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

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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.

Article Source:

Monday, October 5, 2009

Welcome to the World of CouchSurfing

Recently, my housemate and I hosted our first couch surfer. Mark, 23, was from Houston, Texas, and was in the process of hitch-hiking from Melbourne to Darwin. He contacted me via my CouchSurfing profile, seeking to stay with us in Adelaide for a few days. My housemate and I said, Yes, and in due course, Mark arrived and spent several days with us.

As this was our first couch surfing experience, we were a little apprehensive about how things would pan out. However, our ‘apprehensions’ were entirely unnecessary. I spent three days playing host to Mark, showing him around the local area where we visited Fisherman’s Wharf, a Maritime Museum, and embarked on a dolphin cruise, as well as a quick tour of the city centre.

For his part, Mark was a quiet, respectful, and pleasant young man, who found time to cook us dinner and share some of his travel experiences with us.

For those readers who are yet to discover the concept of CouchSurfing (to use its official ‘brand’ name), let me quote extensively from the CouchSurfing website.

CouchSurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travellers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.

Our mission as an organization is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating. These experiences take many forms. CouchSurfing's initial focus was on hosting and 'surfing' (staying with a local as a guest in their home). Alongside these core experiences, we now also facilitate a growing array of activities and events.

We have a vision of a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Each CouchSurfing experience shared by our members brings us closer to that vision.

So how does CouchSurfing work? Like many social networking sites, you sign in and create a profile for yourself. This profile includes your interests, philosophy, a personal description of yourself, and most importantly, space to describe your ‘couch’ information, that is, the type of accommodations you are able to offer a visitor – or couch surfer. Some hosts have a spare bedroom available, while others literally offer no more than a couch or mattress on the floor.

The length of stay is always negotiated in advance via direct contact with the person requesting the couch. Generally, anywhere from one to three nights seems to be the average length of stay, but this is entirely up to the host.

Also the number of visitors you choose to host is up to you and detailed on your profile page. Again, generally, most hosts can accommodate one or two visitors at any one time, but others may have facilities to offer space for more.

No money changes hands during the couch surfing visit. You host, or you are hosted without cost. Since visitors are guests in your home, it is not part of the CouchSurfing philosophy to see money exchanged for accommodations.

By the way, you can use your CouchSurfing profile page to spell out your own hosting conditions to potential visitors. For example, if you are vegetarian, a smoker/non-smoker, have pets, party hard or like to go to bed early, etc. All these can be made clear to surfers before they ask to stay with you, thereby eliminating the potential for a less than ideal hosting experience.

Part of my own profile reads: There are currently two people in the house - a 61 year old male (that's me) and my niece who is in her late 30s. We are both non-smokers, try to eat sensibly, drink moderately, and like to get a good night's sleep… I should point out that none of the residents are 'party animals' anymore, so if you want to rage late into the night, you might consider other couches elsewhere with more energetic hosts. We tend to be in bed by midnight - most nights.

I figure that anyone reading that, who still wants to stay with my niece and myself is probably looking for a reasonably quiet host to stay with, rather than a host who wants to stay up drinking, and partying late into the night.

Members can also add comments/references to the profiles of their visitors, and visitors can inturn add comments/references to the profiles of their hosts, thus providing feedback for other potential travellers/hosts.

When I myself travel next year, I hope to use the CouchSurfing website to put me in touch with fellow members around the world, which will enhance the whole travel experience I am engaged on. Given that the CouchSurfing community now numbers over 1.4 million members in over 65,000 cities, and speaks 1,270 unique languages, I think it is fair to say that travelling need never be same again.

We will be hosting a German traveller during November, so I expect to return to the topic of CouchSurfing more than once on this blog. In the meantime, why not head on over to the CouchSurfing website to learn more. If you like what you see, become a member yourself, and join this amazing world-wide community of travellers, hosts, and supporters.

I’ll leave the last word to a CouchSurfing member going under the name I Wanna Go To Tahiti who writes:

"CouchSurfing is just amazing. I joined this community a couple of years ago. Since then, I've had incredible experiences with all the people I've hosted, met at the gatherings, and whose couch I've surfed, from France to Vietnam. In everyday life, it can be hard to find deeply motivated, nonconformist, cultured people with high goals in life: really interesting people. But CouchSurfing is just full of these individuals. It's a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it. The CouchSurfing project definitely changed my life. And it has changed many people's lives. Through this process, connecting people from elsewhere, bringing them together, I believe the world is also going to change. Perhaps we don't see it now. But in the future, we will." ~ IWANNAGOTOTAHITI (Spain)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Photo #13: Moreton Bay Fig

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Rising out of the earth like some type of prehistoric creature, this Moreton Bay Fig tree in one of Sydney’s inner city gardens, serves to remind us of just how transient our lives and years on this planet really are.

Hopefully, long after I have gone, this tree will still be standing here; its massive branches reaching higher into the sky, and its thick green leaves providing even more shade for the people sheltering under its canopy from winter showers and summer heat.

Imagine for a moment, the power it takes to keep those huge branches extended for generations at a time. If one of those branches was to be severed from the trunk, you would need a large team of draft horses to shift it even a few metres, such would be its weight. And yet the tree itself has stood (for who knows how many years), growing ever taller, broader, and more magnificent.

Long may it continue to do so.

Image: Moreton Bay Fig, Sydney

Photographer: Jim Lesses

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In the Shadow of the Samurai

~ I have been a long time fan of the late Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, ever since I first saw his classic samurai epic, Seven Samurai. If you are not familiar with the work of Kurosawa, you will almost certainly be familiar with the work of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Sergio Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, and the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven.

What these three films have in common is the fact that they are all remakes of, or films inspired by Kurosawa films. Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo, and The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

What got me thinking about all this is a press release which crossed my desk (umm, computer screen), recently announcing a tour focussing specifically on the culture of the samurai warrior. Since I am not the only person fascinated by these ancient fighters and their culture, I thought I would pass on the information here.

Esprit Travel & Tours are specialists in tours which deeply immerse travellers into the heart of Japanese culture. The company is offering a new tour with a focus on the history and culture of the samurai. The way of the samurai, known as bushido, has fascinated westerners for hundreds of years. In this tour (planned for April/May, 2010), group members will travel through Japan focusing on the era of the samurai, with introductions to the castles, battlefields, customs and the mystique of the samurai.

The tour will include visits to a range of original, reconstructed and castle ruins which offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of the ruling class of the samurai. Participants will also attend a festival commemorating the battle of Nagashino, which serves as a template for discussions of the important battles that delineated the epoch periods of Japanese history. Introductions into the ancient craft of sword making, along with special sessions with sword masters will allow you to come to a greater understanding of the importance of the sword in Japanese culture.

Staying at an authentic onsen will immerse you in the style of living experienced by the samurai for centuries with tatami-matted rooms, full kaiseki meals and luxurious hot spring baths. As an upscale tour of one of Japan’s major historical threads – the way of the samurai that is woven into the very fabric of Japanese culture.

If you have ever yearned to learn more about the way of the samurai and explore historic Japan with its castles and donjons, now is the time to do it. Call Esprit to register at 800-337-7481 or visit to learn more. The Shadow of the Samurai Tour is a 12-day journey from April 30 – May 12, 2010 and costs approximately $6,250. More details about the tour itinerary can be found here…

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