy of Time that she had picked up at our hotel. America's once-great newsweekly had spent a year studying the decline of another once-great American institution, Detroit:

But if city officials ask Corley to relocate, as political winds blowing through Detroit indicate they soon might, she's not budging. If this desperately poor city is no longer able to provide services to the neighborhood -- trash pickup, fire protection -- "we'll just have to deal with it," she says.

Just as she had to deal with the discovery of a man's burned torso in the underbrush across the street a few months ago. Betty Corley says she won't move away, but other isolated homeowners don't share her loyalty. Cynthia Ciesiolka, who lives on the next block with her four grandchildren, says if the city offered her $5 and a place to live, she'd be gone tomorrow.

(emphasis mine) It's a shocking return to Detroit "normalcy" to see the discovery of charred body parts relegated to a minor paragraph, when one has been driving through a country where pellet-gun assault is lead local radio news.

So when I heard about the miners, I thought that only the Chilean best-case scenario was probable. Yet as lovely as New Zealand is, it is not immune from misfortune. Sadly, I was wrong, and our hearts are with the families of those who were lost.

From the Department of Huh?

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I don't understand why the back end of this bus should make me conclude that I need legal advice. Any thoughts on how I'm missing the joke? (Taken in Cairns, Australia.)

Lawyer_pig

Apartments in Jakarta?

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We're arriving in Jakarta on December 1, 2010, and we're thinking of renting an apartment for three weeks. If anyone has advice on good (or bad) apartment options, or any other advice on Indonesia, we're all ears!

Airport Security

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The new changes to American airport safety procedures have been much in the news lately, with the news coverage even managing to pierce our internet- and TV-deprived cocoon. I had originally greeted the news that the TSA would be adopting backscatter x-rays with considerable enthusiasm, as I had participated in a trial run of one of the early devices before a Heathrow-New York flight a few years ago. As the security technician was testing the machine, he talked to me about the device, showing me my pale mannequin-like image (the machine makes you look much fatter than you are) and highlighting to me the advantages of the new technique. As I recall, the main benefit to passengers was supposed to be less time spent in security and the elimination of the need to remove jackets, belts and shoes. At the time I wondered how much of the test was about introducing passengers to the new technology, rather than actually making sure that it worked in the field.

Obviously, we've not been back to the United States nor had to endure the new procedures, but I gather from news reports that they have not been well-received, especially coupled with a pat-down alternative described as if it is just short of sexual assault. Nor have I seen proponents of the new system suggest that there is an upside for passengers in the sense of quicker or more convenient security screening. The whole arrangement differs considerably from my British experience, which was altogether pleasant.

We've taken half a dozen international flights on this trip, with almost as many domestic flights. The security arrangements have differed markedly by country, and sometimes within countries. At a few checkpoints, security made passengers take off their shoes, but this was uncommon. Buenos Aires' international terminal made us get rid of water and other liquids before going through to the gates, but this was not necessary on the domestic Puerto Madryn to Buenos Aires flight. Australia and New Zealand have been very strict about ensuring that any small liquids in your carry on are in a plastic bag, and if you don't have one, will helpfully provide one for you. [1] Meanwhile, every checkpoint has had a different procedure for what constitutes a "computer." Some screeners consider a Kindle to be a computer, and others are perfectly happy to keep it in the bag.

In my experience, security screeners respond to the differing customs of international travelers with a kind of bemused graciousness. While the occasional x-ray machine technician will let you get your boots all the way off before telling you that you can walk through a metal detector with shoes on, most will stop you before you hold up the line too badly. When faced with a passenger quietly wondering whether a water bottle needs to be binned or can be kept, they will usually swoop in with a kind explanation. I haven't encountered (knock on wood) anyone in security who has been anything less than polite, even if sometimes they were somewhat hurried.

[1] I really don't get this. If all I have is one bottle of handwash, and I show it to the inspector, what is the point of her handing me a plastic bag, me placing the handwash into the plastic bag, and her inspecting the bag-and-handwash comb? It reminds me of some old school Monkey Island -style adventure game where only the precisely correct combination of inventory items will allow you to get on to the next puzzle.

A good deal of law, American or otherwise, concerns separation and division: partnerships dissolve and assets must be allocated, or marriages end in divorce and property must be divided. Modern American law has any number of mechanisms for the allocation of property between disputing parties.

The latter day descendants of the Uros people, who live (more or less) on Lake Titicaca, have developed a unique method of dealing with intra-clan disputes. The Uros constructed a network of artificial floating islands on the part of the lake near modern-day Puno, building reed huts atop a base of more reed and clay. The island that we visited measured approximately seventy by thirty feet and held about six reed huts and as many families.

Our guide described the Uros method of dispute resolution. If the clan living on the island found itself unable to resolve its internal differences, the clan would shift the huts of contending parties to opposite sides of the island, and then the clansmen would use a very large saw to cut the island itself in two. Both sides were then free to drift away from each other and start anew. As mediation goes, I suppose it does cut down on legal fees.

Floating Village

Our approach to the floating village

But I am getting ahead of myself....

Pallavi is feeling a bit under the weather. While she catches a nap I'm sitting on a third-floor balcony writing a lengthy catch-up post about Lake Titicaca. The sun set about an hour ago, and the hotel lights are casting long shadows of palm trees over the pool and the courtyard patio below me.

A sudden shadow passes over my netbook monitor, so fast that I think for a moment that I misinterpreted a blink. The sound of wings makes me look up, but whatever bird passed by has flown over the roof, and I go back to writing. Then, only a moment later, the shadow passes by again.

So I stare out into the dark, looking for whatever nocturnal bird is hiding in the high reachs of the palms. Looking for feathers and an avian beak, I'm caught offguard when what drops from the trees, spreads cape-like wings and swoops into an ascent is a bat. A very, very big bat. A "Christopher Nolan, call your casting agent because this guy needs a role in your next movie" bat. About ten feet from my head it banks sharply upward, and I think I hear it thump on the roof above me.

Near the bottom of the welcome poster hanging on the back of the door, you see the comment "A sharps disposal bin is located near reception on the ground floor."

I'm sure they host a lot of diabetics.

Gotta run...

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We're heading up to the north coast of Australia early tomorrow morning, with the hope of doing some diving off the Great Barrier Reef. But in the mean time, some cuteness to distract you from the fact that we haven't updated in a while.

koala

I don't think we can say enough good things about the South American Explorer's Club. Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring recommends them so frequently that I had initially assumed there were kickbacks involved. The accolades are well-deserved, however, and I wish we'd joined earlier. They have offices in Quito, Lima, Cuzco and Buenos Aires. Members can have mail delivered to the SAE offices and held for them. But most importantly, the SAE staff provide a wealth of local knowledge and organize events with other travelers.

It was through SAE that we ended up driving into a Buenos Aires suburb in order to watch a practice polo match, with the expectation that we could give it a try ourselves. Polo days are a common tourist activity in Buenos Aires, but they're quite pricey, and SAE managed to book the excursion at a significant discount (albeit without the heart-attack inducing asado as a post-game meal).

How did we make out?

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Posted at the polo club

Welcome to New Zealand. Please don't die.

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As I've mentioned, New Zealand looks a bit like heaven's back lot: every twist around a mountain road reveals another magnificent valley, until the path goes far enough east and runs into Kaikoura and miles of azure coast. The question isn't why they shot The Lord of the Rings here. It's why one doesn't treat every movie, from A River Runs Through It to Leprechaun 6 - Back 2 Tha Hood, as an excuse to shoot New Zealand scenery.

Given the idyllic ambiance, New Zealand's highway safety signs come as a bit of a shock.

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There are quite a few traffic safety signs in this morbid vein. One dramatically proclaims:

DRINK DrIvE

(I imagine that they thought having the red letters drip with blood would be a bit too over the top.) Another shows a cross atop a grave, with the tag line "If it's a race, this is the finish line." [1] The overall effect is to give one the impression that New Zealand's roads are deadly wastelands, strewn with the wrecks of unwary, careless, or inebriated drivers.

A few other examples:

Free Nights in Argentina

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Just before we left Buenos Aires, we attended a birthday party for the South American Explorers club, which we'd found to be an invaluable resource in both Peru and Argentina. In addition to offering good company and cheap food and drink, the SAE BsAs clubhouse held a raffle in which every other ticket won a prize. As members, Tony and I had gotten multiple tickets, and thus got multiple prizes. Unfortunately for us, they were all vouchers for accommodation in Argentina, of which we already had as much as we needed. Moreover, they were for dorm rooms in hostels, which we rarely used as we preferred to have a room for just the two of us rather than possibly bunking with strangers.

Fortunately for you, however, the manager of the clubhouse said we could pass the vouchers on to friends so long as we sent him an email to let him know who would be claiming the free nights. So! if you were thinking of going to Argentina for the lovely Southern Hemisphere late spring, or have a friend who is, we would be happy to have the vouchers get some use. They expire on December 15 of this year (2010), and are as follows:

* 1 voucher for three nights' stay at Pax Hostel, in Buenos Aires.

* 3 vouchers for one night's stay each, at Hostel Mendoza Inn (which is at the address Aristides Villanueva 470, Mendoza Ciudad).

Please let us know ASAP if you or someone you know would like these.

New Zealand isn't much better for internet access than Australia. Most restaurants, cafes and holiday parks offer paid, metered wifi. Those few that offer free wifi with purchase tend to limit bandwidth to very low levels.

Yet even with these access issues, we've been able to post more regularly than in South America, thanks to a few useful offline tools. (Since this is mostly a technical post, however, I'll put the details behind a cut.)

A careless man's careful daughter

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Bad news for people who don't like Taylor Swift. I think I've heard something by the Kanye-dissed songstress in every country we've traveled through thus far. Although not every country thinks she's a country-music musician.

Home, sweet campa

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Greetings from New Zealand, where our home for the next ten days looks like this.

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The back roads of New Zealand are littered with camper vans of various sorts and sizes, and every roadway holds dozens of picnic spots. When God handed out geographic bonuses, New Zealand got an obscenely unfair share of gorgeous green landscapes, picturesque views and New Yorkers-can-only-be-envious sunshine. Yesterday we made our way from Queenstown to Twizel, and I found myself challenged to keep my eyes on the road instead of the landscape.

New Zealand View

Like a mousy girl jealous of the high school beauty queen, such majesty makes it tempting to seek for some cosmic source of fairness. "Sure, New Zealand's got great summer scenery, but it must have a horrible personality." Nope. It's friendly, cheaper than its big cousin Australia, and actually has (a few) places with free wireless.

Weather, however, is the great equalizer of landscapes, and we woke this morning to the patter of rain on the top of the camper. It hasn't let up, which means today will make a good day for laundry, stocking up on equipment, and blogging.

As some of you know, I used to write a law school blog several years ago. It still gets a little bit of traffic and has kept a respectable Google PageRank (the measure that Google uses to assess the importance of a page). Search engine optimization specialists (who try to get their clients' pages towards the top of a search engine's results) like sites like my old one, because they can help move other pages up in the rankings. I frequently receive offers from legal publishers to "exchange links," which I routinely turn down because I don't need a link from a textbook publisher. But last month I got a new and interesting offer: $300 cash on the barrelhead for a link from my old site. I don't know how I feel about the ethics of such a transaction: certainly no one who used to read or link to my site expected that I'd use it for profit in that way.

While Devil May Care has a zero Pagerank, it did get me thinking that I should make a brief note of how we're "monetizing" this site. Of course, we don't come close to making a profit, as it costs more to keep the site running than we've taken in thus far. As with my old blog, the revenue-generating portions of DMC mostly allow me to play around with web technologies that I used before I was a lawyer. But in theory, this is how the site could subsidize the trip:

  • Amazon Associates: If you read Instapundit, you may have wondered why he obsessively links to every Amazon.com sale on cutlery, lawn and garden equipment, or assorted piece of tomfoolery that the nation's premier online merchant decides to hawk. Like DMC, Instapundit is an Amazon affiliate, which means that if you click through one of his Amazon links, he gets a small cut of whatever you buy from Amazon within a set period of time (usually 24 hours).

    Amazon provides an easy source for product links when we want to review equipment or travel guides, and they have a nifty storefront application that was fun to mess about with.

  • Google Ads: I had never used Google Ads prior to DMC. Google provides an interesting suite of tools useful for analyzing site traffic, and the ads play into that. And surprisingly, some of you have clicked through on these ads, putting a total of about $4 worth of cash in our pockets. Thank you, and I hope you found what you were looking for.

That's about it. Hopefully the quasi-mercenary nature of the site doesn't change your opinion of our blog. And if you're in the market for some particularly expensive piece of kit from Amazon and feel like helping us out... well, please click through here before you order!

We spent our first few days at a backpacker hostel, but found that a small, local hotel a few blocks from Kings Cross offered cleaner, quieter accommodation at a lower price. It also happened to put us a few blocks away from some of Sydney's top cocktail bars, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. Once again, the weak greenback conspired to achieve what I would have thought impossible a few months ago: Sydney's cocktails are the most expensive of the trip, making the watering holes of San Francisco and New York look positively frugal by comparison.

Eau de Vie: Approach the austere glass doors of the stylish, sexy Kirketon Hotel, and glance at the beautiful people hanging out in the Art Lounge, and breeze past the bar as if going to the restrooms. [1] Keep going past the facilities, hang a left, and enter Eau de Vie, which presents itself as a domain for serious drinkers.

Have a few carrots before you go, however, because this bar isn't for the night-blind. A few candles and the occasional overhead light struggle valiantly against the gloom of this small, windowless space, and the dark wood and brown leather furniture is no help. The bar itself is far from well-lit, and if you choose a table in one of the further corners, you may need a flashlight to appreciate the small leatherbound volume that details the history of the club, the biographies of the bartenders, and, almost incidentally, a set of available drinks.

Although the ambiance cranks the pretentiousness up to 11, and the joint doesn't leaven this with the cheery kitsch of a Bourbon & Branch, you can't fault the drinks themselves. Don't go looking for classics. The menu is mostly new creations or old recipes with some form of "new twist." Although we felt the budget would only support one drink apiece (prices range from about AU$16 to AU$25), the two we tried were meticulously executed, well presented, and tasty. I recommend the Highlander Sazarac, a whiskey-based concoction that starts sweet and finishes smooth and smoky. (Upgrade to the Talisker: it's worth it.)

The Victoria Room: This Victoria Room was our Sydney splurge in an otherwise budget-conscious week, although neither drinks nor dinner were as wallet-busting as Eau de Vie. Although the VR doesn't look like much from the outside, once you walk up the stairs to the reception, it's a whole different world of hardwood and fine upholstery. If you don't have a reservation, don't worry: the best part of the evening may be sitting in the bar area until a table frees up.

For one thing, the bartenders are skilled, curious, and very, very friendly. While they'll happily make anything from the menu (again, leather-bound and weighty, with lengthy expository sections on the virtues of various spirits), they also welcome off-menu or "omakase" (bartender's choice) orders. I'd liked my first drink, but found it a bit too sweet, and the bartender cheerfully asked what I liked when I was elsewhere. This led to a quick conversation about the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and an experimental attempt at a new tequila classic that turned out surprisingly well.

Once you're done at the bar, the Victoria Room's food is pretty good as well. All dishes are meant to be shared by the table, and if you're price-conscious, get the mezze platter. It's the best bread and dip we've had south of the equator, and the portions are more than generous.

[1] Although always well put together, the stylish set vastly outdressed our "nice night out" traveling outfits on Tuesday night. It was the evening after the Melbourne Cup, and patrons had dressed accordingly.

Just another one of our places to stay posts. I'll update this with new accommodations as we encounter them. (One of these days I'm going to cross-post these reviews to TripAdvisor.)

Sydney

Note for cheap and cheerful places to stay in Sydney: the hostels and internet options are not always the best deals. I recommend booking online so that you have someplace to stay for the first few nights (until you're past jetlag) and then wandering around on foot. It's how Pallavi found The Royal Sovereign.

The Funk House Hostel: Stay here if you are: (a) in your early or mid-twenties, (b) on a budget, (c) appreciative of the finest in trippy graffiti-style wall murals, and (d) want to meet others who are (a)-(c). The Funk House will provide a free ride from the airport (valuable, though you may wait an hour or so for the shuttle). As hostels go it's decidedly mid-range, and a bit more "party hostel" than our normal habit. The double rooms are clean and spartan, though the bathrooms are grim. My main problem with this hostel was its decidedly dictatorial character: every surface seemed to be covered with some dictate:

  • No visitors. [1]
  • Rooms will be cleaned at noon every day, so make the room available for cleaning.
  • Any items left on the floor of your room (other than under the bed) are assumed to be trash and may be thrown away.

To make matters worse, the manager's voice frequently pipes up over the intercoms in the hallway, sort of Big Brother meets Lord of the Flies, reminding inmates... erm, guests of their responsibilities. Perhaps this kind of maintenance of order is necessary at a party hostel, but places like The Secret Garden manage it without such an overbearing attitude.

The Royal Sovereign : Simple, unpretentious rooms with shared bathrooms a few blocks south of Kings Cross down Darlinghurst Road. The Royal Sovereign isn't really a hotel, but a set of rooms above a pub. As such, it's not suitable for those wishing to get to bed before midnight. Once the pub shuts the entire area quiets down, so sleep was not a problem for us. No-frills and the beds are pancake-thin, but room are cleaned daily, fresh towels are provided, and the rates are cheaper than doubles at the Kings Cross hostels. The only downside: the bathrooms and showers have lights on a 15-minute timer, so long showers can involve fumbling for a light switch in the dark. While we were there, two of the three bathroom lights weren't set properly, and would only light for fifteen seconds or so before turning themselves off.

[1] Actually, this is probably sensible given that Kings Cross is, among other things, Sydney's red light district.

On October 18, the same day that Pallavi's elder sister left Buenos Aires, we set out on an eighteen-hour bus ride into Patagonia. Visitors to Puerto Madryn typically come to see whales, penguins, guanacos and other wildlife. And we did see these, as I'm sure we'll detail in a later post, but I also had an entirely different kind of adventure.

Having returned from an eventful Wednesday afternoon's whale-watching, I left Pallavi at our hostel to wander around Puerto Madryn seeking out socks to replace those lost in the lavenderia. The city itself is not as touristy as one might expect. The roads near the coast are dotted with hotels, and the avenues slightly inland decked out with backpacker hostels, but Puerto Madryn's most important economic activity is industry. (If you travel an hour north to watch whales, you will pass aluminium smelters, agribusiness operations, and other manufacturing plants, as well as a gigantic open landfill supporting a population of thousands of scavenging seagulls.) Tourism's role in the local economy is secondary: travellers are scarce for the third of the year when the whales and penguins have migrated elsewhere.

Thus, Puerto Madryn is actually a surprisingly good place to shop for basic necessities. Businesses cater mostly for locals. When it comes to clothing, the selection is good, you can purchase both local and foreign brands, and stores generally don't have a gringo markup.

Near the shopping district, and about three blocks away from the hostel, I came across the creatively named Casino Puerto Madryn. The place itself looks small, and besides a tall neon sign (reminiscent of an old movie theatre) not particularly obstrusive. But outside the door, a friendly sign advised that their next poker tournament, with a AR$220 (~US$50) buy-in, would be held the next night. So I returned later that evening to sign up.

How I know my wife gets me

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She booked us tickets for a play concerning profane puppets and income tax law.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like