“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What do I love about Alaska?

  •  That the weather changes dramatically.
  •  The deep dark colors – greens in the trees, greys in the clouds, blues/grays/greens in the oceans.
  • Spongy ground
  • Wildlife: bears, whales, seals, eagles, etc, etc
  • Being outdoors and doing active things
  • Yummy hearty food and seafood
  • Long hours of daylight
  • Quirky small towns where doors are left unlocked and people are friendly
  • Ferries that offer free showers, and conveniences like towels, blankets, pillows, mattresses and a solarium to put up your tent!
  • Ocean inlets and islands
  • Glaciers!

But the ultimate best thing about Alaska?
  • ·         Picking wild salmon berries and blueberries everywhere I walk

Even better?
  • ·         Putting a wild blueberry inside a wild salmon berry and eating! Yum!!! 

Virgin Mobile

Alaska is beautiful and pretty, and I would love to call my friends and family to tell them all about it. This is why I just bought a minute plan and got the most expensive internet data package possible – all connected in less than an hour in Seattle airport… except Virgin Mobile (my US phone) has no coverage at all in Alaska. What kind of ridiculous company neglects an entire state? 

Vancouver & Vancouver Island, Canada

Getting to Alaska is a bit of a pain. I tried to stop off in Iceland, but that would cut into my Alaska time. It turned out, that the best way to get to Alaska (and be able to do the Inside Passage), was to fly to Vancouver. I booked my ticket on Sunday, to fly on Monday (a tricky thing to explain to customs in Canada!). 

I spent the night in Vancouver in the central YHA hostel, and had a glorious jog around the peninsula early Tuesday morning. Vancouver really is a great city – the psyche all along the West Coast reminds me of New Zealand. It was great to see all the cyclists, especially. Someone in a shop on Vancouver Island said that while Australia is like the US, New Zealand is like Canada. I thought it was an interesting comparison. I suppose, Australia is certainly more state-based and conservative in some ways, and there’s always the little brother complex that both Canada and New Zealand have.

I am always fascinated by the homeless people I see in Canada and the US -- this guy had a teddy bear that he was carrying. How can this happen in a functional society? Would it ever happen in New Zealand?

The other thing that absolutely shocked me were the bunnies on the University of Victoria campus -- they were everywhere. They are considered too cute to be removed and culled and animal rights advocates go nuts when anyone tries. I keep saying that they need a rabbit eating culture like Britain to ensure they all disappear. It's ridiculous because cats are kept inside, dogs are kept on a leash and so they have gone crazy without any predators.

Anyway, I visited Carole on Vancouver Island and she took me around Victoria – a beautiful city. See below for pictures of the harbor and the totems outside the fantastic museum. We also had a lovely lunch outdoors with atmospheric ivy leaves around us. The last picture is of the beaches with their amazing logs -- Carole said it's illegal to take wood from a beach now, but they were so large and there were so many of them, I was quite surprised.

Friday, July 02, 2010

To Pack or Wheel?

I had two questions as I packed for Alaska the night before my departure. Do I take a pack or a wheeling suitcase, and should I take my hiking boots? As it was last night drinks and of course the world cup match, I was out with friends and asked their opinion. They said take a pack and don’t take hiking boots and unfortunately, I now disagree with both!! A temperate rain forest means wet and mud, and soaking feet yesterday means that I wished I had my hiking boots (though I do agree they are heavy).

As for the pack, this caused me more turmoil. The last time I used my pack, I was still at university. It’s a fabulous pack and it was all part of the traveler I was then. However, I have had a wheeling suitcase ever since, and never thought to go back. There are certain places that require it, like India and Africa where walking and travelling is rougher, but did I really need it for Alaska? It is true I was a backpacker, and I had my yoga mat/bed roll and sleeping bag. I stopped short of the tent that would have completed the image, but I was definitely the sort of person who would normally have a pack.

So I packed my gear into my pack. I picked it up, groaned at its weight (I tend to overpack), cursed, swore, bitched, moaned and groaned to myself, ‘Do I really want to be heaving this everywhere for the next month?’ I thought about it some more, then decided to unpack it all and put it into a suitcase (it’s 2am by this point and my airport pickup was coming at 4). I went to sleep and tossed and turned (for all of an the hour that it was). All sorts of self-challenging questions arose. Was I still able to be a true backpacker or had I gotten soft? Was I too old to be a backpacker? I remembered the time in Pakistan when the hostel owner told me he expected me to leave because I wasn’t the right “type” for a hostel. I thought about whether having a wheeling suitcase was the lazy option. But then I remembered that that particular suitcase had a broken handle so would need repacking anyway. I decided it must be fate and repacked it back into the pack, cursing more all the while.

So how long did I last with a pack? 3 days. I went to Walmart on Vancouver Island and bought a wheeling suitcase that fit the pack and all else. Pathetic isn’t it!? However, when I am riding ferries that have elevators/lifts and everywhere I am going has nice concrete footpaths and taxis if I wish them, I will enjoy my wheels and save the pack for India and the tropics and another trip.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Travelling again!

I am off again on my annual summer pilgrimage to rack up the miles and check off the places from my most-want-to-see list. This summer, I’m off to Alaska, via Vancouver. So many people seem amazed that I’m going to Alaska, which surprises me. It’s supposed to be beautiful and spectacular, and is that not enough? I have yet to discover if it really is off the beaten path.

The irony is that I wasn’t really going to see the scenery. I decided earlier on this year that I wanted my summer to be an active one, and was dreaming of doing some dance classes. I eliminated the flamenco in Spain and decided I wanted to do some art courses at the same time. A search of the internet yielded only one option (that wasn’t for kids or for professionals): the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. It’s really quite bizarre that I’m going all the way around the world to do courses that I could theoretically do anywhere, but this was where the options were.

My lineup of courses (and the irony continues!): Highland Dance, Middle Eastern Dance, Swing, Tai Chi, Ballroom,  and the art course, Surface Design. I’m not even doing the Alaskan drumming class because it clashed with some others I wanted to do. I am doing nothing Alaskan! But I am excited.

Considering that I was visiting Alaska I figured I’d better actually see something of Alaska as well, so I’m also going to ferry hop up the Inside Passage and take the train past Denali. Thanks to Greg for his fabulous advice.

Enjoy these lovely pictures of Frankfurt’s airport – interesting lines!

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Last weekend, Jo and I took at trip to Azerbaijan's exclave, Nakchivan. It's supposed to be the cultural heart of the country and has a very ancient feel -- much like Iran just across the border. Very interesting!!

Because it's one of the only destinations going out of Baku's domestic terminal, the airport had a bus station feeling. We had to go up two flights of stairs with our suitcases, and there was even a ticket booth like in a bus or tram station. You can't buy your return journey until you get there! It certainly gives the illusion of being cut off instead of connected! Jo and I commented on the bizarre feeling -- two guys were racing remote control cars and boxes and boxes of goods were there, with one guy even flying with car parts. The flights are subsidized for nationals of course (and exorbitant for expats), and there is no land route there except through Iran. Our boarding pass said 12.50 but that's the "old time" (I wonder when Nakchivan was ever on that time -- the Ottoman Empire perhaps?) but we were leaving at 9. The cafe had friendlier people, and we noted the irony of there being no milk for my tea, but yet other customers had received a full omlette complete with pan. They loved the fact that my name was Natalya, and I believe I remember hearing someone saying 'Take off your clothes': before you get excited, they were talking about my jacket.

We arrived and took a taxi straight from the airport via Jolfa and the Aza bridge to the southernmost village of Ordubad -- what a great town! While it was once on the main road to Nagorno-Karabakh, it is now a sleepy place at the very end of the road. Jammed in the bottom triangle of Nakchivan, squeezed between a non-bridged river border with Iran, and hostile Armenia, it is a quaint forgotten sort of place. It had lovely crumbling mud brick walls and restored mosques. It had a lovely old square with a teashop under a giant cinar tree. The madrasa was being renovated and there was a cool bridge house under repair. Through narrow streets where the taxi driver, Shamil, would simply stop and sigh with exasperation when a car would happen by and need to get past. Jo found it amusing when Shamil was directing me to a better picture on the other side of the Aza bridge where there ended up being a garish yellow pipeline, ubiquitous to Azerbaijan to ruin the picture.

Stopping for lunch at a little place on the side of the road on the way back, we enjoyed our salads (and for me, kebabs) right above a dammed reservoir full of the most interesting fish, lizards and floating snakes. It was quite astonishing, in fact, to see 3 yellow snakes, a turtle, multiple ducks, and a cat all sharing the same space as the fish!

To Naxcivan city, where we negotiated being able to stay in the hotel of our choice (and not Shamil's), we wandered to the famous mausoleum just before it closed and huge storm rolled in. It was quite an exciting storm, but alas, we had no jackets. Tea (again), and I eat the whole bowl of sweets as it's already 6pm! We then wandered through the melted mud citadel collecting tile fragments (probably modern), scampering down banks and gawping at modern reconstructions of mud-brick (quite amazing actually, that they are not making them out of concrete). I was most fascinated that there was a mud-brick fort exactly like Merv (Mary) in Turkmenistan. Past closed Imamzade (over renovated!) to town, we felt quite accomplished for our first day. A Turkish dinner and ghastly green restaurant in the hotel for drinks (yucky decor and wine, price, etc).

We had arranged to meet at 9.15 through unlucky translator son Ali. After two museums we only sort of wanted to see (but Shamil wanted to show us) -- one was Heydar Aliyev's, and another was a more interesting carpet museum. We debated about what famous people's museums should have -- their breakfast food, favorite TV programs, a look at the inside of the house -- but these were not present in Heydar Aliyev's museum. To the ticket office to buy our flight back (and for Shamil to collect a secret package), finally we were on the way to where we actually wanted to go!

The mountains were high and spectacularly snow-capped, and we drove up into the passes where there are the famed islands within lakes that move location. We drove to Qarabaglar, a charming little village with the best Islamic structure I've seen in ages. Quaint homes and rusticly left-alone. Batabat -- not even a town, it turns out, is just lakes up a mountain pass. Spectacular scenery, but disappointing to have no village. We had a lovely little picnic ala Shamil under the cautious eyes of the army post above us (who were no doubt amused by us going to the toilet on the side of the road). Tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and lavash. Yum!

He then took us to his home past stones holding house roofs down, poppy fields, rivers, bridges, cliffs. We had tea with his wife and family and then tea again at the airport (this is after tea on the side of the road as well). We were the only women at the airport drinking tea, but the best part was the plane ride. Wow! What a jump back in history. It was a 1970s plane with an ashtray and sharp pointy things on the tray table, which was also extra high. However, the seats were more padded, and there was actually leg room, even if the seats did fall down like dominoes because there was no such thing as a recline! There was the oldest life jacket I've ever seen (thank goodness we weren't going over water). The window shutter is down because the window is cracked. It's also very hot! The toilet is retro complete with paisley walls and a wooden seat. No water! They moved our seat 'more up' to Business Class, but all the other rich people were late (in their own time). We were shocked to see a stretcher appear outside the window (contemplating the ghastly thought of an air-evacuation from here!). The stretcher went up the stairs, then down them, then up again as they tried to find a part of the airplane to accommodate this awkward passenger. We were barred from going backward, eventually, as he was given the middle part of the plane.

More photos at this link:

If you are interested in how another traveller found it, check out this link:

Sunday, May 09, 2010

My archway

This, my friends, is the archway of my courtyard... this hole now has concrete, but the other two (at extreme left and right) do not. That big wet pile of rubbish smells as disgusting as it looks, and those bins are usually overflowing everywhere. I'm pretty sure it doesn't meet BP safety standards, but the bonus is that while this construction is going on, there are no cars in the courtyard. The clean-it-up scheme for Nizami doesn't usually include courtyards, so I'm wondering how it will look, and how far the tiles will go in when it's all done!

Building... gone!!

One day I was walking home and the building I used to buy eggs from, and watch the cat sleep under the mannequins in the long corridor, was gone. I had bought a coat, and other clothes there, and the whole building was demolished, just like that. You can see the pile of rubble that was left behind above.

Now it's a huge construction site, usually completely blocked off from public eyes, but I managed to sneak in the other day and see what's happening. It means that the street that was almost finished with construction, Nizami, will now be blocked off for at least a couple of years.
I wonder how much warning the residents had? There was another building on the boulevard in front of the Maiden's Tower that went down in the same time frame. Apparently there was some dissent about removing it, so it was declared "unstable" yet the turn of the century walls were so thick they had trouble removing them. It's now a nice square of grass, in case anyone was wondering. Prime real estate for you!!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Baku Construction

Baku has been a construction site since at least September last year. I just thought I'd share some photos so you can get an idea of how bad it is!!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


23 March 2010
I’ve arrived in Samoa!! This is country number 67 – and my first small Pacific island. I remember when I was little and watching the commonwealth games, I remember thinking that the Samoans and the Tongans and the Fijians were so different from us. They were the epitome of foreignness. It’s funny and ironic, but arriving in Samoa is the complete opposite. I feel like I’ve come to as close to a tropical home as I could have. I think it must be because I am finally on a Polynesian tropical island, and Polynesia is home. I’ve seen other tropical paradises, so much so that I feel at home in the tropics, but I have always felt them to be more foreign than this one. Make no mistake, I am not home, this is still a foreign country, but it has familiarity. Perhaps once I’ve been here a while, I’ll change my mind, but the faces and the looks of the people are lovely.

There are slatted glass windows of the 80s in every home, but no mosquito nets. Everything is open. I even saw a lady’s breasts through her open windows as she got changed to lie down on the mat on the floor! There are lovely open fales where just the pillars of the sides exist and roofs (no walls), and everyone sits communally and shares the breeze then lies down to sleep right there.

It’s really quite funny to see all the pigs walking around. Dogs are everywhere too, but there is something different to have this huge snorting beast wandering past. Pork is probably the most important food here – though expensive too. Big feasts require killing an entire beast, of course!

We got a flat tire on the way home from the airport, and since they certainly aren’t wasting electricity here, one would think it would be a scary situation, but when everyone’s homes are communal and open to the public, it doesn’t seem possible. I wasn’t being taken to some crazy place to disappear forever. They are too nice and too small town and too local. There must be crime, but perhaps not in the same way that we have? Am I being na├»ve?

I’m sleeping in an open fale where I hope I don’t roast (it's very hot here), and tomorrow I will have a lovely tropical fruit breakfast and wander around town. I hope I get to dive and swim and relax and get my paper done. I will discover what Guadalcanal really is because I mentioned it being here, but it isn't. Because the reef disappears into the deepest of oceans just off the coast, the color of the sea in Samoa is very dark! What spectacular ocean, though. My freckles have come out! It must be something about the southern sun.

I took the bus out to the coast, and what a fun experience! Even though we spent an hour waiting for it to depart, it was a prime example of the wetness of humanity (sticky bodies leaning in above boxes of leaking produce, bread, etc. There was a complex order of sitting, foreigners and women and elderly were first, but I didn’t need to worry about it because they just told me where to go.

Some of my interesting conversation: The top 5 questions I was asked: Where are you from? (NZ – a common answer here) What do you do? How long in Samoa? Why Samoa? Have you been to Savai’i? The beach? The mountains? Are you married? (No) What? Why not? Do you want to meet a Samoan man? (Perhaps I do -- They do all the cooking!) Actually, I probably don't as everything is shared with the entire family, so one income is everyone's.

Samoans are happy in their own skin and have lovely wide smiles. They seem content with life, even if life isn’t so easy for them sometimes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Video to family and friends

So I finally finished my Christmas video! What a saga. A month of back and forth with so many roadblocks. There are lots of problems with it, but it's been a learning experience. Basically, I decided that instead of regaling my friends and family with copious travel stories (as there are many!) I would make a video of my photos to send. It is rather amateur and dorky, the sound quality is quite poor because I have a crappy microphone, and I have all sorts of other issues with it, not to mention my own voice sounding hideous!

Next time I will ensure that the picture size is reduced before I add it to the film -- it made for a huge (200MB) file. Because it was over 10 mins (It's 12 mins long and that's with very rapid image changes) YouTube wouldn't take it (although it took about 100 upload attempts to discover this). Then there was the fact that due to music copyrights I had to change some of the songs (but, of course, it doesn't tell you which one, so I changed all before I discovered it was the last one - Murphy's Law). Who knew that Alice Cooper's 'School's Out for Summer' would be so strict when it's so appropriate? I still have my doubts about the Frank Sinatra and Nickleback ones as well, but at least it now plays, which is more than it did before.

So, if you would like to view my slideshow movie, I had to break it into two parts on you tube (and I do find it amusing that many of my friends and family have chosen to watch only the first part -- I have stats to check!).

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJLV1rUpspA
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9cwHnjODYM

If you’re on facebook, you’ll also find it here:

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Found this interesting website in my notes! How times have changed -- what people found sensitive would now be common conversation. I wonder if they bother to ban any songs in this day and age, but I'm sure they think about it!!

Some interesting examples:

  • Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side' was banned because of "giving head"
  • The Smoke's 'My Friend Jack' for "eats sugar lumps".
  • Billie Holiday's song 'Gloomy Sunday' was about suicide, so it was banned in 1941
  • The Sex Pistol's 'God Save the Queen' in 1977, because BBC has to be patriotic! 
  • John Lennon's 'Imagine' was banned during the Gulf War
Just an interesting selection!! :) Even songs about banning songs like the Beverly Sisters 'We Have to Be so Careful' of the 1950s and Norman Long's 'We Can't Let You Broadcast That' in 1932.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Have had connections to two people with cancer this month that have really given me food for thought -- I just want to send my best wishes out to them -- Katie's fight is my yoga teacher's friend (see website link http://katiesfight.blogspot.com/), and then there's my cousin Lana in NZ... my thoughts are with you both. xxoo