Monthly Archives: January 2013

Down, down, prices are down

Standard

Toronto, Canada

11-15 January 2013

Sunny Toronto

Sunny Toronto

I got a brilliant deal on a down jacket shortly after arriving in Toronto. Down from the list price of $380ish, I got it for $130, and it is fantastic. Best of all, when I lean against a wall, it is always a soft landing as the air is slowly pushed out as the down compresses.

But I needn’t have bothered so soon. I arrived in a heatwave, with two of the warmest January days ever recorded in the city, with the mercury topping 14°C. My host, friend and Toronto native Daniela, didn’t hesitate to inform me how lucky I was.

You can add Toronto to the fast growing list of I-could-live-here cities. Diverse and cosmopolitan, active but homely, Toronto (pronounced Tron-no in the local dialect) felt like it had everything you need to live a comfortable existence, without it every really feeling like it really houses the six million inhabitants that call the metropolitan area their home. Or maybe on this visit, I just lived in a tranquil suburban bubble.

The days when the temperature finally did drop to it’s usual winter levels, swinging a few degrees south of zero, didn’t really phase me, which was entirely unexpected. With the help of my host, I have finally cracked the code, and have successfully learned how to dress appropriately for weather below 10°C and feel toasty warm – something I have always dreaded facing due to unpreparedness, and an issue we simply do not have in my part of Australia, where the coldest winter day of the year will linger around 6°C for a few brief moments before sunrise.

Here is an insight into my interior monologue, “-2°C? Not a problem! What’s this, wind chill down to -11°C? Is that all you have weather? BRING IT ON!”

Quintessential basketball cuisine

Quintessential basketball cuisine

On the topic of cold, I was mildly disappointed that the ice hockey season was still on ice, as the players were still arguing with their wranglers over revenue sharing. So I wasn’t able to visit my first match, starring the Toronto Maple Leafs, which I believe to be the Chelsea of the National Hockey League – the team everybody loves to hate. The feuding factions had come close to a decision, but the league for the year had not yet started, several months late. My first exposure to the sport I always imagined was simply glorified violence masquerading as Disney on Ice, will have to wait, and the perception lives on.

But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Company, which owns just about every sporting franchise in Toronto (four in total), and either owns or manages their stadia too, still earned money out of me, when I attended an NBA game as a substitute. It was nail bitingly close, but the Toronto Raptors ended up losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in the final few minutes. I was impressed with how organised the whole event was, where any timeout, as little as thirty seconds, saw entertainers of many persuasions blitzing the court to motivate the home crowd, or at the very least, retain their attention. Many of these things, such as competitions, and shootouts are the kinds of events we would try and draw out over a twenty minute half time break at a football or rugby match in Australia, here they were happening in about two minutes or less, and very frequently.

Best sports bar ever

Best sports bar ever

Daniela and her sister took me on a day trip to the Canadian view of Niagara Falls, what I am assured is the good side. And though the flow is not as voluminous, I dare say that it is prettier than Iguazu Falls that I wrote about previously, and is therefore better. The horseshoe shaped waterfall, in particular, featured a beautifully uniform stream of water in what appeared to be a perfect arc, gushing vigorously into the unsuspecting river below. The force of the impact on the water caused some droplets to bounce back in the air, forming a cloud of mist that focussed in the centre of the vista. If you haven’t noticed, there was an enchanting symmetry about these falls which really appealed to the engineer in me. It is this element that was greatly missing at Iguazu, which by comparison, was quite haphazard and inelegant.

Imaginative coffins on display at the ROM

Imaginative coffins on display at the ROM

I also got to witness the captivating sport of curling, one that us Australian’s are enamoured with once every four years when the Winter Olympics are held. Straight from the things-that-surprised-me-but-really-shouldn’t-have-if-I-had-thought-about-it list, curling is quite a popular sport in Canada, and I was taken to a curling club to watch elite curling athletes ply their trade. Don’t be mistaken, it is not the winter equivalent of lawn bowls, it is much more active (and youthful) than that.

While in Toronto, Daniela’s family made me feel extremely welcome, and I got to enjoy their tradition of guessing the winners of the Golden Globes and then watching to see who got the most correct. I came last, with 5 out of 25. The most disappointing part, was that statistically speaking, I got the same score as the average expected outcome if I were to simply randomly select winners for everything. I should have just gone with the age old multiple choice trick and just selected ‘C’ for everything, I probably would have done better.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

To the moon and back

Standard

Miami and Orlando, USA

9-11 January 2013

Arriving at Miami International Airport at 6am doesn’t really feel like arriving in the United States of America. A deluge of red-eye flights from various Latin American hubs descend on the popular gateway airport in Miami almost simultaneously, flooding the immigration hall long before day break. Standing in the painfully long queue, I heard far more español than ingles, including from the cowboys employed to manage the herd, and I felt like I had never really left South America at all.

On the plus side, the much maligned Transport Security Administration, famous abroad for the marathon interrogations of non-US citizens, especially if you dare to bring a bit of colour and/or flair to the table, didn’t bother me at all. I’ve had harder times getting into Australia or New Zealand in the past.

Miami's South Beach

Miami Beach’s South Pointe

I made it out and proceeded to collect my hire car and venture out just before peak hour onto the motorways of Miami. Driving on the wrong side of the road was not difficult except for one pretty big thing – lane placement. Forever and a day, I have been accustomed to sitting in the driver’s seat, just to the right of the centre of the lane. Now it was reversed, but my brain still wanted to sit in the same spot, which meant that my car scarily often sat precariously close to kissing the kerb, or side-swiping the car in the adjacent lane on more than one occasion in my sleep deprived state.

I concentrated on the task at hand and paid a visit to Miami Beach with the Corolla intact, and went for a stroll on the beach to see what all the fuss is about. I quickly decided that while Miami Beach is quite obviously the inspiration for the Gold Coast, the city in which I lived for nine years did this better. We just simply have prettier beaches in Australia. But wandering the streets one could easily be deluded into thinking you were in either place; the similarities are very strong and comparisons are unavoidable, in terms of aesthetics, city layout, the people and the lifestyle.

Miami Beach's Ocean Drive - not quite what S Club 7 let me to expect

Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive – not quite what S Club 7 let me to expect

After breakfast, I hit the Florida Turnpike on my way up to my home for the next two nights, Orlando. One thing the cash-strapped state of Florida does well is toll roads. There are a great many of them. And over the course of 48 hours, I racked up an impressive bill of $34.19, even though each individual tolling point cost only between 75 cents and a couple of dollars. But unfortunately, the toll booths were about the only thing too look forward to in an otherwise dull four hour drive. The road itself was plain boring, flat, straight, of motorway standard the entire way, and with no interesting vistas of note along the way.

It was made worse, as my Toyota Corolla had a faulty auxiliary input, and American radio stations are just awful. Channel surfing through the rubbish country, gospel, sports and hip hop stations, of which there are numerous. I would a couple of stations that played a song or two I enjoyed. Unfortunately, as soon as the song was over, the next was always guaranteed to be a terrible one, or an advertisement. No station managed to broadcast a mix that I would find agreeable over a sustained period.

In Orlando, I would for the first time dip my toes into the world of couch surfing. I have in the past been a de facto host, in the form of assisting housemates to host, but this is the first time I have actually ‘surfed’ myself. The GPS led me to a suburban duplex in a quiet neighbourhood a few kilometres east of the city centre where I met my host Angelina, a marketing manager turned chef. After exchanging pleasantries and a short conversation, she unfortunately had to go to work.

This is when my American cultural immersion began. Under the guise of searching for a cheap replacement laptop, I went out plugging destination after destination into the GPS. I had no real spatial awareness of where it was leading me, I was just following its audible cues. I found a Walmart, a massive hypermarket chain that seems to attract the dregs of society. I got sucked into a McDonalds by their promise of a $1 spicy chicken burger. True to what they say, the drink sizes are astronomical large, and then they still provide free refills. I also dined at a Taco Bell, where the concept of cheap tacos on tap really appealed to me. But they tasted awful, and the cheese had a mildly concerning fluorescence about it.

Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden

Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden

Finally, when I had made my purchase, it was by now about 9pm, and I realised I had worked my way out to the south-western suburbs, so I made my way back along the deceptively pleasant sounding South Orange Blossom Trail. After passing the fourth gentlemen’s establishment in as many blocks (this one offering all you can drink for $30, a veritable bargain!), several lights illuminated in a red hue, and a large black fellow idly sitting on a cruiser bike on at a dimly lit intersection, it occurred to me I might have made my way into the ghetto, or at the very least, the red light district. I was correct. The thought crossed my mind that I might get murdered, or at least carjacked. After all, this was America, where you are over twenty times more likely to be murdered by gunshot than any other developed country. So I thought to help prevent this, I should lock the car doors. Luckily, American cars simply assume this is going to happen and lock the car as soon as the gear changes from Neutral.

One thing that was pleasing however, is when you look past the fatty foods America is famous for, there actually is a dedicated contingent of the hospitality industry dedicated to providing excellent food with healthy options. I dined the restaurant that my host worked at, the Ravenous Pig, and was delighted by the delicious foods characterised by an orgy of flavours, and exquisite presentation of the plate. And there is a massive market for it too, the restaurant was full on a Wednesday night.

The unused Lunar Module from Apollo 15

The unused Lunar Module from Apollo 15

The following day, I went to the destination I had made the effort to come all this way for, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (sic). There for several hours straight I was in sheer amazement. Highlights included:

  • the rocket garden, where rockets dating back to the dawn of the space age are lined up vertically near the entrance in a way that really gives them a sense of scale and might,
  • a Saturn V rocket, fully complete but unused at the premature end of the Apollo program, that was (and may still be) for a very long time the most powerful rocket in the world, broken up and shown in it’s various stages,
  • a lunar lander, also fully complete but unused when lunar rover missions were accelerated, and
  • the incredible Vehicle Assembly Building, 160 metres tall with massive tiered doors that open up the full height, where rockets are and Space Shuttles were assembled before being transported to the launch pad. Workers there claim that the building is so large they have seen it develop its own meteorological microcosm, with reports of rain and sand storms having occurred from time to time.
Saturn V - most powerful rocket ever launched

Saturn V – most powerful rocket ever launched

Unfortunately, they didn’t yet have the Space Shuttle on display, as the building under construction for its storage was still under construction. It was absolutely incredible, and I wished I could have spent a second day there given, despite its unassuming size, one day simply isn’t enough to experience all the place has to offer. It is far more of an authentic attraction than Disneyland, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again next time I am there to finish the tour.

Watching the sunset over the beaches

Standard

Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile

6-8 January 2013

Variety is the spice of life - even with colours

Variety is the spice of life – even with colours

From the beginning of the planning of this trip, I had always envisaged that I would end the South American portion of my trip with a visit to the beach for a few days of rest and relaxation. I picked a small community called Reñaca, just a few kilometres north of the twin cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. I thought I had picked very well, when I arrived at my accommodation, resting on a small escarpment a couple of blocks back from the beach, with panoramic views of the city, the coastline and Oceano Pacifico, just 300 metres from the centre of town, and at a dirt cheap price.

I was very excited, so at 5pm on the day I arrived, I excitedly bounded down to the beach for a swim. As soon as I dipped my toes in the water, a nerve-jangling tingle shot through my body. My body motioned in involuntary spasms, forcing me to recoil out of the water. I realised I had made a rookie error. The water was unbearably cold, around 13°C, and amid the 32°C air temperatures, it felt like an electric shock the moment it came into contact with my skin.

Colourful artwork in Valpo

Colourful artwork in Valpo

I wondered why it was so cold, and was later told it has to do with the oceanic currents. Here, the water circles the South Pacific in a counter clockwise direction, bringing up along the Chilean coast cold polar water. Amid further research, I discovered that this is a problem on the west coast of every continent.

Nevertheless, I laid on the beach for an hour or so, realising that while the beach was there and very popular, the water was completely useless. This disappointed me.

The next day, I slept in, and went for a daytrip down to Valpo, as the locals call it. Valparaíso is an old port city, famous for it’s colourful architecture, fascinating hilltop suburbs, and amazing artwork on the side of their houses either painted by the residents themselves, or commissioned to be painted by others. I was lucky enough to witness one being painted on the wall of a residence. “¿Permiso un foto?,” I ask, putting my poor grasp of Spanish grammar on full display as I ask if they would allow me a picture. They were happy to oblige.

Local artists painting new artworks

Local artists painting new artworks

It is not a great distance from the water’s edge to the foothills, barely a few hundred metres, and the CBD expands along the coastline. Funiculars are the primary mode of transport to these barrios from the commercial city centre. In a small way, it is kind of like Wellington, with a few dozen more funiculars, and about 400,000 fewer New Zealanders.

No guesses where the inspiration for this café name comes from

No guesses where the inspiration for this café name comes from

While in Valpo, I chanced upon the second best coffee I have had on the continent. It was at a little café called Melbourne Café, owned by an enthusiastic Australian and Melbourne AFC supporter, who has no qualms about sharing his love of Australian Rules football with the completely clueless locals. But I am noticing a trend, the best coffees I have overseas always seem to be at places owned by Australians. Maybe I’m doing this wrong.

But there was one thing I very much enjoyed about my beachside escape, that reminded me of something I miss about living on the west coast. The sunsets, simply glorious.

View from the accommodation

View from the accommodation

...and by night

…and by night

Santiago – putting the civil in civilisation

Standard

Santiago, Chile

3-6 January 2013

Santiago Stock Exchange

Santiago Stock Exchange

The city is beautiful, bustling and beguiling. It is also the first place I felt like I could comfortably live. Many barrios, such as Providencia where I stayed, were tranquil and exuded order, and the streets were clean and lined with delicacies from all over the world. Make no mistake, Santiago is very much in the first world – and my mature perception of the city reflected that.

Santiago de Chile is the first city on this adventure so far that strangely felt like home. I arrived late on my first night. I asked about nearby options for snacks late on the Thursday night, and I was referred by the receptionist to a nearby petrol station, which looked just like home. When I got there, it had the usual assortment of packaged goods ready to be thrown into the microwave, just like home, but with a few regional variations. I opted for the microwaveable soft beef tacos, and just like microwaved service station food at home, it tasted awful.

The next day, I went for a walk through the city centre. The shops and offices felt like they would go on forever. After an erroneous mental currency conversion led me to accidentally purchase earphones priced at $280, I walked off the shame, taking advantage of the 9pm sunsets.

This amphitheatre atop the hill is probably the hottest wedding venue in town

This amphitheatre atop the hill is probably the hottest wedding venue in town

I made my first voluntary act of exercise on the trip so far – a walk up Cerro San Cristóbal, a roughly 300 metre high hill perched just to the north-east of the city, to visit the Virgin Mary perched atop. The view from the top was magnificent and really gave the sprawling city some perspective. A beautiful courtyard exists at the foot of the giant statue, and preparations were afoot for what would be a spectacular wedding with an unrivalled view.

Santiago is a place of law and order, and the Chilean police force, the militarised caribinieros, are one of the most uncorruptable police forces around, and unlike most countries in South America, a bribe is more likely to get you into a jail cell than out of a traffic infringement. Their presence is visible, but in a reminder to always have your wits about you, it was actually here that I witnessed my first real crime in South America.

While casually dining at a Japanese restaurant and observing the happenings on a street, a young man grabs a backpack, throws it over his shoulder, and makes his escape. He runs, very fast. The two lady victims make loud noises to draw attention to herself and run after the criminal. Two men turn around, quickly work out what is happening, and give chase quickly overtaking the slower women. It was a little bit Benny Hill-esque, but I never got to see the outcome.

Two men play chess in Plaza de Armas

Two men play chess in Plaza de Armas

But all this was temporarily set aside, when late in the evening while departing the Salvador metro station to complete the journey to my accommodation. I was greeted with the calming tranquillity of an illuminated water feature midway through it’s performance. I stayed and enjoyed the serenity for some minutes, as children, seniors and whole families alike marvelled at the impressive lighting display, transfixed by it’s wonder.

¿Vino tinto o blanco?

Standard

Mendoza, Argentina

31 December 2012 – 3 January 2013

8pm New Years Eve - Plaza Independencia, where absolutely zero celebrations are taking place

8pm New Years Eve – Plaza Independencia, where absolutely zero celebrations are taking place

Mendoza was cracked up to be a great destination for vino and adventure. Unfortunately, I visited the city of about 850,000 people at very much the wrong time.

I arrived on New Years Eve, and shortly after arriving, met a friend in the big park in the city centre, Plaza Independencia late in the afternoon.

The place was eerily quiet. There number of people hanging around the city centre were very few. It is almost impossible to describe the bizarre sensation of knowing it was NYE, but not having anything to show for it. No shops were open. Not even the McDonald’s that claimed to be open 24 hours. Or the supermarket. The petrol station had an attendant working the pumps, but the store was strangely not open – it was outrageous that even microwave cheeseburgers were not an option.

Resorting to our own celebrations

Resorting to our own celebrations

Eventually after quite some time walking the deserted streets, we found a string of restaurants. However, none of them would sell what I wanted – all limiting their offerings to outrageously priced set menus for the fin del año.

So we started dining at one of the cheaper ones about 9:40pm. Slightly over an hour later, we got our food; quite ludicrous considering they only had two options that night. And then I started to feel sick.

Of all the ways I had envisaged spending New Years Eve, an option that wasn’t on my short-list was diarrhoea, faintness and low blood sugar. No other time on my trip had I wanted a simple cheeseburger, or a chocolate bar, or a soft drink, yet not had anywhere at all to buy it. Luckily, my hostel sold the latter at least, so by 11:45pm, I was curled up in bed trying to sleep away the illness.

Luckily, it’s not like the city had a celebration I was missing.

Where were the townsfolk? I later found out that the mendocino way is to celebrate profusely on Christmas Eve, leaving New Years as the quiet time with family. However, for those still after a fiesta, many people on acreage host their own parties around the pool in the absence of any organised celebrations courtesy of the municipality.  A lack of local knowledge killed it for us there.

Due to my unfortunate illness, I decided to re-neg on the rafting trip I had planned for New Years Day. So I may never know what it is like to white water raft down a freezing cold river of melted glacier. Alas, more regrets.

That meant that by the time I was up and feeling better in the afternoon, I had more time to enjoy the city. But it was quite boring. Everything was still closed, save for a couple of kioscos, where I stocked up on enough water and junk food to last any apocalypse, without knowledge of when the hundreds of other stores, supermarkets and restaurants would re-open.

Without any alternatives, like any good bum, I found a good park bench in Plaza Independencia, and read a book for a few hours.

Cry me a river

Cry me a river

The next day was better, on January 2, the streets were buzzing, shops were reopening and across the CBD, you could feel life returning. But I wasn’t to spend any time here, because I was on the way to Maipú to ride a bike and drink some wine. It was glorious, a beautiful summers day. Temperature in the low 30’s, very low humidity, and the vista of vineyards and distant snow capped mountains. Perfection.

The Mendoza region is famous for it’s Malbec wine, a variety somewhat stolen from the French that the Argentines have gladly declared their unofficial national grape. But regrettably, I did not partake beyond a small sip as I am not entirely partial to vino tinto – that component of the tour was wasted on me. Luckily, I was always offered a vino blanco or cerveza as an alternative.

Odd one out

Odd one out

The tour entailed visiting three vineyards, at one of which we enjoyed a lunch of very filling empanadas and other pastries, as well as a micro-brewery and a chocolate house that also specialised in liqueurs. Of course, samples were had at each.

Mendoza is actually quite a surprising destination. There is quite a lot in the surrounding area, especially for wine lovers and adventure seekers. But circumstances conspired against me, and all in all, in the end it seems I spent three days in Mendoza to go on a bike ride for a few hours, which seems a bit wasteful.