Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jim’s Guide to Packing Light

~ In a couple of days I head off to Melbourne to house sit for four weeks, and I am as ready as I will ever be.

The image illustrating this post shows the entire contents of my small suitcase. On top of what I am packing I will of course be wearing a full set of clothing (I dare you to visualise me driving 500 miles naked. Go on – I double-dare you!).

The amazing thing is – there is still space in my bag for more items of clothing. However, I am resisting the urge to fill it with things that are not essential to my Melbourne stay. Besides, if I want to do a spot of shopping in Melbourne, a little bit of extra space will come in handy.

I will also take a separate bag with essential technological aids (iPhone, laptop computer, camera’s and associated battery chargers and cables, etc). I should point out that a small toiletries pack will also go in the suitcase, but in terms of clothing, what you see is what I will be restricting myself to. As the four weeks progress, I hope to get back to making regular updates to this blog, and I will report back on how easy or hard it is to travel with this minimum set of clothing.

The whole point of this being, that when I head off on my major travels in May, I will have a better understanding of my real packing needs. Hopefully, I will never feel the need to travel with an over-packed and overweight suitcase again.

So, that’s it then.

Another year done and dusted.

I hope the past year has been all you wished it to be, and that 2010 will be even more interesting, exciting, and adventurous.

"Our destination is never a place, but rather, a new way of looking at things." Henry Miller

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Art of Subways

~ For most commuters, subways are often a ‘necessary evil’ that simply help them get from one part of a city to another in (hopefully) the safest, quickest and most comfortable way possible. Generally, people don’t travel around the world just to see subway stations, but some subway systems are well worth the visit.

As someone who rarely uses public transport at home, I was more than happy to re-acquaint myself with that means of travel as I explored London, New York City, and Athens in 2008. Of the three cities mentioned, I personally found London’s subway system (the ‘underground’) to be the least interesting visually. It began operating in 1863, and as the first underground transport system in the world, its designers and architects didn’t waste time or money trying to turn it into a work of art.

Thanks to the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens has a stunning new subway. While the underground component is not particularly extensive, it is clean and efficient. It also incorporates many fascinating archaeological discoveries unearthed during the construction of the network that are worth seeking out and examining closely in their own right.

The first underground line in New York’s subway system opened in October 1904. While many of the old lines and stations are showing signs of wear and tear, the inclusion of works of art or station designs that were aesthetically pleasing to commuters, was part of the brief city engineers and architects had to take into consideration when planning the subway.

Many stations are decorated with intricate ceramic tile work, some of it dating back to 1904 when the subway first opened for business. The "Arts for Transit" program oversees art in the subway system. Permanent installations, such as sculpture, mosaics, and murals; photographs displayed in lightboxes, and musicians performing in stations encourage people to use mass transit. Some of the art is by internationally-known artists such as Elizabeth Murray's Blooming, [see image] displayed at Lexington Avenue/59th Street station.
[Source: Wikipedia…]

The New York subway system was a revelation as I constantly discovered massive murals, quirky sculptures, colourful mosaics and many other types of art scattered through the subterranean depths beneath that great metropolis.

Which brings me to the Design Boom website.

They have posted a feature on some of the world’s most visually stunning subways systems and their stations, and it is well worth taking a look at. Of course, most of the stations illustrated in the article are far newer than either the New York City or London subway systems. Never the less, all are a feast for the eye and would surely make even the most jaded and jet-lagged traveller, reach for their cameras to capture the underground wonders they are passing through.

Artwork: Blooming, Elizabeth Murray (1996).
Photo by: Wayne Whitehorne

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The iPhone Revolution

~ I’ve finally joined the iPhone revolution. Yes, I know I’m a bit late, but then again, considering that 99.99% of the world’s population doesn’t have an iPhone, you might also say I’m an early adopter of this amazing device.

I’ve been researching the pros and cons of mobile devices for some time, and was trying to decide between an iPod Touch or the iPhone. Another device I was considering purchasing was one of those lovely lightweight, compact Netbook computers that have been appearing in stores over the past year or two. In the end, I opted for the iPhone because the opportunity presented itself to acquire one at a very good price.

In anticipation of my eventual purchase I’ve even been downloading lots of apps from the iTunes store. These are mostly travel-related applications that I intend to put to good use on my forthcoming extended travels during 2010. This will see me housesitting in Melbourne for 4-6 weeks before returning to Greece and other parts of Europe, and my eventual return to America for another extended stay.

iPhone Apps by The Bucketful: Apple claims to offer around 100,000 applications for the iPod and the iPhone, and I’ve been doing my best to try out as many as I can before I take off next year. To that end, I have been downloading a mix of free and paid applications that cover language assistance, mapping and travel guides, and other general travel information.

Among the language guides, I have selected some of the free World Nomads apps for Spanish, German, French and Italian. Each download contains hundreds of common words and phrases to help you communicate with the locals, and if these are not enough – and they almost certainly won’t be – you can pay for the full version of each application and get hundreds of additional words and phrases.

I’ve also downloaded several city guides, which for just $1.19 each per download, are packed with information, maps and images to guide me through New York City, Rome, London and Paris. These apps use information sourced from Wikipedia, and best of all, all the content is saved to your mobile device, meaning you don’t have to log on to any website to access the information.

All work and no play, makes Jim a dull boy – or words to that effect, so I have also downloaded a selection of favourite games to keep me amused while standing around in airport boarding queues! I’ve selected backgammon, draughts/checkers, Reversi, solitaire, and one of my all time favourite computer games – Myst.

By the way, many of these above applications are available for both the iPod Touch and the iPhone, so don’t feel you have to ditch your iPod and buy an iPhone to take advantage of all this amazing technology. I will be road-testing many of these apps while I’m in Melbourne, so it will be interesting to see which ones become permanent additions to my iPhone, and which fall by the wayside.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Stargazing in Manhattan

~ So there I was, walking through Manhattan when I noticed flashing lights down a side street. I soon realized they weren’t so much flashing lights as they were the flash from lots of cameras going off simultaneously.

Of course, I had to investigate.

The cameras were being wielded by 15-20 photographers at the entrance of MoMA - the Museum of Modern Art, where a special screening of George Clooney's film, Leatherheads was about to take place. There was no red carpet, but I joined a group of locals, tourists, and autograph hunters, and waited to see who was going to turn up.

I didn’t have long to wait. Through the crowd walked Bruce Willis and his latest flame. Unfortunately, by the time I had my video camera ready to film he had disappeared into the building. Damn. I decided to keep my camera on in readiness for the next star. A succession of guests entered the building, most of whom I didn’t know – until Jonathan Pryce walked out of the building.

Now Jonathan Pryce may not be an actor whose name is on everyone’s lips, but he just happens to have been the lead actor in one of my all time favourite films, Brazil, directed by one of my favourite directors, Terry Gilliam. Maybe Jonathan knew something about Leatherheads the rest of the guests didn’t, because he never did return to MoMA for the screening.

A long, black, stretch limo pulled up in the street. Out stepped Howard Stern and his partner. I have heard of Howard Stern, but I wouldn’t have known it was him if someone hadn’t told me.

A couple of very tall, thin anorexic looking women arrived over the next ten minutes or so. At one point, I had the nerve to shout out to one of them, "When was the last time you ate?" But if she heard me, she didn’t let on. My poor attempt at humor did get a laugh from some of the locals however.

Suddenly a tall familiar looking African-American stepped through the crowd. It was Danny Glover (of Lethal Weapon fame), who apologized for not posing for photographs, because he was running late. As it turns out, Danny need not have worried. Renee Zelwegger, who also stars in the film, and who was due to appear at the screening was apparently unwell, and decided to give it a miss. When George Clooney was informed of this, he also decided not to turn up – to his own film screening – and that was that.

As soon as the photographers heard that Renee and George were not going to show, they packed up and left. It didn’t matter who else might turn up. As the saying goes, ‘There’s no show without Punch’, and since Punch wasn’t turning up, the photographers disappeared into the night.

And with that dear friends, my night of stargazing came to an end.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Safe Travelling

~ My entry about an encounter with pickpockets in Greece (see Three Man Crush) got me thinking about the issue of safety and security while travelling. As I wrote then, this failed attempt at stealing my wallet, was the only negative experience regarding my personal safety I faced in seven months of travel.

The problem with having been brought up on a steady diet of feature films, television news items, and a host of TV shows old and new depicting life on the streets of major American cities, is that a traveller can end up thinking these shows represent 'real life' as it is being lived today. Modern programs such as the plethora of CSI-type dramas are full of multiple murders and psychopathic killers who seem to lurk on every city corner.

Thankfully, the reality of life in cities like New York, London, Paris, and Athens, Greece, is nowhere near as dramatic for the average traveller.

In New York, for example, it helps that the Greenpoint YMCA, where I stayed for a large part of my visit, is directly opposite the 94th Police Precinct building, which certainly promotes a feeling of safety - and maybe even a degree of complacency.

On the other hand, reading the police reports in the Greenpoint Star (the local paper), did alert me to the fact that I should not take my personal safety for granted. There will always be some individuals who are quite ready to attack and rob people in broad daylight, let alone late at night, which encouraged me to keep my wits about me. I decided to get about with a minimum of cash on me, and to leave my wallet and credit card back in my room whenever I went out and about. That way, if the unexpected did happen, I would hopefully only lose $50-60 dollars at most.

Of course, there was also the issue of the safety and security of my YMCA room, but the more I stayed there, the more relaxed I become about my fellow residents. Besides, in my Internet research for accommodation in New York, any discussion about the Greenpoint 'Y' only touched on the state of the bedrooms, bathrooms, and the helpfulness (or otherwise), of some staff. I did not see any reports from former residents complaining about having their rooms broken into or being robbed while staying there.

How about safety on public transport? My understanding is that the New York subway system is a lot safer than it used to be in the 1980's and 90s, and one of the things I soon noticed while travelling on the subway late at night was the number of young women travelling alone who still used the service. I figured that if the local women felt safe enough to travel alone on the subway system at 2am in the morning, then I had little to worry about. And so it proved.

I also spent several weeks at the North Brooklyn/Tweleve Towns YMCA (570 Jamaica Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 11208. Phone: 718 277 1600 or 1601) in Cypress Hills (click here for map).

Initially, I felt a loss less comfortable walking through the neighbourhoods surrounding this facility, but once I relaxed and began to observe the daily life of the mostly Hispanic immigrants around me, I realised my initial fears were unfounded. Directly opposite the North Brooklyn 'Y' is the massive Highland Park. On several occasions I wandered through the park and saw baseball competitions taking place. I also watched as local youths played basketball, handball and tennis on a series of well kept playing courts. In addition, every evening the childrens playground with filled with the laughter and shouts of young children who were out with their parents or older siblings, enjoying the warm evening air.

The YMCA ran many programs for its members which were always well patronised, including volley ball, basket ball, aerobics classes, and more. Everytime I walked past the gym it was always busy and filled with sweating bodies working out on the equipment there. All this activity seemed to indicate a vibrant, active community going about its daily life just like any other American community.

At some point you just have to stop worrying, and remember why it is you are travelling in the first place - so relax and enjoy your travels wherever they may lead you.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Three Man Crush

~ During the whole seven months I was travelling in 2008, I only experienced one incident which had the potential to spoil what had up until that point, been a fantastic vacation. Just days before I was due to leave Greece and fly to London before my return to Australia, a team of pickpockets tried to steal my wallet.

It was the classic 'three man crush' routine (that's the name I am given it anyway), which goes like this: a team of three thieves unobtrusively surrounds you just as you are about to board a train - as in my case - a bus, or while you are caught in a large crowd.

One person stands directly in front of you while the other two stand on either side of you. Depending on where your wallet or purse is being held - mine was in my left-side pants pocket - the team moves in for the steal. Just as I was about to board the train, the man on my right bumps into me, knocking me slightly off balance into his accomplice in front of me. In the few seconds that I am distracted and trying to regain my balance, the man on my left is putting his hand into my pocket trying to lift my wallet out.

While this routine was being put into effect, I was thinking: Hey, there's no need to push and shove! Let the disembarking passengers get off first. But I could also feel something tickling my thigh! It was not until I was in the carriage that I realised what had taken place, and that the thing tickling my thigh had been someones hand.

Thankfully, the trousers I was wearing that day had deep pockets. Literally. And the thief was unable to steal my wallet. The bizarre thing is, that since we were all in the process of boarding the train when all this was happening, the three man team had to enter the carriage as well. Of course, they pretended they didn't know each other, but I couldn't help notice the little sidelong glances that passed between them before they left the subway train at the next station.

To this day, I regret not confronting the three thieves in some way, or alerting authorities, but then I hadn't lost anything, and they of course, would have denied everything.

I'm pretty certain they were not Greek nationals themselves, and I'm also sure that this type of thing probably takes place every day in every major city in the world.

The lesson here is to wear trousers with deep pockets, and keep your wits about you - you never know when you might be caught in a three man crush.

Friday, November 27, 2009

New York Impressions

~ In a previous entry (My New York Marathon), I wrote about my first full day walking from Greenpoint, Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, down past City Hall, then back across the East River via the Brooklyn Bridge, and back to Greenpoint after passing through the Hasidic Jewish enclave in Williamsburg. Although I described in some detail my route on that extended - and exhausting - walk, on reading through it again, I see that it was light on my actual impressions of New York City. So I've decided to remedy that oversight in this post.

Some people travel only to see the famous attractions, while others travel to immerse themselves as much as possible in the locations they have chosen to visit. I prefer the immersive experience, and as such, I was happy to explore the city on foot as far as I was able to. Right from the start, I tried to blend in as much as I could with native New Yorkers. Of course, this was an almost impossible task given that everywhere I went I carried a digital still camera and a video camera - and nothing cries out 'tourist' more than someone running around taking lots of photographs of tall buildings and famous landmarks. However...

Maybe it's the songwriter and composer in me, but I loved listening to the sound and rhythm of the city. The wailing sirens of emergency service vehicles, the subway trains, the car horns, the whistles and shouts of traffic cops, and the constant hum a city like New York imparts 24 hours a day. But most of all, I tried to tune into the voices. The cadences and rhythms of the staff and regular customers at the Brooklyn diner where I ate breakfast each morning; the heavy accents of the Polish immigrants around Greenpoint; the Russians in Coney Island, and the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg; and most common of all, the voices of so many African-Americans and Hispanics that now call New York City, home.

Although I was on my first visit to New York City, I had in a sense been there a thousand times before. In many respects I have grown up visiting New York vacariously over a period of some 50 years in the form of feature films, novels, television series, evening news reports, music videos, documentaries, and even Batman and Superman comics. However, it doesn't matter how many movies, television programs or other forms of second-hand experiences you use to form your opinions of New York City, nothing can match the experience of walking those city streets for yourself, taking in the scale of the place with your own eyes.

I loved the familiarity of the city, but even more I loved the serendipidous nature of simply wandering hapazardly around the neighbourhood of the Greenpoint YMCA and over to Manhattan and back again, all the while following anything that caught my attention, or looked or sounded interesting. In fact, New York is a city that engages all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and even feel.

New York was everything I expected it to be - and more. Bigger, louder, faster, brasher, taller, grander, and so on. It was also safer, friendlier, easier to get around, and surprisingly, cheaper than I expected it to be. Unfortunately, it was also dirtier. But then the city does have a permanent population of around eight million, which is boosted on any given day by thousands of visitors who help add to the problem of trash creation and disposal.

Browsing through the hundreds of photographs I took during those first days, I see images of brownstone buildings, fire escapes, stoops leading directly onto New York sidewalks, a bright yellow Hummer, Polish language business signs, graffiti and large murals adorning city walls, and colourful dispensers for the many free publications that can be found all over New York. Then there are the images of unusual and interesting architectural features that are waiting to be discovered right across the city. Everyone takes photographs of the skyscrapers, of course, but my eyes were also drawn towards the swirling iron rails and curved wooden seating on the forecourt of the US Social Security Administration building on Federal Plaza.

Another series of images tries to record many of the other buildings around City Hall: The New York City Supreme Court; the United States Courthouse, and the US Court of Appeals office where I saw my first protest by (presumably) court workers, over some matter of great importance - to them, at least.

And there, in the midst of all this legal activity, I also discovered the magnificent African Burial Ground Monument (designed by Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon). The monument preserves a site containing the remains of more than 400 African Americans buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the Wikipedia entry on the burial ground, historians estimate there may have been 15,000-20,000 burials there. The site's excavation and study was regarded as the most important historic urban archeological project in the United States, which in turn has led to the site being designated a National Historic Landmark and National Monument.

My first photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge fail to do that magnificent structure any sort of justice and are hardly worth keeping - but I keep them anyway. What is it about the Brooklyn Bridge that makes it such an iconic attraction anyway? Why do hundreds, if not thousands of visitors line up every day to take photographs of this bridge, and why do they not also line up to take photographs of themselves standing on the Manhattan Bridge? Or the Williamsburg or Queensboro bridges? I don't know the answer, but I too stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and tried without much success to capture an angle; a vision; a unique perspective that hadn't been photographed a thousand times before.

Back on the Brooklyn side of the East River I stumbled across the first of many public art works that are scattered across New York. This was the wonderful NMS - Nature Matching System mural created by Tattfoo Tan (see image above) with the help of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association. This huge, beautiful work can be found directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge on Front Street, Brooklyn.

And so it went. My two months in New York passed far too quickly, and I only got to scratch the surface of this vast metropolis. That I will return next year for another look is a guarantee I am prepared to make right here and now. If you have yet to visit for yourself, I urge you to put the city at the top of your 'bucket list' and start your planning now.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My New York Marathon

~ The weather for the first full day of my New York adventure promised to be cloudy but fine (and bloody freezing).

And just so you are not expecting an account of my running of the New York marathon – a feat I am never going to perform – this entry refers to my marathon walking tour through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the Williamsburg Bridge to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, back across the East River via the Brooklyn Bridge, and on to my accommodations at the YMCA through the suburbs of Williamsburg and beyond.

I left the YMCA at around 9am and went for my first breakfast at the Manhattan 3 Decker Restaurant just down the road. The 'Y' gives you a voucher for free breakfast, which you redeem when you order your food. I had eggs, bacon, toast and fried potatoes (a bit like potato fritters), and coffee. You can sit up at the counter (just like you see in the movies), or you can sit at tables. I got the impression that if you are eating alone, they prefer you to eat at the counter where you occupy one seat instead of a table for four, but if there are several people dining, you are expected to sit at the tables.

After breakfast I went off to explore the neighbourhood, and before I knew it, I was at the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge is one of several which spans the East River linking Long Island, where Brooklyn is, to Manhattan.

The Williamsburg Bridge is a suspension bridge across the East River connecting the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Delancey Street with the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn on Long Island. Construction on the bridge, the second to cross the East River, began in 1896. The bridge opened on December 19, 1903 and was completed at a cost of $12,000,000. At the time it was constructed, the Williamsburg Bridge set the record for the longest suspension bridge span in the world – the main span of the bridge being 1600 feet (488 m) long. (Source:

I was feeling pretty good, so away I went across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan.

By the way, I was delighted to see that the final confrontation between Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the recent remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 took place on the same pedestrian walkway I myself used to cross the bridge to Manhattan. But I digress.

After crossing the bridge, I came to ground around the Lower East Side where Chinatown and Little Italy are located, and where I stumbled across the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street.

The Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site (designated a National Historic Landmark in April, 1994), preserves a six-story brick tenement building that was home to an estimated 7,000 people, from over 20 nations, between 1863 and 1935. In that year, the owner, rather than continue to modify the building, evicted the residents and the building was boarded up and sealed, leaving only the storefronts open for business. The building is able to convey a vivid sense of the deplorable living conditions experienced by its tenants, especially the top two floors which contain rooms, wallpaper, plumbing and paper preserved as they were found in 1988. (Source:

By this time I had been walking for around three hours, and I knew I needed to sit down for a while, so I sat down in the museums little theatre to watch a couple of short videos about the history of the building. An hour later, feeling somewhat more refreshed, I went off through Chinatown in search of something to eat.

Bearing in mind the adage: “When in Rome, eat where the Romans do,” or something to that effect. I found a tiny little Chinese restaurant which seemed to be popular with the local population so I pointed to a couple of things on display in the window, and sat down to eat a full plate of rice, chicken, and vegetables. The whole meal cost me a whopping $3.00, which made it the cheapest meal by far on the whole trip.

Manhattan's Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. After an enormous growth spurt during the 1990s, it has been declining in recent years, partly as a result of the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, which forced the relocation of many Chinese businesses and residents, and also as a result of Manhattan's high rent increases. Unlike most other urban Chinatowns, Manhattan's Chinatown is both a residential area as well as commercial area – most population estimates are in the range of 90,000 to 100,000 residents.

The only park in Chinatown, Columbus Park, was built on what was once the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous slum area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the movie Gangs of New York). (Source:

I was to return to Chinatown several times during my New York stay, but on this visit, my explorations where kept brief since I still had much to discover.

From Chinatown I headed down into the Financial District, and started noticing signs pointing to the Brooklyn Bridge. Well, it was on my list of must see attractions, so off I went.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States, stretching 5,989 feet (1825 m) over the East River, connecting the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Upon completion in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world (the Williamsburg Bridge took that title 20 years later), the first steel-wire suspension bridge, and the first bridge to connect to Manhattan.

Originally referred to as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, it was dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge in an 1867 letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and formally given that name by the city government in 1915. Since its opening, it has become an iconic part of the New York skyline, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. (Source:

Of course, hundreds of other tourists also had the bridge on their list of must see places, and sure enough, they had turned out to see one of New York City’s most iconic images at exactly the same time as I had. Undaunted, I headed out across the Bridge for the Long Island side, snapping photos, and shooting video as I went. Having made it to the other side, I figured there was no point in walking back to Manhattan, so I started out for Greenpoint.

Big mistake. I had no idea where I was going, except that I worked out that as long as I kept roughly parallel to the East River, and headed west, I would eventually get to Greenpoint.

By now it was around 4pm and I had been walking for some eight hours.

It was around this time that I also faced a problem I was to encounter constantly during my New York stay. Namely, the lack of accessible public toilets and restrooms throughout the city. Thankfully, the New York headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the rescue! Seriously. Tired, feet aching, and with a bladder fit to burst I entered this imposing building (located on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn), in search of desperate relief. An impeccably dressed young man pointed my towards the restrooms and I quickly found the salvation I was seeking!

Off I headed again, through Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill, and on past the New York Naval yards. On a whim I decided to hop on a bus which seemed to be going in my direction. After a short ride I saw Driggs Avenue, and thought I must have been getting close to Greenpoint, so I jumped off the bus.

Big mistake. Again.

Up Driggs Avenue I plodded (or was it down?) towards Williamsburg, and stumbled headlong into the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

Williamsburg is inhabited by tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews, most belonging to the Satmar Hasidic court. Satmar is among the fastest-growing communities in the world, as its families have a very high number of children. The Satmar community of Williamsburg is no exception, and typically celebrates eight to ten sholom zochors (male births), and the same number of female births, each week. In addition, each year the community celebrates between 300 and 400 weddings. To date there are over 60,000 Satmar hasidim living in Williamsburg. (Source:

The sight of hundreds of Jewish men and boys dressed in traditional black outfits (long black coats, wide brimmed black hats, etc), was a sight to behold. There were men, women and kids everywhere, and all seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were also men, women and young girls pushing prams around the streets, and not all of the prams had babies in them. Some were just being used to move stuff around the neighbourhood. From what I could hear, almost no-one spoke English. They were all speaking Yiddish – men, women, and children. In deed, the Wikipedia entry cited above confirms that the Satmar hasidim study almost exclusively in Yiddish in their schools.

It was like being caught in a time warp. It was as if I had crossed an invisible boundary into this community, and then just as oddly, crossed another invisible boundary out of it again.

By now, I was exhausted. I had been on my feet for close to ten hours and they were killing me. Some how or other, I found myself back on Bedford Avenue, and knew I was getting close to ‘home’. I decided I should have dinner before I want back to the 'Y', and discovered a Greek restaurant on Bedford called Socrates. I walked in and tired and close to collapse, I ordered a meal of roast beef and vegetables, which I ate without much enthusiasm or appetite.

I finally got back to the YMCA at around 8pm, almost twelve hours after first setting out that morning. I got my shoes off as quickly as I could. I didn’t think I was every going to walk again, my feet hurt so much.

After downloading all the photographs and video footage from my cameras onto my laptop, I finally collapsed into bed for a much needed rest.

And so ended my first full day in New York City.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Photo #15: Columbus Park, NYC

Click image to view full size
Columbus Park Playground, New York City

It was Saturday, May 10, the eve of Mother's Day 2008 (or maybe it was in fact Mother's Day in the US that day), when I just happened to be wandering through the heart of New York's Chinatown area - centred around Columbus Park. The park was packed with Chinese-Americans of all ages enjoying a beautiful spring day.

Groups of older Chinese sat at tables playing cards (generally, women), while the men seemed to favour several types of Chinese board games which were totally unfamiliar to me. Others were dancing to the music and singing of a female Chinese performer in a pavilion at one end of the park. Elsewhere, a small group of elderly men sat in a semi-circle playing traditional Chinese instruments in what appeared to be an Oriental jam session. Scores of young children accompanied by their escorts played in the large playground incorporated into Columbus Park.

My attention was drawn to the distinctive colours of the children's playground, especially the bright red, symbolising good luck, and the bright orange and gold, presumably symbolising good fortune and success.

I hung around for an hour or so, soaking up the music and atmosphere, and marveling at the diversity that makes New York what it is today - that great melting pot that constitutes modern America.

I've also put together a short video made of up footage I shot during my brief time in Columbus Park. On the soundtrack you can hear (and see) the female performer singing in the pavilion, and also get glimpses of the 'jam session' taking place at the same time.

Image: Columbus Park Playground, NYC.

Photo: Jim Lesses, Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Travelling Lighter

~ Yesterday, I bought a new piece of luggage in preparation for my travels next year (see image).

It is a 54cm ‘Jet Stream’ bag from Tosca. That’s right, folks, 54cm. That is less than two feet high for those of you still using Imperial weights and measures. Anything smaller, and I would be restricting myself to carry-on luggage only!

I have written before on this blog about the concept of travelling light, and next year I hope to put my own advice into practise. As I said in an early post on House Sitting, I will be looking after a house for six weeks in Melbourne early in the new year, and I am using it as a practise run for my packing skills before I fly out to Europe in April or May.

I figure if can pack light enough to survive six weeks in Melbourne, I won’t need to pack anything extra for my European trip.

I should point out that I will also have a small carry-on backpack which will hold all my non-wearable gear such as camera, laptop computer, battery chargers, and other associated paraphernalia. I will also have a small ‘man bag’ – actually an old laptop computer bag for those extra items one always needs on long haul flights (water, ear plugs, reading material, etc).

Last year I used the 71cm version of the bag you see illustrating this post – as well as the backpack, and let me tell you, folks, a full 71cm bag is a pain in the back (not to mention the @ss) to drag around London, New York, Athens and the Greek islands!

I vowed that never again would I take such a large bag with me on my travels, and so the baby of the set, the 54cm piece will hopefully do the job for me. I say, ‘hopefully’, because I honestly don’t know if it will be enough, but then, one of the benefits of my six week house sitting gig is that it gives me the opportunity to fine tune my packing before I depart for Greece and beyond.

When I do eventually head off to Melbourne, I will post a complete packing list on this blog just so you can see what I have selected. Once the house sit is over, I will again post an entry letting you know what worked and what didn’t.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Summer Down Under

The long hot days of summer have begun in the Southern Hemisphere, where this week the average temperature in Adelaide is set to hover around 37 degrees Celcius (that's almost 100F).

Yesterday, I went for my first swim of the season, and although summer doesn't official begin until December, I get the feeling we are going to be in for a torrid summer.

Of course, no right thinking person would spend their days out in the heat of the midday sun. Not if they had a choice anyway. Mind you, this rules out most teenagers who think that frying their skin in the middle of the afternoon is the 'cool' thing to do.

Come to think of it - I was one of those teenagers once. I can still vividly remember taking a day off work one hot summer day to spend it at the beach. Stupidly, I didn't apply sunscreen to my back and legs (I can't remember if sunscreen was around in the late 1960s), and by the end of the day, it is no exaggeration to say that I left the beach as red as a lobster.

In deed, the next day my legs and parts of my back had broken out in blisters as a result of the damage I had inflicted on my body. It was a lesson I learned the hard way, and to this day I will not visit the beach or enter the water unless I wear a hat (to cover my balding head), and a t-shirt to protect my upper body from the burning sun. I also make it a rule to visit the beach late in the afternoon or early in the evening when the heat of the day has begun to ease. The added benefit of this policy is that I'm always on the beach to watch a golden sun dipping below the horizon in a blaze of yellow, orange and red.

Of such small pleasures are my days made whole!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

House Sitting

In the past I have featured a series of entries about house swapping on this blog. When you house swap, you exchange your home, unit, holiday home or apartment with another house swapper for an agreed period of time. That is, you move into someone else's home - say for three weeks - while they move into your home for the same period of time. You could even swap something unique like a houseboat or motor-home.

Today though, I thought I'd turn my attention to house sitting. House sitting involves you looking after someone's home while they are away for business, on vacation, or working far from home.

With house sitting, the homeowner engages the house sitter to move into their home for an agreed period ranging from a few days to in some cases 12-18 months - or more. In exchange for living in the owners home rent free, the sitter agrees to water plants, care for pets, and do any other tasks the owner asks of them for the duration of the agreement.

Personally, I am really excited by the possibilities that house sitting presents. In fact, early in 2010 I will be house sitting in Melbourne, Victoria, for a period of six weeks.

Since I have never spent more than a couple of days at a time in Melbourne, I can't wait to immerse myself in the life of Australia's second major city. The last time I visited Melbourne would have been back in the early 1990s. Much has changed in the Victoria capital since then, and I am looking forward to discovering just how much the city has grown and evolved for myself.

There are even international house sitting opportunities available to the right candidates. Yes, folks, you could be house sitting a Manhattan condo, a house on the French Riviera, or an apartment in Paris if you have the right credentials. As long as you can show that you are honest, reliable, trustworthy, and have no criminal record, prospective home owners may select you to look after their most precious possessions.

So how do you go about becoming a house sitter (or finding someone to look after your home)? You go online, of course.

All of these sites charge money for prospective house sitters to register their interest. This helps eliminate time wasters and people who have no real intention of following through with house sitting opportunites.

Here are just a few sites to get you started (all fees are in US dollars):
Aussie House Sitters ($60):
House Carers ($45):
Luxury House Sitting ($25):
House Sitters America ($30):
House Sit World ($40):

That will do to get you started. There are literally hundreds of opportunities to house sit available right now. If you are planning to travel next year, now might be the right time to register with one (or more) of the above sites, and familiarise yourself with the process. You may also like to try house sitting close to home first, so that you can accumulate some good references from home owners, which can in turn be used to help you get house sitting placements in other countries.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cutting The Ties That Bind

I know next to nothing about Buddhism. Nothing at all about the spiritual beliefs of Native Americans, of Hinduism, Judaism, or the beliefs of a host of other religions - but as I try to divest myself of the baggage I have accumulated over a lifetime of collecting, I can appreciate more and more the concept of 'travelling light'.

I'm thinking - and writing - about this today, having just completed a very successful sale of most of my vinyl record collection. At 61, I have been buying and collecting records since my early teens. To be honest, I probably haven't bought more than a dozen vinyl albums over the past ten years, so the bulk of my 700 plus record collection was acquired over a period of 30 years.

I don't know if scientists mapping the human genome have discovered the gene responsible for the human habit of collecting, but I'm sure it's there somewhere, because I can personally attest to its power.

Since I sold my home in May 2007, I have had a storage shed full of stuff that at the time, I simply found impossible to part with. Two years later, and a couple of thousand dollars poorer, I have finally begun the process of letting this stuff go.

Apart from some household goods, the bulk of this stuff consists of books, vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs. Those four categories alone would collectively add up to several thousand items. Add to this, magazine collections, personal documents, photo albums, and who knows what else, and it's not hard to see why a large storage shed was needed to house them.

And so the process of passing these things on to others has begun. Slowly at first - but as my plans for future travel draw closer - now faster, and faster, I am reselling books I will never get around to reading, and vinyl albums I will rarely sit down and listen to. At least the CDs and DVDs take up much less space, and are lighter to move around, but even these will eventually go to other homes.

I don't know where all this is leading, except that I want to cut these ties that bind, and try and reach a mental and physical state where I can move more freely from one location to another; one country to another, without feeling the pull - the constant drag - of stuff.

The upside of all this selling is that so far I have raised $2,500 which will go towards my forthcoming travel costs, and that makes the whole process just that little bit easier.
IMAGE: Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative Quilt - The Ties that Bind, © AmyB
Read more about this quilt here...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New York City – Day 1

~ So there we were, a plane load of passengers and crew on a United Airlines flight, flying in to New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, late on a Monday afternoon in March 2008.

With great interest and excitement, I looked out of my window (I always try and get a window seat), at the Long Island suburbs slipping quickly below the wings. My brief view of the New York skyline revealed the familiar look of lower Manhattan and a host of skyscrapers spearing into the sky as if they were trying to reach some distant planet.

As we flew in over Brooklyn my attention was caught by numerous structures that seemed to stand high over buildings and landscape alike. Looking more like giant four-legged pins, these proved to be a constant source of fascination throughout my New York stay. They were of course, water towers – structures that seem to be unique to the American landscape. Not that other countries don’t have water towers – they do. But surely not in the huge numbers that dot New York’s buildings and other parts of the American environment.

An article in Wikipedia notes that during the 1800s, the city required the installation of water towers on buildings higher than six stories to prevent the need for excessively high water pressures at lower elevations, which could burst municipal water pipes. Today, even modern buildings have these water towers perched high over already high structures.

A quick taxi ride delivered me to my accommodations for the next 28 days – the YMCA on Meserole Avenue, in the Brooklyn suburb of Greenpoint. After checking in, I immediately went back out to take a walk around the neighbourhood.

This is a ritual I always perform when I find myself in unfamiliar cities or locations. It gives me some idea of the ‘lay of the land’. I look for prominent landmarks (to help me find my way back to my room); the nearest bank or ATM; a local supermarket or deli where I can stock up on essential food items (water, fruit, snacks, etc); local cafés, fast food outlets or restaurants; the nearest subway station or bus stop; an internet café or public library with internet access; a laundry where I can wash clothes; and local bars and clubs which might offer live music or other entertainment.

But most of all, I try to get a feel for the neighbourhood ‘vibe’. Does it feel safe? Do the locals seem friendly? Do they look relaxed and happy? Are there lots of people hanging around on street corners looking like they have nothing to do? Will I have to walk through half a mile of dimly lit streets to reach the subway station? Or more importantly, if I return to my room at 2:00am in the morning, will I be safe? And so it goes.

To a certain extent, all this and more can be ascertained if you spend an hour or so carefully observing your surroundings. I am happy to say that I was delighted with my choice to use the Greenpoint YMCA as my New York base. I have written an extensive two part review of the Greenpoint ‘Y’, and my stay in the area already so I won’t repeat myself here (read Part One and Part Two).

My initial walk around Greenpoint revealed I had arrived in ‘little Poland’. Café’s, restaurants, hairdressers, tax agents, in fact retail outlets of all types and descriptions seemed to be targeted at the large Polish community that has made Greenpoint its home. Signs on several shop windows advertised positions vacant for Polish speaking shop assistants. A peek into one newsagent showed almost every publication to be in the Polish language. Not that any of this was a problem – I just hadn’t been expecting it.

I am always fascinated by the architecture of the cities I visit. Every country, and often individual cities within countries have their own distinctive architecture. The architecture of any town or city must surely be governed by the materials available to the inhabitants who build the homes and buildings that make up each urban centre. The amount of available land would also need to be taken into consideration. Given that most of New York city is built over a number of islands, making the best use of available land must have been a high priority.

Ignoring for now, the obvious architectural landmarks that are New York’s skyscrapers, what really caught my eye were the brownstones, row houses, and tenement buildings that the majority of New York residents call home. Many of these were built during a period of rapid expansion from 1870 to 1930. while many timber-framed buildings still stand, stone and brick became the city's building materials of choice after the construction of wood-frame houses was limited following the Great Fire of 1835.

Another distinctive feature I found fascinating were the fire escapes that adorn the façades of many older New York buildings. Again, thanks to Wikipedia we learn that “…the invention of these exterior steel staircases is widely credited to Anna Connelly who first registered a patent for a fire escape in the USA in 1887.”

Who knows just how many lives have been saved over the past 120 years by Connelly’s bright idea.

I was to learn much more about Greenpoint over the next four weeks, but as I sat down in a local café jet lagged and weary, and ordered something to eat, I was just happy to be in New York City, and looking forward to my first visit to Manhattan. But that’s a story for another day.

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the historical information contained in this post.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Photo #14: Storage Containers

Click image to view full size

I discovered these large storage containers gathering dust in the basement of an abandoned stone house on the Greek island of Ikaria during my extended stay there in 2008.

I have no idea how old they are, but they are almost certainly 60-70 years old if not even up to 100 years old. They were – and still are – traditionally used to store olive oil, or the whole olives themselves. They might also be used to store home made wine, potatoes, or other long lasting vegetables or grains, which would serve to keep the household in provisions throughout the long winters.

Today, modern containers made from plastic are substituting for these large clay pots, which can be a metre or more (3 feet) high. As durable as the plastic may be, it will never be as aesthetically pleasing to look at, nor will it last as long.

Photographer: Jim Lesses, Ikaria, May 2008

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ferry Hopping Around Sydney Harbour

~ Have I told you about the day I spent ferry-hopping my way around Sydney Harbour? No? Well, then, this is as good a time as any to tell you about one of Sydney’s hidden gems – the Day Tripper transport pass.

The $17.00 Day Tripper Pass gives you unlimited transfers across the whole of Sydney’s trains, buses, and ferry services. During my Sydney stay I decided to purchase one and use it to ride as many of Sydney’s iconic ferries as I could. In the end I only managed to travel on four of eight ferry routes, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time on the Harbour.

My first ‘port of call’ was of course, Circular Quay, where I boarded the first available ferry for my adventures out and about on Sydney Harbour. As it happened, the first ferry I spotted was going to Manly, so I quickly boarded and found some free space up by the bow.

I should have guessed the Manly ferry would be one of the most popular operating out of Circular Quay, and indeed a good 80% of the passengers were tourists and visitors like myself.

As we cast off from the quay, the jockeying for prime photographic positions was well and truly underway. Those passengers on the right (or starboard) side of the ferry, concentrated their cameras on the Sydney Opera House, while those on the left/port side, aimed their ‘weapons’ at the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The best placed travellers at the bow of the ferry were of course, able to capture both landmarks, while those at the stern aimed their cameras at the slowly receding city skyline, before turning their attentions to both the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

The 30 minute trip to Manly went smoothly enough, and as I disembarked at Manly Wharf, my intention was to spend another 30 minutes having a quick look around before reboarding the next ferry back to Circular Quay. Two hours later I finally forced myself back onto a ferry to complete that circuit!

Ah, Manly. Even in April the sunbathers were still to be seen stretching out on the sand soaking up as much warmth as the late autumn sun could offer.

Manly. The name says it all. Venice Beach it isn’t, but Manly Beach can still muster up a good showing of inline skaters, joggers, visitors, skateboarders, gawkers, dog walkers, swimmers, promenaders, tourists, surfers, poseurs, and the afore mentioned sunbathers.

While there, make sure you take the time to sample the fish-n-chips from one of the numerous outlets along the foreshore, or The Corso, that strangely named thoroughfare leading from Manly Wharf to the main beach.

The ferry to and from Circular Quay sails parallel to the ‘heads’ separating the north shore from the south. As we cruised past the entrance to Sydney Harbour – or if you prefer, the entrance to the Pacific Ocean – the ferry bucked and heaved in the rising swell. Tourists around me oo-ed and ah-ed as the sea spray hung in the air, and the ferry carved its way into calmer waters again for the remainder of the journey to Circular Quay.

At Circular Quay I quickly boarded the Neutral Bay ferry service. This service makes a number of stops along the North Shore, and includes Kirribilli, where the Australian Prime Minister has his Sydney lodgings (at the appropriately named Kirribilli House).

Back at the Quay my next cruise was on the Balmain/Woolwich ferry. Instead of doing the full circuit, I decided to jump off after several harbourside stops at Greenwich Point. From the landing site I had a clear view of the Sydney skyline, and as the afternoon sun began dipping in the west, I took photo after photo of a golden sunset reflecting off the glass and steel of the buildings in the CBD.

My final ride was on the longest of the eight major ferry routes servicing Sydney Harbour. This route, which runs up the Parramatta River to the suburb of Parramatta, is serviced by a RiverCat vessel – a large catamaran type craft designed to navigate the lower depths of the river, especially at the Parramatta wharf end.

By the time I boarded the RiverCat, the sun had all but disappeared below the horizon. For the next hour, I and my fellow passengers were treated to a spectacular evening cruise that took in Luna Park, Darling Harbour, Cockatoo Island, Olympic Park, and almost a dozen other harbourside stops. And best of all, I was able to stay on the craft and return by the same route – albeit in reverse order – and once again wallow in the luxury of Sydney Harbour at night.

In a previous entry (Circular Quay, Sydney) I wrote: “I never thought I’d say this, but I think the area around Circular Quay is as vibrant, exciting, and involving as any similar part of New York City (where I spent two months last year).”

Well, I never thought I’d say this either, but in terms of setting, Sydney Harbour beats Manhattan, hands down. Of course, New York has more skyscrapers, and taller ones than Sydney, but in this case size doesn’t matter.

What Sydney has is one of the most stunningly beautiful natural harbours in the world. Port Jackson (to give Sydney Harbour its official name) is 19 km long with an area of 55 square kilometres. If you were to walk around the perimeter of the harbour you would cover a distance of around 317 kilometres.

For my small investment of $17.00 I saw only a fraction of this vast expanse of water and the beautiful city that has grown up around it, but I loved every minute of it. If you have the time to do as I did, I urge you to spend as much time on the harbour as you can. I guarantee you, you won’t be sorry.

Image: Sydney Ferry, Narrabeen

Photographer: Jim Lesses

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Review: Zapata and the Mexican Revolution

~ Emiliano Zapata Salazar (August 8, 1879 – April 10, 1919) was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910, and which was initially directed against president Porfirio Díaz. He formed and commanded an important revolutionary force, the Liberation Army of the South, during the Mexican Revolution. In this review, Zachary Parker examines John Womack Jr’s. book, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution.

Bringing the Fields to the Federals - Review of Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, by Zachary Parker

The prized possession of Emiliano Zapata was the rights and respect of lands that were the heritage and legacy of the families of Southern Mexico. Why a man with seemingly simple demands must find himself in short time the supreme chief of a revolutionary army, a guerrilla general or even a symbol and figurehead to a movement that would sweep across the nation is an injustice to logic. The story of Zapata's crests and ebbs traverse local politics, insurgencies, and outright warring and international martyrdom.

What becomes evident of the pages of John Womack Jr's dedicated and highly detailed telling of the travails Zapata and his rugged, unremitting rabble is that the scope of the agrarian movement exponentially distends with every snub, assault or closed door in the faces of the poor farmers of the south.

To read of the obscene scenarios of peonage, penury and uniform despotism these people met at the hands of the commercial planters, and the state and federal government at their behest, is to read of fear, shame and guilt.

The bulk of the book puts the reader into the shoes of the Zapatista regulars, the farmers in their whites and sandals. From field to federal district they march, armed first with pleas, then Mausers for their cause. With a cast and crew of citizens (whose names and backgrounds are greatly detailed, making for a substantial gift of memory to keep straight), rallying behind their chief in the struggle to retain their communal lands and livelihood, the reader finds the intrigues and politicking as engrossing as the fiery escapades and raids against the Federales.

Of interest to an observer of the popular movement – especially after Zapata has risen to the patriarchal high of supreme general of the revolutionary army – is the Sissyphusian spiral that the leader and the movement plunges. That Zapata, a man who wanted only reform in the local land policy against those who were gaining while hardship reigned in the lives of the poor farmers, had to assume the role, to bear the target of the oppressing governments was unjust. His single-minded dedication to justice and land rights made him a hero, but this same single-mindedness also exposed him to a life wrested from the very farmland he wished to save.

What John Womack, Jr. offers is more narrative than simply historical in delivery. He makes use of impressive, ample quotes, insights and documents, both official and personal in accounting the social and political struggle that Mexico was home to in the early 20th century. The atrocities committed by every successive dictatorial regime, the waves of oppressive governments and their crushing armies; all is covered in great detail and expression.

The reader may well be swept up in the flurry of events. They may though, also be caught under the weight of the details, names and political entanglements of the revolution. That Womack was able to weave through all the broken alliances, nuances and sheer amount of partisans and players of the era is a testament to his exploratory depths and knowledge of the subject.

What struck me most, and as disheartening in the endeavours of the Zapatista mythology, is that for every length the man and mission moved forward, for every triumph and coup achieved, the displaced force was inexorably replaced by a worse entity.

From the initial ousting of the dictator Diaz came a champion, Francisco Madero. However, when Madero proved to be not only an opponent of change, but an enemy of the revolution, Zapata took the struggle further.

Seeing the devastation and forced deportation of the southern farmers, labour and draft of the people of the south, Zapata then moved against Huerta. Under the banner of the constitution, Carranza brings about nothing less than a continuation of the depravity and evils of a government against the needs of its citizens. Throughout all this turmoil, Zapata never moves from his initial goals of agrarian reform. The hubris shown in the decade of turmoil by the succession of generals, presidents and political bodies is extreme and most unsettling to dissect.

"Rebels of the South, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees" sums up, though posthumously uttered, the years of Zapata's revolution. The progress socially, economically and ethically of the common workingmen and poor farmers of Mexico is all that the man sought. Zapata was called to this in his village, took it all the way to the president (all subsequent ones) and paid the ultimate price for it.

Emiliano Zapata took up the challenges of local reform, and brought it to the district, the state, and to the federal level. He was forced by fate to become the champion of Mexico's poor and indigenous citizens. For this he has a place in the pantheon of rebel heroes and martyrs. What he really deserved though, and what he really wanted was to continue farming the traditional lands his family had been farming for generations before him.

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