Monday, August 31, 2009

In Review – The Texas Cowboy Cookbook

~ As a child growing up in the 1950s and 60s, my world was filled in part with stories and movies depicting the exciting life of the American cowboy.

From Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, to Saturday afternoon cowboy serials at my local cinema, and television series such as Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, and even The Cisco Kid, the American west was as much a part of my suburban Adelaide upbringing as it was for a child in New York City. And yes, I too played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ after school, and had to take my turn as one of the Indians who invariably ended up getting shot by my best friend whose turn it was to be “the fastest gun in the west”.

Which brings me to Robb Walsh’s wonderful 2007 publication, The Texas Cowboy Cookbook, and which, despite its title, is more than just a book filled with western recipes.

I think it is fair to say that I’ve learnt more about the history and the life of cowboys from this cookbook, than anything else I’ve read so far on the topic, which may seem strange when you think about it – but then I haven’t read too many histories of the American West, and anyway, this is no ordinary cookbook. Not when the cover proclaims that The Texas Cowboy Cookbook, is “A History in Recipes and Photos.” And what a history it is.

The boom years of the American West occurred after the American Civil War – from 1866 to 1886, a period of just 20 short years. Almost everything we think we know about the West: the myths and legends, the Indian wars and the cattle trails, the gunfights and the outlaws, stems from this period.

The Texas Cowboy Cookbook is divided into ten chapters, each beginning with historical information examining the chapter’s theme. For example, The Texas Cowboy Myth, examines the background to the myths surrounding the American West, and the methods used to transform what was a tough, hard, dangerous life on the American frontier into the stuff of legends.

One of the greatest myth makers was Colonel William Cody, more popularly known as “Buffalo Bill”. Cody, who was in fact an army scout and real life Indian fighter, caused a sensation whenever his ‘Wild West Shows’ toured the big cities along the Eastern seaboard, and brought some of the flavour of the west to well-healed city slickers. It was “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows” that apparently invented the ‘circling the wagons’ myth that became a staple scene in many early Hollywood Westerns.

In Los Vaqueros, we learn more about the influence of the Spanish on the American West. In fact, throughout the book, Robb Walsh constantly explodes another great Western myth – the one that almost universally depicts Mexicans as greasers, bandits and outlaws, and relegates their contribution to the periphery of cowboy mythology, or as mere footnotes (if that).

For me, chapter 6, Black Cowboys, was the most surprising section of the book. Again, Walsh explodes the myth that the American West and the cowboys that rode it were always tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed and white. There were plenty of Anglo cowboys of course, but as the book points out: “…Texas cattle-raisers also included Spanish vaqueros, black slaves, former slaves and free people of color, Cajuns, Creoles, and immigrants freshly arrived from Mexico, England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as other parts of the United States.”

While the exact number of African American cowboys will never be known: “The contention has been made that as many as 40 percent of all Texas cowboys were black.” Walsh writes that this claim depends on who is doing the counting. However, Walsh also writes that “By 1860 there were 180,000 slaves in Texas, 30 percent of the state’s population.”

It should come as no surprise then, that when the Civil War ended, many of the freed slaves continued to work as cowboys throughout the South and in Texas in particular.

And so to the diet of the American Cowboy.

If you thought the typical cowboy diet consisted of not much more than beans and beef, you would of course be wrong. Again The Texas Cowboy Cookbook illustrates, in more ways than one, that the western diet was influenced by a wide range of cultures and ingredients. From “…the wild game and goats preferred by the Spanish herders of the late 1700s, to the black Southern cooking of slaves and free people of color who worked as cowboys on East Texas ranches beginning in the early 1800s.”

The end of the Civil War also saw the arrival of bulk supplies of foodstuffs into the West. Now staples such as flour, coffee and lard were easy to come by. The advent of canning also saw a wide variety of foods (especially canned fruits) become available to cooks for use in recipes along the various routes used for extended cattle drives.

The Texas Cowboy Cookbook presents over 100 “genuine” cowboy recipes, as well as a selection of newer Western recipes created by modern cooks in what Walsh (in his final chapter) refers to as “The New Cowboy Cuisine”.

Starting with a look at the different types of chiles (including Anaheim, Poblano, Jalapeño, Serrano and Pequin – and their variants), Walsh takes the reader through ways to roast, grind, and make various chili sauces and salsas for year round use. In West of The Pecos we learn how to make a sourdough starter that can be used to make a continuous supply of sourdough pancakes, biscuits, hamburger buns, and more.

Having got the seasonings and the sourdoughs out of the way, the cookbook tackles the recipes proper. Everything you expected and a whole lot more is presented to the aspiring cowboy chef.

From Chili con Carne, to Chili con Queso; from Cinnamon Chicken to Green Gumbo with Fish; from Fried Green Tomatoes to Mexican Pot Roast. There are meat recipes aplenty: chicken, venison, pork and beef spare ribs, tenderloin steaks, and patties. You get soups and stews; corn bread, okra, and fatback; desserts like buttermilk-lemon pie, peach cobbler, and butter pecan ice-cream. There are noodle, rice, tomato, and onion dishes. And there are salads, sausages and sweet potato recipes. If you can’t find something to satisfy the hunger inside, you are not looking hard enough.

To end this review I will include just one recipe - for Cowboy Coffee. I look forward to the day when I’m watching a Western in my local cinema, and see the ‘cowboys’ make coffee this way – with water, coffee and a raw egg.

Wayne Walker’s Cowboy Coffee (makes 8 cups)
Wayne Walker’s technique for settling the grounds of coffee is to drop a whole raw egg into the coffee and stir it gently. It’s actually similar to the technique used by French chefs to clarify stock. Just don’t eat the egg.

8 heaping tablespoons medium-ground 100 percent Arabica coffee
8 cups spring water
1 raw egg

METHOD: In a metal coffeepot over medium heat, add the coffee to the water. Bring just to a boil and then reduce to a simmer (or move the pot to the side of the campfire) for a few minutes, or until strong enough. Break the egg into the pot and stir gently, being careful not to break the yolk. Wait at least 5 minutes without disturbing the pot. Pour carefully.

The Texas Cowboy Cookbook is generously illustrated with period black and white photographs and drawings, and includes a useful Resource Guide for readers wanting to find out more via the Internet. There is also a good Bibliography and a comprehensive Index.

The Texas Cowboy Cookbook, is worth reading for the historical information alone, but of course, if you want to try your hand at genuine old west recipes, the cookbook is the perfect place to start. So strap on your chaps, clear some space in the kitchen – or dig a fire pit in the back yard – and start cookin’. Yee-haa!

Title: The Texas Cowboy Cookbook
Author: Robb Walsh
Publisher: Broadway (April 10, 2007)
Language: English
Paperback: 272 pages
ISBN-10: 0767921496
ISBN-13: 978-0767921497

Click link to purchase The Texas Cowboy Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos or click link below to purchase book direct from Amazon.Com…

You can also purchase Robb Walsh’s The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos and Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses

Image courtesy of Amazon.Com

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Week That Was #10

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Welcome to my weekly collection of the Odd, the Useful, and the often Bizarre.

The Odd: Finland Talks Trash: Finland has developed a series of talking trash cans to help keep their cities cleaner and make visitors more aware of carelessly tossing trash. The trash cans also have the added benefit of teaching visitors a bit of the Finnish language. The talking trash bins greet passers-by and encourage them to throw their trash away. They are never at a loss for words. Tourists will be delighted to hear that the talking trash bins speak not only Finnish and Swedish, but also Japanese, English, German, Polish and Russian. Tourists can also learn the basics of the Finnish language, such as: “One of the sure signs of summer in Finland is that the trash bins start talking.” Read more here… or Watch a video of the talking trash bins on YouTube…

The Useful: World Trade Center Transportation Center. Consumer Traveller reports that the first rib-like forms of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Center (see image) are rising from the giant pit at the base of Ground Zero in Manhattan. This stunning structure is expected to cost more than US$3 billion and will not be completed for another four years. The building will be the transportation hub for the train station below the World Trade Center. Construction will involve miles of walkways for pedestrians below ground as well as facilities for repair and supply of the trains, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space. Read more here…

The Bizarre: Naked Swiss Hikers Must Cover Up. No, I’m not suggesting it is bizarre that naked hikers cover up, I’m with the Swiss authorities on this one. It seems the tiny Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden has voted to prohibit the phenomenon of naked hiking. Anyone found wandering the Alps wearing nothing but a sturdy pair of hiking boots will now be fined. Apparently the locals have been outraged by an upsurge in hikers who think the best way to appreciate the mountains is with their clothes off. The vote, taken at Appenzell's annual Landsgemeinde (an open-air meeting of all registered voters held in the town square), showed there was a big majority in favour of prohibiting naked hiking, and introducing fines of Sfr 200 ($175). Read more here…

Photo courtesy of the Spanish Institute

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Photo #8: Mallee Sunset

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Late afternoon sun has cast a stunning red glow on this tree alongside the Sturt Highway which runs between Adelaide, South Australia and Sydney, New South Wales.

The Murray Mallee is the grain-growing and sheep-farming area covering parts of South Australia and Victoria. The area is predominantly a vast low level plain, with sand hills and gentle undulating sandy rises, interspersed by flats. The area was originally covered in thick scrub, but large expanses were cleared for agricultural development beginning as early as the 1880's. Most of the remaining natural vegetation is in national parks.

Mallees are the dominant vegetation throughout semi-arid areas of Australia where they form extensive woodlands and shrublands covering over 250,000 square kilometres. Thus mallee woodlands and shrublands are considered one of Australia's Major Vegetation Groups.

Just for the record, this image is exactly how it came out of my Canon Powershot S1 IS digital camera. It has not been touched up or enhanced in any way what-so-ever.

Photograph: Mallee Sunset, by Jim Lesses

Location: Dukes Highway, South Australia, April 2009.

With thanks to Wikipedia for information about the Mallee

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Best-Laid Plans…

~ According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it was Robert Burns who wrote: “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley.” Or as we might say today: The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

I am ruminating on this after having spent nearly seven hours yesterday transferring footage from a series of video tapes onto my computer. The tapes, shot on my Panasonic video camera, are of my trip to Sydney during March and April earlier this year.

In addition to the four tapes I had from that trip, I have spent several more hours transferring footage from a number of other family events that have taken place this year. Add a box full of other cassettes to all this, and you begin to get a picture of a man who needs to find a workable system of archiving his numerous home movies.

As the self-appointed family documentarian, I am never far from my camera, and while I enjoy capturing the family at important family events, and turning the footage into short films, I often leave the work of transferring the original footage until long after the events have taken place.

When I returned from my trip overseas last year, I had dozens of tapes documenting my travels. In addition to the tapes, I had thousands of photographs in folders organised by month, week, and week day. I have yet to go through these folders and cull out the bad photographs: that is, the blurry, the poorly framed, the repetitions, and the just plain boring ones.

I guess all travellers have similar problems. Once the excitement of the trip is over, and we settle back into the daily grind of work and life, it is easy to forget we even spent that wonderful week in Hawaii, or New York City, or wandering the streets of London or Athens. Photos get transferred to hard drives, video tapes get put away in boxes or bottom drawers, and life goes on.

And so to my ‘best-laid plans’ to create exciting holiday films with which to wow my family and friends.

Even as I research my next travel adventure, my family and others are still waiting to see my videos, and the best of my travel photographs. They may be waiting for a long time, yet, unfortunately. However, as my forthcoming trip looms ever closer, I feel a need to get my ‘house’ in order, otherwise I will return from my next trip with even more tapes and photographs, and never find time to show off any of my handiwork.

So what has worked for you? Any suggestions or tips you can offer, dear reader, will be gratefully received.

Meanwhile, I’ve got work to do. There’s a box of tapes waiting to be processed and edited.

Image: Statue of Robert Burns in Central Park, New York

Photo courtesy of Wahaj Zaidi at Panoramio...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Breathtaking Temples To Explore On Bali Holidays

~ Whilst on your Bali holidays take some time out to visit the beautiful temples of the region. Whether you're exploring Hindu temples located in bat caves or a temple dedicated to the dragon god of the mountain, you'll be blown away by the myths and legends that surround these sacred places of worship.

The hotels in Bali may be opulent, but they have nothing on the decadent temples of the region. Of all the Bali temples the best known is the Besakih Temple, which is also known as the Mother Temple. The temple is located on the side of Mount Agung, with the mountain peaks giving it an almost mythical quality. On your Bali holiday take a tour to this temple which is perched at 1,000 feet up the mountain and named after the dragon god that is said to inhabit the mountain.

The Besakih temple is the only temple in which a Hindu of any caste system can worship, and this is due to the eighteen separate sanctuaries housed within the Besakih . The three main shrines in this temple are dedicated to the Hindu gods: Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, and on your Bali holidays you will see a number of Balinese people who have made the pilgrimage to lay yellow marigold flowers upon their deities' shrines.

A popular temple with tourists on their Bali holiday tours is the 'Goa Lawah' which literally translates to 'Bat Cave'. The temple is not only a popular visitor attraction but is also a place of religious importance to the Balinese people. It is one of the nine directional temples that protect Bali from evil spirits, with the Goa Lawah protecting from the evil of the South-East. The temple is not for the faint-hearted on their Bali holidays, as it is located in a temple filled with thousands and thousands of flittering bats. If you're not keen on bats then you probably won't want to hear that the bat cave is also considered the home of the giant legendary snake, Naga Basuki, who was thought to be the caretaker of the earth's equilibrium.

If you're after a temple that's a little less sinister on your Bali holidays then why not take a trip to the Pura Luhur Temple? This temple is considered to be one of the best places in Bali to catch a sunset. Pura Luhur is located in Uluwata, which is also home to some of the best hotels in Bali, and with the Indian Ocean located nearby this is an ideal place to visit on your Bali tour holiday. The temple, which is dedicated to the spirits of the sea and made exclusively from black coral rock, is also considered to be one of the country's archaeological wonders.

Another temple located next to the Indian Ocean is the Tanah Lot Temple, situated on a huge rock in the middle of the ocean. It was built in the 16th Century by one the last priests to come to Bali from Java, and like the Pura Luhur Temple, is also dedicated to the guardian spirits of the sea.

When you take a Bali holiday tour to the Tanah Lot Temple, you may want to watch your footing on the way up as the sea is littered with poisonous sea snakes. These are believed to be the temples guardians standing vigil against any evil spirits, or any would-be intruders who may want to visit the spectacular temple during their Bali holidays.


Claire Bryant is a Bali holidays specialist for key2holidays, an online tour operator specialising in Bali hotels, as well as holidays to Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, Italy, the Far East, the Maldives, Mauritius Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, and Dubai. key2holidays has a dedicated team of experienced travel consultants to share their knowledge and help you to plan and book your ideal holiday.

Besakih Temple image courtesy of Photobucket…

Monday, August 24, 2009

These Boots Are (Not) Made For Walking

~ Yesterday afternoon I went for a long walk, and in the process discovered just how incredibly unfit I am.

I walked down Military Road to Cambridge Terrace, then down to the Esplanade, before walking back along the beach path and up Semaphore Road to home. I mapped the route on Google Maps today and found the total distance is eight kilometres/5 miles (click image to view route full size).

By the end of my walk I was tired and sweaty, and almost limping. In fact, my calf muscles are still aching today.

It occurred to me last night (in what had to be the understatement of the day), that I am not as young as I used to be. In fact, when I go travelling again next year I will be pretty much exactly two years older than I was last year. Then, I was a mere lad of 59. Next March when I set off, I will be 61, and as far as the government is concerned – a Senior Citizen. Not an old aged pensioner, mind you – just a Senior. I still have some years to go before I officially become an OAP – not that I’m in a hurry to reach that landmark.

However, just as I wanted to improve my overall fitness levels before I travelled in 2008, so too do I want to improve my ability to walk reasonable distances before I again set off next year. Given that I spend far too long sitting in front of a computer, and given too, that the amount of physical activity I undertake each day is quite frankly minimal, I have a lot of work to do before the end of March 2010.

Ok, ok, it’s time to be brutally honest. I currently weigh around 105 kilograms, which translates to around 231 pounds! For a person of my age, that is clearly too much, and whether I travel or not, I have to try and reduce my weight by at least 10 kilograms (22 pounds). It’s a big ask, as they say, and I don’t know if I am going to be able to achieve it, but I have to do something, otherwise I know I will be struggling next year.

The obvious reason I write about this today is because if I am going to enjoy the travel experience as much as possible, I have to be reasonably fit and healthy to do so. Yes, I could take a tour and spend 80 percent of my time sitting on a bus taking in the sites, but if you have read more than one entry on The Compleat Traveller, you will gather that I am not the type of person to engage in that form of travel.

The good news is that down here in the Southern Hemisphere spring is just around the corner, and the long hot days of summer are on the way. This means I can look forward to six months of fine hot weather, and lots of walks along the beach, and even the occasional dip in the ocean. If I have some success in the area of weight reduction and increased fitness – I’ll report back via these pages. Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Week That Was #9

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Welcome to my weekly collection of The Odd, The Useful, and The Downright Bizarre.

The Odd: Rhyolite, Nevada Bottle Building - In 1906, in the old ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada a saloon owner named Tom Kelly, built a house out of bottles because lumber was scarce at the time. Reportedly he used some 50,000 beer, whiskey, soda and medicine bottles to build the structure which still stands today. Mr. Kelley was 76 years old when he built the house and it took him almost six months to complete. Read more here…

The Useful: The Rule of Thirds. Ned Levi is a professional photographer who points out the rationale behind the “Rule of Thirds”, the concept that the most eye-pleasing photographic compositions split the field of view into roughly equal thirds, and that the scene’s important compositional elements are placed along these lines or their intersections. It doesn’t matter whether you are using a typical consumer-level, point-and-shoot camera, or the most expensive professional digital SLR, the ‘rule’ has been in use for hundreds of years by generations of artists and photographers, and for a very good reason. It works. Read more here…

The Downright Bizarre: The Illegal Border Crossing Tour in Mexico. Yes, you read it right. This tour apparently lets you the experience the drama and the adrenalin rush of being an illegal immigrant trying to cross the Mexican border in the United States. According to a New York Times reporter who tried it, the locals want tourists to understand the experiences and traumas that illegal immigrants face. During the night-time guided hike you’ll be chased in the dark, shot at by (fake) police, and you may or may not make it under the fence. But you’ll definitely have an interesting story to tell the folks back home. Read more here…

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Photo #7: My Island Home, Ikaria, Greece

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This stunning view along the south coast of the north-east Aegean island of Ikaria was taken late in the afternoon from the terrace of my sisters house at Partheni. The beach in the foreground is Kampos Beach, and the cluster of homes in the middle distance are part of the port town of Evthilos. The village on the hillside in the far distance is Karavostamo.

Imagine waking up to this view every morning! Or maybe sitting on the terrace at the end of a long hot summer day, with a Greek coffee, or home made wine in hand, and watching the ever changing colours as the sun slowly sets in the west.

If there is a heaven out there somewhere, this would be one of my ideal visions of it.

Photograph: My Island Home, by Jim Lesses
Location: Ikaria, Greece, April 2008.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Solo Travellers eBook

~ In a previous entry on this blog (Flying Solo) I wrote about some of the pros and cons of solo travel. And since I am someone who likes to travel solo as much as I can, I was immediately interested when I saw a reference to GLAD YOU’RE NOT HERE: A Solo Traveler’s Manifesto on one of the forums on Trip Advisor.

The Manifesto, which was written by Janice Waugh, can be downloaded as a .PDF document, and at only 15 pages is a quick, but useful read. It looks at why you might like to consider solo travel – and while not dismissing the value of travelling with a companion, it does a good job of arguing the case for travelling solo.

Janice says the Manifesto is for anyone who is not only unsure about travelling solo, but for those not sure about what they will get out of the experience. It is also for those whose family and friends don’t understand why you may want to travel on your own. Helpfully, she outlines some reasons for embarking on a journey by yourself.

Like the independence that comes with solo travel.

  • As a solo traveller, you can do what interests you, when you want and at a pace that suits you. You don’t need to compromise your choices or explain your decisions.
  • By travelling on your own you are more likely to mix with other travellers and get out to meet the locals.
  • Travelling by yourself often forces you to stretch yourself, to move out of your comfort zone, to develop new skills, and in the process allows you to discover things about yourself you may never have known.
  • Solo travel builds your self-confidence: in your ability to plan, and organise each detail of your journey; your ability to move around in unfamiliar cultures; and even your ability to learn a second or third language – no matter how rudimentary.

As I approach my 61st birthday, and plan my next solo trip for 2010, I am delighted to have read the Solo Traveler’s Manifesto. It has helped reinforce my confidence in my abilities to continue travelling on my own, when sometimes my body and mind try to undermine that confidence.

Although I have travelled solo in the past, without incident or accident, it never hurts to have other people reaffirm your decisions, and offer encouragement and support for future endeavours, and this is exactly what GLAD YOU’RE NOT HERE: A Solo Traveler’s Manifesto does.

Visit the Solo Traveler Blog

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spanish is The Loving Tongue

~ Hola! Como se llama usted?

In my entry for July 7 (Never To Old To Live And Learn) I wrote that I had signed up for a ten week Spanish for Fun and Travel course at the WEA, an adult learning institution here in Adelaide.

I’m now two weeks into the course, and desperately trying to remember and practise everything I’m learning. The hardest part is not having anyone to talk to, or practise with. So with that in mind, I went searching for language classes online to see if I could find a site to supplement my classes.

As you might imagine there are literally hundreds if not thousands of websites that offer language courses either for free or for a fee. The best of them provide some lessons free to get you started, and a ‘premium’ service for a fee.

After conducting several hours of research and trying some of the sites, I have settled on a great online resource that is proving to be a treasure trove of help for language learners like myself.

The site is the Radio Lingua Network.

On the Radio Lingua Network you can listen to, and download audio files for at least 18 languages. These include the obvious ones like French, Spanish, Italian, and German, but also less obvious languages such as Catalan, Gaelic and Irish, Luxembourgish, Polish and Russian, Danish and Norwegian, Greek and Turkish, and others.

The downloadable resources for Spanish alone run to 80 audio lessons of between 15 and 20 minutes each. And these Coffee Break Spanish lessons are free!

If you opt to pay for the Premium lessons, here’s what you get:

  • 15-20 minute enhanced audio lesson which includes flashcards for iPhone/iPod Touch and other iPod models

  • Printable lesson guide which outlines all the words and phrases covered in the lesson, additional vocabulary and notes

  • Bonus listening material: 8-10 minutes of extra listening which helps to consolidate the language covered in the main lesson

  • All materials available via a one-click download through iTunes

  • Platinum content for level 1 and 2 which includes wordlists, review exercises and key

So why am I paying for a language class when I can listen online and download lessons for free?

Because there is nothing quite as good as being in a room filled with other students practising and using the language as it is intended to be used – in conversation between real people. I also have the benefit of getting help and feedback from my teacher, and the added ability to ask questions, clarify pronunciation, and gain confidence using my new language skills.

However, the benefits of using the audio lessons on the Radio Lingua Network are that I can have them playing on my computer (as I write this for instance), which helps reinforce what I have already learnt, and prepares me for the lessons to come.

By the way, if you are a member of Twitter, you can follow the Network and sign up for language specific ‘tweets’ every time a new lesson for your chosen language has been added to the RLN site.

I would like to point out that I am not associated with the Radio Lingua Network, either as an affiliate, subscriber to their services (although I should be), or in any other way. I just happen to think they are providing an incredibly valuable service (especially the free lessons), and think too that more people should know about and support them.

PS: The opening Spanish paragraph reads: Hello! What is your name?

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Review: Bypass: The Story of a Road

~ At the age of 40, former Jesuit priest, Michael McGirr – armed with not much more than a copy of Anna Karenina, some spare clothes and a less than state-of-the-art Chinese built bicycle – set out to ride the 880 kilometres (547 miles) of the Hume Highway which links Sydney and Melbourne.

While the ride forms the backdrop to McGirr’s book Bypass: The Story of a Road, like all good travelogue’s the ride itself is really just a frame to hang the real story around, which as the title suggests, is the story of the Hume Highway.

From its humble beginnings as a rough track across the Great Dividing Range, to it’s current state as a modern dual carriageway, the Highway continues to serve as the major thoroughfare linking Australia’s two largest cities.

Bypass takes you on a wonderful journey covering the history of the Hume, and the politics that helped shape it. Along the way you meet some great – and not so great – Australian characters that have helped imprint the name of the highway into the Australian psyche. People like the 61 year old Cliff Young (great), who in 1983 won the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne foot race against competitors half his age. And men like Ivan Milat (not so great) who was convicted of the murder of seven young backpackers and hitch-hikers, all of whom he buried in the Belanglo State Forest.

Then there are the explorers Hamilton Hume (after whom the Highway was eventually named) and William Hovell, who in 1824 along with at least six others, set of from Appin (near the present day Sydney suburb of Campbelltown) for the first successful quest to reach Melbourne. We also meet truckies; the bushrangers Ben Hall and Ned Kelly; the dog that shat on – or in – the tucker box; and the poets ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson. We attend a Catholic Mass in Tarcutta – officially the halfway point between Sydney and Melbourne – where apart from the priest and two parishoners, the only other people in attendance are the author of Bypass and his companion Jenny, who has by this time joined him on his ride to Melbourne.

We visit almost every country town along the route of the Hume Highway, and learn something about each of them. Towns like Goulburn, famous for the Big Merino and Goulburn Jail (where Ivan Milat is currently serving seven life sentences). We visit Holbrook and learn why the outer shell of the Oberon Class submarine HMAS Otway now sits in a public park in the middle of town. In Chiltern we pass by the childhood home of the Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson, and learn that Henry’s real name was Ethel Florence. We learn too, that like other female writers have done throughout history, Ethel wrote under a male nom de plume because at the time it was felt that women didn’t have what it took to be great writers. And we also visit the town of Yass, and drop by the Liberty Café for a meal before continuing on our journey.

Now, I have to confess this section of the book took me completely by surprise, and was one of the great unexpected pleasures I got out of Bypass. Let me explain why.

Some years ago, I was returning to Adelaide from Australia’s national capital, Canberra, and on a whim decided to pass through the town of Yass, which is some 60 kilometres or so from Canberra. Because I had been on the road less than an hour, and because I could see no reason to stop in Yass, I simply left the Hume Highway, drove into town and up along Yass’s main street, while all the time looking left and right taking a mental snapshot of the landscape. I then headed back out onto the Hume and continued on my way.

It may seem such an odd thing to do, but then I am prone to do odd things on no more than a whim, and this was one of those occasions. The reason I write about it now is that as I drove up Comur Street, Yass’s main throughfare, my gaze fell on a small dining establishment called the Liberty Café.

At this point I should mention that apart from putting this blog together, one of the other ‘strings’ I’ve added to my ‘bow’ is songwriting. So within minutes of passing through Yass I began writing a song called The Liberty Café*. This song subsequently appeared on my second album American Dream, and remains one of my favourite songs. Never the less, I had always regreted not stopping in at the café as I drove through town. I’m pleased to say I made amends for that lapse earlier this year, when in April, I again drove to Sydney, and this time I did stop at the Liberty Café for a meal break. In fact, I stopped there for a second time on my way back to Adelaide. So, as I say, it was a delightful surprise to read about the Café in Bypass, and know that of all the restaurants and cafés in Yass, Michael McGirr had also been drawn to the Liberty.

Across its many short chapters, Bypass also introduces us to some of the thousands of bumper stickers that adorn the rear ends of many Australian vehicles. In fact, McGirr uses stickers as chapter headings to introduce us to every aspect of his journey. Thus, the bumper sticker THE OLDER I GET THE BETTER I WAS, allows him to explain some of his own personal story and the reasons for his decision to ride the Hume Highway. In the chapter THE GODDESS IS DANCING, McGirr introduces us to his riding partner Jenny, and in DEATH IS THE MANUFACTURER’S RECALL NOTICE, we pause to learn about some of the many roadside memorials that mark the sites of fatal road accidents that line the Highway.

To conclude, Bypass is a book that ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my personal criteria for a good travelogue. The book is immensly readable, always entertaining and informative, often surprising, and constantly filled with odd facts and humourous anecdotes. These keep the story moving along smoothly and effortlessly – which can not always be said of Michael McGirr’s monumental bike ride.

I began this review by writing “like all good travelogue’s the ride itself is really just a frame to hang the real story around, which as the title suggests, is the story of the Hume Highway.” But it should also be said, that Bypass: The Story of a Road is not merely the story of one relatively short (by Australian standards) stretch of highway. It is also about the history of this country, and about the people who have helped build and shape it into the modern land it has now become.

UPDATE, MAY 2011: At the time I wrote this review Bypass...  was out of print. However, I'm delighted to report the book is back in print and available from Amazon.Com. Michael McGirr has also written Things You Get For Free which is also available from Amazon. To make the purchase of both books easy for you, I've added direct links for both books below.

Click here... Bypass: The Story of a Road to purchase Michael McGirr's book. Click the link below to purchase McGirr's Things You Get For Free.

Further Reading at Wikipedia

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Week That Was #8

~ Welcome to my weekly collection of The Odd, The Useful, and The Downright Bizarre.

The Odd: Kandovan – The Stone Village. Is this the village that inspired the setting for Riven, the setting for part three of the Myst series of games? Kandovan (Candovan) is a tourist village located near the city of Tabriz, in Iran. Legend says the first inhabitants of Kandovan moved here to escape from the invading Mongols. They dug hideouts in the volcanic rock and ultimately ended up transforming them into permanent houses. It is now one of Iran’s most popular tourist destinations and the rock-houses rival the famous Cappadocia Hotel.

The Useful: Niagara Falls Webcam. Never been to Niagara Falls – the most powerful waterfall in North America? Don’t worry dear reader, you can watch six million cubic feet of water fall over the crest line every minute in high flow from the comfort of your own home, simply by tuning into the Niagara Falls webcam attached to the Sheraton on The Falls Hotel. Of course, you will have to adjust your time zone to suit. As I type this it is 11.30pm at the Falls, and all I can see is a dark, grainy image of something which looks like water flowing in the murky blackness. However, I will be back to take another look during daylight hours. In the meantime, I am looking at a huge interactive map here… to help me get my bearings.

The Downright Bizarre: Ryanair Poll - Passengers Would Fly Standing. No, it’s not an April Fools Day joke, according to a Ryanair online poll, 66% of 120,000 respondents said they would be willing to stand in the cabin on flights one hour or shorter if the fare was free. Well, for a flight of less than an hour, I guess even I would be happy to stand if it meant getting there for free. However, the figures change as the options become less accommodating. Read more here…

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Photo #6: America For Sale

Click image to view full size

I encountered this massive mural on the wall of a building on the corner of Garnet Street and Smith Street, in the Brooklyn suburb of Red Hook (close to the Smith St/9th St., station for the ‘F’ and ‘G’ trains).

The artist is Scott LoBaido, who has made a name for himself by painting huge murals featuring the American flag on buildings in every U.S. state. I should point out that America For Sale is the title I gave the photograph, it is not (as far as I am aware) Scott’s title for his mural. In fact, after looking at his website, I think it is fair to say that Scott is a flag waving patriot – and unashamedly so. So I’m not sure what he would make of my title for his mural.

However, while I was setting up to take photographs of the mural, a man who happened to be passing stopped to tell me how appropriate the juxtaposition between the ‘For Sale’ sign and the mural on the wall was. Of course, it was exactly this juxtaposition that had caught my attention in the first place.

America is being sold off to the Chinese’, he loudly informed me, clearly not happy with the idea. All I could do with empathise and tell him that the same thing had been happening in Australia for years. I’m not sure he left any happier, but maybe he found some comfort knowing others were suffering the same fate!

The New York Daily News site has a short article and 3:38 minute video of Scott talking about his 50 mural Flags Across Staten Island project…

Photograph: America For Sale, by Jim Lesses

Location: Brooklyn, New York, April 2008.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

40 Money Saving Travel Websites

~ You have to love the internet. I know I do. It is a very rare day when I can not find information about the obscurest topic I can think of, or feel like exploring further.

Since this blog is focussed pretty much on all things to do with travel, and since too, I am constantly researching for my own travel adventures, I am always happy to find other sites outlining ways to cut down on my own travel costs. So when I found an article by Lynn Truong listing the 40 Most Useful Travel Websites That Can Save You a Fortune, I was immediately interested.

Lynn breaks the list down into three groups; Cheap Flights and Accommodation, Destination Guides and Travel Communities, and Budget Traveler Magazines and Blogs.

Among the sites in Cheap Flights and Accommodation, Lynn lists a perennial favourite for discerning budget travellers everywhere: CouchSurfing, the worldwide community the brings together generous hosts and adventurous travellers seeing the world on the cheap. Then there is Yapta – which stands for Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant. Yapta notifies you when prices for flights drop. It can do it even after you purchase your tickets, giving you a chance to get a refund of the difference from the airline.

Under Destination Guides and Travel Communities, you will find several sites I myself am a member of (like BootsnAll Travel, and Lonely Planet), and numerous others including The Backpacker (for reviews of local bars, restaurants, accommodations, attractions, and tours) and IgoUgo (with more than 500,000 travelers on IgoUgo sharing trip stories and pictures, they've built a library of honest opinions, tips, and experiences that you won’t find in any guidebook).

Finally there is the Budget Traveler Magazines and Blogs suggestions. Here you will find some amazing blogs by some of the world’s most adventurous travellers – many on extended round the world journeys. Among my personal favourites are Matt Gross’s Frugal Traveler blog in which Matt seeks out high style on a low budget; The Professional Hobo where Nora Dunn writes about her round-the-world vagabonding life; and Working Your Way Around the World – a site that shows it is possible to pick up and move to different parts of the world on a regular basis — and work along the way.

Take a look at Lynn Truong’s full list here

While you are there, make sure you read through the Comments for even more great money saving tips and ideas…

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Charm of Broadway

~ By Joy Cagil

We always leave a beloved place in order to return to it sometime. Broadway in New York city is such a place for me, and I return to it as often as I can. Sometimes, I take a flight to JFK or to the La Guardia Airports and then a taxi to a hotel in Manhattan as close to or in Broadway; at other times, I return to it in my heart and in my writings.

Broadway has inspired many poets. Of the old school, Sandburg has the pessimistic look when he says: "Hearts that know you hate you/... Cursing the dreams that were lost / In the dust of your harsh and trampled stones." Walt Whitman's excited and dynamic words describe more of what I feel about this parcel of New York City: " Florid with blood, pensive, rapt with musings, hot with passion, /Sultry with perfume, with ample and flowing garments." In fact, Broadway is and has been the theatre district not only for the United States but possibly for the entire world

Broadway, today, extends from the 34th Street to the 56th, on the east and the west of the avenue called Broadway with Times Square at its core. Broadway is most famous for its stage shows. The longest running Broadway shows to date are The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miserables, A chorus Line, Oh! Calcutta, Beauty and the Beast, and Rent.

Broadway's becoming a theatre district goes far back to the time before the Revolutionary War. In mid-eighteenth century when two actors wanted to bring the staging of the plays of Shakespeare to Manhattan, the seeds of Broadway were sown. The first theatre in Manhattan was in Nassau Street. Later on, P.T. Barnum operated an entertainment complex at Broadway and Prince Street. During the first few years, a variety of shows entertained the working and the middle classes. When the Astor Place Theater opened, these theatre goers rose in a riot, objecting to the upper class audiences.

The first performance that added dance and music to a play was The Black Crook, in 1866. Its duration was five and a half hours. This musical attracted so many audiences that musicals became high quality entertainment. At the turn of the twentieth century, some of the earliest musicals were Cakewalk, George Washington Jr., A Trip to Coontown, The Fortune Teller, Little Johnny Jones, and 45 Minutes from Broadway.

Twentieth Century brought Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta, and The Red Mill. Since colored lights did not last long, white lights were used at the time; thus, Broadway took the nickname "The Great White Way."

The advent of the motion picture industry and the Actors Equity Association strike were feared to bring a halt to Broadway; quite the contrary, during the roaring twenties, Broadway flourished and added serious drama to its light-hearted repertoire and Ziegfeld revues. Oklahoma was the first such hit. At that time, Noel Coward, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg produced memorable work alongside with the eternal Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart.

Then, in 1947, Tony Awards were established to recognize the best performers and performances of the American Theater and especially Broadway. Nowadays, most shows are made for profit by the many theatre establishments in the area, although some are produced by non-profit organizations such as the Roundabout Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Club, and The Lincoln Center Theater. On the average, musicals run longer than non-musical plays, and some of the successful musicals and plays go on tour to other cities in the off season or after their curtains close on Broadway.

Besides the Broadway theatre district, smaller Off Broadway theatres that are located between 57th and 72nd Streets offer less publicized, less expensive, yet more experimental and daring plays. Sporadically, a successful Off Broadway show will later run on a Broadway stage. Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Godspell, Chorus Line, and Sunday in the Park with George are among such works.

Then, in Manhattan exist Off-Off-Broadway theatres with less that 100 seats for staging smaller amateur performances such as the Flea Theater in TriBeCa. After K. W. Bromley referred to Off-Off-Broadway as "Indie Theater" in his acceptance of an Innovative Theater award in 2005, Off-Off-Broadway shows are sometimes called the Indie Theater shows.

Broadway shows' greatest rival today is the television. The finest plays and musicals and the most talented theatre actors have to compete with the corniest TV shows for audience recognition, mainly because of the high cost of the tickets and the amount of people a theatre can hold. Watching a live stage show, a serious play, or a musical is a great thrill that cannot be matched by the movies or the television.

For me, the streets of Broadway add to the dash of its theatres, musicals, comedy clubs, and movie houses. Broadway and Times Square is where I can walk in and out of two to five-star hotels, coffee houses like the Starbucks, diners and gourmet restaurants; or where I can browse inside all kinds of shops but especially gift shops that sell theatre paraphernalia such as costumes, masks, and props; or I can stroll and absorb the excitement of other pedestrians, the street-corner preachers, and the lights of the establishments while I watch the limousines bringing actors to performances and actors signing autographs in front of the theatre buildings, or an occasional scalper selling last minute tickets to shows with the corner of his eye guarding the whereabouts of the police.

Like Whitman, I too, "arising, answering, descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze," because with all its coquettishness, Broadway makes life turn around our drama of existence.

Joy Cagil is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Writers.

Article Source:

Image: Young Frankenstein, Broadway, May 11, 2008

Photo: Jim Lesses

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