A Travellerspoint blog

September 2010

Fiji? Forget It.

sunny 27 °C

I have always been dubious about Fiji, never seen it as my kind of place - I don't really do lazing on the beach or get into aquatic sports. Then there is the suppression of democracy and truth by Bainimarama, which doesn't make me think any better of the place. But when Air Pacific proved to have the cheapest fare home, I thought it would be churlish not to take a few days to look at the place as I flew through. The flight over was uneventful, I even managed a bit of sleep, and was in Nadi International Airport on time at 5:10 a.m. Things went wrong from then, basically. I was booked into the nearby Blue Water Lodge, and they had agreed to collect me from the airport. When there was no sign of them, I approached the airport helpdesk: they sold me a $5 phonecard so they could phone the Blue Water Lodge to find out where they had got to. I was told to take a taxi, that they would pay. I decided not to share this information with my taxi driver until I reached the Lodge, not sure why. When I did, he immediately became very anxious, saying "they will not pay". More like that they would not pay the punitive fare he was obviously planning to charge me, because they did pay him, and paid him pretty much the same as I paid later on to get back to the airport.

It has to be said that the Blue Water Lodge was pretty nice (it gets a 91% approval rating on hostelworld and is #1 on tripadvisor of all 28 hotels in Nadi): very clean, friendly, with an outdoor bar, dining and lounging area where it was very pleasant to down a Fiji Bitter or two and read. There was a fellow who would come and sing, which made me feel obliged to pause my reading and clap every so often. I was even upgraded from the dorm to a proper room on my last night. Breakfast was a bit minimal but the one dinner I had there was great. It might be thought to be a downside that it is quite a trek to Nadi, but it is very close to the water's edge and Nadi is, without being too unkind, a dump. Walking to Nadi, some guy in a beatup station wagon kept hassling me, wanting to take me to Nadi - saying, among other things, that he worked at my hotel (it didn't seem to matter which one I was staying at) or was a taxi (without the special licence plates I knew all taxis must have).

In Nadi, there were a couple of nice souvenir shops, one I was quite tempted to buy stuff from, would have done if I ended up liking the place, but otherwise it was pretty rundown and very little special to see. So much as looking in the door of a shop would bring someone out, pressing business cards on me and insisting that I come in and see what he had, no matter how unlike your typical purchaser of fluorescent pink sari material I look. Random guys would stop me as I walked down the street, wanting to take me somewhere, to sell me something, to take me for a drink or just to extract money from me. It didn't matter what he wanted, every such fellow would start off by saying "You don't need to worry about me, I'm not Indian, I'm Fijian" and then if they found out I was a Kiwi, make some big claim to a connection with the Maori. The best thing I found in all of Nadi was in the back of a small arcade of grotty shops - an Indian cafe selling proper Indian (in the sense of "yowser, that's HOT") curries.

I decided that I couldn't handle any more Nadi and didn't really want to sit at the Lodge all day, so decided on a road trip - out to Suva. I flagged down a grotty looking mini-van which was heading to Suva, according to its sign, and I was off. At least, I thought so - turned out it was just running the feeder operation - I was transferred to a very comfortable mini-van for the actual trip. Every so often there would be a wee town, but the journey was largely countryside, sometimes farmed, sometimes bush, which was punctuated by the occasional sprint along the coast. Most bewildering, every so often I'd spot a New Zealand Police car (although the New Zealand had been painted out, everything else stayed in place, down to their vapid catch-phrase "safer communities, together").

Suva, as the capital and twice the size of Nadi, was a bit better. I was largely left to myself to wander around, with only one tout hassling me. He, however, was a doozy. I was thinking of looking for lunch, so peering about for somewhere to eat when he latched on to me. I said I'd like a curry, he was all "I know the place, I'll take you" and then "Maybe we could eat together" - as we walk past the one curry place I'd already seen. He took me round the back street, by this time he had produced a "traditional" factory made (possibly in China) Fijian face mask and wanted to give it to me, and starts carving my name on to it, assuring me that since we're going past the Police station, I must be safe. Then, when he has my name carved on to the mask, he starts demanding money for it - starting at $50 and working his way down. By the time he gets to $10, I've decided I'm done with this pest, so make it clear that I don't want his mask, that his way of doing business is wrong and storm off - to find we have returned to just around the corner from the curry place. Luckily, the food was delicious so I regain a happy frame of mind.

I head back to the bus station - a large open compound, with beautifully painted buses, all of them much older than they seem at first sight, and find a bus heading my way - a big noisy old Hino, but with a gorgeous paint job. It is quite a slow trip back, but I found it really good - we had to stop at all the wee towns, so I could get a bit of a look at what's happening. It was slow, so well after dark before we hit Nadi and my tum's grumbling. There's a very nice looking Indian restaurant I'd noticed so, since it was my last night of my journey, I decide to splash out. Unfortunately, they put me in a corner and forgot to come back, so no posh dinner for me - I decide to have it at the Blue Water instead.

Since it is a 5 k walk, I was going to catch the bus, but there was none in sight. Right on the town edge, a couple of young guys stop me, asking me for money. When I say no, one says "you will give us your money" and pushes me to the ground. I've never been mugged, so don't really know what to do - at first, I protect my pockets then think "he's really quite small" and lunge to my feet, and whack him fair and square on the nose. He's evidently taken aback, because he asks "what did you do that for" in a high-pitched voice. "Because you were f*cking mugging me, you bastard". He starts digging in his pocket and his mate is still there - I kind of realise the danger of the situation and yell for a taxi: they both flee. It was in the fracas that my camera was taken, with photos from the last couple of weeks not yet uploaded to my laptop, which is why I have no photos of Natchez, Huntsville, Austin, El Paso, Mexico, Los Angeles, Fijian buses...

I was just outside a hotel, so went in for help - they were very kind, said that they'd had problems with louts robbing guests and had the Police there within 10 minutes. The Police took me for a drive in their SUV, we found where the guys had gone but were too late to find them. So, I ended up having a random Chinese dinner at that hotel and had them call a taxi to take back to mine. Interesting way to finish a seven month journey abroad.

I have to say that I was quite proud of my wee country as we flew over Great Barrier Island and into Auckland airport - it was a fine sunny day, so land and sea were delineated in sharp blues and greens, as beautiful a sight as any of the many I'd seen while I was away.

Posted by NZBarry 09:03 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Texas Traverse

sunny 40 °C
View Road Tripping USA on NZBarry's travel map.

I really didn't mean to leave things this long, but my life has not been my own. My last post saw me in Natchez, on the Mississippi, a bit over three hours north of New Orleans. Since that is for my next trip, I decided to cut across the river and head west, through Texas. That is one BIG State - it took two days of full time driving to get to Austin, with not much to detain me. Stayed overnight at a place that sounded much nicer than it was, Livingston: it has a lovely lake, but finding somewhere to stay lakeside was too much of a mission, so I gave up and slept in a Super 8, last of the trip as it happens. My guidebook raved about a place to eat, up some road, but try as I might, I never found it and stuffed my face with fast food.

I took breakfast in Hunstville, a small town with two claims to fame: General Sam Houston lived here at one stage and for many years it was where Texas gave people the lethal injection. Apparently, too many people escaped, so they moved the facility elsewhere. I only stopped because the diner at which I had breakfast looked so traditional, I had to check it out. Bad move - the food was awful. Round steak sounded good, and maybe in other places it is good but here, well, I'd call it mince. Best thing about the diner was the endless free coke.

Somewhere along the line, I heard the news that Michael Jackson had died, in amongst the endless replays of Miley Cyrus's The Mountain: it seems that no matter what radio station I tuned to, this song finds me. Does she know no other? Buried in all the news about Michael Jackson and chirpy songs about over-coming mountains, I also heard that Farrah Fawcett-Major (I still add her former husband's name - its how she was when I was growing up, watching Charlie's Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man) had passed away. This news actually meant more to me than that about Jackson.

Austin made up for the depredations suffered on the trail. I spent three nights at the HI hostel, which is in a brilliant location, right on the shores of the Lady Bird Lake, just out from the centre of the city. It was a bit shocking to get there and find the temperature had gone over 40 degrees, although I couldn't really agree with the person booking me in when she moaned about the humidity. Texas is pretty dry, so just a bit of humidity struck her as being excessive. Someone at the hostel must have been a Michael Jackson fan: its radio was tuned to a station that played his music exclusively the whole time I was there.

I really enjoyed my time in Austin - famous because of its live music scene, but when I was there, it all seemed a bit pub rock and banal. No worries, I found plenty to do. Every day, I drove in a different direction, and there was lots to see - the State legislature is pretty special, but I must confess my main activity was hanging out in shops, including the various great coffee shops Austin has. I found a huge boot shop, which has this amazing aroma, emanating from the thousands of pairs of proper leather boots. I wasn't tempted, but did try on quite a few cowboy shirts: could never quite get one that I liked and that fitted me, so came away empty-handed. Next door was a second hand shop with more random stuff than I think I have ever seen in one place (including genuine bumper stickers from Richard Nixon's presidential campaign). Across the road were a number of old Airstream campers, rounded silver bubbles, converted to sell cupcakes, hotdogs and the like. I took lots and lots of photos to illustrate my time in Austin, but they never made it home. The only specifically touristy thing I did was to hang out on the bridge one evening to watch the bats - millions of them live under the Congress Avenue bridge and, as night falls, take off to do whatever it is that bats do when they're out and about.

One stand out find was Green Mesquite, an old-skool barbecue place which has been "horrifying vegetarians since 1988". I went a couple of times, so I could try their smoked brisket, their pulled pork and their ribs (with beans and corn on the cob both times). On one night I was there, they had WST Bluegrass, a band that has had a Sunday night residency ever since they started. Pretty good, and made magic when a girl from (I think) Michigan who was just dining there got up and joined them for a few songs. Driving around, I found a place that had been serving barbecue in Austin since the 50's, making huge claims about how famous and great it is, so I thought I'd give it a go. Not so great, as it turned out - the lack of custom should have been the clue.

I had mixed feelings when I found that I had a bit of a disaster with my travel plans. The plan was to drop the car in San Antonio and spend a couple of days there. I was patting myself on the back for the great score I'd had on priceline, which lets you set your own price for a hotel. A five star hotel for $70 seemed pretty good to me, and a nice way to spend my last couple of nights on the road. It was only when I was getting ready to leave the Austin hostel that I realised I had made a small error: the hotel name should have been the clue - the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown. Clearly this was not a hotel in San Antonio at all, yet that fact passed me by.

So I had a couple of random extra days in Austin, and then a very late drive down to San Antonio. For once the normally infallible google maps let me down, and directed me to the tradesman's entrance to San Antonio airport, which was not good when it was after midnight and my car was due back at midnight. Luckily, I found a gatekeeper who sent me round to the right side of the airport. I think it was at the airport that I had my only encounter with the police: there were about five cops, hanging about. I thought if anyone knew about transport to the city, they would, so asked about the shuttle. They assured me there was no such thing, pretty much as one drove past us and stopped.

And so, I was in downtown San Antonio, at around 1:00 in the morning, with a train to catch. I had originally hoped to drive all the way across the USA, and I am sure that in the three weeks I had it is possible, but it would have meant many hours on the road every day. Thus a train from San Antonio to Los Angeles seemed the smart thing to do. I had actually been a bit curious as to whether there was one train or two, because the Amtrak website had said I could take the Sunset Limited (which originated in New Orleans) or the Texas Eagle (which came through from Chicago). They had the exact same timings, but one was twice the price of the other. Turns out they connect and join up in San Antonio, so just the one train, but with two prices. Amtrak really surprised me: they have a reputation for being late, this train in particular. It was due out of San Antonio at something like 5:00 a.m., but it was there by about 2:30. Not that I could get on: the train manager was quite insistent that all the passengers had to be let off and he had to find seats for us all, a process which took at least an hour.

I was on that train for 30 hours or so, passing through El Paso and Tucson, among other places. At several points, we ran right along the Mexican border, so I have finally seen Mexico (have never been - left home to go there once, but got to Los Angeles and was a bit scared of Mexico, so hired a car and went to Seattle). The only substantial stop was El Paso, where I could get off and walk around for a couple of hours. Not really much chance to see anything in that sort of time, but I was pleased to find that the trend towards good coffee shops had reached this far, and could have a nice lunch. The train did have a dining car, set up as a fairly formal restaurant, where I was conducted to a seat by a waiter when I went in for breakfast, and was joined by a fellow on his annual trip on one of the big train trips. All in all, it was a very pleasant experience, watching half of America go by out the window, although next time I think I might take the train that runs to the north, through Albuquerque.

The train delivered me to the beautifully Art Deco Union Station in downtown LA, with a day to kill. Leaving my bags at the station, I wandered downtown LA, which was much more interesting than the last time I had been there (which was to catch a Greyhound somewhere). It has had a long period of decline, so there are interestingly decrepit looking old hotels and big old office buildings which no longer serve their original function. There is a surprising number of good cafes scattered about, which probably came in when lots of little art galleries, theatres, museums and the like moved in. I was pretty tired, not really up to visiting things like the Museum of Contemporary Art, so spent the morning just wandering, taking in the sights. I had the names of a couple of very traditional diners to check out, but never managed to find them.

By early afternoon, I was knackered, so made my way to the Richard Riordan Central Library, a grand old place, apparently built to an Egyptian style. It says something about its location that it was hit by arsonists so badly in the 1980's that it had to close for six years. I reckon I could easily spend a week wandering around and getting used to downtown LA but, well, I had a flight to catch. I had a very nice pizza and my penultimate American Pale ale and caught the FlyAway Bus from Union Station to LAX. I fell asleep immediately and had to be woken by the driver. There was just time for an incredibly expensive final American Pale Ale (the first time I was tempted not to tip, but the custom is so great that one must always tip, in order to show one's gratitude: I left a penny and a few thoughts scrawled on the tab).

Posted by NZBarry 08:49 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Off to Japan - Narita to be Exact

overcast 0 °C

Air New Zealand decided to do a bit of deep discounting of tickets for holidays over the Christmas period. After a bit if umming and aahing, tossing and turning, toing and froing, I decided that three weeks in Japan would do me nicely. I'd long been curious but the cost always frightened me, until I spent several months in Europe and the USA. It turns out that Japan can be very affordable.

When my work was done for the year in Dunedin, I didn't just hop on a plane and fly off to Japan, or even to Auckland. Oh no, I thought I'd get to Auckland by bus, testing my ability to get $1 fares on nakedbus. The South Island was easy - a $1 fare to Christchurch, two nights there and another $1 fare to Picton for the ferry. Luckily the Bluebridge people were kind to me, as I'd actually booked for the following day - they slipped me on anyway. Since I couldn't get a $1 fare out of Wellington, I hung about for a couple of nights. I also had to detour through Tauranga, so I caught the nakedbus to Taupo and regular Intercity out to Tauranga. It is a long way to go by bus, but I found the journey remarkably pleasant, and the buses all comfortable and in good condition (the nakedbus on the Wellington - Auckland route is as good as any). In fact, the worst bus was the Intercity, it was very noisy. I actually had a $1 ticket from Tauranga to Auckland for Boxing Day, but my mum didn't think it was worth missing the family Christmas in Auckland just to use the ticket, so I drove that bit. We had a bit of a trial run for the airport on Christmas Day as one of my brothers and his family was using the same Air NZ discount to take off to America (with a minor panic as they had no idea an Electronic Travel Authority is needed! Luckily, with a laptop on hand, this could be remedied immediately).

Come 27 December and it was my turn. The flight was just a flight, with nothing remarkable. I had decided that Tokyo was a bit much for my first time in Japan, and had heard that Narita town, two stops down the railway line, would be a quite nice place to stop. I was a bit worried as the hotel I had chosen to stay in had not replied to any emails. It had online booking but in Japanese only - I did try to use it and got pretty close, but what confounded me were the several buttons that were presented: I really had no clue which one would effect my booking, so gave up. I did find a Japanese travel website that would take a booking (and my money), but who knew whether that meant the hotel would have any knowledge of me?

As I entered Narita on the train, I spotted my hotel (the Richmond) so it was no problem finding it and yes, they had my booking and I had my first experience of Japanese hospitality: at least three perfectly groomed people on the front desk bowing profoundly every time I made an appearance. I think I racked up 93 bows in just one night! I also racked up a whole bunch of confusion - was I supposed to bow in return and, if so, would a single group bow do the trick or did everyone get one? I ended up just smiling vaguely at everyone I saw.

The hotel was really rather good - a spotless lobby and small but perfectly formed room, complete with slippers, torch and free internet (standard in every Japanese hotel I stayed in):

My first encounter with Narita was not encouraging - a tiny town square, fronted by the competing railway stations, grotty looking concrete towers - I could have been anywhere. I wandered about for a bit, had my first encounter with Japanese bakeries - they lay their baked goods out much like we lay out vegetables in a supermarket, and can be as big (most of the baked goods were unrecognisable, but there were various rolls and sweet buns I quickly came to enjoy) and realised I'd have two problems with eating in Japan. The first is that I am not a great fan of Japanese food, some of it looks just weird. The second is that I have no Japanese language and many Japanese eating houses have no English menu and little English spoken. Sure, they have these plastic mock ups of the food, but when they're a reconstruction of something I've never seen before, that doesn't help. I had thought it would be great to eat at an Izakaya, a pub where they serve lots of charcoal-cooked meat snacks, and I think I found a couple, but they seemed just a little intimidating. I walked past a place doing burgers and other fastfoods and decided that would do: fried rice is not exactly a great culinary start. The staff never spoke a word of English but were fantastically friendly.

I noticed a street running off in a direction I'd not been and struck gold - a street that made me think "I'm in Japan". I have no idea if some of the buildings were built last year or are centuries old (although the street itself has been here for centuries), but they were good enough for me.

Right down the bottom is the Shinshoji Temple Narita, my first Japanese temple. It was established in 940 AD, although everything I saw was much more modern.


It is a huge place

with a tightly packed but quite small cemetary

there was lots I did not understand, such as the function of this

Walking back up the hill to the centre of town, there were many eating places and shops selling quite distinctive products

Back in the hotel, another first experience - Japanese television, Japanese cooking shows to be exact. To this day, I still have no idea how they worked. There was very little actual cooking, lots of eating, lots of closeups of people eating, talking but the really confusing thing was that they'd seem to forget what they were about and interpose some completely random story. I'm not sure which was the more confusing: this, or the fact that the only English language programme seemed to be Hustle. No worries - I felt I'd had a good first day in Japan.

Posted by NZBarry 07:29 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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