Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Almost forgot…

February 18th, 2012

And almost 1,800 blog posts, 2,000 photos and 700 videos…

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Final flurry of statistics

February 18th, 2012

Miles ridden Almost 20,000 (about 30,000 kilometres) – so, by any measure, quite a long way…!

Revolutions (of the wheels) Sixteen million

Continents Four – Europe, Asia, Australia, North America

Countries 17

Border crossings 31

Visas 10

US States 12 (including night in Hawaii – no time to surf!)

Coldest -15 oC in New Mexico

Hottest Forties in Kazakhstan and China’s Gobi desert

Cyclones One – Yasi – Northern Australia

Highest point Over 8,000 feet – Emory Pass – New Mexico

Lowest point Turpan – pronounced Turvan – Basin, Western China – below sea level

Favourite nations New Zealand, North America, Serbia, Georgia (also the friendliest)

Most expensive country Australia (cost of living about 2-3 times that of the UK)

Cheapest countries China and the Republic of Georgia

Most corrupt nation – Azerbaijan – if you don’t pay a bribe you’d never leave. Ever.

Detentions by border guards 2 – Kazakhstan (shorter of the two!) and Australia

Uprisings (just missed) Bishkek, Capital of Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, and sporadic (unreported) ethnic civil unrest in Western China

Toughest challenges Loneliness – especially in China – and tropical humidity in Northern Australia

Lowest point Few hours after drinking kumus – fermented mare’s milk

Most bizarre moment Tearing around Republic of Georgia in a police car (sightseeing courtesy of a local Mayor!)

Most used words Nee-how – Hello! – and Sh-e, Sh-e, nee – Thank-you – in Mandarin

Least heard expressions Have a nice day! (in US – rarely said) and It’s free! (in (expensive) Australia – rarely heard)

Favourite foods Stack of pancakes with maple syrup – US – and stuffed dumplings – China

Favourite places Camping amongst wild bears in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, and nights spent in Chinese truck stops – for less than 20 yuan – about two pounds

Bikes Just one – my trusty Somerset built two-wheeled steed

Punctures 10 – with just one in whole of North America

Spokes broken or loosened – not a single one, and wheels still look pretty true

Most elusive wildlife Wild bears in North America – saw just one cub – and deadly snakes in Australia – two in the wild

Most common wildlife Wallabies – like a kangaroo but smaller – in Australia

[With especial thanks to Tim for the encouragement to compile these…]

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Austra-nomics

January 12th, 2012

Austra-nomics (n); Branch of "Down Under" economics that defies logical analysis. Gives rise to the expression austronomical (coloq) to describe something especially expensive. See also Greed and Rip-off (coloq).

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Much reviled

January 7th, 2012

Teasing e-mail from Mike in Australia. I’d stayed with him and his family near Brisbane. The title referred to a much reviled continent. Punctuated with an exclamation mark, suggesting he realised my not infrequent sharp digs Down Under were humour. Mostly. Perhaps a little barbed in places, but that’d be the fault of a brief and wholly unwarranted detention by Border Protection at Sydney airport. My nervousness at opening the note was misplaced. Little annoyed with myself for thinking it might be otherwise. Should have known better. Fellow Englishman.

I’d earlier chatted to a couple of Australians staying with me in the hostel. Finding unexpected camaraderie in tales of blatant profiteering. Sheer greed. And indigenous cultures. Firm agreement that being invaded – the Aborigines often refer to Australia Day as Invasion Day – is part and parcel of history. Get over it. Besides, without it, they’d still be living in the Stone Age. None of us having as much as a modicum of tolerance for blame cultures or blood money. You don’t find me rounding on the French for 1066. Too busy with the Germans.

I’d added that writing, sometimes even discussing, indigenous people can be fraught with difficulty. It’s the ’R’ word, I explained. More a label. One you don’t want. Closely allied with oft-missed irony. For never have I encountered such a bigot-rich environment as race relations. Surprising? Not really. What do you really expect from the likes of positive discrimination? Much better to treat people as individuals. Even garlic munchers.

And those who play the racism card? In tolerant societies usually the hallmark of someone who has to rely on ill-judged emotion to attempt to win an argument, rather than sound intellect or rational thought. Bit like shouting. Vocal manifestation of cowardice.

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Australian exodus

December 20th, 2011

Wondered if I’d been a bit harsh. My barely concealed angst at being asked if I was Australian. But then there’d been a piece on the BBC website entitled "Why we quit Australia for the UK". Their reasons resonating with my own observations. Difficulties buying "groceries past 6pm". "I found them friendly (especially when you were buying stuff from them) but they don’t want to be your friend". "Nightmare of rules and regulations". "Cost of living…. scandalous".

Party time

To be fair, some of the reasons given reflect more on poor homework by those immigrating to Australia. For which I’ve little sympathy. Or simple home-sickness. But the underlying theme is very supportive of my own observations. Reassuring. Incidentally, if you do think I’m rounding a bit on Australia, then perhaps I am. But then detaining me – quite unreasonably – on my return to Sydney from New Zealand and there’s bound to be consequences…. Of course, Customs and Border Protection will no doubt have their excuses. Those sorts of people usually do.

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The Old Curiosity Shop

November 26th, 2011

I’m not Australian and don’t like to be called as such. Which happens fairly frequently in North America. Finding myself particularly riled by this, forcing myself to ponder why this might be. Of course, I know a good number of great people, destined to be life-long friends, who happen to be Australian. My issue firmly cultural rather than individual.

True, I admire their stoicism in the face of frequent adversity. Their self-reliance. Itself a little ironic for what appears to be the ultimate Nanny State. Runaway regulation. Officious bureaucracy. Federal system unwarranted for a population less than a third of that of the UK. Governed by a mediocrity of politicians. Always grains amongst the chaff. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Premier. Met her briefly. But not Prime Ministerial material. Not that you need to be.

Some aspects simply amuse rather than annoy. Bowling greens and old fashioned social clubs, serving meals reminiscent of school dinners. Rather quaint. Like an Old Curiosity Shop. Finally embracing EFTPOS like it was a sparkly new children’s toy. Words like free or inclusive have largely been discarded from their lexicon, replaced by the likes of gourmet – pronounced ’gore-met’ – its application bordering on the abusive. It’ll be fondue sets next. Their de facto national dish as unoriginal as it is uninspiring in a continent of unique flora and fauna. Fish and chips. Almost criminal. But that’s history for you. Made worse by the fact that a rather better model for European colonisation lies right under their noses. New Zealand.

I’d been asked by one fellow traveller why I thought all this might be? What about atmospheric nuclear testing? I paused, albeit briefly, then replied, smiling, that my diary was clear next week. In the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for a friend’s suggestion. When asked by a US citizen if you’re Australian, reply by asking which part of Canada they come from…

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Domestic dramas

August 30th, 2011

Domestic flight it might have been. Domestic bliss it was not. Honolulu to Anchorage, Alaska. Five hours of hell. Or, put another way, can a small child scream, virtually without pausing, for the entire time? Yep. A few fortunates, those closest, were moved to the precious few vacant seats further up the cabin. The rest offered ear plugs. I gladly accepted. Actually, in my already sleep deprived state, I initially mistaken them for complimentary chews. Bright red. Strawberry flavour. Did seem a bit tough.

Don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but some sort of sedative would have been in order. For fellow passengers that is, just in case you think I’m being a tage harsh. Maybe that’s why Alaskans elected Sarah Palin. Tape of her favourite speeches would have really hit the mark.

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Groundhog day

August 29th, 2011

Bill Murray I may not be, but "Groundhog Day" it was. Monday. Twice. Well, pretty much so. Consequence of crossing the International Dateline en route from Australia to Hawaii. I’d taken off shortly after 9 pm from Sydney, only to arrive ten or so hours later in Honolulu a little after 11 in the morning. The same day.

In truth, I’d seen more of the first than the second stab at Monday. My efforts to stay awake frustrated by the humidity in Honolulu. By early afternoon, despite the lack of air conditioning in the cheap hostel I’d found, I’d succumbed. Dreams the only place I’d be likely to encounter Andie MacDowall.

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Curious euphemisms

August 29th, 2011

Long flights and a curious mind are a dangerous thing. International into the US, Sydney to Honolulu, and a national carrier. Wondering whether there’s a plain clothes armed security officer onboard, concealed amongst the passengers. Deliberately choosing to use the toilets furthest away, at the rear of the aircraft. Find myself glancing unobtrusively at anyone who leaps out as being, well, non-descript.

No joy. Or at least, no obvious candidates. Instead settling for a conversation with a fellow passenger. Said she worked for the US Department of Justice, visiting Australia on business. We chatted for a while. Where she’d been, who’d she’d met. Something didn’t quite add up. My curiosity barely concealed, she explained that she was actually a FBI Special Agent.

I’d always meant to ask one if there was such a thing as a plain Agent. I didn’t because it soon became clear that to join you needed to be a cut above. She was sharp, had a forensic science background, been to law school, spent a couple of years as an ordinary police officer. I thought Scully from the TV series the "X-Files". But that I definitely kept to myself.

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Reflections on Australia

August 28th, 2011

Choosing to cross Australia from north to south, following the east coast, I’d left with a real sense of quiet satisfaction. Challenges overcome – struggling at first with the oppressive humidity in the far north, the odd cyclone, annoying cane toads, suicidal wallabies and some fairly deadly, but largely elusive, fauna. And some quite terrible driving. The natives seemed to have a reasonable grasp of English, and a similar sense of humour, which had helped a lot.

Indeed, if I’d ever felt a bit weary, riding past endless hectares of cane sugar or through yet another nondescript town in parts of Victoria, it was the people I’d met, sometimes stayed with, who had helped rebound my spirits. Their frequent generosity remaining as humbling as the day I’d started this journey. If I’d any regrets, it was simply that a better, and in all probability rather more favourable, understanding of the indigenous people – those the European settlers had displaced – had eluded me.

I’d also found the cost of living quite perplexing. Even allowing for a strong currency, prices seemed frequently exorbitant. Intriguing, because this wasn’t the case in neighbouring New Zealand, despite having only a fifth of the population of Australia and a similar reliance on imports. If I were to proffer an explanation, it’d be that a relatively flush economy, fuelled by a mining boom, seemed to encourage an undercurrent of plain greed.

Generous state handouts don’t help. Fuelling price increases. And it’s likely to get worse with the introduction of a tax on carbon emissions. The Federal Government expected to provide sizeable rebates to much of the population. That’d be lump sums. In advance. Despite assurances to the contrary, the temptation to get a piece of this will be irresistible to many businesses.

Endemic regulation doesn’t help either, pushing up costs. For almost everything seems to need some sort of licence, a permit, approval of one form or the other. I’m surprised you don’t require written authority to breed. Or at the very least a risk assessment. An oversight I’m sure. Left a note in the Suggestion Box at the airport on my way out.

But, for all its frustrations, Australia has been a truly fascinating experience. Forming friendships I hope will last a lifetime. Renewing others. And I’d welcome the opportunity to return. Intrigued by the idea, gleaned from those I’ve met on the road, of riding around the entire continent. But would I ever consider emigrating? Popular destination amongst the Brits for that sort of thing. Or at least those who haven’t been to New Zealand. I’ll let you ponder.

Just one little parting hint. Detain me, however briefly, at Immigration when I’m simply exercising my visa for the purposes for which it was issued and you’ll forever – and I mean that – be compared to the only other nation to do that to me so far. Kazakhstan. Already penning the Borat jokes for the after dinner circuit.

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