Who would have thought there could possibly be an Australian connection to a pizza tour of Brooklyn?

Paula of the Pizza

Paula of the Pizza

But sure enough there eventually turns out to be one so strong that we are singing in our seats.

Things start to look familiar as our bus glides down a street in the heart of what Paula, our entertaining guide,  calls “the real New York”.

The falsetto singing from the Bee Gees comes blasting over the sound system inside the bus:

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive..

This is the street with an elevated railway made famous in the classic 1970s movie Saturday Night Fever where a future “ambassador” for Qantas, John Travolta, showed his steps as music from Barry, Robin and Maurice set the beat.

And over there is Lenny’s, the very pizzeria where Travolta’s character Tony Manero  put two pieces of pizza  together and then scoffed the double-decker.

“A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour” had begun in Manhattan. Soon we were over the East River and in a park by the water not far from Brooklyn Bridge. We looked back at the skyscrapers – – the shot the movie-makers love.

The true Italian flag. (Photo: A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours).

The true Italian flag.
(Photo: A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours).

But pizza was our first priority and we soon arrived at the most famous  place for it  in Brooklyn, Grimaldi’s.

On to the checkered tablecloth comes a delicious Margherita pizza made from tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.

Its green, white and red and  colours  are said to make it the “true Italian flag”. We are told it was named after a visitor to Naples, Queen Margherita of Savoy.

Back on the bus  and we are soon hearing about an entertainment royal,  Elvis Presley, “the king” . His connection? As a GI, like many thousands of others, Elvis shipped out overseas from the massive Brooklyn army terminal we are passing.

The link with Elvis is  just the start of what becomes a dizzying roll call of the great singers, actors, comedians and other show business and sporting figures who, unlike the King, actually originated from Brooklyn.

We see places associated with famous movies (Moonstruck,  Scent of a Woman, French Connection) and then stroll along the waterfront of Coney Island, where a wooden roller coaster, Cyclone,  first began jolting the pizza out of people nearly 90 years ago.

Cyclone, the old wooden roller coast.

Cyclone, the old wooden roller coaster.

At L & B Spumoni Gardens we enjoy another type of pizza, a thick, square Sicilian  slice which, despite its size, is somehow as light as it is  delicious. As we order a  spumoni ice cream (“where the cream becomes ice cream’) , we notice that the locals look like extras in a movie.  But, no, this is real life.

Sicilian slice at Spumoni Gardens  (Photo: A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours).

Sicilian slice at Spumoni Gardens
(Photo: A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tours).

As depart along Ocean Parkway, a list starts unfurling on the screen inside the bus and it has names of the famous people who came from Brooklyn.

For  seemingly all  seven  kilometres of the boulevard, the names keep coming—Jerry Seinfeld , Jay-Z, Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy, Mae West,  Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Larry David, Pat Benatar, Joan Rivers, Rita Hayworth, Mike Tyson, Mos Der, Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

You can bet the one thing they had in common was that they had feasted on the local pizza.

http://www.asliceofbrooklyn.com/pizza.html

 

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Two real life dramas happened on my “New York TV & Movie sites tour”.

Near Washington Square, where Billy Crystal met Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, we heard a man bellowing at the top of his voice.

A motorist had cut off a cyclist, and road rage was in full swing. A  NYPD squad car just happened to drive up, and soon the cops were piling out of the car. I half-expected helicopters to turn up.

Like a scene from Seinfeld,a fire truck, minus Kramer, races  out of Hook & Ladder 8.

Like a scene from Seinfeld,a fire truck, minus Kramer, races out of Hook & Ladder 8. Photo: Michael Day

Then we were in for more action from true life when we turned up to a fire station known as Hook & Ladder 8 on North Moore Street, the location for a funny scene from Seinfeld when Kramer rode a fire truck.

As we began taking photos, bells started going off at high volume, the doors flung open and a fire engine roared away to a real fire with siren blaring.

The other noise was tour participants collapsing in laughter at the coincidental timing.

Like the true professional actor she is, our On Location Tours guide Roseanne Almanzar didn’t miss a beat: “All organised for your benefit!”

The tour had started at the other end of Manhattan, in Ellen’s Stardust diner on Broadway, where the talented waiters burst into song just after they deliver breakfast.

Live show over breakfast at Ellen's Stardust diner on Broadway. I recommend the porridge.

Live show over breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust diner on Broadway. I recommend the porridge. Photo: Michael Day

As our coach drove along some of the most famous streets in the world, Roseanne pointed out locations for some of the most popular movies and TV shows.

Here’s just a taste: Empire State Building (King Kong, Sleepless in Seattle), St Patrick’s Cathedral (Spider-Man),  Rockefeller Center (Home Alone), Time Life Building (Mad Men), Trump International Hotel and Tower (Borat, Celebrity Apprentice.)

Everybody’s favourite, though, was  the Friends Building in Bedford Street, which provided the establishing shot for the TV show. The show was actually filmed in California but this spot provided  a perfect lighting and a good corner view.

It's been a long wait since my audition for Friends.

It’s been a long wait since my audition for Friends. Photo: Roseanne Almanzar.

We stopped in SoHo where, in the tear-like rain, I saw the building where the accomplished Australian actor, Heath Ledger lived and passed away.

On a more cheerful Australian-related note, Roseanne pointed out the Manhattan Municipal Building where a famous scene in Crocodile Dundee was filmed. The Australians aboard had Paul Hogan’s line memorised and we popped it out: “That’s not knife, that’s a knife!”

Roseanne pointed out where some celebrities live or have lived in the Tribeca district —  Beyonce and Jay-Z,  Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson….. the list is long.

The most mentioned film on the tour was The Adjustment Bureau, and as soon as I arrived home, I rented it, extending the pleasure of the tour.

http://onlocationtours.com

Michael Day was assisted by Visit USA Australia http://visitusa.org.au/.

 

 

My challenge in the United States was to try to see President Obama without coming across as some crazy stalker.

Perfectly sane guy looking for the President just to say hi.

Perfectly sane guy looking for the President just to say hi. The O’Mansion is the place behind the concrete road decorations.

The media were saying that Michelle Obama was in Chicago, the same city I was visiting, so I figured that if she were  there, perhaps her doting husband would be too.

This was when an American-born guy of Filipino extraction with the colourful name of Phos Rivera made his entrance. He shows people around his home town, all organised for free by the Chicago Greeter Association. “I’m taking you to Barack Obama’s neighbourhood,” said Phos.

We went in a stretch limo, the kind some pedantic people call a bus. We reached our stop and walked down East Hyde Park Boulevard and there was the Obama house, bought in 2004 for $1.65m from sales of his autobiography Dreams From My Father. Black vans of the secret service were next to the mansion. Concrete barricades were in place. A couple of squad cars were over the road near us.

I got ready to wave to the President in case he wanted somebody to beat in a basketball one-on-one, but the only communication was a sign on a railing warning that anybody walking past it consented to be searched. It was obvious the Man wasn’t home.

Sweet

Sweet

We moved on around the corner and down the street to a small strip mall where there was a plaque, complete with a cute photo that marked the spot where young Barack had his first kiss with Michelle. The inscription read: “On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”

Phos then led me to a nearby barber shop where they have glassed off the chair of their most famous client, now the president. I needed a trim so barber Jaron Wallace did the honours. I was a man on a mission so I didn’t wait around to see if my chair would also get shrine treatment (“Here once sat a strange guy sounding like the Crocodile Hunter”).

That sane guy again who claimed he needed a haircut and wanted to pose in front of the President's glassed-off chair with Jaron (left) and Chief Dude.

That sane guy again who claimed he needed a haircut and wanted to pose in front of the President’s glassed-off chair with Jaron (left) and Chief Dude.

A few minutes later I was in the Valois restaurant, Mr Obama’s former breakfast cafeteria. I ordered sausages and grits from a menu boasting a list of presidential favourites.  But the man himself was not in the house.

I farewelled Phos, thanking him for getting me so close to my goal. I flew to Boston on the next stage of my quest.  President Obama was once a student there. The universe obviously wanted me to meet Barack because, without any planning, Jay Holmes, arrived to fill up the tank for the heating oil at the home where I was a guest.

In 1987 Jay had rented his basement flat to “Barry” Obama as he was then known. After his former tenant had become president, Jay, now 71, was tracked down and interviewed by the national media.

Landlord of the young Barry Obama has been knighted for services to a future president..now he is Sir Tanks.

Landlord of the young Barry Obama has been knighted for services to a future president..now he is Sir Tanks.

Asked about his famous ex-tenant, Jay was concise: “He always paid his rent.” Now Bob pays Barack– with taxes from his business called Sir Tanks-a-Lot. I was soon in presidential proximity just up the road in Durham, New Hampshire. The problem was I found out too late that the President was at an event in nearby Concord. I couldn’t get there in time. Close but, um, no cigar.

My last chance was in Washington DC. The president would surely be there trying to convince Congress to at least agree on something. I walked up to the Capitol and, after strolling around to the back of the building, I almost tripped over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who was walking towards an entrance.  No doubt about it — I recognised him from TV. ‘Hey, Harry, I’m looking for the president—any idea where he might be?” That was the question I should have asked.  But in fact I was struck dumb with surprise at being within a couple of metres of one of the biggest political players in the USA. By the time I had come to, Harry was gone.

Capital place, the capital, but I found Harry, not Barry.

Capital place, the Capitol, but I found Harry, not Barry.

But having seen him I thought anything was possible. I felt I was getting closer to Captain Cool. Near the White House, I was chatting to a security guy on a gate, when I heard the sound of helicopters. “Could that be Mr Obama?” I asked.

Mr Muscle smiled: “I am not allowed to say.” There were three helicopters that first seemed to land behind the building and then take off again—so fast I couldn’t snap them with my camera. I like to think that President Barack Obama was looking down from his perch in the chopper, grinning, pointing at me and mouthing the words: “Nice try, Aussie!”

Where's Barry?

Where’s Barry?

During nine days in New York City, I took nine big bites of the Big Apple.

One bite

One bite

First bite: Cultural treasures Number one: An Egyptian Mummy of a colour and quality I had never seen in other museums stopped me in my tracks in New York City’s number one tourist attraction, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Then I found  a parade of mounted horseman stopped in their own tracks,  as if frozen in time, all wearing battle armour. I expected the impressionist paintings to detain me, and they did, almost alive in their colour, but a surprise highlight were Tiffany glass “paintings”. The attractions were endless and I spent a day there. http://www.metmuseum.org . I used my CityPASS ( http://www.citypass.com/new-york)which gave me priority entry. I also used it to scoot past others in long queues in a myriad of places and for far cheaper than others paid on entry.

Armoured horsemen in the Metropolitan Museum.

Armoured horsemen in the Metropolitan Museum.

The outside of the cylindrical Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is an art work in itself. Inside I glided up the spiral staircase gallery, entranced by Picasso, and then, glided back down and then up again for more.http://www.guggenheim.org/ A visit to the Morgan Library&Museum introduced me to a world of immense wealth, art and literature as collected by the billionaire J.P. Morgan. There is a floor-to-ceiling library, with original letters on display from such authors as Charles Dickens. http://www.themorgan.org/

Second bite: Entertainment Broadway: “You can have this seat but it is right at the front,” said the kind lady in the Broadway ticket office, half an hour before showtime. For only $69, I was soon so close to the actors playing the Jersey Boys, I felt part of the hilarious performance. When I was buying a ticket for the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon.  the guy behind the counter said he rated it “Eleven out of ten” and he was right. I also found it easy to get a ticket for Evita where Ricky Martin appeared on stage to enormous applause from the Latin Americans in the audience. He then proceeded to demonstrate why he is such a star. Classical: In the Lincoln Centre, the Metropolitan Opera performed Il Figaro and I was thrilled to find myself sitting three rows from the front in the tux and gown section. “Excuse me, sir, I think you are in the wrong seat,” a polite (as usual) American informed me. Row “E”, it turned out, was not the same as my back row seat “EE”, the ticket I had bought that afternoon.  I retreated but the quality of voice, acting and staging was such that I couldn’t have cared a fig.

Third bite: Skyscraper There are two “tops” to the Empire State building. Most people seem to be content with just the first one, with its outside balcony, and sure it was good. But then I paid the extra $17 to go up to the original enclosed viewing platform and the view was just that much better. From there I could spot other classic New York skyscrapers and see way down over Wall Street. King Kong was on his day off.

View  from the Empire State Building towards Wall Street.

View from the Empire State Building towards Wall Street.

Fourth bite: Imagine a Park If there is one meeting place where visitors to Central Park congregate, it is the Imagine circle. It can be found   near the exit that leads to the Gothic-looking Dakota building where John Lennon was murdered in 1980. Some people place a bouquet on the circle, others look in silence, take a photo and then wander off.  The rest of the park is far more joyous than solemn and I was surprised to find that I could be alone in a scenic pocket on a huge rock overlooking a pool, and could wander up a narrow path through big trees which obscured any sign of skyscrapers and blocked traffic noise.

Tranquillity in Central Park.

Tranquillity in Central Park.

Fifth bite: Fifth Avenue Parades and Prada — that’s Fifth Avenue for you. The shopping capital of the world, with the planet’s most famous jewellery shop, Tiffany’s. But for me the winner was FAO Schwarz, the toy shop that had a giant gorilla (or was it King Kong in his day job?) amid its  many zoo creatures.  I was lucky to be on Fifth Avenue for Veterans Day, the equivalent of Anzac day,  and saw the Americans use their flair for show business to make the parade entertaining as well as patriotic. http://www.fao.com

Handbags to match your gladrags.

Handbags to match your gladrags.

Sixth bite: Movement Morgan Freeman hauled me and my suitcase into a packed subway carriage. I looked again and the smiling, dapper gentleman  turned out to be a mere double for Mr Freeman but nonetheless he was a star in my eyes for giving me a hand. Normally the subway was easy to use. Most of the streets are perfectly named by number and points on the compass, and walking was easy  especially after learning  the trick of following somebody who is cutting through the crowds. In taxis I met men from Ghana, the Punjab,  and Ethiopia who were happy to tell their story. And the buses moved  quickly up the big avenues,  with the  views making the stops worthwhile.

Seventh bite: Self-help  dining New York has some of the finest restaurants but the treat for me was  Fairway which , with some justification, claims the title “The World’s Greatest Food Store” It is at 2127 Broadway (at 74th St)  and has  fresh fruit of all kinds , gourmet cheeses, seafood, meats, vegetarian specialities, and bakery items,– well, everything –but best of all for a visitor like me was the variety of ready-to-go delicious hot meals for next to nothing.  I dined in style in my hotel room but had I wanted company I could have chosen their upstairs café. http://www.fairwaymarket.com/store-upper-west-side/

 

View from the Wellington Hotel.

View from the Wellington Hotel.

View from the Beacon Hotel.

View from the Beacon Hotel.

Eighth bite: Hotels One: To be in the heart of the action in comfort and without paying a fortune—that was my criteria for my first few days in New York, and the Wellington Hotel at 871 Seventh Avene at 55th Street proved the perfect fit. Just a stroll from Times Square and the Broadway shows in one direct, and a hop skip and a jump to Central Park in the other. Big room in the big apple. http://www.wellingtonhotel.com/ Two: To experience a taste of upmarket New York and without paying much for the privilege, I stayed in Hotel Beacon at 2130 Broadway at 75th street.  With sleek, modern décor in the rooms and warm welcomes every time, I enjoyed feeling like an extra in  Woody Allen movie as I looked out of my window to a view the skyscrapers light up at night. Right next door is the famous Beacon Theatre, and the time I was in town Aussie-friendly  Chris Isaac was playing. http://www.beaconhotel.com/

Ninth bite: To see the Statue of Liberty, I  travelled on the New York Water Taxi’s  Zephyr State of Liberty Express, which  introduced me to the grand lady that towers over her small island home. The tour  gave me a view of Manhattan like no other,  and threw in a comedy routine by the guide that would beat anything in one of the clubs in town.http://www.nywatertaxi.com/

 

 

 

 

Imagine

Imagine

Veterans' Day parade on Fifth Avenue.

Veterans’ Day parade on Fifth Avenue.

Broadway buzz

Broadway buzz

 

Candy striped pipe.

Candy striped pipe.

Tiffany in the Metropolitan Museum.

Tiffany in the Metropolitan Museum.

 

Drinks are served in these golden chalices at the Morgan Library and Museum. (I wish).

Drinks are served in these golden chalices at the Morgan Library and Museum. (I wish).

 

King of the Doorman. Why? It is happiest shop of them all.

King of the Doorman. Why? It is happiest shop of them all.

 

Death Mask of George Washington on display in the J. P. Morgan Library and Museum.

Death Mask of George Washington on display in the J. P. Morgan Library and Museum.

They've  moved the Statue of Liberty.

They’ve moved the Statue of Liberty.

This is the first of five stories written to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Scroll down for more.

Published in the Nelson Mail, 23 Nov 2013.

At the corner window on the seventh floor of the Texas School Book Depository I  hesitate as I aim an imaginary rifle at a car on the street below.

My view from the 7th floor, exactly above the glassed off spot where Oswald fired

My view from the 7th floor, exactly above the glassed off spot where Oswald fired. (All photos on this page by Michael Day)

It is virtually the same view as Lee Harvey Oswald had when he fired at President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963, the only difference being I am one floor higher.

“I could easily hit it,” I say, but JFK was a hero of mine and I don’t forget that the event was the murder of a real person, not just some fictional identity.

I am astonished that over all these years so many have doubted that a competent marksman like Oswald would have had trouble hitting his target.

A security man looks at me, and smiles. He had heard my accent and adopts the usual  friendly response to “Ossies”.

We are alone on the seventh floor. Nobody else seems to have spotted the rather obscure stairs up from Sixth Floor Assassination Museum,  with its extensive and fascinating collection,  where visitors  peer at the glass partition that prevents them from getting the view Oswald had from the corner.

I leave the building and cross to the lawn just a couple of metres from the road where a white X marks the killing spot. Incredibly to me, some people stand on the X, smile, and have their photos taken– as if a horrible murder is some celebrity event.

Ernest Brandt, 86, told me he as wearing the same hat he had on when he witnessed the assassination. I prompted the reporter to ask him about his hat

Ernest Brandt, 86, told me he as wearing the same hat he had on when he witnessed the assassination. I prompted the reporter to ask him about his hat.

I interview an elderly man, who tells me that he and a friend with him today were eyewitnesses to the assassination.

Ernest Brandt, 86, of Dallas says he had been standing within metres of the president when the shots were fired.

“I thought it was motorcycles backfiring,” Mr Brandt says. “When I realised it was gunfire I ran behind a tree– it scared the hell out of me.”

Pointing to his less talkative friend, John Templin, 74, he says: “He saw his head explode.”

Mr Brandt shows me a photograph taken of him at the site just before the assassination. “See this hat,” he says, pointing to his trilby. “That’s the same hat as in the photograph.”

When asked by a newly arrived reporter why he returns to the site, he says: “It makes me feel like a celebrity, it makes me feel like Michael Jackson.”

I walk up to the grassy knoll and encounter a man wearing a sandwich board proclaiming on the front:  “Six reasons why our fascist government killed JFK,” and on the back: “JFK’s killing & 9/11 R both government conspiracies.”

A view of the place where the president was hit by two bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, 24.

A white X  on the road marks the place where the president was hit by two bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, 24.

The atmosphere has a crackpot, and even sleazy feel. Speakers accuse institutions, politicians, the mafia and the Cubans.

I front one man: “Why hasn’t somebody involved in the conspiracy spilt the beans over the last 50 years?” He replies with a glint in his eye: “They killed everybody who knew.”

I wander off to makeshift memorial   and meet Sharen Dyche of North Carolina, who places a bouquet of flowers under a little American flag. As a token of my respect, I place there a small souvenir kangaroo.

Sharen Dyche of North Carolina by a makeshift memorial.

Sharen Dyche of North Carolina by a makeshift memorial.

“My late husband believed the assassination was a conspiracy, and so do I,” Mrs Dyche says.

I tell her I think Oswald was the lone assassin and she graciously accepts that I have a different view. I tell her I admired the president very much and that  like many alive at the time, I remember where I was — leaving a tennis lesson–when I heard and at first disbelieved the news. “He saved us from a nuclear war,” I say, recounting to her how I had heard the tape of the president rejecting the advice of the military to start hostilities over Cuba in 1962.

I walk a block to the official Dallas memorial to the president. Funded by local citizens and approved by the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, it has soaring white stone walls, elevated on columns nearly a metre from the ground.

I was all alone at the official memorial to JFK paid for by the grieving residents of Dallas.

I was all alone at the official memorial to JFK paid for by the grieving residents of Dallas.

I enter the enclosure and find a shining, black granite square with the words “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” engraved in gold.

Golden achievement: JFK prevented  generals getting the way and starting a nuclear war in 1962.

Golden achievement: JFK prevented generals getting their way and starting a nuclear war in 1962.

In the 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy there had been no leak of any credible evidence of a conspiracy.

After obtaining a job, Lee Harvey Oswald was by chance assigned to this building, from where he shot JFK

After obtaining a job, Lee Harvey Oswald was by chance assigned to this building, from where he shot JFK (Photos on this page by Michael Day)

The evidence shows that Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed the president, and that Oswald in turn was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

There are many more reasons showing why  there was no conspiracy but 10 should be enough. Most reasons are convincing on their own.  Many of these can be found in the book Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi.  Others can be found in Case Closed by Gerald Posner. These should convince objective investigators but are unlikely to change the minds of those for whom a conspiracy has taken on the role of a doctrine in a secular faith.

Ten reasons

  1. No weapon other than Oswald’s rifle has ever been found linked to the assassination and nor has any bullet other than two of  the three fired from his rifle. His prints were found on the weapon and nearby.
  2. No person other than Oswald has been linked by evidence to the assassination.
  3. There has been no credible evidence linking Oswald to the big groups alleged by the conspiracy theorists to be behind the assassination (e.g. CIA,  mafia, Castro, KGB, military-industrial complex, LBJ etc.)
  4. If there had been a conspiracy, there would have been a leak by now by at least one person motivated by money, fame, guilt, death-bed change of mind. There has been none.
  5. It would have been impossible for such a large number of conspirators  required to pull off a very complex conspiracy with such perfection to do so without any error, and that secrecy would be guaranteed forever
  6. Oswald was very unreliable, disturbed and unhinged. He was not the person anybody would engage to commit such a crime, including the CIA or the mafia. He would pose far too many risks for them.
  7. Oswald was only in the building because by chance he had been employed shortly before the day the President would be in Dallas, and even by chance assigned to that particular building.
  8. Those who knew Oswald and Ruby well, including family members, rejected at the time the likelihood that he would have acted with others to carry out the killing.
  9. Oswald had only $183 to his name at his arrest. A contract killer would have had more money than that and a better rifle than the one he had –a used, surplus $19 mail order rifle with a home-made sling.
  10. In April that year, Oswald had fired at Major General Edwin Walker in a bid to kill him. After he killed the president,  he killed a police officer. These are actions of a disturbed human being rather than an assassin chosen for the biggest crime of the times.
    More theorists but with no evidence stand on the grassy knoll

    Theorists stand on the grassy knoll.

    Larry Wheeler has a theory but no evidence for it being true. We agreed to disagree.

    Larry Wheeler has a theory .We agreed to disagree.

“Lee Harvey Oswald lived just down the street,” my Bed and Breakfast host, Erik informs me.

The lair of the assassin. The house in Oak Cliff, Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald stayed. (Photos on this page by Michael Day)

The house in Oak Cliff, Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald  lived. He returned there briefly after the assassination. (Photos on this page by Michael Day)

Erik’s wife, Brenda, confirms the surprising information: “It’s true–the tour stops in front every day,” she says.

We walk together down the street and look at a pleasant bungalow which has no hint of its notorious past. Erik shows me the window to the room which once housed the assassin.

It had not taken Oswald long  by taxi to get back to his room after gunning down the president. He then left and soon shot a policeman dead, the second of his murders that day.

Guide and JFK expert Scott Alston greeting passengers

Guide and JFK expert Scott Alston greeting passengers

From suburban Oak Cliff, Erik   drives me the short distance to the CBD. At Dealey plaza where the assassination happened, I join a “JFK Trolley Tour”, which begins from Elm Street, immediately outside the Texas School Book Depository building.

As the bus drives along, the well-informed guide, Scott Aston, begins by pointing to a building: “That’s where Jack Ruby, the man who shot Oswald, had his Carousel nightclub”.

Behind this door is where Jack Ruby shot dead the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald

Behind this door is where Jack Ruby shot dead the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald

We continue on until we stop outside a squat brick structure with a set-back entrance, a building that looks sinister with its closed metal roller door.

“That was the entrance to the basement of the police headquarters where Ruby shot Oswald two days later,” says Scott.  His words remind me of the shock I felt as a kid in 1963 upon hearing that the arrested assassin had himself been killed.

The bus then follows part of the motorcade route taken by President Kennedy. We are silent as the vehicle slowly move down the slight hill to the assassination site.

Suddenly Scott shouts: “Boom boom!” I jump with the fright but strangely enough, the simulated shooting doesn’t feel disrespectful, probably because Scott’s commentary captures the horror and the sadness of that day, and the greatness of the victim.

Our tour passes over the spot where the president was shot

Our tour passes over the spot where the president was shot

We quickly move past the grassy knoll on our right and are soon under and through the famous overpass, and soon, as predicted by Erik and Brenda, we pause outside the house where Oswald stayed before he went off and murdered Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. A few minutes later we arrive at the Texas Theatre where he was apprehended.

The next day, I leave my Bed and Breakfast, and follow Oswald’s movements until I reach the memorial to the police officer where I interview the driving force behind its establishment, a former FBI agent with the wonderful name of Farris Rookstall  III.

Former FBI agent Ferris Rookstall II describing to me the shooting of the policeman, J. D. Tippit

Former FBI agent Farris Rookstall II describing to me the shooting of the policeman, J. D. Tippit

Lonely street...the spot where Oswald shot the police officer less than an hour after he shot the President of the United States

Lonely street…the spot where Oswald shot the police officer less than an hour after he shot the President of the United States

Mr Rookstall , who has carried out extensive research into the assassination,  tells me he concurs with the FBI’s official view that Oswald was the lone killer and that there was no conspiracy. Mr Rookstool tells me that after Oswald had shot dead Officer Tippit, he had been spotted entering the nearby Texas Theatre.

When the police arrived at the theatre, they ordered  the lights to be on turned on. One officer approached Oswald, who first put up his hands, then punched the policemen and drew a pistol and attempted to fire.

As Oswald pulled the trigger,  the hammer on the pistol caught the skin between the officer’s thumb and forefinger,  preventing the gun from firing. The officer and colleagues then completed the arrest .

I decide to have a look at that theatre. I meet an American couple who are visiting for the same reason as me. In our discussion, I mention I believe Oswald was the lone assassin and that there was no conspiracy.

The sign now  at the ticket office of the Texas Theatre where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested

The sign now at the ticket office of the Texas Theatre where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested

Like so many other people, they are surprised to hear my views and  put forward a common version of the conspiracy theory.

I decide to speak up: “ It seems plausible but  there has been no solid evidence  or any leaks or deathbed confessions.” They smile and we agree to disagree.

Texas Theatre, which Oswald entered, armed with a pistol

Texas Theatre, which Oswald entered, armed with a pistol

 

Tour: visit www.BigDfuntours.com

Museum: http://www.jfk.org/

Bed and breakfast in Oak Cliff: https://www.airbnb.com.au

The plaque tells the story of the shooting of the police officer, J. D. Tippit

The plaque tells the story of the shooting of the police officer, J. D. Tippit

A sail taut in the wind

A sail taut in the wind

Sailing and the sea were great loves of John F. Kennedy and they are symbolised on the Boston waterfront in his elegant presidential library and museum, designed by the great architect I. M. Pei.

At the entrance of the museum, I pass under a towering sail-like frontage which stands as if taut in the wind. Curved white stone come close to the entrance, like waves lapping at a great yacht.

A mostly chronological path takes me past the paraphernalia for the 1960 election campaign he fought against Richard Nixon, who I learn with surprise, was a friend of Kennedy’s in the early years of their political careers.

As I journey through the White House years I see the hand-written notes of the president, including in red pen the phonetic version of the key words Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) that he delivered in a key speech to citizens of a city surrounded by Soviet troops.

Simply framed is the typed manuscript of JFK’s speech I remember hearing when a boy, telling the world of his decision to “quarantine” Cuba from Soviet ships bearing nuclear weapons. Nearby are gowns once worn by the president’s elegant wife, Jacqueline.

President John Kennedy and Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy with the Shah of Iran and his wife, the Shahbanu

President John Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy with the Shah of Iran and his wife, the Shahbanu (photo on display)

In the museum’s replica of the office of his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy,  who himself was assassinated five years later. I scoot around the side of his desk and plant myself down on his chair, but there is no opportunity in the “Oval Office” to sit in JFK’s rocking chair.

A corridor more narrow than the others somehow captures the shock, horror and grief that I still recall from November 22, 1963 when the president was assassinated. Soon  I am in the legacy section which displays  highlights of JFK’s career and those of his brothers Robert and Edward.

A view from the bow

A view from the bow

I emerge into a spacious pavilion that juts out into the seawater, serving as the bow of this most gracious of museums.

As if a sail in the wind

As if a sail in the wind

A convex curve of the building behind is like a sail, this time bending in the wind.

A gown and hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy.

A gown and hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy.

The words of President Kennedy engraved in marble.

The words of President Kennedy engraved in marble.

The bow of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.The bow of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

It is almost dark as I make my way towards Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC to visit the grave of President John F. Kennedy.

The eternal flame sends a glow on the plaque  of the  president

The eternal flame sends a glow on the plaque of the president (Photos on this page by Michael Day)

As I enter through towering gates, a couple is leaving and I ask for directions.

“I’ve just come to visit the grave of my father,” the man explains, “but I think if you just go up the hill you will find it easy enough.”

By the time we finish talking, night has well and truly fallen but I think I might as well proceed with my mission.

The only relief from the pitch black is light cast by security lamps on the boundary wall. They illuminate   a section of white gravestones, creating a scene at once dramatic and poignant.

As I make my way up the curving drive, I realise I am the only person there. As I come to the top of the rise, there it is, the eternal flame blazing above what I know must be the grave of the fallen president.

On that hallowed piece of ground there are four slate grey plaques in a row.

The first one I look at has a crucifix engraved at the top, and it has the words John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the dates 1917-1963. Six white long-stemmed roses adorn the plaque.

Beyond the eternal flame, the mansion and the moon

Beyond the eternal flame, the mansion and the moon

The same number of roses is on the plaque next to the president’s, one of similar design and which carries the name of the president’s widow,  Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and the dates 1929-1994.

Under the flickering light of the flame it is difficult to discern the engravings on the  two smaller plaques but with the help of my camera’s light I slowly become aware of the heartbreaking nature of these little graves, the resting places for  babies who had died shortly after birth. One plaque is for the Kennedys’ son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who lived so briefly in August 1963, and the other simply reads Daughter, and August 23 1956. It is time for a prayer for their souls.

From the hallowed ground is a view to the Washington Monument and , to its right, the dome of the Capitol

From the hallowed ground is a view to the Washington Monument and , to its right, the dome of the Capitol

Being there alone is a moving, and emotional experience, yet inspiring too. Turning from the graves and looking back down the hill, I see in the distance the shining dome of the Capitol building and the arrow head of the mighty Washington Monument.

When newly wed, JFK and Jacqueline lived in this house in Georgetown, Washington DC

When newly wed, JFK and Jacqueline lived in this house in Georgetown, Washington DC

Our boat rams up on a beach of boulders and we scramble ashore via a ramp from the bow.

Stairway to heaven.

Stairway to heaven.

We have arrived at Kapiti, an island once the centre of an empire ruled by the famous Maori warrior-chief, Te Rauparaha (1770-1849).

Our mission is to enjoy the birdlife and in particular to go on a night expedition to see if we can spot kiwis.

The island, 10kms long by 2kms wide, is five kms off the southwest coast of the North Island. Now it is mostly a nature reserve, and few visitors know its dramatic history.

Before I boarded the boat to the island from Paraparaumu, 50kms from Wellington, I discussed Te Rauparaha with Maori elder John Barrett.

Te Rauparaha employed his strategic brilliance, ruthlessness, courage and eloquence as he led his war parties, armed with muskets, to conquer vast areas of central New Zealand.

His haka or war dance, “Ka Mate”, is now performed by New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, before international rugby matches.

“So was he a great man?” I asked John, whose tribal background is allied to that of the chief.

“Depends who you ask,” he replied with disarming honesty and big grin. “To us he was, but others may have a different view.”

John’s family owns Kapiti Nature Lodge, the only accommodation for visitors to the island. His grandmother, unlike all other indigenous landowners, had refused to sell the property to the Government.

Welcome

As we arrive on the island, John’s sister, Amo Clark, gives us a warm welcome and invites us along the track to the Lodge, which she manages.

Melodious tones of bellbirds accompany us, and, unlike in most areas on the mainland, we have close up views of another famous New Zealand songbird, the tui. Its plumage resembles a dinner jacket complete with bowtie.

The stunning resurgence of birdlife is proof that the battle waged in recent decades to rid Kapiti of possums, cats, rats and stoats has been won.

Tui in tuxedo.

Tui in tuxedo.

Parrot

When we arrive, Amo pauses in an introductory talk as a kaka, a fat native parrot, lands on the sill of an open window.

Handing me a plastic water bottle complete with spray nozzle, Amo issues a command: “Spray him if he gets close.”

Less than a minute later, the mischievous kaka edges into the room towards the fruit bowl.

A true Kapiti warrior, I fire my water cannon. The bird makes a strategic withdrawal but doesn’t quite leave, no doubt waiting for me to drop my guard.

“They’re very clever,” Amo says with a laugh. “Sometimes two will sit outside as decoys and another one will fly through a different window and grab a banana.”

Amo gives us some background on the nature reserve that covers most of the island, and the small section of private property owned by her family.

“When I was young there were no trees on this island but since the 1960s all the trees have just gone mad,” she says. We look over at the beautifully forested hills on the island and see what she means.

Then we walk on to a veranda for an experience ornithologists of previous generations could have hardly have believed would happen in modern New Zealand.

Takahe times three.

Takahe times three.

Strolling about the lawn are three Takahe, flightless birds indigenous to New Zealand and once thought to be extinct. Even now, with careful breeding programs, there are only a few hundred in existence.

“What’s the fuss?” they seem to say as they emit their raucous call and show off their purple –blue plumage and a green feathered wrap. Their costumes are colour coordinated with a red frontal shield over a pink bill, not to mention the red legs.

Impromptu performances then break out by other stars of the New Zealand bird world.

Fat native woodpigeons, handsome in their iridescent green plumage, dangle awkwardly upside down from shrubs, gorging on berries. Hyperactive wekas– brown hen-like birds– hurtle around a lawn in a madcap routine that Buster Keaton could have scripted.

For dinner that night, chef Lindsay Thorpe serves us soft, white fillets of a fish that eats only seaweed. It can’t be caught using ordinary bait but the extra effort required is worthwhile because the meal is delicious.

Kiwi

At 9.45 pm John Barrett’s son Manaaki leads us on our evening search for the Little Spotted Kiwi. He carries a torch with a red filter that is less disturbing to kiwi than white light.

Following behind him through the bush, we try to be quiet because, although the birds have poor eyesight, their hearing is acute.

Little spotted Kiwi (Photo; Sallie Bassett).

Little Spotted Kiwi (Photo: Sallie Bassett).

We hear their distinctive trill, the sound that gave them their name. Unusually for Kapiti, we have difficulty finding any. The name “Little Spotted Kiwi” is starting to seem very apt.

After a couple of hours, some of our party head back to base. That is a mistake. We turn a corner and there stands a kiwi on open ground, illuminated in a soft red light.

The experience is uncanny, exciting and funny all at the same time.

After peering short-sightedly at us for a few seconds, the bird takes off like a cartoon kiwi carrying a rugby ball.

And, like most All Blacks, its speed is surprising. It soon dots down the imaginary ball to score, turns left, gives us a final myopic glance and disappears into the bushes.

We are all exhilarated, clapping each other on the back and hugging a smiling Manaaki.

An island once known for war has turned into a place of peace, a New Zealand version of the Garden of Eden.

END

http://www.kapitiislandnaturetours.co.nz/

  • Michael Day was a guest of Kapiti Island Nature Tours.
  • Thanks Tourism NZ.
Cheeky little Kaka.

Cheeky little Kaka.

Prize winner.

Prize winner.

The New Zealand road that would bestow upon me a royal experience began in a mysterious fashion.

After leaving the dappled orchards of  sunny Nelson, I plunged into the eerie netherworld  of the Buller Gorge where  dark green  slopes framed the roadway.

This was a landscape not to entertain but to command awe. The forest seemed primeval. Far below a dark river turned silver in its rapids.

I drove cautiously through a half-tunnel. On one side was the mountain wall and overhead a rocky roof. On my right it was sheer drop to the great beyond.

I emerged safely on to the road  heading south,  a narrow passage between the Alps and the tumultuous Tasman Sea.

Something told me I was in for something special. A sea mist veiled my view of the ocean just metres away. It then  swirled open  for a glimpse of powerful waves crashing on a rocky shoreline, and  just as quickly closed again.

My destination was Hokitika, a small seaside  settlement known for its greenstone, mountain backdrop and rugged shoreline.

As I checked into the Seafront hotel next to the  town beach, Karen the receptionist  gave me a jolt when she handed me the keys: “ You’ve got the room where Prince William stayed.”

I asked her to repeat, and sure enough, I  had heard right. When on a recent  official visit without Kate, the heir to the British throne had needed accommodation.  What better than a room with a view?

Pushing open the door to my upstairs realm, I half expected a red carpet, an oil painting of a nobleman and a table set for tiffin.

Instead, I found comfortable simplicity and a  balcony with view  fit for a king.  It was not of any  tame blue sea of postcard-land but rather a grey, swirling and energising ocean.

Sculpture

While I was  enjoying freshly caught fish in the hotel’s restaurant that night , Karen left her post to give me some tips: “Tomorrow you should check out the  entries in the  driftwood sculpture competition on the beach.” I took that advice on board and grabbed  the opportunity to pester her  for information about Prince William.

She was good enough to feed me a few morsels. “We asked him to sign the guest book but apparently that is not something that is done,” she said, adding with a mischievous twinkle:”But that photo of him over the bar was taken from a distance without formal permission….In the morning, he did a solitary walk along the beach, head down looking at the  stones.”

Good enough for a prince , good enough for me. At 8am the next day I  hit the beach  and it soon it became  obvious why William  had been preoccupied on the beach.

The Hokitika beach has more jewels than the Tower of London. Every few paces I stopped to admire and stow in my pocket a stone of a different colour: green, white, pink, striped, black…

Then I checked out the driftwood sculptures. A cow, complete with udder and cowpats, was the deserved winner.

My  royal experience was not yet over. I headed two hours south to  Fox Glacier and joined four others passengers  in a helicopter  ride to a snow-filled basin ringed with a semi-circle of peaks. It proved to me  that nature’s kingdom provides the ultimate palace.

One is the All Black hero and the other is a rugby adviser and travel writer.

One is the All Black hero and the other is a rugby adviser and travel writer.

As we returned by minibus from the helipad, Toby the driver told me that the crowd we could see  on a football pitch was waiting to greet rugby players undertaking  a PR tour.  I joined the swelling numbers of locals, who ranged from grandparents to eager young women, to  tykes in footy gear.

A helicopter  appeared above the forested foothills, descended slowly and soon disgorged  five men. They  included  the All Black captain Richie McCaw, who is  treated like royalty in his homeland.

After patiently signing the umpteenth autograph and  posing for the millionth picture, Mr McCaw was standing free. As quick as Sir Walter Raleigh with his cloak, I jumped next to  His Rugby Highness and handed my camera to a friendly bystander.

Snap.  The royal road had given me something special.  A  portrait with the King of New Zealand.

END

(Thanks, Tourism NZ ).

Sideways angels on their hogs (Photo: Chris Day)

(Published by The West Australian on 3 November 2011.)

Sometimes a middle class guy just has to rip off his conformist mask to expose his inner biker.

That is exactly what I did in Shanghai, the giant city that rivals Hong Kong as the money capital of all China.

Sure there were nice and safe bus tours available, but Shanghai once had a reputation for outlandish behaviour and I wanted a taste.

Shanghai Sideways offered a four-hour experience that looked me to like an urban version of the Easy Rider movie.

It involved a ride on sidecar-motorcycles through the city streets and lanes but with half the time on foot and exploring.

They had the five bikes ready at 9am on a coldish Saturday, one machine per couple of riders. The woman sat in the sidecar, the man on the elevated pillion or vice-versa. Thankfully they provided a guide who drove.

“Want to wear a helmet?” asked Jonathan, our guide who looked like Peter Fonda to my wishful Dennis Hopper.

Up surged a feeling of rebellion, a chance to raise a digit to the nanny state. But one look at the vintage helmet and goggles and I surrendered to image. They looked good with my leather jacket. All that was absent was a tattoo, a missing molar and a long, straggly beard.

“These bikes are modern Chinese replicas of a Soviet replica of a 1930s BMW,” said a smiling Jonathan, a Frenchman who not only leads tours but manages the company’s operations.

Chinese replica of Soviet replica of 1930s BMW. (Photo: Shanghai Sideways).

With me on the pillion and the old lady (technical biker term) in the sidecar, our machine took off in the lead, followed by the four other bikes bearing couples from various Western countries.

Shanghai has the same population as Australia, yet the streets were emptyish and ripe for the taking.

Under the cover of the roar of the engines, I took the opportunity for some mobile Karaoke: “Get your motor running, out on the highway….born to be wi-i-i-ild….”

 Now I started to understand why the Hells Angels took to the road on two wheels. Not for the aggro, not for the drugs, not to annoy the cops and not for the wild women (well, maybe). The thrill of burning along a city street in a pack ignites a feeling of freedom in solidarity with the bros and sisters.

We powered along narrow boulevards where trees burst with new green life and where elegant, low-rise art deco buildings signalled we were in the French Concession.

This quarter of the city dates back to the days when foreigners lived in protected pockets as they milked profits from China. Jonathan pointed out something interesting: “Houses once inhabited by one foreign family are now packed with people—you can see that by the rows of letter boxes.”

We entered an elegant house that after the revolution in 1949 had become a home to top party officials. But China has flipped over to capitalism, and above the door to what is now a modern art gallery is faded calligraphy irrelevant to modern times: “The Spirit of Mao Zedong will live for eternity”.

We swerved at low speed through a labyrinth of walled lanes and reached another boulevard where morning strollers grinned at us and took photos. They didn’t seem to be at all intimated by this horde of faux bikers.

Downtown old Shanghai. (Photo: Michael Day).

Back on the hog, I swapped my perch on pillion for the sidecar and began to cruise the world in an armchair. It felt a mixture of the comical and imperious. My ear to ear grin lasted all the way to People’s Park where lots of older couples were milling about.

“Anybody guess what this is?” Jonathan asked our group, labelled in my mind “the Sideways Angels”. He then quickly removed our ignorance.“It’s a marriage market.”

Parents were inspecting notice boards where CVs advertised potential mates for their offspring. Photos were clearly not important but apparently every notice listed the worldly goods and potential income the young person could bring to the marriage. The oldies negotiate and then their kids meet to see if it could all work out. Harmony is important. After retirement, the parents often move in with the young couple. Not a bad idea for Australia. Look out RSVP.

Zooming past museums to the Communist era—ironically very close to giant billboards for Mercedes-Benz and Tiffany diamonds — we arrived at the famous Bund, the riverfront of Shanghai.

Bank on the Bund. (Photo: Chris Day).

In the 1930s this city was the decadence capital of the world, home to opium dens, gambling, sing-song girls and the armour-plated Chevrolets of gangsters with bodyguards riding on the running boards, toting Tommy guns.

Now it’s all peaceful. The impressive stone buildings of banks and business houses still flank the road but today the red flag of Communist China flies from each one.

Across the river are the towers of capitalism, including one of the tallest buildings in the world, the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre.

Somehow a squadron of side-car machines seemed a perfect counterpoint to this buttoned-down world of finance.

The climax of the run was our arrival at the market in the old city. Our gang dismounted and plunged into the narrow, crowded lanes, gobbling up spicy shish-kebabsand delicious pancakes. We then formed a farewell circle to thank our drivers.

Pancakes for the bikers. (Photo: Chris Day).

Removing my helmet, goggles and mental mask, I morphed into Mr Respectable and returned reluctantly to civilian life.

END


 

Shanghai Sideways: http://www.shanghaisideways.com/

(Published in The West Australian, 30 December, 2010)

Meal time at the piranha tank in the Bali Safari and Marine Park was a confronting experience.

Prince of the predators

It was not something you could expect in the picturesque Gianyar region, just a short way from Indonesia’s famous tourist centres of Kuta and Sanur.

Everything looked perfectly normal before the food arrived.  The fish were swimming casually about in one big school, looking like cute cousins of Nemo.

Then up strode one of the attendants. He put a dead, skinless chicken on a wire hook and lowered it into the water.

The whole atmosphere suddenly changed. The little devils headed straight for their lunch, their razor-sharp teeth working overtime.

The chicken must have been fin-licking good because the mob got so excited they swarmed all over it, biting from all angles known to geometry.

After a couple of minutes, the piranhas had stripped the chicken to the bone, leaving it looking  like a skeleton of a monkey. Scary.

Somebody said what we were all thinking: “What if you put your hand in?”

“Let’s go,” I suggested, as much to myself as our group, and we wandered away, thrilled and appalled in equal measure.

It was time for a break from the predator side of life.

One of our group held a baby orang-utan and they both posed for a photo. Next was an animal show featuring elephants. Then there was a show  starring dogs, pussy cats (yes, they can be herded), free-flying birds and orang-utans.

Tigers

We then left the cuddly world and returned to the domain of the carnivore. It felt safe enough as we lined up for a photo patting a tranquil tiger cub but we wouldn’t have wanted to try stroking the big white tiger visible through a plate glass window. The muscled beast prowling along a river bank could be described as big and beautiful but not as cuddly and cute.

On the Safari bus trip through a mini wildlife park we were excited to come across a semi-submerged animal of the species that experts say has killed more people than any other except the mosquito. It was Harry the Hippo. No way were we going to hop out to high five him.

After passing animals like zebras and antelopes, our bus went round a corner and shuddered to a halt. A giant, grey rhino was blocking our way. In a contest between the armour-plated animal and our vehicle, I would have put my rupiah on the rhino.

Rhino has right of way

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. He eventually moved on and so did we, eventually arriving alongside oxen named after a dance, or was it the other way around. The Watusi have horns wider than — and as wicked as — the vuvuzelas at the World Cup.

As the end of our safari, we were safely inside the Tsavo restaurant, staring through its big windows at a pride of lions only a few metres away.

The restaurant’s  publicity pamphlet happily advised us that its name “relives the legendary pair of Tsavo Lions that become famous by killing and eating more than one hundred railway workers on the Kenya – Uganda Railway in 1898”.

If you can’t beat them, join them. I became a predator too. With only a passing thought for the poor old water buffalos of the world, I ordered oxtail soup.

END

www.balisafarimarinepark.com

Michael Day was a guest of the park.

Photographs in Mazatlan by Michael Day

Paper shop in Mazatlan

Mariachi men

Purple haze

Statue in the square

Stalinesque statue on beachfront

Double vision

Room with a view at Costa del Oro

Greenies

Delicates

Lighthouse on a hill

Cathedral

Hello Yellow

Blue eyebrow


Rider on a beach in Mazatlan (This and other photos by Michael Day)

(Published by The West Australian on 7 October, 2010)

“Amigo!” I called out.

I had been told that amigo (“friend” in Spanish) works like “mate” in Australian. Sure enough it worked.

The huge Mexican waiter turned around, gave me a big grin and came over to take my breakfast order (eggs).

I was in a top mood and why wouldn’t I be on a balcony restaurant of the Hotel Costa del Oro (“Gold Coast”)

The restaurant overlooked one the many perfect beaches in the historic port city of Mazatlan on Mexico’s west coast. It was ideal grandstand to watch squadrons of giant birds patrolling the glassy ocean, flying just a centimetre or two above the surface.

A few minutes later, my new-found amigo arrived with what seemed to be a kilogram of melted cheese decorated with the eggs I ordered.  My heart sank. It knew it under threat.

But with a giant amigo watching, there was no choice but to say adios to healthy eating and just tuck in.

Morning

A few minutes later another challenge to my health came from another hombre (a word I remembered from Westerns).

“Catch pneumonia,” said Poncho, who manned the travel desk in the hotel foyer

I was more confused than miffed because Poncho was an amigo who had taken to calling me “Miguelito”.

Double pulmonia

Poncho then explained that Pneumonia (“Pulominia” in Spanish) is an extra-large, golf-cart that takes tourists from the beachside hotels into the centre of Mazatlan.

The drivers of conventional taxis once gave the carts the nickname of “Pneumonia” to frighten tourists into thinking they could catch a cold or worse by travelling in the open-sided carts. But it had the opposite effect and the word is now a marketing tool.

The Pneumonia whizzed me along a boulevard runs next to the longest beachside boardwalk in Latin America. I spotted inline skaters, mums with strollers, kids dawdling to school, giant statues in a Stalinist-realism style and the elderly enjoying views.

The beaches looked like Cottesloe, Swanbourne, City Beach and Scarborough all joined up. Add Trigg as well. Plus there were a couple of islands just to make the sunsets cute. We passed a night club called “Bum Bum” but I couldn’t guess what it meant in English.Salubrious?

A ute of heavily armed police or soldiers was the only evidence of the drugs wars between various mafia gangs. Everything else looked extraordinarily peaceful.

Once off the bus, it was a short stroll to watch young men leap to their deaths. Well, it looked like that was sure to happen.

They climbed up a big rock and then did a swan dive towards lots of sharp baby rocks. Fortunately, a swell came in at the right moment, and they were saved. They came running up and asked for a dollar. Who could deny them? Not this amigo.

It was a far more serene experience to wander up the road into the centre of the Puebla Viejo (the old town). Think Fremantle in stone painted bright pastel.

House in the old town

There were houses and shops in the Spanish style that were mainly blue but with purple around the doors and windows, or lime green with green window sills, or yellow with some kind of orange-ochre trimmings. A light blue shop looked more like a cake than a building.

It was one big architectural art gallery, and all centred around a square where boys watched the girls promenade, where the well-off walked their pedigree hounds, where the music seemed to came out of the walls, and where a bandstand, palm trees and giant plants combined to form the centre.

Siesta

Siesta time

My camera and my eyes sated, I decided that when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do. That is, have a siesta. I went back to the hotel and lazed around the pool. I watched as refugees from the Canadian winter rode horses along the beach, swam in the surf, bought sombreros from vendors, or flew up into the blue sky attached to a parasail.

Dusk

Back I went to the old town with an Aussie amigo. Our mission was a shoe shine from one of the men who line the Main Square (Plaza Principal), which is crowned by a magnificent yellow Cathedral built in the 19th century.

I perched on my wooden throne as Manuel applied polish with a series of brushes and then used a variety of cloths to turn the dull black leather into an ebony mirror.

Manuel takes a shine to another Aussie

As he completed the final polish, the lights of Cathedral came on, illuminating the statues that occupied exterior niches. The sound of a hymn being sung by a solo soprano drifted into the warm night.

Three young men passing the entrance of the Cathedral doffed their caps. One made the sign of the cross. The reverence was poignant.

Evening

We moved on to nearby Plaza Machado and plucked up courage to enter a mysterious narrow corridor that took us to El Tunel, a restaurant specialising in authentic Mexican food.

Three elderly senoras supervised the contents of three big pots. Mazatlan is famous for marlin so that’s what I ordered. Instead of the giant steak I expected, the waiter delivered a plate of mashed up fish and sliced lemon to bring out the taste.

Three amigos arrived, one carrying a battered old guitar. Their harmonies filled the place with the sounds of old Mexico.

Colour combinations in Mazatlan

(Published in The West Australian on 7 October 2010)

1. Emperor: An Austrian named Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph was Emperor of Mexico from 1864 until a firing squad shot him dead three years later.

2. Lost property: Mexico once owned Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming but lost it all in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

3. Food and flowers: Chocolate, avocados, tomatoes, maize, corn, vanilla, zucchini and the poinsettia originated in Mexico.

4 . Population: One million US citizens live in Mexico, and 29 million US citizens claim Mexican ancestry. With 111 million, Mexico is the 11th most populous country in the world. It has more than twice the number of Spanish speaking people than Spain.

5. Religion: There are more Catholics in Mexico (100 million) than any other country in the world except Brazil. The Mexican Catholic church was severely persecuted  in the 20th century,

6 . Sport: Mexicans play the oldest  ball game in the world (ulama). It which originated in 1600 BC. Soccer is now the most popular game but bullfighting is the official national sport.

7. Slim pickings: The richest man in the world is a Mexican, Carlos Slim, a telecoms magnate said to be worth US $60 billion. When his father arrived as a penniless immigrant from Lebanon, he was only 14 and unable to speak Spanish.

8. Economy: More cars are built in Mexico than in the United States and Canada. Mexico is predicted to be one of the five largest economies in the world in 40 years time (the others: United States, India, China, Brazil). Oil is its most lucrative export.

9. Tragedy: Mexico has had more than share of tragedy. Its revolution (1910-20) claimed one million lives, a war against persecution of Catholics cost 90,000 dead, thousands of students died in a protest in Tlatelolco Square before the Olympic Games in 1968. Since 2007, more than 22,000 have died in the war against drug cartels.

10. Arts: Good books by foreigners about Mexico include All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy), The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene); Mornings in Mexico by DH Lawrence

(Published in The West Australian on 7 October 2010)

In the Mexican holiday town of Mazatlan, I had a choice of where to spend my morning: the beach or a dental surgery.

I chose the dentist’s. My problem was neither toothache nor stupidity. Rather I had a bad case of vanity and frugality.

The promise was a huge discount on what I would be charged in Australia for laser treatment on my bottom teeth. They would become white rather than what they had long been – sepia.

It wasn’t an attempt to look trendy again. I had never succumbed to growing one of those desperate grey ponytails or using a tattoo to cover any wrinkles.

Was I after a certain elderly elegance? No, I am not that ancient. What about an image of mature, debonair charm? Yes, that was the look I was after.

Husband and wife team: Dr Rafael and Dr Marisol

The  Orthodental Center in Mazatlan where Dr Rafael Carreno and his wife Dr Marisol Castro have their practice is clean and shiny. That dispelled some of my initial apprehensions about having dental work done overseas.

As I waited in the reception area for my mouth makeover I chatted to some patients from Canada. They had made appointments on the recommendation of friends. Those conversations  relaxed me further.

Dr Carreno later told me that about half of their clients are from Canada and the United States. They combine holidays with cheap dental treatment.

The laser treatment administered by Dr Castro didn’t hurt, one of my main criteria for successful dental work. It involved wearing a plate one night and then sitting through a couple of half hour appointments.

Once finished, she held up a mirror for me to check the results. “But I’m still bald!”, I joked. Then I remembered. Sean Connery, the sexiest man in the world, is also hair-free.

Feeling mature and debonair for the first time in my life, I flashed a gleaming ever-so-white grin and experimented with my new line: “The name’s Bond, Juan Bond”.

Mazatlan fishermen (Photo: Michael Day)

(Published by The West Australian on 7 October 2010)

In the mid-morning, a Mexican fisherman was coming home from a night working his lines.

An old outboard motor pushed his painted wooden dinghy through the glassy blue.

On the beach near the centre of the town of Mazatlan, leathery skinned men carried wooden rollers down to the water’s edge and waited for their mate to draw near.

The fisherman cut off the motor and rode a gentle ripple on to the first roller. Then it was all hands on deck. They pushed the fish-laden boat forward on to all three rollers and propelled it up the beach.

Soon the boat was safely at rest in the soft, dry sand. Nestled nearby were Charito and another boat called Gonzalito. Further along were Martha II and Cesar.

The fisherman joined others in their daily task of scaling and gutting their catch. One man whistled, then threw some fish innards high into the sky. A giant bi-tailed seabird heard the call and swept in for breakfast. Grey-brown pelicans grumped around and gobbled up spare offal.

Then the fishermen gathered around a boat which had a plank forming a table across its gunnels. The men played dominos, gambling on every throw, and they laughed and shouted in the sun.

Reggie and crew in action

Reggie didn’t look anything like Russell Crowe but he was our Master and Commander and we trusted him with our lives.

With whipcord muscles and weather-beaten skin, this Balinese helmsman controlled the rubber raft that took four or us hurtling down the Telaga Waja river.

We matelots were a rum lot—a  couple of laughing Aussie lads out for a good time, a delicate Japanese flower from a Tokyo art gallery, and me, an ancient mariner.

We listened carefully as Reggie taught us the commands he would shout to us as we took on the rapids that began near Bali’s highest peak, Mt Agung, and continued almost without a break two hours downstream.

I expected a gentle start to break us in but it was full on action from the start.

“Duck!” shouted Reggie as the first set of rapids fired us at a low slung bamboo bridge that would have put a fair dent in my helmet if I hadn’t instantly obeyed.

“Forward,” came the next command and we dug our paddles deep as we approached rapids where nature had placed giant boulders in inconvenient places.

But rubber has a way of bending around rocks, and we swept down at full pace, wondering if our paddling made any difference at all. Then Reggie yelled “Back” and we all put our paddles into reverse.

I looked to the stern and there was Reggie leaning back at 45 degrees-plus and using his paddle as a mighty rudder to steer us out of danger.

By then we were laughing and shouting with the exhilaration of it all. But things suddenly went quiet as the torrent propelled us towards a rock cliff.

“Boom, boom!” bellowed Reggie. We obeyed his call and leaned away from the wall of doom. The rubber side of the raft did its job and bounced us back into the flow.

When the pace slowed down, we had time to admire the jungle cliffs and waterfalls that ranged from plumes spouting out of holes in the rock to silvery water dropping in aprons over the green. A little coloured bird or two fluttered from shrub to tree.

At one point we passed a farmer tending his rice fields, a scene that looked somehow ancient in this place so far away from the hurly burly of touristdom.

On one dramatic occasion, we got wedged on a rock. One of the lads stood up and bounced on one corner of the raft. Dislodged, we flew off again downstream.

Hard rock cafe

Half way down, we stopped at a stony beach, nestled against a cliff. It was nature’s hard rock café. Soft drinks were the go—we were all designated drivers—but we could equally have dunked our heads in the pure water and had our fill.

Reggie then told me he used to be a cashier for Sobek Adventure Tours, and was now one of their full-time raftsmen. I couldn’t imagine him behind a desk.  He chatted in English to we Australians and then switched automatically to Japanese for the little dynamo from Tokyo.

We paddled off again. Experts now, we showed no fear as we approached a point where the river split in two. Reggie steered us in the right direction.

A raft of scoundrels tried to pass us, and we flicked water at them and they returned fire. I thought they were from Taiwan but their Aussie accents just demonstrated the multicultural nature of the wide brown land many kilometers to the south.

We turned a bend and saw a weir ahead. More like a dam with drop that was closer to vertical than 45 degrees. Reggie gave us the command to stop paddling. We grabbed the ropes and headed for the big plunge. We dropped into the watery mayhem. There was shouting, screaming and laughing. It was us in raft heaven.

Just before the end, Reggie pulled us up next to a set of rapids feeding a deep pool. He climbed a steep rock bank, grabbed a vine, swung out and dropped in. One of the lads did the same, but the rest of us were happy enough leaping into the rapids and getting swept into the pool.

The expedition over, we walked up a hill to a restaurant devoted to hungry rafters.

As we scoffed the scrumptious food, Reggie paid us a complement: “You were a good crew”. But as far as we were concerned, it was our Master and Commander who deserved all the tributes.

END

http://www.balisobek.com/

Michael Day paid for the lads but was a guest of Sobek.

Your scribe going full tilt downhill

(Published in The West Australian,  21 August 2010)

Cycling down from a volcano in Bali may not be the Tour de France but as a bike ride it must rate as one of the best activities for any amateur on two wheels.

You don’t have to expose your dieting crimes by wearing bulge-hugging lycra, and it’s nearly all downhill, a mix of freewheeling and pedalling along the flat.

Not convinced? How about this: as you go through some of the loveliest scenery in the world you encounter the cutest of kids who smile a big “hello” as their playful older siblings extend a hand for a high five.

We found all this out in stages but to start off some hidden fears had to be expressed.

As we donned the bike helmets and the complimentary cycling gloves ,  a member of our group spoke up, voicing the apprehensions of one or two others. “I might be a bit wobbly because I haven’t ridden a bike for years,” she said.

But as we  set off from Mt Batur towards the pleasant town of Ubud, even those who hadn’t biked for ages found all the old skills came back  with ease.

At the suggestion of our Balinese guide, Made, we dismounted amid  a grove of towering bamboo that was so bushy the temperature dropped a  delightful degree or two.

After  detouring along some earthen tracks to a little roadside farm, Made pointed out papaya, cocoa and orange trees. Then we cycled on to a moss-covered temple and gazed into a courtyard that had been devoted to prayer and meditation for 1000 years.

We left that holy spot in  silent, single file, passing a  giant banyan tree said to be the place of spirits. They must have been kindly souls because we felt blessed by the experiences that were to follow.

As we peddled down little lanes through a sea of  green paddies, there was plenty of time to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of farming life..

“Very agricultural,”  said one city-slicker  experiencing a whiff of cow poo. It was an odour that strangely reinforced our joy at  being away from  busy towns with their petrol fumes.

As if in a dream, we drifted  along village avenues  decorated with yellow ceremonial umbrellas and high, looping bamboo poles. On some parts of the road, women were spreading  rice  on colourful sarongs to dry in the sun.

Just when our bottoms were signaling it was time to dismount for the day, we arrived at our destination near Ubud.

We celebrated the completion of our  Tour de Bali, not with champagne and a victory speech, but with chicken sate, delicious mixed fruit drinks and a feeling of deep satisfaction.

END

http://www.balisobek.com/

Michael Day was a guest of Sobek but paid for a couple of the peloton.

(Published in The West Australian, 21 August 2010)

Bali ticks all the boxes when it comes to a good holiday.

Butterflies of the sea at Amed: fishermen returning home at sunrise (Photo: Michael Day)

Box One: Food Treats: Tick

(i)   Vincent’s of Candi Dasa: Impeccable service by black-aproned waiters matched the quality of the dishes. Try the seafood pancake. It is more elegant than it sounds. Also give the mocktails a spin. My favourite was mint magic. A European décor with an Indonesian flavour.

(ii)  Jimbaran: A visit to the legendary beach restaurants in late afternoon let us beat the evening crowds who for good reason flock there for the seafood, baked to perfection.

Box Two:Accommodation with a special something:Tick

(i) In a beautiful setting like Bali, it is reassuring when you can relax without feeling your fancy accommodation is harming the natural environment. At the Bloo Lagoon eco-resort in Padang Bai, we swam in a pool cleaned by ionisation, found our way at night with the help of 4 watt LED bulbs, ate fresh vegetables grown in the garden irrigated by waste water, and abstained from soft drinks because sugary drinks are not on offer in the restaurant which serves healthy, delicious food.

The safe environment of Bloo Lagoon

(ii)  We stayed in a luxury room at the Honeymoon Cottages in Ubud where there is an Australian connection, with co-owner Janet De Neefe, the author of one of the best books that explain Bali to a newcomer, Fragrant Rice. We heard Janet delivers a knowledgeable talk about Balinese cooking and saw a demonstration by her staff of how to produce certain local dishes. The resulting meal was one of the most scrumptious we had in Bali.

Hibiscus and frangipani petals at Honeymoon Cottages

Box Three:Artistic creation: Tick

(i) In the days before the festival of Galungan, it seemed as if most of the population was involved in the creation of a penjor, a towering, drooping bamboo pole decorated with weavings and colourful leaves and other decorations. Symbolising affluence, they represent the dragon’s tail. During the festival these elegant examples of people’s art lined the streets and lanes of every town and village.

(ii) Threads of Life, a textile arts centre in Ubud, is a place where we found handmade natural-dyed textiles (blankets, shawls, sarongs, shoulder cloth), baskets and baskets sourced from 40 cooperatives on 11 islands in Indonesia. The genius of Indonesia unfolded before our eyes.

Box four: Characters:Tick

Characters:

(i)   The waitress in a small restaurant was a novice and disarmingly honest about her excitement and nervousness. “I was a servant in a house in Denpasar but came here to work in the kitchen. When the boss said the other day that I could start serving the foreigners, I was so nervous, my heart went tock, tock, tock.”

(ii) The Ubud taxi driver’s right leg was partially crippled and barely reached the accelerator. But his smile was luminous and his spirit transformed what could have been an ordinary taxi ride into a memorable experience. He had no complaints about the cards life had dealt him.

Box five: The unusual  and  the mystical: Tick

(i)   The Blanco museum, Ubud: An eccentric Manila-born artist of Spanish heritage, Don Antonio Blanco (1911-1999), arrived in Bali in 1952, married a famous Balinese dancer and began to paint portraits of nude Balinese women. We viewed his elaborately framed paintings in an impressive three storey circular  gallery crowned with a dome and with an adjoining aviary. Nick-named the “Dali of Bali”, the late artist is succeed by his son, Mario.

Boys practice dancing in Ubud (Photo; Chris Day)

(ii)  Dancing in Ubud: Young boys provided a graceful afternoon spectacle as they practiced dancing outdoors. That night rain began to fall so the location for the hypnotic kecak dance performed by their elders moved to a covered pavilion next to a temple. The venue proved strangely atmospheric, especially later when an ancient-looking dancer fell into a trance and danced on burning coconut shells. He emerged from the smoky haze with blackened but unscathed feet.

Box six: The unusual  and  the mystical: Tick

(i)  The sea off Amed. The trick to enjoying Bali is to arise early. At Amed I went on to the beach before 6am to watch the fishermen sail home. Their outriggers adorned the bluest of oceans with coloured, triangular sails—like butterflies at dawn.

(ii) After sunset, we walked along the side of the Uluwatu temple and looked down at the steep, seaside cliffs. They were streaks of white in the purpling dusk.

END

http://www.bloolagoon.com/

http://www.threadsoflife.com/mainstoreubud.asp

http://www.casalunabali.com/

Michael Day was a guest of Casa Luna.

Lake Minnewanka (Photo: Chris Day)

(Published in The West Australian, 7 August 2010)

Reminders of the wide brown land of Australia are frequent in the green, white and granite universe that is Banff, the little capital of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Young Australians are well represented among the staff of cafes, restaurants, ski shops and the Banff Convention Centre. Ask them why they are in Banff and the replies come quickly: to snowboard and party.

One encounter came after we had taken the gondola up the snowy slopes of Sulphur Mountain to enjoy an aerial view of the town in its setting of snowy mountains and green river valleys.

The cold was exhilarating but it eventually prompted us to move into the warmth of the souvenir shop where we selected a present or two for the unfortunates back home.

“That will be ten dollars,” the young shop assistant said to me in an accent more from the Perth suburb of  Cottesloe than Canada.

We asked each other the same double question: “Where in Australia do you come from, and how long have you been here?”

The extroverted and casual young Australians say they have a warm rapport with their Canadian hosts, who they see as polite, friendly and more reserved.

Australians have had a long connection with Banff. In 1902, the local Crag and Canyon newspaper reported that visitors came from “every part of the civilized world” and referred to “the hardy and canny Scott, the ruddy son of Erin’s isle, the citizen of the South African veldt, the sun-browned Australian…”

The most economical time to come these days is the off-season so we went in late October when we had most of the benefits of the town and rest of the national park without having to cope with the big crowds of summer and mid-winter.

Banff has hot springs, museums, quality shopping, and a golf course inhabited by elk. We saw deer skittering about the residential area, though it was not quite the right time to spot bears gobbling up grain spilt along the famous Canadian Pacific railway line

After our early morning gondola ride, we wandered down the town’s main street, which has to stop eventually due to a big mountain in the way.

After scoffing breakfast of pancakes and bacon smothered in a sea of maple syrup, we drive out of town to a glorious lake whose name gets a laugh out of most visiting Australians.  Minnewanka means “water spirits” and refers to the legend of the hideous spirit which takes offence at singing and punishes those who try.

We suppressed any urge to break out in song though it was tempting at another tiny ice-covered lake where the bright sunshine made the snow glisten.

Icon of Canada: the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

(Published in The West Australian, 29 July 2010)

It was a right royal experience driving along the grand boulevard leading to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

One of the most recognised hotels in the world, it has hosted the King and Queen of England, Sir Winston Churchill, the Crown Prince of Japan, and Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

Now it was our turn, and I felt like giving a little wave to the occasional peasant on the footpath.

We passed through a security check where I half expected Mr Muscle to turn us around with the comment: “What a nerve!”

But politeness is the go in Canada, and we were ushered up to the entrance of a building that is as much a national icon of its country as are the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower of theirs.

The great castle that is the Banff Springs Hotel is built in a Scottish style with influences of a French chateau.

As we entered the giant whirly-gig doors, we discovered that the cavernous foyer doubled as a venue for almost as much entertainment as the Olympic opening ceremony in Vancouver.

First there were some unusual national costumes. A dignified group of guests from the First Nations looked impressive in their modern version of traditional clothing. Then I  did a double take at a large African-Canadian staff member who was sporting a tartan kilt. He could have told a local version of the old joke: “Q. What does a Canadian wear under his Kilt? A. Socks.”

Then, as if performing an impromptu floor show, a woman with four whippets on the leash descended an opulent staircase down to the foyer as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

We inquired and, yes, the hotel welcomes owners with their dogs. I looked for evidence of a canine indiscretion but even the dogs are polite in Canada.

As I checked in, I was almost insulted that a place which has  welcomed so many of the rich and famous doors would accept somebody lowly like me.

The truth is that these days the hotel has 768 rooms and accepts a mixture of upmarket guests and  conventioneers as well as opportunists like us, who found a bargain rate on the Internet.

Our corner room was combination of comfortable yet with some clunky and old-fashioned elements, and a tiny bathroom. Just what you might expect in a refurbished castle rather than a super-modern luxury hotel.

We prowled along the long, wide, dimly lit corridors, decorated with Scottish tapestries. There was a feeling that Macbeth could leap out at any moment. What we eventually discovered were restaurants, banquet halls and luxury shops.

Rapunzel

Later, on a tour with veteran staff member Dave Moberg, we ascended via private lift to the VIP suite in a Rapunzel-like tower, which has  views of the impressive mountains that embrace the town of Banff way down below.

“Wayne Gretzky stayed here,” said Dave. We were slow to recognise the name of the Don Bradman of Canadian ice hockey. Then he said, “Russell Crowe also stayed here”. We gave a loud cheer for Australia.

Dave recited a litany of famous hotel guests, and flashed their photos: “Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Fred Astaire, Margaret Thatcher, Neil Young, Bobby Kennedy, Robin Williams, Alec Baldwin…..”

He whispered that the handsome Pierre Trudeau, a former Prime Minister of Canada,  attended  the hotel’s New Year ’s Eve party where he “kissed at least 20 per cent of the ladies”.

Dave tells the story of how a couple of dodgy brothers built the Banff Springs hotel in the 19th century, negligently reversing the architect’s plan by putting the front at the back and vice-versa.  “Who was the idiot who gave a million dollar view to the kitchen staff?” thundered the first owner, one William Van Horne.

The hotel has long since fixed the front up by, for example,  installing dining places like the Rundle Room, a restaurant where we licked the cream off the hot chocolate as if it were the snow on the mountains outside.

But to my mind the best addition was the Willow Stream spa complex , which cost millions to install.

The Willow Spa

I made sure that just my eyes were above the water level of the outdoor spa but so I could enjoy the snow without losing any important appendage.

Retreating inside to the heated mineral pool with its hypnotic underwater music, I later moved under the warm waterfalls nearby.

New-fangled options like a maple sugar body scrub and an executive foot grooming were not for me. Instead, I relaxed on a leather armchair in the gentlemen’s retreat, complete with old fashioned paintings of fly-fishermen, an antique clock, and a warm fire.

It was a place fit for royalty and I felt like the emperor of all I surveyed.

River forms moat around magic island

(Published by The West Australian, 1 May, 2010. Words: Michael Day; Photos: Chris Day)

One of those infuriating songs captured me as we were driving along one of the most spectacular scenic highways in North America.

It was that sort of song that implants its tune and lyrics on your cranial hard-drive and comes back automatically from time to time.

On the late October day when we were driving along the Icefields Parkway through the Canadian Rockies from Jasper to Banff, the song in question was Winter Wonderland.

You know the one. The Americans always play it in their Christmas movies, a bouncy little number.

“When it snows, ain’t  it thrilling , though your nose gets a chilling

We’ll frolic and play, the Eskimo way, walking in a winter wonderland.”

It started playing in my mind after we had pulled out of Jasper and entered the forest of a million Christmas trees.

Overnight snow had laid its delicate tinsel on the tops of the green fronds. As a bonus, a white duvet covered the peaks beyond. A little dusting remained on the highway, which was smooth and safe. It was the so-called off-season and there were few other cars about.

After 30 km of the 232 km journey through the Jasper and Banff national parks, we stopped at Athabasca Falls.

“It’s like being in a Christmas card,” I said and started singing about “walking in a winter wonderland”.

Canyon of colour

It seemed so apt. Snow had made the paths pure white, and when we reached the waterfall plunging into a narrow canyon, we were treated to other colours: the green-gold of the moss and the ice-blue of the water far below.

As we moved on down the highway, the scenery exhausted my supply of superlatives. Near Mt Christie a river formed a moving moat around an island of Christmas trees, as a line of mountains graced the background.

Though cold enough for long johns, jackets, gloves and hats, the weather was no impediment even when we moved into a place where the road was completely covered in snow, the whole landscape like vanilla icecream.

When reached the Columbia icefield, a glacier that comes close to the road, we drove up to an elevated car park which was empty of any other living creature bar two ravens, black as coal against the snow-covered ground.

Two is company

“I’ll do a few doughies,” said George, laughing as he gave us a 360 degree moving view before we started feeling queasy and begged him to stop.

The ravens waddled over to greet us, leaving tracks in the snow, but we declined their request for food. We drove slowly on, stopping and starting every few minutes just to admire each fresh shape of a mountain. Some were the classic peaks, others were walls of exposed rock. All were mighty. It seemed endless, and all were so close by.

When we arrived at a frozen waterfall, I silently thanked Mr Digital for inventing his camera. I  knew  many more  photo opportunities were to come and no film camera could have coped.

Frozen in time

We descended into a u-shaped glacial valley  and arrived at what looked like a big gingerbread house , a little bridge for the elves and a lake for the fairy queen.

A couple of cute birds came up to us all unafraid. Those lyrics started in my brain again:

“Gone away, is the bluebird, here to stay is a new bird,

He sings a love song, as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland.”

“I’m beginning to like the song,” I confessed to the others.

A hotel afternoon tea at the Chateau Lake Louise provided the opportunity to scoff fine delicacies from a multi-layered silver cake stand .

We gazed at the mountain-enclosed lake that freezes over in the winter, enough to allow horse-drawn sleigh rides: “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, in the lane, snow is glistening…”

Light over Lake Louise

Another 52 kms on and we drove through the majestic mountain scenery that wraps the township of Banff like a Christmas present. It was time for that song again…..

The peak of beauty

  • Bridge to wonderland
  • Snowbird

    "Gingerbread house"

    "O Canada"


    (Published in The West Australian, 8 May 2010:Words: Michael Day Photos: Chris Day).

    "No comment," said this animal, refusing to identify its species while trotting away from the media.

    “Wolf, wolf!” I shouted as our big, red Dodge cruised to a halt at the edge of highway outside the small town of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.

    Just 50 metres away, there was Mr Wolf, bright-eyed and bushy tailed as he trotted alongside the trees lining the other side of the road.

    “Another one,” yelled George as we fumbled with our cameras. We soon realised a whole pack of wolves was on the move.

    I reached for the door handle so I could get out to frame the animals against the background of forest and giant, snowy peaks.

    But then a primal instinct took over, or perhaps it was a childhood memory of what the wolf told Little Red Riding Hood about his sharp, white teeth: “The better to eat you with my dear!”

    I stayed with the others inside our wagon and watched as the pack disappeared into the forest.

    The next morning we reported the sighting to our Jasper wildlife guide, John Ward. He asked questions about snout shape and body size, and then announced: “They were coyotes.”

    Drat! I knew I wasn’t the first person in the world to cry wolf– the tradition went back to Aesop’s fables– but there went any bragging rights about being like Kevin Costner in his movie Dances with Wolves.

    Reality and not a film set

    On reflection, seeing coyotes had been a thrill whatever the species. And  I was now reminded  of those old cartoons about Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, a thought just right in a place that looks like some unreal, spectacular film set.

    It was late October, when the tourist species  is rare on the ground in the Canadian Rockies, having departed after the summer and waiting for full-on winter before returning.

    That meant prices were way down and accommodation and restaurant tables were readily available. Armed only with cameras and water bottles, we animal hunters had a good chance of spotting wildlife.

    Yogi and Boo Boo Bear were probably already  hibernating in their dens but autumn is a time when the rest of the animal kingdom is out in force.

    Muskrat

    Muskrat creates a ripple.

    Next morning, only a couple of kilometres from town, and under cloudless skies, a muskrat posed on the banks of Lake Patricia.  These cute little creatures are relatives of lemmings but this one demonstrated survival rather than suicidal tendencies when he spotted us.  He leapt into the freezing water and swam away.

    As we surveyed the mighty landscape of mountains, lakes, forests and grasslands, John Ward explained the special feeling in the crisp air: “The original people here called this heaven on earth because the animals were approachable and so to them it was obvious that the Great Spirit was present.”

    “Approachable” is a technical term these days: it means use the zoom lens.

    Mr. Elk

    That was especially the case when John led us to herd of wild elk that towered over the long horned sheep nearby. It wasn’t so much the males with their antlers that we had to be wary of.

    “The most dangerous animal in the world is the female elk,” said John, only slightly exaggerating for effect as he described how they protect their young.

    “They put their ears back and rear up a like a horse and try to stomp you with their feet — and they weigh as much as 340 kilos.”

    Beaver

    Then we came across a lake where beavers were building their lodges. Their multi-roomed, dry apartments have an underwater entrance and a wooden roof that becomes as hard as concrete as its mud topping freezes in the cold. No predators can find the inhabitants.

    The word predator somehow becomes an issue in Jasper. We shivered as a local told us about the cougar, not the lame TV show, but the mountain lion that nobody jokes about: “If you see a cougar,” she said, “it’s already been trailing you for an hour and you are probably dinner.”

    Fortunately, our next sight was not a big cat looking for a meal wrapped in long johns and puffy parka. Instead we spied a flotilla of white trumpeter swans on a lake and, up above, a squadron of Canada geese dipping in salute to the peaks.

    As John bade farewell, we piled back into our Dodge for a bit of freelance hunting.

    Mrs Moose

    On the way to the magnificent Maligne Lake we hit the jackpot. There on the side of the road was another show business  character– that  huge goofy looking creature from the cartoons, the moose.

    “Hey, there’s a baby,” said George. We spotted the young one totter along, its  skinny, stilt-like legs making it resemble  a novice model on a tarsealed catwalk.

    Our wildlife movie  had one more reel to play. The Dodge swept around a corner and there on the other side of the road was a cute little deer.

    If I hadn’t cried wolf the day before I would have shouted “Bambi!”

    "Bambi!"

    Vancouver rolls out a spectacular welcome mat (Photo: Michael Day)

    The Winter Olympics opened in Vancouver on 12 February 2010. The quality of the snowfields is in no doubt. But what about the host city itself?  MICHAEL DAY put ten attractions of Vancouver though their paces to see if they merited gold, silver or bronze.

    (This story first published in The West Australian newspaper, 11 February, 2010).

    ONE:

    Vancouver lookout: SILVER MEDAL

    Vancouver lookout (Photo: Tourism Vancouver)

    Just eight years after he opened the moon to visitors, Neil Armstrong accepted an invitation to open this 130 metre, 360 degrees viewing tower. I followed his example by taking a giant leap up the outside of the tower via a transparent elevator. One small step and I was in the viewing area and locating the whereabouts of the attractions in the compact city below. It’s an uplifting way to blast off your visit.

    TWO:

    Le Soleil hotel; 567 Hornby St. GOLD MEDAL

    Lobby, Le Soleil.

    Athletes have their purpose-built Olympic village, so I looked for a hotel that combined a unique atmosphere with moderate rates. Hotel Le Soleil fitted the bill. It has lush, comfortable 19th century European (Biedermeier) furnishings. The friendly staff lent me an umbrella and left complimentary apples and water in the foyer.

    THREE:

    Vancouver Art Gallery: BRONZE MEDAL

    An exhibition from the permanent collection of 19th century Canadian paintings gives an inspiring introduction to the world’s second biggest nation by depicting its mighty mountains and rivers, indigenous people and European settlers. The Gallery Café and its patio are treats but gold slips to bronze due to the upstairs décor, art of mixed quality and the entry fee.

    FOUR:

    Restaurants: GOLD MEDAL (tied)

    Like all athletes, tourists need good food to fuel the physical demands of all that walking. Here are two winners that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

    (i)  The Keg restaurant (595 Hornby St)

    Delicious food in generous portions served with care and attention by friendly staff.

    (ii)Al Porto Ristorante, Gastown (321Water St)

    A passing pedestrian spotted me looking at another eating place and directed me instead to Al Porto. May that anonymous person receive a special helper’s medal. The chef was a genius, the service warm and friendly, the cost very reasonable, and the Tuscan décor just right.

    FIVE:

    The Museum of Anthropology: BRONZE MEDAL

    Grrrr....eat art (Photo: Chris Day)

    After a marathon journey from downtown to the University of British Columbia, I eventually found the museum with its totem poles, traditional carvings and, my favourite, a single cedar log that had been made into a long, wide canoe. Busloads of visitors can provide an unexpected anthropological study of the fascinating tourist species.

    SIX:

    Granville Island: GOLD MEDAL

    Maybe Mabel selling Maple syrup (Photo: Chris Day)

    Placed in a wharfside setting, this marketplace sells scrumptious banana cream pies, giant blooms of white hydrangeas, the softest of  leather and maple syrup by the litre. To top it all off, I found Edie Hats, where a saleswoman performed an artful dance climaxing with the placing on my head of a stylish black hat that I couldn’t resist buying. To guarantee the island winning gold, a busking sleight-of-hand  magician joked to his happy audience:” If you didn’t enjoy it, pay anyway. Why should both of us be disappointed?”

    SEVEN

    Seabus to North Shore: SILVER MEDAL

    The Seabus from downtown to North Vancouver has seats in the front with views of the lovely harbour. After the 12 minute ride to my destination, the Lonsdale Quay markets, I sampled the eggs Benedict that came with delicious local salmon, and was tempted  to buy books about Mounties, murders and huskies. Other attractions include “Screaming Mimi’s Seafood Deli and Steamer” and a stall that sells “Pavlova from Down Under”.

    EIGHT

    Stanley Park: GOLD MEDAL

    Sunset from Stanley Park (Photo: Chris Day)

    When locals told me that Stanley Park is a highlight of Vancouver, I suspected they may have been overselling the place. But as I entered on the Trolley Company’s wagon, all my scepticism dissolved and I surrendered to its beauty: the magnificence of the trees, the embrace of the sea, the silent majesty of totem poles.  At 400 ha, it is the same size as Kings Park in Perth. As the sun set, the park took on a golden, mystical aspect.

    NINE

    Vancouver Aquarium: GOLD MEDAL

    Candidate for world's cutest creature: the sea otter (Photo: Tourism Vancouver)

    It would be hard to find cuter creatures than the sea otters in this aquarium. They backstroke before rolling, diving, and  then bobbing up to coo and squeak. Other residents include ghostly-white beluga whales, extroverted Pacific white-sided dolphins, and a spooky giant Pacific octopus with nine-metre arms.

    TEN:

    Character precincts: Gastown; Robson Street: BRONZE medal

    It's steam o'clock...not yet huff puff nine (Photo: Tourism Vancouver)

    Wandering along the cobbled streets of old Gastown near a musical, puffing steam clock I found a bargain: a tiny greenstone bear grasping a salmon in its jaws. In the Robson Street precinct there are the upmarket fashion boutiques. I found clothing of a more whacky kind when, in adjoining Granville Street, I plunged into a costume shop. It was an  exciting world of superheroes, policewomen, gorillas and creatures from Star Trek. Close by is China town, one of the biggest outside the Middle Kingdom.

    http://www.tourismvancouver.com/visitors/

    Life with a higher porpoise (Photo at Seaworld by Chris Day)

    Life with a higher porpoise (Photo at Seaworld by Chris Day)

    (Published by The West Australian newspaper)

    Commune with your “inner chicken” and make Seaworld your first choice on the list of theme parks at the Gold Coast.

    A visit to Seaworld involves bodies flying through the air upside down, dramatic drops, plunges into water, and breakneck speeds.

    The same is true of the other parks, but the advantage of Seaworld is that it is not you who has to do all these terrifying things. Rather, the job goes to animals that thrive on it all.

    We know that a brief window of developmental madness hits guys between about 18 and 24. They will accept — and probably meet — any daredevil challenge. But there is one thing they can’t do– get basic premiums on insurance policies. Why? Two words: survival statistics.

    Theme park operators kindly keep these lads away from endangering the general public by using a variety of pitches to lure them into their secular temples of fear.

    Tunnel

    For example, Wet’n’Wild touts for customers with this frightening threat: “Riders begin their wild journey on the unique Tornado super-slide from a 15-metre high platform, then blast down a 40-metre long tunnel into the middle of a storm.”

    Just along the freeway from Wet’n’Wild, Movie World has this petrifying promise: “The awesome new Batwing Spaceshot is a rapid 4.5G vertical launch up a 60 metre tower, followed by a drop into a breathtaking negative descent – beyond freefall!”

    A little further up the road and the spruikmasters at Dreamworld unleash this description of their pride and joy, the “Wipeout” ride:   “It is the mother of all tidal waves and you’re strapped in the middle without a life line.”

    If by now you are deciding to choose lawn bowls instead of a theme park, read about our experience and think again.

    Seal of approval

    When we arrived at Seaworld, we took our seats in a stand to watch a show with the corny name “Quest for The Golden Seal.”

    It didn’t take long for us to shed our veneer of jaded sophistication. We cheered and clapped at the antics of these animals. They seemed to tease their handlers, mimic their movements, and play to the crowd.

    Their sheer power and control in the water made our Olympic heroes look ordinary. And unlike our swim teams they didn’t have to spend four hours a day staring at a black line underwater.

    Corkscrewball

    Feeling somewhat smug for getting an adrenalin boost without threatening life or limb, I then had to answer a tough challenge from a 21-year-old in our party. Would I go on the corkscrew roller coaster, the one “moderately” scary ride at the place? The implication was that if I didn’t accept I might  just as well apply for some sort of  premature senior status that signals readiness for a pension card, hot chocolate and a chaste kiss from a night nurse.

    I took him up on the dare. The attendant locked me in before I could change my addled mind. I soon endured 30 seconds of being upside down and meeting my own backside approaching at full speed.

    Shouting and screaming with a death rictus grin helped me alleviate the terror . The young thought I was roaring with joy like them. When I emerged shaken and stirred, I controlled my tremors to wave a condescending hand at my grinning contemporaries, who had wisely given it all a miss.

    Climax

    But the real climax of Seaworld was yet to come. It arrived with force and a beauty that made us all spontaneously gasp and applaud like the Barmy Army on steroids.

    We were sitting in a stand, much like the one for the seal spectacular, and just staring at a large pool. We were waiting for somebody to arrive and announce that something was about to happen.

    Then, without a word of warning, three huge and shiny dolphins erupted from the water and powered into the stratosphere before grinning at us and gracefully diving back into the deep.

    The next 20 minutes packed in more spins, skills and hijinks than Warne in his prime. These were entertainers who made we humans feel truly humble. And they clearly needed no cruelty or excessive fish bribes to perform.

    A dolphin duo rocketed along the surface just a metre apart. They   maintained a high level of cruise control as a 20-something guy rode them, one foot on each muscular back. Responding to an invisible command, the dolphins flicked their rider high in the air and were well out of the way as he dived back down.

    This young man could choose to spend his time off work on the thrill machines at the other theme parks down the road. But you could bet he wouldn’t bother.

    Nothing in the man-made universe can compete with nature’s athletes at their finest.

    END

    Michael Day paid for his own admission ticket to Seaworld. He is not related to the dolphins.

    http://seaworld.myfun.com.au

    Select by choosing from geographical settings of travel stories by Michael Day, a travel writer based in Brisbane, Australia.


    This is a sample of travel stories I have written on assignment as a travel writer, or when covering Asia for my newspaper, or as a freelancer. They have been published in newspapers, magazines and Web-based newspapers. (Yes, that is a real Oscar in my hands. Made out of genuine plastic.)