Across Continents

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Reflections on Canada

October 23rd, 2011

The Yukon. British Columbia. Two Provinces. Well over a thousand miles through Canada. But what to make of the place, the US’ top-hat? I’d often had to remind myself which country I was in. Perhaps, I thought, it was a bit like Germany and Austria. No sharp cultural divides.

But there were differences. Little details. Unarmed border guards. A people who seemed far less trigger happy than their neighbours. And quite a few less of them. Yukon Province making Alaska look positively crowded.

I’d missed saturation ice hockey. Out of season. But intrigued – even amused – by the very pervasive nature of a minority language. French. I’d suspected this to be a result of a vocal few exerting undue – even unwarranted – political influence. But a German immigrant I’d met had put it far more succinctly. Arrogance. Tres Bien.

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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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Reflections on New Zealand

July 24th, 2011

I’d not exactly liked New Zealand. I’d loved it. In so many different ways. Dramatic scenery. True. It might be cold, wet and windy here. But the people. Warm. Friendly. And, for all my teasing examples, I’m a bit smitten with the accent. I can take being called "Kin". And being sat on the edge of the Pacific Rim. Some serious fault lines. As Christchurch can attest to.

Neighbours they may be, but New Zealand isn’t Australia. Definitely not. Whereas Oz strikes me as a bit brash, a big gawdy, even greedy, "NZ" is, well, rather charming. Genuine. Welcoming. Even the Customs and Immigration Officers. Because you’ve made the effort to come. Not simply to get you to open up your wallet. In fact, so much about the place is terribly reasonable. Sensible. Makes you feel right at home.

On a practical level, the cost of living seems broadly similar to that of the UK. Which, given it has about a fifth of the population of Australia, and a similar reliance on imports, does seem surprising. Its neighbour being considerably more expensive. Exploring, albeit briefly, has been a joy. Efficient, affordable public transport. Some of the finest hostels I’ve ever seen.

I’ve no plans to emigrate. Anywhere. But if I ever were to consider it, it’d be New Zealand. A few years in Australia. Perhaps. But settle somewhere permanently? No contest. Certain I could live here. Think I could fit right in. For now though, I’m settling on returning with my trusty steed. Reckon three months would be great. Might be a few years off. But return I shall.

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Silk Road reflections

September 29th, 2010

"The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned" – Antonio Gramsci, Italian politician (deceased)

Ordinarily I’d wait until I’d traversed an entire country before reflecting on what I’ve experienced. But China’s a bit different. It’s not just big. It’s also a very diverse nation. So, a few thoughts, observations, along the way seems reasonable.

There’s the relative modernity of the towns and cities. The consumer society. For quite a few a standard of living broadly comparable with that of Western Europe. That’s not to say there aren’t people forced to scrape by, struggling to make ends meet. But that’s often the case, in even the most developed of nations.

I was curious as to just how many people existed on, or below, the poverty line. But, subjective as this measure invariably is, comparisons are fraught with difficulty. Not least because I’m a little sceptical as to the veracity of some of the figures. Does the UK really have four times as many people living in poverty than China? I seriously doubt it.

What is irrefutable is stark contrast between the relatively sophisticated urban environment and the smaller settlements, the villages and homesteads. Abject poverty? A more simple existence, devoid of modern material possessions, need not be. Just ask the Amish. Rather, it is the economic disparity between the two, a gap I sense is widening, especially for those at either ends of the scale. But nothing unique about China in that respect.

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