New Orleans – and all that Jazz

Friday, 16 October 2009 at 06:16

Second day exploring New Orleans. Today, our feet protesting from yesterdays incessant walking (toes always exaggerate everything by the power of 10), we tried the public transport network for $5 a day – as much as you can eat. You know how it is when you have a travel card? – the more you travel the better value you feel you get. So we took the tram as far as we could up Canal Street, just for the sheer pleasure of getting more for our money. No other reason, and n. o. other benefit.

We discovered that US trams don’t quite go to the end of the line but stop in the middle of nowhere short of a sensible destination (like I do so often). And that some bus stops are are virtual ones created by a crowd of people. In a separate incident, we also discovered that Walmart staff are rude and unhelpful and the products are cunningly shelved in reverse alphabetical sequence of the third letter. Retail is detail after all.

On the sunny side of the street – we heard an excellent variety of live music today. As we sat at the famous Cafe du Monde with our cafe au lait and moreish beignets covered in snow drifts of icing sugar, we were entertained by an extravagant and lively jazz band. Their cheeks inflated like balloons as they made more noise out of shiney brass instruments than should be humanly possible. Then a sublime quintette of strings in the park. Finally, a vibrant brass band on stage in Lafayette Park – a great jazz buzz with 100s of people, decent grub and a very acceptable beer. Interspersed with all of this were diverse soloists on street corners, playing anything from Wish You Were Here to Mozart and back.

My head contains no tunes – but my heart is still beating in rhythm to the thud of double base and rattle of drums. The trumpets are whining manically in my head as they seek dominance over the saxophones, forming an allegiance with the trombones. The battle continues. Sedatives shall be required before sleep. Of which I had 3 hours again last night – I was staring at the muddy Mississippi at 4.30am this morning.

A day also of great food and photo challenges. Why can’t people stand still whilst they are performing, at least for 1/250th of a second? (longer please in the dark). And boy was it hot. More fluid required.

Eureka. Fluid + Sedatives = $9.99 Red Wine. Bon Nuit !

New Orleans – Sailing the Mississippi

Thursday, 15 October 2009 at 06:42

We walked New Orleans today – and sailed the Mississippi (ss ss pp iii and an M ?). Please refer to the photographic images to appear, as soon as I have eviscerated them from my cameras and phone.

It was hot – at 9am it was VERY hot as we strolled along the riverwalk, avoiding perambulate joggers, some of whom seemed to be americanly obese and below perambulate pace. I found I had a photographic competitor – usually it is other person waiting for me to angle myself on the floor and require specific cloud formation in order to snap the perfect photograph. This time it was him., How annoying.

We sailed across the Miss. only to hit a cloud burst, which faded as dramatically as it has arrived (attention seeker!). But unlike their Health Service, this boat was free at the point of departure. So no cash lost. Instead we walked the street of New Orleans, identifying plants and shrubs of “french” history & architecture still surviving amidst the tall concrete hotel and casino trees. And more statutes of the late laminated Louise Armstrong than you could shake a trumpet at.

We had a “poboy” each in a world famous “poboy” place – like any American diner seen on TV. Later we took a paddle steamer up river and looked at ships and levees and lots of brown muddy Miss. water. Then it poured, then it stopped pouring. All very suddenly. We ate some traditional NO fayre for tea (which seems to be mainly rice and meat), and then spent 3 hours listening and absorbing ourselves in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Age range from 21 to 91 – weights equally polarised. Moody, irresistibly foot-tapping and the best (a) piano player and (b) saxophonist in the known universe (after my wife and daughter of course, respectively).

New Orleans is a curates egg – good in parts, excellent in some, awaiting garbage collection and street washing in others. It is danger of being suffocated with the fluffy pillow of commerce and commercialism and (not to mention) smut and Subways.

Hoping for more than 3 hours sleep tonight for a change. Why can’t the USA be due south of the UK? Or the earth stop turning? I have indeterminate rhythms and beats in my head. This jazz thing really does get to your double bass strings.

My Secret River

Beneath the rolling, grassy hills
Bathed in sunshine, washed with rain,
Squeeze into the hidden cavern,
Filled with darkness, steeped in pain.

Descend through all-consuming sadness,
Down through labyrinths of hurt,
Where the whispering ghosts of madness
Murder any radiant thoughts.

At the bottom, lift the trapdoor
Drop into the icy cold,
There to find the secret river,
In the basement of my soul.

Flowing there in perfect blackness
Liquid steel and silk sublime
My cancer and my comforter,
Deep, mysterious, ever mine.

Night Time Darkness

In the confusion of the night

When ghosts hide in every shadow

And tears fall quietly from my lips

And strength drains from my heart

I am a frightened child in a world too far

And too big, too unfair

And too full of impossibility

Where nobody and nothing

Brings the answers or the happiness

Which I ache for

And feel I deserve.

So I curl up and cry alone instead.

Until I am done.

Around the World in 13 Days – 11 Santiago

The descent into Santiago was steep. A couple of times we had that falling feeling you get in airplanes where you momentarily feel a few stones lighter, like when your lift drops a little too rapidly. We even shared a few gasps. The plane hit the tarmac with several severe jolts, safely putting the pilot in last place in the league table of landings. Somehow that seemed to suit the Latin-American temperament and it certainly wasn’t to be my last jumpy transport experience.

Around the World in 13 Days – 10 Sydney Sights

DAY  10 :  SYDNEY

Sydney Evening

Sat in the warm afternoon sun on the grass eating chicken kebab and chips and looking out over Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  Not a bad spot for lunch!  And the chips would be passable in Lancashire!  Arrived in Sydney ok yesterday.  Snoozed a little on the plane – and read my book on the Ulura.  Three hours didn’t seem too long and I moved across a seat to avoid the latest long-legged American on full seat recline in front of me.  These 737s are quite tight on space. 

Around the World in 13 days – 9 Uluru Sunrise

DAY 9 – Uluru and the Olgas to to Sydney

Uluru Sunrise

Climbed into bed and woke up at 3.30am after 5 hours sleep. Texted H (realised I’d been texting without +44 earlier so not sure we got through). Couldn’t get back to sleep so got up and sorted out my stuff, had cups of tea and a shower and feeling absolutely fine and clear headed. Now 5.20am local time and will get ready for my tour to the Olgas. First I must eat some yoghurt and biscuits!

5.45am – bus arrived, a full house, taking us to Uluru sunrise and then 3 different trips. Very informative driver. Once again lots of couples and Americans. Drove out in the dark having picked up more passengers from the hotels. Sunrise was timed at 7.12am. We arrived at the viewing area before 7 and they set up 2 tables for hot drinks. Basically the viewing area is a stretch of road with a long lay-by both sides. Coaches, buses and cars are all arriving – hundreds of people gathering as the light of dawn began to emerge behind us across the bush and tint the clouds orange.

Uluru stood silent and unmoved in front of us, ready to become the reflective red screen for the rising sun show. Many people lined up now taking (or trying to take) photos. I set my new sexy tripod on a post and took steady photos using the self-timer. This is what I needed for the neon lights of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, people have a tendency it seems to congregate unconsciously around small knee high wooden posts!

I walked along the road until I found a post free and where the view wasn’t obscured by shrubs or trees. As the sun rose, the great rock began to glow more and more orange until it became like a radioactive lozenge running off solar power. Behind us the clouds glowed orange and red to accompany and echo the main event.Then, as the sunrise completed, the light returned to normal and the show was over (next performance in 24 hours). Conceived, designed, engineered and executed with light and power and perfection by the creator. 

Kata Tijuta

We jumped back into the coach for 7.30 and those of us visiting Kata Tijuta (the Olgas) were disembarked to join coach 8. A small party of 13 and once again I was the only single person, the only Brit and probably the only one under 45. Or maybe others don’t age as well. They all turned out to be pretty quiet and in the next 4 hours not one of them engaged me in conversation. So the myth of extrovert Americans/Australians was disembued, at least for today.

The walk pace was slow which gave me plenty of time to take photos of the bumps. The walk was in a number of stages intercepted by lookout points. Stony underfoot and a strange selection of semi-desert shrubs and trees, of various colours – silver, black, white. Typically very small, dry foliage. Some burned, some with new growth rising from their charcoal (if not their ashes). A good clear path in the now familiar terracotta sand.

But beyond the paths and shrubs, towering above, the huge, red, barren dunes of the Kata Tijuta. Scarred with lines of erosion, exhibiting the lines of sedimentation. We meandered through these obelisks, nothing too strenuous. Our oldest team member was an 86 year old granny who brought up the rear of the procession but who, we all agreed, was amazing. Hopefully I will be as determined and fit at twice my age!

We stopped, like camels, to take on water, although it wasn’t hot and no sweats were broken into. Our tour guide pointed out bits of vegetation, once again marvelled how God has made such variety adapted to their environment. The walk culminated in a final viewpoint (the Saddle) across more of the Olgas (to use their western name) and then we retraced our steps and I found myself alone in the middle of a very stretched out line. At the turning point, and then all the way back, we passed many other groups, of mainly young people/students (and a fast moving wallaby!).

By this time I’d given up trying to engage conversations with my group, until near the end I caught up with two young women with English accents who I engaged in conversation. They, too, were travellers, both doing so at a much more modest pace than mine (ie months not days).

Dash for the Plane

Back at the coach we took on orange juice, fruit cake and a battalion of pesky flies, as the group came home, like the peacemakers and stragglers in a road race. All throughout I took photos, although the things are too darned large to capture and swallow whole and also throughout I worried about getting back in time. I hadn’t checked out of the hotel by 10 (as required), had left my bags in my room, and had to catch a bus to the airport at 11.50. The driver assured me I would be back by 12! And we were not ahead of schedule. Ultimately the whole pace was determined by Mrs 86. I hoped she was not going to drop dead or collapse or slow to a crawl. I had visions of piggy-backing her if necessary!

So, we left at about 11, stopped for toilets and then at a viewpoint where we were told firmly that we had 8 minutes and no more. Unfortunately Mrs 86 had slept like a baby (no wonder) throughout these instructions. I led the sprint up the path to the viewing point, took 3 or 4 snaps and was mortified to find, as I raced down, old Mrs 86 dawdling up with her camera. So we waited for her as others commented on how she was determined to do everything. Well good for her!

The coach sped off until it caught up with a slow van and motorcycle and at 11.45 was 20 minutes away. The driver had told me he would drop me off first but evidently forgot. I had visions of having to stay another night for £160 and messing up my schedule (ie losing a day in Sydney). So the folk got off at the first hotel – 6 of them with, yes indeed, Mrs 86 bringing up the rear, checking her seat and giving me a sweet smile as she bid me farewell.

Then to the Lost Camel we cruised. I jumped off, thanking the driver, to find a load of people waiting outside with luggage. So the airport bus was late (12.05 now). I sprinted to room 109 which had been serviced and no sign of my bags! Checked the safe and retrieved my valuables. Darted back to reception to see the bus being loaded. The man on reception was on the phone. When he had finished I explained and he retrieved my bags from another room, I tossed the key on the desk and jumped on the bus, hopefully with all my bits and pieces. Searched for my glasses and shades without success. Decided I must have left them in the room when I opened the safe and punched in my code. Oh well – a small price to pay, I needed new glasses anyway.

So we arrived at the airport. Probably the most action packed 24 hours of my trip. Casually checked in and got a window seat (the benefit of having no hold luggage) bought a $4.90 hot pie and a $4.00 coffee, and boarded 1pm. As it happened, once again, have no-one next to me, or in the seat C either. As I went through security my bag had been intercepted and my deodorant removed. It had no top, so I just gave it up. Based on my airport seat experience, it wasn’t working anyway, or as my kids would say “Dad, you smell.”

Flying at 40,000 ft and very hungry. 2.30 and had only fruit cake in the last 9 hours.

Around the World in 13 days – 8 Uluru Sunset

DAY 8 – Sydney to Uluru

Sydney. Sunday morning.

Woke to that horrible sound of my phone insisting it was time to wake up. Jumped out of bed and completed packing and made a cup of tea. Could die for a bottle of Shepshed milk from a real cow! Packed suitcase to stay in Sydney and stuffed an overnight bag for Ayers Rock. Checked out and the lady on reception hailed a taxi for me. $18 to the airport (£8 I think). Taxi driver said nothing. I thought Aussies were meant to be sociable.

As it turned out I was very early. Browsed some shops and decided I will buy a hat and boomerang later. Bought a neat little camera case instead for $19. Grabbed a coffee and orange muffin for breakfast. At Sydney domestic (terminal 3). Now – as previously advertised – am sitting on another 737. Had hoped so much to sit next to some friendly, chatty woman. Had woken this morning feeling quite homesick. I must also be very tired. My alarm clock this morning had been like a gun to my head. However, – as luck would have it – I am next to an older couple and I am next to the chap. Theys eem to be American. And he is Mr Silent. I made a couple of comments which he laughed at but didn’t follow through.

Worse still, in front of me is Mr Big Fat loud American man with his seat in full recline. He is virtually sat on my lap and I can almost smell his bald head. Suppressing a growing feeling of panic and claustrophobia (alleviated only by the fact I am in an aisle seat) and a desire to place my teacup on his head upside down and flatten it. Had a cramped lunch at 10.30am. Decent if flabby salad and cup of tea. My back is sore – not sure why. Maybe its all those flying hours. This is flight #4. After this, I am officially on the return journey!

Watched film about two guys – Dan and Carter. Carter is 26 and highly strung and full of corporate nonsense. Dan is 51 sensible family man. A film with a message. Carter is, of course, my ex-boss Angelo as a youth! Descending now into Ayers Rock. We put our watches back 30 mins – the first place I have moved my watch other than by whole hours. So now a mere 8.5 hours ahead of the UK.

Still not talking to anyone – and feel in need of a quality conversation. Sunny out there – glad I didn’t pack my fleece after all. It is safely in my suitcase in Sydney, I hope. along with my laptop and half a meal in plastic containers from last night. My dad would be proud of me. I think he would also be responsible for my wanderlust and thirst for knowledge. Apparently Ayers Rock is down there but I can’t see from this seat. Still, I guess it will still be there after we land, it seems to be a pretty resilient inanimate object.

I just got a view of it out of the left hand window. Wow! Very formidable and unpretentious at the same time. Just like the writer then (ha!) Also a lovely terracotta colour, as in the desert. Lots of individual plants/trees covering the landscape. The airport is also red where the sand blows across the tarmac.

We landed with a jolt or two but I guess over-running the runway would not be a great problem. Ironically, as we landed, I struck up a conversation with my two neighbours from Seattle. Told them what I was doing and they were genuinely interested. They asked if I was here on business. So I assume there are conferences here. Talked about Vegas. The location of Vegas in a desert is comparable.

Walked off the 737 down the steps and into a warm breeze (again, like Nevada in many ways). Straight through the airport (no luggage for me). Quite a lot of Americans and older people, but one or two younger folk on their own. Asked at information and was directed to the Lost Camel coach outside. Bus driver is Craig. Drove through to the resort on roads with commentary. Has a feel of a holiday camp (upmarket).

Into the Desert

Dropped off at the Lost Camel. Very smart and an excellent reception. Room 109! (my old street number and another 9). Room is exactly as the photo with bed stuck in the middle of the room and toilet/shower at the back. Unpacked in about 2 mins and went for a wander round the shops. Bought aborigine vase, boomerang, drinks cooler (for Phil) and books/postcards and a t-shirt. Dropped these off and then went for a walk round the town and out to one of the lookouts. A good 45 mins in the heat.

All the ground is red sand. There is a lot of vegetation sprinkled in the sand – shrubs and trees. No sign of those snakes I’m no longer scared of at all (ha,ha) but felt pretty brave about it all. Took various pictures of Ayers Rock (Ulura). Flies irritating, especially when taking photos. No-one else around at all, just the odd vehicle driving past. Kept to the paths and road. Back via the info. centre and main central lookout. Is there a new angle on Ayers Rock photos? We shall see! 4.30 now – just eaten an ice-cream, visited by tame yellow-breasted birds. Shooooo.

Checked my morning tour with Lost Camel reception and found that my booking was on the wrong date. Dashed round to AAT King who fixed it for me – phew! and then dashed to the supermarket to buy some breakfast for tomorrow (yoghurt and choc bics were the impulse buy). Suddenly I was in a dash to get to the hotel reception and all ready by 5.15.

Coach was late anyway. Most people were dressed up – but one or two scruffs like me (jeans and casual shirt). Nearly all couples or groups. In fact, I didn’t see another single person. Two coaches full, but only one came back so I think we had one bus load on our tour (Sherlock Holmes hey?) 10 minutes drive up the same way I had walked earlier and then up a desert track – very rough ride for a luxury coach. I was sat on the back seat in the corner. But despite being a single man just decided to enjoy it whatever and try to strike up conversation. Again an interesting situation – a single person surrounded by couples.

Disembarked and walked up a short red sandy path to viewing point from where we could see Uluru (Ayers Rock) in one direction and Kata Tjuta (Olgas) in the other – towards the setting sun.

Didgeradoos, Honeymooners, Kangaroos, Crocodiles . . . sunset in the desert, and the southern stars

There is a man playing a didgeridoo (couldn’t quite catch the tune, but quite haunting). In a gesture to western civilisation in the heart of aborigine culture we partook of champagne and canapés – latter gave me my first bite of kangaroo. Similar to beef I guess, bit chewy. Took photos and asked a girl to take mine. Chatted to an older American woman from Missouri. Again a lot of Americans here. Then overheard an English voice – a young couple, it turned out, from Caversham (Mike and Charlotte) who I immediately hit it off with. Ended up sat on a table next to them, as we moved to our dining area.

Sat opposite me were a couple from San Diego – he was very talkative but very likeable, as was she. To my right an Italian couple from Milan. All three couples were on their honeymoon and we all laughed as I offered free marriage consultancy! Had a really brilliant time talking and laughing. Endless supply of red wine. All my fears about being a miserable single man were swept away and I realised what a good conversationalist I can be when I want to.

Mike had been to Santiago (Chile) and Charlotte to Vegas so we compared notes. All were amazed at my 13 day world tour. Went up for our buffet after an excellent soup. Had crocodile – a whitish, tangy, chewy meat. Had to use ‘get me some crocodile and make it snappy’ joke of course. Eeeh. So bit into the crocodile, also more kangaroo and an excellent salad.

Now it is dark. Only lights aree the stars and the lighted path to the aurora of the unisex toilets. Which I went to – water frea toilets and didn’t even THINK about snakes sliding in from the darkness! (If I keep telling myself I’m cured, maybe I will be). The MC spoke up and they turned off the lights, read a short poem and then turned on the silence (this was the Sounds of Silence tour). All we could hear were the sounds of the desert creatures in glorious stereo.

Then we had a show by the astronomer lady with her light beam, pointing out the Southern Cross and Jupiter. Not crispy clear but good enough to see them. We were all getting gently sozzled by now. Later I had a chance to see through her telescope and saw a twin star and Jupiter with her two lines across and her moons (?). I talked to her about her telescope (x81 mag, couple of thousand pounds).

Finally after another loo break, and a quick gullop of deserts (crumble thing and chocolate sludge) we climbed back on the coach. I sat on back row with American couple from dinner. As they got off shook their hands and wished them all the best, and also with Mike and Charlotte. Staggered back rather to my room and fell asleep in my chair (about 10.30pm)