That New York state of mind

Staying in the East Village turns out to be the smartest ploy imaginable. Our apartment, which I find on AirBnB, is located on 1st Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets, just off Houston (pronounced “Howston” by residents of the Big Apple). Serendipity has placed us right at the heart of one of New York’s most interesting and flavoursome neighbourhoods.

New York springJust one block from our front door is an entrance to the subway F-line, so we have easy access on tap to almost anywhere we might wish to go.

Not that there is any imperative urge to stray far from “home” because all along 1st Avenue there are excellent restaurants offering a choice in cuisines that encapsulate the colourful, cultural diversity that is a hallmark of both the East Village and the Lower East Side.

It also means that following an inspiring yet inevitably tiring day of adventure while roaming around the big city there’s really no need whatsoever to leave our friendly neighbourhood for an evening meal. Even better, after we’ve dined we can simply stroll home well fed to our beds.

Even the weather does us a huge favour on the day we arrive in town by shifting abruptly from late winter chill to soul-inspiring spring sunshine.

This switch to a long awaited welcome warmth transforms Sunday in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park into a day of rich outdoor celebration and entertainment. There’s a jazz band in full flight at the NYU entrance and classical pianist in full cry on a baby grand beside the Garibaldi Statue.

 

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A spontaneous, joyous jam on massed guitars breaks out among the crowd gathered beside the famous Arch at the centre of the park. This celebration of live music and the general bonhomie of the people gathered in the sunshine prompts us to shift instantly and effortlessly into a New York state of mind.
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Burma redux

Backpacking through Asia 30 years ago I had the chance to hop across the border from Thailand and spend a week in Burma. In those days a 7-day tourist visa was all anyone got. With such limited time it really meant having a razor-sharp focus on what I hoped to see and do.

myanmar mapA week wasn’t nearly long enough to explore the capital Rangoon (now Yangon) in the south before travelling north to Mandalay and from there take in Lake Inle and also visit Pagan (now Bagan). This was the traveller’s “Burma quartet” at the time. (Names may have changed since, but these four places remain core today to the country’s tourist industry.)

So something had to go. I made my choice: Rangoon to Mandalay, then west along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) river to Pagan, which meant I missed seeing Lake Inle. I don’t regret my choice one bit as my visit to Pagan was brilliant. Now the country has opened up to the world I’ve inked Lake Inle on my ‘back-to-Burma’ itinerary.

Rangoon in the 1980s was pretty similar to what it is today, although the musty and faded Strand Hotel has since been overhauled and is now rather swish. In 1983 it was known for its dilapidated, rain-stained architecture and post-World War 2 colonial flavour. Taking tea or sipping a gin and tonic on the verandah was simply one of those things a traveller had to do. I couldn’t afford to stay there in 1983 and I certainly can’t now. Some things don’t change!

Rangoon’s main attraction 30 years ago was – and still is – the magnificent, golden Schwedagon Pagoda in the centre of town. I think it’s one of South East Asia’s most wondrous structures and I spent quite a portion of my precious time soaking up the Schwedagon’s sights and sounds. This magnificent temple is as much a community centre as place of worship.

Another priceless memory from those days is my overnight rail journey from Rangoon to Mandalay. The train was so crowded I ended up crawling under a wooden seat to sleep on the floor and was awoken at each station by the shouts of food vendors. The mellifluous, subliminal sounds of the Burmese language – a bubbling murmur or so it seemed in my semi-comatose state – remain imprinted in my memory.

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Bagan temples – photo: Nicholas Kenrick (Creative Commons)

Sunset seen from the top of the Schwesandaw pagoda in Bagan is yet another of my golden “Burma moments”. All thos years ago there were just seven foreign travellers up there marvelling at the amber sheen cast across the surrounding plain with its extensive array of temples and stupas with the landscape framed by the silvery glimmer of the river.

It most certainly was “mystical Myanmar” back then and I’m sure that it still is. I can’t wait to return.

A fun ride through Fiji’s salad bowl

_MG_0288Captain Sparrow thrusts the throttle forward to send our jet boat lunging up river through rolling brown water. Josh Ratukuna, our young skipper, styles himself from the Johnny Depp handbook, wearing cool bandana and wrap-around sunglasses.

It’s part of the fun of a high-speed thrill ride into the green heart of Fiji’s Sigatoka Valley.

We’re racing up the Sigatoka River exploring what’s known as Fiji’s ‘salad bowl’. The valley’s a prime source of fresh fruit and vegetables for locals and for hotels along Fiji’s Coral Coast. The half-day river ride is a great chance to see farms, plantations and gardens along the river bank and learn a bit about village life. It’s one of Fiji’s top tourist attractions.

The Sigatoka is the longest river on Fiji’s main island of Vitu Levu, flowing from deep within the hills of Navosa province to the sea at Kulukulu on the Coral Coast. Until the late 1950s, this was the only route inland and it took days to travel upriver from the coast to Navosa.

_MG_0291Not any more! We power round bends, passing farmers on horseback and cooling off in the river. Women washing clothes on the river bank merrily return our waves, apparently unfazed by our hasty, noisy progress. Josh regularly stops the boat in mid-river to chat about our surroundings and answer questions. The Sigatoka, he says, provides water for both drinking and crop irrigation and a bounty of fish, eels, prawns and fresh water mussels.

_MG_0338Our ride upriver takes us to Natawatawadi, one of six villages participating in the mini-safari program. Each village is paid a small sum to host the jet boat, which visits a different village on each journey to minimize visitor impact while also distributing income. In addition, visitors club together to raise a small donation.
After a brief introductory talk while sitting in the cool shade of the village church, we meet the village chief and elders in the community hall where lunch is waiting; plates of grilled chicken, fried vegetables, fresh fruits and orange cordial.
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Natawatawadi youngsters

As we eat we hear more about community culture and protocol and then participate in a traditional kava ceremony, sipping murky brown liquid from a wooden bowl. The kava numbs the lips and tongue a bit. Taken in quantity it’s soporific.

The villagers put on a short show of song and dance, after which we make our farewells and return to the river. As we clamber back into the jet boat I see a gleam come into Captain Sparrow’s eye. And soon our river ride gets frisky.

_MG_0346Choosing his moment, Josh yells a warning then flicks the throttle. A deft twist on the wheel and the boat dips its nose into the river and flicks around in a heart-stopping lurch and we’re all drenched in spray. It’s just like a fun park ride.

Our squeals echo off the high riverbank each time Captain Sparrow executes another stomach-churning pirouette. And so it goes  …. until he flicks back the throttle and we settle into a tranquil glide through fertile farmland.

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