Friday, November 30, 2007

AirPort Express on the Road

There are going to be places - hotels and houses - that won't have wifi. This wouldn't be a big deal if we were taking a laptop with us, but we're not. We're taking the Nokia n800 which uses either wifi to a network or bluetooth to a mobile with a data connection. Another reason for wifi being so important is that we also have a wifi phone (thanks to Pat in Cubic Telecom - keep an eye on these guys as they're extending their reach West across the Atlantic) . The costs of voip are so low in comparison to anything else, that it makes sense to offset the cost of internet connectivity by making it wirelessly available whereever we have it.

Enter Apple's AirPort Express. What's so good about it? Well, it's exactly the right piece in this jigsaw. I don't want a wireless router - where ever I'll be will at least have a dsl modem. Moreover, it's tiny. It has no cables - the electrical plug is part of the box itself:

You plug this little device into the wall, connect your dsl router with an ethernet cable, and watch the light turn green. Easy. It does a lot more than this - it's designed to work within an AirPort network which means all kinds of cool things - some of which I'll definitely use this for when we get back. For example, you can plug this into the wall near your stereo, and connect them to each other view the jack connection on the AirPort express. Next time you're using iTunes on any computer in the network, you can direct the signal out of whichever instance of AirPort express you want. You can similarly connect to any USB compatible printer. Moreover, you can harness a couple of separate AirPort Expresses together in one wireless network, extending the range of your network (this is something that I'll certainly be trying in our Cagliari apartment where the think concrete walls tend to block radio signals.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chinese Visa in Ireland: Top Tips

After 4 days of robust but diplomatic exchanges with the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, I'd like to like to suggest the following approach for anyone who needs to get a visa to visit China.

  1. Don't ring. You'll only get upset, and life's too short (in my case, 4 days shorter). Let me tell you here and now: they don't answer the phone. There are official hours, during which you may phone them, but the result will indistinguishable from ringing at any other hour of the day or night that you might care to choose. The phone remains unanswered to the backdrop of a variety of different tones and recordings, but the song remains the same. Don't do it. Instead, use email and their website. Everything you need, including the entry form, fees and office hours are downloadable from there. And when you email them, they will reply quickly. Sometimes within the minute.
  2. Persist. You might have particular inquiries, and feel you need to make contact with the embassy staff. You will form the opinion, after a number of email exchanges that you are either dealing with many different people (who don't look at, much less talk to, each other) or else the one person who is answering your emails is bent double, wetting himself at the hoops he is making you jump though. Keep jumping. He'll get bored after a few days.
  3. Include the photos. If you forget the photos, you will have to deal not only with the aforementioned email-go-round, but you will have to deal with the (possibly public) opprobrium and scorn that only your spouse [italian content] can bestow. In fact it's entirely possible that my wife will also pour scorn on you too, if she finds out you've forgotten to include the photos. You have been warned.
  4. Go there in person. You can avoid all the pain of 2 and 3 above if you just go there yourself. They won't accept postal applications, but they will accept couriers. In fact, they love couriers. They love them so much that they can't bear to see them leave. And when they do leave, it's empty-handed, all the more to make them come back sooner. It's probably some kind of hospitality thing they have going there. Perhaps couriers hold a revered place in Chinese culture (Nicole from Fasttrack certain holds a revered place in my house right now!) In my own case, they positively insisted that the courier visit 5 times before they'd even entertain the notion of anything so course and inhospitable as handing over my family's passports. If you go yourself, you are unlikely to receive this same special treatment. If you really want to see what it's like, just bring along a motorbike helmet and a 2-way radio with you. And bring a camera.

I have the passports back in my possession now. They took the train from Dublin to Cork, where the poor befuddled things no doubt got treated to an Irish breakfast in the dining car by the pitying Fasttrack staff. They looked right as rain by the time they leaped down onto the platform and scuttled into my open arms. They're sleeping in their favourite drawer now, no doubt stirring now and then, only half awake, to examine the strange calligraphy recently pasted to page 5.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Australian Car: Rent or Buy

Back to the theme of the budget, specifically with regard to transport.

A few months back, I was looking into the choice between renting a car for 12 weeks in Australia, and actually buying and reselling a car over the same period. The Rough Guide suggests that 8-10 weeks is the threshold over which buying and reselling starts to make economic sense. According to AutoBarn, the cutoff point is more like 6 weeks. But there are certain inherent risks involved as well, that rental doesn't entail:

  • Breakdowns are at your own expense, and will delay you more;
  • You may not get the resale price that you expected, especially if you have a plane to catch;
  • There is a lot more paperwork and additional expense involved in becoming the owner of a car rather than the renter.

But renting in Oz is not cheap, and is in very stark contrast to the cost of car rental in New Zealand. I wonder why this is. The markets should be similar: Lots of tourists who want to cover long distances over extended periods of time. Whereas in NZ, there seems to be excellent competitive downward pressure on prices, in Australia, there's nowhere to run.

I asked Simon in Brisbane what he though, and he was able to give me some numbers, based on some visitors they had a while back. This is how it worked out for them (all prices in Australian dollars):

  • Bought a car for around $11000
  • Spent about $1500 on services through the 6 months
  • Up for sale on a consignment lot, where you leave your car on their lot which they sell and take a 10% cut.
  • Sold for around 8000.

Total cost: (11000 + 1500) - 8000 + 800 = 5300.

Insurance and registration will add a few hundred dollars to that, let's say 5500 in total.

The travellers in question were in Oz for 6 months, so this price was pretty good value (I think it was a station wagon). But 6 months is a long way off the cutoff that either the Rough Guide or AutoBarn are suggesting. Bringing it back to 3 months, the value is less tempting, especially considering that an equivalent rental for that time (calculated here) would work out at about $4300.

When you are travelling with kids it's vital that the car be comfortable and spacious. We discovered in Canada that the people carrier we rented was a big kick for the girls - they had a choice of seats, good views out of the windows and lots of 'secret compartments'. For that kind of vehicle, you have to add another $1700 for a rental, but a lot more to a purchase price.

The solution we've come to in the end is to not rent any car while we're in Sydney (that's 5 weeks), to rent a people carrier while we're on the road (3 weeks), and to rent a smaller car for the 4 weeks in Brisbane. Allowing an occasional weekend rental in Sydney, the budget works out at €2100 or AUS$3500. I'm happy to pay that for the comfort and peace of mind of rental.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Been There, Done That.

I've just spend an excellent evening with a good friend and her family (the pretext of which was to celebrate the 2nd birthday of her daughter). I love this house (and the people in it). My first memory of the house was when I woke up in it one morning some time back in my college years with very little recollection of having got there. This established something of a pattern for many occasions to come.

The conversation turned, as it inevitably does these days, to the upcoming trip. I'm trying my very best not to be a bore on the matter. After all, there are so many other things that I can be a bore on, and besides, the idea of this blog was that anyone who was interested could come and see how we were getting on. No need for me to personally inflict the details on captive audiences.

But in this house, travel is nothing new. Both my friend (hi Aoife!) and her two brothers have covered a lot of terrain between them, and this evening I got an insight as to why. 1950 was proclaimed by pope Pius XII to be a Holy Year. Aoife's father was 17 that year, and being an Irish Catholic - and wearing a pioneer pin at that - he decided to travel to Rome, along with a 16-year-old school friend, during the 3-month school summer holidays. On bicycle.

I've never been to 1950s Cork. I've never been to 1950s anywhere in fact. But I can just about picture this man's parents' reaction to his plans. They thought he was start raving mad. Nowadays there is a direct Cork-Rome flight that takes about 2.5 hours to cross the two bodies of water and one major mountain range that lie between. Back then, there wasn't even an airport in Cork. The route was pretty much like this, just less direct. About 2600 kilometers. These two boys got up on their High Nellys and took off with no money in their pockets!!!

A High Nelly, for those who don't come from these parts, is an Irish term for a particular style of bike. Here's an example I found:

No gears or alloy wheels here.

They camped on train tracks, got arrested by the Italian army on suspicion of arms importation, broke their pioneer pledges on two bottles of alter wine provided by a Italian parish priest in lieu of food and were presented with medals bearing Stalin's profile by an unknown, presumeably ex-partisan, peasant. There is, I'm sure of this, a book's worth of anecdotes on this trip alone.

I had barely caught my breath after learning all this, when I found out that the family penchant for travel was inherited from both sides of the family. In 1954, Aoife's mother and another female friend from Cork left Ireland to go hitch-hiking around Spain, travelling on the Mauritania II to get there, and eventually making their way as far as Morocco. Two Irish girls on their own in 1954 Morocco!!

Who do we think we are kidding with our little squirt around the globe?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Chinese Recycling and Travelling by Moral Submarine

It seems that in eco-vandal China, there might be more recycling going on in than in right-on Europe, even if folks there don't separate their rubbish. But as the article points out, there's plenty of fly-tipping going on too.

On matters environmental, Letizia has an interesting article over on her blog (italian and english versions) about the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of selling indulgences: offsetting your own carbon emissions.

I must admit that I'm torn on this issue. I confessed (blimey - even more antiquated religious behaviour!) up front on this blog a long time ago, that our trip is indefensible from an ecological point of view. Folks who sail around the world with their kids (they exist!) are safely on the moral higher ground here. Given my lack of sailing expertise, I'm happier for us to travel physically well above sea-level even if we're in a moral submarine. (That was one of the more contorted metaphors you are likely to read this week. Altogether now - We All Live in a Moral Submarine...). But I do like the idea of a building the environmental impact of an activity into its price, and letting market pressures do the rest. Of course the marketplace only works well if there is transparency and trust in place - elements that are usually underwritten by national governments or international bodies. There's no sign yet of any standards being put in place, or met, by private sellers of carbon offsets. And that means more time in purgatory for me. Pass the chestnuts, will you?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Welcome to Australia. Wipe your feet.

Once upon a time, the largest animal that inhabited Australia was the kangaroo. Now, that iconic creature is relegated to 13th place, behind a whole host of newly introduced species. Most of these newcomers have made themselves at home a little too well, put their feet up on the furniture, and emptied the fridge. Some of this has been inevitable. The first stowaway on the First Fleet was altogether smaller, but devastating for the locals: Smallpox wiped out an estimated 50% of the Eora population. There was nothing inevitable about the rabbits, cats, cows and even camels that now run feral in the Australian outback.

Not only Jared Diamond's Collapse but even Blll Bryson's Down Under make mention of how rabbits were deliberately indeed carefully added. Nobody really had any idea of the catastrophic effect of introducing species into an environment that had been geologically isolated for 65,000 years. Australia provided no natural predators for the large mammals that colonialists saw fit to offload.

These days, the Australian authorities are not taking any chances. There is the now-famous Australian baptism: pesticide spray that the cabin crew will bless you with as you arrive in Oz. There is also a whole range of things that you can't bring in to the country (above and beyond what you'd expect)and the penalties include anything from confiscation through AUS$220 on-the-spot fines, all the way up to 10 year in jail. You even have to make sure that your hiking boots aren't muddy. It's a different twist on the idea of putting out the welcoming mat. But of course I see the need.

But it took a little bit of googling and browsing to come across the list of prohibited imports. I wonder, if I hadn't been forewarned by colleagues who have been to Oz already, at what point would I have found out? When I was forced to bin expensive Chinese tea or souvenir erhu on arrival to Sydney?

[Added later: An inquiry to AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) pointed me at an online database where travellers can check specifically what conditions apply to specific good. Looks like I can bring in tea after all :-) ]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Er who?

This summer, I found myself in Barcelona moving through the pedestrian tunnels of the subway system. Not an average day for me. There was a busker there playing the Erhu. This Chinese instrument is often called the Chinese 2-string fiddle, and I can't think of a worse name for it because the sound it makes is nothing like the violin. It sounds like a mixture between a human voice and an oboe, and it makes the hair rise on the back of my neck in a way that, until that day, only the uileann pipes could do.

It seems to be a fantastically expressive instrument, with a huge dynamic range (ok - kinda like the violin) and the tone has a dual quality to it. I love it. And I'm hoping to hear it live when in China.

Take a look at the performance below. I really love the fact that the artists facial expression never changes from its rather stern reserve, but all the emotion comes streaming out through the instrument's tiny sound chamber.

Added later:

I've just read that this tune is the most famous of all erhu pieces and is called "Er Quan Ying Yue" (1950, Moon Reflected on Second Spring) by A Bing. It really bears listening to a number of times (despite some terrible crackles in the amplification at one point).

I'd love to know who the artist is, if anyone out there can read the blurry hanzi credits at the start. The text in red is definitely the song title, and I guess the two lines under that are the names of the two performers.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Useful Bookmarks for the RTW Trip

I'm not going to get Delicious to automatically blog with new bookmarks - I always feed disappointed when I open a blog entry in Google Reader and see that it's only a Delicious update. I'm just going to point out once that I have a Trip tag under Delicious where I'll be saving and sharing all links related to the preparations and journey. I've added a permanent link on the right of the blog main page.

Review of A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A Commonwealth of Thieves, by Thomas Keneally

A reasonable introduction to the (colonial) history of Australia, that promises just a little more than it delivers.

I wish I had been educated in Australia. 220 years of history, mostly confined to New South Wales. That's something that even a dunce like me could get his head around. None of this Irish bronze-age nonsense.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Ark and native son of Sydney, describes the founding of Australia in his particular way: though the eyes of the people who were there. He threads the strands of dozens of individuals' lives around the historical facts of the time, and writes with a flourish that is almost of the time he describes.

If I could, I would have given the book 3.5 stars, but it certainly didn't deserve 4. It begins well and carries the reader along, as all good books fiction or non-fiction should do. This was my first reading of Australian colonial history, so there was a lot of interesting new material here for me. However I'm not sure this would be the case for anybody who had even read the Australian Rough Guide's history section. The book finishes quite hurriedly with a long-ish epilogue in an attempt to tie up loose ends.

The central figure is that of Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet and first governor of New South Wales. Although the tale is not told through his eyes, the timeline covered by the book is framed by his involvement in the enterprise until the point where he returned to England, health failing, to settle down and take the waters in Bath. He comes across as an enigmatic man, and if Keneally intended to leave his examination of any of the characters at this superficial level, he succeeded. But here is the problem: A Commonwealth of Thieves is neither a comprehensive history, nor an intimate diary.

The cover blurb described rebellions that were never covered in the book itself. There are aparent forward references to Phillip's successors that in the end turn out to be unfulfilled. The menacing suggestions of the evil visited upon the Eora aboriginals when the relationship between them and the settlers finally broke down are left adrift.

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Any suggestions of alternatives would be welcome.

Rated 3/5 on Nov 12 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ryanair: Climate Change - It's All In Your Head

I have a certain respect for Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair - Europe's largest airline (by passenger number). It's a very specialized kind of respect - the kind I have for older people who say what they think, wear what they want and don't give a damn about who they might offend. I like to think that some day I'll be that irresponsible.

My respect doesn't extend to the actual opinions that O'Leary regularly and flamboyantly expresses (nor to those of octogenarian anarchists for that matter). One of the reasons for the timing of our trip is that in 10 years, thanks to the price of oil going only one direction and and increasing popular and political attention being paid to climate change, it may not be economically feasible to make this kind of trip. O'Leary thinks that this kind of concern is just a "middle-class, mid-life crisis" preoccupation.

Correct on both counts: I am approaching mid-life, harbouring an unhealthy curiosity about the eventual nature of my crisis. And even a cursory glance at me confirms 'middle class' (a closer look would prompt a swift revision downwards). So far, from a single-sample, anecdotal point of view, O'Leary would appear to be spot on. So is he right?

Let's look more closely. Here's the detail on Michael's keen analysis of the situation:

"China and India are laughing at us while they build more coal-fired power stations. The European middle classes are having a mid-life crisis and the sooner we wake up and say so the better."

Leaving the mangled metaphors to one side for a moment, there is not even the slightest attempt on O'Leary's part to make intelligent comment on the matter. The thrust of the sentence seems to be 'China and India are catching up and overtaking Europe and the US on the CO2 front so the whole climate change thing is a delusion reinforced by our delicate suburban sensibilities'. Sorry? What's that now? You get the feeling that he might have said just about anything, depending on what he first hit his head off that morning.

In Europe and the US we tend to lend weight to the opinions of our business leaders. The reasoning is sound enough: if you can run a company successfully then you're smart and deserve our attention. The reality is that there are different types of businesses with different breadths of view, and there are varying grades of business people as well. But the typical business leader isn't looking as far ahead into the future as the Nobel winners who are trying to inform the public about climate change. And when business does look ahead, it usually squints.

I think the most insightful view on Michael O'Leary's real view of the future of cheap aviation was given in the last line of that Guardian article:

Mr O'Leary reiterated his determination to stand down in "two or three years" but said he was no nearer setting up his own long-haul airline.

Maybe Micheal is heading for an earlier than expected move to the land of high waistbands, optional hygiene and swearing at clergy.

Monday, November 5, 2007

House Swap Holidays: Success at Last!

One of the first ideas we had to keep the budget under control was to look for residents of Australia and New Zealand who might be interested to come and stay in our place in Cork while we stayed in theirs. The idea has been taking off for quite some time (I've blogged on it some time ago). Unfortunately, a Sydney swap didn't turn up for us, but there were a few near misses. Yesterday, however, we agreed (in principle) a swap with some nice people in Christchurch, New Zealand. This will be the first city we visit in NZ, arriving there from Brisbane. It's perfectly situated, half way down along the East coast of the South Island, to explore pretty much any part of that island. We'll probably use it as a base to explore from for at least 2 weeks, before moving on to Queenstown.

We've subscribed to two house swap sites over the past 6 months or so. The one that came through for us was Home4Exchange, although Homelink came close a number of times. I can recommend both of these sites, though I prefer Homelink: not because it was the one that finally delivered (this was luck as much as anything else) but because the website is marginally more usable.

The sad fact of the matter is that both sites are pretty poor. There is no such thing as a stored search (I had to keep entering the same old details every single time), and no attempt at automated searches or matching based on the many and detailed requirements that I entered about my own house and travel needs. Worse again: Neither of these sites provided RSS. I know - most people still aren't sure what RSS is all about, but on a site like this, notification of new potential matches would be a huge help.

Dunno if anyone out there is thinking of getting into this space, but it seems to me to be ripe for a shakeup. The idea of house-swapping is very (pains me to say this) Web 2.0 - there is already a more, how shall we say, earthy version, called Couch Surfing.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Traveling with Kids

The first time I mentioned our travel plans to somebody, the immediate reaction was to say that my kids were very lucky. "I wish that my parents had done something like this when I was young." I suppose I would have liked that too. But kids aren't always so conveniently grateful. Even though they often tell you 'I'm bored', the fact is that they're not particularly adventurous. They like stability and predictability - in fact they need it. One of the chief dangers of becoming a parent is that of losing your own sense of spontaneity after years of catering to the kids' compulsive need for sameness.

"They are going to thank you so much" is another often-heard reaction. My usual response is "they may be 40 before they do, and at that point they may be thanking my gravestone". But that's OK. I'm not expecting them to be grateful, I'm not even expecting them to be happy about the trip. Not at first. I know for a fact that one of my girls will miss her friends very much, and moreover does not trust her parents to further her education sufficiently while we're away. She'd just as happily stay at home, thanks very much.

So what can you do? Well, my wife and I have been so busy planning this trip (and things have been getting pretty intensive of late) that we've forgotten that there are four travellers here - not just two. We've taken the kids as a major consideration with regards to destinations and activities, but we haven't really taken their personally offered opinions into account. A 6- and 8-year-old typically don't have very strong opinions on what they want to see and do, but a recent conversation with my eldest went like this:

Me: "What is it that you'd like to see in Beijing?"

Nina: "Well, you know the way that in Paris you see the Eiffel Tower? I'd like to see Beijing's Eiffel Tower".

Me: "OK - so in Beijing, that means going to see the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and of know what?"

Nina: "What?"

Me: "The Great Wall. You've heard of that, right? You need to do some research about what other things you'd like to see".

Nina: "Yeah. Oh and I'd like to see the giant Buddha*. In fact, I can look at my book about the religions of the world, and see what other things there are to see around the world."

A promising start. With Nina, if you engage her and encourage her to make something her own responsibility, then she runs with it.

Now Sara, on the other hand, is a bit harder:

"I'd like to go to Spain, 'cos my friend Rachel says that you can buy some really cool stuff there."

Hmmm. Bit more work to do there, I think.

* In Leshan, Sichuan.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My other (better) half starts blogging

Letizia has started blogging her own view of our upcoming trip. It'll be interesting to see the his and hers differences on the preparations and when we're actually on the road ourselves. When this is all over, I'd love us to write a pair of books where the two perspectives on the same journey would be given. Experience tells me that they will seem like two completely separate trips.

She's blogging in both Italian and English (show off).