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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nice Post


I'm sitting here in the "cafe" area of our hotel here in Nice, France, checking email and updating the blog while listening to the TV behind me that seems to be tuned into a French version of Big Brother...but with a cat, some Unsolved Mysteries and lots of Beck, Gorillaz and Louis Vuitton.

While I attempt to decipher the mess, please take a look at the wicked snaps of Singapore.

More to come on Italy... before we get to Switzerland.


Transportation from Florence, Italy, to Nice, France, was in a sleeper carriage on a train. We arrived at the station, Campo di Maria, with plenty of time to spare, so we popped into the cafe across the road. The train was due to arrive at 23:20 (11:20) and depart 5 minutes later. A quick check on the board at 23:10 set us across the tracks to platform 6. So far everything was going smoothly. I was waiting for EN366 to Ventimiglia to come in, so when CM1233 to Montaciano or Mesopotamia or Montezuma, whatever it was, came in just 2 minutes before our train was due, I was alarmed.

We found another board on platform 6 that said our train had just been moved to platform 5, across the tracks. Now, there are not overpasses or underpasses to cross the tracks, but at one end of the very, very long platform, the ground is leveled off for a safe crossing. As I glanced in that direction, I could see the two lights of an approaching train. We booked it, our wheeled luggage picking up air behind us. We crossed the tracks and continued down to platform 5. I checked my pocket for reassurance...

I should tell you that the tickets we purchased were paper and not replaceable. If lost or stolen, then the loss would be ours. Understanding the risk, I kept them in a very safe place... until we were set to board the train on platform 6. At that point, I transferred them from my backpack, next to my laptop, to my front pocket.

... so I checked my pocket, and I couldn't find the reassurance... or the tickets. I knew immediately that they must have fallen out as we were running to platform 5. I left the bags with Dana, rounded the track crossing, eyeing the approaching lights, and sprinted down platform 6. Luckily the tickets were in plain view in the ground. I nabbed them and turned around. It's the fastest I've ever ran... I felt like Apollo. As the train was a few feet in front of the crossing, I leaped over the rails and onto platform 5. We made the train. The train was a few minutes late. The train that was coming into the station actually went to track 8, so it was behind me as I crossed.

On our Big Trip, we have have overnight excursions on planes and boats, but this was, by far, the most interesting and soothing. Our cabin was understandably snug, but it had its own sink and urinal! At least I think (hope) that was a urinal. We slept in bunk beds, which was perfect for Dana because it made it extremely hard for me to flop my snoring face on her forehead. During the night, however, I somehow I managed to open the curtain repeatedly with my foot, much to the consternation of the lady on the top bunk (Dana). Before nap time we toasted with a really nice eight euro bottle of red. Dana wore half of it, but seeing as how we need to cut back on luggage, this wasn't such a bad thing.

Sleep on the train was wonderful when we were moving. It was silent but for the rumbling over the rails. It gently rocked back and forth, so head to toe we moved. The cabin was cool, but it did get a bit warm during extended stays in some of the towns, such as Genova and Ventimiglia, during which the air-conditioning ceased.

Ventimiglia was also the last name of my Spanish teacher during my first year in high school. On my first day I raised my hand and said that the bookstore had sold out of one of the textbooks, so I didn't have mine. She said she understood, but then told me to sit in the front row, in the middle column, so she could keep an eye on me. She knew immediately that I was "one of those". She was brutal but one of the best teachers I have ever had. If anyone misspelled a word on homework, he had to write the word, in a sentence in Spanish, 100 times. She took a liking to me soon after and didn't even claim to notice that my misspelled punishments were written with five pens taped together (so I only had to write them 20 times).

Apologies for the tangent, but I think it was warranted. Back to the train: we cruised along the Riviera and looked down on waterfront estates with yachts and pools snaking around their propertyt. Essentially, we were looking down on those who normally look down on the rest of us. We even enjoyed a cup of espresso and some fresh bread, sealed in plastic, before our arrival in Nice. If only for the bread and coffee, if you ever have the opportunity to take an overnight train from Italy to France, take it... but don't put your tickets in the front pocket of your pants, just in case you have to run a little.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Posting from Florence

I managed to get some photos up from The Great Barrier Reef and The Sydney Airport. The second one is much more impressive.

I also made a few posts earlier in the week that were not picked up by Feedblitz. I'm not sure why, but check out the earlier posts for videos of cassowaries and Dana.

Off to Nice on a sleeper train tonight! We leave at 23:25 and arrive at 9:45. Ciao for niao.


On our Big Trip, Rome is our gateway to Europe. We arrived at the airport in the morning and quickly realised that we didn't have a clue where we were, or even how to use a public telephone. After a few failed attempts to reach David at Solaroma B&B, where we were staying, I finally got through. After you put the money in the phone, you have to press "OK". Who knew?

The train to the city from the airport came 25 minutes late. We all know who was responsible for making the trains run on time, so perhaps this is the way Italians apologise. If so, I respect that, but I think all doors should be functioning, no matter what Mussolini did. While we were scrambling into a carriage that had only one door open (the others were broken), I suffered a great loss.

There I was, following Dana with my designated baggage: my backpack, camera bag, a 1L water bottle in each shorts pocket, esky (cooler) full of dirty clothes, and a massive red suitcase. The Leonardo Express, the train that runs from the Da Vinci Airport to the city, requires passengers to pull their luggage up a small, narrow flight of stairs while entering the train. There was a mad rush for the few working doors when the train pulled in, and I stayed close to Dana. She boarded successfully, with her share of the luggage, but as I hoisted our red bag up, I faltered. Time stood still for me and those below me on the platform. For a moment, those passengers joined me in my pain. My right foot was caught under my left leg, and as I struggled to free it, my thong (flip-flop, sandal, sand-shoe, whatever) came off my foot and tumbled down the steps. On the bottom step, it teetered, and a man reached for it just before it completed it's death spin onto the train tracks of Rome. Thanks Benito.

Our B&B was right next to the Vatican! Every morning we could look out our window and see the line of pilgrims waiting to get in grow and the attendant at the gas station within the Vatican grow sleepy. There were a few things I noticed early on during our stay in Rome:
- Everyone eats gelato. Not just the tourists, but middle-aged and old men stand around with a little coloured spoon in their pistachio gelato.
- The streets, stairs and squares are peppered with old women laying face-down on the pavement and praying for money with an empty tuna can or plastic cup in front of them.
- The only way to get cars to stop so you can cross the street is to step in front of them, even at pedestrian crosswalks. Sometimes they still don't stop, but they swerve to go around you, without slowing down.
- Sirens are constantly going off, with police or ambulance seemingly in constant pursuit. The sirens have that odd foreign sound that foreign sirens have. You know what I mean: the sound is actually alarming.

There was a very popular gelateria in the ground floor of our building. No matter what time of day it was, there were queues of people. Inside there were photos of the owners, or gelaterites, with famous Italian celebrities, politicians or folk heroes. I didn't recognise any of them, but I'm sure they would fall into one of those categories. On our last day, we heard one of the many sirens nearing our building. The sound stopped just below our window. We were leaving for the day at that point, so we were able to see what the commotion was... the ambulance drivers were standing around our sidewalk, eating gelato.

Of course, the sights of Rome are astounding. I can't begin to get into the history or describe the impact of the Colosseum or St. Peter's Basilica. Once I get the photos up, I will let them speak for themselves... in the way that only photos can speak... with a kind of gravelly voice and in a cockney accent.

Update: Photos have been posted.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

La Guerra a Firenze (The War in Florence)

Thursday 21 June 2007 22:44
Weary from travel from the mountains of Cortona to the city along the Arno, Firenze, my betrothed and I sink into a deep slumber. Our security is ensured by a trusted donna, our only oversight, a window left cracked to provide some fresh air. The breeze is slight, sweat beads on our motionless bodies.

Friday 22 June 2007 02:03
A noise close to my ear abruptly delivers me from the land of my pleasant dreams to that of my harsh reality. I sit up, my senses sharp. Alert, trying to locate the source of noise, but careful not to awake my partner unless necessary. Too late. She, too, rises, and soon we know our enemy: zanzaras. Scores of them. They have surrounded us. We decide to lay low and hope that they move on.

Friday 22 June 2007 02:18
It is clear that the zanzaras have visited us with bad intent. They have begun their attack. We swat: at our ankles, at our forearms, at our ears. Our attempts at defense are pathetic in the dark of night. A decision is made. We must begin an offensive.

Friday 22 June 2007 02:19
The room is bathed in light, and the zanzaras are given one last chance to escape into the open city. Few chose to flee, and the fate of the rest is sealed with the closing of the latch on the window. For 40 minutes we search an execute. None are spared. Some meet their end with a clap in my hands, their blood - our blood - covers my palms. Other sit on the wall and pray with their probiscus not to be noticed, but none pass my notices, and these are smashed to the wall with a bang. Still others need to be driven out into the open with the wave of our tovaglioli. Stirred from their hiding places, they come to death just as the others.

Friday 22 June 2007 02:59
Our simple room, meant to be a place of refuge, is speckled with the bodies of the dead. Splattered are the walls, the floors, our own selves. We are weary once more. The last of the zanzaras are found and destroyed. These were quicker than the others. Virgin zanzaras, yet to drink of the milk of humans, and so quicker in flight and much harder to secure. At last the war has ended. Once again, we take our places in the base. Sleep overwhelms us once more. But we know that this night, La Notte Delle Zanzare, will be remembered.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We Sail Tonight For Singapore

Ah, to spend 24 hours in Singapore... a dream. After four and a half hours delayed into our trip, we boarded and were off. Once we landed in Singapore, we jumped into a cab that smelled like a wet suit and were off to the New 7th Storey Hotel. The New 7th Storey Hotel is neither new ("it hasn't been moved in over 50 years!" boasts the propaganda), nor is it 7 stories... it has 9 stories. But it is clean and they offer you a free pair of slippers to wear in the toilet/shower. And the host had a Glamour Shot done. That had to take some effort.

When we woke at 11, we found the river and lunch: Singaporean Chili Crab. We also found a few good brewpubs, much to my pleasant surprise. A hike up the nearby hill offered some great views and warnings to trespassers that they should put their arms up in the air while being shot. A quick drop by Raffles, an old colonialist hangout, and Chinatown, which has great Buddhist temples and places to buy bags of dried sea horses, and we're all set. Until dinner.

"After work" we met Dana's high school friend Pete. She had not spoken to him in many years, but one day she bumped into him across the street from our apartment in Sydney, and he was just moving from Sydney to Singapore. Pete showed us lots of good spots before we all tumbled back into his apartment at midnight. Our flight was at 3AM, so what better pick-me-up could we find than a Whatever!?

wicked snaps

Wild Queensland

What a crazy place! Aside from the leeches we saw on Mt Sorrow, and pulled, writhing and bleeding from our ankles, we saw deadly spiders, cassowaries, walking fish, crabs and frogs. That was a bit of a sloppy sentence: the adjective "deadly" applies only to spiders, cassowaries and some frogs. For starters, please observe this cassowary:

This cassowary, a remnant from the Jurassic or Bodacious Period, walks around the beach and rainforest with raptor-like talons and a I-Just-Woke-Up-On-The-Wrong-Side-Of-The-Bed attitude. The bird wandered into a clueless couple of tourists who turned their back on the big guy. S/he charged the female and lunged with a talon out, but missed.

Walking fish are far less deadly. These dudes hold water while on land much like sea turtles hold air under water.

Lots of fantastic spiders peppered the area just above our heads, but they were not a problem. Actually, most things in this rainforest don't bother humans at all. We did an excellent walking tour at night, during which we were told about native flora and fauna... not surprisingly, much of the native plants and animals are being killed by introduced animals such as the feral pig and the cane toad. Our guide mentioned that he used to like shooting feral pigs with a machine gun and beating cane toads with golf clubs... new humanitarian movements have stopped him.

The Great Barrier Reef

For three days and two nights, Dana and I stayed on a boat cruising around the Great Barrier Reef. This was a scuba diving trip run by Pro Dive out of Cairns. Details below.

On the boat we had 33 divers or divers in training, 1 cook, 1 dive planner, 3 dive instructors, 1 skipper and 1 Gilligan. You would think that the boat would be crowded, but there was an incredible use of space. We were in one of only two double bed rooms, while all of the others were bunks, but the boat never seemed crowded. The top level had an outdoor area, some rooms, and the skipper's room. The main level had the dive equipment out back, the mess hall with kitchen and tables, and more rooms. There were more rooms below deck as well. Exhaustion from the number of dives we did may have prevented anyone from getting too stir-crazy.

We did 11 dives in three days, two of which were night dives. We saw sea turtles, sharks, jellyfish, moray eels, sea snakes, giant clams, stingrays, prawns, painted crayfish, hermit crabs, shovel-nosed rays, and twice as much coral and fish life as you could see in Finding Nemo. Most dives lasted between 30-40 minutes, but the wet suit and gear set-up was what was tiring. We slept well on that rocky boat. Speaking of rocky, the ride out to the reef hit some sea-legless folks hard. Over half of the boat was spewing over the side for a few hours. Dana and I kept it together, luckily.

The food on this trip was incredible. No none was ever hungry, and the quality was superb. Craig added his own special spices to the menu... you'd be very surprised how good food cooked on a boat for 40+ people three days out at sea can taste. The meals were not the only well-run part of the trip. Tristan, our dive planner, clearly outlined our dives, pointed out what was worth seeing and made sure everyone knew what was happening. Don't be thrown by the photo. The skipper, Fozzie, filled us in on yachting stories during the day and challenged us to broomstick competitions at night. The videos of me and dana will explain... a bit.

While the days and nights (and mornings) were exhausting, it was well worth it. Not everyone did the full 11 dives, but we're both glad we did. Even the night dives were worth the struggle. Dana was nervous the first night, jumping into a black sea when no light is visible except the moon and stars... and the first thing we see is a 3 meter (9 foot) shovel-nosed ray on the ocean floor. The little eyes poking out from the shrimp on the rocks were more calming, but the next night was even more exciting. As we geared up, bread was thrown of the back of the boat, sending many large fish into a feeding frenzy and also setting off a number of white tip reef sharks. The sharks were circling, with their fins piercing the surface of the water, as we jumped into the ocean. Of course none of them bothered us. We bothered everything instead.

The Great Barrier Reef Photos

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rest in Tuscany

Dana and I are currently in Tuscany, celebrating with my future mother-in-law on her 60th birthday. We are in a villa just down the hill from Cortona. A few days of relaxing is exactly what we needed after the last week or so.

After we left Palm Cove, we had a long layover in Sydney, and we were not allowed to leave the airport. Sydney International does not have a lot to offer (not even a bar!), so the laptop came in handy. We paced ourselves over the seven hours, making an event of calling home, eating lunch and watching Pan's Labyrinth. As we geared up to find our gate, we could not find our flight on the board. It had been delayed four and a half hours. I managed to get two meal vouchers, which we used at the cafe to buy a bottle of wine. And so we toasted Sydney and said farewell, and eleven and a half hours after we landed in Sydney, we departed.

At 4AM we were in our hotel in Singapore and asleep. The flight lasted 9 hours, but we didn't get much sleep. The next day, we had 24 hours in the city, leaving the following morning at 3AM. Singapore was a load of fun. We spent the day touring by ourselves and met up with Dana's friend for dinner and drinks. The airport welcomed us back, but the flight was delayed an hour. At 4AM we were finally taking off.

Seven and half hours to Dubai from Singapore, a short stop over, then five and a half hours to Rome. This was a bit painful, thanks to chatty kids, chatty adults, and a horrocious airline: Emirates. The food stunk, the movies stunk and the service was terrible. I have regained my love for Qantas. We were so excited for our trip, however, that none of this bothered us once we reached Rome. Somehow we managed to find our B&B and do some touring before crashing at 10PM. Our room in Rome was literally a stone's throw away from the walls of the Vatican, but I didn't have a stone to check.

I have taken over 1000 photos so far, but I am unable to upload them from this site. When I can get them up, you'll be able to enjoy shots of sea turtles, walking fish, statues, sleepy bicycle taxi drivers and even a bizarre Singaporean soda can! Stay tuned... amusing stories will accompany them.

*I did enjoy the Italian version of Blogger.
'Dopo aver fatto clic su "Completato" puoi modificare il tuo post e pubblicare il tuo blog.'

The word "blog" is universal!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dwarbi's Roof - Poolside Extravaganza

If you've come to my blog recently and noticed a lack of updates, I've just made up for it. Dana and I are enjoying the sun and sand in Palm Cove, Queensland, at the moment, and I finally had a chance to hook up my laptop. While I have yet to organise the photos for, or write about, the cassowary attack in the Daintree, our diving experiences on the Great Barrier Reef, or general impressions of Far North Queensland, I can offer you a few delectable bits of farewell goodies as well as some decent rainforest stories. They are all below, but here are links, for your convenience:
Work Farewell
A Long Farewell Weekend
Writing in Cape Tribulation
Mt Sorrow

We're heading off to Singapore in the morning, then on to Europe... I'll try not to get too far behind.

Mt Sorrow

The name of the hike should have tipped us off, but we decided to tackle it anyway. We were told that this is the only true hike in the area, since the rest are strips of boardwalk to accommodate the oldies. Surely the path would be clearly marked off the road, I thought, but it took several drive-bys before we picked out the wooden sign next to the barely-beaten path. We narrowed down its location after asking a weathered park ranger for help. I would guess his name to be Bazza MacGilligan or something of that lot.

Dana and I are pretty fit, despite our decadent farewell month, so we were confident we could handle the trail marked "Extremely Difficult, Above Average Fitness Only". Our footwear seemed to be good enough, me in my hiking/walking shoes, and Dana in her runners. We also brought plenty of water and fruit. I was a bit overloaded with camera equipment, however. The 7 kilometer hike was supposed to take 7 hours return. The view at the top of Mount Sorrow is supposed to be breathtaking, holding views of Cape Tribulation, the beaches and the Great Barrier Reef.

Our trek began at 9:30AM, observing the rule that one must not set off after 10AM lest he may turn into a macadamia nut. The hike immediately proved to be much more difficult than either one of us expected. Not more difficult than we thought we could handle, mind you. The plants in Daintree National Park are much more aggressive towards human passers-by than I am used to. I was expecting the multitude of spider webs that wrapped my face every minute, on the minute, but the barbed vines and razor-edged ferns surprised me. At one point, when I was hopping over a log, I think I was completely suspended by the plants... the thorns and hooks had taken hold of my shirt, backpack and even my shorts. Dana cut me loose with a machete.

There were warnings at the start of the hike, informing bushwalkers about cassowaries. Cassowaries are very large, flightless, colourful birds. They are about the size of an ostrich, but they have been known to get aggressive and attack people. Their claws could cut you open like something out of Jurassic Park. Actually, these animals date back MILLIONS OF YEARS. Cassowaries are generally shy, but if they think you're getting near their nest or threatening their chicks, they will charge. Dana was hoping that we would not see a cassowary on our outing, nor did she want to see any of the many feral pigs that inhabit the area. The pigs were introduced and do quite well in the rainforest, unfortunately for the rainforest. Besides eating lots of food that native animals rely on, as well as some of the animals themselves, they also root around in soil that's not meant for rooting, causing entire areas to be washed away when it rains. We passed about 20 of these wallow pits during the hikes.

It was much to our dismay that the adversaries for the trip were neither cassowaries nor pigs, but something much, much smaller: leeches. Just 20 minutes into the walk, my clothes were soaked through, but that's to be expected. Little scratches and nicks from the strangling figs and TAKEFOREVEREMS were not a worry. A fair bit of mud had somehow worked its way up my legs... so what? About an hour and a half into the adventure, I wiped a bit of dirt and branches off of my ankle, only to find that one piece of branch wouldn't budge. I plucked it off and it started wrangling in my fingers as blood trickled down into my sock. I shouted to Dana to check her ankles, and we each removed about 15-20 from ourselves and each other. Few had successfully taken hold and begun chewing away, but the experience of picking so many from your shoes, ankles, legs, and then fingers, arms and hands as they cling to you.... is a bit unnerving.

Dana decided to stick it out and continue up the mountain. We had made it quite far, and we guessed that the leeches had jumped on us at one point when we stopped for too long. For another half an hour we continued, picking at them every third step or so, cursing and trying to flick them off our fingers as the searched for a place to grab hold. This was difficult given the slipperiness and steepness of the terrain. Finally we decided to head back... only to meet two other climbers (the only other two on the path the entire day) who convinced us to continue on. We did. The path grew wetter, steeper and more leechful, if that's a word. It was after about another half an hour that we decided safety had to come first. Did we want to be those tourists who head back before reaching the top, or did we want to be those tourists who lose their footing and break their necks? The question wasn't as easy for me as it was for Dana, but we agreed to turn around.

On the way back, we passed a sign that we missed on the way up. We discovered that we were about 100-200 meters from the end before we turned around. We had nearly two more hours of downhill leech battling to contemplate that. It hard to explain the feeling of seeing a leech disappear into the eye-hole of your shoe. There isn't much to feel, physically, but it is not a pleasant emotional experience. Towards the bottom of the mountain, I would see the occasional leech make his way back out of my shoe, abandoning ship before I reached the car. That site made me feel more confident about our decision: even the leech bailed. And yes, I did remove one from under my shorts.

Leech-free photos here. There was a long stretch when I didn't bother with my camera.

Writing in Cape Tribulation

Sitting here outside of our cabin in the rain-forest near Cape Tribulation, I'm listening to a multitude of bird calls I have never heard before, distracted by the large number of bush turkeys chasing each-other around, and then startled by a spider that descends directly in front of my face. The kookaburras found that amusing.

Final Goodbyes in Sydney

June 2nd was a sad day for me and Dana. This was the day of our farewell party at the 3 Weeds Hotel in Rozelle. The Wine Room in the back was ours for the night, and we kept it full... about 60 people at one point! The night was full of laughs and good times. We've made some stellar friends in Australia and are going to miss all of them.

The pub closed at midnight, so a group of us moved on to the Red Lion Hotel, a really classy joint down the road. A few of us wanted to break out of there, so we were lucky when a limo driver offered to give us a ride back to Ben and Jen's. There was not enough room for all of us, so the limo took about half of us, and the rest took a cab. The party continued at Ben & Jen's new apartment in Balmain until late in the night.

On Sunday a number of us found the energy to go to the Australian for lunch. We wound up eating lunch and dinner there, delaying the inevitable good bye as long as we could. The Australian is the first pub we went to when we moved the Sydney, and the last one as well.

Enjoy the photos from the weekend. It was an amazing send-off, so to all of you who made it such a success, thank you, and we'll miss you.

Relive the night, day and night only on dwarbi's roof.

Work Farewell

Thursday the 31st of May was my last day at work. I don't have anything lined up in the States, but I am going to find something new and see where it takes me. The analogy I use is surfing. Seven years ago I started as a graphic designer and rode that wave until now, learning new skills, taking on new roles and going with the flow, but taking advantage of the wave. This trip is like going back to the beach for a bit before heading back out to catch another wave.

My work mates organised a fantastic farewell. We had a section of Settlement Bar, below the Westpac building, and it was a proper send off. Of course I made it back to work to finish up a few things and give out my last good byes, and then we went back out the Belgian Beer Cafe. We were placing bets on when Mark would get kicked out, but he showed us all and eventually left of his own free will!

Experience it here.

We Found Internet Access!

Apologies for the lack of blog entries, but it's been extremely difficult to find Internet access. Since we've spent nearly all of the trip so far in the rainforest or far out at sea, it's understandable. Believe it or not, both of these locations - The Daintree/Cape Tribulation & The Great Barrier Reef - have pretty solid radio stations.

Now we are relaxing poolside in Palm Cove and enjoying our last day in Australia. I'm a few minutes away from a cocktail and will be sending through a barrage of blog entries