Sunday, August 31

Lost in a concrete jungle

Greater London has more than 13,600km of roads, streets and laneways within in its boundaries. Their layout is largely a product of local history which means they typically twist and turn, merging and intersecting without logic. The result is a driver’s nightmare, making an AtoZ street directory one of our first purchases in London. Every English home has one.

These directories were the brain child of Phyllis Pearsall. Her first edition, published in 1936, catalogued 23,000 streets. Her first print run consisted of only 10,000 copies. Today, new editions appear annually in more than 120 formats. Incredibly, Phyllis remained involved with the cartography company she founded until her death in August 1996 at the age of 89.

However, even with an AtoZ in hand, navigating London’s streets remains a headache. More than once Garry and I have almost come to blows using an toZ to cross vast tracts of London. Entire pages take on the appearance of a mind-numbing printed maze. Streets come and go in rapid succession before you’ve time to comprehend their location and relationship to nearby roads.

These exasperating map experiences have left me in awe of London’s taxi drivers. All licensed taxi drivers must have an in depth knowledge of the city’s streets. Within a six mile radius of Charing Cross they must be able to find their way through 320 routes, or runs, that form part of their road test. They are also expected to know key places of interest, important landmarks and other local features along the way.

On average it takes between two and four years to pass this ‘Knowledge’ test. The end result is truly impressive. No matter where you are, you can simply climb into a cab and name your destination. The cabbie will know exactly where to go. In fact, he’ll even clarify your request if there’s more than one street with the same or similar name in more than one suburb. It sure beats thumbing through an AtoZ.

Despite their random topography, London’s streets are remarkably well sign-posted. Each is labeled with an enamelled white steel plate, printed with the name in bold, black lettering. The original design was created more than forty years ago by Sir Misha Black. Since 1967 the font and design have been protected by copyright. Westminster Council currently owns the rights and actively reinforces them, prosecuting counterfeiters and cheats who reproduce souvenirs without authorization.

The signs themselves are also popular souvenirs. Westminster Council is perpetually replacing signs that mark popular tourist destinations, including one in our neighbourhood. Abbey Road street signs are regularly stolen by Beatles fans keen to capture their own piece of pop memorabilia. In desperation the council has resorted to mounting replacement signs high up on local houses.

Thursday, August 28

Big Apple Summer

14 flights in 24 days. I think that's some kind of personal record. In other words Garry and I have just completed our annual pilgrimage Down Under. This year’s homeward journey was a little more exotic than usual. We stopped in Panama and Cancun enroute to New Zealand, then on to Sydney via Brisbane (for a day).

While Down Under we caught up with family and friends in a whirlwind six days; two days with my parents, two with Garry’s and two with friends. To maximize time with my parents we flew directly from Auckland to Tauranga where they now live. It was my second time flying one of Air New Zealand’s tiny commuter aircraft; the propeller-driven Beechcraft 1900D airplane. It carries only 19 people.

Our connection in Auckland proved to be the tightest of our entire trip thanks to the late arrival of our inbound aircraft. We literally checked-in with a minute to spare for our connecting flight minutes. A dash across Auckland aiport certainly gets the blood pumping.

We had a wonderful time in Brisbane catching up with an old friend, Enda, who we hadn't seen for several years. He took us for a memorable stroll along a lonely sandspit on the edge of Morton Bay. Beach scenes were definitely reoccuring theme this vacation; Cancun, Tauranga and Brisbane.

I also managed to fit in another Sydney Swans football game. Sadly, they lost their match to Carlton by a wide margin. I didn't much care. The experience of an Aussie Rules game in Sydney's Olympic stadium is still a lot of fun.

We finally made our way back to London via San Francisco and New York. I worked most of the week in the USA while Garry shopped until an extra suitcase was filled to overflowing. We found time to visit the outdoor observatory on top of the Rockefeller Centre, 90 floors above the streets of Manhattan. The view was as spectacular as ever! New York really does have a magnificent skyline.

Garry confessed that he’d never been up the Empire State Building. As you’d expect, I had to rectify this omission. One evening we braved the queues and ventured up to the 87th floor outdoor observatory. At 443 metres, it’s currently the tallest building in New York and is still the world’s tenth tallest building. The city at night is magnificent. During our visit the air was perfectly still despite our elevation, while a sea of lights stretched below us in every direction.

Our final day in New York was spent enjoying a leisurely picnic in Central Park. The weather was warm and sunny. We spent several hours people-watching and being entertained by territorial squirrels. The contrast with London couldn’t have been starker.

We’ve returned to Swiss Cottage amid headlines announcing England’s wettest August on record. On average, 120mm of rainfall has fallen across the UK so far this month; two-thirds more than normal. Forecasters are warning that the nation in on track to record its wettest Summer ever. It would seem that we timed our vacation perfectly. Winter in New Zealand was no colder than London and it's probably best not to mention the copious sunshine.

Tuesday, August 26

Chichen Itza

El Castillo is probably one of world's iconic Mayan structures. It looks stunning in photos and is truly just as striking in real life. Garry and I caught our first glimpse of this stepped pyramid moments before the sun's rays were smothered by dark, ominous thunder clouds. Without doubt the moment was nature at its best.

El Castillo translates as "the Castle". It towers 23-metre high above an open field, standing guard over other equally impressive structures that make up the ceremonial city of Chichen Itza. The massive pyramid was built as a temple around 900AD, its design incorporating all manner of sophisticated mathematical elements. For example, the number of steps on each of its four sides equals 91. When combined the number totals 364. Include the top platform and the number of steps equals the number of days in calendar year.

Nearby sits the smaller Temple of the Warriors. This structure is best known for the Chac Mool statue, a sacrificial altar in the shape of a reclining man. Given the height of this temple and El Castillo's uppermost platform crowds gathering for human sacrifice ceremonies would see very little. However, our guide noted that Mayan priests were masters of biology and as such undoubtedly knew how cut an artery so that dramatic fountains of blood shot into the air.

At the base of the Temple of the Warriors sits the equally impressive Court of a Thousand Columns. These pillars are the remnants of an impressive marketplace in the heart of the city. The alignment of each row is incredibly precise and remains an impressive site a thousand year later. The size and scale of this complex makes it easy to imagine a city that flourished for several centuries, supporting a population of up 40,000.

Late in the 12th Century the city was abandoned as the Itazaes were driven away by rivals. This diaspora later regrouped in a part of modern day Guatemala and in 1697 became the last Mayan city state to finally under Spanish rule. Chichen Itza itself remained largely uninhabited until the arrival of the Spanish. For a time the conquistador Francisco de Montejo used the site as his headquarters, planning and conducting his conquest of the surrounding peninsular.

Chichen Itza is also home to the largest, most challenging ball court ever found. Two vertical walls almost 168 metres long enclose a breath-taking sport arena that been carefully restored. Our guide pointed out detailed carving along the walls depicting the decapitation of ball players. The artwork was as impressive as it was gruesome.

However, perhaps the most curious structure at Chichen Itza is El Caracol, named after the Spanish word for conch. Its name references the spiral staircase rising through its interior. This ancient domed observatory looks remarkably like its modern name namesake. However, the sight of a modern design that's actually a thousand years old makes for an eerie experience.

Stones could be removed from various sections of the dome facilitating the observation of critical astronomical and solar events in the Mayan calendar. These observations enabled the Mayans to predict the beginning and end of the hurricane season, select the most appropriate times for planting and harvesting and so on. The mathematical skills of this culture are truly remarkable.

Garry and I stayed on site overnight in a hotel that was once home base for the 19th Century archaeologists responsible for restoring much of Chichen Itza. After dark we joined other visitor at the base of El Castillo to watch a spectacular light and sound show. This entertaining spectacle brought to life the region's history, the culture of the Mayans and daily life in the grand city itself.

I loved the dramatic finale during which red lights outline the shadow of a snake flowing down the north staircase. The snake is an image of Kukulkan, the Mayan's serpent god. Historically this shadow was only visible on the days of the Spring and Autumn equinox. It cleverly completed by the Mayan who placed a pair of snake heads sculptures at the base of the staircase. These imposing carved heads are still visible today.

The following morning we ventured back to the site before the daily tour bus crowds arrived. For hours we had the entire city almost to ourselves. The opportunity to wander unhindered by tourist hordes was a memory I'll cherish for many year to come. However, my most unexpected memory will always be the sight of iguanas quietly making their way across an open field to nearby sun-baking rocks.

Monday, August 11

Berlin reflections

Garry and I have arrived in New Zealand. The weather today has been glorious. We even found time to go for a wander along the beach near my parents house, enjoying blue skies, warm sunshine and gently lapping ocean waves. The irony of this experience wasn't lost on us. Barely 24 hours earlier we'd been swimming in the Caribbean Sea, marveling at the majesty of the ocean. Now, here we were on the opposite side of the world once again watching the ocean, bathed in sunshine and invigorating sea air.

I've also found a moment to share some highlights of our recent weekend in Berlin. Click here to read more. Stay tuned for a post on our tour of Chichen Itza in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Sunday, August 10

LAX interlude

Garry and I have just arrived at LAX. Two flights down, two to go before our journey is over. We left Cancun shortly after 1.10pm local time today, transfered in Dallas, before finally arriving in Los Angeles an hour ago. Ahead are another 13 hours of flying to reach Tauranga, New Zealand - our final destination for today (or should I say 'tomorrow' - well Monday actually - we'll lose Sunday altogether when we cross the dateline later this evening).

As was our experience last year, the scheduled aircraft taking us out of LAX has been subsituted for another aircraft. However, we're a little more optimistic that we'll have Skybeds this time. Last year Qantas substituted aircraft and we lost our Skybed flight altogether. The inconvenience was marginally offset by A$600 in travel vouchers that Qantas mailed afterwards. These will get us to Zurich next January for a friend's 40th birthday. Fingers crossed we'll get a good night's sleep. It's already been a long day.

Thursday, August 7

Photos galore

I've spent a few hours in our hotel room sheltering from the intense sun outside. During my incarceration I took some time to upload photos from our holiday so far. Scroll down through the last five posts for a visual feature of Central American images. I've also published an old post about our neighbourhood fox. You can read this post just before those that capture our first week of vacation.

Tomorrow we check out of our Cancun hotel and head inland to Chichen Itza for two days. This is by far the most popular and most photographed of all Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. Stay tuned for more awe-inspiring images!

Wednesday, August 6

Jungle skyline

At the height of its power, between 600 to 900AD, the Mayan city of Coba supported more than 45,000 people. Then, for some unknown reason, it was abandoned to the jungle and remained hidden until the 1890s. Excavations finally began in earnest in the 1970s, eventually restoring more than 30 structures. Researchers believe that at least another 6500 remain hidden in more than 50 square kilometres of dense jungle. Today, after 90 minutes of highway driving, I got to see this remarkable inland city for myself (Garry remained poolside in Cancun).

Coba is most famous for its stepped pyramid known appropriately as Nohoch Mul, or the 'big mound'. This remarkable stone structure rises an impressive 42 metres above the jungle floor, offering an unobstructed view of the northern Yucatan Peninsular. I naturally had to climb it. No fewer than 120 steep, uneven steps take you to a surprising broad platform where a small stone temple looks out across the jungle skyline.

From here you can see how unbelievably flat the Yucatan Peninsular is. There isn't a single hill in any direction for as far as the eye can see. My guide explained that any tree-clad mound we could see rising above the treetops was in fact an unrestored pyramid. I could also see a small grey-stone pyramid bursting from the jungle about 500 metres away. I later learnt that this is one of the only pyramids left in the region that tourists are still permitted to climb.

Other sights of note at Coba included two restored ball courts. These structures consist of two parallel sloping walls, each capped by a large stone hoop. Two teams played against each other using only their hips and elbows to get a rubber ball through the hoop. This was clearly an athletic endeavour at the walls rise almost ten metres, with a rather dramatic gradient.

Incredibly, the game typically ended with a human sacrifice. Researcher are unsure who was sacrificed; the team captain or the entire squad. Equally, nobody can be sure if it was the winners or the losers who offered the sacrifice. My guide believes that the winning team offered the human sacrifice as such an act was considered an honour among Mayan culture.

Our final stop in Coba was another giant pyramid. This is not open to the public but sits at the end of an impressive, long stepped platform extending almost 100 metres into the jungle. I was captivated by a series of hardwood trees growing over the top of a narrow archway next door. This simple sight offered a tantalizing glimpse of how jungle had once smothered the entire area.

From Coba we ventured to the coast where the Mayan port city of Tulum can be found. These well preserved ruins perch on the edge of steep cliff overlooking the most spectacular turquoise blue sea. A small white sand beach cove offers the only seaward entrance to the site, while the city's three remaining boundaries are protected by an impressive stone wall. The wall is seven metres thick and up to five metres high, with only five gates offering access via a narrow passageway.

The site is dominated by another stepped pyramid, El Castillo, which is topped by a colonnaded temple. This temple also served as a lighthouse, guiding Mayan canoes through a small gap in the offshore coral reef. The entire structure rises from a series of equally impressive stone platforms. Spanish sailors first sighted the city in 1518. Within 75 years it was abandoned as the Spain ruthlessly conquered the region.

My guide explained that the city buildings had once been boldly painted red, blue and white. Today, just the occasional faded fleck of paint can be seen on the odd stone. The sight must have truly astonished Spanish explorers. However the sight that astonished me today could be found directly outside Tulum's ruins - the voladores.

These are five costumed men who recreate an unusual ceremonial ritual from the top of towering blue pole. Four of the men wind ropes around the top of the pole, then tie them to their feet and slowly lower themselves to the ground by spiralling around the pole itself. Meanwhile the fifth man stands on a tiny platform at the top of the pole, simultaneously dancing and playing a flute. It was difficult to decide which person was the boldest, or perhaps more appropriately, the most insane.

Click here to read about our overnight tour of Chichen Itza.

Tuesday, August 5

The sound of the ocean

Just a very quick update!

Garry and I are now five days into our Central American stopover enroute to Australia. We arrived last night in Cancun, Mexico after 2.5 facsinating days in Panama City. I've written a few posts on our Panama adventures that you can read below. Photos will have to wait until I download from my camera. However, right at this moment - as I type, I can see and hear the Carribean Sea washing over a beach of golden sand directly below our hotel balcony. It's time to kick back and enjoy some full time resort pampering.

Sunday, August 3

Across the Continental Divide

Garry anointed today as Geek’s Day as this morning we completed a partial transit of the Panama Canal. Our day began with a short bus trip to the small town of Gamboa which sits on the shores of Lake Gatun in central Panama. Lake Gatun makes up almost a third of the Panama Canal’s length (24.2 kilometers across the isthmus). It’s an artificial lake, constructed to hold the vast amount of water required to operate the canals locks.

From Gaboa a small passenger boat took us along the canal, through the Gaillard (Culebra) Cut and on towards two sets of locks that finally lower ships 26 metres to sea level and the Pacific coast. Our entire voyage took little more than 3.5 hours to complete, taking us almost 40 kilometres along the canal’s 77 kilometre length.

Without doubt the Gaillard Cut is the canal’s most spectacular engineering feat. This 12.6km waterway slices through the Continental Divide separating each coast of the Panama isthmus. It’s simply an enormous manmade valley, 540 metres wide at the top, with walls rising an impressive 52 metres above the canal itself. More than 76 million cubic metres m³ of rock and soil was removed over several decades before the cut was finally completed in 1913.

Today the cut boasts another spectacular engineering feat, the Centennial Bridge. This is a cable-stayed bridge spanning 1,052 metres across the canal at an attitude of 80 metres. The sight of a Panamax ship passing under this bridge through the Gaillard Cut gave us the best possible sense of how incredible an engineering feat the canal had been. We were told that the bridge’s West Tower had been built 50 metres inland to allow space for the future widening of the canal. Such forethought was wise as we soon past a massive excavation site where the canal is now being widened to accommodate post-Panamax sized ships – all part of the new expansion program due for completion in 2014.

Passing through the three locks that take you down to sea level was an amazing experience – even for a non-Geek like Garry. Two separate sets of locks lower each ship in three stages. The first, single-stage Pedro Miguel lock, takes you down 9.5 metres from the Gaillard Cut to Miraflores Lake. The second stage, is a twin set of locks at Miraflores that drop you 16.5 meters at mid-tide along a 1.7 kilometres course. Mid-tide is an important distinction as the Pacific Ocean coast boasts tides that rise and fall almost six metres. As a result the final set of lock gates at Miraflores are the tallest on the entire canal, rising an astonishing 25 metres from the bottom of the lock.

The experience of dropping 9 metres inside a water-tight concrete chamber is almost impossible to describe. One moment you’re at the level of the surrounding countryside. Within minutes you find yourself deep inside a giant concrete arena with slimy, wet walls towering above. It’s another moment that brings home the canal’s amazing engineering feats. Geeky or not, today's partial transit was a journey to remember.

Our next stop in Central America was Cancun and the Yucatan peninsular. Click here to travel with us.