Friday, January 30, 2009

San Blás – Home of the Kuna



25 to 29 Jan, 2009 – San Blás Islands, Panama

Here I sit, on a hammock. It is pitch black. The sun went down an hour ago, and there is no moon. We are staying in a bamboo hut on an island. It's just us. Well, there are birds and crabs, but no people. The island is about 50 or 60 metres long, and maybe 30 or so wide. Jo is reading to the light of a torch that requires frequent winding to keep it going. There is no electricity, no water, three trees, and a hut. No floor, no bathroom, no bed, just two hammocks.


This was our island for 2 nights
This was our island for 2 nights
Huge, isn't it. This was all ours. Yep, there's not much more behind the hut.


Crab
Crab
Mean looking, but he was our companion, for two nights, on our private island.



The wind doesn't let up. It has never been worrying or threatening, but we have had no lulls. I'm not complaining, though, as it means we feel the humidity less. It also means it's never quiet. The rustling of the thatched roof, the creaking of the beams, and the surf breaking on our beach. The wind means you also don get on a boat expecting to stay dry. The waves pick up and crash over the bow of the little boats, and the spray drenches everyone and everything. We were soaked to the skin on arrival.

We are not super isolated – neighbouring islands are inhabited, and people sailing past in dugout canoes on their way to some island or another give us a wave if we are on the beach or in the water, but still, it's just us for a couple of nights. Someone said the island has a name, but it seems to be of little consequence.

Also, there is the magic food man. Without warning, a boat lands, and a man appears with two plates of food. Not necessarily at meal times, but that comes down to Kuna timing, which I will go in to later. However, he brings two plates, with rice, salad, and some product from the sea. Fish, mainly, smoked or grilled or stewed. However, one time, it was crayfish. Always something different, or prepared differently, but always a seafood of some kind.


Crayfish meal on our island
Crayfish meal on our island
Crayfish for lunch, one day. Magically delivered to us on our private island.



This is one of the hundreds of islands of San Blás. an archipelago in the Caribbean inhabited by the independent indigenous Kuna people. They live quite autonomously here, with little direct influence by the Panamanian government. We started on the very crowded island of Cartí, but arranged to spend two nights out here on out own island. In theory, a boat will collect us tomorrow morning.

Cartí is huts, end to end, with a bit of space between them to allow pedestrian movement around the island. Many of the inhabited islands appear to be crowded to more or less the same extent, particularly close to the mainland. Uninhabited outlying islands are the stuff of travel brochures and cartoons. Larger ones are chock full of palms and pristine sands ring them, Smaller ones are a tiny patch of sand with a single tree – you almost expect to find a man with a stubbled chin and torn clothing stuffing a message in to a bottle.


A typical San Blás Island
A typical San Blás Island
Isla Pelicano, our first beach stop in the San Blás archipelago.


A cartoon island
A cartoon island
Isn't this just sooo cute! Where's the marooned sailor in torn trousers?


San Blás beach scene
San Blás beach scene



The Kuna are a proud group of people. They have their own language, but most speak some Spanish. The women look beautiful in their traditional dress. Bright colours, woven in to arm or leg decorations. Beautiful dresses, too. The men generally wear modern western clothing. The women are skilled in embroidery, too. They make brightly coloured squares with pictures on them, called molas. The molas are as simple as two or three layers of cotton with a geometric pattern, and can be large and intricate with many colours and days or weeks of work.


A Kuna lady
A Kuna lady
A slightly camera shy Kuna lady shows us some molas.


A future warrior, perhaps?
A future warrior, perhaps?



The Kuna attitude to times and punctuality make the average Latino seem prompt. We can spend hours just sitting, uninformed, just aware that something is due to happen, then without warning - “¿Listos? ¡Vamos!” It can be easy to slip in to this way of thinking...

Food. Seafood. Fish. Crabs. Lobster. Crayfish. Always with rice and a very basic salad. Jo has promised to cook steak or something similar. Mmmm, steak, ....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A country, its capital, the canal, some hats, and that song – Panama



19 to 25 Jan, 2009 – Panama City and canal, Panama

It took quite a while for us to get Van Halen out of our minds, after landing. I'm sure the automatic neural response to start singing THAT song every time somebody says “Panama” will eventually fade. I certainly hope so, anyway.

So we ultimately find ourselves at Luna's Castle, in Casco Viejo, the old part of town in Panama City. This backpacker hostel is pretty happening all the time, but we have been blessed with a quiet room upstairs, and a view from our bed out to the roofs of the old town and across the bay to the soaring new part of the city. Here, we have killed some days getting back in to the travel swing of things. Our systems are getting back in to the swing of it all, too, or at least mine has, with a bit of an upset stomach for a day or two. All good again, now. Jo likes having access to a kitchen every now and then, so we are having a bit of our own cooking, but never fear, we are still getting some local fare as well.


View from our bed
View from our bed
Luna's Castle, a hostel in Panama City.



The hostel seems to be a mix of a handful of people spending a week or more doing nothing but enjoying some down time, and almost everyone else seems to breeze in for a night and then leave for a plane or bus or boat to a far-flung destination – few in between.

The extremes also exist in the buildings of Casco Vieojo. Beautifully renovated mansions interspersed with dilapidated fire traps and literal ruins. A few buildings are in the process of being restored, but the views down many streets and out the back windows of the hostel look like shantytowns with one or two beautiful structures to dropped amongst them. Black headed vultures sit on all sorts of things, as birds do, but given their size and almost ominous shape and the macabre connotations that accompany these scavengers, the scenes take on a touch of surrealism.


For sale - Anyone interested?
For sale - Anyone interested?
Room for all the family. Lovely building in Casco Viejo, on a nice square, and it's available.



We did find our time at the canal itself to be a far more interesting sight than we had anticipated. We spent hours there, but the Maltese cruise ship was great to watch. Especially with the hundreds of waving people on the decks or on their private balconies.


Cruise ship entering the locks
Cruise ship entering the locks

Mules at work
Mules at work
Electric engines, aka mules, guide the ship through. The ship is not pulled through, it uses its own power for propulsion - the mules simply steady and guide her progress, and assist in braking.


She fits, but only just
She fits, but only just
There's not a lot of room for error as this cruise ship passes us in the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.



I know, I've barely covered the country, but of course, that will come in the following entries. And the hats? We did see some very touristy ones for sale at a plaza...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

L.A, Our Way



14 to 19 Jan, 2009 – Los Angeles, USA

Adam was at the airport to pick us up. He lives in Orange County, a little southeast of Los Angeles. This is continent number three, for meeting up with Adam. We met him, 11 years ago in Vietnam, and our paths crossed again in 2005 in Peru. The day stayed pretty low key, with lots of talking, stories, and only venturing out to eat. We had a magnificent dinner at a Persian restaurant, the highlight being the chicken in pomegranate sauce.

The following day, we dragged Adam off to do some sights. We spent a few good hours in downtown LA, although it would have been less had we not all lost each other in the mausoleum underneath the cathedral. The later part of the day was spent at the La Brea tar pits, where oil still bubbles to the surface in a number of spots, mixing with sand and water and vegetation debris to create sticky tar pools. But the most interesting part is that this has been going on for many thousands of years, and there are thousands upon thousands of fossils being recovered from hundreds of species of animals that became stuck in the tar and died there. The tar then effectively preserved the bones. Significant animals trapped included giant sloths, mastodons and mammoths, camels, wolves, saber-toothed cats, but the full list is incredible. A definite highlight.


Adam and Richard in downtown L.A.
Adam and Richard in downtown L.A.
Interior of Walt Disney Theatre, L.A.


One big mumma of a mammoth
One big mumma of a mammoth
One of the skeletons recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.



Adam generously let us use his car on Friday, so he could stay at home and work while we went out star-spotting. We started with graves at Westwood Memorial Park. Marilyn Monroe, with no message – Just her name and the years of birth and death. Rodney Dangerfield - “There goes the neighborhood”. Bettie Mae Page - “Queen of Pin-Ups”. Merv Griffin - “I will NOT be right back after this message”.


Grave of Marilyn Monroe
Grave of Marilyn Monroe
Westwood Memorial Park.



We drove through Beverley Hills to Hollywood, driving on Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. In Hollywood, we had to deal with the freak show of dozens of people dressed up as movie characters who wandered the streets trying to entice people in to taking photos with them for a fee. We checked the main things out – Stars embedded in the sidewalk of the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard; the Kodak Theater, site of the Academy Awards; and Grauman's Chinese Theater, with celebrity hand prints, foot prints, and even a nose print in the concrete of the forecourt.


Shirley Temple's prints in cement
Shirley Temple's prints in cement
Outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood.



Venice Beach was nowhere near as weird as we expected, but it was still a bit of a sideshow atmosphere. Tattoo parlours and psychics fight with ice creameries for frontage along one side of the path, while people with blankets of handcrafts and jewellery mix with buskers (of varying quality) down the other. One man selling wallets had a sign up - “Will work for marijuana”. Not the only one, I'm sure – I got the feeling that dope would be seen as a currency roughly as desirable as cash. Things in Venice got a lot more our style up at Abbot Kinney Boulevard, with eclectic shops filled with knick-knacks and quirky furniture, restaurants, and fantastic book shops.


Silhouettes at sunset, Venice Beach
Silhouettes at sunset, Venice Beach
Apparently, jumping silhouettes is quite the craze at the moment.



We dined in the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, which was a fun and vibrant atmosphere, despite the tinge of glitz and dazzle. Had a great dinner. We are learning to order appropriate to U.S. serving sizes. Generally speaking, portions are generous. So, while dining out is generally a pricier affair than at home, especially once you factor “plus tax plus tip” in to the equation, we find that we can eat well with just one course, or perhaps even one entrée (or appetizer, as called locally) to share and one main (or entrée, as called locally) to share. Note the different usage of entrée? We didn't at first, and thought some establishments particularly pricey - “If that's what they charge for entrée, imagine how much the main courses are going to cost!”

One evening, we had cheese and wine on the beach while we watched the sunset. We followed that with a bucket of prawns and some margaritas. Dessert was ice creams at “Coldstone”, where you choose your base ice cream and they chop up whatever you want to add to it, from fruits and berries to nuts and chocolate bars.


Enjoying sunset, L.A. style
Enjoying sunset, L.A. style
My goodness, life is tough, isn't it. Cheese, and "water" ;) at Newport Beach.



The next morning, we sat at almost exactly the same spot and enjoyed breakfast burritos. While we ate our burritos, a pod of dolphins swam past no more than 30 or 40 metres from the shore, just beyond the surfers. Within five minutes, a flock of pelicans flew past, only centimetres above the water, rising a little to allow breaking waves to pass beneath them. Life is tough, hey.

We made it to church on Sunday – Rock Harbor, a church plant from The Mariner's. Wonderful worship, and a fantastic message.

Our final evening was spent at a brew house and pizzeria with Ryan and Dan, as well as Adam. We met Ryan and Dan in Peru/Bolivia nearly four years ago, and trekked a few days with them around Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicaca. We had such a blast of an evening that we didn't feel obliged to rush home and get an early night, even though our airport transfer was booked for 3:30 the following morning.


With Ryan, Adam, and Dan
With Ryan, Adam, and Dan
All three were met on previous trips.



We must say that our States stop-off has far exceeded expectations. While the fantastic weather helped, it was so much more. Friendly people all round (and not just the friends we met up with!) Plenty of interesting sights without needing to resort to Disneyland or Universal Studios. While a little pricey, especially with our dollar struggling at the moment, we still had some fantastic feeds. In fact, Jo and I feel we may campaign for greater immigration intakes for Central Americans in to Australia, as we desperately need to lift the standard of our tacos and burritos! (Note: need to import Coffemate flavoured coffee milks, and a Coldstone ice cream franchise.) We don't know when we'll make it back, but we will face that with far less trepidation, now.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

We Left Our Hearts, But at Least We Remembered Our Passports and Credit Cards



7 to 14 Jan, 2009 – San Francisco, USA

Seven nights in San Francisco. Would it be too long? Sure, there are a number of must do sights. Golden Gate Bridge. Lombard Street (the world's crookedest). Alcatraz. Fisherman's Wharf. But they could be accomplished in one or two full-on days, could they not?


The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

Approaching Alcatraz
Approaching Alcatraz



Well, this certainly proved to be a great city to spend some time. We were able to really get under its skin, exploring nooks and crannies, taking plenty of time, and never felling bored or impatient.


The Transamerican Pyramid
The Transamerican Pyramid
A San Francisco icon.



The weather has been glorious! Certainly not typical for San Francisco winters, we have been told, and we certainly believe them. One foggy day only, in Fog City. Top temperatures in the high 60's (that's like 18-21 degrees for all us metric types using centigrade). And not one drop from the sky.

The first couple of days, we had Alex (a friend from Melbourne) staying in the same hotel, just 2 floors below us. I probably should diverge at this point and give a little description of Hotel Des Arts. A quirky place, with each room unique, decorated by locals artists. While Alex's room was pink with large pigs, ours had greens, blues, and peach hues, with a mermaid. The corridors are lined with artworks of many different styles, and it is a very funky place to spend a week. Anyway, Alex was over for a conference, so we breakfasted and spent the evenings with him until he left.


With Alex
With Alex
One of our bestest Melbourne friends was here for a conference. Great to catch up, Alex!!


Our room
Our room
One wall of our room in Hotel Des Arts.



We walked, and we walked some more. Walked the waterfront. Clam chowder on Fisherman's Wharf. Drinks in the Fog City Diner, Walked through the back streets of China Town and the very Italian North Shore. Walked to the top of Telegraph Hill and Coit's Tower, and through the redwoods at the base of “The Pyramid”. Walked to the cathedral, and down the eight z-bends of Lombard Street. Ferried to Alcatraz where we walked around the remains of the prison. We trammed to the Mission district where we dined on some fabulous burritos, but walked back to burn it off. One day, we bussed a lot. Bussed to Land's End, where we walked the Coastal Trail, and bussed to Golden Gate Park, where we walked even more. On another day, we commuted to The Golden Gate Bridge, walked across, and walked to Sausalito. On our final day, we really got some walking done. We explored the murals of the Mission district. Starting at Balmy Alley, we went back and forth, up and down, around and around, working our way through the streets until we finished at the oldest building in San Francisco, Mission Dolores. (Incidently, scenes from Vertigo were shot in the graveyard, here!) We also visited a Warhol exhibition in the Jewish Museum, and had drinks in a 1920's bar.


Roger, our barman
Roger, our barman
Take a step back in time, sit at the bar of a 1930s diner. Fog City Diner is supposed to be one of the best. My goodness, we felt we got the full States experience in an hour here!


Mission district mural, San Francisco
Mission District Mural



We ate quite a variety, too. Chinese, American, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Turkish, and Pakistani. Supposedly, there is 1 restaurant for every 28 residents. Not so sure I believe that figure, but it probably isn't too far wrong, judging by the density of eateries in some neighbourhoods we've been through!

All in all, we had a superb time in San Fran.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Aloha...



4 to 7 Jan 2009 - Hawaii, USA

Well, as most of our Melbourne friends know, we decided that having to stop in Honolulu en-route to the start of our adventure was reason enough to spend a few days. A few years ago, while in Cambodia, we met Shannon. When she came to Melbourne, she stayed with us. I'm not sure if they knew at the time, but she was only too willing to invite us to stay with her Mum (Mom ;) ) and Step-Dad if we ever made it to Hawaii. Well, some time has passed since then, but when we mentioned to Shannon that we were stopping in Honolulu, she once again offered (on their behalf, lol). We soon learnt that the offer could be so easily made because Candace and Jerry are a couple of the most hospitable people you could encounter.

Day 1 in Hawaii was a repeat of the day before, having crossed the date line and having the 4th of January again. Picked up our VERY cheap rental car, paid the VERY steep insurance. Little PT Cruiser – Very cute. Spent the day driving around the south coast of the island, and we dined at the Summit Restaurant.


With Candace and Jerry.
With Candace and Jerry.
Candace and Jerry, our superb hosts for our Hawaii stopover. The lights of Kailua are behind us.



I should explain that Candace and Jerry live close to the top of a reasonable hill, overlooking Kailua on the east coast of Oahu, about 30 minutes drive from Honolulu. Jerry loves to cook, and that, combined with the fantastic views from the living/dining area of their home, leads to the affectionate dubbing of the house as the Summit Restaurant.

The 5th began with sausages, French toast, and blueberry sauce for breakfast, (a nice touch of typical Americana with the blueberry sauce, there!)

A visit to the USS Arizona Memorial was a great way to get some appreciation of what actually happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A very moving tribute to all lives lost on that day, and a great insight in to some personal stories of the day. The actual memorial is built on the water, over the shallow wreck of the battleship Arizona. Almost 1200 lives were lost on that ship alone. The ship alone, rusting away, just below the surface, oil still surfacing; that was enough on its own to stir emotions.


USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor.
USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor.
A rainbow frames the memorial over the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor.


USS Missouri, through a periscope.
USS Missouri, through a periscope.
The USS Missouri, viewed through the periscope of a submarine, Pearl Harbor.



The rest of the day, we circled the island, along the north shore, famous for its incredible surf. It was a great day getting a feel of real Hawaiian life in the towns, and a glimpse of the life in the big surf, but unfortunately, it was far from a big surf day. The surf report on the radio described it as less than half the size of the previous day, and hardly worth getting out of bed for...

Coffee in a beach-side establishment, where Bill Clinton once dined or drank, and then dinner in the Summit Restaurant again!

Jerry and Candace outdid themselves the next morning, our anniversary. Breakfast was served by the window, in true restaurant style. Eggs, ham, potatoes, and biscuits (American biscuits, not what we would call biscuits – don't know what we would call them!) I could almost have cried, it was so beautiful. Happy 19 years, Jo!!


Anniversary breakfast
Anniversary breakfast
Anniversary breakfast at the Summit Restaurant, a.k.a the home of Candace and Jerry Foster.



Honolulu for sight-seeing; Waikiki for some beach (including a mochacino shaved ice snow-cone and a sunset cocktail); a bit of a splurge at a waterside terrace for our anniversary dinner; and then, our last full day in Hawaii was complete.