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Month: October, 2013

CHENGLISH

26 October 2013

It is a sport in which all expats in China eventually indulge, that of hunting out prime examples of Chenglish and waving around their finds with glee. The internet is full of examples, and the electronic mirth which they engender echoes up and down the world’s broadbands.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with this sport, I should clarify that Chenglish stands for “Chinese English” and refers to the tangled, fractured, often incomprehensible English translations of Chinese notices that pepper the land. Of course, it’s mean to laugh at these very laudable attempts to reach out to foreigners, and I, who can speak but two words of Chinese and write none, who am I to smirk and titter and these honest efforts to communicate with me?

But really, sometimes I just cannot stop myself from bursting out into hearty peals of laughter at the English notices I am confronted with here. I share with you some of the pearls of my collection – because I must admit that, somewhat guiltily, I photograph the better ones I come across, with the locals generally looking on bemusedly.

This one is still comprehensible, although I rather liked its 18th Century take on the English language
Beijing-lake

This one, too, is comprehensible, although the sign makers are obviously not familiar with modern idiomatic English.

no tossing

This one has a charming Berty Woosteresque feel to it

no tooting

This one was on the door of a restaurant loo – the context explains, I think, the rather medical feel to the sign-maker’s declaration

forbids the bowel movement

Here we begin to descend into the more incomprehensible

no treacherous acts

And now we reach the frankly incomprehensible

ming tombs

for hot heftily no parking

ending with this final poetic note

interior using dont be though

Chenglish has migrated onto T-shirts, sweat-shirts and the like, although in these cases it usually takes the form of a series of English words strung along one after another in lines of gibberish. I have only one photo of this genre of Chenglish.  Normally, I’m embarrassed to be seen by the wearers to be too obviously taking a photo of what they are wearing. But in this case, I sneaked up behind the lady in question as we waited to board a plane.

Kunming

This traveller to China, though, captured a brilliant example of the genre

T-shirt lingo

The language on clothes always remind me of a phase which my son went through when he was learning to talk, in which he just emitted words and half-words in a meaningless jumble but with much nodding of his head as if to stress the important point he was making. My wife and I have concluded that these are attempts by the manufacturers to make their clothes more desirable by making them look more exotic, although I always wonder how the designers choose the words. Do they just open a dictionary at random and pick out words? But who has a dictionary these days? Is there an app which will generate a random string of words at the touch of a key? Is this a side-business for badly paid English teachers?

Sometimes the words on clothes are really quite bizarre, and you have to wonder if the wearers have any idea of what they are declaring to the world from their T-shirts. It is an example of this which I saw yesterday that has got me to write this post. A young girl, up on a stage with a musical group and playing her heart out in front of an audience, was sporting a sweat-shirt on which was emblazoned in beautiful, bright green italics “Failure”. Who on earth would willingly write that on their chest?! Surely, I thought, it must continue on the back with something like “is not a word I know”, or “is not an option” or “is for weaklings”. But no, there was just that one word: Failure.

This really mystifies me. But not as much as a T-shirt I once spotted on a young girl walking arm-in-arm with her boyfriend which said “Romeo Fuck Juliette”.  Truly weird.

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all pcitures mine, except:

yellow T-shirt: http://wanderlustandafoilheart.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/img_3961.jpg [in http://wanderlustandafoilheart.wordpress.com/%5D

AUTUMN LEAVES

23 October 2013

It’s that time of the year in the northern hemisphere when the trees begin to lose their leaves. If we’re lucky, depending on where we’re perched on that hemisphere, we can witness the glorious spectacle of leaves turning intensely red, orange or yellow before they expire and finally float to the ground. My wife and I had such luck some thirty years ago, when we went “leaf peeping” in Vermont.

vermont fall foliage

We had such luck an equally long time ago in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan

hokkaido fall foliage

And I had such luck, alone this time, on my recent trip to Qinghai province, where the poplars were turning bright, golden yellow.

trees in fall

Alas, we have no such luck in dirty, dusty, smoggy Beijing. The leaves here go a little bit yellow, or just plain brown, before dropping miserably to the ground.

The partial exception is the ginkgo.  Ginkgos are popular trees to plant along streets. They tolerate well pollution and confined soil space, admirable traits for a tree growing in Beijing. And they look handsome, in the summer

ginkos 001

but even more so in the autumn

gingkgo trees autumn

Strange trees, ginkgos. The name already is odd. It was years before I realised that the “k” actually comes before the “g”. Who on earth came up with that spelling? A Dutchman called Engelbert Kaempfer, that’s who, back in the late 17th Century. He was the first European to see a gingko – sorry, ginkgo – in Japan. When he reported it to the European world, he seems to have stumbled over his transcription of the Japanese name ginkyō: what should have been written “ginkio” or “ginkjo” somehow got written as ginkgo.

That double-lobed leaf is odd, too.

Ginkgo Leaves summer

In fact, it’s unique among seed plants. Unique, because the ginkgo is a living fossil. This fossilized ginkgo leaf

fossil ginkgo leaf

is 40 million year old, although the ginkgo is far older. It first appears in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. It did nicely for the first 100 million years or so but then it went into terminal decline. Its range shrank and shrank, the various ginkgo species disappeared, until only ginkgo biloba survived, and survived only in China.

In fact, even the ginkgo biloba probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Buddhism coming to China. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the ginkgo trees currently found in the wild in China are truly wild or simply feral, that is, grown from seeds that wafted away from domesticated trees. What is sure is that Buddhist monks took to planting ginkgos in their temples as their local version of the bo-tree, the sacred fig tree under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.

sacred fig

and of course the ginkgo then got included in the Chinese Buddhist iconography – look at those gingko leaves peeping behind the buddha:

maitreya buddha under ginkgo

The ginkgo, having thus gained enormously in stature as a sacred tree, was carefully nurtured by all and sundry and survived – and got carried by Buddhism to Korea and Japan, where our friend Engelbert saw it.

So I suppose it’s really best to admire the ginkgo in the environment which saved it from probable extinction, a Buddhist temple like this one, Dajue temple in the western hills near Beijing.

ginkgo fall dajue temple

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Vermont fall foliage: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/120911072551-leaf-peeping-vt-jenne-farm-ed-sharron-story-top.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/travel/fall-leaf-peeping-autumn/%5D

Hokkaido fall foliage: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HK-XCKr055I/UGvr1pwda3I/AAAAAAAAGc8/oe2ckytpNRk/s1600/%E7%A7%8B%E3%81%AE%E9%AB%98%E5%8E%9F%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%892.jpg [in http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.com/2012/10/autumnal-foliage-around-daisetsu.html%5D

Qinghai fall foliage: my picture

Ginkgo trees along the street: my picture

Ginkgo trees autumn: http://chinatour.net/member/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/gingkgo.jpg [in http://chinatour.net/beijing/tour/autumn/%5D

Ginkgo leaves summer: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg/400px-Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D

Ginkgo leaves autumn: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/GinkgoLeaves.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D

Fossil gingko leaf: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Ginkgo_biloba_MacAbee_BC.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo%5D

Sacred fig: http://img.xcitefun.net/users/2009/09/117740,xcitefun-sri-maha-bodhi-tree-2.jpg [in http://forum.xcitefun.net/sri-maha-bodhi-sacred-fig-tree-sri-lanka-t38289.html%5D

Maitreya Buddha sitting under ginkgo: http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoom/F1911.411.jpg

Ginkgo Dajue temple: http://images.chinahighlights.com/2012/11/4c1ed9eaebda4d74a20d96f4.jpg [in http://www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/article-see-golden-ginkgoes.htm%5D

RATATOUILLE

20 October 2013

For several months now, I have been going around with an article from the Financial Times carefully folded and tucked away in the back of my wallet. The article describes a recipe for the French dish ratatouille, and is there ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice in a supermarket so that I can purchase the necessary ingredients.

Truth to tell, I should have whipped it out in the days immediately after the article’s appearance back in mid-August, when the vegetables which form the core of this dish were still in season. But sloth and general laziness got in the way, so now I have to wait until next summer to try out the recipe, by which time the article will, I fear, be frayed and tattered.

After the release back in 2006 of the animated film of the same name

ratatouille

it seems hard to believe that there should be anyone on this planet who doesn’t know the dish, but just in case there are a few dinosaurs out there who, like me, have never seen the film and, unlike me, have never had the pleasure of eating ratatouille, let me quickly explain what this dish consists of.  It is a stew of five vegetables:

onion

red_onions

sweet pepper

sweet pepper

aubergines (eggplants to some)

aubergines

courgettes (zucchine to my wife and 60 million other Italians)

FD ZUCCHINI 080806

and tomatoes.

tomato

Voilà!

Ratatouille connoisseurs will immediately roll their eyes and cry out oh, la, la, it is not voilà, there is much more to it than that! They are right of course. For instance, you cannot just mix all the vegetables together and stew them, non, non! Each vegetable must be cooked separately, and then put together – in a certain order, messieurs-dames! – to stew gently. And not just any oil can be used to cook them, it must be olive oil. And the stewing must be gentle and long, to impart a creamy texture to the vegetables and an intensity to the sauce. And we have not even started talking about the minor ingredients: the garlic, the basil, the thyme, the saffron …. Yes, yes, all of this is true. But still, when all is said and done, it is a vegetable stew – or a ragout, if you prefer to remain French.

ratatouille-1

My wife asks me what I see in ratatouille. It’s OK, she says, but after all it’s just – well, a vegetable stew (or ragout).   It’s the tomatoes, I reply, and some of my readers may immediately understand this. In previous posts, I have unveiled an unfeigned passion for this vegetable (and even for its wastes). OK, she responds, but in Italy we have a very similar dish, capponata, and I’ve never heard you going on about that. She’s absolutely right, of course (as she always is), and indeed to complete the catalogue several Mediterranean countries have similar dishes: the Spaniards have the Catalan samfaina, the Majorcan tombet, the Castilian-Manchego pisto; the Maltese have kapunata; the Greeks have briám and tourloú; the Turks also have türlü as well as şakşuka (just the names make me lust to try them). Then the South-Eastern European countries have similar dishes. Even the Philippines has a similar dish!

So I have to confess to a deeper reason for my being fond of ratatouille. I was introduced to the dish when I was a young boy spending my summer holidays with my French grandmother. I still remember with great clarity one lunch where a steaming bowl of ratatouille was put before us with great fanfare and to much ooh, la, la around the table. For this was not a dish from my part of Burgundian France. It hails from Provence, and more specifically from Nice. Its presence on the table reflected my mother’s childhood history. In the mid 1920’s, and in short order, my grandfather’s business went bust and he contracted tuberculosis. The family was destitute and without a bread-winner. In this moment of desperation, my grandmother managed to get a job as secretary to a rich English friend of hers, who with her husband spent the winters in Menton (a stone’s throw away from Nice). The whole coast of Provence pullulated with rich English during this period. It’s not for nothing that Cannes’s main boulevard along the sea – the one the film stars walk along during the festival – is called “Promenade des Anglais”

promenade-de anglais-2

Coming back to the English lady, I suspect it was an act of kindness on her part to hire my grandmother; she had no real need of a secretary. In any event, it meant that until the Second World War the whole family would move south to Provence for the winter and return to Burgundy for the summer when the English lady and her husband went home to England (the family got smaller during the early 1930’s when my grandfather finally died of his tuberculosis). At some moment during these stays in the south my grandmother picked up the recipe for ratatouille. So for me, every forkful of ratatouille reconnects me with my mother’s family history.

I have to thank the kind, rich English lady for more than just ratatouille; I have to thank her for being of this world! When my mother was 18, my grandmother packed her off to stay with the English lady for a couple of months to polish up her English (she was studying English Literature). It was in the lady’s house that she met my father, aged 19, who was studying at the University down the road. The rest, as they say, is (my) history.

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Movie poster: http://www.look.yeah1.com/albums/userpics/234993/poster1.jpg [in http://photo.yeah1.com/showthread.php/39632-My-RatatouilleChuot-Can-Cook-2007.html%5D

Red onions: http://p21chong.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/red_onions.jpg [in http://paulchong.net/2010/05/16/the-magic-healing-power-of-onions/%5D

Sweet pepper: http://www.greeneryuk.com/images/products-feature/920pepper.jpg [in http://www.greeneryuk.com/productsdetails.php?key=p%5D

Aubergines: http://nuestrasfrutasyverduras.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/b/e/berenjena_3_2.jpg [in http://nuestrasfrutasyverduras.com/berenjena%5D

Zucchini: http://www.amyroose.com/wp-content/uploads/zucchini.jpg [in http://www.amyroose.com/tag/zucchini/%5D

Tomato: http://atlantablackstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/tomato.jpg [in http://atlantablackstar.com/2013/10/10/tomatoes-may-help-lower-stroke-risk/%5D

Ratatouille: http://www.bonappetit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/grilled-ratatouille-salad-646.jpeg [in http://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/wine/article/the-5-best-wine-pairings-for-tomato-dishes-from-caprese-to-ratatouille-to-blt%5D

Promenade des anglais: http://tonton84.t.o.pic.centerblog.net/do3uxg9p.jpg [in http://tonton84.centerblog.net/rub-CARTES-POSTALES-anciennes-region-PACA–8.html%5D

VARY THE THEME!

19 October 2013

Anyone who visits China for more than a few days cannot fail to notice the many, many pairs of stone animals standing guard in front of any building which has pretensions to be something (although “something” can be no more than a second-rate noodle restaurant). Here is a typical pair of these animals, which my wife and I recently came across in front of the China National Philatelic Corporation.

chinese lion 003

The Chinese call these animals “lions”, which is really a bit of a joke. In today’s globalized world, where images of this iconic animal must surely have been beamed into every corner of every house on the planet, we all know that lions actually look like this:

real male and female lions

One theory has it that the original model for these “lions” was the Asiatic lion, of which a few miserable specimens still linger on in the Indian state of Gujarat. According to this theory, some live samples were brought to China along the Silk Road from Central Asia or the Middle East some 2,000 years ago, as gifts, tribute or whatever. Artists copied them, and then the originals stopped coming. So the artists copied the copies, and then copied the copies of the copies, and … Anyone who has seen the film Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton makes copies of himself and then the copies make copies of themselves

Multiplicity movie

knows what happens: there is a high loss of quality in the picture the further you get from the original.

A second theory is that actually the original model wasn’t a lion at all. It was a chow chow, which is a dog from this part of the world. It seems to have originated somewhere in northern China or Mongolia, or possibly in Siberia. I don’t know what readers think, but I’m not convinced that this

chow chow dog sitting

is the model of the above. Nor am I convinced that another ancient Chinese dog breed, the noble Pekingese (only members of the imperial family were allowed to have them), is the model

Pekingese dog

Such an irritating little dog, I’ve always felt, as it raspily yaps around your feet at some apartment door – a good, swift kick is what it deserves, but one has to be polite to the apartment owners. In any event, while it’s true that the Pekingese’s face has certain resemblances to my stone “lions” (and in fact it’s often called a lion-dog because of this resemblance), I rather think this is an example of convergent evolution: the sculptors went their way with their designs, the dog breeders with theirs, and one day someone said, “Ooh look, the Peke looks just like the stone lions!”.

A third theory, which I find quite convincing, is that actually the models for the Chinese stone “lions” are the stone lions which are often found outside Indian temples. See the following link [1] for a further development of this theory, while here is a picture of one such Indian lion from Mahabalipuram:

indian carved lion

It really does look quite similar, doesn’t it?  I presume that proponents of this theory would argue that it is Buddhism which brought to China the idea of placing stylized “lions” at the entrances of temples and then with time they migrated to the entrances of any important building.

However the design came about, the fact is that this being China, where everything eventually became (and still becomes) formalized, codified and rigidified, these pairs of stone “lions” have been made in exactly the same way ever since the Ming dynasty. The key is that they look nearly exactly the same. Both have the same ritualized snarl on their faces. Both have the same mane done up in tight curls. Both have the same strong legs. Both are sitting on their haunches. There is only one important difference, fruit of a typical male chauvinism: the male is always – always – made with his paw resting on a ball (representing the male’s mastery over the world)

chinese lion 001

while the female is always – always – made with her paw resting on a cub which is playfully lying on its back (representing the female’s nurturing nature).

chinese lion 002

And sited as they are on either side of the entrance, their heads are always slightly inclined towards the enterer.

There must be literally millions of these stone “lions” scattered across the length and breadth of China, large, small, and every imaginable size in between. I swear, somewhere in China there must be a factory like this

huge-industrial-factory

that churns these damned things out by the thousands every day.

So tedious! So boring! Change, for God’s sake!

So you can imagine that it is with some small relief that I occasionally run across variations on this monotonous theme. Take this pair of “lions” which I recently came across in Beiing, in front of a restaurant.

lions looking at one another

How exciting! They are looking at each other and not the enterer.

Or take this “lion”, which I came across during my recent trip to Fujian.

river gorge 008

Why, rather than glaring at you he really looks glad to see you! And he seems to be offering you the ball to play with. It could almost be a playful Pekingese (assuming those damned dogs play). What a refreshing site for sore eyes.

Or how about this pair of “lions”, which we bumped into in Hong Kong? They were outside some bank as I recall, and not even guarding an entrance. A wonderful postmodern take on the old, very tired stone lion design.

lions in HK

And now, I even see real lions! This picture was taken five minutes after the picture with which I started the post

realistic lion

It was sitting in front of a furniture shop as I recall.

So when will I see two giraffes guarding the entrance to some place?

sitting giraffes

Change, for God’s sake!

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1. http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/index.php?/topic/29343-is-the-chinese-stone-lion-based-on-the-chow-chow/

pair of Chinese lions: my picture

Real male and female lions: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3400/3189788124_26e25201fd_o.jpg [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenkeener1621/3189788124/%5D

Multiplicity movie: http://www.thefancarpet.com/uploaded_assets/images/gallery/4480/Multiplicity_41523_Medium.jpg [in http://www.thefancarpet.com/ActorGalleryPicture.aspx?mga_id=46948&a_id=714%5D

Chow chow dog: http://comps.canstockphoto.com/can-stock-photo_csp7744774.jpg [in http://www.canstockphoto.com/search.php?term=chow%20dog%20sitting&type=1%5D

Pekingese dog: http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/images19/PekingeseSissiePrincess11YearsOld1.JPG [in http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/pekingese.htm%5D

Indian carved lion: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2036/2312684736_1f31c1a673_b.jpg [in http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2312684736&size=large%5D

male Chinese stone lion: my picture

female Chinese stone lion: my picture

Huge industrial factory: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/huge-industrial-factory-9265211.jpg [in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-huge-factory-image6897978%5D

Chinese stone lions looking at each other: my picture

Chinese stone lion in Fujian: my picture

Chinese stone lions in Hong Kong: my picture

Realistic stone lion: my picture

sitting giraffes: http://media.offexploring.co.uk/photos/pamandralph/photos/070212-11-DSC_0112.JPG [in http://blogs.statravel.co.uk/pamandralph/albums/uganda/10149717%5D

BACK OF BEYOND

15 October 2013

I’m just back from a business trip to Haixi prefecture, which is the remotest prefecture of that remote Chinese province, Qinghai. Squeezed between its better-known neighbours Xinjian, Gansu, Sichuan, and Tibet, Qinghai doesn’t get much press, which is a pity. To my mind, it’s one of China’s most beautiful provinces. Here’s a picture we took out on the grasslands when my wife and I, together with our son, went there a couple of years ago.

IMG00095-20110712-1113

As for Haixi prefecture, it hardly gets a mention at all in the world’s press. This is a great pity, because it’s a seriously beautiful part of the world; on the desertic side, but I like that kind of landscape.

landscapes 002

landscapes 007

My colleague and I were there to study what we could do to help the prefectural authorities build up a local brand in the organic production of wolfberries (we seem to be getting a reputation for agro-processing). I can perfectly understand it if my readers have never heard of wolfberries. Neither had I until I came to China and found them floating in various soups during banquets. But our ignorance is our loss. Wolfberries have had an honourable place in Chinese cuisine – and traditional medicine – for the last 2,000 years.

If one has seen them at all, it’s probably as dry berries

wolfberry-dry

although this is how we saw them during our trip, fresh

Wolfberry-fresh

on bushes in plantations

wolfberry-bush and fresh berry

OK, I probably shouldn’t say this, since one of the things the Haixi authorities would like us to help them with is to get fresh wolfberries into supermarkets, but I can’t say that I’m particularly impressed by the wolfberry. If I were standing in the fruit aisle of my local supermarket and had to choose between wolfberries and, say, blueberries, I would choose the latter every time. But hey, I’m not Chinese; they would probably make the opposite decision.

In any case, I will not dwell on the wolfberry, because my attention was captured by something else altogether. Haixi has a lot of sun – 300 days of sun a year, we were told. So quite sensibly, the government has betted on a solar power future for Qinghai. As we drove from wolfberry plantation to wolfberry plantation, and after passing several large photovoltaic arrays, we drew up here:

CSP 006

This, my friends, is a concentrated solar power plant (or at least one version of such). The hundreds of mirrors on the ground focus the sun’s rays on the luminous white spot at the top of the column. That spot is a boiler where the heat of the sun turns water into steam, which is then used to generate electricity. I tried to capture the beauty of that ethereally, whitely glowing spot of concentrated solar rays, but my iPhone camera simply wasn’t up to it. So I’ve added the  only other photo I’ve found on the web of this plant.

CHINA-QINGHAI-SOLAR THERMAL POWER PLANT (CN)

And I add photos of similar plants in other parts of the world. This one is near Seville in Spain

CSP spain

While this is one was in California’s Mojave desert (it was demolished a few years ago).

CSP US

Not clear if this approach will ever generate electricity cheaply enough. But who cares, like Concord, another technological has-been

concorde

it’s beautiful.

Soon after this brush with the ultra-modern, we came across a picture as ancient as China itself, a line of camels padding slowly into the setting sun. I didn’t get a photo, not with my iPhone, but I show a picture of camels taken elsewhere in Qinghai.

camels

I could have been in Tang China. I am moved to throw in a photo I took back in May in the Museum of the University of Philadelphia of Tang era sculptures of camels.

philly museum 004

Minutes after this close encounter with the age-old, we drew up at a freshwater lake for a dinner of locally caught crabs. To whet our appetite, we were taken on a short cruise across a magically still mirror of water

lake-fresh 002

as the sun dipped below the hills behind us.

lake-fresh 010

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Qinghai grasslands: my son’s picture

Wolfberry-dry: http://soni.monovee.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wolfberry.jpg

Wolfberry-fresh: http://mingmingtea.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Wolfberry_extract.jpg

Wolfberry-bush and fresh berry: http://images04.olx.com/ui/2/98/54/13309454_2.jpg

CSP-1: my photo

CSP-2 : http://res.heraldm.com/content/image/2013/08/01/20130801000653_0.jpg

CSP Spain: http://www.finetubes.co.uk/uploads/images/gemasolar-2011-2_low_res.jpg

CSP California: http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/images/solar_two_barstow.jpg

Concord: http://s1.cdn.autoevolution.com/images/news/concorde-will-take-to-the-skies-again-21839_1.jpg

Camels: http://m1.i.pbase.com/g1/62/942562/2/146679881.nWrkycH7.jpg

Tang camels: my photo

Lake views: my photo

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – UPPER MURRAY RIVER

8 October 2013

After a quick visit to Canberra and its museums, which I covered in my last post, we were on our way to the Snowy Mountains and beyond. Since I want to focus on the beyond, I’ll quickly slip through the mountains part. It wasn’t quite that easy in practice. Our plan was to drive along the Alpine Way, but when we got to Jindabyne, we discovered that the Way was closed after Thredbo because of a massive landslide.  What to do? After poring over the map, we decided to loop through the mountains to the north and rejoin the Alpine Way just before Corryong.

And so we found ourselves, without really planning it, in the upper reaches of the Murray River. I have to tell you, it was absolutely, absolutely lovely.  Maybe we were lucky with the season, with spring being in full swing. It certainly helped that we had clear, sunny days. Here’s a series of photos I took with my iPhone. Hopefully, they can give readers a sense of the sheer beauty of the landscape that we had wandered into.

upper murray river valley-corryong 020

upper murray river valley-corryong 019

upper murray river valley-corryong 017

upper murray river valley-corryong 016

upper murray river valley-corryong 015

You can see the Snowy Mountains in the distance, while the river in the foreground is the Murray River and the ponds are the famous billabongs which I mentioned in my first Australian post.

When I saw this landscape after our drive through the relatively dry eastern side of the Snowy Mountains and the forests of Kosciuszko National Park, I could not stop myself from thinking biblically. Up popped the Old Testament story of the Israelites who come back to Moses after exploring Canaan and exclaim, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!” Milk and honey … that certainly describes the land we saw before us. William Blake’s Jerusalem also came to mind:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

My wife’s first thought had instead a whiff of the pagan. It reminded her, she said, of Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit.

the-hobbit-movie

Whatever the reference, it was certainly very beautiful.

After spending a night in Corryong, and getting some good advice on which road to take from a very nice lady at the local information centre (I have to say, these information centres gave us excellent service everywhere we went), we set off along a small road which hugged the Murray River. It was all very peaceful.

upper murray river valley-corryong 050

We watched a local farmer and his family herd in cows and their calves for marking, as they bellowed mightily against this corralling, and had a long chat with them about the future of farming. We watched Australian white ibises, which we had last seen in Sydney as scavengers, fly regally over our heads, while sulphur-crested cockatoos crossed our path with a slow and sensuous flap of their wings.

sulphur-crest-cockatoo

We finally reached Lake Hume. At first, it was the drowned trees which struck us

upper murray river valley-corryong 021

then it was the pelicans, which were swimming among the trees

upper murray river valley-corryong 024

The last time I had seen pelicans was as a child in St. James’s park

Then the lake broadened out.

upper murray river valley-corryong 036

We followed the lakeshore until Albury. Thereafter, the landscape got drier, flatter and less interesting so I’ll skip the final day.

Finally, it was time to drive back to Sydney. We decided to pass through Corryong again; we had liked it so much. We had one last vision of wondrous drifts of wildflowers in the fields

upper murray river valley-corryong 038

upper murray river valley-corryong 051

before we headed up through Tumbarumba and Tumut to the Hume Highway. Next stop, Sydney Airport and then Beijing. Sigh!

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Hobbit: http://www.digitaltrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/the-hobbit-movie-48-fps.jpg

Sulphur-crested cockatoo: http://www.zoo.org.au/sites/default/files/styles/zv_carousel_large/public/sulphur-crest-cockatoo-animal-profile-web620.jpg?itok=dXPfOmk5

all other photos: mine

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – ABORIGINAL ART

6 October 2013

My last post ended with us driving up King’s Highway towards Canberra. The only reason we were going there was to visit a couple of museums to look at their collections of indigenous art. There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the last thirty years about the new indigenous, aboriginal art coming out of Australia and I was curious to see what I would find in situ. I’ll say straight out that on the basis of what I’d seen before coming to Australia I was not a huge fan of indigenous Australian art. But I was willing to be persuaded.

Our first port of call on this voyage of discovery was the New South Wales Gallery of Art in Sydney, one of those Worthy Civic Buildings which I referred to in my first Australian post. We started by visiting the exhibition Sydney Moderns, whose poster picture was this painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I had a few things to say about in that same post).

gallery of nsw-harbour bridge

Nice, but really this was just an outpost of European art. So then, after a quick salad on the terrace of the Gallery’s cafeteria, we headed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art collection.

And I found myself having the same problem I’ve always had with aboriginal art.

It’s the dot thing. The dense array of dots and lines which make up the paintings leave me cold. It’s just … too much. My eyes wander over all those dots, and wavy lines, and circles, and what-have-you, and … that’s it, they just wander, and eventually slide off the painting. My appreciation is not helped by the often dull pigments which are used. Here’s a number of this type of painting, from the 1970s onwards (when it seems that this style burst onto the art scene) in the National Gallery’s collection in Canberra.

Woman’s fire Dreaming, by David Corby Tjapaltjarri (1971):

national gallery-painting-2a

Untitled, by Timmy Payungka Tjapangarti (1989):

national gallery-painting-9

Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald), by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrayi (1997):

national gallery-painting-8

Tupun Nguranguru, by Harry Brown and others (2012):

national gallery-painting-10

I can’t even get comfort out of the paintings’ spiritual content. There is a lot of talk of these paintings representing the spiritual dreamings of the artist, and we are invited to see in all those dots, wavy lines, and geometrical figures, dreams of rivers, hills, rocks, pools, and other elements of the landscape, or to see real or imagined animals, spirits, or ancestors, the whole sometimes representing tribal myths. But this is not my spiritual language. Give me a Virgin Mary and some saints and I can “read” the spiritual message. Aboriginal spirituality, alas, is a closed book for me, and will always be.

But all is not lost for me. There is Rover Thomas.

The first time I came across Thomas was a few years ago in Paris. My wife and I were there on our way to somewhere else, but we took a few days off to visit some new things which had been sprung up in the city since our last visit. One of these was the new Musée du Quai Branly, a museum which focuses on indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from all over the world (as one might guess, the core of the collection is a couple of colonial-era collections, but we’ll skip over that). Great museum, by the way, well worth a visit.

Musee du quai branly

The museum has a section on aboriginal art from Australia. To be honest, it is not the most interesting part of the collection. But it did have a painting by Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

artist-rover-thomas-1

Now that is a style which I can relate to! Clean, simple lines, on which my eyes can fasten and linger.

This is another Rover Thomas in the National Gallery in Canberra, Ruby Plains killing 1 (1990)

artist-rover-thomas-4

One of the things I learned in Australia is that Thomas is part of a group of like-minded painters from the Kimberley region. Here are a couple of paintings by Paddy Jampin Jaminji.

artist-paddy-jampin-jaminji-1

artist-paddy-jampin-jaminji-2

In passing, I should say that the first of Thomas’s painting, a bird’s-eye view of rivers in a landscape, brought a memory back to the surface, of a visit which my wife and I made a few years ago (maybe the same summer we visited the Musée du Quai Branly) to the Tate Modern in London. They were showing a painting from their collection by the Australian painter Fred Williams. I show it here.

Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I 1977 by Fred Williams 1927-1982

Same idea, different approach.

Anyway, coming back to aboriginal art, in Sydney my wife and I came across another style of aboriginal art which we found quite congenial. These are paintings on bark. Here are a couple of examples from another museum we visited in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art, from the period 1960-80.

aboriginal art-sydney 023

aboriginal art-sydney 025

So like I say, there is hope for me. I just have to ignore the dot paintings, even though they seem to dominate the market.

By the way, in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we stumbled across these wonderful objects:

aboriginal art-sydney 002

These are made by an aboriginal group called the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Here’s a couple of photos of the artists making these objects.

aboriginal art-sydney 010

aboriginal art-sydney 013

aboriginal art-sydney 016

aboriginal art-sydney 019

Those last pictures of the desert part of Australia move me to finish with this coda. During my web surfing for this post, I discovered another school of aboriginal painting, from the 1950s, the so-called Hermannsburg School. The primary artist from this school was Albert Namatjira. Here is what seems to be a typical example of his style:

artist-albert-namatjira

When I looked at this and other of Namatjira paintings – watercolours, actually, for the most part – I had a shock of recognition. My parents had a small painting in exactly this style! I have already mentioned that my father was really into genealogy. As part of his work, he discovered that a long-distant cousin had emigrated to Australia during the Gold Rush. Not from my father’s English side of the family, by the way, but from the French side! He then tracked down some of the man’s descendants, got into correspondence with them, and finally, when he had retired, visited Australia with my mother to meet them. One of them gave him the painting, which she had painted (she said; who knows, though, maybe it was an Albert Namatjira!)

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painting Sydney Harbour Bridge: http://media2.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/thumbnails/uploads/rotator_images/SYDMOD_980x400_SID50819.jpg.770x314_q85_crop.jpg

“Woman’s fire Dreaming”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/167747.jpg

“Untitled”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/181491.jpg

“Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald)”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/227909.jpg

“Tupun Nguranguru” : http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/223919.jpg

Musee du quai Branly: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/f/f2/20100310000626!Musee_du_quai_Branly_exterieur.jpg

“River Ord, River Bow, River Denham”: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg

“Ruby Plains killing 1”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/147688.jpg

Paddy Jampin Jaminji-1: http://img.aasd.com.au/30313805.jpg

Paddy Jampin Jaminji-2: http://img.aasd.com.au/05502896.jpg

Fred Williams: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg

Bark paintings: my pictures

Tjanpi Desert Weavers: my pictures

Albert Namatjira: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/16/Namatjira_Landscape.jpg

 

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – KANGAROOS

3 October 2013

If there is one thing which is as Australian as the eucalyptus (see my previous post), it has to be the kangaroo. In fact, it’s even more Australian! As I pointed out in the last post, a few eucalyptus species exist which are not native to Australia. On the other hand, no kangaroo species exist outside of Australia.

Not only are kangaroos very Australian, they are also pretty weird. The first Europeans to reach Australia immediately noticed them. How could they not? There was nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Here is the first entry that Joseph Banks, the botanist aboard James Cook’s HMS Enterprise, made about kangaroos in his diary:

“Quadrupeds we saw but few and were able to catch few of them that we did see. The largest was calld by the natives Kangooroo. It is different from any European and indeed any animal I have heard or read of except the Gerbua of Egypt, which is not larger than a rat when this is as large as a midling Lamb; the largest we shot weighd 84 lb. It may however be easily known from all other animals by the singular property of running or rather hopping upon only its hinder legs carrying its fore bent close to its breast; in this manner however it hops so fast that in the rocky bad ground where it is commonly found it easily beat my grey hound, who tho he was fairly started at several killd only one and that quite a young one.”

In his diary, James Cook was somewhat more prosaic:

“Saturday, 23rd June … One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot. … Sunday, 24th June … I saw myself this morning, a little way from the Ship, one of the Animals before spoke off; it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jumpd like a Hare or Deer. Another of them was seen to-day by some of our people, who saw the first; they described them as having very small Legs, and the print of the Feet like that of a Goat; but this I could not see myself because the ground the one I saw was upon was too hard, and the length of the Grass hindered my seeing its legs.”

Folk back home in Europe had only the vaguest of ideas of what this strange animal looked like. A few years after Cook’s visit to Australia, Joseph Banks requested George Stubbs, better known as the painter of rich men’s horses, to paint a kangaroo. This is what Stubbs came up with, on the basis of various skeletons, some rough sketches, some verbal descriptions, and a kangaroo skin which Banks had brought back to the UK:

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs

And this, through prints and other disseminations, was the only picture the Brits had for many years of the kangaroo.

Europeans found this animal weirdly fascinating. It didn’t walk or run, for Lord’s sake, but bounded along!  Like a hare. Or maybe a deer. Or actually more like a frog. And what was this story about some of them having two heads? Whoever was making these claims had either imbibed too much rum or was spinning tall tales (well, they were either convicts, or sailors, or soldiers: all dodgy types, right?). And then it became clear that the tale of two heads was actually true, but only because mothers carried their young in a pouch.  In a pouch, for Lord’s sake!

Kangaroo_and_joey

And they boxed!

kangaroos boxing

All this made the kangaroo even more fascinatingly weird.

Of course, we have the advantage of having grown up with the weirdness, which makes the strange familiar. Yeah, sure, the kangaroo bounds, so what’s the big deal? It boxes? Ho-hum. And its mothers have a pouch in which to put their kids? Sensible design idea, don’t we do that now? (I did)

snuggly pouch

But we definitely weren’t blasé about the idea of coming nose to nose with a kangaroo. Our interest was already heightened at the airport in Beijing when we were waiting to board our flight to Sydney. We started chatting to a couple of Australians who had just finished touring China, and when we told them we would be hiring a car they warned us to be careful about running into kangaroos, especially at dusk. Were they that common, we asked? Oh yes, they replied, and hitting them made a mess of your car. Ah.

So of course the first time we saw this sign on the side of the road as we drove out of Sydney

kangaroo sign

we began to scan the sides of the road with growing excitement. But it was only when we had crossed our fords and were wending our way to the King’s Highway to be on our way to Canberra that we saw our first kangaroos!

kangaroos 002

They saw us too and kept a wary eye on us. At some point, they started bounding off across the grass into the trees. Now, I’ve known all my life that kangaroos bound but let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the actual experience. You see this really quite big animal hunch over and start bouncing along just like a rubber ball, and with a very smooth motion. It’s lovely.

We saw kangaroos a number of other times over the rest of our trip, and always this wonderful sight of them bounding along.

bounding-kangaroos

But all too soon as we drove up King’s Highway, we saw another, and grimmer, reality – dead kangaroos, killed by vehicles

dead kangaroos

My wife reckons that we saw more dead kangaroos along the side of the road than live ones. I think she’s right.

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George Stubbs’s kangaroo: http://cdn.50up.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Kongouro-from-New-Hol-010.jpg

Kangaroo and joey: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Kangaroo_and_joey03.jpg

Snuggly pouch: http://img.diytrade.com/cdimg/863429/8193309/0/1236395200/snugli_baby_carriers_nojo_baby_carrier_baby_carrier_reviews.jpg

Kangaroos boxing: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7050/6843889051_d1e4ea5e91_z.jpg

Kangaroo sign: http://aphs.worldnomads.com/kiwiaoraki/6858/Australia_Pictures_2_993.jpg

Bounding kangaroos: http://createwolstonpark.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/bounding-kangaroos.jpg?w=847

Dead kangaroos: http://yaldapashai.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/dsc0191.jpg

remaining picture: mine

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – THE EUCALYPTUS

2 October 2013

In my previous post my wife and I were driving down the coast just south of Sydney. I should point out that during the drive while we were keeping one eye on the sea to our left we had the other eye fixed on the forests of eucalyptus on our right. They clothe the upper reaches of the Great Dividing Range which runs parallel to the coast. Both of us found these forests of eucalyptus fascinating.

What is more Australian than the eucalyptus? My favourite source of information, Wikipedia, informs me that of the 700-plus species of eucalyptus, only 15 occur outside of Australia and only 9 of these do not also occur in Australia. So Australia is Eucalyptus-land. But we humans have carried it out of Australia.  The tree which destroyed my bed of nasturtiums when I was a child was a eucalyptus. This was in Eritrea, and the eucalyptus was brought there by the Italians when it was an Italian colony. One of my memories of that period was taking a walk with my English grandmother through a plantation of eucalyptuses. The crackling of the dry leaves on the ground as we walked over them, that typical scent of eucalyptus, my pulling off the bark hanging from the trees – all this I still, more than 50 years later, remember vividly. Since then, I’ve always had a fondness for the eucalyptus, even though its being taken out of its natural Australian ecosystems has been criticized: an “invasive water-sucker”, it’s been rudely called. All my life, I have seen it dotted around parks and along streets, the last time in Sausalito when we went to visit our son in San Francisco.

SF 097

So it was with pleasurable interest that I was finally meeting the eucalyptus on its home turf.

I mentioned in my last post our drive through Heathcote National Park. That was our first taste of a forest of eucalyptuses. But we wanted more. So when we decided to leave the coast for Canberra, I thought we could first swing through Brooman State Forest down to the Clyde River and then follow the river until we got to the King’s Highway, which would take us up to Canberra. Based on the maps I had, I thought we would be taking small but asphalted roads the whole way. Wrong! Almost immediately we found ourselves on a dirt road which given our little Micra made me somewhat nervous. My levels of nervousness increased geometrically as the road got progressively rougher. And then we arrived at an intersection not marked on my map. Which way to go? After a moment of hesitation, I indicated a direction to my wife. As we drove deeper into the forest, and as signs of human presence quickly disappeared, my wife became more cheerful while my forebodings grew. While she exclaimed at the beautiful things we were passing I began to mentally review various nightmare scenarios we could be facing: we would run out of petrol, we would run off the road, something under the car would break, a tree would fall on us … Then the road started running downwards and suddenly we found ourselves at a ford. We had to drive through the Clyde River! The ford was 50 metres long, at least!! I stared aghast; this was not among the nightmare scenarios I had envisioned. Could we get across? My wife got out, took off her shoes, and waded in. Yes, yes, she said, you can make it. I looked at the height of the water on her calves and hoped that she was right. After a short prayer I started driving across, leaving my wife to wade over behind me.

fording the river and creeks 006

fording the river and creeks 009

We made it, for me a huge relief, for my wife a huge enjoyment, with her merrily taking photos left and right as she waded across the river.

fording the river and creeks 010

fording the river and creeks 011

I thought that was it. But we had to ford three more streams feeding into the river! At the last, I really thought we had had it, the water was considerably deeper than even at the river.  But an angel was with us and we made it across. Thereafter, the road got better and I could relax and get into the mood of things. The road was a delight

fording the river and creeks 018

the river was lovely

fording the river and creeks 030

Gazing down on it I could almost imagine what this country must have looked like to the first European immigrants who arrived here, before they started changing the landscape to make it look more like what they knew back home.

We came across more eucalyptus forests as we crossed the Snowy Mountains after Canberra, and slowly a thought formed in both our minds. My wife put it very well when she said one day that eucalyptus trees look dusty. So true! The green of eucalyptuses is indeed a very dull green, the sort of green you see on trees lining a dirt road where passing cars throw up clouds of dust. I was pleased to see a comment in the museum we visited in Canberra, to the effect that the first European painters had been perplexed by the green of the local trees, which to their eyes was dull and quite unlike the bright greens of the trees they were used to in the UK (They were also perplexed by trees that didn’t shed their leaves but shed their bark. That doesn’t bother me so much; effects of globalization, I suppose).

Early painting

It’s nice to know that we had the same reaction in 2013 as a bunch of Brits 200 years ago did when also on their first visit to Australia.

Next post I’ll deal with another very Australian thing, the kangaroo.

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Early Australian art: http://www.myplace.edu.au/verve/_resources/Early_Colonial_Art_1830_page.jpg

Other pictures: mine and my wife’s

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NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – GRAND PACIFIC DRIVE

2 October 2013

Welcome back to these notes on the trip my wife and I made to Australia. Our stay in Sydney is covered in the previous post.

After Sydney we moved south. This meant hiring a car, and we got ourselves a bright red Micra

micra

It’s a snug little car which was just the right size for me, my wife, and three pieces of luggage (which ended up being five after we had bought things in the local supermarkets which we can’t get in Beijing). Initially, we faced the challenge of driving on the left-hand side of the road. This is one of the less useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK. I passed my driving test in Scotland and so started my driving life driving on the left, but the vast majority of my driving since then has been on the right. As for my wife, she’s never really driven on the left. So there was a bit of tension at the beginning, especially as we had to drive out of Sydney during a busy period. But we quickly got the hang of it and thereafter we had no problems – except for two things: we systematically put the windscreen wipers on when we wanted to signal a right or left turn (because the positions of the two levers were the reverse of their positions in “normal” cars); and when we turned right at an intersection we had a tendency of ending up on the right hand side of the road. But no worries! As you can see, we have survived to tell the tale.

Our initial plan was to drive down the coast towards Melbourne, along the Prince’s Highway, and then turn inland whenever it was time to start heading back to Sydney and its airport. I should explain why we chose to do this. Some five years ago, in a lodge located on a tributary to the Amazon River not too far from Manaus

juma lodge

we met an Australian and had one of those conversations you always have when meeting fellow-travellers: swapping notes on places travelled and things to see. The conversation inevitably turned to Australia, and he told us to go to Sydney and then drive along the coast. He wrote it all down on a paper napkin, which we carefully kept – but alas, that paper napkin is in storage in Vienna! When we were planning this trip we were trying to remember if he had told us to drive south or north from Sydney. For reasons which I cannot now remember, we plumped for going south. But this turned out to be not such a good idea. Contrary to what we had expected, we found the coast ho-hum. It was terribly built up, the sea-shores offered the usual sea-related touristy stuff, and most of the towns we passed through were suffering from ugly strip development. There were three bright spots in the gloom. The first was a highly enjoyable drive through Heathcote National Park just south of Sydney, where we saw massed Eucalyptus trees close up for the first time in our lives

eucalyptus-forest

After which we landed up on the Grand Pacific Drive. This road hugs the coast for some 20 kilometers, so we got wonderful views of the coast in the dying hours of the day.

pacific coast 006

The second bright spot was the few hours we spent on Jervis Bay, which has the most amazingly white sand (and very clear water – but bloody cold, at least when we were there).

Jervis bay

The third bright spot was our dinner at Batehaven, next to Bateman’s Bay. We had an excellent fish and chips (at a place called Berny’s – pass the word). In contrast to driving on the left, fish-’n-chips is one of the more useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK.

bernys

We ate it sitting at a table in the city park with the sea in front of us, lingeringly licked our fingers when it was all wolfed down, and then walked along the beach under a waning moon. Wonderful.

But all this was not enough to keep us from abandoning the coast. We decided on a rapid change of plan: make a brief trip to Canberra to visit a museum and then head for the Snowy Mountains. But before we did that, we went for a little ride through the Benandarah State Forest. This ride, and what we found there, will be the subject of my next post.

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Red Micra: http://images.cardekho.com/images/car-images/large/Nissan/nissan-micra/05-nissan-micra-brick-red.jpg

Lodge in the Amazon: http://www.jumalodge.com/gallery/2012/2.jpg

Eucalyptus forest: http://www.elrst.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/eucalyptus-forest.jpeg

The coast along the Grand Pacific Drive: my picture

Jervis bay: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/70/a6/66/jervis-bay.jpg

Bernys: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-dRGLeO8Kuw8/UhBa4uMijTI/AAAAAAABGmQ/afHL9AEl4Qs/s0/DSC03108.JPG