On the scale of galaxies

On the scale of galaxies, the bubbles in my glass of champagne,

the light upon my fingers as I hold it this night, do not exist.

These perceptions, so real to me in this moment,

are, in the macroscopic reckoning of the cosmic engine,

as conjectural as quarks are to my own consciousness,

supposed to truly exist by faith alone.

On the scale of galaxies, these bubbles, these fingers, this light

are virtual things, untouchable, unreadable, invisible and only weakly implicate.

Yet they exist, without faith and unnegated, all the same.

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Rottnest Island: Essential Information

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If you’re going to Perth and have at least 24 hours free, you owe it to yourself to visit Rottnest Island — it’s gorgeous, accessible and has quokkas, for the love of god.

Getting to “Rotto” is easy — If you’re staying in Fremantle (“Freo”) you can catch a ferry with either Rottnest Express (from the B-Shed location near the Fremantle train station (multiple departures from 7.15am to 3.15pm, arriving Rottnest between 8.00am and 4pm, taking about 45 minutes), or from Northport if you’re driving) or Rottnest Fast Ferries from Hilarys Boat Harbour (multiple departures 7.30am to 5pm) a bit north of the city. If you’re stationed in Perth, Rottnest Express also runs ferries down the Swan River from Barrack St in the city., leaving at 8.30am and arriving Rottnest at 10.45am (which stops at both B-Shed and Northport along the way). In any case, it’s not a long trip, and especially from Perth there’s some interesting scenery along the way.

An adult fare on Rottnest Express from Perth is around $100 AUD (including the Rottnest Island access fee) or $80 from Fremantle. Prices are comparable on Rottnest Fast Ferries, so it’s more a question of where you’d like to depart from (I’d personally recommend Rottnest Express’s locations) than anything.

Once you get to the island, you’ll head to the visitor centre at the head of the main jetty to check in. You’ll want to have reserved accommodation already. A campsite currently runs $36 (a bit less, admittedly, when I visited recently, but in any case the cheapest lodging on the island), whereas a single/family room at the Rottnest Hotel runs $51/$111, and bungalows/dormitories/etc can run anywhere from $70 a night in low season to $220 a night in high season. More than anything, just realise that there’s a lot of options to suit a lot of budgets and group sizes, and so long as you’re planning ahead there’s probably something available to suit. For meals there’s a decently-stocked supermarket and BBQ for self-catering, as well as full-price meals at the Rottnest Hotel and cheapier stuff in the main settlement at the Rottnest Bakery and nearby Subway. There’s a Bankwest ATM if you run out of cash, and the supermarket also has your various sunscreen/souvenir/beachy items covered.

You can rent bikes as well as masks/snorkels/flippers from Pedal and Flipper in the main settlement for $30 for 24 hours // $21 for 24 hours respectively, though don’t expect anything other than barebones quality. The ferry companies will also rent you the same equipment for similar (if ever so slightly higher) prices, which you can reserve then you make your ferry booking if you’re so inclined. Pedal and Flipper also rents everything from basketballs to cricket sets to surfboards, so if you’ve got a debit card you’re pretty much covered for recreation.

As for what to do when you’re there, I’d certainly recommend renting a bicycle. There are buses that ply the routes around the island (there’s no other private motorised transport allowed, thankfully), but if you’re physically able bicycle is definitely the way to go. Snorkelling, likewise, is a treat. Little Salmon Bay and The Basin are two of the finest spots, and are sheltered enough for children, though Parkeeet Bay and Little Armstrong Bay off the north coast as well as Parker Point and the east edge of Salmon Bay on the south coast are also good choices. There are wrecks to SCUBA dive as well at various points around the island (historically treacherous rocks!) if you’re keen.

As for tours, one-offs like the Oliver Hill tunnels and Wadjemup Lighthouse run about $10 AUD a pop, and you can purchase one-day “island explorer” passes for around $20.

Whatever way you choose to visit Rottnest, however, you owe it to yourself to just GO. Popular though Australia is with international (and specially anglophone) tourists, the west coast gets precious few visitors compared to the Cairns-to-Sydney-to-Melbourne circuit in the east. More’s the pity- Rottnest is a true highlight of Australia, and a unique and wonderful bit of the little-visited southern Indian Ocean. And that’s BEFORE you add in the quokkas.

The Rat Nest: Island Splendour

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Rottnest Island, less than an hour by ferry from the Western Australian city of Fremantle, doesn’t have the world’s most pleasing name. In the original Dutch it means, simply, “Rat Nest”, which is an entirely sensible thing to name an island so densely populated by cat-sized, hairless-tailed, pointy-eared furballs that you actually risk tripping over them in the tall grass at twilight.

That said, quokkas – the eponymous and ubiquitous “rats” of the “Rat Nest” – are far from being rodents. Trolleying about sleepy-eyed at dusk in search of forage you’d be forgiven for thinking them some brawny and mutated escapee from a New York subway – that is, until they start hopping.

Spurred into their fastest mode of locomotion, the quokka suddenly bounces and bounds along in great two-legged leaps, betraying a now-obvious and previously hidden kinship to its macropod cousins: the kangaroos and wallabies.

No roo, however, would approach you as close as the quokkas do, sweetly stretching out their little noses to kiss your leg on the optimistic reckoning that your coconut-scented sunscreen smells an awful lot like food. Unfussed by humans, cars or – seemingly – much of anything, they’ve evolved a profound docility in the absence of either natural or introduced predators that, along with legion-like presence across much of the island, makes them Rottnest’s natural mascot and most adorable ambassador.

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Rottnest, though, is much more merely quokkas. Rent a rustbucket bicycle and a snorkel set from Pedal & Flipper on the edge of Rottnest’s main settlement and point yourself south into the headwind whipping over the scrubby hills. Quickly the buildings of the settlement fall away and you’re left pedalling smooth asphalt over the sere dips and rises, the cobalt sea looming to the horizon, its colours broken into turquoise shallows and brown cliffs and long sweeps of alabaster sand. At Little Salmon Bay, 20 minutes from the main settlement, the headlands dip in to form a sheltered cove, and you lock your bike and shed your shoes and wade into the water.

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This part of the Western Australian coastline is a full 32 degrees south of the equator, yet you find that, warmed by the Leeuwin Current swooping down from the tropics, the bay amazingly harbours corals, great stony pale lavender blooms encrusting the rocks all around you in the clear clear water, which is nearly as warm as the air. Fish swim around you, singly and in schools, and the waves pulse gently in the bay as you dive to explore the underwater nooks at its margins.

Back out on the rocks you drip-dry in the sun, wheeling overhead like some bright solar chariot and glinting off the dark sea like chips of mica, and then you mount your bike and are off again down the serpentine macadam ribbon, rising and falling along the lonely coast, past the long beach of big Salmon Bay and the smaller arcs of Green Island and Mary Cove. As you pedal, the Wadjemup Lighthouse rises white and tall behind you from the island’s centre – the first such stone structure in WA, its name coming from the Noongar Aboriginal word meaning ‘place across the water’ (the mythological Noongar name for Rottnest, and a great irony for the generations of Aboriginal people wrongly imprisoned here during its British-colonial heyday).

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Turning, you pedal up onto the high rise of Oliver Hill and park your bike to explore the WWII-era artillery emplacements, bunkers and tunnels there with a local volunteer docent, learning about another era of the island’s history when the huge 9.2-inch gun emplacements protected the Allies’ submarine base at Fremantle on the mainland – at the time the largest in the southern hemisphere. You begin here to gain a deeper appreciation of just how many historical layers there are overlaying the island – from the days of Aboriginal prehistory to the landings millennia later by the earliest European navigators of the southern Indian Ocean; from its days as a squalid Victorian penal colony subjugating and ‘civilising’ Australia’s native peoples and on to its time as a 20th-century artillery battery defending the West Australian coast.

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Gliding down from the hilltop in the heat, your tyres humming as you curse the feeble and squealing brakes of your trusty rustbucket, you come upon a long causeway crossing a series of shallow pinkish-hued salt lakes, home to nesting fairy terns and long ago a vital part of the colonial economy, when the salt was harvested, transported by rail to the ‘salt house’ in the settlement, and then shipped onward to the mainland. You turn north at the end of the causeway, rounding past the old settlers’ cemetery, and within a minute you’re firmly back in the present day – the island’s enormous, stately wind turbine churning like a latter-day Goliath on the hillside above you. A bit further along the road and soon you’re back on the primeval coast once again, parking your rustbusket and getting the mask and snorkel from your bag for a plunge in the great rock kettledrum of the Basin.

The eroded cliff walls here form a deep, sheltered underwater depression that’s popular for families with children, who mostly stay to the shallows along the edge. The walls of the drum, though, are a favourite hangout for fish, and you spend 40 minutes in the late-afternoon sun doing shallow dives to check out the plentiful sea life along its edges. This full day of swimming and cycling, of course, has left you completely exhausted, and you cycle briefly back to the main settlement to acquire a beer from the bottle shop before grabbing yourself a seat on the raised platform of the north coast’s Bathurst Lighthouse, to watch the sun set over the dunes of Pinky Beach.

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As you return from the beach an hour later to your sandy-floored campground, the quokkas have once again gathered in the field across the narrow road – a real ‘rat nest’ – with two dozen of them out feeding together as dusk falls over the island. You read in your tent as the night gathers outside – David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks – and as you read you can hear the shush of the wind in the trees, the shush of the ocean across the dunes. Feeling tired and happy the great beauty and calm and tremendous specialness of the place envelop and enclose you like a blanket.

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It is full night on now Rottnest, and in your tiredness the night swims with a sublime sense of depth – of time and history, of the eons of geology written in the trees and cliffs and beaches; and just as much in the depth of its human geography – the residue of souls transiting this ‘place across the water’: ancient Noongar, starched and sweating colonial, proud soldier on the watch, and now yourself as tourist. Yes, it is night on Rottnest and sleep is not far away, and in the half-moon silver light all is faintly mystical, and all is well.

[PUBLISHED] Cleveland: A Midwestern Renaissance

“Though a city’s fortunes can fall, however, they can also certainly rise again, and in just a handful of years leading up to 2014, Cleveland has experienced a quiet but very real renaissance. Twenty- and thirty-somethings, drawn by the low cost of living and a burgeoning restaurant and bar scene, have repopulated the city’s neighborhoods, breathing new life into its old streets, and discovering in the process not only the joys of the city’s present, but also the substantial riches of its past.”

Give a read to my piece for Gogobot.com — Cleveland: A Midwestern Renaissance.

West Side Market

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On an Island Forgotten by History, the Melange of Mozambique

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I’m on an overcrowded, stripped down minibus heading to Ilha de Mozambique – the tiny island in the country’s north that gave this sprawling African nation its name — when I get my first small taste of the country’s unique flavor. Crammed into the tiny space, which is ripe with tropical heat and the heavy odor of sweating human bodies, are a dozen or more women, clad in identical church black, in identical orange headscarves; and as we roll down the long two-lane highway towards the coast, they begin to fill the coach with singing.

Their voices form a kind of otherworldly chorus, ululating, rising and then falling off, others joining in to take their place. In the back seat, their faces beaded with sweat, three men with hand drums — little more than wooden boxes stretched with animal hides — set rhythms beneath the voices, and the whole coach is suddenly transformed into a rolling African choir. We pull into a dusty off-road through a village, and as we pass beneath the shady mango trees, hung with heavy fruit, barefoot children run from the daub-and-wattle huts; as the song pours through the minibus windows, the kids spontaneously begin to dance.

This, as they say, is Africa. But though tribal rhythms are the beginning of the story of Mozambique, they’re also far from being the end. Independence in 1975 from longtime colonial masters Portugal quickly brought a bloody 15-year civil war that ended only in 1992 (trivia: the AK-47 on the Mozambican flag makes it the only national flag to feature a modern weapon). With the end of the conflict came stability, and with it thousands of vacationing South Africans, who have flocked to hip southern party beaches like Tofo, just a day’s drive from Johannesburg, ever since.

The coastal north of Mozambique, however – where for more than five hundred years Portuguese colonists, Arab Muslim traders and fragments of the Indian diaspora have transited, settled and intermingled – harbors a cultural mélange as unique as any on Earth, its matchless physical history preserved by distance and bad roads, and mostly untouched by tourism. It’s a place that, with its effortless subtropical beauty, rich cultural heritage, and utter absence of crowds practically cries out for “next big thing” destination status. Yet suspended as it is in a vast geographical gulf two or more days’ hard drive from anywhere, Mozambique’s north may as well be a place suspended in time, as the destination of my musical minibus is to illustrate.

Dusk is gathering in Ilha (“eel-hya”) de Mozambique’s UNESCO-listed Stone Town as I arrive and, seeking my guesthouse amongst the narrow alleyways, I quickly find myself lost. In the twilight, the maze of twisting streets and crumbling edifices gives little sign of belonging to this or any other recent century. I try in vain to get my bearings, turning one blind corner after another as I tread deeper into the labyrinth. I pass the ancient mosque, the crumbling Hindu temple, the ruins of autumnal facades flickering with the light of squatters’ cooking fires; yet lost as I am, the magic of the deserted city is not lost on me. There is no sense here in the gloom of Stone Town of the wider world, no signal of modernity to separate me from Ilha de Mozambique’s uncanny and palpable sense of living history. As my footsteps echo off the dusty cobbles, I find myself slipping back in time, imagining an age half a millennium ago when this tiny island, barely 500 meters wide, was one of the most important colonial outposts in the world, a prominent naval base and merchant port forming the heart of Portuguese East Africa at the height of that empire’s power.

Vasco de Gama first landed here in 1498, and by the mid-16th century, what had once been merely an Arab trading port for dhows transiting the Swahili Coast had been fully transformed into one of the first truly global crossroads of the Renaissance age, the nexus of a vast pollination between the Islamic, Christian, Indian and African worlds. When I eventually emerge onto the deserted, wind-whipped quays on Stone Town’s western side, the mechanism of that vast engine of change is rendered clear: In the moonlight, the gentle waves washing against the weathered quays conjure up ghosts of the Arab dhows and tall-masted Portuguese carracks that would once have anchored here, plying the trade routes between Europe, Africa, India and the Far East.

In my mind, I can hear the clink and clack of African gold, pearls and ivory as they are loaded onto the ships of the Portuguese India armada to be exchanged in distant Goa and Kochi for holds full of precious spices. I can smell the perfume of cinnamon, cardamom and clove on their way back to Lisbon from Ceylon and the Spice Islands; and I wince at the crack of the whip as Africans captured by their enemies as far away as present-day Malawi and Zimbabwe are sold into slavery and driven into the hold for their long voyage back to the Arabian Peninsula.

I wander north to the ancient, looming walls of the Fort of São Sebastião and its still more ancient Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest surviving European building in the southern hemisphere, where sailors months from the nearest safe harbor would have bowed before the crashing waves and prayed to be delivered from pirates, storms and scurvy. Eventually as I stand there, soaking in the changeless atmosphere, a security guard finds me and, much more than merely forgiving my trespass, leads me back at last through the lanes to the lamplit doorway of my guesthouse, the beautifully-restored colonial Casa de Ruby.

There on the broad roof terrace, blissfully relieved of my heavy pack and sipping a cold Laurentina lager, owner Uwe Reichelt breaks down the physical history of the island for me. “The whole of Mozambique Island, every part, was founded in the encounter of different cultures,” he begins as we sit overlooking the rooftops of Stone Town. “As a result, everything here has become a mix.” He gestures at the buildings below us: “If you look at the architecture, we have the lime construction using thick walls, which comes from the Algarve in the south of Portugal. The flat roofs to catch rainwater, though, are from the cities of the Indian Ocean. And the style of the doors, the beautiful woodwork and ornamentation — different again. It’s Swahili, which is itself a mixture of African and Arabian.”

“And it isn’t just architecture,” he continues, “it’s the people themselves. They’ve got the physical features of three different continents, and practice three different world religions — Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — all on this little island.”

Naturally, though, there’s a more pressing question on my mind: “What about the food?”

He laughs. “Head down to the market stalls, and ask for Dona Sara’s.”

Cuisine, of course, is one of the primary windows into culture, and all the better when you’re hungry. In Dona Sara’s, tucked away in the market square beside the grand, half-abandoned hospital, I dip my toes into the culinary waters with a serving of savory chamusas, the Mozambican take on the classic Indian samosa. I nosh on fresh local prawns in an eye-watering peri-peri sauce (made of the bird’s-eye chili brought from the New World by the Portuguese and subsequently spread via Africa to Asia and the Indian subcontinent). I sop up the fiery peri-peri with paõ, a wonderfully crusty Portuguese-style bread roll, but it’s the flavorful and unique matapa de siri-siri, a stew made of the siri-siri creeper from the island’s beaches combined with cashew-nut, coconut milk, onion and spices, that wins the award for my local favorite — a classic African dish mixed with tangy island flavors.

That night, returning with a full belly through the deep darkness of the town after dinner, I spot what seems like a ghost amongst the ruined buildings, a single pale face moving in the shadows. As I draw nearer, I realize it’s a young African woman, her face painted with the white plant paste known as muciro, which local women use not only as a beauty aid, but to signal their availability for marriage. It’s a moment that brings me full circle, back to Mozambique as Africa, a culture wearing its influences and tribulations like adornments, rather than as chains.

Here, she could be Christian or Muslim, I think, her ancestry mixed with long-ago travellers from Muscat or Goa or the Iberian Peninsula. Yet at this moment the distinctions, the endless branching ways that have brought her to this moment in the ruins of this once-great and now forgotten place, seem not to matter. She is Mozambican, and in all that means, she is beautiful. She smiles shyly as I walk past and I move off alone, smiling myself, into the quiet richness of the island night.

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Hard Travel to Special Places

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A general fact of travel worth considering: Anywhere worth getting to, takes getting to.

Many of my favorite spots in the world are on the way to nowhere, and so are most often overlooked. I hope that the spots below will inspire you to stretch out a little and make your own discoveries beyond the guidebook highlights page.

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  • Muang Ngoi, Laos. Bombed by the United States twice a day for four years during the “Secret War” spilling over from Vietnam, this riverside town, ringed by emerald rice paddies and dramatic karst limestone peaks and caves, is the essence of laid-back graciousness. Though often compared to Vang Vienne — today infamous as a riotous party centre  — the feel of the town is decidedly sleepy, and you won’t find 19 year-old Danish backpackers doing body shots here. Simplest explanation? There are, as yet, no roads to Muang Ngoi, which requires a journey of more than an hour up or downriver to reach.

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  • Tofo, Mozambique. Though it might be flooded with South Africans around the New Year, the beach town of Tofo near Inhambane in the south of the country is a far cry from popular beach spots like Bali and Phuket. There are no beach resorts, no high rises, and very little in the way of a developed ‘tourist’ culture. Instead what you get is miles of wide, empty beaches made of white sand so fine it squeaks between your toes, bookended by a sapphire Indian Ocean on one side, and high, rolling dunes on the other. Popular with both Mozambicans and hardcore travellers alike, Tofo is a party town, with a handful of open-air beach bars spread out over more than a kilometre of shoreline, but it has the sort of low-key, un-slick, everyone-is-welcome vibe that eludes scenester-y beaches the world over. The key to Tofo’s cool? If you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s a bitch to get to from Jo’burg on public transport.

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  • Togian Islands, central Sulawesi, Indonesia. If Tofo is a bitch to get to, then getting to the Togian Islands of Indonesia is beyond ridiculous. Sitting in the heart of Tomini Bay between the central ‘arms’ of the enormous island of Sulawesi, getting to this scattered archipelago takes patience, money, or both, enduring internal flights, looooong days on bad roads, and a final trip from the mainland on boats of varying size and seaworthiness. Arriving here, though, is pure Robinson Crusoe — the end of the world, with sunsets that burn out like nuclear fire over miles of cobalt blue and thriving coral gardens in waters so clear that you can spy the bottom, 40m down, from the surface. You may find yourself staying a few days longer than you wanted, of course, whether by choice or because the boatman you hired decided he has other things going that day, but that’s really all part of the charm.

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  • Lingshet, Ladakh, India. While getting to the above three destinations is inconvenient, none of them are WORK in the way that getting to Lingshet is, a tiny mountain village at 3800m in the upland desert of Ladakh, northern India. To get here you’ll have to walk. A lot. For at least three days and over mountain passes of more than 4500m. Lingshet, though, is a mountain idyll — green barley fields and a riot of wildflowers topping a series of stepped plateaus nestled between sheer mountain walls. A couple days here and I could feel my wifi addiction waning away — walking the mountain paths, chating to monks at the centuries-old Buddhist monastery, drinking tea and generally enjoying a place that neither time nor the wider world seem to have touched. One of those spots that — when you leave — you take a little piece of with you.

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  • Coffee Bay, South Africa. Coffee Bay, the gem of the South Africa’s undeveloped and aptly-named Wild Coast, is a delight. You won’t have to trek or take a boat to get here, but situated as it is at the end of a long, poorly-maintained road to the coast thru the traditional apartheid-era African homeland known as the Transkei, you won’t find the crowds here that mob Cape Town and the Garden Route. Half coastal and half pastoral, it’s a paradise for surfers and photographers alike, and while there’s a party scene here, it’s delightfully chilled-out, and you’re unlikely to find anyone trying to sell you crystal meth (Indonesia’s Gili Islands, I’m looking in your direction). Best of all, the town is home to the gracious Khosa people, who make Coffee Bay so much more than just a pretty landscape.